Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
I’ve stood on thinner sheets. Took crunching walks
On leaf-embodying and lumpy glass
To a sidewalk’s abrupt end, along a bright
Section of newly-insulated path,
Over a prickling hump of weedy dam
And onto this broad opening in the words: lake,
Brown language adrift with plants and fish,
Masked underneath a civilizing white
Tectonic crystalline, a cloudy plate.
Sun burned horizon black, and then went down;
The honed air slipped and whisked across the lake.
Flare, pile of glassleaves!—no—fail, pyre:
An undecided dusk gave out at last.
Snow deepened to an ashen regolith,
A lunar cast. Too cold. I found a path;
An alphabet of shadows followed me,
Seeming to indicate a leak of light,
The thinnest wash of dusk: plum aquarelle.
(A shallow chill: of ghostleaves fluttering?
Bleak conjugations rustling in the woods?)
A haunted aura deepened, spread, and blurred.
AM VIVID. (Where?) LOOK BARN. (The last glow fell
Along the roofridge of a looming, chinked
Abandoned barn; a broken vane withheld
Its ripening signal from prevailing words):
Something encoded in the characters
Of winter branches. I could just make out
QUARTZ HIVING DAMP. FLOW BACK, SEX JOY! Creak.
—A wind came up; the rusted vane revived:
Its bent N pointed toward me; W
To sky. I hurried down the icehumped path,
And that was that: day left unfinished. Night.
(A double-me is more than twice enough.)
I marked my place; exhausted, went to bed.
Then dreamed; awakened: saw my old alarm
Oddly aglow; but quickly focused on
Its Liquid Crystal face—blue numerals,
Crisp and reassuring. Woke next day,
Drank coffee, read newspaper, dressed, went out.
A mere reader, I read mirrors, fear wet play;
But find a mothball scatter on the lawn.
(Hail fallen. Damper.) I retraced my steps
Along uncertain melt and shifting gloss
To somewhere near that spot: an empty barn
(I think I glimpsed a black sleigh through the door,
Cobwebbed and rotting, piled with newspapers);
A house with broken windows—snow inside,
And buckling front porch; the facing page
A homely pond’s translation of the scene.
Icicles pattered Morse, then quieted;
Fractures abounded; crystal refastenings
Veined sturdy puddles under seamless sky
The silvered inside of a vacuum jar.
Following a sentence through the woods
I found the lake (stop; foot-test: one step out),
Tried its crackling solidity,
Then walked the distance of its false expanse
Onto (cold, crackless air) the other bank:
Fir epaulets; rafts of sandy spar;
Abandoned border-crossings. Past strange trees
A tangled log was partly visible,
Transliterated into alphabets
Splitting and sapless, partly burnt, part curled
Like old dry vines. Whew. I tromped across
Black sticks with weedy diacriticals,
Vowel-slips of ooze and consonants of ice,
Carefully sounding out each patch of thaw
Against a heavy, insulated sole,
And stopped among birches—seeing just ahead
Cyrillic of a slumped barbed-wire fence:
My blunt feet felt another continent.
Bare vines; indecipherable cold.
Just past those empty forms were, glimmering,
A plaza and planted trees: beyond the shades
Of iron poles and humps of sooty snow,
A crowd of citizens confronting tanks.
Let’s stop and eat an apple here—fair peel,
Yellow Delicious is my favorite—
Feels ripe. I brought a flask of coffee, too.
Let’s eat an apple and be fortunate.
A Frenchman hears, on record, real Piaf;
Another, weary, stoops to tie his shoes;
Elsewhere a voice interprets, in the bath,
“The complex genitalia of the blues;”
Her husband’s out—coat, mittens, shirt—My love!—
The underwear comes off, boots take too long,
—And outside in the cold, key touches lock.
A child picks up a phone and hears “No. Not … “
Someone is vacuuming the second tier.
An adolescent girl says “Thanks a lot. “
I crunch: my breath-steam makes you disappear.
Who isn’t tangent to some other’s plot?
Wet boots print blanks across the ghostly snow.
Three died (August, 1991).
But more or less, through lurching politics
Gun steel stayed cold; witnesses remained,
Felt and withstood fear’s pliers through the night.
Most tank-crews disobeyed their orders; held:
Restrained steel treads (from crushing blood-stuck flesh
Or bursting screams in lungs, thoughts smeared from heads);
Heartbeats but stopped a moment; then went on.
A man sat near a heap of paving stones,
Bottle of gasoline between his boots,
Discussing false dawn with an architect;
People stood smoking by a barricade
(Jumble of twisted reinforcing rods,
Old heavy plumbing, wooden pallets, doors).
They’re biodegradable, these apple cores.
[Behind the mirror, once upon a time,
Grim revolution: squares fall fountainless.
Marksmen gather. Old lecture hall.
A bristling, wet-jawed wolf stands up to speak,
A steely pince-nez glinting from his snout:
Clears throat. Shuffles papers. Looks ahead.]
”Comrades! We shall will our lungs to breathe,
Trusting no instinct: our beating hearts
Must move or fall still upon command
As we in earnest now take up the Task
Several in the audience led away
Of reconstructing artificially
The sluggish species homo sapiens!
[Gunshots from the forest] Forward, through
Collective dynamic subordination to Will!”
