Speaking In Tongues
Scribbling In Voices

In My Borrowed Tongue


Tatiana Retivova




«Oh, Russian land,
You are already over the hill!»
From The Song of Igor's Campaign (translated by V.Nabokov)
There is a country where my voice
must hold its daily reckoning
and question this allegiance to
the spirit of the crossroads who
has scattered what remains
too horrible for language
and placed a skull over a stump
to guard his wretched boundaries.
I know his ways so well for I have learned
the jargon of the jackdaws,
and in their hungry chattering I’ve heard
how once so full of carrion they were
that rivers also overflowed,
and how the thirsty steppe so soaked with blood
had flowered in her first and final bloom.
So like another fallen empire, first
it shunned the Western hemisphere
then courted it, and courting failed to honour
the spirit of the crossroads who
dishonoured by his retinue
invoked the swanlike Obida
to clap her wings
and clapping thus decrease
rich times and let abundance sink.
Less fallow than divined, this land
when crossed by its own shadows
can wax so lyrical that I
am often rendered speechless.
And though still full of loathing for
its forktongued infidels,
I mean to resurrect their Word,
to mount and harness it,
and beat it till it bleeds and yields
nothing but metaphor.
To know is to comply, to have survived
the spirit of the crossroads’ wrath
is to be guilty only, and fittest not at all.
Accomplice that I am I now lay bare
my burden, in hope that it will bend
the birches down with sorrow to the ground,
and that the steppe so arid once again
will let its grasses droop
until the boatmen scatter with their oars
in drops the sacred rivers of the land.
January 1985


You were in a wheelbarrow that day
when the wind overturned
trees, trashcans,
and I was being born.
In the pavilion Hazel foamed
while Furies hovered above,
their hands wrung with joy.
She kept me deadlocked
like Julius Caesar
in a pool of blood.
Then you diverted
oh so smoothly
my Hazel’s wrath.
What color are her eyes?
You wondered.
Of the sea, she said, look.
You looked bayward and saw
the oblique horizon merge
here with sky, there with swamp,
faithful to neither.
Then looking bloodward you saw me,
grey-eyed like Athena.
January 1984


And when I came to, the clock hummed
an unfamiliar tune. Each second pulled me
Westward where I found
between embracing, erasing boundaries, that I
had lost all sense of time and space, and place
became oracular, the word —
my only sanctuary.
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, we are
displaced among the human race.
Inside this lovely tongue-
and-groove abode called home,
I find delight in sleeping, waking
alone to memories and sounds
of life — not mine — perpetuated
beyond my bedroom wall.
Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, I am
restrained by something other
than state of grace. Denial is,
or has become, both slayer and the dragon.
My tongue curls upward to enunciate
its lack of meeting with another
cluster of consonants that strays
unyielding to all vowels.
No trumpets bellow to announce
such pristine disavowal.
And here beside my bedroom door
there is a wreath, there is a story.
There are three guests who have not called.
There is a barren valley which
carries the echo of a voice
that rustles unimpeded through
the flatness of infinity.
You are, you are, you are alone
without me. There is harmony
in silence, in the gentle hum
that will not mar my passage
from alpha to omega. You
have charted it with milestones.
13 October 1984


saw me conceived and being born
to be the bane of the inane,
protectress of all furious scorn,
the wreaking havoc hurricane
displaced me between empires so
to teach me how to speak with birds,
to gulp the air and swallow slow
the sacred mystery of words,
to cast trilingually in tongues
for monoliths my prophecies
like pearls of Babylonian songs
oysterhalving this century.


My language I pay homage to
despite something reptilian
that clothes it, I undo
the tongue from static hymnals
provoking words to strum
beyond indo-european
beneath obtrusive neon
I long to make it hum,
but blasted by indifference
to sounds, the natives’ ears
have ruffled my insouciance:
I long to make them hear.
Where are the snows, indeed,
I cry, undone by my own tongue,
d’antan and yesteryear agreed
all gone the way of dung.
Adieu, igloo, achoo, and caribou
once joined the ranks of poesie,
now see what sweet democracy
can do for rhyme and meter too.


