Monday, June 21, 1993

Poetry International 1994 v1


POETRY INTERNATIONAL 1994 (1st draft)    Maureen Hurley

Holland's enormously successful Poetry International festival is the cultural highlight of Rotterdam—a futuristic concrete city known for its shipyards and little else. Razed to the ground by the Nazis in 1940, the city completely rebuilt itself from the rubble; some say it's culturally brain-dead. It's the largest industrial port in the world. In 1968, there wasn't much happening: no TV or radio stations, no publishing houses—in short, no culture. There still isn't much to see in Rotterdam today, and little to distinguish it from any other modern city if it hadn't been for a ship of fools who decided to declare verbal warfare on Rotterdam's lack of culture by hurling poems at it.

“WWII was long over, it was obvious something had to be done,” says Martin Mooij, the director of Poetry International. According to Mooij, the budding Rotterdam Arts Council invited him to become their director of literature. His job, to develop a literary community, was a bit like sending Don Quixote out with oars to joust with windmills. The 25-year-old organization has spawned other innovative projects and events besides the readings: a Dutch and Italian poetry exchange, translation workshops, a poetry archives and documentation center, putting pressure on repressive governments to release incarcerated poets, painting lines of poetry on garbage trucks. . .

Yes, painting lines of poetry on garbage trucks. . . It's an odd ark indeed when all 400 of Rotterdam's municipal garbage trucks flaunt lines of poetry: “Good morning beauty,” and “Always be clean so that the air will be clean.” Mooij explains, “One was the title of a book, and the other, a line from Rafael Oberti. Sometimes I just get crazy ideas for publicity. Rotterdam gets 30 to 40 new trucks a year. That's 30 to 40 more poets whose work gets read. At this point, I know everything about the cleaning service.”

Holland's second most important city, Rotterdam, has put the Netherlands on both the shipping and the poetry map. Amsterdam is the capitol of the Netherlands; both cities support one million inhabitants. (For those of you a bit shaky on geography, think Dutch: wooden shoes, Edam and Gouda cheese, tulips, windmills and canals: sorry, the story of the little boy Hans Brinker with his finger in the dyke is an American invention. I'll skip the historical legacies we owe to the Dutch: the pilgrim fathers, and New York nee  Nieuwe Amsterdam, Waal Straat, Haarlem. . .)

Since 1970, over 1000 poets from all over the world have boarded Rotterdam's gangplanks to participate in the annual ten-day festival held during the third and fourth weeks of June. For many poets from Holland and Flanders, the festival offers a unique opportunity to read with poets of international repute. Past luminaries include the European poets: Herbert Zbigniew of Poland, Vasko Popa of Yugoslavia, Miroslav Holub of Czechoslovakia, Lar Gustafsson of Sweden, Gunther Grass of Germany, Seamus Heaney of Ireland; The Russians: Bella Akhmadulina, Andrei Voznesenski, Yosef Trotsky; poets from the Americas: Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Octavio Paz of Mexico, Pablo Neruda of Chile; from the Middle East: Yehuda Amichi of Israel; and Randra from Indonesia.

Poetry International's focus is on the situation of poetry in the Western World, Eastern Europe, China, Africa, and the Third World. Each festival focuses on a particular region, or is dedicated to a certain language—Russian, Hebrew, African. The 1992 Poetry International event was on China, last year’s1993 festival featured Latin American poets. “Everywhere, all of us here in the Netherlands—we think we are the center, or the heart of the world,” chuckles Mooij self-patronizingly.

The idea of “world poetry” began by accident in 1976, when Mooij was secretary of the literary department of the Rotterdam Arts Council. “Someone said 'Why don't you poets go and read at the statue of the poet, Tollen in the park.' We tried it on a Sunday afternoon. What we didn't know is that the immigrant workers—from Tunisia, Morocco, Antilles, Indonesia, Suriname—all went to the park.” Some 80-to 90,000 people came to see to poets, musicians, and dancers perform. “The event was highly appreciated; it became increasingly clear for people to hear poetry in their own languages,” says Mooij. “Prose is more difficult than poetry; it's easier to bring people together with poetry—it's the most intimate center of the human being.”

In the West, it's considered a problem if no one reads a poet's work, versus the other extreme of giving one's life up for the sake of poetry. “The most important reason for Poetry International is to create a forum for the human voice suppressed in so many ways. It brings poets from both extremes together to meet, hear and read each other's work. We're in a comfortable position to be forum. We are completely neutral, we don't speak about politics.  A Government of the Tongue,” says Mooij. “We give people the opportunity to express themselves and find out what's going on in the world of language.” Mooij quickly pointed out that poets are invited on the merit of their work, not because they're the privileged ministers of culture, etc. Mooij said “At first we asked local poets who should be invited. Now an international advisory board selects the poets.”

“We became our own foundation in 1980.” Poetry International is made possible by public funding through the Minister of Culture, the Municipality of Rotterdam, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, several Dutch foundations, and an anonymous American donor. Not all events take place in Rotterdam: “Poetry on the Road,”brings extra programs into other Dutch cities; at the end of June one event will take place in Enschede, a town near the German border.”


Poetry International cooperates with other poetry festivals worldwide: San Francisco, Toronto, China, Senegal, Russia, and Jerusalem. “We have a good networking system.” A new project Mooij would like to see in place is an international clearing-house style newsletter for his contacts in other countries.

