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Christmas Eve, 1944

The terrible year has passed. But out here
in the country, I still see the flares and fires
over Berlin. When planes go down I think of great,
flaming honeycombs falling from heaven,
or even Elijah's called-for fire from God.

We all stood around a Christmas tree talking
of the trials, of lapdog Freisler, his red robes,
his rantings. At midnight Marie brought out
a silver bowl and candle; we then sang
Silent Night as we gathered close. Marie
dripped melted lead and wax into the water,
and each of us, peering over the candle's flame,
predicted by month, some even by day, who
would be quicker: the Russians or the Americans.

Being ironical, I mentioned we were like Romans,
and that St. Augustine condemned auguries
in the City of God. Professor X looked at me
and said, like the Romans, this State now beheads
its enemies — that St. Paul was beheaded.
We each had a dish of peaches, and he talked
of a translation of Holderlin he was attempting
in English. He had intelligent eyes, the pale skin
of a poet. By week's end he was arrested.
I now hide my notes in the houses of friends.

speaker.gif: Christmas Eve, 1944.mp3


Romanov Spring
(Dr. Botkin, 1917)

My kidneys are hurting from an old fall,
and it's difficult to sit. The days are heavy.
Outside a band first plays the “Marseillaise,”
then Chopin's funeral march while graves
are dug for those killed during the wine shop riots.
Alexei puffs his cheeks, oompahs to the ragged music.

The Tsar reads English novels and splits wood,
while the Empress is pushed about in a wheel-chair.
She writes letters, knits, fusses about keeping busy
or her failing eyes. The warm smell of food
— cabbage, pickles, fish — crowds the palace,
accumulates in a way I find oppressive.

Evenings are for church. Miracle working icons
are paraded, once, even the Shroud of Christ,
which was placed among red and white lilacs.
Confessions are frequent and long, though I
wonder what the children could possibly confess.
But they are diligent, and kiss the priest's stole
with an innocence I can only admire.

Soldiers are both rude and noble. Some walk
in unannounced, slouch, caps cocked, and stare
at the family as if at monkeys in a zoo. Others,
with their St. George's Cross in plain sight,
are deferential, apparently pained by circumstances,
but are kind in small ways to all. The Tsar
says he can tell who's been at the front.

New men have arrived from Petrograd, there is talk
of moving the family east, toward the Urals;
the princess's mention crude carvings found
on the swings; Anastasia was frightened
the other night by a gunshot in the garden.



How I wonder over the great power
of the Lord, and memories of the body:
bullets in a white room, dark faces of guards,
the night journey, petrol pouring, the hiss
of acid, fire, and retreat of the flesh.

Our bones mingle; they brown with moisture,
then split apart beneath stacked railroad ties,
the blur of seasons, years. Men come, hands lift
skull and rib and tooth, gently hold them up
to sunlight, place them in black boxes.

In this light there is no pain, only an ache
for the Lord, who is near. I sing of His Mercies,
see air fan out in strange colors before my voice.
Our little one walks now without a limp, he walks
with Papa and Mama in the stillness of the Lord.


In the Circle

Our flight of Pintails darts and dances
between green mountains, then breaks apart
over the Red River. Beneath us orange tongues
and smoke erupt from Yen Bai; the canopy
shakes and my stick wobbles as fluid leaks.
I think of home, of Anne and Annapolis
and my too-distant son. I think of Paolo
and Francesca and Dear-Fucking-John.
Over Haiphong my mask cracks and hair
ignites. My face blisters and grins. I wrap
myself in flame, amazed at the familiar flags
in the harbor below, the sheer distance of the sea.



(All ages of mankind unite
Where it is dark enough. —James Dickey)

The Pope,
suffering from gout,

supervises from his stretcher
an unearthing of stone and idea.

From the split soil
and shattered stone of a sarcophagus,

a miracle of funeral art:
a young girl of fifteen,

daughter of Claudius
someone says,

coated with an antiseptic essence,
limbs flexible, as if an hour dead.

Lombard masons kneel
around her, finger

her red jewels,
stroke gold bands,
touch her gilded hair,
until one rough nail

cuts a groove
through the painted mask.





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