Katia Kapovich


Someone gave it to us for Christmas,
set it up on our kitchenette counter,
a handsome aggregate, singer of one note.
That someone thought, “These two will put it to good use
and thank me with every sip they take.”
Someone meant well, but screwed up.
From the start, the damn thing alienated all other objects,
kicked them into the margins, the outskirts of life.
To mention just a few, our old burnt kettle
and scarred wooden cutting board
and pagoda of cups did not
enjoy this change. Nor did I, who also felt displaced
like an old disheveled queen toward her mirror table
with two symmetric ashtrays full of ash.
Tell me of exiles, and I’ll tell you the worst part,
those pangs of jealousy, stings of memory
of the good times when I used to start the flames
and made my potion for my one and only
who still in bed watched me from there
through a mirror and a cube of light.
And that’s really why I broke the coffee maker.



Born on the outskirts of the Romanian kingdom
in ’34, seven years before the war,
you saw the first bombs rain upon your shtetl
at 6 am, people falling under silver trickles
of fire, the bridge collapsing behind you
without a sound (your mother had covered your ears
with her hands). Those red shoes you wore, the yellow dress,
the new watch (a gift from your dad), and pearls of tears
were your good luck charms during the wartime mess.
When your father went missing you wrote on passing trains
the time, your name and the name of the village
you were being taken to. What did you write it with?
I’ve never asked you whether it was a rock,
a piece of chalk or a nail that left your message
on the green train cars. How did you manage?
Was it worth it? Sixty seven, to be precise, years later
is it still visible as your granddaughter
bites on her pen writing about you,
fishing for “something memorable” for a project due
tomorrow, that you were born in a kingdom whose king
was a little boy.



Didn’t do much for a whole month, never touched a book,
watched television or played with my kid. Didn’t eat,
come to think of it, or just a sandwich here and there,
coffee from a thermos someone kept leaving
on the kitchen table. What else? Tom (I just love this guy)
on the porch of the bookstore says “not much.”
Someone David had given him this old leather jacket
and he had got himself this pair of boots
in the thrift store. The fall
finally fell on our town last Monday,
and on Friday he threw a housewarming party
(which he advertised to his circle of friends)
on the theme of “Drink till you talk like Sara Palin.”
“How did that one go?”—“Not bad,
the neighbors called the police three times,
which is usually a sign of success.” We laughed
and said good-bye, he had to return inside,
me too, but then I hung out on the porch
for a bit longer, just some rain and I.



The last one, clean in a threadbare spiderweb,
the corpse of a moth, a needle in my brain.
Then the fall came and two beggars on one curb
fought: the spin of poverty had somehow
brought them together
on one of those mornings, otherwise peaceful and
droning on like a Muslim prayer.
Then they embraced each other like a flag and a steeple.
A fraternal kiss or last meeting of the eyes
would hardly have been appropriate
under the circumstances.

People got questioned by police
that arrived on the scene and wanted to “have a word”
(what kind of word? I thought) with the witness,
me. I just scratched my head.
“What a beautiful death!” as Napoleon in War and Peace,
not me, said that to his generals during a pause
on the battlefield next to a body lying flat.
One must have generals around to say something like that.



My brother interrupts our phone conversation
Because he must say a prayer before the sun sets
which leaves me absolutely alone
on a slope overgrown with disheveled grass,
a shiny blue rectangle in my hand,
the digits of this evening hour across it.
Then it darkens too and I sit and wait
for the plain miracle of a human voice.
A baptized Jewish atheist,
I wait for my brother to call me back
and justify my sitting on this abandoned lawn
under three lit windows. Perhaps the sun
sets later in Brookline than in Cambridge?
You never know. An irrigation system
unleashes its hiss nearby, polite
imitation of a summer downpour, and I think
of Henry James arguing that any
passionately practiced spiritual activity
is a form of religious experience.
But the latter too arrives without words
at such a time of sitting on wet grass
counting the unpredictable seconds
till sunset and nodding in sync
with all those names and nicknames
of you, wherever you are, my dears
whom I love so hopelessly and to tears,
like a prisoner hugging the iron bars.