We in the West tend to forget the high price poets in repressive societies may pay for igniting the green fuse of their “varied and sullen craft.” Sometimes invited poets can't participate in the festival because they are in prison, or have problems with their government getting a visa, or passport, etc. Through the attentions of Poetry International, many poets have gained their freedom. “In the beginning I didn't believe in giving out poetry awards, but we do give awards to prosecuted poets.” Says Mooij, “It began as a fluke. I don't know exactly how it happened, but I'd published some Turkish children's books, and I spoke about an imprisoned poet, Nevzat Celik; the editor promised to write to some official, and the poet was set free!”

“We cooperate closely with PEN International, and the Index on Censorship.” So far,14 poets have been awarded        what's it called?    WHEN??   Since then, 12 poets have been freed. From Africa, Breyten Breytenbach, Moroccan poet Abdellativ Laabi, Song Lin of China, now residing in Paris, and South Korean Papkno Hae who's been condemned to prison. Mooij hopes Hae will be freed soon.

Some poets may be able to leave their country, but the price is high; to return is an act of madness. Such is the case of Chinese poet Duo Duo whom Mooij met at a literary party in Beijing in 1988. The University of Leiden translated his work, and he was invited to the festival. Meanwhile, because of Tianennmen Square, no one was allowed to leave the country. A fortuitous accident, Mooij's secretary sent the airline ticket to the wrong place, to the airport desk, not to the Netherlands Embassy. Duo Duo picked up his ticket and left for London where journalists interviewed him about the massacre; he found couldn't go back to China. In 1992 he was a lecturer and taught poetry workshops at the University of Leiden under the auspices of the Prince Bernhard Fund. During his tenure, Duo Duo quickly branched out and published plays, essays in newspapers, and filmscripts for Dutch television. In 1993, Bei Dao was also awarded the prestigeous post.

 Bei Dao is in the same predicament. He was invited to the west in 1985, the first year he was allowed to travel to the Netherlands. At a 1989 PEN Congress, Bei Dao was chosen as the guest of honor, which angered an official representative of Chinese branch of PEN, making it impossible for Bei Dao to return. “He is a important writer,” Mooij hopes he will find his own place here; “He has problems getting published in his own country.” He will also teach workshops at the University of Leiden next Fall. The one-year writer in residence lecturships are made possible by businessmen, and the Prince Bernard Foundation (named for the father of Dutch Queen Beatrix)

According to Mooij, some prominent Dutch and Flemish poets include Belgian poet Hugo Claus, and Dutch poets Gerrit Rouwenaar, Remco Campert, psychatrist Rutger Kopland, J. Bernlef, the religiously inspired Ida Gerhardt, Leo Vroman, Bert Schierbeek, Jules Deelder, a performance artist, and poet-playright Judith Herzberg. Herzberg seemed to be the most active with numerous readings, lectures, films, children's plays, etc. Past criticism of Poetry International includes comments such as:  most of the poets seem to be from the 60-something crowd (with the exception of Deelder.) “Poets of a certain age. . . Some of the forever-voices tha have always been there,” grumbled one Amsterdam poet. “What's missing are the poets from 30- to 40-year-old bracket.” A lively counter festival featuring Beat poetry and jazz with Allan Ginsburg, Wanda Coleman and others, was simultaneously held at neighboring city, The Hague.

Though numerous writers are translated into Dutch—over one-quarter of all books published in Holland are translations—it's difficult for many Dutch writers to get into print. Poetry International offers selected Dutch poets international exposure.

Certainly it could be said the majority of the poets attending the 1993 Poetry International festival were of a certain age, but the line-up included luminaries Miroslav Holub (Czech Republic), Hugo Claus, (Belgium) Seamus Heaney (Ireland), Ilya Kutek, Dmitri Prigov (Russia), Breyten Breytenbach (South Africa), Homero Aradjis (Mexico) Josef Brodsky, Charles Simic (USA),
Remco Campert, Leo Vroman, Bert Schierbeek, Judith Herzberg, Anne Vetger,  Maria van Dahlen (Holland)—women poets are not equally represented.

Charles Simic used to teach at Sonoma State interview tidbits...
The Night Mayor of Rotterdam Jules Deelder performed at the pre-festival event

Mooij sees his role as a “(dis)organizer, not a writer. This is a beautiful country with a good social system that made Poetry International possible, However there's the other side. I have to stop work at 62, I'd like to stay on a long time. . .” And as the upcoming 25th anniversary of Poetry International approaches, Mooij asks, “What is our future? Where are we going?”

Monday, June 14, 1993

STOPTREIN THROUGH HAARLEM


STOPTREIN THROUGH HAARLEM

It’s June 14, 1993, I’m sitting by the window of the two-storey stoptrein
            with neon lime plastic seats. It’s raining again, diamonds come to mind.
                        I don’t like comparing rain on glass to diamonds;
                                    the word apartheid was invented here.
Returning from the Rotterdam poetry reading,
            I know the express train always arrives first,
            though it leaves much later,
                         but I’m too impatient to wait for it. 
On the platform, a poster announces the arrival of the Harlem Globe Trotters.
            The train sign, Haarlem with its two aa’s reminds me of where I am.
I’m borderless, night has fallen, the  water fragments into shards of darkness and light.
I didn’t know I liked the easiness of comparing water to broken glass.

