The last leaves fell like notes from a piano
and left their ovals echoing in the ear;
with gawky music stands, the winter forest
looks like an empty orchestra, its lines
ruled on these scattered manuscripts of snow.
The inlaid copper laurel of an oak
shines though the brown-bricked glass above your head
as bright as whisky, while the wintry breath
of lines from Mandelstam, which you recite,
uncoils as visibly as cigarette smoke.
“The rustling of ruble notes by the lemon Neva.”
Under your exile’s tongue, crisp under heel,
the gutturals crackle like decaying leaves,
the phrase from Mandelstam circles with light
in a brown room, in barren Oklahoma.
There is a Gulag Archipelago
under this ice, where the salt, mineral spring
of the long Trail of Tears runnels these plains
as hard and open as a herdsman’s face
sun-cracked and stubbled with unshaven snow.
Growing in whispers from the Writers’ Congress,
the snow circles like cossacks round the corpse
of a tired Choctaw till it is a blizzard
of treaties and white papers as we lose
sight of the single human through the cause.
So every spring these branches load their shelves,
like libraries with newly published leaves,
till waste recycles them—paper to snow—
but, at zero of suffering, one mind
lasts like this oak with a few brazen leaves.
As the train passed the forest’s tortured icons,
ths floes clanging like freight yards, then the spires
of frozen tears, the stations screeching steam,
he drew them in a single winters’ breath
whose freezing consonants turned into stone.
He saw the poetry in forlorn stations
under clouds vast as Asia, through districts
that could gulp Oklahoma like a grape,
not these tree-shaded prairie halts but space
so desolate it mocked destinations.
Who is that dark child on the parapets
of Europe, watching the evening river mint
its sovereigns stamped with power, not with poets,
the Thames and the Neva rustling like banknotes,
then, black on gold, the Hudson’s silhouettes?
>From frozen Neva to the Hudson pours,
under the airport domes, the echoing stations,
the tributary of emigrants whom exile
has made as classless as the common cold,
citizens of a language that is now yours,
and every February, every “last autumn”,
you write far from the threshing harvesters
folding wheat like a girl plaiting her hair,
far from Russia’s canals quivering with sunstroke,
a man living with English in one room.
The tourist archipelagoes of my South
are prisons too, corruptible, and though
there is no harder prison than writing verse,
what’s poetry, if it is worth its salt,
but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?
>From hand to mouth, across the centuries,
the bread that lasts when systems have decayed,
when, in his forest of barbed-wire branches,
a prisoner circles, chewing the one phrase
whose music will last longer than the leaves,
whose condensation is the marble sweat
of angels’ foreheads, which will never dry
till Borealis shuts the peacock lights
of its slow fan from L.A. to Archangel,
and memory needs nothing to repeat.
Frightened and starved, with divine fever
Osip Mandelstam shook, and every
metaphor shuddered him with ague,
each vowel heavier than a boundary stone,
“to the rustling of ruble notes by the lemon Neva,”
but now that fever is a fire whose glow
warms our hands, Joseph, as we grunt like primates
exchanging gutturals in this wintry cave
of a brown cottage, while in drifts outside
mastodons force their systems through the snow.