Benjamin Balthaser


The note is simple: everyday you grow fainter.
The you makes no claims for itself or the rough
Soviet paper, grains lush as fur the ink soaks
a line through. And it does not refer to the poplars

on Simonov, day fading into white puff, or the black
water of the Neva or the punks who jumped me
in Aleksandr Park as I saluted Lenin and suddenly
understood a violence—my own blood on the sidewalk

I didn't have a language for, or the long days
making sentences for the finding of bread, water,
bathrooms, fresh milk or an erasable pen. And it's not
the grounds floating on blue, smoky tea, not the curl

of metal—lead and tin—in tap water, or the phone
through which a woman's voice scratched and cracked
like an animal at the window, pleading she knew me,
knew something about how our lives were intermingled.

Because I thought I was looking for something, a gravestone,
a family title, the pseudo—Venetian streets, a sock frozen
in a pothole, a man wrapped in overcoats holding a book
close to his heart, a story about how the dead were buried

under the sidewalks during the Great War and a woman
who still has no teeth, lost in the hard leather of a boiled—
down briefcase, or the daughter of my great great uncle
weeping on a port in Danzig, trying to get home, the goat

dressed in fake pearls for the wedding, the goba going over
prayers while counting the number of beets needed for stew,
the round glasses of revolution. The stories I wade through
a dictionary to find. And it's not in the long look for a synagogue,

somewhere with quiet and privacy, rare as good water
in that country, your voice weak with the soft, English 'o',
watery and polite: I would quote the Russian: you are like
the snow in the North, you return even though no one wants

you, and you vanish without asking. Of course, it is not
a landscape that fades. The dwarf with a Star of David
on his lapel still carries boxes of dried milk up the back temple
steps. Leather treads litter the sidewalks in August, feet

swollen with the damp, northern heat. Bare empty monuments
and crowds huddled in the backs of restaurants, and the long,
long wait before the waiter comes to tell you whether or not
there is food. You grow fainter, as blood does, or paint,

or governments, or the salt of your own language, suddenly
strange on the tongue. Inside the grammar book I read short,
declarative sentences: I am late for the train, and cannot finish
my exams. The window looks out to the sea. The tea is ready.

In summer, in St. Petersburg, it will not get dark. In summer
we are going home. We go home. In summer, I will study
Russian and pass the test; it is fall, the exam is completed.
The English for things is complicated. It is good to have

phones that do not work, the hozyaika said, so even though
you cannot hear, no one can listen in. The answers are yes, no,
I will come back later when you are open. There is no grammar
for that kind of mystery: the city fades. You could be anyone,

statue, man in the gray coat, the funny body of the Russian
jogger, anyone but the woman whose voice, if anything, is louder
the farther away I get, close as my own name in foreign tongue.

Benjamin Balthaser is Assistant Professor Multi—Ethnic Literature at Indiana University, South Bend. His critical monograph Anti—Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Radical Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War will be available from University of Michigan Press December 2015, and his collection of poems, Dedication, was published by Partisan Press in 2011. Other critical and creative work of his has appeared or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, American Quarterly, The Minnesota Review, and elsewhere.

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