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.
The Missouri Review Spring 2012
Copyright © 2012 by David Kirby
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission