Speaking In Tongues
Scribbling In Voices

In My Borrowed Tongue


Tatiana Retivova




This is the rough-draft of my life, revised
again. Dipped in ambrosia, my quill
recalls your name. Like you, it roams at will —
a horseless rider harnessing his pride.
Perhaps no longer rough but still a draft
you’ve slain my wing. The rest I’ve yet to find
out when it’s just too late or past the time
of flowering. That which I once called craft
is now a mask sketched to the final grind
of pain rubbed rough away by bliss, and vice
versa. Aye, there’s the rub. What’s worse, I find
this draft of you’s become the only spice
of my rough life unheeded, as it seems
all prophecies have trickled into dreams.
July 1979


You waken thinking it is siesta time
while night appears more Mediterranean
in reverie. Again you’ve come to find
that what you really long for is neon
crosshatched against a sky so bare it is
beyond American. Your face reflects
habitual change of time and place. Malaise
drifts continental in midair, inflects
from Latin into guttural argot.
Jetlagged or not, you haven’t ably pried
ennui away from that which ends it, though
there are more words for that than for I die(d).
You wonder whether you are bound for sea
or moribund. Break your own prophecy.
July 1979


The final kiss fought so hard to avoid
taking place. As if it were a preview
of yet another tug of war annoyed
by sentiment, too brittle to renew.
This sudden meeting of mouths (now sodden,
still mispronouncing the passion once feigned
so well) muffled its anticipation
by parting. Lips curved into a pained
farewell. Then followed that cool inertia.
The latter, a must, grim and absolute.
A kind of repose too frail for action
and aloof. Yet we are always astute
when curtailed by moribund thoughts. Will this
remind us that something is quite amiss?
September 1979


Lately when the bobwhite quail go: To-weet,
to weet, to woo all day long in the reeds,
it seems their song really means to entreat
a similar reply from Jimsonweed
or myrtle, growing wild but still faithful
camouflage for fowl. These weeds and flowers
do nothing but twine, unable to crawl
away from roots. They hover over birds.
It is the furies that reply, come night
time and all is still. They emerge wooing
bobwhite quail now immobile and quiet,
while periwinkle lies busy sleeping.
Dear ones, do not tarry long in the reeds:
To Hades all flora and fauna are weeds.
July 1980


I’ve witnessed the grim and pale betrayal
of a voice that I’ve conquered long ago.
Now the moon gets directions where to go
and throws its waning glances while I wail.
I reckon it don’t matter where I sleep
for my dreams have grown too sour for alarm.
And though your curse has spared me all the harm
of knowing far too much, alone I reap
St. Martin’s summer harvest while you seethe
in fog and gloom with your perennial
Irish whisky and lack of wherewithal.
Oh, love, why is it that you do not grieve
for when my hair flapped wilder than a pony’s
mane, and sweat was sweet like mist and honey.
August 1980


While the old moon rolled in the new moon’s arms
Cygnet fled North, away from horse and lyre,
and ignis fatuus unleased a new fire
that flushed every maiden’s face with alarm.
Then swanlike, widows in their prime arched
their raw necks with envy towards shadows
as if this might color green the white vows
between orb and orb waning on a bed
of cloud. Later, all maidens but one swelled
not quite rotund in their fragrant virgin
dreams. Only the prodigal one sat sing-
ing, while the lascivious moon rolled
from new moon’s arms toward her song
where he met his fate as Endymion.
August 1980


Her flowering came harder than the first
intimations of mortality. Yours
only in that lethal land east of sun,
west of moon, when waftlike she flickered in
and out of your warrior path, nothing could
ever match that ripened ungodly scent
hers, where only seafoam spent
itself white on her golden limbs. Who would
forgive her impenetrability.
She, like a rose perpetually delayed
from budding for fear that this might be
her final bloom, turned inward, to this day
eluding her own prime because she knows
what comes before won’t follow when it goes.
December 1983


