Four Poems for The Providential Reader
“But to remember something we need to forget/something, a different truth. My grandmother/believed that if you dab any convenient spot on your body/with iodine daily/it will help you keep your memory in old age./Head of the Marxism-Leninism chair/at the Ivanovo Energy Institute,/where she taught philosophy and scientific atheism,/she was the kindest soul, loved and spoiled me to distraction,/and her blueberry cakes were of course the best/in this world. Baptized as a child,/on her retirement to a small apartment in the Crimea/she read the Bible, perestroika raging all around.”—Philip Nikolayev
The Art of Forgetting
By Philip Nikolayev
Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in Hubris in December of 2021.
BOSTON Massachusetts—(Hubris)—1 March 2023—From Elizabeth Boleman-Herring: I have come late to Philip Nikolayev and to his poetry, but am honored and very pleased to include in this issue four poems by this bi-national, bilingual writer, one of our newest Contributors at Hubris. In an interview with Jack Alun for The Argotist Online, Nikolayev states, “Writing is largely spontaneous for me and improvisation and self-surprise are important parts of it. . . . I write in hopes that what moves or interests or surprises me may also cause a similar response in someone else—the providential reader, in Mandelstam’s phrase, if you will. Often, I don’t know exactly where a poem—a certain kind of poem—leads me until the very end, where with some luck everything just happens to click sharply into focus.”
Tendency toward Vagrancy
I’ve long had what Soviet psychiatrists
called “a tendency toward vagrancy.”
At four I would run away from home
repeatedly for a whole day, alone
or sometimes with a friend named Boris
of like age. Knew full well we “just can’t do this,”
but nudge for nudge and wink for wink,
we’d board the trolleybus #10, I think,
buy tickets at four kopeks each
from our gleanings and savings of the week,
stick them into the ticket punch on the wall,
watch the chad fall as you pulled,
and ride all across Kishinev in half an hour
to get off near that unforgettable restaurant
built in the likeness of a huge wine barrel.
We peered inside, it was cool.
Then we had options:
go and splash in the local artificial lake
(I couldn’t swim yet),
wander in between along the banks,
catching frogs to take home in a glass jar
to populate a small construction pond (why
did we always use my shirt to do this?),
or go and explore the local flea market,
which was not at all safe to do,
but even at four it’s nice to have options.
(One guy sold what we thought was a gun,
we asked him and he confirmed it.)
Those were days of cholera epidemics
in Moldova. We’d buy peasant-cooked
fodder corn on the cob when we got hungry,
haggled with old ladies over pennies.
We wouldn’t catch the return trolley until sunset.
Then it’s always the same picture:
the wicket creaks open, the landlord’s mutant
barks through froth, my wet shirt clings,
I step out of the dark
toward my mother waiting by the door
of our “temporary house” on Kaluga Street,
which was a bit of a dirt road, probably still is.
She has been crying, takes me inside.
Room and kitchen (no bathroom
or running water); the room
had a brick stove, the kitchen
a dirt floor (with mice and sometimes grass)
and a white washstand—these lines
are all that has survived of them.
There was great beauty in their squalor.
She has been crying, takes me inside,
says she will scold me later.
I know it will be soon. First she must call
the cops to tell them I’ve been found.
Of course, back then I didn’t understand anything:
neither how a poet harms his mother,
nor how alienated (thank you, Marx, for that term)
one can be from the start, and free
in the grip of that greatest paradox of all—
a happy Soviet childhood.
The Art of Forgetting
Last night I cooked my socks in the microwave
by mistake. What to do when you’re so absent
minded? As well, I have frequently
refrigerated my poems in the freezer
to the point of having to thaw them later,
and poetry’s what emerges in defrosting.
I have also lost to nature generations
of galoshes, coats, scarves, umbrellas,
even once an Egyptian skullcap,
whose individual names I forget.
The name of the czar escapes my mind
on whom was meant to be my dissertation,
or was it thesis. Water,
all kinds of water under the all-purpose bridge.
If I’ve forgotten so much, via absentmindedness mostly,
then how much have we forgotten as a species?
One day we learn, another forget
everything, including this fact.
It’s possible given enough time and effort
to forget anything,
which’s why we like to reminisce sometimes
on those even who’ve decided they don’t like us.
We’ll fight for our memories, the truth as it appeared once.
But to remember something we need to forget
something, a different truth. My grandmother
believed that if you dab any convenient spot on your body
with iodine daily
it will help you keep your memory in old age.
Head of the Marxism-Leninism chair
at the Ivanovo Energy Institute,
where she taught philosophy and scientific atheism,
she was the kindest soul, loved and spoiled me to distraction,
and her blueberry cakes were of course the best
in this world. Baptized as a child,
on her retirement to a small apartment in the Crimea
she read the Bible, perestroika raging all around.
Everyone wrote, thought and talked of
Stalin, Stalin, Stalin, Beria, Stalin.
She read the Bible, both the Testaments.
Thus dialectical materialism was forgotten
and an ancient faith recovered.
I too would like to forget a few things,
keep trying, but tend to forget instead
all the wrong ones, like submitting payments
by the due date, the need to tie my shoestrings.
Mnemosyne, and her daughters the Muses,
and her grandsons the museums…
Literature too is a museum,
as well as Lenin’s mausoleum,
which is essentially a tomb.
As you must of course know I’ve forgotten
the remote control on the bathroom sink
where my reflection in the crooked mirror
distracted me with its scowl.
This is earth life, but like hailing from outer space.
When my daughter was born,
I spent the night with her and my wife at the hospital
and went home the next day to clean the apartment.
