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David Weiss

A note on the poems: Retelling can be a mug’s game, especially if one is retelling a great writer’s short stories by condensing them further into verse. All I can say in my defense is that I was moved to do it. In awe of Anton Chekhov’s lapidary brilliance, I wanted perhaps “put on his knowledge with his power” as Yeats says, or maybe, rather, to put on his power with his knowledge, in order to understand how it was done. And so, I would internalize a story, its details, how it developed, and then, in a kind of practice parallel to the oral tradition of storytelling, I would rewrite the stories from memory. One thing that happened was that scene and detail unfolded differently — often in a different order; often leaving things out to keep the momentum of the telling going. And because retelling is a de facto form of interpretation — for me, a way of understanding the story — my own voice would appear responsively, sometimes at the start, sometimes at the end or even mid-stream. If the poems work, it might be as crystallization. Mainly it's my hope that they will lead the reader back to the stories themselves, which you can find easily since the titles are Chekhov’s titles, in translation.

- David Weiss

 

Not Love

And many things which would

have made me wince in the old days

move me to tenderness and even rapture


In Chekhov, the final mystery

is a veil that can’t be pulled aside.

Not that Chekhov is reluctant to

unmask how ill-fitted are wishes

to daily life or how deluded

the wishes themselves. Ironic

illumination is a well-tempered

spade that bites into flinty

soil until stopped cold

by a stone so large

that wherever you plant the blade

you can’t find an edge

to pry it up.

In a snapshot

I keep preserved in a notebook,

she has turned to face the camera

when no one else has,

my young, my beautiful, mother —

not the boy with his earmuffs still on

nor the man he calls Richard

who is helping him open a chess

set and remove the pieces.

She is

sitting beside them on the sofa

but gives the appearance of having

been set there by some trick of

collage or time travel which only

she and the camera are privy to.


She is not at home, her eyes

say, not in this room or in

this dress or in this body or even

in this face. Dec. ‘57 the photo

is stamped.

When the spade knifes

in, it goes only so far; it rings

with that clear, hard sound

of the unyielding. And the hands

hurt hitting this stratum of

the inexplicable, which in Chekhov

often is love or life force itself

but in this case goes by the name

of unbelonging.




The Kiss

. . . groundless joy . . .


She kissed you in that darkened room.

She thought you were someone else.

You had never been kissed like that before,

and though no one will ever kiss you again,


it doesn’t matter, nothing will be the same.

You drift through the party and wonder,

was it this girl in the black dress or

the woman in lilac with the beautiful voice?


As the brigade pulls out early the next morning

you imagine her asleep, breathing into her pillow.

That one chance moment: you nest in it,

her arms about your neck, her cheek against yours,


and you feel yourself joined in the ordinary

fellowship of soldiers who have fallen in love

and married and had children as you might now do.

When you tell the story during a night of drinking,


you are surprised how little there is to relate.

You had thought it would take the entire evening to tell.

Later in the autumn returning to that town

as if back home, you wonder if you will meet her


again at the general’s, and what you will say.

No invitation comes; O the fantasies

put back like shots of vodka! It’s a joke,

and you’re the butt of it. A hundred scenes


you’ve lived and relived, cocooned in

the details you’ve spun. But no butterfly

is going to emerge. You will not see her again,

she whom you never actually saw even once.


And when the general’s invitation to the officers

finally does arrive, you pinch like a candle wick

between your fingertips the joy that flares up in you

and sour with spite confine yourself to barracks.


* * * * *


Whenever I read this story I am surprised

afresh that Chekhov ends it with rage

turned inward, a self-lacerating revolt

against impoverished actuality. And yet


chance itself — the kiss, the weight of her body

pressed to his — these things are not nothing,

just as this tale which Chekhov has fired

in the storyteller’s alembic is not nothing,


so long as we read it and it lives in us.

How different is reading from the kiss,

which changes him for the better at first?

Aren’t the things we’ve lost preserved in what we wish?



Enemies


There are no hierarchies of sorrow,

no scale of greatest to least.

Grief takes us down in its undertow,

and we’re Niobe, then, or Duncan

or Juliet, gazing on that loveliest face.

When Abogin leaps from his Victoria,

distraught, urgent with hope, and rings

the doctor’s bell, he doesn’t know

the doctor’s son is five minutes dead,

the boy calm at last, a look, now, of

wonder on his face, or that his wife

has sunk to her knees beside the bed,

arms unraveling across the small body.