To bear or not to bear, both possible,
the question — that of strategy: To be
wife to Sargon or to Hammurabi,
voiceless, graceful, and warm in the middle
with a primal flowering so vibrant
that it’s unearthly, is no choice of mine.
My only solace is to draw this like
from me to you, defying Armageddon.
Defying time, not space, insisting that
my line stretch infinite, despite the fact
we’ll always be a parallel act
and though my line moves you-ward it will not
stop after you or even prior to
lest it might cease immortalizing you.
December 1983


Although I’ve taken heed in loving you
I can’t deny my murmur’s incantation
of syllables. The distance between two
infinities, stretched longer than duration,
precludes our final meeting. Haven’t you
looked upon beauty bare enough to see
that even Euclid’s muse is mortal too
and soon without her purity she’ll be
entropic as the grammar of our spheres,
her line already finite because there
is only one sound left which no one hears,
a final echo humming everywhere
spreading beyond each crevice unobserved,
no destination left, barely a word.
January 1984


As East is to the West, my heart’s to mind
in absolute conjunction only when
you’re the right angle opposite my line
in this Pythagorean theorem.
Enclosed between two arms I can ignore
the hemispheric parting of my brow--
that tonguelike trawling of the Red Sea floor.
Whenever you’re above, I am below
stretched underneath a vertex I have known
from North to South or any other point
of no return, becoming horizont-
al for the time, until I go alone
disoriented and crossed because I do
intend to earn my breath by loving you.
February 1984


O Niccolo, our tyrants feign folly
and still die a natural death. History —
laid bare in the ruins where no dynasty
ever would dare resurrect the City —
is no longer «knowing», and all verbs are
tenseless and plural, while prophecy is
an unenvied gift where visions of war
are full of colors that cannot resist
their own demarcation. So clearly I see
the cell-like structure of the Milky Way,
and here, o Niccolo, inside of me
something amphibian begins the day,
while in the Eternal City, this third Rome,
a gray she-wolf suckles our flesh and bone.
January 1984


«The sweetbriar became so fragrant
it even turned into a word...»
From «The Sweetbriar» by Anna Akhmatova
(Inaccurate translation by T.Retivova)
You are not ill or dying, and the news
of every breath you’re taking now leaves me
so full of gratitude that you refuse(d)
to see how sweet this sweetbriar could be.
As flora meeting fauna, my disguise
more wolverine than lupine could not hide
how much I longed to jump into your eyes
where sticking like a thorn to you, beside
the faithless grey I only would have marred
the beauty of the secret I had heard.
We write the way we do because thumbs are
an afterthought created to bring Word
from thumb to tongue and back to thumb, it shows
the difference between sweetbriar and rose.
September 1984


I pine away pretending that I don’t
recall what are the words upon my tongue,
as if all previous paradigms were wrong
or can’t express what I am really wont
to say when left alone with you or do.
Undone by strength, my ardor will respond,
it’ll curl around your every touch, each sound.
Do unto me as I would unto you.
Single me out among this madding crowd
which threatens to encroach upon me. Say
how you will make all madness go away.
And birdlike, I will utter you outloud,
deliver you to song and then give rhyme
to that which we have grasped of the Divine.
15 February 1991


This pain that breaks me open wide like fruit
draws my skin taut, eating the pulp entire.
Is this a way of sparing love’s last root
when nothing seems to matter when it should?
Then why do you refuse to cleanse with fire
this pain that breaks me open, ripe like fruit?
I know it’s more deliberate than soot
in every breath. I mournfully inquire:
Is this your way of sparing love’s last root?
I clear my throat pretending that I could
return your voice to air. I call it lyre,
this pain that breaks me open like wild fruit.
Lyreless but lyrical, I’m now en route
with borrowed time and grace, I smote this liar
whose only way of sparing love’s last root
was to insist on treating me like loot.
And now I beg you, would you let expire
this pain that breaks me open wide like fruit,
the only way of sparing my love’s root.
Winter 1978


«In love we practice letting go.»
Rainer Maria Rilke
Because in love I’ve practiced letting go,
I must atone for every woman’s sin
who loving you have been less in the know.
More careless in temptation (they’re so slow),
condemned to one of Dante’s lesser rings,
because in love they never did let go.
Now here I am stripped of my bridal glow,
as barren and as empty as the wind.
Less loving I will be in undertow,
while you continue on your own as though
this weren’t an actual parting of the skin,
because in love you’re always letting go.
And I will stay behind to watch time grow
unconscious of my ever having been
more loving than you care to ever know.
Disowned but not disgraced, I’ll lose my ring,
then find my voice again and learn to sing.
Because in love I’ve practiced letting go,
still loving I can be, and this I know.
13 January 1987