… The botched trail of bloodsplats through the woods
Clotted, was picked away by vultures. Bare
Verbs (to have been taken—shoved—to have been killed)
Crunch passively beneath my treading feet.
Each breath of air, exhaled, is history
(A bad dream, Jim, no one awakens from
Without a hangover; each history
Forgives the last, desiring the next).
No state grows, green and dripping, wild law;
But falsified, imposed, without consent
(No choice, no change, all dismal waste and cold
Impacted thinking, thwarted need, rote pain),
Synthetic order is unbearable.
Fit bone to iron? Skin to steel clamps?
Mouth to marble, crotch to rubber knobs?
A dream within a dream within a dream,
Those old machines, heavily collapsed
In thesis, synthesis, antithesis,
Sprawl on the ground in parts and sink among
Hairthin intricate nets of living root,
Pebbles, chunks of bottleglass, old bone.
Through white eyeclustered trunks, a lookingglass
Of puddle shimmered up, rewriting trees
In mercury; bright brittle glitterpatch.
The damp wind turned away, then turned to where
(Crowbars on bronze. A hollow hammering)
Banners, silk silver, blank and mirrory,
Flutter no scythe and hammer, only air
Over a diamond-dusted city square:
Awaking grays; some workers with a crane;
A crowd of people and their mixing breaths.
The statue, winched up from its pedestal,
Continues its dumb salute in comedy
As, turning, rifle ape becomes reap life.
My expertise is not mirology
(Science of mirrors and mirages used
By politicians to achieve their ends),
But big bronze hands, enormous concrete caps
Held humbly on great trousers of cement,
Huge metal mustaches, mummified men,
Gigantic ikons of iconoclasts,
Seem to be out. The statue’s dragged away
(Down dangerously raw and sloppy paths)
By a grinding, rust-picked tractor: chain taut: go.
I set my thermos on a patch of snow.
Enormous boulders, plastered with fallen leaves
The color of old clippings, loomed ahead,
Each gripped exactly by a coat of ice.
A snail-pearl track led back into the weeds,
The barren wood. I groped along the shore’s
Picket of unfamiliar winter limbs,
Hoping I hadn’t missed a turn. The bank
Was steep and brambly but there was a path,
Old and overgrown. A verst away
Through rustic superessives, unparsed limbs,
I stopped to rest, astride a downed tree.
Beneath my boots, trapped in transparent ice,
The flattened scraps of yellowing old leaves
Read Homer Pushkin’s African great-grand—
LINCOLN FREES SLAVS. In books today,
E. A. Gogol’s Masque of the Red Death
and Twice-Told Tales … ENERGY CZAR DEPOSED.
Peter Michailoff visits New York,
Noted incognito—SPUTNIK LAUNCHED;
MEN WALK ON MOON. Weehawken, Novgorod—
Some duel. Patent advertisements! The
Government of the USSA moved
To Petersburg, District of Columbia …
FOUR BROTHERS STEAL DR. BOTKIN’S TEETH.
… Planned capitol, with cast-iron onion dome …
Greensborograd—REFUSENIKS “SITTING IN”
AT WOOLWORTH’S LUNCHEONETTE. A backwards R?
Chernobyl, Pennsylvania—Spokesmen for
All-Union Edison disavow …
STATESMAN ASSASSINATED. PAIR FLEE.
I must be reading wrong. This awful glare,
The veins of one leaf bulging through the next,
Impossible to tell if what you read
(PLESSY VS. THE IMPERIAL TSAR
OF MUSCOVY AND ALL OF RUSSIA, FALLS
MORTALLY WOUNDED: DUEL WITH BARON D.;
PUSHKIN MUST RIDE IN BACK OF BUS, JUDGE SAYS;
BROWN V. BOYARS; WHITE HOUSE: BEZGLASNOST’;
COLD WAR CRUMBLES: BERLIN WALL COMES DOWN;
BORIS GODUNOV IS PRESIDENT)
Is not another subject showing through,
With old stories wrinkling through the news
In a slop of contexts—sodden history
Sticking to a contemporary … Wait:
What is this, Russia, or America?
I shivered, stood, resumed. After a mile
Of Arctic solitude, I heard a rush
Of distant traffic: glimmering ahead,
Beyond a screen of trees, the Interstate’s
Dark asphalt, glare ice. Whoosh! A Peterbilt
Eighteen-wheeler—black, glossy cab
With Hom. S. Talbot on the door in script,
Hauling a Wabash trailer (marked PODVIG,
St. Petersburg, Florida, in crimson paint)—
Flashed through birches; at the wheel, a lean
Georgian man (white teeshirt, faded red
Plaid jacket, and a stiff new pair
Of dungarees) lets blue eyes peruse
Long passages of highway from beneath
His sunbleached gimmie-cap (AMERICAN
By Birth, SOUTHERN by the Grace of God,
With bronze pistol pin); Las Vegas bound
With a load of Bibles, liking silences
Of long roads, he shuns the radio,
Preferring interstation static, space
Between congested towns; black coffee slops
Cold and steamless from his thermos cup—
—A blanked, bright siding flashes off,
Leaving only vaporous exhaust:
America. It couldn’t happen here.
So sharpen your wits—(file! pare!)—life moves ahead
By work, by luck, by getting out of bed.