I vacuumed the floor very thoroughly,
my thoughts soaring far and wide. Little did I notice
that the vacuum was running in blow out mode
so the condition of the floor changed
hardly at all. This still makes my wife laugh
and may indeed be worth remembering
against all death. While stress, duress and strain,
the painful neck crane
and other stuff rotten
are best forgotten.
Didn’t want to go to the damn party in the first place,
needed to “catch a lecture” the next morning
on Renaissance Florence, one of those stupid 9-a.m.-on-Saturday
events, but my buddy insisted sangria, perfect chance
to chat up Jessica and Jake, so we went
at midnight. Sangria my ass. I mean it tasted extra nice,
bootylicious, but they’d run out of ice
and Jessica and Jake had already left. Half an hour later
three spluttering purple volcanoes
of indeterminate size, but perfectly harmless and hospitable,
spun winking out of the texture of the tabletop,
pouring forth an interminable wordlist full of words
into pulsating Buddha-faced saucers. My armchair
floated in the breeze over the seaweed-infested carpet
dead to rights. I was chary of wading through its Dead Sea
waters, though I needed to pee. My buddy goes man,
I think we just drank some acid, should’ve
poured the stuff that’s on the table but I wanted it cold
from the fridge cuz they’ve no ice
so anyway we can always and later too you know
all that, now best stay where you are, best to just to hang in look
I know you have to pee “like ouch” but listen
I’ve been thinking this week all week every day
for three years now, it’s driving me nuts I’ve always
wanted to talk you up about how you know sometimes
that feeling that we call sublime or subliminal whichever
you can also feel it right that wholesome feeling
a bird tipping from branch to branch to branch in luminous light
a bee crawling from bract to bract a strange kind of lyric feeling
the inexpressible what we felt in childhood
is really what we’re all about like they’re cluing you in on it now
gluing suing slewing you in on it. Spack,
a strange music turned itself on and wouldn’t quit,
that bizarre non-quitter music. Anyway when they sang
happy birthday dear Humphrey
at 2 a.m. I needed to pee especially badly
and trudged off through the interminable apartment
though my buddy hadn’t yet finalized his discourse.
I’d never been in a non-finite apartment before,
after 27 rooms I stopped counting
because I almost wet my pants before finding the bathroom
plus had to wait another ten minutes
while someone was getting sick in there.
And finally when I felt I was going back to normal
and washing my hands, I saw in the mirror,
which was in the key of E flat minor,
myself as a winged demon with golden horns on top
and colored rotating spirals for my pupils, my stare
expressive of the universal doom.
Then there was a descent down the three-mile jade
staircase and gigantic escalades of diamond snow.
My buddy and I sat to our heart’s content on steaming grilles
in the pavement by the Store 24 warming ourselves
(though in fact it was hot) with other nocturnal characters,
who thankfully seemed to know no English, and in the end
I realized that we are chemical through and through,
so determinate and so chemical, while sliding in crystal insects up
the conic mountain of spacetime, with its mass but no weight,
pure composition. Soon by the creaking of refreshed pedestrians
I opened up to the idea that there was one hour left until the lecture.
Is supermarket coffee inherently such a palette of taste,
or was it the radically contingent chemistry of my palate
that temporarily made it so? My buddy had left to sleep it off
(wish I had his worries), but I tried to recompose alone
the ordinary coherency of life. All I heard were the dubious
reverberations of a mid-90s train passing underground.
Savonarola’s sermon, to which I had eventually made it
across the Alps, focused on the ideals of asceticism, poverty
and visionary piety. His project of a bohemian republic
appealed to me deeply as I took faithful notes
diagonally across my notebook (which was unliftable).
Fellow aspirants peeked at me inquisitorially,
but I waved them off, staring at the preacher’s
skinny jowl, enormous nose, dark cowl in profile. Then
I had nothing left or planned for the rest of Saturday
except to get home to my two-bit moth-devoured
studio with its many topological holes
and zip up my brain. I stepped across some literature
to my solitary bed, dedicated exclusively to the twin purposes
of study and sleep, and elongated myself as best I could.
Sleep was out of the question, issues of the irreducible
multiplicity pressing harshly upon my overburdened lobes.
I yearned to be one, complete, so I arched and reached
for the telephone. Yes, dropped some acid last night
first time ever, haven’t slept. Please come save me,
I hate acid. You hadn’t slept much since New York either,
but you arrived instantly, as if wading through atrocious snow
came as naturally to you as levitation to a saint.
I laughed suddenly, for the first time in a month,
shocked to discover your red hair had its usual color.
You had American Spirit cigarettes (I was out),
and in minutes we stood at the foot of Lee Bo’s Cantonese Kitchen,
whose second floor seemed unreachable on foot.
I sighed with relief in the pentatonic elevator.
In the bathroom things went well this time,
no dragons in the mirror. You fed me with a spoon,
then with chopsticks. The hot and sour soup
was indeed hot and sour, it counteracted my internal chill,
and the salt jumbo shrimp were verily salty and jumbo.
The green tea you poured into me sip by tiny sip
made me realize for the first time
how perfect we were for each other. I wept like a whale.
You had changed my chemical composition forever.
But what to make of the diminished lot,
of what man could have got and yet has not?
But let him simply while away the day,
and soon this will not matter anyway.
Walking in vain across a cloudy sky,
he scans the grasslands with an acid eye,
like a slightly more modern Robert Frost.
But what of what man had yet somehow lost?
Staring at nature helps him to forget,
to come to terms, to cancel out the debt.
All night he whistled with a mockingbird
and now on his old keyboard types a word
or two into the world and falls asleep.
The land has willows, something needs to weep.