Abogin doesn’t see, as the door

swings open, the doctor’s hands

burning with carbolic, or his stunned disarray

and numbed exhaustion from the three-

day pitched battle with diphtheria.

Thank God you’re home, he says,

my wife is ill, she collapsed as we sat to tea,

I’m afraid it’s an aneurysm, just like

her father, you must come with me

at once, if you saw the way she was

clutching her heart!

But he is floored at their twin

catastrophes, when he finds out. My god!

he cries out. What an unhappy moment!

Yet he implores, for his wife’s sake,

not his own, where else can he turn?


He’ll understand if the doctor is

truly incapable of coming, but his wife

might still be saved, the horses are swift,

he’ll have the doctor back in an hour.

And the doctor does come; that is, he refuses

yet puts on his coat and, like a sleepwalker,

climbs into the waiting carriage.


* * * * *

When Abogin stumbles back down

the curving stairs of his dacha

to the smaller drawing room where

he’s left the doctor to wait,

he is a different man altogether,

able to think of nothing but the blow

that’s just struck him: — his wife

not ill or dead but gone, run off

with the very friend who’d stayed behind

when Abogin rushed for help. Why hadn’t

he seen it coming? Idiot! Deceived!

Deceived! he exclaims, hardly aware

of the doctor, who asks, perplexed at first,

where the patient is. Patient? She isn’t ill,

she’s despicable! Better had she died!

Nothing like this has ever

happened to him before! Never!

The doctor’s anger begins to stir

at this rich, well-fed man

who resembles the wolf’s head

mounted on the wall.

My child is dead, the doctor says,

his rage gathering, my wife is in grief,

and I am made to play a part

in this disgusting farce like a stage prop?

Oblivious, Abogin throws his wife’s crumbled

note to the floor with all his strength.

He has given up his music, his position,

quarreled with his family over her.

If she did not love him, why hadn’t

she said so? She knew he believed in

candor, in openness, why trick him this way?

What are you telling me this for? shouts

the doctor. I am not a flunky you can

tell your vulgar little secrets to!

What gives you the right to make

a mockery of another man’s suffering?

You are ungenerous, stammers Abogin,

I, too, am unhappy. Unhappy? replies

the doctor. The spendthrift who can’t

raise a loan calls himself

unhappy, too! Both now are

as red as the lampshade

in the music room at the affronts

they have received; Abogin flings

money onto the table — Paid! he yells —

which the doctor swats to the floor

with a sweep of his hand.

Unhappiness

does not bring people together,

says Chekhov, who can’t help

but step from the wings and expatiate

on egoism, cruelty and spite.

It’s true: misery is an airless space

which has no room for others

though sorrow like Priam’s and Achilles’

can disarm and weep with a single voice.

No, it’s insult that rankles, grievance

the choking vine that overgrows grief.

The two men luxuriate in their contempt

and scorn, wives and child swept aside

like ten ruble notes. The carriage takes

the doctor home.

Time will only sharpen

his conviction about those scented,

self-absorbed, pointless people;

that hatred will remain more

enduring and unalterable in him

than tender, loving memory itself.

What’s stupid in us burns like coal.

What grieves decomposes like a tree,

lightning-struck. Why does this happen?

How is it that we do this to ourselves?




Troth


In Chekhov’s final story

“The Betrothed,” life doesn’t

end with marriage, that locked

box; it ends even earlier,

with Nadya’s engagement

to the priest’s son, a stout

young man, handsome and happy,

who provides entertainment

in the evenings with his violin,

and who loves dearly his sweet

father (for whom no riddle

in God’s universe is insoluble).

Nadya, too, he loves,

and he circles her waist when he can

like a barrel hoop.

Here

in this white night

with the lilacs full in bloom,

Nadya lies awake

in the half-dark and listens

to the grim, convivial crows

as far off and yet

as near as her impending

marriage, and she wonders

if this is all there is —

talk of the wedding and the weather

and the wonders of running water.

Wind makes the stovepipe

moan, it slams the shutters, and

when her mother, alarmed, hurries in,

Nadya for the first time sees

that this person she’s always admired

is just an aging, unhappy woman

made weepy by novels,

who never loved her husband

and has bowed to the punishment

of enforced dependence

that her mother-in-law has inflicted

on her ever since his death.