“Advice is easy! Difficult is bread,”
Ice whisks and whispers. Reader, as you stride
Musing on systems, testing hasp and hinge
Of failing puddles, down some grimy steps
A clerk emerges from her token-booth
To empty a turnstile: tokens showering.
Reenters the public cubicle, and lifts
The weighty, dented bucket up, and dumps
(Fare pile) the tokens out (free pail).
A shaken pinelimb rattles off its hail—
—A disappearing blur of squirrel tail.
The wood is gone. I’m sitting at my desk:
A sentence skates across an empty page.
Somehow I don’t feel elegiac,
A pile of books in front of me
In prose that turns the most prosaic
Things into—well, poetry.
Sunlight wobbles, fritillary
(All its yellow stipples vary)
Over vowel-scattered trails
That grade into those fairytales
Of “follies tricked out so brightly that they”
Blend into the blinding page—
It’s difficult to disengage—
When birds forget glass-dazzle’s flat, they
Feel your pane. That cold can scorch.
(A rake leans near a rented porch.)
A word-wild wood striped with strange shade
My desk and chair, deep in a Russian glade
A later afternoon. Another thaw
Unraveled lustrous cruxes; ice held fast
But loosened. Something cracked. As I stared
Downhill, through firs, a rotting stump (with ears)
Stood up and lumbered off (delicate steps)
To forage, pushing deeper into damp
Entanglements (if she’s awakening,
Winter won’t linger long, despite the cold
Leftovers of old weather scattered here).
I pocketed a pinecone made of bronze.
The iron-plated lake had partly thawed
But frozen fast, unfolding newspapers
In brittle Braille, and torturing smooth plates
To maps of fracture, craquelure anglaise.
Sun focused; I stood sweating in the cold.
Sole on ice, I wavered—;—dared my weight;
And strode across the thaw’s cartography.
Mooncolored patches (peril; fear) relieved
A partial mirror, temporarily
Substantial. Wet, white, walk. No vision spread
As I approached a tangled country tensed
Between seasons. Untrustworthy floor.
Fresh figure-eights of thorn unlooped from bright
Facing with darker roughness underneath
And dismal currents struggling toward the—top—!
Loud crack;——I made it. (Leaper, if
You walk on solid floorboards, praise the day
The liquid sun will sink this sheet away
In flagrant noons!) Deep breath. A crystallist,
Taking up a dry and sturdy stick,
I stooped; examined blue lines; read cold proof,
Made markings on the margin of the lake,
But slipped and stepped: the murky verso cracked.
(Dark darting bubbles; lightning’s negative.)
Dark!—crackling from an ancient portrait (bled
From old enamels on a museum sled
That must have slipped and shaken over snows
Our clouds have since embraced)—shifted and shot
As puddles snapped. No runners passed these thorns;
But fragrant archivolts of evergreen
Led to an opening I hadn’t seen:
Long avenue of acorns (infant park)
Near which a rude pavilion leaned, its shade
Amplified along the glassy path
From roadside cottage to lakeside hotel.
Something about the way reflections flowed
Into that glassy fragment of a road
Mirrored a dream I’d had of going fast
On packed snow—forest flying past,
Stars overhead, my sleigh piled high with furs
But cold, so cold, disconsolate—dark blurs
Of empty landscape—bleak ice, firtrees felled
And stacked for transport—inky snowdrifts, weeds—
All these rushed past; steel runners kissed the ice;
Each creak of framework, hoof-clap, skittering slice,
Invariable rhyme—my every breath
Said I was racing, all alone, toward _____________________.
(I plunge through freezing mirror and awake
Alive but undeniably alone.)
Bright day glared up. A squirrel sat and shelled;
The track curved back toward water but withheld
Its melt; thinned, crunched through frozen reeds,
Quartz flowers of old fallen ice,
Thin puddleglass, crystal characters—
Names written on a pane with diamond—
To hardscrabble scatters and the lake’s blank tile.
I came upon my lucid antonym.
A plain reflection: no scarlet scarf,
No dandy’s waistcoat—just a corduroy
Dufflecoat, warm boots, a pair of pants.
Briary clauses clung to leg and sleeve
And natural words bristled from every limb;
Arabic tangles skirting frozen melt
Bore Hebrew thorns; Chinese crystals hid
A bright diagonal. Just up the bank
I had to stop a moment by a tree—
—Human transaction. In my frail pee
A brilliant wind played with a frisk of sun;
There, as I emptied, air and I were one.
So far away from my returning dream,
It seemed like something from a foreign tale:
No runners creased this frost; this ice was bright;
That nightmare melodrama, merely trite.
I thought of where I’d read those (studying
My contribution to a leafy map)
Glass-dazzled paragraphs that loomed and burst
Green, with supple switches, liquid shades
Variegated like Antarctic streams—
—And finished; buttoned up: the ice was wet
Filed pearl, brilliant patchily.
I walked along the lake. An old path
Led through burnt fir-stumps to a road, and stopped.
I recognized a place I’d never been
And never seen before (that book again).
No horses clopped past quickly, flinging snow,
No sleigh; but something else. A cold flow
Moved almost underfoot; beyond, bright black,
A mirror’s hole: no footprints leading back.
