Speaking In Tongues
Scribbling In Voices

In My Borrowed Tongue


Tatiana Retivova



When half moons remind me of sails
I get lazy. Summer turns Indian,
her downfall ó red wine.
Evenings get fat all September,
slow in fog they roll in French grapes
while vines stretch and mend
the incoming tide.
Idols wrapped in silt float
down the Seine. Here a pale Rimbaud
lent me his bruised eyes.
They broke windows into dawn.
Aged saltimbanques chant:
Place Pigalle is for saints only.
I trespassed to hear praying
madonnas in white boots.
Three francs to climb inside
the Sacred Heart swept daily
by Algerians. Outside gipsies beg
dark in mourning when hungry.
Jarko spits into red coals,
I bring him garlic and black bread.
Salt thrown over his left:
we will not argue,
Pernod is for the grateful.
I gave back wide eyes to lanky boys
who shiver in Montmartre.
Their sandaled feet hang bumping
on the banks. Beneath a bridge
saints barter grapes for kisses,
I filled my flask with vin díAnjou.
Rimbaud slipped off the bank
and went to sea.
September 1976


It never rains here.
Dew settles thick in groves
and moistens our veranda.
There are no flowers in Olbia,
only scents and girls
always pure, phosphorescent
like rippling shadows
under a gibbous moon.
Light and guileless
St. Elena emerges with candles
already blown out by night
settled thick where grouse
creep through bushes and sing
to-weet, to-weet, to woo.
In the morning we wake
with fog in our eyes.
Our prayers fall heavy
and ripe in the fields.
They scorch La Madallena
with visions of host burned brown.
After the midday siesta
St. Elena unbuttons
her crinoline blouse and yawns.
She emerges later, white
and a faint scent of pasta
follows her limpid grace.
The saucy smoke is in the draught,
in vineyards, in the starch
of a blouse worn Sundays only.
We wait for miracles.
We pray for lilacs, for the seed
of bougainvillea. But the moon
has long passed to the left.
Spring 1979


Here a rough wind seeped
through the salt of your skin.
A voice softer than crushed
Calvados blew the St. Malo breeze
over white crosses in fog.
You were a siren glistening
with scales. Your lure never dried.
When the ships were in port
it counted that you were not Aryan.
At dawn, thirsty sailors dove
in and out of La Manche,
their skin drunk with sea.
You watched for morning sun
rayed by sailorsí delight.
In the rain, your hair
did not tangle with minnows
it caught in the winch.
If you fell from grace
it is because you loved too well,
the sea colored your vision green.
To sailors who craved water
you gave the touch of hands,
they never forgave you.
Think of oceans, their dark waves
pretend to be lovers. Tonight
your name will no longer sound
under fallen sails. Seamen will
point eastward and laugh,
the flapping canvas always
closer than their own hand.
December 1978


for Aleksis Rannit
Tallinn, your Long Leg so delicate
and cold, curves but never
unwinds the frozen spell.
There are thirty knots left
to unravel the ocean floor.
Slavic warriors pace the shore
and follow the mermaidís glance.
How many ships break like waves
at her feet, weíve ceased
to count. Her voice
darker than Vana Tallinn
worries a song not Aryan
nor Slav. A Baltic mist
has settled on her tongue.
Beyond the square, an echo of
Mein Kampf slices the pungent
air, Toompea refuses
to comment. Too deep
in mourning for ęRussalkaĽ
no one has noticed how
the cross slipped off the flag,
the sickle took its place.
Tallinn, your Long Leg so delicate,
locked by its heel canít kick.
The mermaid sings. Her mouth
a pale horizon, invites
one warrior back from sea.
He wonít return. His name
rooted in pain, wounds
the sinking vision of land.
January 1979


When you walked Bavaria disguised
as a beggar or the eager brother
of an unknown saint, everyone saluted.
Women shed their mourning gowns.
In the forest, wind wailed you home.
Was it a waltz that kept you
in the shelter, your long delay
near blazing borders gone unnoticed?
The Viennese went cold in Ď45.
Summer nights you heard their vision
clot with milky fog. At dawn
your mouth flew open to flies.
Then came the rain that glued you
to an empty flask. In a mist
you saw the blue river part her lips
and laugh at your swollen thirst.
Vienna burned red that May.
Only black swans remember how
you stroked that river breathless,
the Danube slippery with eel.
Spring 1977


