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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lines on the Unknown Soldier

after Mandelstam

Let this air stand by what we’re told:
that his pounding heart so far away,
even in the dugouts of this world,
remains an ocean sightless to this day.

And stars – there must be more than twinkles in your
eyes, seeing everything beneath
and knowing it’s the judge and witness that were
due cells blind as his till death.

How barren the seed would have to be to match
the rain, so evocative of his nameless manna,
or how the wooden crosses stood watch
over an ocean or a fallen banner!

And men will still go cold, fall sick, and worse,
murder, shiver with the cold, and starve,
while the body of the unknown soldier’s
laid to rest in an infamous grave.

You, ailing swallow, I take for tutor –
half-forgetting yourself how to fly –
how shall I steer round death without a rudder
or, wingless, cheat the grave to mount on high?

And where Mikhail Lermontov’s concerned,
allow me to spell out for his benefit
how much the hunchback has to learn
from the death he sees reflected in the pit.

How these worlds menace
us, like rustling grapes,
hanging like stolen cities,
golden slips of the tongue, calumnies –
berries of the poisonous
cold – marquees of tensile starscapes –
stardust in golden, oily drops.

Signing the ether like a decimal point
the dazzle of speeds slowed down to a ray
begins to trace a figure suffused with lucent
pain and a mole of nullity.

Beyond the field of fields a new field
is taking wing with a triangular crane –
the bright dust road we see the news propelled
along shines from battles long since done.

The news flies along a bright dust road:
I am no Leipzig, no Waterloo,
no war of the tribes: I am fresh blood
but unspilt. It is from me that light will flow.

Deep inside the black marble oyster
was where the flame of Austerlitz was extinguished.
The Mediterranean swallow’s slit-eyes stare;
the trap is sprung in Egypt’s plague-ridden waste.

The medley of an Arabian hodge-podge,
the dazzle of speeds slowed down to a ray –
and on its two splay feet the image
falls athwart my eye.

The millions done to death on the cheap
have trodden a path through the emptiness:
good night to them, best wishes from the scarp
of the earthen fortresses.

Trenched, incorruptible sky, sky of
our almighty, wholesale morgue –
it is behind you, away from you, that I move
my lips, whole one, in the dark.

For the shell craters, embankments and screes
over which he broods and frowns –
the pockmarked, sullen, powerless
spirits of the overturned gravestones.

How well the infantry dies
and how well the nightly choir sings
over smiling flat-nosed Švejk,
the metatarsus, avian and chivalrous,
and Don Quixote’s bird-lance.
The cripple befriends the man: there’s work
enough for both of them. The race
of wooden crutches runs amok
around the outskirts of the epoch.
Comradeship – ah, how the earth spins!

Must the whole skull be unpacked,
the brain-pan from temple to temple,
the dear eye-sockets be helpless
to resist the soldiers’ onward trample?
The skull, unpacked of life all of a piece –
from temple to temple –
teases itself with how well it was patched
together, gleaming like a dome of tact
frothing with thought to see its dreams reflect
itself, the cup of cups, the lares and penates –
a mob-cap sewn like a starry scar –
the cap of joy – Shakespeare’s father.

Ash-tree for clarity, sycamore for vigilance:
a homeward scramble tinged with scarlet
as though to swoon into speech with the heavens,
both of them, in their colourless heat.

Only what’s passé allies itself to us:
that isn’t our downfall ahead, just one more error.
The struggle for the air I breathe – this
glory I name beyond compare.

What good is the package of ready-made
charm, stuck in a vacuum?
To send the scarlet-tinged white
stars rushing back home?

And commending myself to my consciousness
with a half-fainting core
of being I’ll down this slop without choice –
eat my head under fire!

Can you feel it, stepmother of the starlit
bivouac, the night come down, the night ahead?

Aortas choke in blood. Row
upon row you hear them whisper:
‘I was born in ninety-four,’
‘I was born two years before...’
And, holding on tight to
my worn-out birth year
I whisper through bloodless lips: ‘I saw
the light of day first two
nights into the untrustworthy year
of ninety-one. Now
the centuries encircle me with fire.’

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