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House on Fontanka by Earl S. Braggs

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For a very long time l have not read such a passionate and gracefully written book of poetry as Earl S. Braggs' House on Fontanka. Being an African American, he so deeply understands the suffering of Russia, as Pushkin's grandson, inheriting Pushkin's great gift of global compassion. On the pages of this book you meet and talk with such great Russian poets as Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Mayakovsky, and Blok; you chat with lonely World War II veterans, play chess with park-bench Russian men, squeeze onto Russian buses and subways packed with red headed beauties.

The pages of this book are crowded by people whom he loves like lost and found brothers and sisters. The pages of this book are flooded by love. According to the poet's own definition, this book is a "Guided, but unguarded tour." Instead of pleasant tourism into attractions, Braggs blatantly chooses very painful tourism into destructions. But he finds so many rare flowers stubbornly growing in the ruins of so many hopes. Who else could accuse the author of "incomplete gratitude" as he accuses himself. It is only his privilege alone, but at the same time his noble mistake. His gratitude is not incomplete. There is no guilt here. -- Yevgeny Yevtushenko

 

The Story of Us

for Anastasia

And yet on these rare occasions
the magic secret of magic moments is sometimes revealed
by the way the sun rises the morning after
a night of winter rain. I did not

know it then. I was laughing, not quite enjoying
myself stranded yellow in a corner chair
in a room of too many conversations. Everything empty
until she arrived. Your mother

was wearing a winter red St. Petersburg overcoat.
I was wearing construction boots. I was rebuilding my life
I did not have enough parts to finish
the smallest of hovering small talk that seemed
to exclude and include the nothingness

until she strolled into the light. So unassumingly beautiful
no rain had fallen upon the shoulders of her coat.
The room divided into quad-quiet angles before resuming
its stagnant pose. The air was thick with promise

and though stars were not visible, I knew the dipper
had positioned itself directly above me for the evening.
Slowly as she moved around the room, my rhyme became
the rhythm of winter rain.

Her eyes found me, yet I could not leave
my yellow chair. My construction boots saw the parts
that had gone so many years missing, yet they, too,
refused to unlace in the face of promise. Like me

they, too, had been broken too many times to trust
winter rain love. That night I knew
there's no gold at the end of the rainbow. I knew
vanity has never been fair. And I knew

love at first sight is a tired, worn out, hungry phrase
but that night it felt right and it proved appropriate
the morning after our first winter rain.

So my dear Anastasiya, three years after the morning after
you took your first steps in Russia, your mother
still wears her St. Petersburg red overcoat and my boots
have long been discarded. I don't need them now.

I found the angles to build my room
in your mother's eyes that winter night of rain.

 

Remembering Matthews

For Bill, 1942-1997

When last I saw him, I didn't tell him
I was going to St. Petersburg. I didn't
tell him I'd fallen in love with Akhmatova

and I didn't tell him, I needed to see
my reflection in the icy black Baltic.

That evening at his New York City apartment
decorated with classical music, he played
an opera concert, I later learned,
he had planned to attend. At the end,
the night rolled over and I was drunk

on vodka and verse and voice. Yes,
he had a beautiful one. I can hear him now
stumbling through the perfume of visiting ladies.

When last I saw him, I didn't tell him
it was the Stray Dog Cabaret I hoped to find
among the smallest of midnight tables

and light blue circles of cigar smoke. I didn't
tell him about the tragic top coat Anna
so often wore or the azure shawl she so
carefully placed recklessly over her shoulders

and I didn't tell him about the fragileness
of her sacred refinement.

That evening in his New York City apartment
decorated with impressions of the Impressionist
movement, we moved out of sync and into
rhythm and blues and magic tragic carefree laughter.

In that city that never sleeps, we slept
wide awake in his voice. Yes,
he had a beautiful one. I can hear him now
ambling from pocket to pocket of his plaid jacket.

When last I saw him, I didn't tell him
I'd fallen in love with Akhmatova. I didn't
tell him I planned to visit the wild and simple country
she refused to leave and I didn't tell him

I planned to walk the left bank of the Neva,
then through the gates of Great Peter's Summer Garden.

That evening in his New York City apartment
decorated with myth recalling Roman and Greek promise.
The last silver summer before October 1917, I
didn't tell him.

That evening, he cooked Italian pasta poetry.
He recited each boiled spaghetti string line,
each diced perfect onion, each cubed bell, each
sad spin of garlic as if he knew
when I returned from Russia with or without love,
there would be no leftovers.

 

Sweeping Dirt

For the lady I saw
Perhaps she remembers, perhaps they all remember
when all of Russia was red dirt. Perhaps
I should close the window

to this third floor room, but I won't, not yet,
it's too hot in Kaliningrad this morning. So I look
out into the breeze, onto the intersection where

all things come together, where four dirt streets meet,
where the lady has been sweeping and sweeping until
they appear almost paved.

The lady, she wears black tall rubber boots and a skirt
that flares so that the tops are invisible. Her head
is covered by a rag tied unproud around
what is necessary. She is in no hurry.

Cars, they come, stop and go as if to give moments
of dirt contemplation. Diligently the sweeper sweeps
small piles of morning from center to sides.

The dogs, they come, stop and go as if to investigate
without looking up at me sitting here holding a fork
and a knife and a voice of my own appointment, eating

caviar for breakfast from a plastic plate. Drinking vodka for milk.
I should be happy and I am
so far away from home until small things

like sweeping dirt simply amaze me. Perhaps
it reminds me of my childhood, a little boy growing up
in North Carolina living in dirt. Dirt front yard, dirt
back porch, dirt always on the kitchen floor.

Oh how we paid for the dirt that gave permission to live
and oh how happy we lived in that dirt. Sometimes
I can still hear my grandmama saying, Boy, go out there
and sweep the dirt.

As a child I hated yard brooms and hound dogs
we seemed always to have that just laid there in the yard
at the edge and just watched dirt rise and fall

stubborn and determined as any dirt this morning in this city.
I look down, three stories above dirt. I've finished my milk.
It's getting late. Tiny black specks left on a white plastic plate.

Perhaps I should button up my shirt, go down to the street
and tell that lady that I remember all
too well what I wish I would forget.

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