These blue laws keep me
home on Sunday.
Propped up in black
writing on the wall,
they ask me to mourn.
I spread my hands flat
on a map of steppes.
Imagine: Here
draught feeds the burn-
ing bush and nothing grows.
These steppes have never been mine
to grieve for. Their wells,
though dry, are for drowning.
My town begs me whisper:
Plow your salty brine in silence.
Mute and myopic
I’ve let this bland landscape
dictate such callous indifference.
But now I shrug and rejoice.
Look: Blossoms in October.
And here, an early hail
has violated
my chrysanthemums.
Spring 1977


«A — black, E — white, I — red, U — green, O — blue, vowels
Someday I shall divine the coming of your latent births.»
From Arthur Rimbaud's «Vowels»
When there is nothing, suddenly there’s joy.
Behold the graven image — let it go.
Surrounded by such absence I can’t hold
the presence of an ordinary world.
Such words as «autumn», «Sunday», «hyacinth»
did not intend to bring us joy, and yet
the very words themselves, how they evoke
a past, present, and future so untouched
by all our individual travails.
Autumn is still a season without love,
it complements the auburn of my hair.
While Sunday is for others. To enjoy
its weekly pagan promise is to find
how easily it’s broken. I prefer
the joy and familiarity of words.
When there is «hyacinth», need I say more?
3 March 1985


This house now buries my love.
In the eye of the storm
we wait patient as winds
perform their daily, multi-
directional rounds.
Pivoted, scavenger and sea-
gull like, we harbour our grief.
I am the same house which burrows,
my own equivocal heart
comes tumbling down the stairway
from heaven to the deepest well.
Crablike it saunters sand-ward where
one thousand feet below sea level we yield
an indecipherable topography.
And oh how the Lord did confound
all the languages of the earth. Mercy!
We are still piecing it together,
my heart and I now firmly
entrenched in our own mythology
of runes, reading the primal gestures
made by some babbling Other.
Fall 1985


Stealing his swiftfooted way
among the rubble and desecration
unleashed by «the blood-dimmed tide»,
the Poet returns, at best
as unobserved as Telemachus,
well-hidden behind his own
ancestral maps of disenchantment:
A weary refusal to bear witness.
Hark, he says, this teller of tales
none too psychopompous, let the cuckoo
bewail her lament through the hazelwood,
I have no wind left for winged words.
For the falcon has flown already
numerous star-crossed messages
from one end of the bridge to the other,
until only a medieval spectre loomed
between time and space, a yawning gap
now festering like an abscessed tooth.
Meanwhile, the epic yarn of Bosnia
drags like some broken record
sparks flying with mortar, the current
formulas of a third war.
(What's so third about it is
unutterable, with or without gusli.)
Which is why the Poet must always return
come winter, with anima in tow —
to be held voluntarily captive
by a southeast village that imbibes nightly
a mountain of hoarfrost, exhaling prophecies —
to rewrite its charmed future in song.


When this is over
and Eurasia has filled her fields
with a Stygian brine, no occultation
of the sun to warn us,
be tolerant.
Say that the tulip trees are blue,
or that this scar
too early for the war
must have been stitched
in expectation of
an honorable parting.
Be like the sun at midday, when
surprised by sudden darkness, it
fulfills a lethal prophecy.
Fulfill your own. Your throat
though loosely stitched resists
this parting of the ways,
and you,
too trite to yield in honour of
the sinking scalpel,
burst into song.
Sing, Philomela, sing.
Your bedlam din
anticipates the morrow, though
it may not come again.
December 1980 – March 1981


This tug of war betrays
our common purpose.
Your arms lie flat round bodies cast
not out of bronze nor clay,
or even flesh,
but mist and air.
The fields, Elysian, you claim to stalk
shelter your fallow seed.
You gloat over the memory of
a different Empire,
now heightened to a metaphor,
now scorned.
But now I see that you,
a scavenger
of ancient prophecies and rhymes,
aren’t even seaworthy.
Your bedside list of quotes reveals
a stilted grammar.
Because of this
I find inflection
boring. No longer do I yearn
for wind or hope
to end my days alone
in that second circle of hell
next to you,
not to be called by name.
Winter 1981