Roasted chestnuts and pretzels
in your hand, you wait for me
on Lexington. Itís rough
you say to keep up with the moon.
These orange nights push it
out of reach. That last time
you saw me in Queens
it didnít seem as brutal,
all this love for sale.
Prague still haunts you: Dismal
tunes of a different time.
Now you have grown callous
to revolts, to the nostalgia.
Your hand that plucked
those flat chords so well
has grown soft and flabby.
The songs get mixed up
and put you to sleep.
But you still sing in a thin
raspy voice, while your smile
lays bare a South Slavic grief.
April 1976


You come bringing me shade
from the willows in your yard.
Welcome, leaning over this table
say that watermen still scrape
the rusted dredge. You call them
drudgers. They break the tide
at dawn and sleepy motors split
this empty glass you hand me.
Through bulrush you wander
searching for skins drying
in salt meadow. Take this
copper one wincing with musk.
Your hand reaches beyond shrub
for nesting gallinules.
Widgeon grass wraps
your ankles in mud.
In the lagoon drudgers raise
sinewed arms towards the wind.
Come bring its brackish
breath to my lips.
when night darkens the shade,
we will lift our seine nets
and count bluefish.
27 May 1976


These callous hands of yours smoothe
the mountain range flat, they tie
fishline into knots and remind me
of home, of that riverbed in June
where sunsets settle bloody
over a crust, white and deciduous.
This is where I left you
carved pieces of imperfect pine.
You ask me now which waters
I have chosen. Old ones where
pools glaze meadows with silt
where Patuxent mouthes an estuary,
her pungent kiss dissolving
like lillies in a brackish mist...
No water for a while. Only rain
relieves this burden of draught.
Lately, a grey-haired virgin rests
thin fingers on my eyes. She says:
rest easy in hay, drink sea water,
crack knuckles with stone.
There where cumuli break silent
the fishline has long snapped
between our thawing hands.
Consolation is dandelion wine
soft like summer lawns and weightless.
I breathe in my hazy homelessness.
I listen to no one.
June 1976


Our laughter is crooked today,
the way it was when summer
shifted your hairline. A cool wind
blew musk to my window where
we rolled our daily raft
down the pungent river.
If only time would undress me
but the creases on your brow say no.
Our garden blooms shapeless.
Its undergrowths still bend
with Augustís weight where once
we lingered in the shade.
There the wisteria is deep
in flower, while home
is a doll gone bald. We choose
our days. They stand like pilings
where slick ponds gather mulch.
The risk of crossing waters fades.
This day is no less sublime ó
sand smoothes my callous face.
Itís still the same. Lips crisp
with salty heat and sundry. But,
I know the voice Iím hearing now,
itís his, weathered and hollow.
Throbbing with blasts of air
he begs for rain. May the riverbed
cancel time, may it unclothe me.
When I trace his name in musk
on the sand, I remember
how he folded my dreams like sheets
battered by the morning hail.
Spring 1976 Ė Winter 1979


You sit at the bar absorbed in memory.
A strand of hair leads you to another.
The lady with the run in her stocking is me
and someone else you met in Marseille.
You left her in a dark stained room
with rusty springs and flushing bidets.
She comes to life. Through this weathered nylon
my winter flesh peeks out.
Your drink spills all over my legs.
But this is Montana, there are no bidets.
My bed has no springs, itís flat on the floor.
You order a beer and look at me crooked.
She had grey eyes and soft lips, in Marseille.
My smileís like hers, you tell me.
But there is no musk here to sweeten kisses.
Mountain winds make lips taste
like ice, feel like empty skins.
In Cannes, I walked alone by the sea.
Dark Algerians followed me
with crumpled franc notes. French women know.
They swat them away like flies. I had to run.
Memories lose shape like aging stomachs.
You still think Iím the one in Marseille
while this hole in my stocking keeps running.
October 1976


Because youíve taken wing
perhaps in time to change
your plumage
for the shortened days ahead,
I build my nest at sea.
I never thought that Sheol
would greet you all alone
or that without you I would find
such unfamiliar irises
that freeze over your body like
a final gasp.
And now your lips
are numb. Below
the trembling beak of Halcyon,
per fretum febris,
only the waves reply
donít kiss me.
March 1980


I canít call love that breathless
counting of sins. Strokes your face
never forgave. I uncover these facts
and turn, rampant on my own heels.
Evenings I watch sails pause
facing East. I remind you
there are no angels, only hair
finer than a wispy wind in May.
Here coffee pours thick like gold
and Arabia is never China or
porcelain. Visions slant rhyme
in colors of living room walls, ó
violet, beige, what do you expect
when the faucet drips all day
and our dreams become electric.
You never gave me room
and board I never wanted.
Walls of flesh, wood, or stone
all too frail. Bring me fine bone
buried for years and rattling
chains never tarnished enough
yet silver. I donít ask for much,
but spare me this ice-cold view
of waves too close for comfort.
I have learned to stretch quiet.
Will I walk now that winds
blow north, north-west
and the geese have all flown southerly?
Summer 1979


