The Birch Grove
(After the painting by Arkhip Ivanovitch Kuindzhi, 1879)
And the clearing, and the path, which leads the eye
to the end, which does not end, but whose
ending must be in grass, who would take a path
a path whose beginning is so fat and wide, so wet
and glut with shadows if one, if one
just fell into the end upon ten strides, true
only if one takes a stream for a path. And the grass,
the grass, sick-green upon the bank,
such green as makes one hot or dumb or
thick with sun, how each green tip salutes the trees.
And the birch, the birch.
Five on one side, six on the other –
how they mirror each other, but are not each other.
And the straight bent straightness of them,
their pose, so stiff and overlit, recalls
their long role in European painting,
as if they’d been dressed for life on two feet
shuffling along a promenade, or
stopping at a bench, their lungs rustling.
For centuries they are nature
with the light always raised
as an idea held just beyond their heads.
And the dark lines across their trunks attest
to learned disagreement, blots,
crossings-out, while their leaves sweep
across the bald patch of sky, translating light
to dark, and dark to light,
hardly aware of the forest gathering
behind. And the clearing,
all around, the clearing
clears its throat, and the birch trees seem to grow
or shrink. And the grove.
The problem is not the birch, but the grove –
not the tree or the clearing but the cut,
the vertical seam, its imperceptible
hatch of light which asks, which asks
is the grove divided or conjoined – is there one birch grove,
or two? The eye goes back and forth:
to the left, five trees – to the right,
six trees (and a tiny blur of hay).
It could be one grove, reflected
except for the extra tree, and the hay.
And so not the same, or the same as in almost
the same, similar and yet more so, but that’s not it:
both same and not same – cut and repaired, as a seam of light.
And the path eaten up by grass, and the stream
which does not move, and the grove:
with five on one side, six on the other,
and the tied-up hay, abandoned
as a fool whose smile goes on,
lopsided, whether or not the forest has turned
to switches or ash,
and painting, how it laughs,
as it cracks nature’s glass.
The Birch Grove Grove, or Salle 21
The room is dark and footfalls stop or start.
The woman sits on a chair and rearranges
a hand, though she’d rather her hair. There
on the wrong side her ring, the dark stone
going in. She sits still as a stack, though
the sting brings her back. The chair is wood.
Her shirt is stiff, it holds her skin as leaf
holds sap. Her slow eyes repel all expression,
she is told what speaks: torsos, cuffs,
pockets, bags. She is paid to watch, but not too much
for every guard in every room is also watched
by one who is also watched, and so on.
No one remembers who profits, the tree or the burl.
The wooden walls creak and sigh,
and her ring, how like string it binds.
She thinks of the dacha she once had,
the cold water, the bird-song, the broken pipes,
and so on. She hated it, and now it’s gone, she loves
its lack. Her mind turns to her one-room
apartment, overlooking an eight-lane prospekt:
nothing stops the cars, not even her husband’s death.
The socedi below her – bad, insulting, a feverish
stint of poisoning cats. And the old woman
who pops out to ask sudden questions,
to posit dangers, to speak of hours
unfolding their plots – fake police, fake families
fake workers, fake everything except
the migrants in the basement, shitting on the floor.
Her eyes take pictures which swirl about.
There is one in every building who is paid.
But it troubles her, how every balcony
in the building has empty boxes piling up –
the footfalls make her stop.
The Birch Grove, someone says. She sits.
The chair is warm, the woody smell, the ceiling
high or low, she can’t quite tell, but dark
as night, or light as dawn, the dust columns
and whispered calls.
There are no windows, and no halls.
The room opens to another room, to another room
and so on. She looks out, without feeling. She is bound,
she is stacked, but she waits for this last hour
when the school group thins, and the room
comes in: a papery scene or a thing.
A robe appears, then a head, the dog-blue
of the eyes plucked straight from an icon,
stuck on something not yet there. Around his robe
two girls bend, taking pictures of themselves,
next to pictures, frame after frame.
The phone light bathes their faces, their hair
throwing shadows through the air as darkening leaves.
Her chair is wood. She waits. Her mind turns.
Her ring, going in. The memory of things.
She can’t see painting, only edges.
The room exhales its afternoon light. Half the things
seem wrong, half wrested from sight.
Her mind comes back. Does it?
She sits. She waits. Still this lack.
She keeps the room, the painted clearing.
The floor is wood. The ceiling
gone. The frames she sees are windows
turned the wrong way round.
The robe floats out; stiff, head down.
She thinks about who pays.
The girls pass a secret look. It falls
between them on the floor. She waits.
The room keeps her. The clearing, painted.
She sits. Still as a stack. Her chair is wood.
Is no-one coming back?
She wonders if this room is a painting in another hall,
and whether there is anything outside.
The number or the name. And so on.
She sits. Still as a stack. She wonders how it is
she sits like that. Off to the side.
What it is she lacks. The woody smell.
Her shirt is white, the seams too tight.
She turns her ring. The room is dark. The stone goes in.
The light exhales. Uneven. Like.
She waits. Her chair is wood.
There are no windows. The grove is gone.
And the painting, or the edge.