I didn’t know that in this country of canals, the ghettos of the past would follow me
(like the tail of this train);
            or that the common thread between my disparate journeys and lovers
                        would be both the noose and the lifeline.
                                    That I’d become mute from witnessing too much.
At the reading, a Mexican poet recognizes me
            from the photo on an old chapbook, Falling to Sea Level,
            given to him years ago,
                        and asks if I am la mujer de John.
                                                — I say ¡No, es finito! es kaput!
I don’t like mixing languages or speaking ill of those I once wished to be dead
            in metaphors of dear John letters,
                        or being identified by their bedsheets.
There is reason enough to be concerned, I am living below sea level
            with another man I will leave behind on the train,
                                                and there are others.

Near midsummer, the northern light extends its boundaries toward midnight.
I am still in the dark. I don’t like being jealous of poets whose work does not move me.
Someone asks, What makes it a poem? I am at a loss for words and I don’t like it.

I’m a true Californian, born with car keys in my mouth, unused to the rote faith
            others place in trains which always arrive on time, and at the proper place.
            It seems I am destined to circle the outskirts of the city by night,
                        always on the wrong train, either going nowhere in a hurry,
                                    or stopping at every obscure station ath 3 AM,
                                                in search of the right platform.
Or worse yet, the train doesn’t go to the final station, but plunges toward the darkness of its origin.
            No stoptrein, it roared with a mighty vengeance back to Rotterdam,
            the point of destination doppleganging with the point of departure,
            everything replaying in reverse, Möbius time slipping out from under me,
            Amsterdam (and bed) so close, I could almost taste the city lights,
            I didn’t like sitting by the window, crying like a lost child in my 4th decade
            because I was in the wrong language and didn’t understand the equasion of broken tracks.
           
I remember a train ride across Ireland; I was 19—my first time away from home—
horses galloping after the fox, the ruined castle tower against billowing sky.
I knew I wanted to live there, had lived there in a past life,
the concept of home buried in the simultaneous suspension
between the pillars of ancestral memory and déjà vu;
the broken trailhead of lovers at my feet.
I just remembered the how Belgian lowlands rose imperceptably like a slow sigh,
            the fields of grain giving way to the urgency of the Swiss Alps,
            the village lights so high above us, I mistook them for the stars.
            I  waited on tables, mute, unable to speak, except in the language of food.
I rode tiny cog railways, loved the way the clouds unveiled the secret faces of the mountains slowly—            Jungfrau, Schilthorn, Eiger—I knew their beauty was too much to see all at once,
            like that of Medusa’s, my eyes did not turned to stone.
I didn’t like being alone in a strange country with no way home; the airlines bankrupt.
I didn’t like how it soured my perception of beauty;
            the separation of ice and stone, not equal to the whole.
I didn’t like waiting in England for my emergency plane ticket,
            I rode to Inverness with a madwoman, didn’t spot the Loch Ness monster.
Came home to a man for seven years, and became a writer when it ended.

The Mexican poet, Victor Manuel, smiles at me so beautifully,
I am reminded of alps and train rides through the Andes to Lake Titicaca with my middle-aged lover,  
the poet who left me at the end of the trip for a 19-year-old blonde with cheaper words.  
Sleeping in the underbelly of the southern continent I dream they removed Lenin’s shroud.
Hammer and Sickle stenciled on the wall of the Inca fort. Andean flute music:
¿Que Condor Pasa? The highest railroad pass in Peru takes our breath away.
In the 2nd-class car with no light, we sit on boards propped in the aisles with restless chickens.
Soldiers have stopped the train; they bayonet the Indians’ luggage, looking for coca leaves.
A myopic Frenchman crawls out to take a piss, a thief steals the glasses from his face—
For the gold. The mines of Potosi no longer productive.
Bolivia shines with the deceptive white of purity, or death.
The Frenchman blindly fumbles his way back to his seat.
I can still see him pinching his pale one-eyed cock by the foreskin like a naked rat.
In the suffocating heat thick with flies, we take turns sleeping.
At the biological experiment station, we watch llamas mate while lying down.
            Sendero Luminosos will slaughter these same animals a few nights hence.
Darkness is descending, fearing for our belongings, maybe even our lives,
            I rage at John who crawls back to the Pullman where five US dollars
            “buys” us first class, air-conditioned seats. How simple.
Titicaca parts like the Red Sea on both sides of the train.
We have reached the promised land.

* * *

Moscow Nights. This is not poet Nazim Hikmet’s Prague-Berlin train;
I never knew I liked the way he compared night to a tired bird on a smokey wet plain.
I know I am not writing this from a known prison;
            and I don’t know if the guards are beating another prisoner,
                        or if I’m imagining things.
I know the guerillas blew up the electrical plant Independence Eve,
            the explosion rocked Lima,
            I finished my soupa criolla in darkness,
                        the stacatto of guns in the distance.
I didn’t know the body we found the next morning was of the famous lawyer, named after flowers.
I didn’t know we would be among the first to see him in death.
I didn’t know that my life might depend on the difference
of knowing Soviet and Israeli guns upon sight.
That I’d see so many dead men,
            or that I’d throw three fetesus back into the sea
                        at the request of the men who loved me,
                                    or that John’s would be the last.
I never knew I’d bear witness to all these things before I was 40 years old,
            or that I’d have to lose my heart in order to write a poem on things I didn’t know I loved.

