12 SONNETS FOR BRODSKY (1981-1984)

Transitions №2

Author: Tatiana Retivov


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.


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.


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?


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.


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 angst 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.
Alas, my dear, clearly you do not grieve
for when my hair flapped wilder than a pony’s
mane, and sweat was sweet like mist and honey.


While the old moon rolled in the new moon’s arms
Cygnet fled North, away from horse and lyre,
and ignis fatuus unleashed a new fire
that flushed every maiden’s face with alarm.
Then swanlike, widows in their prime arched
their raw necks with envy toward 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.


Her flowering came harder than the first
intimations of mortality. Yours
only in that lethal land east of sun,
west of moon, when waft like 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.


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 line
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.


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.


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.


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.


                                                  «The sweetbriar [sic] became so fragrant
                                                  it even turned into a word…”
                                                  from «The Sweetbriar» by Anna Akhmatova

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.