• Helen Lambert

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.

Does it?

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.