Days of 1993

Akhmatova touches her neck, as if to protect
were no different than to choke, looks over her bare shoulder
to a hidden photographer, eyes aglimmer, as if

I were a burning city.  As if she imagined the other
me, squinting through cracked taxi windshield, pointing out
the Kremlin to visiting parents.  Is this the country we feared?

my dad asked, an ex-Cold Warrior aghast at the rutted
airport runway, at a Muscovite’s habit of turning off
headlights at night on an open road, at the dual use

of newsprint in the toilet—to peruse and wipe your ass with.
In Vietnam, he’d marveled at teeming streets, difficulty
of completing even a phone call: to get anything done,

he’d joked then, it would take an act of Congress.  Thirty years later,
listening to the tapes he’d sent home, it came to him:
—once, rushing back by jeep to base at night, armed

only with his horn, he aimed for a strait between crowds, gunned it,
and plowed into a bicycling woman. I’m sorry, he said, I’m sorry,
over and over, wheels still spinning on an upended bicycle.

The Muscovites and I trudge along gray ice, mime each other’s
every solid step, when a tinted Mercedes roars past—

anonymity and speed.  Someone curses, others silent,
another gazes as if at an unrequited love,

as if at another world.  For a time, I tried to hide
among them, trading my American years—inevitability

of winter fruit, hot showers, electricity—for days
spent searching for oranges, days spent formulating

a request for bread, black bread, please.  Days spent negotiating
the inscrutable queue, logic of purchase, dizzying

inflating ruble.  Once, drunk with fatigue, I stumbled
onto the tall windows of a Western grocery, found myself

unable to enter.  Ceiling lights too bright, shelves full
of multicolored pasta boxes, pornography of chocolate.

Before I left America the first time, the wise advised:
pantyhose, Levi’s, Chanel No. 5.  Russians are starved
for that stuff.  Where there is demand, a market comes.  My second trip,
years later, I read in the English-language Moscow Times:

glasnost gals!  Visit our website, and click on the face.  Couldn’t
sleep.  On TV: Playboy’s “Girls of the Car Wash” deliver
trademarked fantasies, their breathless voices overdubbed
by Russian baritone; astral snow; and a Hollywood film, full of

blondes, Uzis and jewels.  Unseen, daughters of the Vietcong
make a buck a day stitching and gluing the same Nike sneakers
that will get a kid killed in Cabrini Green, where I’ve walked,
oblivious to Chicago’s neighborhood borders.

How would Akhmatova describe this?  Who would listen today
to a prophet like Amos? we buy the poor for shoes, the needy
for a pair of sandals.  What hands have touched these boots I can’t tell,
but in subways they took in so many gazes, I felt half crazy,

half possessed in possessing, traces ghosting everything
I own.  On the radio below Akhmatova’s eyes,
a voice: seven billion dollars annual in trafficking
of human beings.  Perhaps right now, a woman gathers

some clothes together with her courage, takes the job
beyond her imagining: Hong Kong, New York, Amsterdam.
When I gave up trying to live “like a Russian,” I’d sit
at the Pushkin Square McDonald’s among Russians,

translating poems, trying to crack their Cyrillic codes.  Billions
and billions sold.  I’d buy a burger—its mediocrity at least
familiar.  Across the road, I’d almost see bronze Pushkin
staring down.  Traffic streaming between poet and golden arches.