Do you remember that time in Newark, when you took pity
On the semi-burnt-out towers at the city’s rim?
Maybe it was just a show of vanity,
That you make things of beauty even of them
And their misshapen friends, the cast-iron bridge
And pockmarked stretch of road that hauled me home:
Sudden adornments on an orange, huge,
Dome-shaped temple rising from the ground
To which a desperate skyline had made pilgrimage,
Its high-rises prostrate on the holy ground,
Like throngs in Mecca, hearing their muezzin.
And there was Newark, momentarily crowned—
As if by that ecstatic, praying din—
For once in its stunted life with gold, not thorns,
A colossal halo where its sky had been,
Seeming to say that when a city burns
It doesn’t actually have to be consumed.
I suppose, if there’s a God, these are His concerns,
But you’d know better than I; it’s you He named,
On the fourth day, by name, and there you were.
You still arrive as if you’d just been dreamed
Out of nothing by a reckless dreamer’s dreamer,
Or, rather, out of nothing but a word.
Did you hear it called or was it all a blur—
The stars’ wild glittering, a fish, a bird,
Howling animals, a man, a woman
And, before you’d settled in, their young son murdered . . .
I wonder if you caught a glimpse of sun
Before you had to go your separate ways.
Perhaps, in all this time, you’ve never known
About the routine epochs we call days
When a good deal less of what we are is hidden.
You’re off wandering in a foreign maze
Of branches, wires and rooftops, until a sudden
Undoing of the darkness sends you back to us.
But I’ve seen you, in the daytime, come unbidden,
As if you preferred to be anonymous,
A tiny, unassuming, moon-shaped cloud
Half trying to hide, half to spy on us.
Perhaps that’s what you were doing in Leningrad
When I took a walk at dusk along the Nevsky Prospekt
And caught you setting up a masquerade
As one of the heavy globes that intersect
The once grand boulevard at every step,
Lighting the way for palaces, absurdly decked—
Like stout, old matrons in a bridal shop—
In frilly and unflattering pastels.
You hovered over them as if to eavesdrop
As they murmured to their doubles in canals,
Your deadpan face unnaturally low
And white light clinging to their scarred pastels
Until they seemed to fill with early snow.
You were still there when I entered my hotel
But you must’ve risen eventually; you had to
Once you’d heard what they were willing to tell.
Maybe they recited a local poem
In which the Neva casts her murky spell,
A great one, maybe, like the Requiem
Extorted from the woman in gray-blue shards of paint
Who presides over the Russian Art Museum
Along with several icons of a Russian saint—
Nicholas, maybe?—and a lone Chagall.
She—though I’d never read her-managed to haunt
My travels just by staring from that wall.
Now I’d scour the city for some mirage
Of her, in the House on the Fontanka, at her table
Coaxing warring ghosts onto a page
From their flimsy strongholds in the air.
In those days, all I cared for was the Hermitage:
Simone Martini’s Mary, bent to hear,
But cut away from her announcing angel,
Deep blue robes engulfing all of her
(Their color, egg whites crushed with lapis lazuli)
To frame each long white hand’s elaborate wing
And the features streaming down her twisted, frail
Face intent, exquisitely, on nothing.
I saw her counterpart in Washington years later:
An all-gold angel, tiny, glittering,
Also Simone Martini’s, also pure,
Olive branch in hand, hailing the wall,
His message reaching to the North Atlantic somewhere
To be salvaged by a pious, passing seagull
Who flew to Leningrad, as if on pilgrimage,
And circled the museum screaming Hail
Unless he was trying, moon, to pay you homage—
With his faith he could see you in the daytime
Despite your elaborate camouflage—
Or maybe to the huge Matisses in the museum,
So bright they grabbed his keen eye through the windows.
Is that what you were doing, moon? Staring at them:
The lavish dining room, the couple in pajamas,
Palm fronds on Morocco’s stucco domes,
And next to a squatting outdoor orchestra’s
Scraggly band, with knees and hands for drums:
That iron-pumping remake of La Danse,
Inspired, doubtless, by the high, taut limbs
Of the Ballets Russes’ still unmatched Nijinsky
Who’d stay limber for an endless quarter century
At the window of his dull asylum in France,
Listening for the wind to stir a tree
With a long legato like the solo moan
That slithered down, then up, the flute that Debussy
Commissioned to awake his sleeping faun.
Who knows what Anastasia would wait
For at the window of her asylum—French? Italian?
