R E Q U I E M
benjamin sher after anna akhmatova
I shall not elope with the whirling
Sky to nestle in the shade of alien wings
I am wedded to this shore
By rings of woe.
B E F O R E this woe the mountains stoop like groaning hunchbacks … Before this woe the Neva flees trailing skirts of ice … Like totems the prison bars stand whispering of rats whose eyes scour the night for scraps of anguish … Free men rock the sun upon their knees. Our men know only the incessant swaying of keys, of snare-drum boots that spellbind the mind… Across desolate streets women drag their flesh cupping candlesticks that touch the stars. In the dawn even the bars kneel the sun swings … Her lips press like mendicants against the grille. Verdict: “Your son is dead!” Mother swoons– Sleepwalker’s dream … Where are you now beloved spinsters? What satanic web or tryst have your feet stumbled on … Farewell my sons trudging like hunchbacks in the Siberian night. Farewell my sons in the stillness of a Goya moon.
I N this whirlwind the dead alone find peace faces dislodged into a smile. Leningrad struts above its prison towers like a bloated weather vane parading its iron heart … In this whirlwind the locomotives crow laden with contraband souls. Minds on edge ache for barbed wire visions for horizons that never bend … In this whirlwind the stars themselves are falling sweeping like locusts across the land … In this whirlwind of Black Marias reeling of giddy boots of vultures wheeling the earth writhes in a cosmic net.
T H E Y were pulling you away when I leaned on your back at dawn. The children’s voices began to break early in the morning … Like a fresh corpse the candle swelled. Beads of sweat filed past on your brow like martyrs at an execution … Under these Kremlin walls my stooping brow shall rise up like a howl in stone.
T H E Don River winds on a crazy quilt towards a yellow moon … The moon staggers and flip-flops on the floor … She is spinning a yellow house alone under a yellow moon … Her husband in a shroud her son in the galley: Pray for her under the crazy moon.
F O R God’s sake draw the curtain. I cannot piece out such suffering: I am just a stagehand. Why not try the heroine? She’ll play her heart out for you under a collapsible moon.
I F I could’ve raised the curtain on my fledgling self on the merry-go-round imp with curls– If I could’ve seen myself standing rigid by Leningrad’s Prison of the Cross tears burning the New Year’s snow– If I could’ve shown you the poplar swinging in the prison’s idiot wind– If I could’ve taught you the ways of pigeons lined up on the square stooping unerringly before their trainer who knows how to lure them home … How many innocents giddy with silence have reached for the noose for home?
S E V E N T E E N moons I’ve howled by the gates, wooing the hangman with my mating call … Come home my son to my shrivelled teats! Come home to the wind to the night heaving like a hair shirt with myriads of dead stars blinking in clockwork abandon on man and upright beast … Nothing but necks swinging hypnotically at the pendulum moon. Above our heads above the Void a huge red eye droops in the wilderness hanging on a tether from the Great Bear.
T H E weeks collapse like marathon couriers. The news is too scrambled for my sense. White nights flash their headlines past your cell in lurid boldface … But for us who see there are only intimations tidings of Calvary set in lower case– High noon obituaries buried in the gutters.
L I K E a meteor the stony word fell on my breast where tender skin has yielded to a fossil wound. With calloused hands I tend the hardened plants of Memory: a time to pluck a time to plant again … The summer’s fist sends a sheaf of stars through my window … My head once teemed with such a harvest with such shoots of radiance in an empty house.
I saw his face last night his ebony mask. He asked: “How long have you been waiting in the dark?” I said: “I’ve been waiting for the thief and for murderer the assassin and the sword for the famine and the poison and the fire … If only you could put out the light in my eyes– He turned on his heels like a puppeteer and his shoulders twitched with the dying sun.
T H E skeletal arms of Breughel swooped triumphantly over me dropping on my lips the senseless manna of delirium … Startled I fled through the breached fortifications of my mind. I turned back and saw her wailing in her white gown under the cracked moon … In the beyond she saw her son his eyes upturned like stone: “Let go of me, Mother! Let go! The thunderstorm has swept me forever into its net” … Nothing left for me now but building a rosary from relics of his face.
G O D ‘ S tuning fork melts in a babel of praise … Her son stammers and says: “Mother turn to stone!” … St. John’s arms stiffen in high relief. The mother stands in his shadow her lips white under a crown of spent suns.
I ‘ V E learned that impressions crack on faces I’ve learned how fear peeps out from beneath lids of stone I’ve learned that suffering draws on cheeks lines of crude consolation … How black tresses turn ashen or silver hue how a smile fades on conforming lips how wrinkles tremble at a hard-pressed laugh … And I am praying not for myself alone but for everyone who kneeled with me by the prison’s brick wall carving their woe by winter’s and by summer’s sun.
O N C E more the requiem hour is rising in the East … I see you pilgrims on this rite of passage trudging towards our captive sanctuary … If only I could name you all. In the cool of the night I am weaving a shroud of proper names recorded from your dreams … Yes, yes, I remember you now, as I move along history’s edge … and if they stop my mouth and check the pulse of my hundred million souls remember my voice that shook on your behalf … If someday you long for an effigy of woe set my brow not by the sea, whose arms played with my childish form nor by the Tsar’s stump where a mourner still pleads– but here where I stood for three hundred hours ticking off my son’s diminished state …
… L E S T
I forget in the whirlwind of death the rattle of Black Marias or the pounding on the door or the women howling like wounded beasts at bay … In the evening the prison doves shall coo above the melted snow falling from my eyelids bronze and still. Below, migrant ships laden with human cargo stoop and groan– along the Neva’s arched back.