Speaking In Tongues
Scribbling In Voices

In My Borrowed Tongue


Tatiana Retivova




To ripen in the fall is to say
I was meant to be
tossed and summoned
to your playground of the winds,
summoned with circumlocution,
from my kingdom by the sea
where I reigned like some Annabel Lee.
Here, where I hear tell
that beech trees don’t grow east
of the river Rhine and how distant
is the word for home,
I am meant to be blooming,
meant to be crossed and uncrossed
by my deus absconditus
on this crossroads of the gods.
Summer 1985


I once lived here with my love,
the fertilized earth forever haunted
by Frost, each lot partitioned
with immemorial loose-stone walls.
Lived and scattered my love
to infernal, arctic winds,
till the earth hardened with rage,
refused to bury the dead.
But when the thaw came, I returned
in each bursting bud and robin song
to Demeter’s temple, wearing only
a streak of pomegranate on my lips.
23 May 1988


You are the world. At first he chose
an indistinguishable shoot, a rose
proverbial in essence. Then she grew:
Became the earth, his hometown too
familiar for words. The air he breathed
incarnate as the verb «bereave»
is not. A shadow on the wall.
Still sometimes guestlike she might call
his name, startling her voice to sound.
And he will harken blankly, not at all
to her birdlike tremolo from the ground,
but toward a train roaring on its track,
forty miles over yonder, ubiquitous
in its incomparable vanishing act.
October 1986


The lines that I have drawn from me to you
abbreviate geometry. Since two
haphazard mortals forming now a pair
remind each other why they still compare
how A was once to B and B to C,
the way they would dissolve to be a-part,
so that a newer I could be to thee,
as D had been to C, before the heart
was petrified, became a cornerstone
upon which every letter stands alone.
And so, as pawns, we’ve mixed with rooks and knaves,
a smorgasbord of infinite delights,
where Queen is now with King and now with knights,
and each is in the company of staves
to guard his cornerstone, that is, his heart
lest it might under pressure split in two.
And as we love, with every move we part
to come together, cross again as do
all lines that are not parallel, but rhyme
as space once did with place now does with time.
Because, it seems, the grass is greener still
not on this other side where foreign lines
crisscrossed your language barrier with new climes,
but there, where time has stopped, where all is nil,
and where, as in the alphabets of yore,
A equals one and D is number four,
despite the quaint, poe-tic «nevermore».
While here, at your new kingdom by the sea,
the grass is barely green, the waters grey,
and we have barely nothing left to say.
Spring 1986


From the comma between
earth, air and fire,
struggling to rhyme with desire
for the northeast wind,
furious with winter squalls
all over ‘n(y)u ‘in-gland
(to some, a foreign land)
outside its whitewashed walls...
Picture this scene: Any
winter of such and such year
in a village of the Horn of Plenty.
The trees, the only sound, hear
maple trees crack in an-
ticipation of syrup trickling
earthward. Gravity. And then
to the bottom of the lake, dive in-
ward and look for a silver ring.
Or better yet, see here how the hero,
now homeward bound, tosses aside
his combustible Circe for kindling
to burn at a stake of her own
volition. Unrhymed, kind thing.
This is where the comma comes in,
on the verge of full circle.
January 1987


«A thing. Its brown color. Its
blurry outline. Twilight.
Now there is nothing left.
Only a nature morte.»
Iosif Brodsky
Oh, my dear, such surplus of objects
none too fine, though considered worthy
by a poet who being so abject
reveals a puerile hierarchy.
Yet here I am swiftly shifting loyalities,
as if all things were one,
equalling zero, and sundry vanities
reduced to a cornerstone.
And what of all the arrows
so aimlessly shot in the dark
that even to sing of the snows
of yesteryear is to bark
up the wrong tree, crying wolf, bear,
ass, as blinded as Titania and Oberon,
forever reduced to approximation.
O my love so stringent in its lair.
I live now breath by breath alone,
absconding the inanimate-animate,
more petrified than the last stone
thrown at Mary. Without a mate.
Nonpareil. Oh what have I done?
March 1987