This was the same swamped ice, the same wet air,
The same faint path, the same blank danger—there,
From just that spot, that girl I read about
Walked down through reeds and chilly mist: stepped out.
(Some thing was overtaking me. That blur
Of old story felt familiar.)
The night she drowned—no “tragic accident”—
She—clumsy, unpopular, intelligent—
Stopped here alone: the dark ice stretched out;
Wasted desire, thwarted warmth, rote pain
Cracked with a shudder on my windowpane.
(But that was fiction! this landscape is real
Reflected glamour, shifting to reveal
A bright black flow, a lacquer crackling
And giving way—) Time glimmered, ink and ice.
I left that dislocation in the glass;
Down garbled paths, I chased the ragged right
Margin of Platen Lake through leaded marsh
Foreclosed on by the stopped economy
Of winter: startled bubbles zeroed up,
An abacus of berries clicked; the wind
Stirred tattered, dogeared leaves. Rich bottom land
Held undecided puddles, icelogged sticks,
Weedy statistics, blighted, written-off;
Old logs with brief, blurred entries: Lazy-fear.
Stagnation. Downturns. Muddy forecasts. Bright
Champagne is poured across the ice: the sun
Prepares a frothing celebration. Dark:
Grimmer wood. (These pearly softenings
Become our blackest midnight monolith
In Arctic relapse: carbon diamond,
Its single block a vast blackboard blank
That glitters up like coal ore.) Only dark
Trickles down; old murk. I plodded on
Along a grimpen slop of putative
Path through muck and ice disgorging thawed
Garbage; pages from a newspaper;
A trampled banner (ALL POWER TO … ).
I wanted anything to point my way—
Not sodden documents remirroring
The arts of politicians (rotting maps,
Each insect-eaten leaf-state stuck to earth)—
And stopped to look for some way up the bank.
Easy to slip. Then that relaxing mire
Gave up, in scraps, the outline of a film:
You’ll meet Onegin, intellectual
But cynical, a Black-Marketeer
Who trifles with a sister Worker’s heart;
Comrade V.I. Lenski, earnest, brave
Young Socialist Worker, who will try his best
To set corrupt Onegin on the path
Of the Task of the New Human; Tanya,
At the factory, pressing back a wisp of hair
From her damp forehead, gazing up
Into Our Leader’s portrait—his sad eyes
Are more than a foot tall; and a host
Of basic types: Old Bourgeoisie
(A padded figure with a pocket watch
He keeps removing petulantly); Time
(Babushka with a youngster on her knee—
A girl, Historical Necessity,
Who lectures her upon the People’s Will);
And, most important, represented by
A pale liaison in a uniform,
The Party. He speaks the eulogy
When Lenski kills Onegin with a wrench.
The Hollywood version (1939)
Has Lenski as a cub reporter; Gene,
A hard-boiled gossip columnist (whose dad
Owns the newspaper); pure-hearted Ann
Is his girl Friday. Lenski has it out
With drunk Gene on Onegin Senior’s yacht;
Then loses job, wins girl, but at ballgame
(After big scoop makes competition snarl)
Makes up with Boss and Gene, who agrees
To be best man at happy wedding. END.
Twice punctured ice; damn. Almost slipped in.
My black sled flies on; its runners ring
On shadowed ice sedately mirroring
Gray dripping limbs. No choice, no change; all cold
Dismal waste. Then—dim, faltering—gold
Flickers far away, across the lake;
Through stinging flecks I sail to overtake
That transitive kindness—bonfire on snow
To warm the frost-haired traveler. Your glow
Enlarged and lit a clearing as my sled
Slipped to a silent stop. Reflection spread
A banquet of warm bread and English tea
As winter reversed itself, and suddenly
The open waste became halfsilvered sky,
Wet pavements, May, an unforeseen retry,
Bright spring: and that poor girl who took her life
Stepped through the mirror and became my wife.
—Old Russian proverb. I remember. Brrr.
Hermetic thermos. Silver put away.
The wind is turning, and the spokes of trees
Give brittle shivers, raining crystal beads
In codeless patter: fallen limbs and leaves,
Old signposts stripped for firewood;
A trail of splinters, pencil-shavings, ice.
So how do we get back from Retrograd?
I climbed through crushed weeds. Last year’s ichnites,
Old frozen hoofprints, softened out of shape,
Though older thaws hung on a distant shed
—Melt-drop and shadow-drop race down to earth—
Icicling in frakturs from the eaves.
Synaptic bristling made noble play
In blue lucidities, on rotting leaves,
Through thriving briar barriers, a wood
Trapped between tenses of a restless thaw.
(A gust loosens everything; icecrystals blow;
Twelve trees are standing there, all in a row.)
Where now? Ah. Three-beamed birch. Rough underbrush;
Tenacity of shadows; voluble
Syllabic gulpings, unpronounceable
Coughs; some hard but thawing consonants,
And, clinging to my leg, an ardent burr.
The wind is turning. Now the brittle twigs
Englassed by old rains tremble, click and shift—
Woody and green, tough and supple, caught
And insulated in an instant glass
Already old: dark instar entering
Its end. The wind moves, turning from the trees
And stops; I stop. Our glassy path is still.