Dimwitted and dank, this gully is full
of betrayal. Here, where no one dares to
follow — I will fall, and falling won’t call
out a name. That I’ve chosen to eschew
a proper attire as well, comes not
out of habit only, nor out of lack
of repressed respect for a gully that
sinks under my weight and leaves me a rock
for pillow, but because I am doomed to
reenact a scene that calls for my skin
to be turned inside out, undoing two
amorphous substances locked in mid-stream
with disheveled hair and nicotine in
their porous tongues. Lapping silently, waves
repeat the same motion of skin on skin
filling my gully until it caves in.
From a bird’s eye view, this scene always is
more real as if time will only slow down
for anyone else but me, and that this
is not even lethal, although it might sound
Stygian to a bird’s ear. It is not
the unharnessed stride of a mare in coves,
nor the flaking pillars sick with dry rot,
rather the guttural cooing of doves,
that brings me back, turns my head, twists my neck.
Though dank and dimwitted, this gully is smooth
and smoothness is all that can ever direct
this harmless quivering towards the groove
inside which my chords are stretched to the full.
Taut though they are, they begin to inflect,
they maim every vowel that echoes my fall,
voicing that gullies I must not regret.
March 1980


From a vantage point I might not regret
the brass chains hung heavy round these wrists,
or the strange smell of the one who first kissed
my careful lips. The rest you can expect
me to forget. Here, where the marsh wind has
muffled the vowels of my name, a, ya,
o ye, let me be buried without a
sigh. On my epitaph please put: «She was
more generous than kind.» The gawking reeds
were witness to all that. Only a swamp
uncovered by your eyes brings back the damp
and mildewed bed I made upon the weeds.
You find it so unruly, this Lethe-ward
expansion of objects without owners.
Unruly. A scarf strung by its corners
waves to no one at all. As if severed
by recollection, time no longer slow
invites unravished silence while the bride
becomes immune to your last taste of pride.
Your mouth turns into stone her final «Oh.»
O schwa, o ye, we are dust and ashes
ground fine amidst the nuclear debris,
outlived by tables, telephones. O ye,
envy these words that cannot turn to ash.
And yet, as if to mirror my demise,
these words of inky hue turn Lethe-ward too.
There is no word for «wish», no longer do
we ever wish upon the falling stars.
No word for «you» or «me», for «I thee wed»
the only ring is when our lips say «no» —
the only word that doesn’t have to go.
My hair that used to anchor me in bed
now haunts the ribbons it was braided in,
they curl around my neck and turn it blue.
Although I lose, losing I win, since you
by fearing presence more than absence, win.
February 1980


Below sea level it doesn’t suffice
to be kind or impure. Nothing matters.
Honor and guilt skim like rocks over ice.
I learn to ignore the bait that shimmers
so free with abandon it almost makes
me keel over. Where a brackish pool quakes
too shallow for bass, men breathe with caution.
Each breath summons waves too great to deny
entry. Men wait with ears cocked at the moon
for geese to fly north, and for my fish eye
to roam with its peripheral distress
towards the bait, the herald of my rest.
I will not say «but I am [as] constant...»
nor will I rise with dull trepidation,
my gills open to air, and vindictive.
I cannot shed these scales that I, defiant,
polished with such skill. For this cremation
by air is too deliberate. It gives
a preview of the final sacrifice
of thirst — for breath. The passion one can make
of passion’s obstacles, is a device
I call tomfoolery. Since when we ache
for water, it’s simply death at hand
without delusion. Even though the end
might seem forever, far away, I still
maintain that obstacles do not create
the passion. And were it so then this whole
shore and sea-floor is but an obstacle,
and my fish eye’s avoidance of the bait
is passion. Slippery and cool I wait
for prey to cross my path and then I fill
myself with it, avoiding bait, for I
believe that death by air to be most cruel.
Spring 1979


