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War and Peace

In 1949, when I was ten,
A year after the airlift for beleaguered Berlin
Had foiled Stalin's attempt to starve it
And the Marshall Plan was offering battered Europe
A hand to get on its feet, my brother Robert,
Six years older, inched his way, in the room we shared,
Through the thousand pages of War and Peace
While I lay sleeping. It took him four months,
An hour a night, a project that seemed to me
Even more peculiar than his listening after school
To symphonies and quartets. Yes, our mother
Had often mentioned the book as her father's favorite,
The one he'd first read, in his village near Uman,
In Tolstoy's Russian, though he'd learned his Russian
After Yiddish and Ukrainian. But that didn't explain
My brother's pressing on after the first few pages.
Four months just to learn about the families
He tried to describe to me, the Bolkonskis
And Rostovs and Bezukhovs, or about the French
On the march near Moscow, and Tsar Alexander.
It was all so far from the suburb of St. Louis
Where we were living peaceably with our parents
Most of the time, in a quiet neighborhood.
Of course, by the time my brother read Tolstoy
He'd listened to music composed in Madrid and Naples,
In Leipzig, Vienna, and St. Petersburg.
On a Saturday close to his thirteenth birthday,
Before he was driven off to his Bar Mitzvah,
He lost himself in the Rite of Spring.
If I say I followed my brother's lead when sixteen
By reading, all summer long, his dog-eared copy
Of War and Peace—the Maude translation—
I don't equate my motive for sticking with it—
Wanting to be like him, not left behind—
With his simple wish to open his life
To the wonders available. When I need to list
The wonders I've seen, I begin by returning
To the year I was ten, 1949,
The year that NATO began its efforts
To defend the free world from the world of darkness,
When my brother crossed the border each night
As if darkness were not an obstacle,
As if the iron curtain were a curtain of gauze,
No harder to lift than to turn a page.

Carl Dennis

New Letters

Volume 84, Number 4

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