Speaking In Tongues
Scribbling In Voices

Tatiana Retivova




And so it came to pass there was
a well-honed empty space
establishing itself dans ce coeur
retif comme un vagabond
in the burned out house
across my court yard in old Kiev.
I could say thank God
I have enough Grace to counteract
the Law with, had I the words
by which to deny incarnation.
The rest reads like any
inventory in cuneiform.
They might come to pass, reader beware,
as they see fit, the jackdaws.
Grabbing as only grab can.
How thousands turn
into multitudes we all know.
A brittle mass of butterflies.
Ulyanov issued a decree
ordering such and such
to be shot by sundown.
Eighty years later I swoon
from the trajectory of bullets
delayed in flight by time.
They circle scavenger-
like in this landscape
full of crows bearing a century’s
worth of witness. Shall I tame a raven?
Go find the beheader’s offspring?
Eye for an eye, the better to see with?
Four more days before the countdown
begins. The final countdown.
Je m’en merde. I read
Verlaine’s «Poemes Saturniens»
and eat cabbage soup. It has gone
from sweet to sour, the soup has.
Enfin, ce n’est pas mas faute.
One big parsnip, a turnip,
2 carrots and half a cabbage.
I observe Lent and remember
some obscure drug from yesteryear.
Periquat. What? Oh misericorde!
The journey was long and as eponymous
as if I were bearing Attic salt
in my valise, if you please —
Lot’s wife en route to Sodom, not.
I must have come here to malign
myself. Je m’en fou de tout.
At first it was quaint, this lack
of rule of law spanning one-sixth
the earth’s surface, run amok.
Quaint as the pulse of your jugular
gone irregular from fear.
Quaint as a shipwreck classified
in an alchemical almanac of yore.
At first the vastness of steppe
hurling thousands and thousands of Li
toward the taiga in a fierce
landlocked embrace
seemed as inevitable as a fifth season,
a saison d’enfer in perpetuity.
Now I presume it to be obsolete,
as finite as the old regime,
its puppet strings torn, limbs
strewed about, mismatched
relics too poor for a proper burial
at sea or anywhere.
Item, I leave you my name adjunct
to my estate, to be borne as burden
of proof can only be born.
Myself having been unable to
find the right match willing
to strike a procreative deal,
I want to say, provocative.
I am pro-creation, I really am.
Though you see me through a prism:
Some latter-day Auntie Mame
with a rucksack full of poetry
and herbs — Juniper, Rosemary,
Oregano, and balm from the shores
of three unpronounceable seas
where Phoenicians had left ruins
and pottery. «I don’t know anything!
I don’t know anything at all!
You pronounced with such glee
and presumption of freedom
from knowledge, in vain.
At two and a half, you knew your name
and that was much, much, too much.
Someday you will ride
un cheval retif et blanc
comme les neiges d’antan
bareback across the steppe
and its visions of caravans.
Where do we begin our genealogical
search? Beyond the feathergrass
and wormwood of the three nine lands
lies the kingdom of Alatayr’.
One sahib-divan spent a Persian fortune there
searching beyond the three nine lands.
I will not let myself be provoked
by Melpomene, because
like that Coptic tigress, Justine
I would rather die than go back
on my faith, I truly would.
Circa 1666, and the shizm
will not heal as long as I breathe.
Oh, and here we are, circa 1999.
Coming full circle.
For four years I have crossed, uncrossed
the chernozem threshold.
Stirrups, buckle your stirrups,
and ride off in midstream
beyond hill and dale of the Igor Tale.
In a Nabokovian twist of fate
we are related. He and mon pere
(ton grand-pere) shared an aunt
through some cousin. Though they
could care less, of course sick
of all the trilingual Ada-wanna-bes.
(His Van less of a Divan I would ever care to be.)
Mr. Quigley, I presume? Au
contraire. More like some anti-
Lolita with a vengeance I have read
all of Comptesse de Segur in French,
Pushkin in Russian, but by the time
I got to Sir Walter Scott
I must admit, I must admit,
I must admit, I yawned
and proceeded to decline
femina misere in the
accusative of exclamation!
and became preoccupied with menses.
Je commence a tout comprendre.
My patrician plea of «Je est
un autre» has gotten lost
in the trans-Atlantic-literation
of my journey, trunks
from Ellis Island on the rebound.
Odessa! Your shores shine
with slick spoils of oil
bursting through the seams
of a pipe curving snake-like
from the Caspian to the Black Sea.
The port of Illichevsk — notorious
among pirates, oh, Rimbaud!
Le bateau est plus que ivre,
il est enseint avec la contrabande.
And like some lese majeste clerk
of the imperial maritime customs of China
I divert my gaze away
from rows of ramsacked containers.
Poppy fields! Poppy fields every-
where. According to Culpeper’s
«Complete Herbal,» the Erratic Wild Poppy
is «Lunar, and of the juice of it is made opium.»
Mak — in Russian is Poppy, and therefore
occurs the transfiguration thereof into Maccabees...
Item, I bequeath to thee mon etat
sous rature, a la Derrida.
Mon nom de plume, quelques
epouvantails, memento mori,
l’habitude de tout questionner,
and from the Brunati collection
Item, eighteen original reproductions
of the frescoes of Pompeii.
All the photos from the villa
that remain, including from the post-Brunati
villa, namely myself Boticelli-like
in segnora Rika’s marble tub.
My tresses covered me everywhere.