I know my escape to another country will bring other forms of exhile. It’s August, 1989,
I don’t know the Berlin Wall will fall, or that the aftershock of eastern bloc countries
            like so many dominos, will lose their boundaries.
Or that the velvet revolution will curtain another kind of darkness.

I have some questions for the cosmonaut stranded in space three months after his country disappeared,
            did his shrinking heart find the capacity to love again,
            could he still look into the night sky without finding dispair,
                                    what was worse, the exile or the abandonment?

Cherkassy, on the Dniper River, picnics amid the haystacks; shashlik and summer tomatoes.
I sleep on the living room couchbed of my soon-to-be-lover who’s married;
            we blame it on the erotic poetry we’ve been translating.
                        It undoes us like slow mother-of-pearl buttons.
Leaving the Ukraine in the private car #17, a communist party official coach,
I think I’m pregnant again; 40 days later the deluge comes. I hear the blonde
leaves John S. for another woman.             Poetic justice.

New Year’s Eve, 1990. In the square, a masked stranger kisses me; the sound of ice falling.
We return to Moscow in car #17; I have bronchitis and a strained back;
the tickets cost a half a month’s salary, we celebrate by eating cherries in brandy.
Oleg enters slowly, but I hurt too much. The paneling is of cherrywood.
In Red Square I stand transfixed, snow falls on the writhing madness of St. Basil’s domes.
I don’t know if  Ivan the Terrible really put out the architect’s eyes,
or if it’s another story. All this languid squalor and and false beauty.
At the Pushkin Museum, Matisse’s Goldfish has me in tears.
None of us knows the USSR will cease to exist in two years.
I never knew red carnations in the snow by Lenin’s tomb would affect me so, and
I never expected to be on a 2nd-class cattle car train enroute from Moscow to Leningrad 
without official permission, not able to speak English, or risk facing deportation.
Mid-winter, six people to an open compartment; tow more in the aisle.
18 hours of human stench, mildewed winter clothing and wet fur, coal fumes, kilbasa-kilbasa;
I long for sweet tea from the rough capable hands of the Dizhurnia.
The crone carrying flowers to a funeral and I come to blows over gladioli
and sleeping benches. Oleg says, You’re a real Soviet Citizen now!
We cuddle a few moments in an upper bunk under the glare of six pairs of eyes
and a light bulb that will burn most of the night. Privacy is a western affectation.
Why are all the train stations half-way across town?
I didn’t know he would come to live with me in America nine months
            where our own private hell would be born.
Another 15-hour ride from Cherkassy to Moscow and the US.  
            In the dark we manage a sleight of hand, and eat more cherries in brandy.

It’s August, 1991, after the coup. I fall in love with a famous Soviet has-been pop singer at Fort Ross.
            He lives in Leningrad,
                        only now it’s called Petersburg. He calls me his Conchita, only I’m no nun.
At the Hotel Kosmos the singer gives a speech in Russian, hands me flowers
The interpreter said, He proposes marriage. What is your answer?
I’m speechless, but the train takes me back to the Ukraine, to my ex-lover.
Oleg and I say our final goodbyes at the platform.
The American businessman Paul, holds me in car #17 from Moscow to Kiev
            and back again to Moscow, and to Petersburg.
The singer and I live in Petersburg. He’s devoutly orthodox,
that, and the language barrier eventually eroded the love.
Living in sin made him uneasy.
            Returning by train from Ekaterina Dvorets, I said yes.
We saw the Summer Palace in winter,
            the solstice approached, the Soviet Union would cease to exist Dec. 31,         
                        but by then I’d be home.
My American friend Maryna came to visit; we knew we were an island of sanity
in a country of crazy people. She said, I was married to a fanatic.

We rode to Moscow and in the quiet dark of the rocking train, making love in the lower bunk becomes a game, my hand over his mouth. On the way back, orgasms in the darkness halfway between the two cities, a frozen land, isolated farms, and the erratic platform lights illuminating our compartment.

The next summer, on my way to Russia with an enormous pile of luggage, a computer and a printer, I stopped in Vienna to visit a high school friend, we went on to Hungary. I was in a dither, should I marry Valera? Did I even love him? I wandered the streets of Budapest alone and found no answers; Ken had a Hungarian girlfriend. He had to go back to Vienna a few days before me and would meet me on the 4 O’clock train in Vienna. An ironic aside, the only language I had in common with many Hungarians was the bastard Russian I’d picked up in Petersburg. No matter, their Russian was as bad as mine. It was a common yezik, or tongue.

I waited for hours in line at the train station to validate my Eurail pass, but Soviet bureaucracy was still in action though the Soviets left in ’86. Minutes before the Vienna train was about to leave, I made a dash for it, committing myself by throwing my luggage onto the floor, but the train began to roll away from the platform with my luggage on it just as I attempted a four-point landing. My camera rucksack caught on the door, I was thrown off-balance, teetering on the edge, holding on for dear life, my waterbottle clattered onto the tracks. A conductor came to my rescue, running alongside the train, he literally shoved my behind through the door, I sprawled in an undignified heap over my luggage, shaken but more-or-less intact. Fortunately this caper was witnessed by the ticket agent who saw my dilemma (I was riding the train illegally again, this time without a valid ticket) and let me ride to Vienna for free, saying I should get it validated there.

