Tuesday, September 04, 2012
our fathers fall in love with their own stories, nuzzling
the facts but mauling the truth, and my friend’s father begins
to lay out with the slow ease of a blues ballad a story
about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma decades ago.
These were men’s teams, grown men, some in their thirties
and forties who worked together in zinc mines or on oil rigs,
sweat and khaki and long beers after work, steel guitar music
whanging in their ears, little white rent houses to return to
where their wives complained about money and broken Kenmores
and then said the hell with it and sang Body and Soul
in the bathtub and later that evening with the kids asleep
lay in bed stroking their husband’s wrist tattoo and smoking
Chesterfields from a fresh pack until everything was O.K.
Well, you get the idea. Life goes on, the next day is Sunday,
another ball game, and the other team shows up one man short.
They say we’re one man short, but can we use this boy,
he’s only fifteen years old, and at least he’ll make a game.
They take a look at the kid, muscular and kind of knowing
the way he holds his glove, with the shoulders loose,
the thick neck, but then with that boy’s face under
a clump of angelic blonde hair, and say, oh, hell, sure,
let’s play ball. So it all begins, the men loosening up,
joking about the fat catcher’s sex life, it’s so bad
last night he had to hump his wife, that sort of thing,
pairing off into little games of catch that heat up into
throwing matches, the smack of the fungo bat, lazy jogging
into right field, big smiles and arcs of tobacco juice,
and the talk that gives a cool, easy feeling to the air,
talk among men normally silent, normally brittle and a little
angry with the empty promise of their lives. But they chatter
and say rock and fire, babe, easy out, and go right ahead
and pitch to the boy, but nothing fancy, just hard fastballs
right around the belt, and the kid takes the first two
but on the third pops the bat around so quick and sure
that they pause a moment before turning around to watch
the ball still rising and finally dropping far beyond
the abandoned tractor that marks left field. Holy shit.
They’re pretty quiet watching him round the bases,
but then, what the hell, the kid knows how to hit a ball,
so what, let’s play some goddamned baseball here.
And so it goes. The next time up, the boy gets a look
at a very nifty low curve, then a slider, and the next one
is the curve again, and he sends it over the Allis Chambers,
high and big and sweet. The left fielder just stands there, frozen.
As if this isn’t enough, the next time up he bats left-handed.
They can’t believe it, and the pitcher, a tall, mean-faced
man from Okarche who just doesn’t give a shit anyway
because his wife ran off two years ago leaving him with
three little ones and a rusted-out Dodge with a cracked block,
leans in hard, looking at the fat catcher like he was the sonofabitch
who ran off with his wife, leans in and throws something
out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs, something
that comes in at the knees and then leaps viciously towards
the kid’s elbow. He swings exactly the way he did right-handed,
and they all turn like a chorus line toward deep right field
where the ball loses itself in sagebrush and the sad burnt
dust of dustbowl Oklahoma. It is something to see.
But why make a long story long: runs pile up on both sides,
the boy comes around five times, and five times the pitcher
is cursing both God and His mother as his chew of tobacco sours
into something resembling horse piss, and a ragged and bruised
Spalding baseball disappears into the far horizon. Goodnight,
Irene. They have lost the game and some painful side bets
and they have been suckered. And it means nothing to them
though it should to you when they are told the boy’s name is
Mickey Mantle. And that’s the story, and those are the facts.
But the facts are not the truth. I think, though, as I scan
the faces of these old men now lost in the innings of their youth,
I think I know what the truth of this story is, and I imagine
it lying there in the weeds behind that Allis Chalmers
just waiting for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh
why in hell didn’t they just throw around the kid, walk him,
after he hit the third homer? Anybody would have,
especially nine men with disappointed wives and dirty socks
and diminishing expectations for whom winning at anything
meant everything. Men who knew how to play the game,
who had talent when the other team had nothing except this ringer
who without a pitch to hit was meaningless, and they could go home
with their little two-dollar side bets and stride into the house
singing If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time
with a bottle of Southern Comfort under their arms and grab
Dixie or May Ella up and dance across the gray linoleum
as if it were V-Day all over again. But they did not.
And they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.
And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and notice the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing couples
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamned much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. But there is one thing more, though it is not
a fact. When I see my friend’s father staring hard into the bottomless
well of home plate as Mantle’s fifth homer heads toward Arkansas,
I know that this man with the half-orphaned children and
worthless Dodge had also encountered for his first and possibly
only time the vast gap between talent and genius, has seen
as few have in the harsh light of an Oklahoma Sunday, the blonde
and blue-eyed bringer of truth, who will not easily be forgotten.
Friday, April 06, 2012
[abridged by me. Full version available here.]
My writing: hard-boiled. My life: scrambled soft.
The cud of thinking: by the evening my jaw aches.
There are moments when I feel the universe expand.
Poetry should be written the way adultery is committed: on the run, on the sly, during the time not accounted for. And then you come home, as if nothing ever happened.
Time is like a diatonic scale: it consists of major and minor seconds.
Pick a piece of wood floating in the river and follow it down the current with your glance, keeping the eyes constantly on it, without getting ahead of the current. This is the way poetry should be read: at the pace of a line.
Went to bed with an unfinished poem in my mouth and could not kiss.
How do I feel about people who do not understand my poetry? I understand them.
More and more often, I come around to the conclusion that my dad is the sole true censor and critic of my poems: seriously drunk, in the kitchen of our country house, he squints after each poem I read to him and says, “Crap. Next.”
Suddenly you realize that only what you have put into poems can be considered lived through. That is how you become a poet. And at that point you begin, consciously or otherwise, living the kind of life that is fraught with poetry. That is how you cease being human. The former happens abruptly, the latter gradually, both irrevocably.
From the memoirs of Akhmatova’s last physician: she died at the moment when her cardiogram was being recorded. Her death has been recorded in the form of a straight line. Ruled paper ready-made. Go ahead and write.
“The ovaries of a newborn girl contain up to 400,000 egg cells.” All my poems are already in me.
In a poem a word is not equal to its meaning as it is defined in a dictionary, because either the meaning in a poem is totally different, or it is the same but a thousand times more precise.
Drafts in my notebook are written in a barely legible scribble; fair copies are in impeccable calligraphy. My handwriting is much better than my muse’s.
I write to equalize the pressure from without and from within, to prevent being squashed (by misery) or being blown apart (by happiness).
—Do you understand that understanding is impossible?
In a poem, poetry is a guest. At times the guest stays long, but never for good.
I’ve asked myself: Did I get ahead of the calendar? Counted the poems I wrote this year: 366 of them.
“You are my first and my last/Bright listener of the dark raving.”—Akhmatova to her lover Garshin in “The Poem Without a Hero.” After they broke up, she changed the line to “You, not the first nor the last/Dark listener of the bright raving.” (From Lydia Chukovskaya’s The Akhmatova Journals.)
“Understanding is insanity for two.” (V. Podoroga)
I put words into poems the way I pack a suitcase for a trip abroad, choosing only what is the most necessary, the most presentable, the lightest, and the most compact.
Madness is inspiration idling in neutral.
I live my life moving forward on rails that I lay myself. Where do I get the rails? I dismantle the ones I have gone over.
My diaries are letters from my former self to my future self. My poems are replies to those letters.
Prose: a soccer game shown in its entirety.
Poetry: the same game shown only in scoring or near-scoring episodes.
Reader: So you want me to feel as if I were reading a letter addressed to someone else?
Poet: I want you to feel as if I had read a letter addressed to you by someone else and am shamelessly quoting from it.
Inspiration is an intercourse with language. I can always tell when language wants me. I never say no to language. For me, it is always good with language. And for language? I am afraid for language it is never as good as it is for me.
“Accusing an erotic poet of depravity is as unfair as accusing a tragic poet of cruelty.” (Evgeny Baratynsky in the preface to his poem “The Concubine.”)
As I am learning to speak English, I catch myself saying in it not what I want to but what I can say. Then I realize that much the same happens when I speak my native Russian. Only in poems, at times, I manage to say what I want. On such occasions, I feel I am speaking not Russian but some other language that is truly my native.
A fisherman told me: “Writing poetry must be like digging for earthworms: you grab the critter by the end and pull. Pull too hard, and it’ll break; not hard enough, it’ll get away.”
If poems are children, poetry readings are pta meetings.
You must not write in verse about what you do not know or about what you know for sure, only about what you vaguely suspect, hoping that poems will either confirm or dispel your suspicions.
From a letter of a young poet: “I write when I feel bad. When I feel fine, I don’t write.” With me, it’s the opposite: when I write, I feel fine. I feel bad when I do not write.
I write about what I love. I love writing even more than what I write about. And what do I do it for? To love myself, if only for a brief while.
“Is there any need for poetry? The question in itself is enough to realize how bad the situation with poetry is at present. When everything is fine, no one has the slightest doubt that there is absolutely no need for poetry.” (B. Pasternak)
An ideal poem: every line of it can serve as a title for a book.
—I have the gift of finding lost things, such as a tiny screw from sunglasses in thick grass of a lawn. I have a method of my own: I relax and wait until the lost object calls out to me: “Here I am!” Things like reading glasses, a notebook, an elastic hair band ... I can recognize them by their voices!
—But isn’t that the way you write poems?
—How true! Except that with poems I never know what’s been lost. All I know is that a) it’s something urgently needed; b) something that is somewhere near, probably in the most visible of places; c) others have failed to find it; and d) it’ll be such a joy when I do!
The longer a poem, the weaker the impression that it has been dictated from above: Heaven is not verbose. Besides, the more you talk, the more you lie.
A full stop at the end of a poem is an exclamation mark seen from above, driven into the page up to its cap with one precise blow.
Translated from the Russian by Steven Seymour