Thursday, April 4, 2013

Poetry Month

White Bears: Tolstoy at Astapovo
by Linda Bierds

The wheels of the train were a runner's heartbeat --
systole diastole, the hiss-tic of statis --
as they flipped through the scrub trees and autumn grasses,
showing at last at the station lamps.
And perhaps the fever had carried this memory,
or the journey, or, just ahead in the darkness,
the white, plump columns of lamplight.

He is five, six, locked at the center
of the evening's first parlor game:
Go stand in a corner, Lyova, until you stop thinking
of a white bear.
 To his left
there is pipe smoke. Behind him
a little laughter from the handkerchiefs.
And in his mind, white fur
like the blizzards of Tula! He studies the wall cloth
of vernal grass and asters, a buff stocking, trouser cuff,
but just at the rescue of a spinet bench
two claws scratch back. A tooth. Then
the lavender palate of polar bears.

I cannot forget it, he whispers. And would not,
through the decades that followed --
the white cumbersome shape
swelling back, settling, at the rustling close
of an orchard gate, or the close
of a thousand pen-stroked pages.

white bear, in the swirls of warm mare's milk,
at the side of the eye. White bear,
when his listless, blustery, aristrocratic life
disentangled itself, landlord to
shoemaker, on his back a tunic, in his lap
a boot, white bear, just then,
when his last, awl-steered, hammer-tapped peg
bit the last quarter sole.

In the gaps between curtains. And now,
in the lamp-brightened gaps between fence slats,
there and there, as if the bear
were lurching at the train's slow pace,
and behind it -- he was certain -- the stifling life he fled
rushing to meet him: family, servants, copyrights,
just over the hill in the birch trees.
Simplicity. He sighed. Dispossession.
A monastery, perhaps. Kasha in oil. At eighty-two
his body erased to the leaf-scrape of sandals.
And even the room near the station, the small bed
with its white haunch of pillow,

even the mattress, where he shivered
with fever or a train's slow crossing, and whispered,
and, just before morning, died,
was better. Deep autumn. Already the snows
had begun in the foothills, erasing
the furrows and scrub trunks, erasing at last
the trees themselves, and the brooks,
and the V-shaped canyons the brooks whittled.

There and there, the landscape no more
than an outreach of sky, a swelling, perhaps,
where an orchard waited, then boundary posts, fence wire,
then, below, the lavender grin of the clover.

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