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Russia: Minus Twenty-Seven

Monday, 3 December 2018 at 09:41

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Photos of a demonstration camp set up in Red Square in the winter of 1992-93. Below poems from Minus Twenty-Seven (1993) which came out of a couple of trips to Russia at that time.

Russia: Builder of Communism

Monday, 3 December 2018 at 09:40

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Through the Forest

Monday, 3 December 2018 at 08:57

Here is the third and last poem from Minus Twenty-Seven.

I was staying with a Russian family in the Vladimir. One day we were going out and they gave me skis. I told them I'd never skied before, but they couldn't understand how anybody hadn't learned to ski, and just assumed I meant I hadn't done it for a while. This was cross-country, not downhill, so I managed somehow.

Like most Russians, the family did use their outside window ledge as a fridge in winter.

There was a lot of moonshine around then, too. There's a great novel Moscow-Pietushk, by Venedict Yerofiev, which gives recipes for moonshine cocktails made from various domestic ingredients, an idea I borrowed for the made-up hooch names in "Security".



The poem also appeared in New Writing 4 (Vintage, 1995) and in The Dade County Book of the Dead (1995).

Through the Forest

Minus Twenty-Seven. The town gives out,
trolleybuses terminate in dirty snow.
Out there it’s clean. You click skis
and head towards the aching sky.
Fangs fasten upon the woods.

Rats’ teeth threaded on the wind
pierce your lobes and gnaw.
Birch trees run out like barcodes
– those western goods eyed on Arbat stalls.
Your mind is as clear as that last vodka batch,
out on the sill, gripped in a handshake of ice.

Already the moon is twisting silver
like a lure where the sky fatigues.
Then it’s gone, loping over your shoulder
as you slither a bend at speed
to catch the sun’s last lick around tenement teeth.
The air’s smudged by a single cloud:
a speech bubble over the lit-up factory.

At the edge of the forest, your blood is hot.
No more than a hundred heart-beats ahead of night,
you pause, pant out stars and wipe
the pelt of frost from your face.
Eyebrows crackle with static.
Ice has woven through your hair.
It beaks under your clumsy glove like birdbones,
hanging, hinged on feathered splinters from a paw.

My Boot Upon A Horizontal Stalin

Sunday, 2 December 2018 at 19:41

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Another Russian poem from the distant past. The photo shows me a quarter of a century ago in front of Mayakovsky's grave.

Why "City of the Dead"? The necropolis here refers partly to the monumental mauoleums of the communist era, partly to a contrary impulse to knock down statues of those now out of favour. There really was a park filled with horizontal statues of former heroes. This was also the time Moscow got its first MacDonald's. The conspicuous consumption of capitalism was just getting a hold while the austerity and bizarre inconsistencies of the communist command economy were still very much in evidence. The state-run GUM department store was mostly empty counters, with the odd surrealist glut of, say, buttons, or outsize flowery dresses or curtains cloth, or possibly it was a dual-function material. The upside for tourists was that it was still very cheap. A friend and I ate in what was probably Moscow's best restaurant, the Praga, near the Kremlin, and an excellent several course meal with a couple of bottles of Russian champagne, Georgian wine and a litre of vodka came to less than $25 for the two of us. A couple of years later, I stood outside and realised I couldn't afford the the $400 a similar meal would now cost.

I was thinking of going to Moscow for a Russian course, but Kyrgizstan is much, much cheaper. They (that is the Kyrgiz) say the Russian spoken in Kyrgizstan is very good, too. It seems that many Russian teachers from Saint Petersburg were shipped off there in Soviet times and the locals picked up the classy accent and a nice sense of grammatical correctitude.

City of the Dead

New Year 1993

They say that now the winter’s not so cold,
Siberia’s a blunted knife, warming
with the rest of the globe. New Year, new worries.
We change or die, the prices see to that.
Bright domes of working churches, the magnetic gold
of shopfronts glowing on Gorky Street.
– Damn it, Tverskaya! – Dior, Nina Ricci,
new names tell us we’ve joined the world.

You join the shuffle through fast-falling dark,
just off Red Square the kiosks start to sparkle.
You think of statues lying toppled in the park
– your boot upon a horizontal Stalin.
Once, also cold, they lay in state, but now they stare
up from their winding-sheets of last-year’s snow,
to catch a sputnik’s gleam among their stars.
Their House of Columns is a night club now.

There was Dzerzhinsky of the KGB
– another stony bastard gone. But you remember
his like each time you pass the Kremlin,
and look up into the unconquered sky to see
red crystal stars, still burning like persistent embers
above walls tall enough to bury any human in.