Tamara, you are more alive than before.
The cushions on your fingers are still
waiting for love. Aunt Emma questions
your whereabouts, the time of your return.
Patiently she reads the Holy Book
all day remembering your smile.
If you were back it would be
no different. The same tug of war
between mate and mate on an uncarved tomb
waiting for your surrender.
When you were found in the ruins
of their unyielding passion, it was too late.
Tamara, if you had never gone, I would be
the one you would pay homage to.
You too would wonder what,
for heavenís sake,
there is to do
when dyingís done by others.
Still, you are gone. The marble dome
that shelters you is cold.
Sometimes the watchman hears me racing
for the moon at dawn. I come to weed.
The parsley has grown brown
around the corners of your bed.

* * *

Dresses blue and white you gave me,
through the sweat of long years
you waited.
Hair chopped of in chunks--
mine grew long and thick
the way you wanted.
Your name is my name.
You wove it in strands
through the weathered flight.
What is this wind
that parts your lips with ice?
Your voice no longer
muffled by war
calls out a martyrís name.
We meet by the well,
you hand me a mug,
I curve it to water.
I am your prodigal daughter,
my story is thinner than walls.
I fill my years
with dreams of mountain ash.
Now that silence is stark,
waves unfold their whites
in Aprilís tide.
I play with seashells
from the straits of Anyan.
Their song is my song
and the words are always the same:
Noli me tangere, noli me tangere.


In winter we notice how arches
are not made of stone. On Neva River
barges stop from the burden of movement.
Women cross the river daily,
barefoot and on tiptoe.
The cemeteryís been flooded since fall.
When weigh-bridges lift their boneless arms,
it is not to sigh. Itís to throw us off
their rusted shoulders. But still
we crawl at dawn and scrape
the marrow from their bolts.
We long to hear their galvanized song.
Come summer, we forget that we are home.
Barges rock slowly in the wind,
in the shade of nights gone white.
The bridges sing us to sleep.
We dream of Baltic mermaids
with passports to paradise.
Fall 1978


It is twilight and I am a child,
again, the wind blows
so effortlessly and swallows
dart around my swing between
the apple trees. They are always
that way, you tell me.
You with one dark lock covering
a worried brow, hunched over
your seventh game of solitaire
smile after losing every one
convinced that you are luckier
in love than cards
and he will come home soon.
It is nighttime and I am no longer
a child. Three dead deer are stretched out
on the tarpaulin, by my door.
And there he is, his hands
full of yet another kind of blood,
kneeling with secret shame,
no sense of gravity
and naked as his name.
While you, as usual,
succumb like Cleopatra to
this ancient ceremony
oblivious to loss
of innocence, my own
keeps spilling inward till the sounds
of bullfrogs and cicadas fill
this pungent hollow room.
Fall 1983


Your bottle is dry now. All thatís left
is the numbness of winter.
Your grey gaze cleared up.
I have take on your air
of disturbance. My bottle broke.
I never used it much anyway.
Olives, lemons, and a liking for 90 proof,
the drink ó a challenge to your health.
In this land youíre my brother.
You have given me your eyes long ago.
I dream of fishing alone on a river,
like you Iím now searching for words.
All these men here are liars,
dear father, they fold and unfold
my love like white sheets.
Iíd like to be wind and feel
swallowsí wings slice the air.
But remember, we carried your body
hardened by rain in the street.
That same rain is still falling,
and weíre still asleep.
Back there in the marshes
wind hollows the moist salty mist.
You rammed the boat into pieces
through ice. We waited and waited.
A morning with sirens drilling the air.
Your bottle is dry now. Asleep by ten
you down cranberry jam with black tea.
I swallow your pride by the teaspoon
and envy your laughter. This year
spring will grab you by the collar
with all that you thought was forgotten.
Pale awkward flowers every April
for fifty-one years.
19 January 1975


Our knuckles count four months,
twelve years of breathing marshes.
The waves still break on our land
locked with boats over ice.
Youíve mended your ways.
With toil you lead us
to stray from your tracks.
Where are your hands scorched
and thick with love? They tear
the ribs of sleeping minnows,
they wade through my brotherís hair
soft as hay. His lips whisper fear.
A cry stretches through reeds
and brings me home.
I know you fate.
Rehearsal of mourning has anchored
my sleep. Your weather shakes me,
wants to open these glossy eyes.
I call on you now to ask
why my face thins out
and looks like your own.
You say itís the wind
snapping twigs, it scratches
my colorless face.
Fall 1976