I am incapable of speech,
my words again have run amok
despite a promise not to stalk
the threshold beyond reach.
Looming abstractions so astound,
I cannot utter a single sound
for fear that it might resonate,
reveal my twisted mental state.
Good tidings, bad tidings, all the same.
Dealing a hand, my favorite game.
I count each heartbeat, marking time.
I’m learning how to be more kind.
More kind than generous; what gives?
inevitably is what deceives.
The dealer wins again, it seems,
just when my gambling heart redeems
itself to mend its cracked ways,
bitter new england winter days
return to haunt me with dull pain
and longing for some novocaine.
Turning the other cheek is not
so chic no more, and being meek
is an archaic form of weak.
My generosity was what
made me degenerate and tame.
That’s why I pine and deconstruct
such words as «trust» me I can’t trust
even the sound of my own name
rolling so deftly as it does
off strangers’ lips while they invoke
in someone else that classic doe’s
eyes of tatiana — my namesake.
No, I am not prince hamlet nor
my namesake was I meant to be.
I’m what the strangers never see,
as lilith had once been before
she was usurped by eve, that fall.
Usurption seems to be the name
of this most deadliest of games.
Oh better not to rule at all,
and never lose and never lose.
Now pale and creaky as a birch tree
I tolerate the winds around me
stripping the bark, I watch its ooze
become a line, a letter, two,
three words emerge in inky blue.
Teasing the voice that fails me, they
Promise me never to betray
that part of speech which will reveal
what I still struggle to conceal;
knowing full well that it’s absurd
to find such solace in the Word.
October 1988


Already you are a dream, no longer
moved by the sound of my name,
as common as it may be. It’s over
two syllables too long to claim.
For such are the ways of adaptation
in situ: Handling a stressed crustacean.
And when we are in vitro — out of mind.
(I’m sure you would reply in kind).
Elsewhere, Salmon Salaris is riverbound,
his rosy gills responding to each shoal
with duty till he reach the spawning ground
where finally to let his belly roll.
Though he might venture seaward once again
(unlike you) for to marvel at the foam,
where, if he comes to brush against my hand,
I’ll set him on his course so he will roam
up to that river where we handled time
as if it were as gill-like and as fine
as the two hearts which marking it — withdrew
to swim against the currents that they knew
would fork their lives the way Stillwater did
Penobscott to reclaim the Indian shore.
Then glistening across the ocean floor
he’ll slither homeward begging me for more.
September 1988


There was a time
that saw me as I am,
brazen and dense
as freshly rototilled soil
for the mulberry bush-to-be.
Saw me rise and cast
my ripened fruit to swine
between two hundred-
year-old maple trees,
after the surliest summer
you ever saw.
It said come to me, 1,2,3,
and I will uncover
your common denominator.
But you will give me
your spark, the one
between light and water.
And I said, yes, no, maybe so,
to such a rabid request.
I said, I am a bird,
and you have talked me off my wing.
Now I know why there is
no time under heaven,
only snow sparkling northward.
10 July 1986


Nothing will ever be quaint again,
not even where the river bends
to announce its eventual incontinence,
oceanic in proportion.
And no alchemy can mend
a petrified heart or heal
the cheek turned once too many
away from occlusion.
For this is how it all begins —
ex nihilo. A cloud,
a storm. The earth quakes
in response to dislocation.
And facelike the world turns,
now overgrown with Wormwood
now with asphodel,
on its blighted axis
one hemisphere and then the other.
July 1986


The trap, though visible, has caught me
once again falling unconscious
of your latest transformation.
I am encased in a big cocoon.
My skin accommodates it,
only my voice rebels.
This time you are Genghis Khan,
my ancient ancestor.
You ride bareback toward me.
Immobile, I hurl muffled syllables
against you. As usual
it is too late. Your spear
has undone me, revealing
my honeycolored limbs
no longer enmeshed
by that white spittled web
of my own making.
28 February 1985


It is the hour of rest in the City of Ruin.
Birdlike, the wary retinue
scans the wind-swept plain
until, ears cocked homeward,
their warrior profiles freeze:
Slavic coins minted
in their avengers’ eyes.
And oh how the barley-bearing earth groans
under such arsenal of arms.
There, over yonder,
in the midday sun,
shimmering helms
haphazardly assemble
in mourning for their owners.
Such winged words have been hurled
though they cannot convey the silence
of landscape after battle.
For it is then that the mystery
of Homer’s purple waves
is revealed as the color
of bleeding aquamarine.
Spring 1985

(In Three Redactions)



She was the color of the moon
when water freezes,
and he was water.
Three times he heard the drum sound
while khans collected tribute.
But for Peter — time stood still.
Then his brethren warriors’ glances
skimmed him, merely
some puddle in the sand.
A thousandfold and more — a fog
dissipated over the mirage
across the starving steppe.
Northward! He was riveted in motion,
the first defector of our clan,
equally blessed and damned.
Her lowered lids trembled,
gaze dryer than the parched land
below the steady gallop of the steed.
Her barley-colored braids swung
loose and tangled at his calves,
and as he gathered them like harness
to taste and bring the blood back
in her drained lips, he barely had
the chance when gasp they did
in death, in unison and broadside--
a parting shot hissed by, avenging him
for treason of the khanate clan.
She was the color of the moon
when water freezes,
and he was water.