Ken and I had made plans to go onto Amsterdam together, but he ran out of time and said he would ride with me as far as Frankfurt, where his plane was leaving from. A last day in Vienna, we decide on the night train. I see no train listed; Amstel is the Austrian name for Amsterdam. At 10 PM we head to the track, and wait an hour, assuming it’s been delayed. The train being loaded is a freight train, but it says Amstel on it. I’m fuming, first class consists of four seats that don’t pull out into beds like the other trains. Our last supper together, I angrily uncork the Hungarian wine, intent on getting drunk fast as possible.

The conductor comes by, surprised, she speaks little French, Ken speaks no German. Somehow she conveys to him, you must get off at the next station, ride back one stop, and they will flag down the train that will take you to Frankfurt. Great! Not only am I not going to Amsterdam with Ken, but I’m being abandoned in the middle of the night, with sacks of mail and toiletpaper as my only companions. I barely manage to whittle my rage from a blind one into a low rage. We hug, say our goodbyes. I get out my pillow and night things. He gets off the train. The conductor sees me still on the train, tells me to get off too. It turns out Amstel is also a small village in the Austrian Alps. The train’s beginning to roll, I grab my mountains of luggage, my nighty, my snoozle pillow, the food and wine, throw them out the door to Ken, and barely make it out. We’re in the of hamlet St. Pauli, at one AM with no hotel rooms to be had at any price. We sleep in the waiting room benches, periodic trains shaking us awake.

Six AM, we get on a commuter train, wild-eyed travelers among the placid businessmen, ride across Germany (a billboard of a pig on a satin pillow—we knew we’d crossed the border). At several train platforms, I try to call Vins, my friend in Amsterdam, but these trains run on time, 4 minutes isn’t enough time to place an international call. I’m getting adept at jumping on rolling trains. An eight-minute stop, I reach Vins to tell him the change of plans. We figured out where we went wrong—there’s no through train to Amsterdam. We should have taken the train to Köln, Cologne, and changed there for Amsterdam. Ken gets off in Frankfurt. I remember to change trains in Köln, visit the cathedral, arrive in Amsterdam that evening. The Netherlands are like the paintings I saw at the Hermitage. Peter the Great lived in Amsterdam for a while.

Vins is late. The train station is scary with so many druggies, etc. Ten years has aged Vins, I barely recognize him, my college classmate and friend.  Originally I was to stay with him a few days before catching the train to Petersburg, but at the last minute I find out Valera is singing in Odessa until the end of the month. We’d put off the inevitable for years, Vins and I had never been lovers, the timing was never right. More house guests, a lack of bedding. . . The day I was to leave for Russia approached, horrible nightmares . . . the migraines came back, my body saying no in the only way it knew, through illness. At the train station as I was making my reservation, I told Vins I wasn’t going to Russia, turning my back on Valera wasn’t as hard as I thought. I was relieved I’d finally come to a decision, any decision after months of ambiguousness. I stay in Amsterdam another two months. We enter into our own private hells, the fighting, worse than any I’d experienced, leave me shaken. We leave things in the air.

Two months later, Vins best friend Jan comes to San Francisco, we spend three weeks photographing the homeless over the holidays. Vins writes me long love letters, I’m a moth circling Jan’s light, but he tells me he’s bisexual, having broken up with his girlfriend, Pietje. We enter into other complicated equations that will come to fruition the next summer when I return to Holland for Poetry International in Rotterdam. Jan telling Vins of his sexploits—especially with me (as far as it went) festered, an ugly wound manifests in the form of revenge. I told Vins I was no man’s property, this is why I didn’t go to Russia. Though Jan and I are star-crossed lovers, he stands me up at the Duerne train station, I waited all day, then ride back to Eindhoven, missing Vins by one train, It gives me a long time to consider my situation. I’ve about had it, but we all hurt inside.

It seems I am always on the wrong train, either going nowhere in a hurry, or stopping by every obscure station in the middle of the night in search of a platform, or on the train that doesn’t stop. The one time I did manage to catch the fast train from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, an hour-and-a-half ride, it made an unscheduled return halfway—from Schiphol back to Rotterdam—the point of destination doppleganging with the point of departure, everything replaying in reverse, Möbius time slipping out from under me, Amsterdam (and bed) so close, I could see the city lights, but the train was plunging again into darkness back towards Rotterdam, those obscure stations, a blur. No stoptrein, it roared with a mighty vengeance back to the direction where I’d come from.

Riding that train, dividing fragments of time until it was nearly dawn, reminded me of the story of the race that never ends because it never begins because first, you have to get half-way there. In order to make it half way, you need to travel half that distance, and so on. It brings you back to the beginning. Stasis in search of the whole picture, both coming and going. I arrived home at dawn in a downpour. Vins was asleep, but I knew it was over. Somehow, when you have to struggle that hard to go home and still it eludes you, it’s time to pay attention to the fact that maybe the train never even left the station.




While Stranded on the Amsterdam Train


WHILE STRANDED ON THE AMSTERDAM TRAIN
                                                — after Nazim Hikmet’s, Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.

It’s almost the Summer Solstice, I’m sitting by the window of the stoptrein to Amsterdam. It’s raining again, diamonds come to mind. I don’t like comparing rain on glass to that of diamonds; the word apartheid was invented here. Returning from the poetry reading, I know the express train always arrives first, but I’m too impatient to wait for it. I dreamed I walked barefoot on red African earth with the white grandmothers. On the platform, a poster announces the arrival of the Harlem Globe Trotters. The train sign, Haarlem with its two aa’s reminds me of where I am. Glass beads to buy an island, to furnish the ghettos of Niewe Amsterdam. I’m borderless, night has fallen, the water fragments into shards of darkness and light. I like the easiness of comparing water to broken glass; where are the Black grandmothers?