I cannot console you. Thank God
itís not you immobile there
or me lighting candles instead,
one after the other. (I would
never quit). She passed away
cruelly beautiful that day.
Myself hanging laundry already
frozen. New York. New Yearís Eve.
Some holidays will always be
haunted: Peeping toms and parsimonious
kin without room, the final kiss
on a forehead no longer warm.
On the fourth day her dress reflected
a lunacy, now yours, someday
mine. As predictable as the moon
your hand revolves intuitively
around an empty flask. The gravity
unpardonable. You, prematurely supine
hold us deadlocked in orbit.
Why not bury that instead?
However our alliance is thicker
than blood. For example, we wonder
about the limits of parsimony,
no, not of the material kind.
January 1979


Our house still stands on a shore
receding and eating itself away.
Anything can grow in sand.
You remember, we planted Sweet William.
Even my mimosa grows tall
while humming-birds spread pink
flowers in the south-east winds.
At night, itís salt and silence.
I taste moisture on my lips in my sleep.
Like this house your love
keeps me landlocked.
The walls swallow my cries.
Muted whispers escape each December.
Stay until the first flowers have bloomed.
In our ghost town of frozen pipes
there are more dogs than people.
The geese lay their eggs in crabpots
by the harbour. Cattails brush
against the rotting porch
where a pump spits into a bucket of ice.
This is where dreams come true.
Digging for cherry clams in mud
we threw their empty shells
onto the shore to make it strong.
I recite my love to this icon,
prayers shiver in bones with lament.
I canít breathe in this town full of past.
Eyes follow me climbing attic stairs,
my guilt in a box up there:
Dust and ashes of old spells.
Stay until the first flowers have bloomed.
January 1976


Sometimes offensive, the will
oíthe wisp reminds me
how going is rough.
Here, wind-swept clouds roll
my jagged smile to the sea.
The plains, indifferent, agree
no whim can outgamble wind.
Elsewhere, will oíthe wisp
is never quite true. Coming slow
it will echo a previous dream.
I breathe the green marshes,
they swallow my cry, but riddles
are solved there by draught.
Later, I return more prodigal
than lovely. With rose mallow
in full bloom, finally,
I fumble at the door. Itís easy.
Ride bareback through swamp,
repeat the whim. I am
always agape with visions.
Fall 1977


This June the heat hung low like
taffeta. A carcass in a tulip tree
kept knocking, its beat ó eccentric.
Too hot and dry it was
for even sugar cane, all night
they said it cried for rain.
And that was when you saw, my love,
how beauty in a threadbare dress,
though soft on sin
and breathless as a bride,
will always be prophetic.
Taking my pulse, you heard my song
a poorwill first, then whip-
poorwill and only later
nightingale. Three times
bereaved and finally nocturnal.
13 June 1984



In this dream, wind
tears my nails in half.
You find me soft with ruin
and a quixotic smile
I canít erase.
For a living
I draw fat moons on windowpanes.
You break me in.
My arms become wings
flapping with a borrowed motion.
You have decided to stay.
On Sundays we sit and count
old dories crack
side by side in the lagoon.
Together we measure pauses.
The swelling that you promise
not to ignore
strikes me as lacking
in symmetry. You laugh.
With hands I almost trust
you feel for a heartbeat and kicks.
Awake I can tell
by the empty ashtray itís Monday.
The forecast: Gloomy, Northeastern winds.
And everythingís really symmetrical.


In real life, itís not quite Monday
and the winds keep blowing
We assure each other there will be
no more gale warnings.
When the first flight of geese
pierces our October sky,
you are not as moved as I am.
To me their guttural honking reveals
everything Iíve always known,
that cool indifference of nature
made vocal only through panic.
The sound is a war cry to you,
a signal of prey on the run.
Uneasy you growl and roll away
from the warmest part of the bed
only to find our love slumber
still eclipses your predatory fever.


Come November I lose you
to jacklighting pranks.
In a swampy wood you invade
the sphere of a buck in rut.
I sympathize with his does.
Even the full Hunterís Moon keeps you
stationary in an open field.
With a bloodthirsty gleam you repeat:
ęThis is where they cross for water.Ľ
ęI donít doubt it,Ľ I say and return
to my blooming amaranth.
Every morning I listen for your step.
Doelike I welcome you
with a graceful trepidation
others find amusing. Such loyalty is
almost inhuman, like rutting
maybe itís seasonal.
Winter 1981