Katherine Young


Odd rendering of pleasure, no more than
the feel of strange pavement beneath the feet--
no broader than crack-spined stairs dared to ogle
Brahma's sacred bull, no finer than
middling-good table wine uncorked in
a trattoria festooned with plastic
vines--requiring no language or faith, no
companion but the map and a vague grasp
of legend to compel one's interest.  
Just the willingness to suspend disbelief,
the firm and mystic certainty that none
has passed this way before--whether in
monsoon, the velvet season, or the time
of naked ice--none but this self, whose
understanding of things hovers gossamer
and exquisite on dragonfly wings, just
out of focus, just out of reach . . . .

        Russia, 1996

There are bandits on this road, though only
rarely do they lurk beneath forest's eave
where the road narrows here at the edge of
Vladimir oblast'.  They prefer, instead,
to broker the trade in towels, Mickey
Mouse waving gamely from every clothesline
for twenty miles past Sergeyev-Posad. 
They patrol the cars parked by the roadside,
hoods weighted down with enamel pans or
curtains or crystal chandeliers, payment
in kind for work not worth doing, sell it
or starve.  They count out their cut from the jars
of fresh pickles, the pails of potatoes,
the buckets of cut daisies clustering
at the feet of an--invariably--
empty stool that leans against a gate in
a hamlet made up of a dozen or so
knock-kneed cottages.  All the cottages
sag in unison towards the church, whose star-
speckled dome has split in two.


I have watched them up there, flaming across
the sky, twirling on orbits still unlearned,
arcing, wheeling, scattering wild sparks that
light up the heavens, forming constellations
never before seen by mortals beneath . . . .
Even those who flicker, flame out, leave
trails of ash that linger in the sky,
stinging to tears our rapt, upturned eyes.

        Tomsk, Siberia

        (for Elizabeth Miles)

Guttural cries suffuse the hall.  The clerk
gestures skyward, where a crowd of gypsies
mourns the death of their king in the upper
departure lounge.  "Overdose," says the clerk,
ink-purpled hands tearing, stamping, stacking
my ticket.  (Does the dead king, too, require
a ticket?  Is he charged as cargo, counted
with the crates, nailed shut, tagged for final
destination?  For what destination?) 
I pick a path past parcels swaddled in
string, past drunks snoring chock-a-block with fond
mamas sharing breakfast among their broods.
Way station: the "t" between here and there.

In the ladies' room, a gypsy girl wipes
wet eyes with her skirt hem.  "I thought gypsies
wouldn't fly," murmurs an American
to her friend. "Watch your purse, Jean."  Jean settles
the purse beneath her arm (zippered pockets
secure wallet, ticket, tissues:  amulets
to ward off most minor discomforts). 
"Their king has just died," I say, to no one
in particular.  What difference does
it make?  Tomorrow these same gypsies will
take up their old tricks:  alchemists of dross
and crocodile tears, traffickers in our
innermost dreams.  They will choose a new king.
On the tarmac, men wrestle with cargo.
The sun lays a finger to the cement
horizon, swathed, now, in mist.  The waiting
room blossoms with the acrid, alarmed scent
of unfamiliar animals herded
together, involuntary mourners
accompanying the dead king on his
journey.  Over all, the gypsies wailing,
bitter, unearthly.  As if no one had
ever died before.  As if grief itself
were being invented anew--of sun,
of cloud, of cold spun steel--on this, first
morning of the false-bottomed world.

Katherine Young
Katherine E. Young's poems have appeared most recently in The Iowa Review (where she is a three-time finalist for the Iowa Award), Southern Poetry Review, Shenandoah, and The Carolina Quarterly.  She is a three-time semifinalist for the "Discovery"/The Nation award, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.



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