Heartbeat. I’m lost here. Listen: silence. Then
Resounding distance: plate-iron surfaces
Breaking up: old winter’s office sacked,
Swirling with leaves and papers; back, ahead,
Far echoes go. Contracting thaw will spread
In cold floods over tensing maps
With plosive meltshock: what comes after that?
Right? Left? the paths cross, run to air,
Are lost in weeds. Better patched with ice
Than spongy with fresh carnage. (Branches click
And stiffly flex.) The dullest granite chip
Wears a bezel flickering with time
Made small: the bright ice of a winter’s day,
The negative beneath its brilliancy
(Like wide lake at night, with wilder sky
Turning eternities—subjunctive verb
Needled with crystallings before, beyond
All life)—I moved into a rude square. Check.
A prisoned twig, a poignant paperweight
Clicked softly. On worn marble, rusting iron,
Shadow and light replayed their famous match
(I came in late): Devastating is White’s
Breakthrough of Red’s pawn structure … Dead
Squares blurred into right. I made my way,
Skirting an ugly stretch of thaw, across
A bare chart raked clean of boundaries
But not bird droppings, black leaves, spinal twigs,
And peeling barkstrips scrolled away from trunks.
Hard buds guarded a path; I bent them back,
But warmth dropped away in sudden wind;
Quoins ratcheted. The chase of the lake locked up.
I’ve gone too far: a tanktread in the mud.
The old glacier must have come this way,
Left scattered broken shackles of hard rock
And stubborn winter: Roman roads of ice
That will not melt, in far-flung colonies
Enduring empire still (each puddle makes
A worn slab, a marble step), all lead
Through thaw, through grassroots cracks, decline and spring,
To medieval comforts (as a crystal crown
Tilts on an ermine robe of shrinking snow).
Crack. The irrigation follows. Caught
Between tenses, trees grew thorny shades
That race and tangle; suddenly unknot:
Chained and suspended bronze swings gently down.
“ECONOMICS, POLITICS exist
To clear a space for life, not be life.” Crack.
“Its props removed, all cruelty is nude
Fear.” A helicopter maple seed
(Quick—rustling overhead—) spirals down
Knocked loose by—gray blur—free fir leap—!—
——A trembling shadow of a trembling limb.
Red resigns. The fairy tale is done.
Exile is over. Everyone come home.
The hood hangs on a peg, the wolf curls up;
The woodcutter strokes its patchy fur;
And the book stamped Terror in flaking letters is closed.
The giant lumbers off dragging an oak
In which an ax is stuck. The cupboard’s bare
(The cheese is quartz, the bread is painted pine);
The pieces rattle in their wooden box.
All History ends thus: more history;
Slim tremors in the glib and gorgeous weeds.
All futures blank and darken, faltering
And flaring up from liquid wrinklings
Ahead. Blind-spots burn white. So, I climbed
Over a scarlet sweater—matted, rimed—
And someone’s bedsprings, overcome with vines.
An ikon makes a handy pot-lid, and
The same malleable substances
Make blindfold or pillowcase; shackle or spoon;
An instrument of torture or a bed
(Intention counts, ash-tongued insomnia’s
Inmate of a mattress solitarium).
The wind comes down the path; in tousled firs
And pines, green tassels dance. I’m not sure where—
Cayuga or Ladoga?—where I am.
Am. This liquid purchase on
Verb, releasing, grips again: seized blood
Pushes being forward; space relents,
Relaxes, gathers in again, again
Clenched in the dark, its grasping cavity,
Releases; speaks our wet binary: beats.
The earth’s enormous turning writes our blood.
Its language isn’t arbitrary: mind
Is wrinkled landscape; draining syntax flows
Down complex incurvations, being shaped
And shaping systems of that wrinkling as
We take uncertain, untranslatable
Steps from a shore we have forgotten, toward
A feared shore, on wet, uncertain plates;
Ramshackle borders; chunks of fallen wall.
That path led through polluted clearings. Flung
Manila folders flattened on the ice
With scattered staples, curling index cards,
A looted filing cabinet—heavy, old;
Lock busted, overturned—loops of tape,
And piles of papers (dumped out of a truck
That merely slowed)—shut with rusting clips
And old red rubber bands. Wind rifled through
RAPE FILE (fir-needles wove a faerie floor
On which both Wolf and Woodcutter once walked,
Circling on a disappearing trail).
In landscape’s wrinkled mind, raw language
(Blurred in running ink, in boldface lies)
Left Russian and emerged in English: harsh
Lacunae; magic marker blotting out
Incriminating orders (black and red)
A raucous murmuring
Rose in the distance like a change of mood.
Magenta gargoyles seemed to populate
A crowded, littered clearing; through bare elms,
Sweeping the ground with shadows haloed in
Cycling spectra, sliding straws aglow,
Bearing fantastic emblems through the woods,
A Ferris wheel, lit neon, slowly turned
—And, with a rush, a roller-coaster rose
Sinecurving on its iron scaffolding,
And dove toward gravity—only to swerve
like a free market economy,
Provoking passengers to squeal and yell.
Old popcorn seeded ground (where history
Amuses) creak (or fails like a) creak
(Business, boarded up). Halations fade;
A shadowy ellipse leans through the woods.
Circling—black—on star-salted ice—
The empty wheel is turning in the wind.