I didn’t know that in this country of canals, the past would follow me (like the tail of this train); or that the common thread between disparate journeys and lovers would be both the noose and the lifeline. That I’d become mute from bearing witness like the poets exiled from the sordid gardens of home: what of Breytenbach, on Malebranche, the street of sinister branches, or was it apples? who cannot shake South Africa from his words, Paris, an afterthought. In Leiden, where the Pilgrim Fathers left for the new world, I watch Duo Dou and Bei Dao cycle down Papengracht, Tianenman Square whispering in the spokes: red meat could do no better, red meat could do no better.
                                                     
The plane wreck at the Bijlmer ghetto, Black grandchildren sitting down to Sunday dinner, where I witnessed the flames rise like a mushroom; walked among the debris of the dead. Hikmet, in the middle of Moscow winter, dreaming of Ramadan nights with his grandfather and the Turkish poplars of Izmir; the white birches of Russia could do no better. What of the secrets that are kept from us?

At the reading, a Mexican poet recognizes me from the photo on an old chapbook, Falling to Sea Level, given to him years ago, and asks if I am la mujer de John. I say ¡No, es finito, es kaput! I don’t like mixing languages, speaking ill of those I once wished dead, or being identified by their bedsheets. There is reason enough to be concerned; I am living below sea level with another man I will leave on the train. Near midsummer, the northern light extends its boundaries toward midnight. I don’t like being jealous of famous old men poets whose work does not move me. Someone asks, What makes it a poem? I am at a loss for words and I don’t like it.

*       *         *
It seems I am destined to circle the outskirts of the city by night, on the wrong train, going nowhere in a hurry, in search of the right platform home. This train doesn’t go to the final station, but plunges toward the darkness of its origin; the point of destination doppleganging with the point of departure, everything replaying in reverse, Möibius time slipping out from under me. I don’t like sitting by the window, in my 4th decade, crying like a lost child because I’m in the wrong language, don’t understand the equation of broken tracks while sitting by the window on the Amsterdam train.

*       *         *
I remember a train ride across Ireland; I was 19—horses galloping after the fox, the ruined tower against billowing sky. I knew I wanted to live there, had lived there in a past life, the concept of home buried in the simultaneous suspension between the pillars of ancestral memory and déjà vu; the new trailhead of lovers at my feet.

I just remembered the how Belgian lowlands rose imperceptibly, like a slow sigh, the fields of grain giving way to the urgency of the Swiss Alps, the village lights so high above us, I mistook them for stars. I waited on tables, mute, unable to speak, except in the language of food. I rode tiny cog railways, loved the way the clouds unveiled the secret faces of the mountains, slowly—Jungfrau, Schilthorn, Eiger—I knew their beauty was too much to see all at once, like that of Medusa’s; my eyes did not turned to stone. I didn’t like being alone in a strange country with no way home, or how it soured my perception of beauty; the separation of ice and stone, not equal to the whole. I didn’t know I came so close to dying in a chateau turret in the hills of Luxembourg; the fireflies were magic enough when the fever broke. Came home to a man for seven years, became a writer, but he left, just like that.

*       *         *
The Mexican poet, Victor Manuel, smiles at me so beautifully, I am reminded of Alps and train rides across the Andes to Lake Titicaca with my middle-aged lover: the poet who left me at the end of the trip for a 19-year-old blonde with cheaper words. Sleeping in the underbelly of the southern continent I dream they removed Lenin’s shroud, slowly. Hammer and Sickle stenciled on the wall of the Inca fort, Puku Pukara; ¿Que Condor Pasa? and Tambomachai take flight on quena flutes. Cuzco nights under the Southern Cross, my ribs ache from breathing thin air. In the 2nd-class car with no light, we sit on boards propped in the aisles with the restless chickens. Soldiers stop the train; bayonet the Indians’ luggage, looking for coca leaves.

A myopic Frenchman crawls out to take a piss, a thief steals the glasses from his face—Por el oro, the gold. The mines of Potosi, no longer productive. Bolivia shines with the deceptive white of purity, or of death. The Frenchman blindly fumbles his way back to his seat. I can still see him pinching his pale one-eyed cock by the foreskin like a naked rat. At the biological experiment station, we watch llamas mate while lying down. Sendero Luminosos will slaughter these same animals a few nights hence. The news follows us like plague dogs. Darkness is descending, fearing for our belongings, maybe even our lives, I rage at John who crawls back to the Pullman where the mordida, five US dollars “buys” us first class, air-conditioned seats. How simple. Titicaca parts like the Red Sea on both sides of the train. We have reached the promised land.

I take Victor Manuel to the train station, navigate between Spanish and English with the ticketseller, and contemplate the way his lips move in his native tongue. He lives on Calle Amsterdam in Mexico City; we laugh at the cosmic joke.