If

this were a love story,

Nadya, to escape her dread

of a life unlived,

would fly into the arms

of the bearded and sickly Sasha,

the son of a poor relation

who comes to stay each summer.

It’s Sasha, after all,

who with his long, ascetic

fingers has pointed out

like a broken record that

nothing ever changes here,

the servants still sleep

huddled on the kitchen floor.

You must go to St. Petersburg,

you must turn your life

upside down — which,

with his connivance, she does,

remaining on the train when he gets

off in Moscow.

A possible ending,

perhaps, but premature. Yet,

this isn’t the story of Nadya’s

success or of her failure, either.

For Chekhov, the soul, that part

of us which yearns, is a young woman

awakening to its possibilities,

which she experiences, obscurely, as

a spacious vista, mysterious,

beckoning, new.

Nevertheless,

she returns home, forgiven,

to walk the fence lines and

drab streets of her town,

“alien, isolated, useless,”

and she wonders when

life for her will truly

begin. She has visited Sasha’s

room above the lithography

shop where he works, and she’s seen

the disorder in his indifference to

worldly concerns: all that

sputum dried on the floorboards!

When news of Sasha’s

consumptive death arrives,

the inertial past turns

to ash and blows away;

Nadya leaves home,

a second time no regrets,

“as she supposed forever” –

the story’s concluding words.

All of Chekhov is in that “supposed”

and its unimagined futures.

But because Nadya is the soul,

and this is Chekhov’s final story,

his irony has less to do

with Nadya’s short-sightedness,

which none of us escape,

than with the dangers inherent

in attachment and unattachment

alike: constraining attachment

and unattachment’s lonesome

thrill walk on either side of us

like mother and unknown father

each tugging us by the hand,

the way betrothed means both

engaged to and truth-bound.

How to solve this dilemma, then?

All Chekhov can do

is hint: love, that great

awakener, is not the answer,

but useful work may be,

and staunch vitality, too:

each is like a hand

free to seize hold of . . .

of what, exactly? Even

Chekhov can’t—or won’t—

say. And perhaps it doesn’t

matter. Enough that some

unleashed and fervent thing

sends you on your way.



Life Glad


Should she

come breezing in just now without a knock

– Hi, Pop! —

I will look up and forget the mourning dove

I’ve been listening to

whose whoo has the timbre of shadow

and regret,

yes, I’ll forget some slight I may have only

imagined,

and I’ll meet her gaze which gives off sparks,

pure zhiznieliubie,

a concept in Russian for which we have no word,

as in Chekhov

when Anna, married off to a wealthy

and corpulent

toady almost thrice her age in order to

save

her alcoholic father and young brothers,

dances waltz

after waltz at the Charity Ball until the sun

comes up;

It doesn’t matter that from this night on Anna

will care

only for herself and her own pleasures,

neglecting

even her family, it is zhiznieliubie,

nonetheless.

Should she come sweeping in,

the April scent

of hyacinth and magnolia in her wake,

I’ll remember

neither this train of thought nor the cardinal’s

penny-whistling

as her entrance excites the somnolent air.

She’ll kiss my brow

(a nineteenth century locution and gesture)

and say she’s off

to a friend’s, to a play or quartet practice, with a

[no break]


— Bye, Pop! I will! —

to whatever I say, it won’t matter what,

even to me —

I’m in thrall to this force which showers

down from her

like the minute white petals of spirea

when a gust

of wind disturbs its countless delicate heads.

You can see them

blowing along the road long after she’s gone.



A Medical Case

. . . it was not a law but a logical incongruity when strong

and weak alike fell victim to their mutual relations,

inadvertently obeying some controlling power, unknown,

extraneous to life, alien to man.


She’s sick — it’s unclear from what —

this heiress who lives with her mother

and governess near their factory

which makes calico of the cheapest kind,

for export. A gray film from the smoke

stacks coats the massive buildings,

the warehouses and barracks

where two thousand workers live;

the young doctor who’s been sent for

notices the drunkenness and exhaustion,

the bewilderment on the faces of

those his carriage-driver won’t

slow down for.

Later, he will listen to the hours

of the watch hammered out from plant

to plant in a white night neither he

nor his young patient can sleep through.