On that, the shortest day of autumn,
be it said at the outset, a day
of copper leaves and air big with rain
it’s good to hear yourself being called in Russian,
hold hands for a minute, say goodbye
to your friend and walk on, torturing a cigarette.
Seventies hits blasting out of the basement door,
the sales DJ brings out those crates of LPs
crammed with what no one listens to anymore.

Of One Way Ticket he says he’s definitely got it in stock,
but then forgets it, and so do you,
but then he plays it in your head anyway
just like that
with the strike of a match
against the sole of his velvet shoe.



Somewhere there she has lost the use of her eyes
one after the other and now shuffles
through a world of shadows with her walker,
groping with her hand forever
when I call her. Finally she finds it,
the cold plastic box that has awakened her.

All that gives me a pretext to bother her less.

At first once a week, then once a month, then only
when I happen upon her picture, the one taken
on her eightieth birthday in a restaurant armchair.
The photographer grinned as he sat her down
and told her to smile. Lipstick smeared
clownishly over her mouth, she obeyed.
She was obese then, and slow, and now she’s even heavier,
and the phone goes on a long time unanswered.
Somewhere there, she needs an extra minute
to adjust it on her knees, to press the receiver
hard to her ear, and even then she cannot hear me well,
and so ours is not a conversation but a screaming
in dark woods. I am gradually giving her up to death,
hoping, a coward, that someone else
will have to take care of her body,
of the paperwork and telephone calls,
that the weather will turn nasty, my flight will be cancelled,
the funeral take place without me.

Somewhere here, I’ll be much better off
a bottle of wine in hand, stumbling over a chair,
rubbing my foot, crying like a lost child.




It was my first month in America,
I knew nobody and wanted to meet everyone.
Somewhere out there, I honestly thought,
life brimmed with joy, intellectual chitchat, and echoes
of Nabokov’s recent presence on these shores.
His two-volume bio by Boyd had just come out,
and my compatriots must have been talking about it
in their home gardens in the gentle October sun,
or so I suspected. A newspaper ad promised a
Russian Event: Art, Music, Conversation.
Exactly! I said to myself and followed the directions
till I found the house on the hill,
a guy with a cup of coffee on the porch twisting
his impressive, long, charcoal black mustache,
well documented in his various
self-portraits. As I walked through the rooms
I noticed a theme recurring in his artwork,
where peddlers, petty clerks, and mothers with children
roamed town streets in the shade of giant lucid angels.
The angels were very female and very naked.
It didn’t seem to bother my painter that I was his only visitor.
He directed me to a robust arm-chair by the fireplace
and read me some Nabokov poems.
I recited three of my own. He nodded “very good”
and twisted the ends of his mustache upward.
At noon we took a stroll along the busy highway,
shuffling leaves and small talk.
He asked whom I knew in Boston.
I explained that I was fresh off the boat and knew
only my husband and his Russian
mechanic. I wasn’t exaggerating. “Then let me introduce you
to all my friends!” he exclaimed and pulled me aside
through the wind-combed grass and orange-colored leaves
onto the highway. The highway honked at us
like a flock of angry geese, but he remained unperturbed.
“Hey, people, meet a Russian poet!”



At the Lost and Found at the British Museum
a boy played with a marble hand, you could see him

counting its delicate fingers, one, two, three,
but then no, he gave up, it was his mother’s, and she

had to pull it away from him to push on the stroller
as I followed them to the exit, raising my collar

and watching the boy begging for a doll that wasn’t a doll
but a chocolate mummy all wrapped in foil.

That’s what she told him taking it out of his hand,
as I stood nearby, and you can still see me stand

nearby, my collar lifted, my coat buttoned
though it wasn’t raining, which is almost weird for London.

“A chocolate mommy?” he said in the strangest accent,
the one where the moonlike mouth turns slightly crescent

the whole face is curved like our very time and space.
It beats me too why I am telling you all this.