Chair-scrape. Made another cup of tea,
Sat stirring, staring down: an open book
In which a painting (path into a wood
Of shadows and delights) hangs on a wall
(Pale Souls, Dead Fire: Vladolai Nabogol).
Gently its dream begins: an open page
Of snow black footprints cut across, and melt—
Gray slush, black boots—a stroller makes her way,
Reads on into the imprint of a path,
Contains the haunted, hollow wood it threads,
Where crossing boughs brush shadows from the snow;
Her name is Hilda Lorris, and she limps
Almost imperceptibly; her face
(Angular, abrupt, intelligent)
Is less red on forehead and neck
Than just before, but (although cold) her cheeks
Are even ruddier, from an argument
About a couple of kopecks worth of cheese—
And stale cheese at that, the kind that comes
Wrapped in a torn-off scrap of paper bag
With price scrawled on it by an indolent
Fellow behind the counter, preoccupied
With the devil knows what, a horse he’d like to buy
Of a rich chestnut color and then outfit
With all the finest harness (and why not
With silver fittings, while he’s at it, yes,
And two more make a troïka), that turns out
To be some shriveled rind-piece put aside
To feed the dog, but wrapped up by mistake—
She’d stomped away, straight into the woods
(A broad, bristling empire of the wind),
Leaving (she thinks) her muffler behind
(It’s in her sleeve—its gray woolen fringe
Wadded up against her underarm,
Making the old coat list uncomfortably
To one side). She sniffs, walks on, head down,
Past green fircones jacketed with ice,
Not going back. The wood is wide and lit;
Soft distances abound, with silent squirrels.
Snow slumps, revealing quartz and needles; wind
Blows down unprinted slopes, up slipping drifts,
Toward home the path implies, through world the woods
Return and sound; within deep, resinous
Dim, fragrant glades, a few fir-cones fall—
She stops and stoops. With reddened, ungloved hands
Adjusts a snowcrammed buckle, murmurs, stands
And, plunging fists in pockets, walks again
Without a limp. Am I to live on scraps?
Boot follows boot. The wood begins to melt.
Gray patches slip into the path, rough squares,
A postbox in the middle of the trees,
A smell of pancakes and potato peels,
The switching sound her feet make with each swipe
Of cleared sidewalk, glistening Berlin,
Black, glissive wheels and slap of thin-soled steps,
As knot-holes become eyes, snow rising steam,
Steam breathing mouths, a striding city crowd
Intent on business, clanging bells, a tram
Gliding downhill into a lurching turn—
Nothing but paper in a reader’s hand.
This will be tricky. Please don’t hold your breath.
The vertical carousel was trucked away
A week ago, and all that’s left of it
Is litter and written mud. Uncertain ice.
A varnished stump, with icy lacquerings.
The lake is mottled white; fat bubbles show
In places; here a chunk has fallen through,
There water slips around a floating log;
New lacy failures face the crusty edge.
A slipshod thaw goes on despite the dusk,
Pocketed hands, gray snow, that coated stump;
A glossolalia of icy light
Speaking in slippery tongues of longdead leaf
Reports on change in standard metaphor:
An icicle gives up its blunted point
Drop after drop. Repeat. The doubled path
(A shortcut to the berm, or looked like one)
Led me behind a house (fir-scent. New melt,
Bright unexpected water flaring suns
Along the runners of a sliding door)
Wherein (its tenant, standing, leaned and scraped
An index card, eraser-worn and smeared)
A duel is being fought, a letter sent,
A secret kept, a lover turned away
(A king, alone, looks through binoculars),
And, bored with the city’s bright variety,
Eyebrow raised or tines aslant in snow,
A rake is leaning near the rented porch.
The fir trees hang with tight-scaled, supple, green
New cones. The patio is wet with ice.
A squirrel plays along a branch’s glaze.
The woods are grainy, with a thousand grays.
As shadows flood the glass, reflections loom
And flow the wilderness into the room,
Planting the line of trees upon a bed,
Letting a rocking chair slip like a sled
On outside ice——Last flagstone makes me trip.
Thinned ice, transparented, widens the path;
An unlocked molecule unlocks the next,
Until each puddle mirrors twigs and sky
And feared reprisals leak, evaporate;
Brown tattering slips loose from ice: ripe leaf.
Fear-pile. Leaves rot in air; I smell their teeth.
My wristwatch LCD tells me the time:
A catbird skims along, reflected in
Wet glistening wrinkles of a thinning pane—
And step breaks puddle; night takes lawn; wing
Vanishes beyond a clustered knob:
A life has ended but its shade goes on,
A dry leaf skittering quickly over ice
Where suddenly there is no Soviet.
Uneven ground supports these peaceful boots.
Following a trail of syllables,
Trying to find a shortcut, I got lost
In what I thought was just a strip of woods.
A highland road led deeper, through the dark,
Into a hollow with a crackling brook.
Ice loosened more. Prickly nouns declined
An anagrammar of memoriam
As, midbrook, I availed myself of vines
To balance on the coated, tilting rocks
And saw beyond a VIVID BALKAN MOOR.
