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Siberia


I'm not thinking of vodka or the czar or the Orthodox Church
                       or any other typically Russian topic
           as I look out the window of the train
between Ekaterinburg and Irkutsk but of orgies, of all things,
                       which I assume occur here
           at the same rate at which orgies occur in other countries

or maybe even a slightly higher one, given
                       the cold winters and general malaise
           of a people living in what is still largely
a feudal society, which doesn't mean I'm thinking
                       of organizing or being in or even
           watching an orgy, in Russia or elsewhere, but how,

according to an article I'd read by a guy who'd
                       been in one, they're pretty unsatisfactory,
           on the whole: the people are pasty-skinned
and dumpy, and either you can't get the others
                       to do what you want to or else you have people
           trying to get you to do something you don't want to do,

and yet the whole time the guy was excited
                       because he was thinking, "I'm at an orgy!
           I'm at an orgy!" And that's the way I feel as I look out
the window and think, "I'm in Siberia!" Only
                       Siberia is beautiful, not scary. The birch trees are
           so slim and silvery that you expect them to thrum

like harp strings as the wind rushes through
                       their branches and tosses their green leaves
           this way and that, and there are mountains
in the distance and rivers in the foreground,
                       and people are bathing in the rivers,
           Russian people, and they're laughing and splashing

each other, not starving or freezing to death
                       or pulling their teeth out with their own fingers
           or being beaten by sadistic guards, which is all
you can think about when somebody says
                       "Siberia" to you, but this is Siberia, and it's beautiful.
           Well, not if you're writer Varlam Shalamov

who spent seventeen years in a camp there.
                       Shalamov's greatest story is "Cherry Brandy";
           in it he imagines the thoughts of the dying poet Mandelstam:
"Life entered by herself, mistress in her own
                       home. He had not called her, but she entered
           his body, his brain.... Poetry was the lifegiving force

by which he had lived. Yes, it had been exactly
                       that way. He had not lived for poetry; he had lived
           through poetry." When he was a boy, Shalamov's
father tried to stop him from reading so much:
                       "Stop reading!" he'd cry, and "Put down
           that book—turn the light off!" He didn't, of course,

which is probably why he became a lover of poetry
                       even if he didn't become a poet.
           And it's why he could write, in "Cherry Brandy,"
that "everything—work, the thud of horses' hoofs,
                       home, birds, rocks, love, the whole world—
           could be expressed in poetry" and "each word

was a piece of the world." In his memoirs,
                       Shalamov says his father never spoke to him
           of another poet, Batyushkov, and from this he concludes
that "my father did not like poetry, feared
                       its dark power, far from common sense."
           He praises Batyushkov's poems for "preserving

the most unexpected discoveries" and then
                       quotes a line from him: "O heart's memory,
           you are stronger than reason's sad memory."
No wonder people love poetry and the powerful
                       fear it. "Poetry is respected only in this country,"
           Mandelstam said; "there's no place where more

people are killed for it." I'm not afraid of you, poetry,
                       therefore I must not be powerful.
           But you are. Poetry for president! Tippecanoe
and poetry, too. United we stand, divided
                       we write poetry. Poetry's got my back!
           Tread on me, somebody—go ahead,

I dare you. I think a poem must be like
                       an orgy—okay, you're disappointed most
           of the time, but you never know what's going
to happen. Plus you can make the people
                       in your poem as handsome as movie stars.
           Why aren't we all poets? Why aren't we all in jail.


David Kirby

The Missouri Review

Spring 2012


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