The Anglo-Saxon victims of witch-hunts
welcomed first me then your father,
each one of us born in the throes
of a hurricane. Hence the home,
ancestral that is, can be found
on a shore supported by pilings.
Our whitewashed hamlet remembers
the Great Hurricane of ’33.
Some swashbuckler had won our house
in a bet while running rum across Sinepuxent
bay. Granted in 1661 by Virginia,
the barrier reef erodes with every year.
A land that will never perk,
whose wells cannot be
too deep or shallow for fear
of the salt terraces ensconced
beneath its tidal urge to plunge
bayward and bayward until
Over shoals and dunes, behold
Atlantida, full of motion and rapture.
I have stood before the horizon
facing eastward until my eyes burned
this path back across the three nine lands
and my heart sauntered crablike,
Sideways and backwards where
it got caught up in the trajectory
round and round the Black Sea it went,
curling inward and outward
among tons of spawning sturgeon,
quick and silver lapping the limen.
Until it landed me breathless on the banks
of the Don, the Kuban’, Donets,
Danube, and Dniper, crying
«River I have loved, loved madly [sic]
on your banks.» Wild as Ophelia or
Yaroslavna in her lament.
The words were not mine to be utterred.
«I returned in my prime to the river that spawned
my original ardor and found...»
is more like it. But can anyone hear
Psyche’s cry in the wilderness, ever?
Her ardor now a worn habit of many colors.
To spawn, or not to spawn, that is
the braconneer’s question.
I know better how the river laps
its way up my spine,
turns me inside out until
I am as breathless and full as a beluga,
gills red and defiant,
My belly popped open, a massive
Caesarean incision has gutted me.
Sticky black pearls
cling to my ribs as hands dig deep
beneath my ribcage to scoop out the booty.
Hark! The spawning of my swan song!
Queen of the Caspian Sea, huso huso,
no longer. But I digress.
Having wandered the seven seas,
I return now to hear/tell, hear/tell
how the crabgrass has overgrown
the shores of Sinepuxent where I once
combed cat tails against the wind.
Over yonder, the Huguenot house on a hill.
It burned my heart out,
left me crawling the receding shore.
A perpetual witch-hunt in reverse.
following me everywhere with eyes
from the portrait of Mme. DeGuilbert, circa 1887.
Across continents they follow, marring
the curses of autochtony.
From dashes to ashes and round all the seas.
Filling me with pearls, bursting
my ribcage under a Scythian gown,
until I was so heavy with song
I could no longer hold back
this antediluvian flood oozing
through my razor thin scars.
Fields of buckwheat to my right,
to my left, a fallow field dreams of flax.
Sunflowers drop their heads in mourning.
But where is the valiant Roland?
Carried along by the winds,
leaving me to swoon unassisted,
the belle broad without thank you,
frumpy and full of spleen-
nothing that a sprig of eglantine
A glass of Absinthe, Pernod,
a hookah full of opium,
would not set right, time unseen.
Oh Fortunatus, I am your pre-Merovingian
Sibyl waxing prophetic in hexameter.
I sing my polyphonic praise in different tongues.
You leave me in full bloom for another
prima donna, until Field-Marshall Death
dances the macabre svistoplyaski. I recoil
snail-like in my self-inflicted exile,
as mute and as onerous as a hesychast,
between the feathergrass and wormwood.
No one will ever find me, Psyche
in the Wilderness, left facing Aphrodite’s
famous grotto in Count Potocki’s park,
the proto-Slavic outpost’s garden
where Galician ghosts wander to the tune
of Krysolov’s flute and panic.
Come leap year, I emerge in full Scythian regalia,
St. Cassian’s child bride, a Persephone
clone with drops of pomegranate
all over my white linsey-woolsey tunic,
shizmatic and full of wrath
with swallows and bats dashing all about.
28 December 1998