What now? I crossed; climbed up: found barn and pond
(Having described a circle through the woods),
And stood at the winter’s softened edge: twigs formed
AVOID RIM. B. N. OVAL. Sure enough,
If you ignored a deckle edge of ice
And took, on faith, a long, slow step out,
Its face was sturdy and its center hard,
A marble tablet still uncut by skates,
Bladed by wind and melt. Shades, sharpening,
Began to scrape its slipping wet white stone.
As leaky sun left everything alone
I stood and waited for reflected glow
To highlight runesticks latent in the limbs:
I almost saw MAD VIM. RIVAL BOOK!
Materialize and fade. I looked again,
But all I saw were dulling sunsets throb
On each wet patch. Sky thawing, growing cold.
Horizon canceled by the trunks of trees.
Slash of a slender elm, half-fallen, caught
In the arms of an ampersand. Suns shivered in
Little cedillas on the wet façade
And turned. A brilliant page was turned and there
The dimming landscape, untranslated, grew
Garbled constructions, deep infinitives
In which I searched for cognates but was lost
In chilly flickerings. Red sky. I looked
For crystal inscriptions, immanent displays,
But nothing—save a distant puddle’s shape:
Its little tilde glimmered and dissolved
Into a dull, thin—indiscernible.
No English sound resembles what I heard,
A soft slow pull across the ice, and then
Nothing. Unvoiced consonants. I paced
The wet, wind-scripted recto of the ice—
Some gothic grasses struggling in clumps,
And, near the edge, what must have been an oar.
A distant riffling shiver passed across:
Lowercase trees italicized by wind.
A surging shadow overshadowed me.
Red failed. Blue indigo and violet
The night came down. Uninsulated, I
Stood stiff on surface creaking like a boat
In murky dusk. Air took on graininess.
Through tidal time I waited, watching things
Luxuriate and wade in shallow darks,
Cloud over slowly: blurring, details lost,
Like an old pane written on by Frost
With homely characters that melt away,
Blending the structure of the Milky Way
With flawed glass: barred spiral galaxy,
Ocean on edge, phosphorescent sea
In which a greenish particle is lost
In a rush of substances: trace mineral:
Nightwash; cosmic tide; sparkling foam
Aquiver on an insubstantial beach.
But going somewhere. Why else all lit up
Like a tractor-trailer in the passing lane
Gearing along a midnight Interstate?
Quasar synapses, God’s brain bristling?
A punctured film? Salt handfuls cast on ice?
A trillion-and-one reasons to be free?
Surrounding Nothing like the voided time
Before and after life? The barn was dark.
Big bang: slow fireworks die in the sky
Across all time, before all history
And after: cold, colder. Through stern space
Transition and translation, dark on dark:
Dark matter, dark baryons,
Dark halo around our galaxy,
Much darker than the lake’s rimed blacknesses,
The photographic negative of ice
Just barely seen, downhill, through distant trees
We passed through on our early wanderings—
Plates shift. The heavens tilt, a flooding dark.
Just looking up, you crowd with distances:
The Great Bear turning in a field
Like black water moving under ice …
Wobbling, wobbling like a shaky wheel
On a long haul, every galaxy,
Each dislocation is an answer: force
Obeying force (big chess game; brilliant play).
No: language. I looked into a text
With every period present, bright and faint,
_The Northern Anthology of Everything_.
Each letter, ancient light, long-traveling,
Physics its grammar, seemed to be arrayed
In distant magnitudes, to form a code
Of being’s rhetoric; the highest style.
Through icy dark, it sparkled like the new
Asphalt in a city parking lot
(Of smoldering anthracite, of smoking cold)
Between two sootstreaked buildings; only one
Light on: night-watcher reading in a chair.
I skimmed across the north, and trailed off with
The vast ellipsis of Orion’s belt …
(Orion the Hunter boasted he would kill
Every animal in the whole world’s
Shadowed woods: he sank into the sky’s
Black winter; froze; few chips of glitter left.)
As in a darkness glassily I saw
A VVILD AM: IKON ORB prefiguring
Chiaroscuro, lunar lucency
Of ice and shiver, self and rushing sky:
My poem, your lake, both waited for a bare
Bold glow to rise and light this zero O.
Dark ice widened under moonless clouds
Of moving mind: branches, dominant,
Only negated dimly at each edge.
Stars prickled (universal goosefleshing)
As a pale flag of moon slowly rose,
Leaving the brambles, wet, its mica grays
Split by a few twigs. Here I reflected
On deep inflections of the moonburned pond,
Where ice’s darkling luster drained away
Except within my outline on the page;
Its moondial wakened. Gnomon’s shadow (mine)
Crept eerily. The vigil went awry:
The faerie play of clouds revealed and hid
A dripping moon, white sliver of new ice
Or mystic ball of dull, bombarded rock.
In bell-cold air, unclappered, soundlessly
(MOON WALKS ON MAN) the dim derivative
Pond received the moonlight’s stolen glow
And gave its borrowed glamour—crackle—time.
Who’s there? No answer. Are you there? Wet wind.
Let me stop here. I’ve been up all night,
Watching the lake. The ice is creaking, wet:
Its luscious quickening returns the dawn
(Which for some reason we’ve been waiting for);
Past clumped, illiterate scrub
Old boulders glisten; molten coatings glow
Like the internal organs of the sun.
The bell-bronze trees are still. Few pages left.
