I hide them away in a tin box
with a hinge, a sailor on the lid
I read them all again and again
in order, backward, sometimes
shuffle them or shut my eyes
pick a single leaf at random
like a raffle ticket from a basket
to catch myself by surprise
Remember the cat we had
that pounced at its own shadow
on the wall or dust in the light
for lack of a fresh mouse?
Your letters never become stale
but I handle them so much
my fingers have lost flesh
their skin worn thin as paper
scarified along the folds, air threaded
between the words I know so well
I recite them when I scrub sheets
again and again on the washboard
rub my knuckles against its ribs
wishes against facts, your words
as intimate as clothes
softened by years of washing
as tough as sinews
holding my body tight
After a painting by Nadezhda Udaltsova
My first model in a Paris studio was a man
with a feathered headdress and painted skin
stone-still against a backdrop all in reds.
I saw his tomahawk and ran away
to a studio more suitable
where I could sharpen cubist points,
make analyses of angles,
revel in severities.
But the moment I walked into Sonia’s kitchen
I found a space to couple art and hunger:
not the romance of cuisine
not the erotics of violins and odalisques
but the sharpness of knives
the beauty of grids on measuring cups
a way of making icons of appliances.
A modern room
where water flowed mercury-white
from crescent moons of chromium faucets
where the enamel stove shimmered
with alizarin spatters of beet juice.
An old room
where copper pots curved into spice jars
wine bottles spun among platters and cups
where stalks of oregano and thyme, filigree and tough,
hung from the rafters, brushing against
wheels of hardtack on wooden axles.
While I sketched
Sonia was slicing apples,
weighing manifestos on her scales,
telling me the gossip and news
of Marc, Guillaume, Pablo, Juan, the Steins,
washing gouache from her son’s hands.
I drew it all in. Everything.
Over sweet, muscular tea
in porcelain cups of cobalt lace
Sonia unfolded her book design for Blaise.
He would take no persuading after tarte tatin
to recite his newest poem, La Prose du Transsibérien.
Cut velvet. It invites us to lie
in luxury, seductive poses.
It promises wanton kisses, leaves
on our cheeks after too much wine
its ivy designs intertwined
with Jacobean cabbages,
the slobber of deep sleep.
Surviving all disasters
of cup, pocket or heart,
the chesterfield has no regrets,
absorbs the darkest spills and leaks,
they disappear into the deep purple
of its plush cushions, it swallows all
the lost coins that slip into its
crevices, welcomes the sodden
tissues dried to knots and balls,
you can only imagine the skeleton mice
on its underside in cruciform contortions.
Refreshment of bones after long work
is temporary: all who sit here
are destined to fray and mourn
just as all our ancestors
who traded labour for comfort
will never again kick off their shoes.
We are doomed to drag it from house to house,
this inherited upholstered beast
rigid as whalebone, tougher than horsehair.
It will last longer than mammoths in permafrost,
smirking at moths and crusting scissors with rust.
I’m checking the ways to say that Cyrillic letter
shaped like a Roman three with a heelspur
or cricket stumps with a ploughshare
to cut beneath the bottom line of text: Щ
One teacher suggests I pay attention
to the double thistle in the gap
scratched between two words
whose start and finish match: Welsh sheep
Another says, listen to the scrape
of the hinge in a folding pushchair
or the mother’s voice when her baby’s shout
drowns out the bus’s brakes: Hush child, we’re nearly home
Another wants me to try the sound of steam released
when you touch the pressure cooker valve
the cheery whistle of the sealed vessel
shortening the beet time for borshch: БOPЩ
I remember the steam train
screeching to a stop at the station
delivering everyone’s grandmothers, flesh-cheeked
babushka-wrapped against December’s harsh chill
I remember the shooshch
of my grandmother’s tongue and teeth
sucking her tea through a sugar cube
telling her stories in Finnish
Hush now, it’s the one about her sister
in Soviet Russia, how she barely survived
on watery cabbage soup: ЩИ
but was finally crushed lost she
the sound is a soft shchi
one wave in an ocean of millions
that receded but never returned