Excerpt from A Life Replaced

TRANSLATING A LIFE
            for O.M. and M.R.
 
Someone spread a blanket of wild buckwheat
over a meadow. Someone tucked puffball pillows
in each corner of the purple-green sheet.
It is summer everywhere, except war.
War, where it used to be home,
and now, war by government, here.
And what does it matter that the meadow
seduces the bees in pollen, or me in lines
of a poem, or that I hear perfectly good
Russian names for plants and translate them
into You-and-Me-ish? Take the tea mushroom,
the little fox mushrooms and piggies,
the early field-dweller, the mysterious
cheese-eater. These words are undocumented
here, and the country that sent them erases
every syllable with its crimes.
Take an under-birch-mushroom
anyway—it’s a choice edible,
birch bolete in your tongue, on
the tongue. The language for falling in love
with forests, and stories, and friends
does not care who’s killing whom.
Unfortunately, I care. And, sitting here
by a huge flowering bush, I see no refuge.
What languaged fantasy could stop us
from being murderous strangers? Would you
take a Russian mushroom name,
tuck it in your lapel for the brief banquet of life?
Does that translate anything else for you? Is this
how it works?
A.A.
***
I have no need for odes—their wordy battles—
Or elegies, those dainty parlor games.
To me, in poetry, everything should be out of line,
Not how these things are done.
I wish you knew what garbage sprouts poems
And grows them without an ounce of shame,
Like yellow dandelions rising by a fence,
Like burdocks, weeds.
An angry, “Stop!”, the smell of just-spilled tar,
Some mystery mold spreading on the wall—
Here comes my verse, already brazen, tender,
For you, for me, for joy.
AKHMATOVA FOR OUR TIMES
Pasting Akhmatova into Google Translate,
and clicking “ENGLISH,” one sees a plausible
quatrain, if somewhat misunderstood:
“You have no idea what garbage
Poetry grows from, not knowing shame:
Like a yellow dandelion by the fence,
Like mugs and quinoa.”
The poor neural network mistook violet burdocks
for mugs. Less mysteriously, purslane metastasized
into quinoa. Shame remained goddamn fucking shame.
This Akhmatovaish is a recipe, its ingredients staples
available in every home today: mugs, quinoa; shame.
Combine, cry, and bake in your phone. You and I
already burn in it, homunculi rage-crisped from the latest
assault on our sisters and brothers, the statements
of their skin, or accent, or sex. You will get
no dandelions at the end—a few more gobs of shame.
Perhaps it’s not a recipe, and means just that
you can plant quinoa in a mug. Google it: you can
make it grow. Use unwashed, unpolished seeds.

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© 2019 by Olga Livshin