It was the harvest moon, they said, when she
came round again, and neon-like she thrust
her eye through every widow’s room and caused
their beds to swell in her own agony
of loss. Looking for him whom she possessed
more absolutely than she ever knew,
she paused by all the mirrors and withdrew
their oval frames to fit her novel dress.
Once blue, now ringless, new moon rocked the old
one in her aging arms until they were
a cloudless ring of light. When unawares,
her grasp had slipped, then gibbous he took hold
of her instead, undoing the last trace
of light until she lay across his bed
more nebulous than dark and not quite dead.
Himself, concave around her faceless face,
made her forget all that she ever knew.
And like a maiden she had dropped her lids
laden with holy dreams while aching wid-
ows ooh-ed and aah-ed away the morning dew.
«You have,» softly she said, «returned to wane
my fullness to a crescent fainter than
the profile of the sail that I saw scan
the slackened shadow of its own refrain.»
«Dear moon,» said he, «whose profile did you see
reflected in Coos Bay or Chincoteague —
was it your failing eyesight or fatigue
that caused you not to recognize twas me?»
«Old moon,» she said, «indeed you have returned
not only to undo me but to sway
my only sacred vision. Of Coos Bay
I beg you not to speak for I have burned
with passion fiercer than you’ve ever seen
in such a vestal orb as I. My spine
arched like a backward C in its own shine
locked with that phantom sail whose silver skin
I’d recognize today.» «But can’t you see,»
old moon, enraged, kept on, «that I have sailed
between your arduous arms while wolves have wailed
upon the sight of your sharp backward C
clasping elastic with that other C
that echoed back your image in the sea,
and all this time you thought it wasn’t me,
when all along I was your only he.»
«Old moon, you’ve talked my only time away.
I tilt my head and I grow weary. Moon,
I see him now below me in a swoon,
he’s reaching for my arms across Coos Bay.»
At dawn the ebb tide ripped that backward C
apart with morning sun. And all was still.
Old moon had gone to sleep. He’d had his fill
of love. Asleep, his darkness slipped from C
to O. The stoic face of his long day
had yawned while she, his other one, removed
his faceless mask. And thus, again renewed
invisible, she crossed the Milky Way
and settled high and dry over Coos Bay.
Perched silent like a widow on her walk,
her eye for that one sail, close hauled, she stalked
the sky and cursed the unresponsive bay.
By dusk, a V line geese formation made
her recollect her own faint shape. And she,
bent eastward on a rim, again could see
her old moon sailing wayward in the shade.
«What funny dream it was I had,» she thought.
«As if I saw a sailor in my glass
winding my light around his one windlass,
curving my crescent shape within his boat.»
Perplexed, she sought the old moon to resolve
her waxing thoughts. He met her in the space
beyond their speculum. Her timeless face —
an arc-en-ciel whose colors had evolved
into that vacuous vision she called dream
(what else but black or white could haunt the sea
and veer each sailor’s vessel from its lee?) —
hung ocular in query. She still seemed
to hover like a searchlight out of place.
Old moon drew nigh, occluding the frail sail
that bulged obtrusive like a rhyme that failed,
and gently rolled into her lunar grace.
«Sweet moon,» said he, unsure of his address,
«you’re keeping me at bay with your swan song.
I wish that you would tell me what went wrong,
why you are here and knocking galley-west.»
«I’d knock on wood if only I could reach
the shore sliding unconscious of the hold
that I have over water, all in all,
I seem to be a bit bereft of speech.
The swan song you had heard was not my own.
It was the sound of waves reduced to knots,
an echo that blew north and that was not
induced by polar wandering. Alone,
out on a limb, myopic and withdrawn,
I’ve parodied the echo I had heard
until I was more waterlogged than bored
and heavy with a burden of my own.»
She glanced for one last time into the glass
sinking her sullen head that swelled to O
and then she cracked the image that she saw:
It mirrored the lost secret of her past.
Agape, her one-eyed face rolled back in fright
while all the widows laughed at her new doom
and cast her to the frozen realms of Thule
where swift Boreas crossed her in mid-flight.
Selenotropic from way back, he was
quite honored to be carrying Selene —
the shadow of the echo he had seen
before (when echo was far more than voice)
reflected in the eddies of a stream.
Boreas faster than the speed of light
went round the globe until the satellite
was settled in a perigean gleam.
He kept her on her course four days and nights.
And peacefully she slept, while her old moon
hovered below in apogean gloom
and cursed the wind and sun and all that might
keeep him so far away from what was his.
When she awoke, Boreas brought her hail
and doused the silk reflection of the sail
till it was but a canopy of mist.
Entwined within a lethal wreath of rue,
the image that had mirrored Selene’s will
was bit in half by frost. An easy kill
for our cold god of winds who once had wooed
with rage and iced fire in his lungs.
Selene awoke. Fresh and renewed, she grinned
and welcomed this invasion of the wind.
He smoothed the fluted feathers of his wings
and slowly let her go. She fell from fright
out of the northern range, but then returned
to Pegasus and Lyra where now burned
the old moon in his faithful gibbous plight.
Taut round her image that he found, he was
as constant as the Northern Star that shone
less wayward than benign. He had begun
tearing Selene from wedlock with her loss.
When he had waned his orb to less than O,
frozen and negative, both struggled fast
for one thin strand of light to race across
and part their mutual forehead with a glow.
No wind or sail now tempted Selene’s will
now arching like a birch upon which strayed
ten falcons hungry for their feeble prey,
now curling her undaunted neck as well
as the ten swans which singing, did release
the strain of falcons heavy on a limb.
No wind or bird or sail now made her limp
or vocal at the sight of her own face
reflected in his own, parted by mist.
Moon learned to rhyme with moon. Over Coos Bay
the crescent waxed while underneath it waned.
Capfuls of wind steered back and forth their tryst.
As Arthur’s wain rolled slow his course beyond
the pole towards which shadows fall at noon,
in apogean pose the moons resumed
to focus on each other till rotund.
August 1979 – February 1980