Eurasian to the core,
his ancestors were nomads
herding livestock
across the steppe. Later
to became a warrior people
with low tolerance for
the disorganized behavior
of Slavic fruit and nut gatherers.
The world split in half
in a nutshell, turning
the other cheek
blinking eye for an eye,
observe its uneven fault line.
It comes with the territory: A vast steppe
blown over by fierce Asian winds.
The bloodsucking corridor
at the mouth of the Volga
river gorge in the Urals.
Fog and darkness descend
upon the Slavs:
The Golden Horde on horseback--
a mere thousandfold,
and three hundred years
of «atoning for our sins» follow.


Next comes the dissolution of the khanate.
Enter our first illustrious ancestor
riding the tip of the wave, bareback
over the Hyperborean mountain range
separating Occident from Orient.
The first defector in our clan:
St. Peter of the Golden Horde, Ordynsky,
placing the cornerstone
where Europe and Asia met,
married, intertwined,
cohabitated, yielded offspring,
causing their Eurasian fate to become
like two spiral rings
— gold and silver —
welded one round the other.
And then Eurasia spread
thousands of kilometers and li,
forming a right angle facing westward,
a sharp-edged medieval fortress of sorts,
defying gravity where
the Ural ridge glistens, and cracks
its permafrosted backbone.
Meanwhile, the cornerstone grew,
became a wall, a curtain too,
which by the dawning
of the new millennium
began to thaw, as if to mimic
such other special effects
in the universal studio
as that of global warning.
From Chronicler’s Notes:
«...Until I lay spreadeagled
between Sarayevo and Chechnya,
the rape of Evropa, Part II.
Tied by my umbilical cord to Delphi.
Head in the clouds, above fjords,
the point of entry – the Black Sea.
My mane of feathergrass rolls in scrolls,
occidentally inclined. One breast Gallic,
the other Germanic, a Tartar-
Mongol shadow of a birthmark,
and my Gipsy third eye forever askew.»


From whence I come
there are no platitudes.
A dull chime of stars
hovers therein,
and everything’s possible.
Worlds within worlds
in my constellation
are unfurled, wordless first,
and then become the Word.
World itself. One wor(l)d.
And if I were to pause and think
that someone, circa ‘66,
in the deepest South
saw his antebellum grandmother nude
descending the staircase
haunted by Sir Walter Scott,
I would not say, so what.
So what if she thought she was English
as if thinking and descending were not
the results of a greater equilibrium
than nationality ever could be.
Strange fruit hanging off a tree.
What do you make of that?
That Eve begat Cain, and Cain
begat thee? Or what?
Every poet is a scapegoat, a voice claiming to be
its own bellows and intones
while time becomes a metronome
purring us away from sea
to shining sea, in search of home.
The world is askew, out of whack.
And there are flowers blooming everywhere.
I flip an ace, a one-eyed Jack.
Prognosis: Fair. My rhyme runs slack.
Oh whither shall I go and why?
To Mount Parnassus, where the sky’
s the limit, as they say, and twice
to waste away and sacrifice
the poet’s muses to the air.
Prognosis: Slack. My rhyme runs fair.
Or how about a slice of life?
A table spread with fork and knife,
an ash-tray and a demi-tasse,
two dozen lillies in a vase.
My elbow resting on the edge,
as if it meant to rhyme with wedge.
Tilting my head toward this scene
I shudder at my life laid bare:
Poete maudit without a care.
September 1987


And there will be bloodshed
across the Urals, wait and see.
The ancient races will stand tall.
Scanning the horizon, a foreign bird
will lend assistance to the enemy.
And the poppies
will bloom overnight.
Overnight the poppies will bloom,
and prophets ousted from
their countries will make unheeded
pronouncements until one day
they will be heeded and then,
the world, beware.
For once the prophet is heeded
in his own country there will be
bloodshed for sure.
For sure there will be bloodshed
in autumn. Catching all mavericks
by surprise, who having lost
historical context, had forgotten
about human aggression,
lying dormant, it seeped out only
in horrendous, brutal acts,
while the nouveau riche measured
their coke with coffeespoons.
I too have measured life with spoons,
only to find proof of my own mortality.
For ten years I was sure
the world will end, now I have been
converted to forestall such end
by bending the only true weapon,
the word, to the ear, for the latter
can no longer be bent.
May 1987 — February 1988