Liberated from their bones, can these Undead
look down upon us here and truly see:
the struggle for the crust of bread;
the millions still yearning to be free
– from the gangs, the guns, the bodies dumped out in the night,
the threats, the fears, the palms all greased with cash?
At last the Old Guard have their names in lights:
Cyrillic glints as an odd remaining head
is mug-shot in a tourist’s flash.
Eyes glazed by snow, an iced glaucoma robs all sight,
yet elsewhere shimmers x-ray bones
through chests of medals, overcoats of polished stone.

Some years ago you joined the queue across Red Square.
(The Mausoleum’s closed this month. Repairs
they say.) – Yet even back then Lenin looked sickly,
skin yellow with preservatives. You think of
cyclamates, tartrazine, those new numbers that start with E.
(You know about the junk they're dumping now,
wrapped in bread that chews thin as snow.
The West’s revenge for our bistrot!)

But Lenin – shrunk, the body just wasn’t right.
You couldn’t believe in that wrecked relic
– like a waxwork melting under studio lights –
that Soviet science and the embalmer’s art
had kept safe as any saint from corruption.
Perhaps the effigy’s been spirited away
for retouching, care of Lancôme or Fabergé,
those golden names face-lifting Tverskaya.
Or, perhaps it’s in the Ministry of Public Works,
perfumed with formaldehyde, among the jars
of abortions, monsters, extinct species, quirks.

Your granny thinks it’s time to put him in the ground,
a decent burial to lay his soul to rest
and let his body wither like a flower.
Or every night, like some ill-omened bat,
she thinks he’s doomed to fly around
the sky-pointed finger of the Spassky Tower.

In the Novodevichy Cemetery,
sometimes you think you hear the nuns’ ghosts sing.
Snow keeps falling on Chekhov, Shostakovitch.
White erases the stony edge of things.
Staring into his ancient future, Mayakovsky,
his young man’s hair turned white with snow,
reminds you that you bought, last week at Dom Knigi,
for less than the price of one Spearmint Chew
his (six vols. hardbound, illust.) Complete Works
– and Pushkin’s too!re

On Novy Arbat: videos, dildos;
they’re shifting Snickers, CDs, booze.
In GUM now, manicured under mannequins
Olgas go lipsticking pale starveling statues.
You watch as those most un-Russian of anatomies
are made fragrant by atomized Chanel.
Remember when the priest came back, the little church?
He swung his censer full of fuming incense.
It was as if you’d died. You were in Limbo,
waiting for either Heaven, or for Hell.

*The House of Columns is where Soviet leaders lay in state.

The French word bistrot supposedly comes from the Russian word for fast, buistro. 19th century emigrés in Paris liked snappy service.

Dom Knigi is (was?) the state-run House of Books.

Russia: Minus Twenty-Seven

Sunday, 2 December 2018 at 17:23

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I've been thinking about Russia lately. Of course, it's back in the news with its navy blockcading Ukraine ports, but a longer historical view has been on my mind since I started my Kyrgizstan project in the summer.

What was intended as a shortish poem about Issyk Kul has turned into a chapbook-sized sequence about conquests and empires in Central Asia, going back to Alexander the Great, who founded Alexandria Echate, or Alexandria-the-Furthest, in the Fergana Valley in what is now Tajikstan. That city was probably situated where Khojand is today. In Soviet times it was known as Leninabad.

My sequence takes in the Persians and Scythians, whom Alexander fought, the Mongols, Chinese, and, of course, the Russians, who mined for uranium, and tested torpedos in Issyk Kul lake in Soviet times. The Russians left, and the Americans came and had a base from which they could hop into Afghanistan. For a brief period Kyrgizstan was the only country to have both American and Russian bases. The Russians are back now, and testing in the lake again - nuclear torpedos this time. Putin claims to have developed a super weapon, Poseidon, which could contaminate the US East Coast from a distance. He's going under water, while the defence systems are scanning the skies. This may, of course, be a bluff...

So I've been thinking about the Great Game of Empire. I've also been learning Russian over the last few months (BTW I recommend Duolingo for free online courses. A few weeks before I went to Kyrgizstan I tried various courses, but the Duolingo worked and helped me survive there. I'm intending to go back and do a course in Bishkek - friendly and much cheaper than Russia.- but till then my daily Duolingo slot is keeping things going.)

So I've been thinking about Russia lately and how that place has changed since the couple of times I went there in the early 90s. I'll put a couple of poems up from those trips. The poems appeared in a little pamphlet Minus Twenty-Seven: Three Poems for a Russian New Year (1993) and also in The Dade County Book of the Dead (1995).


