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  • Grape Leaves, and: Walnut, and: Summer Ode, and: Absence
  • Peter Balakian (bio)

Grape Leaves

We trellised you on fencesand in our heads as old markers of lost places.

We lipped you full of pine nuts,currants, and rice. You, the polymorphic leaf

libation for the unchosen,Jesus and Bacchus in one.

You who fanned the hermaphroditic flowerin the heat of early summer,

before we blanched you in hot watersoftened you to roll and soak.

You—the pale green page on which I sawsome style of unforeseen events.

You were always softlike parchment on which light shifted

during long days. Postmarked with scree,calligraphed by silk and hooves. [End Page 99]


Leonardo used you to make ink.

A friend once gave mea 3-segment you for luck.

My mother chopped you to finegravel with cinnamon and sugar.

Leonardo's cross hatcheswere the wrinkles of your shell.

I followed my mother's handacross a vague sky on Good Friday;

because she made your shaved dust intomorning light.

Your female estuaries pulled me in.

Leonardo found the womb inside your shell—and washed some light into the dark sky.

You left a sheen on my hand.

Summer Ode

Today it's gray sky green rain Russiansage, mauve iris, lavender spiderwort—what a garden to look out at while I read [End Page 100]

Mandelstam's poems of 1928—like readingthe wings of a viceroy on a blue stone.Then—you called from way over there,and what happiness filled me up—

and then air waves came with the newsthat thugs had deepened their grip on the country.Light always shifts before a hurricane.

Remember the black velvet night of the year—when a poet was arrested for doing his work,doing his work!—elliptical waterfall of the word.

Every reader can smell the rotting corpse;every reader can tell when her nation is castunder a canopy of collapsing trees.

Every reader has a soul that moves like waterunder rock; you can't miss the fake hairof the lubricious lizard as he crawls out of darkness.

For now, beloved nation is a phrase hangingfrom a live wire. On the highway heading west,there are billboards of the scowling jowled imposter.

Every reader checks her passport for facts and truth.


What did it mean to let some absence siftdown from the rustling trees,to feel the difference in the air. [End Page 101]

We spent so much time talkingabout war, art, god, the colorof viburnum, the instincts of a border collie,

and your father's escape over borders—Nazis and Poles and Sudetenland.That too a mystery. We named

various colors after places—surprising as daylight breaking through cloudswhen you wake in a plane.

We learn to breathe negative space.

Just now I woke from sleep to write this,

trees rustling, sun turning the blackto soft gray light. [End Page 102]

Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian is the author of seven books of poems, four books of prose, and three collaborative translations from the Armenian. Ozone Journal won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He teaches at Colgate University.



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