The mother is fearful of her daughter’s

pounding heart, the headaches and shrieks

of hideous pain, and he’s consented

to stay over. The intern is astute, perhaps

Chekhov himself — which means this story

is not about him, or about her and him,

it’s not a love story at all, though these two

have a certain affinity. Examining her, he’s

understood that she needs to talk, to be

heard; she is a lonely, intelligent girl, a reader,

who lacks not love so much as fellowship;

when he talks to her, it’s a form of listening,

of hearing what hasn’t been said,

for she is ill from more than just her underused,

unproductive life: it’s the new ugliness

and impersonal conditions of factory life

whose sole perverse purpose, it seems, is to

provide the old maid governess with

[no break]


sturgeon and Madeira to her heart’s content.

He senses the devil at work here, by which

he means organized misery from which

no one benefits or is made the happier. . .

he lets Christina Dmitrievna know that

it’s this which is the source of her illness,

and he counsels her to go live elsewhere.

Only in their children’s generation

will the right and wrong of this

irrational force, “extraneous to life,

alien to man,” be resolved.

It’s

spring, the quiet of a Sunday morning,

as he readies to leave; he hears larks,

the church bells ringing, and he puts

aside the devil and the overtaxed workers:

to ride in a troika — to feel the sun’s

warmth on your back is a good thing.

Even today, it makes one feel

that a life this “bright and joyful” might

be near at hand.


Take a deep breath.

Why, more than a century later,

should this be any less possible?

Forget-me-nots are sweetening

the grass, the breeze is fresh,

sun-drenched. Never mind

how much fiercer the hold

such dispossession has on us.

Never mind that nothing has been resolved.



The Black Monk


You know how it goes: one day the words just fall into place,

you feel powerful, attuned, in a state of grace.

The next no words come or only vapid ones,

and it’s all too clear: you’re a charlatan.

One day, you admire your wife more than you can say —

her laugh, the bones of her cheeks, a turn of phrase,

and your daughters too—confident, loving, quick —

strike you as rare beings, fantastic, really,

and then one is calling you a tyrant and a bully,

and the cold look your wife gives you doesn’t go away.

One summer day, Kore’s flower-picking with her friends,

the next it’s a winter that doesn’t end.

Life itself is bi-polar. One moment it’s

all in your grasp, and the next you’re in its.


In “The Black Monk” the secret lies in the smoldering fires

of dung and straw that keep pear and apple blossoms

from freezing. Yegor Semyonitch and his daughter Tanya

take turns through the night warming the air; later,

they’ll pack the plump fruits with care and ship them to Moscow.

Loving it’s the key, Yegor Semyonitch tells Kovrin,

the frayed, brilliant scholar he raised as a son

who will soon marry his daughter. That’s why

this garden thrives. I must do all the grafting, the pruning,

the planting, otherwise I’m jealous and out of sorts.

Loving it’s the feeling that when you’re away even

for an hour something’s gone wrong and that you must

get back. Loving’s the key. And Kovrin is moved

tremendously. Ecstatic, he scarcely sleeps, writes all night,

and converses with the black monk whirling down from the sky

who affirms that his work bears the stamp of the Divine.


And when his beloved Tanya finds him talking to

an empty chair one night, he agrees, in her fright,

to treatment; the monk disappears, as do Kovrin’s

inspiration and brimmed-over feelings. In their place?

Smallness, boredom, irritation, coldness and spite.

He ruins their life and her father’s, too,

who will soon die of grief, his famous gardens

falling into the hands of strangers.

And Kovrin also

will die — in a hotel room overlooking

the bay at Sevastopol, restored at the last,

however, by a visit from the monk. He’ll recall,

then, the gorgeous flowers in the great

garden of her father and, hemorrhaging,

call out to Tanya, life again lovely

as it was before the bromides,

the meanness, the fearful tending to.

Loving it’s

the key, Yegor Semyonitch tells Kovrin.

Why did you stop believing in your genius?

the black monk asks. There you have it.

Apple Blossoms versus Eternal Truth.

But because this is Chekhov,

both gardener and phantasm mean

the same thing by them. Apple

blossoms and Eternal Truth. Only

one thing can save the former;

one thing alone can reveal

the latter; just one thing can

join the two arm in arm, wed them

despite irreconcilable differences.

 

David Weiss’s most recent books of poems are Little Mirror (Lynx House Press), and No One Sleeps Tonight (Tiger Bark Press). His neo-noir novels, Ditch Witch, Burying Ground and Everybody Doesn’t are available on Amazon.



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