*       *         *
Moscow Nights. This is not Hikmet’s Prague-Berlin train; I never knew I liked the way he compared night to a tired bird on a smoky wet plain. I know I am not writing this from a known place; and I don’t know if the guards are beating another prisoner, or if I’m imagining things in my own oubliette of words. I know the guerrillas blew up the electrical plant Independence Eve,
the explosion rocked Lima, I finished my soupa criolla in darkness, the staccato of guns in the distance like a drum tattoo. I didn’t know the body we found the next morning was that of the famous lawyer, named after flowers. I didn’t know we would be among the first to welcome him to death. I didn’t know that my life might depend on the difference of knowing Soviet and Israeli guns upon sight. That I’d see so many dead men, or that I’d throw three fetuses back into the sea at the request of the men who loved me, or that John’s would be the last. I never knew I’d bear witness to all these things before I was 40, or that I’d have to lose my heart in order to write about them while stranded on the Amsterdam train.

*       *         *
I know my escape to another country will bring other forms of exile. It’s August, 1989, I don’t know the Berlin Wall will fall, or that in the aftershock, eastern bloc countries, like so many dominos, will lose their boundaries in the calendar of days. Or that the velvet revolution will cloak another kind of darkness. I have some questions for the kosmonaut stranded in space three months after his country disappeared: did his shrunken heart find the capacity to love again, could he still look into the night sky without finding despair; what was worse, the exile or the abandonment? Did he have to learn to walk again?

Cherkassy, on the Dniper River, shashlik picnics amid the haystacks; I read Zhivago, and sleep on the living room couchbed of my host-family. Sordid details we blame on the erotic poetry we translate; it undoes us like slow mother-of-pearl buttons. Leaving the Ukraine in the private Car #17, a communist party official coach, I worry about pregnancy; the blonde leaves John for another woman: poetic justice.

New Year’s Eve, 1990. Carnival. In the square, a masked stranger kisses me; the sound of ice falling. Bitter cold; I learn to eat fat in order to keep warm. We return to Moscow in Car #17; the tickets cost a half a month’s salary, we celebrate by eating Ukrainian cherries in brandy. Slowly he enters the temple of my body but the urgency of residual memory separates us from ourselves; the paneling is of cherrywood.

*       *         *
In Red Square I stand transfixed, snow falls on the writhing madness of St. Basil’s domes. I don’t know if Ivan the Terrible put out the architect’s eyes, or if it’s another story of languid squalor amid false beauty. At the Pushkin Museum, Matisse’s Goldfish has me in real tears. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because my period started. Or because I’ve seen Akhmatova’s sister feeding pigeons in the snow, or that the Arbat, where Akhmadulina still lives is a carnival for the camera’s eye. A sentimental journey of no return for the dead: A daughter of the light, Marina Tsvetayeva, my namesake, found only compelling darkness in the noose in the language of lost words, & I cannot write. None of us knows the USSR will cease to exist in two years, or what will succeed it.

I never knew red carnations in the snow by Lenin’s tomb would stain my retina. I never expected to be on the Moscow-Leningrad train in a 2nd-class cattle car without official permission, not able to speak English, and risk facing deportation. Mid-winter, six people to an open compartment; two more in the aisle. Eighteen hours of wet fur, coal fumes, and garlic kilbasa-kilbasa; the whispering of the tracks. I long for sweet tea from the rough, capable hands of the dizhurnia. The matron carrying flowers to a funeral and I come to blows over gladioli and sleeping benches. Oleg says, You’re a real Soviet citizen now! I have no country, except that of the mind. We huddle a few moments in an upper bunk under the glare of six pairs of eyes and a light bulb that will burn most of the night. I am reminded privacy is a western affectation. I didn’t know we would be sentenced to understand each other. Slave, slav, slavery of the heart, the tracks whisper. I am not Karenina, I will not bow my head to the altar of steel tracks though sometimes it comes upon me for weeks on end. There is no escape from the heart. We say our final goodbyes at Platform A; he has no right to be jealous, but he is. In Car #17 the American businessman holds me from Moscow to Kiev.

*       *         *
It’s August, 1991, The Coup. I fall in love with a Soviet pop singer stranded at Fort Ross who stays with me until his ship sails. He lives in Leningrad, only now it’s St. Petersburg. He calls me his Conchita, only I’m no nun or saint. He’s not Rezanov, this is not Siberia, there are no horses to be thrown from except in dreams. And death is a ship with a cargo of repeated history.
What if the Russians had stayed in California, or if Rezanov hadn’t been killed by a horse?

*       *         *
At the Hotel Kosmos the singer gives a speech in Russian, hands me red carnations. The interpreter translates, He proposes marriage. What do you answer? The singer and I live in Petersburg. He’s devoutly orthodox, has insomnia, Living in sin makes him uneasy. He prays for sleep, won’t talk of the past. On the subway, people touch his arm like a holy relic: Payush Guitara? Whispering suicide, his dead wife sleeps in the other room. When he leaves I try on her things. He sings One-way Ticket, doesn’t know what it means. Returning by train from the mirrored halls of Ekaterina Dvorets, I whisper yes to a life sentence, then change my mind. Vagaries of the heart.

In the city where Catherine loved men and horses & Peter the Great’s prick was aptly named, we make love in elevators and stairwells because the singer’s house is a shrine to God. I tell him I’m an atheist; he falls to his knees, adds my name to the prayer list. We ride to Moscow; in the quiet dark of the rocking train, making love in the lower bunk becomes a game, my hand over his mouth. Our mouths, small white O’s in the dark frozen wasteland halfway between the two cities, our faces lit by the erratic strobe of platform lights. I waver over the proposal, and dream of captive horses. We explore the Summer Palace in winter, the solstice approaches, New Year’s Eve, the Soviet Union will cease to exist. By then, I’ll be safely home. Maryna comes to visit; we are twins on an island in a sea of insane people. In line for bread, she says, I was 19-years-married to a religious fanatic. They don’t get over it—ever.