«Oh invisible twin, my mockingbird,
why must you hide in the black underbrush.»
From «A Late Reply» by A.Akhmatova to M.Tsvetaeva
I evoke, sotto voce, in my borrowed tongue
Our catalogue of capsized ships, with Mercury
In retrograde again, but always at some helm.
Transliteration begets transfiguration
As in: Poseidon, Jezabel, and Dread Naught,
Cindy Lu, Wet Dream, Sailor's Delight, or Nachtigal.
Yet who gave that Old World thrush, erstwhile — nightingale,
Wide berth to haunt the New World in my borrowed tongue?
I ask aloft, buttoning down my worsted dreadnaught.
For there is no such bird in this land, Mercury,
Hear me? Say, what is today? — Transfiguration
Day. And likewise, Hermes offers from the helm,
Why can't the mockingbird compare and overwhelm
With polyglottic song that of the nightingale,
In passion play, or a mock transfiguration?
Or would that make mockery of your borrowed tongue?
Not mockery, my love, but merely mercury...
Come burrow with your webbed wings beneath this dreadnaught.
Imagine, the sea — a glass, spread aft — the dreadnaught
With Hermes on the wing manning the flustered helm.
We smoothly sail along. A trail of mercury
Follows our vessel that we baptize «Nachtigal»,
In honour of some transliterated tongue,
or Genus Luscinia, pre-Transfiguration.
Twelve beams of God-light blaze in transfiguration,
On the river Jordan spread flat like a dreadnaught.
Everyone speaking, hearing in a borrowed tongue.
The Holy Ghost — fire and brimstone at the helm,
More swiftfooted than the melodious Rossignol,
Singing in quicksilver, of gold and mercury.
And singing is transfigured into mercury
Its song--the alchemical transfiguration
Of one genus of thrush to and from nightingale.
Like transubstantiation, His voice said. Dread not
Your inspiration stigmatized by its divine helm,
And sing it like bells chiming in your borrowed tongue.
Let this Nightingale capsize as well, and dread not
The transfiguration of Mercury at the helm,
You who are Philomela of the swallowed tongue.
15 September 1994