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  • Siberia, and: The Hate Poem, and: If Any Man Have an Ear, Let Him Listen, and: Senior Coffee
  • David Kirby (bio)
  • Siberia
  • David Kirby (bio)

I'm not thinking of vodka or the czar or the Orthodox Church                or any other typically Russian topic        as I look out the window of the trainbetween Ekaterinburg and Irkutsk but of orgies, of all things,                which I assume occur here        at the same rate at which orgies occur in other countries

or maybe even a slightly higher one, given                the cold winters and general malaise        of a people living in what is still largelya feudal society, which doesn't mean I'm thinking                of organizing or being in or even        watching an orgy, in Russia or elsewhere, but how,

according to an article I'd read by a guy who'd                been in one, they're pretty unsatisfactory,        on the whole: the people are pasty-skinnedand dumpy, and either you can't get the others                to do what you want to or else you have people        trying to get you to do something you don't want to do,

and yet the whole time the guy was excited                because he was thinking, "I'm at an orgy!        I'm at an orgy!" And that's the way I feel as I look outthe window and think, "I'm in Siberia!" Only                Siberia is beautiful, not scary. The birch trees are        so slim and silvery that you expect them to thrum

like harp strings as the wind rushes through                their branches and tosses their green leaves        this way and that, and there are mountainsin the distance and rivers in the foreground,                and people are bathing in the rivers,        Russian people, and they're laughing and splashing [End Page 60]

each other, not starving or freezing to death                or pulling their teeth out with their own fingers        or being beaten by sadistic guards, which is allyou can think about when somebody says                "Siberia" to you, but this is Siberia, and it's beautiful.        Well, not if you're writer Varlam Shalamov

who spent seventeen years in a camp there.                Shalamov's greatest story is "Cherry Brandy";        in it he imagines the thoughts of the dying poet Mandelstam:"Life entered by herself, mistress in her own                home. He had not called her, but she entered        his body, his brain. . . . Poetry was the lifegiving force

by which he had lived. Yes, it had been exactly                that way. He had not lived for poetry; he had lived        through poetry." When he was a boy, Shalamov'sfather tried to stop him from reading so much:                "Stop reading!" he'd cry, and "Put down        that book—turn the light off!" He didn't, of course,

which is probably why he became a lover of poetry                even if he didn't become a poet.        And it's why he could write, in "Cherry Brandy,"that "everything—work, the thud of horses' hoofs,                home, birds, rocks, love, the whole world—        could be expressed in poetry" and "each word

was a piece of the world." In his memoirs,                Shalamov says his father never spoke to him        of another poet, Batyushkov, and from this he concludesthat "my father did not like poetry, feared                its dark power, far from common sense."        He praises Batyushkov's poems for "preserving [End Page 61]

the most unexpected discoveries" and then                quotes a line from him: "O heart's memory,        you are stronger than reason's sad memory."No wonder people love poetry and the powerful                fear it. "Poetry is respected only in this country,"        Mandelstam said; "there's no place where more

people are killed for it." I'm not afraid of you, poetry,                therefore I must not be powerful.        But you are. Poetry for president! Tippecanoeand poetry, too. United we stand, divided                we write poetry. Poetry's got my back!        Tread on me, somebody—go ahead,

I dare you. I think a poem must be like                an orgy—okay, you're disappointed most        of the time, but you never know what's goingto happen. Plus you can make the people                in your poem as handsome as movie...


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