From the Furies

It seems funny that we pity you now.
Your hands unfurl claws,
the rage you left
in a black room sounds autonomous.
You've sold yourself short.
Where is the tinker
who raised our skirts so freely?
You lift your hands in protest
and turn to watch
Canadian geese.
You say their honking is enough.
When tree leaves show their backs
pale and silver in the wind,
we listen for rain.
Our mouths drop with awe when we see
here, by dogwood and magnolia
the tinker sits asleep,
tackle and bait support him.
Nearby a magpie whines
for winter sun: Black-billed, American —
long steaming tail and white wing
patches, drifts near heavy bush.
We lose all track of cackling geese
and spread our skirts for shelter.
Fall 1977


I might have met you
in the shadow of that other
man who claimed to be
no one’s son, but anyone’s father.
He would have been to me
more than a bearer
of bad tidings,
his step far from being
light as that of Hermes.
And you would not notice
the squalor I evoke
as some kind of reason
for my ornery stance
and wayward ways.
It’s only there to mark
the passage of time.
My history, woven, unwoven
like Penelope’s shroud
serves to perpetuate
its own arch[e]typ[ic]al
doing, undoing.
We will never be
united by blood in progeny
each one of us would claim
more fiercely than the other.
I might not ever be
with you, a single pronoun: We,
gracing our genitive coupling
begotten of a grammar
both you and I find lyrical because,
like you and me,
it doesn’t generate
inflected paradigms
to dangle and to bind
in mortality
our deracinated selves.
Summer 1983


You will pass my mimosa
in a dream, hey you, word is out.
They say I’ve hung the moon
over your eyes, hey you. The deed
once done before, by proxy,
dolls bent northward on an incline
suffered from the porcupine
quills. Mine dipped in nemesis
evoked you baying, flank on flank.
Hey you, the wind brought a chill,
did it not? Some say to say I love
you, just say hey. Hey you,
over my dead body. Ha.
Some say I’m wrong, this song
not history enough, and these incisors
reveal uncivilized motives.
But who refrains from praising
my litany of limbs?
Who will anoint me
and cast light
upon my seven shadows?
Summer 1980


How to make it through a day
full of dry faces, greetings
like old skin: Say that you’re
not home. Watermelons are
crisp in early summer.
While you sit peeling labels
from bottles, your lover
slips out and fades.
He’s out knocking on cantaloupes
at some wayside market,
looking for the right shape.
Fill this shot to the rim,
brown rings circle your eyes:
You watch children fall blue
one by one like plums in a garden.
Like this loss, visions cling
to the wrinkled grass by the river.
Say that Mountain Ash blooms in June.
On the edge of your laughter,
golden and grim, you wake
shaking quiet from morning again.
June 1976


For once there is another you
beyond consolation. Who are we?
In the shadows of our ancestors
two-faced Janus strikes a pose.
Black cat, broken mirror, don’t
look back, Orpheus at Euridyce,
stepping on that sidewalk crack.
Who’s to blame? I have grieved
each New Year’s for ten years, longer.
Such grief rooted in my name
goes beyond a particular event,
borrowed like time, it passes on,
spans the century. See it strain
through my camouflage of words,
seep through this offering of sorts:
The eternal flame transfigured
in a derailed rhyme.
And you who are another, Saul,
bereaved at the crossroads
of the continents, paying penance
to a surly gatekeeper, pause
now briefly by Hades and remember
we are all each other’s grief
spilling over our flickering shadows.
December 1988


This time the grip is far
more moonlike, though barely
visible. A soothing balm
annointing every pore,
it draws me to a standstill.
Unlike the loadstone which
comes bearing down
and always is so visceral,
your lunar grip astounds
me into stellar orbit.
And if the rising plasma round
my turgid womb
appears to be refusing
this tidal youward pull,
it is because I’m in a state
of grace which prompts me
to delay that final motion
confirming gravity.
30 September 1984