Speeding toward 2000, ‘89 come and gone
with nary a hoopla. In the Western world,
head count: decreasing. How many go
by this calendar anyway? Only half the world,
only half the world.
Imagine going back to year
3000 B.C. which is where we will be
with the advent of Islamic oligarchy.
And we are worried about the cold war!
Beware of the plague instead. All in all,
enough to make Remus and Romulus turn over
in their graves, uncover the true wall.
The true Roman wall uncovered the remains
of history as per poetry. Why surprised?
Over 70 years pass since the Revolution,
over 70 million unjustly dead since the revolution.
Lenin finally laid bare inside the mausoleum:
«...A hanged graveyard in which
the ghosts of several generations
still walked, while their physical remains
rotted away. This family had buried
their dead in each other...»*
The wall finally falls.
It shatters E-W, N-S, horizontally,
vertically, toward a crossroads
marking tombstones
over 70 million unmarked graves.
December 1989 — January 1990


I am our dame without thank you
hovering over the precipe
of a new millennium
and a declining empire,
verbalizing herewith
what shall come to pass,
with quill and beechtree sap
to make my bhago marks
on scrolls of birchbark.
‘Tis the year 7498 from the creation of the world,
and the Russians have withdrawn,
gone back to pre-Petrine Byzantine oblivion,
according to Nestor, Ipatiev, and Lavrentiev again.
Marking the next seculum secolorum
of note to be in 2492, annus mirabilis.
Until then,
the deconstruction of the fruits
of the Enlightenment are laid bare.
The hemisphere split in half, one
part lies as dormant as a volcano.
A new, obscure Pope shall grace Rome
with revised testaments.
The East and West churches
shall assemble to revise
these testaments according
to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
East and West assemble
their temples to compare
texts. Scrolls surface once again
from the depths of Mramara.
Crusades or not, same difference,
as the New Age loses its precious
footing. Darkness brings
more ashes, the «dust of the ground».
You are born when cherry blossoms
bloom untimely, to become
the youngest to ever rule
the oldest democracy.
And it comes to pass
that there is a colony
of men become women,
women — men, and they
have begun to procreate.
Their children long to return
earthward and become a part
of the left hemisphere.
It is not the easiest task
to gather the seeds
of such blossoms that are bruised
by an atomic flowering.
It is the infidels again,
I once warned, but no one
heeded my apprehension
of such infinite, infidel wrath.
I invoke the Guardian of the Crossroads.
One hundred million unmarked graves are waiting.
We must atone for the sins of our grandfathers
lest the world be flattened.
Lest it be flattened indeed
to become undifferentiated plasma
which cannot fill all the oceans,
that has made Kayala overrun.
For the world has split once again,
satem/centum in word and in deed.
The hundred multitudes respond
accordingly, they are restless,
for they are one hundred
times the cloud, the fog, the darkness,
and the multitude, unburied
blank spots of history.
And then came such Delphic utterance:
For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.
For 99 years Protoslavia hovered
between Scylla and Charybides.
Meanwhile, the Marked Bear,
marred by indecisiveness,
tried to cut the Gordian knots
before the Augean stables were clean,
before the Golden Calf had been melted,
and the Virgin of the Sorrows was framed
in radiant mourning once again,
for Protoslavia had become
a “potter’s field” bought and sold
with blood money.
Oh let not the Grim Reaper
scythe my parched land
once again.


I have moved ten mountains
in my sleep. This is the only
purpose of life, moving mountains.
They are all shapes and colors,
these earth spewn mounds
and vagabond hillocks.
Each so different from the other
that it forces me to learn
its ways like a new lover.
Here beneath this rock I find
one mountain’s Achilles’ heel,
soft and raw to the touch.
And there, in the core of an oak tree
dry rot has spread, cancerlike.
It is not that I’m entranced with
the archaeology of ruins,
though it be full of fascination.
It is just that I find moving
mountains — a valuable hobby,
as if I were some Prime Mover
in the Land Below Waves,
in a ritual of my own perceiving.
Fall 1985


«Petersburg! I have the addresses still
by which to find the voices of the dead.»
Osip Mandelshtam
I returned in my prime to the city that spawned
my original ardor and found
all its rivers folding inward and the star
of Bethlehem as near as it is far.
And my heart followed suit, out to sea.
It lurched heavenward rivaling its own
scorned desire again not to be
riddled with mis-annunciation.
But all communications were down
and the key to St. Peter’s town
missing while my Mercury’s asleep
still now on his long and winged feet.
And you know I have said: I am history
twice too many, but who’s counting?
On the banks of the Neva someone once cautioned me
never to look back on the parting.
No, not that of the Red Sea, but of Eros
and Psyche, Orpheus and Euridyce.
All ensconced in our comedy of errors,
to be sealed oh so hermetically.
7 – 16 September 1987

* From R.D.Laing’s Politics of Family
** Satem/Centum refers to a bipolar division of Indo-European languages based on the origination of the word «hundred» in a given language. The Satem group includes Indo-Iranian, Slavic, and Baltic branches; whereas the Centum group includes all the rest of the branches: Germanic, Italic, Hellenic, and Celtic.