When the sky isn’t there,
a gray asphalt square
sealed in homogeneous fog,
an invisible dog
barks at a crow,
day scratches its neck,
wonders where to go.
Don’t ask me. I’m going back.
to the studio where we lived
by the Chinese lampshade
and read on the bed,
too narrow for two,
and loved,
arms intertwined,
the page turning blank.



And once we climbed over the wire fence
and skated with my daughter on the dark
rink near the Charles Hotel, and the police
rolled down their window and gave us a glance.

Another time I lifted in a store
a can of soup and was arrested for
that crime, and spent three hours in jail,
studying the graffiti on the walls.

Jane had been there, and she wrote “Shit!”
From Ann we had “I love you, Jesus Christ!”
and a phone number. There was spit
shaped like New Zealand, an imprint of a fist.

The names: Ursula, Marsha, Liz from Maine,
who used her lipstick to write “Life’s a bitch.”
The bail officer came, looked at me sadly.
“What did you do to be here?” To the judge

I told a bunch of lies and he dismissed my case.
Liberated, I ran down eight flights of stairs.
God, bail us out of all our prisons!
And to the homeless in the Square I once

gave away ten dollars, and full of sentiment
walked away sobbing. My toothless friend,
have I mentioned how once I skated
under the stars, holding my daughter’s hand?




Except for the couch in the corner all furniture
is gone already to friends, who have
carried it downstairs: chairs,
the kitchen table, the Mr. Coffee machine,
leaving us alone among the four walls
with the couch,
which alone refused to go. When someone had tried
to push it from its place
it complained like an old blind dog.
Don’t zoomorphize inanimate objects,
it’s just a couch, you said,
but pushed back into place. I swept the floor,
you waited. Ever see
a sunray light up all the molecules of dust
at once?



Nothing is wrong with the fall downpour
except for the two young lovers stuck in the bookstore
where I’m working the evening shift.
The bent umbrella they were supposed to leave at the entrance
stretches its drenched crow wings over white parquet.

Nothing is wrong with the darn rain
except for his mother declaring
from the kitchen in the direction of the living room
where his father stares at a baseball game:
let’s not go to Aunt Rosaline’s tonight,
the roads are flooded.

Nothing is wrong with this Niagara
on our new double-pane windows
except that his left hand is full of Montale’s verse,
the latest, finest edition,
while his right slides into the waist
of her extra wet stretchable jeans,
revealing a small arrow-pierced heart
tattoo at the top of her right buttock,
which makes me wonder
whether the security camera above us
remarks it too.



One is more than many,
many less than one,
and never enough.
As Rilke said, we are but once.

Can’t you be more specific, give us examples,
or at least use normal grammar?
Otherwise we won’t waste our money
on your many books. You’ve got many,
haven’t you?

No, not that many. Actually, it’s just one poem.
A poet wants to write just one,
tries over and over again,
many, many times.
But when he knows he’s got the one…

Then what? What happens then? Is he all happy?
Does he jump with joy like a Teletubby?
Does he send it to—what?
and get paid a lot?

He might or he might not, who knows, but first
he beckons his young child mysteriously,
“Come here!”—and taps his lap invitingly,
and silently they sit a the swivel chair,
staring through the dusty window
at the almost winter. The pine tree outside
is old and gray. So is the poet.

* * *

Snow killing
the TV, filling
the TV dishes with
nothing but white noise
as two human species
strangely happy
under the circumstances
run to the Blockbuster
a minute before closing:
they barely make it;
the guy having mercy
lets them take a few
to choose.
Seconds, not minutes.
the street
cushions of snow,
back flies the UFO
having lost interest
in the earth.



KATIA KAPOVICH was born in Soviet Moldova; in the late seventies she became a member of a samizdat dissident group, was arrested twice. She has written poetry since the age of seven, has seven books in Russian and two in English, the latest being Cossacks and Bandits (Salt, 2008). Kapovich's poems have appeared in the London Review of Books, Poetry, The New Republic, Harvard Review, The Independent, Jacket, etc. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches literature and prose workshops in CCAED and co-edits Fulcrum.

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