Moscow 1993

Security either lolls or struts;
in bad-shaves, camouflage jackets,
calf-high boots with steel toe-caps.
They twirl night-sticks, jerk looped cord tight.
It’s that blackjack’s unexpected flip,
the swing that hooks your eyes and traps
them blind into the palm’s slap.

In the dark cellar bar, whispers in Georgian.
Outside wide-boys, biznizmen
and the hookers’ gaudy flutter
to the crystal casino and upstairs bars. Ascension’s
punctuated by the ping announcing every floor.
The glow of a lamp caught in shuffling doors
as if through the camera’s shutter,
catches mascara, designer clutch, blood-red nails.
Official ladies chatter on the phone
to lipsticked friends on other floors
high up across the cold white city, or pore
over magazines. Each has her cache
stashed in her desk, can fantail greenbacks
to make any change. Wads of cash,
grubby folds of Ones –Washington’s
thumbed to a slow fade, or turned blind with flesh,
tucked into a stocking-top.

Down in the hard currency cabaret,
lithe girls in glittery cache-sexes dance artistically.
Weekends, they no longer interpret history:
the struggles, the yearning to be free.
Mornings, they still turn faces to the wall,
waiting for the doorslam that means they, too, are free.

Outside the wind puts you in mind
of nettles in a rusty can.
Tonight, it’s Holy Communion.
You’ll celebrate pockets of filched perfume,
transubstantiate some stuff that really zings (mixed in
with bootblack, insect repellent,
athletes foot remedy, medicated shampoo)
into the cocktail, most excellent,
you’ve decided after all to call
Momma Yeltsin’s Secret Shame,
or, considering the shoe polish,
Black Russian Number Two.

Again today, you see them:
lost ones scavenging the dump.
Rags picking rags, minds and hearts all tatters.
Hopeless, breaking their balls
for a few shreds of tobacco, a lump
of horse-hair or a bladder’s-worth of sump-oil.

The snow is tired, slushed with tyres and fumes.
Kiosks and hawkers where you go down
with the grim crowd. In the Metro for a moment,
below chandeliers and marble, for feel a part of history,
caught on the dialectic’s pendulum swing;
with the masses marching through the Winter Palace,
or long ago, unmomentous with the rabble,
wild-eyed with plunder yet merely living,
breathless in the hiatus between kings.

Day of the Dead 1

Monday, 29 October 2018 at 18:25

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The year darkens and traditionally the season is associated with the dead. When I lived in Mexico it was common to get a chocolate skull with your name candied on. In his essay "Theory and Function of Duende", Lorca claims "a dead person in Spain is more alive when dead than is the case anywhere else". I think he may have considered the position of the dead in Mexico. In Mexican cemeteries, people leave cigarettes, and tequila on the graves for their dead relatives to enjoy. Here we have adopted the American version of Hallowe'en with its dubious trick or treating. My local shop has a sign saying that, to discourage anti-social behaviour, they won't serve flour or eggs to children.

Here are two poems "All Souls" and "Day of the Dead" which are part of a sequence of elegies I've been working on since my mother's death a few years ago. Both appeared, together with other poems from the sequence, on The Common website.

All Souls

Day of the Dead again;
last night loosed little devils,
bloodied dwarfs, some larger fiends

who tricked and treated
their way along my street,
while inside in the dark

the last few widows
fearing egg-snotted windows
kept worrying at wrappers,

fingers too cold
to melt the chocolate
(sniggers, door knockers)

from a mini-Mars or Milky Way,
rasp the crinkly fishtail of a Snickers.

Day of the Dead 2

Monday, 29 October 2018 at 18:11

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In Mexico, Death is often personified by an elegant female skeleton.
Day of the Dead
La Flaca, La Huesuda, La Pelona

Some twiggy, the skinny, the bony, the one and only
truly chic bald lady. Thin? She’s lean, lankier
than any catwalk slinky; hips mean as a hinge;
so sharp (skirt slashed by flanks like pinking shears)
it’s hard to tell elbow from her scrawny arse.

Who could flog rags to this dead clothes-horse?
Her finger, harder than any granny’s dimpled thimble,
prods, sizes you up for a tux, reserves a box.
You’re so last year. But odd is always à la mode.
And now you’re well stitched up, your seamstress slips
into another dress: the gracious Hostess
has had your name embossed across the stiffie.
No need to RSVP.
Le tout Enfer est invité.

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