I’ll walk out one last time. I’m thinking of
Two unrelated surfaces: the ice
Slips and whispers underfoot; the sky,
The daylight surface of the universe,
Benign and bare, is moving overhead.
There is no death. No petty torturer.
No programmatic force that murders minds,
No grim competitor. Relinquish us
From our excuses and our differences;
Show us a faultless sky, unbroken ice,
And dark water on a bed of stars.
Those scattered letters drift, and leave our lives
Wearing through words, reflecting everything
In treacherous grammar, breathing on a dark
And temporary pane of solidness
(Like Zemblan fishers camping on the ice).
I see the road from here, and hear the cars
Speeding along the slick black Interstate
With whirlwinds bolted underneath their hoods,
Their violence directed to our will;
We drive ahead—hissing across the miles
Of unencumbered continent so fast
The passing signposts blur like turning spokes—
Not thinking of the ruin in our wake,
Only of moving onward: faster, go!—
—And delicate valves distribute golden oil;
With timed explosions, forceful pistons lift;
We know the motion, not the things we pass,
Which hardly shimmer into solidness
Before another apparition comes,
Peripheral and ghostly, in its place,
Which place is left behind: perspective slips
And slides through everything that isn’t road.
America—Aren’t you hurtling
Forward on fresh roads at such a speed
That nothing can overtake you? Where you pass
The highway steams and trembles, bridges jump,
Everything falls away, is left behind,
And on you hurtle, finished with the past;
The other nations pull aside and stop
To let you by—they stare through your exhaust
With mixed expressions as you rocket on;
Even the troïka shivers in your wake,
Is almost thrown to splinters by the wind:
The horses flinch, a wheel hooks the edge,
And only the skillful driver can prevent
The whole contraption’s tumbling down a ditch
And killing everyone. People get out,
Embrace and curse; one staggers to the cold
Stamped-metal guardrail, hugs it, and throws up;
Another comforts a child (who excitedly
Struggles loose to gape after the car).
Where are you speeding to, America?
Answer! I listen. Leafscrape. Falling dust.
Black, patterned tires kiss the distant curves.
The road is briefly empty, and the ice
Drips—sudden slushfall from a higher limb—
In patterns too complex to separate
Music from crust-slip, slush from squirrel-climb.
A tree flings up a handful of black birds
Like a magician’s sudden offering:
Grapple of thaw. Retaken continent.
The lake’s thick ice is wet, with streaks of sky—
Chilly today, but melting nonetheless:
A tank could never make it to this spot.
The wind picks up. Trees wave. A boulder glares;
Beyond its sinking shade, a lexicon
Of molting meanings tangling with melt:
A weedy dam, a stand of gangly trees,
And, matted with softening encrustations, grass
In heavy clumps. The remnants of a path:
Left to be mud, it might solidify.
A long and glorious road continues, comrades,
Toward ultimate victory in our mighty struggle!
Who’d follow it, be wary but be brave:
It glitters and sinks, glares and spatters up,
Ensnares and sucks rank gold-gut. Melt reveals
We are surrounded by transparent things—
Solid ones too: but molten. Flaring sun
Will set afire lepidoptera
And swarming siltmotes where at water’s edge
Frogs, fircone-green, will kick up heavy mud
And bask almost submerged, as if at rest
After their long, slow, slippery twist from one
State of being to another (Crick
In my neck. Excuse me). Melting isogloss
(Mica, isinglass, or muscovite)
Of thinnest, frailest ice divides us now,
In undecided spring: wind gusts across
The endless prairie of the Russian steppes;
Already a little lapping water eats
Away at every joint. Trapped bubbles quake
Under these soles. (I hope I make the edge.)
Thinner and thinner. End of page and pane.
A liquid path has followed us, our feet
One white inch above uncertain depth.
Under this white, wet sheet of crystal glare
(Which can’t support me long—I’m walking back)
Numb fishes dream of evolution’s pain.
Dark mud sucks down, in cold, the visible.
O instant instar, dark intaglio,
Scrawl on, unsilvering our mirror-fear!
——Just made the shore. That last leap broke glass,
Punched through to mud: boot soaked. I’m heading back.
The moonbound lake is, after all, a page—
A mica pane dissolving in a stream
So cleansing and so cold it washes blank.
The nosecones of buds are polished, kept
In constant readiness as earth deploys
Delivery systems of unbalanced spring.
—Trimeter, trimeter, trimeter. Bird somewhere.
Come May Day dignitaries will review
(In vair-lined scarlet cloaks, spruce uniforms)
Long ranks and files of birches flowering;
Young insects, croaking throats, the generous
Instinct made liquid in the law.
Last ice surrenders to reflections; think:
If struggle is a struggle to be kind
We are not only animals with thumbs
And pretenses like dark insignia
Mimicking eyes on frail unfolded wings.
Thaw-drop. Crystals leak. Limbs flex. New air!
Mud follows glare-melt. Sun intensifies,
Old snow slips off: limbs jump;
Green, limber cones
The American Academy off Arts and Lettere has awarded Thomas Bolt the 1993 Rome Prize Fellowship in literature. His first book, Out of the Woods, was published by Yale University Press. Dark Ice, in its final form, will include notes and parodies of notes, as well as this poem of 1001 lines.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.