This song has been lodged like a thorn in my heart for almost 40 years; below is one of the best versions of it I’ve ever seen or heard.
*With an assist from Marina Tsvetaeva, singer of the breast’s abyss…
The heart not dead
but numb with grief
writes in the leaves of other’s books.
Ripe, dipped in fire, like horses
stumbling on crooked paths.
Writes, the numb heart, to quell
the stillness, stagnant, writes
to find the further stillness of motion.
Writes, the numb, to dispel
the reflection, the reflecting thing,
mirror held up to mirror,
that makes the heart feel dead,
but it is not; numb,
numbed, stunned, the heart, ripe,
dipped in fire. The heart a
horse to keep moving, outward,
stumbling away from the stillness
to the newer stillness where
numbness and grief are forgot.
Today the flogging
will wash away
We will compose elegies
for dead Indian chiefs,
lauded now as
We will admit, finally,
at the end of days,
that we are too weird
to be redeemed.
Black print on the bone-white page:
Cyrillic crows above the steppe.
For us, diversions, but for you,
Strangled singer, more real than breath.
Dissolved, the steel that held you fast.
Released, the grip that tore your throat.
Forgot, the meaning of the age:
Notebooks drowned in gaudy noise.
Tall, crow-black night, night unescaped,
A pit in time, Voronezh.
Birds printed, strangled, on the snow:
Real as breath, real as bone.
This evening, just as I felt my soul giving way
to the pull of the pit
that sometimes opens beneath it,
the street crowd parted and coming toward me
I saw the lame figure of Natasha Shtempel.
Do you know the name? A friend of Mandelshtam’s,
in his last exile,
the subject of one of his final poems.
He writes of a woman with an irregular gait,
limping toward a “crippled freedom” that draws her on;
one of those who are the first
to greet the risen dead.
If you have the poem somewhere, look it up,
and you’ll know who I saw in Moscow tonight.
She was wearing a long green coat on a slender frame;
her head was bare, in token of the new warmth.
(It’s spring here now, as it was then, in Voronezh.)
Her brown hair was bobbed, chin-length, full,
curled in some faintly antique style; her neck exposed
to every pair of tyrant eyes that could command it.
And along she came, limping in a rhythmic up-and-down,
absorbed in herself, an almond of enclosure;
in black shoes, thick, blunt, built for her affliction
but straining modestly for fashion.
Natasha Shtempel, here twenty-five or so,
on her way to Savyolovsky Station.
I don’t what this demon is that feeds on me,
or why God has deemed me worthy
to suffer for its sake. I imagine it’s no more
than some kind of salt or chalk that’s missing from my brain,
or present there in wrong proportion. And I don’t know why,
just today, when I was on the verge of being lost again,
I should see this woman from another age,
from a life and fate far greater than my own,
and be righted for a time, balanced and restored;
and to know, by this neck, by this gait,
and by this green coat,
I was not yet banished from the earth.
(For Don Fiene)