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Reading Can Kill You


My husband and I are at a restaurant with another couple,
         and after a few drinks the other man and I are talking
about how much we love The Master and Margarita,
         a novel we've both read many times in different translations,
but it soon becomes apparent his wife and my husband are stewing,
         as if Bob and I had discovered we had a former lover
in common, let's say a woman, and we were more passionate
         about her than our spouses because she was Russian,
and instead of no, she said nyet, which sounds like a sexier yes,
         and yes was da, which is so much more yes than yes
but with a twinge of nyet, and it was winter, a freezing Siberian
         blizzard with days that began at ten and ended at two,
and we sat in the dark next to the blazing enamel stove
         and for breakfast drank tea from the samovar sweetened
with jam and talked about Gogol's sentences and Mandelstam's
         despair, and then at night it would be love and vodka,
so when Satan showed up with his entourage, we were borne along
         on his cloud of smoke, joining his diabolical magic show,
flinging rubles into paradise, cuddling at night with his giant cat,
         watching the dawn rise, reciting Pushkin and Akhmatova,
thrilling to Mayakovsky's rants, and in the white nights of summer
         we became poetry, every breath an iamb, our cries of ecstasy
the nyet that is da, and I can see why my husband is silent and sulky,
         so I return to our table, sip my Sancerre, talk about Paris,
because all four can agree we'd rather be lost in that city
         than be found in another, and the steppes recede,
but in the middle of my oysters I think of my great-grandfather,
         who worked in the mines of Kentucky, and one night
was supposed to be watching the furnace, but he was reading,
         and the furnace exploded, killing him, which led my mother
to threaten that all my reading would destroy me, too, and I pictured
         my teenaged self in that dank little room, the fire roaring,
reading a newspaper, a union tract, "Kubla Khan," or maybe
         Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, whose heroine,
Bathsheba Everdene, was so rich and beautiful and stupid
         I could hardly be blamed for not wanting to be anyone but her.


Barbara Hamby

The Southern Review

Summer 2013


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