First Books IV
Volume 16:2, Spring 2015
The river’s the same, curving
gentle and infinite from right
to left across the frame.
And the street grid sketched out
in an age of absolutes,
it’s still there—no one
would dream of changing it.
There’s still a square
in the old town center,
and the cathedral’s
ancient head has been fitted
with a new gold cap.
But factories have filled in
fields beyond the rails,
and the hippodrome
has shifted shape—if
you believe the maps—
from oval to rectangle.
What used to be the town
next door is now Our Town.
Soon Engels Street
will go back to being
Garden Street, I guess;
and Kirov’s bust
(its nameplate comically
misspelled) will be leaving
the park. But they’ll keep
the column that marks
the War, clumsy metal fins
still weighing down
its gilt star. A changeable
wind will still moan down
blowing the seasons
right out of town.
The road from Samarkand
slices blue-black and bored
through the salt-veined desert,
past cotton fields bleached
copper green and white,
past mulberries massed
in dusty ranks like soldiers
of the Great Khan. Leaving
town, we thread our way
through busloads of women
and children bound for those fields,
a ”voluntary” Sunday
picking cotton. It’s November:
clear and cold. We woke
in pre-dawn darkness—the stars
of Ulug Beg wheeling
about the astringent heavens—
dressed ourselves in silence,
fingers thick with chill.
Snorting, bucking, the bus
complains its way forward,
exhaling little puffs
of air perfumed with lemon
disinfectant. We day-
dream caravans of hard-
mouthed camels, salve imagined
saddle sores, brush
the coruscating sand
from flesh etched by desert
girding Russian churches,
a verb meaning the ground
reddens with blood, the harem
of the last Bukhara emir
“rescued” by Red Army
regulars (they tell us
the ladies went willingly)—
the desert pays no heed,
puzzling only now
and then at the asphalt
ribbons unfurling among
its oases. Here, in the careless
way of deserts and seas,
it casts up a peril:
groan. Shudder. Halt.
Throaty Uzbek vowels:
Flat tire. Please to walk out.
We stumble onto sculpted
sand, follow the sun
as it creeps cautiously
along the ridge, fingers
the horns of a solitary
cow: head tipped back,
legs collapsed beneath,
eyes run wild in sudden,
of what it means to be
mortal. Been dead some time,
opines a man, surveying
the carcass with a practiced
air. He spits, satisfied,
as if he’s just divined
some mystery. The crowd
breaks into twos and threes,
some wandering up the nearest
slope, some clumping close
to where the driver, grunting,
wrestles a tire to the axle.
Back on the bus, we rummage
for water, snacks, guidebooks
among our day-glo packs,
bags stuffed with prayer rugs,
embroidered hats, suzani.
My neighbor settles a sweater
about her shoulders to nap.
The bus follows the road,
the road follows the sand,
the sand runs unchanging
to Bukhara, looped and laced
by a veil of frailest green:
too frail to sanctify
a dead cow kneeling in dust,
reflected in her eyes.
City of Bells
How can it matter in what tongue I
Am misunderstood by whomever I meet….
The songs of my life collect in trams, smelling
of cabbage and stale smoke and yesterday’s
night out. Their melodies orbit the city,
resonate in half-lives—murmurs, grunts,
the thin whine of excuse—cacophony
of a cockeyed city where hammers ring
in resurrected belfries and motors whir
in the Savior’s Tower to synchronize the chimes.
Nothing harrows the wounded soul like music
that takes it unaware: click and trill
of English overheard along Arbat,
careless peal of long-tongueless bells,
swirling cry of a blue-headed crow
that falls and rises like a heartbeat. I know
exactly what you mean, Marina: it doesn’t
matter where I’m altogether lonely.
Here in your beloved city, autumn
frost incises the leaves: season for pickling
mushrooms, for rowanberry jam. For regrets.
Unlike yours, my exile’s voluntary—
what I call home is neither here nor there.
I drift from hand to hand, tongue to tongue,
turning my ear to the one disfigured note,
the too-regular breath, the broken spell.
My lover’s gone, Marina: his words scatter
like birch leaves in the snow. Now he lives
with an ordinary woman. He’s turned his back
on the gods with their nimble-fingered fluting,
spits fthip-fthip-fthip to keep evil at bay.
No one now will pause to recall the rhymes
of his life or the sound of his singing:
drone of a fly on the face of dank earth.
Kingdom of Heaven
Novodevichy Convent, Moscow, sixteenth century
At thirteen, I learned to be a woman:
to limn my skin with lead, like snow,
to brush my brows with antimony,
shape and shade of a sable’s tail.
To rouge my cheeks with beets until
they gleamed like poppies, pull back
my hair so tight I feared I’d faint:
not one single strand could show.
To dilate my pupils with stinging
drops so my eyes would catch the light
just like a falcon’s. I was lucky:
a man saw I was beautiful—
saw I was strong. But he himself
was weak: he died before our wedding.
Now I pass my days embroidering faces,
studding the halos of saints with pearls.
Fishbone, feather stitch, chain and tuck:
I work their flesh in peach-tongued silk.
Sometimes in dreams I walk a path
where gold-leaved birches rustle and nod
against an autumn sky. Mushrooms
cluster at the roots of trees, poppies
spill their seed on the fields, I sniff—listen—
my hair, my body now unbound. The path
is peopled with creatures: beneath dry,
dusky skin, the earth stirs, whispers
the language of our feet. In this dream,
my fur glows richer than the sable’s.
I am flying with the falcon.
I am snowing perfect pearls.
Credit: Young, Katherine. Day of the Border Guards. Copyright 2014 by the University of Arkansas Press. Reproduced with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press.
The University of Arkansas Press was founded in 1980 as the book publishing division of the University of Arkansas. A member of the Association of American University Presses, it has as its central and continuing mission the publication of books that serve both the broader academic community and Arkansas and the region. For almost a quarter of a century, the annual Miller Williams Poetry Series has published some of the country’s best new poetry.
Katherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards (University of Arkansas, 2014), a finalist for the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, and two chapbooks: Van Gogh in Moscow (Pudding House Press, 2008), and Gentling the Bones (Finishing Line Press, 2007). Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, and Subtropics. Young is also the translator of Farewell, Aylis by Azerbaijani political prisoner Akram Aylisli (Academic Studies Press, 2018), named one of 2018's "Eleven Groundbreaking Works" by Words Without Borders; as well as Blue Birds and Red Horses (Toad Press, 2018), and Two Poems (Artist's Proof Editions, 2014), both by Inna Kabysh. Her translations of Russian-language authors have appeared in Asymptote, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine, and 100 Poems About Moscow: An Anthology, winner of the 2017 Books of Russia Award in Poetry; several of her translations have been made into short films. Young was named a 2015 Hawthornden Fellow (Scotland), a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts translation fellow, and a 2020 Arlington (VA) Individual Artist Grant awardee. From 2016 - 2018 she served as the inaugural Poet Laureate for Arlington, Virginia http://katherine-young-poet.com/ To read more by this author: Evolving City Issue, and Museum Issue