*       *         *
On my return to Russia, I stop in Vienna to visit Ken; we go to Hungary by train. I wander the hills of Budapest, find no answers, other than the commerce of ambivalence. Speech eludes me, my paper becomes mute when my notebook drowns in the Secheny Baths, a Rohrshat test of migrating ink; six months of writing lost. Having no family, and afraid of infirm streets, I cannot write about it. The Siganiy’s Magyar-Russlich is as bad as mine, but we have a common yezik, or tongue, singing Russian songs after the violins and tourist coins fall silent in Obuda. Why am I suddenly remembering the Seagull Cafe off Nevsky Prospekt where we drank coffee bought in hard currency, worth a month’s wages in rubles? Censorship comes to mind. Is it because freedom is what we value least, there’s always a Jesse Helms in the wings waiting to ride shotgun on the world.

*       *         *
The Vienna train is about to leave, I heave my luggage onto the floor. My rucksack catches on the door, I’m thrown off-balance, my waterbottle clatters onto the moving tracks. So this is how it ends, beneath the wheels of the Budapest train, but a conductor shoves my ass through the door. The ticket agent sees this, lets me ride to Vienna for free. A friend of Isaac Singer tells me even with all the prizes, in America, he couldn’t sell his work. I get “stood up” at the Succession Building where Klimpt’s kiss unleashes the demons of pleasure in frescos of Byzantine gold, I am crying in a lost language. At the gates of Vienna where Turkish horses once grazed on the killing fields, Ken changes travel plans again. He’s going home to America, leaving me here. We decide on the night train, learning Amstel is another name for Amsterdam. The train is late. First-class on the freight train is four airplane seats, no bed. Our last supper: in a foul mood, I swig Hungarian wine, the tracks whispering in Eb. Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto comes to mind.

The conductor conveys to Ken in broken French: You must get off at the next station to flag down the Köln train to Amsterdam. Amstel is nothing: a village in the Alps. I’m twice-abandoned on the night train with mail sacks. We say our goodbyes, but the conductor, alarmed, motions me off too. In my nightshirt, I throw my things out the door and leap toward faith. We sleep in the waiting room; like Cretaceous monsters from the deep, periodic trains shake us awake

Six A.M., we’re the wild-eyed travelers among the placid businessmen, riding across Germany (a billboard of swine on satin pillows—we know we’ve crossed the border). Ken gets off in Frankfurt. I remember to change trains in Köln, offer florins to restore the Gothic cathedral, the gargoyles need a facelift. The Netherlands are like the paintings I saw at the Hermitage. Peter the Great also lived in Amsterdam, saw the mirrored light for himself.

Ten years has aged Vins, I barely recognize my college classmate who chain smokes and stays up all night pondering the philosophic vagaries of the human psyche. My three-day stay before catching the Petersburg train extends several months. We pass the houses of the thinkers, the ghosts of Cartesian logic and Calvinism, the philosopher’s stone, the cornerstone in the city of bankers: cogito ergo sum. At the train station I tell him what he already knows, there’s no turning back.

*       *         *
It’s the Winter Solstice, I’m 40 years old. He writes me long love letters. A friend comes to San Francisco, we photograph the homeless, we are moths circling the light. He makes love to me; says he loves men. I dream of large cocks, the gaunt faces of the men with AIDS that glow with a holy light, and enter into complicated equations of ownership that will come to fruition when I return to the Netherlands. Marilet invites me to teach poetry in South Africa. Fearing tainting from the Dutch, the Pilgrim Fathers fled to the New World, then, imposed their will upon the savages where apartheid was practiced long before the word was coined. We who laugh at the Russians who confuse democracy with capitalism; our own freedom is bought at the expense of others. Dreaming is circular breathing. Living is no laughing matter; will I ever be able to laugh from the deep, this far below sea level where the plain reveals ancient transgressions of riverbeds.

The Yugoslavian lover, is he still alive? Do my Russian friends have enough food to eat? Each time I enter Russia, it’s from another fallen border. I cannot speak of the Belgrade where I bought a wedding dress for the married groom; lace made of bedsheets for the bride who never was, never will be. And I haven’t talked of the woods outside Peredelkino, Pasternak’s white birches and Hikmet’s dark exile; there is a Zhivago in each of us searching for the purity of love in the midst of war and there’s always a Lubyanka to hold us prisoner; Hikmet knew that best. Did he dream his poems in Turkish, transcribing them from the mother of tongues?

Riding the train at dawn, I divide fragments of time like the mathematical dilemma of Hermes and the tortoise in a race that never ends because it never begins. To get half way, they had to travel half that distance, and so on, back to the beginning of divisible time. Hikmet was right: exile is not easy—especially from the language of lost words.

Maybe the train never left the station. Maybe we were never born. Maybe this is a dream in search of the whole picture both coming and going. It’s raining again. I’m borderless, night has fallen, water fragments into darkness and light; I’ve lost the words for home. Sitting by the window on the train to Amsterdam I watch the world disappear like the evidence of truth, an arrow shot into the air and falling back without leaving the plucked song of the bow in the wind.

14 June, 1993,  enroute to Amsterdam
& 14 August, Bolinas, CA