She remembered nothing, not the heavy velvet
Her mother made her wear that so encumbered
Her entrance to the royal box, in state,
Where her father, when it darkened, always slumbered
As her mother shed her jewels and ermine cape.
If Anastasia had heard that flute, she’d have remembered
Nijinsky’s stunning Grand Finale leap,
Anything besides the string of closed, dark spaces
That constituted her pyrrhic escape.
I wonder if she ever saw those huge Matisses,
If Nijinsky saw his likeness in The Dance,
If they would even have known each other’s faces
If they’d been in the same asylum, in France.
Perhaps they were, already, too much changed—
It wouldn’t really have been a great coincidence,
A place known to Russians, who arranged
With a jewel or two, the care for noble émigrés—
Only Matisse’s painting is still unchanged:
The exploding torsos, limbs, necks, fingers, toes.
I just saw it hanging in New York,
At least as graceful as it ever was.
That’s right, if unbelievable: New York.
Along with all its cronies (well, not all;
They decided—though its picture’s in the book—
That La Musique was too infirm to travel).
But the people in pajamas, the green Moroccan,
That dining room with roses on its wall,
Were there with several prostrate, white-robed men,
Each of whom resembled a praying dome.
And I’d thought I’d never see those paintings again,
Had sacrificed all Leningrad to see them,
Staying from nine in the morning until dark
Or dusk, rather, in each resplendent room.
But there they all were, hanging in New York.
You were there, too, posing as a water tank
Atop one of the towers that line the park
And then as a new ornament for Citibank.
You’ll forgive me, won’t you, if I wasn’t fooled?
I was glad to see you there, absurdist, blank,
Holding your milky own against the cold.
Why should Matisse be more footloose than you?
And why should I have felt so ridiculed
That what I’d made a pilgrimage to know
Had come, of its accord, a dozen years later?
How could anyone have guessed that now
Leningrad would again be named for Peter?
Not the saint so much as the young czar,
Who, posing as a sailor on a freighter,
Found one thing in all the world to long for:
A cluster of islands in a slim lagoon—
Have you ever been there? I’ve not seen you there,
Though I can’t say I was looking for you, moon—
That had spent so long refining their reflection,
Trying first these towers, then these arches, on,
This jagged bridge, this square, this predilection
For a line of marble porticoes, a dome,
That Peter, almost instantly, began construction
Of a copycat version, nearer home,
Where the Neva’s ice would copy it again . . .
How his architects must have longed for Rome
Or wherever they’d come from, Florence, Naples, Milan,
Lured by who knows how much Russian gold
And the wild ambition—madness?—of the plan
To clear some empty marshlands near a sea and build,
Of all things, a northern rival to Venice.
The first foundations shattered in the cold
Or floundered in the swamp and mud and ice;
Thousands upon thousands of workers died.
Of what? Drowning? Frostbite? Typhus? Tetanus?
I looked it up, in the encyclopedia, under Leningrad,
And found out Peter never made it to Venice.
He was on his way, but stopped, the entry said,
Because of a rebellion—at home? in Venice?
Who was it who rebelled? Could they have won?
And what had Peter seen that could entice
Such single-minded purpose from a person?
(A Canaletto? An engraving? Was it just the legend?)
Maybe he saw his city in a vision;
It didn’t resemble Venice in the end.
Not, of course, that any city could,
Though it is, in its clunky way, certainly grand.
But why am I telling you? You’ve surely made
An occasional impression on the Grand Canal
Or slipped it silver from behind a cloud
Where you’d set up your temporary arsenal.
But Venice has no need for your loose change
Or for your services as would-be sentinel.
It’s one place your white light can’t unhinge
Though you might put a word in with the tide
To slow each palace’s unconscious plunge
Into the Adriatic’s murky bed. . . .
Imagine those canals reflecting only clouds
Like mirrors in a house of mourning, covered.
I ought to have learned by now that each thing fades,
Almost all of them without a trace.
Why should a spot like Venice beat the odds
When we haven’t got one relic from Atlantis?
You could probably describe the place in detail,
The pools where you’d admire your still-young face,
The pillars you’d turn nearly blue, the wall
Where a sculpted hero mourned the child-apprentice
Who took himself too near the sun and fell
Into the waiting sea, just like Atlantis
And, soon, now, Venice and the other city-myths
Whose names alone could at one time entice
A thousand dreaming princes to their deaths
As they surveyed building sites for ideal plans,
Scoured continents for masons, sculptors, goldsmiths,
Glaziers, painters, marble, tiny stones
To fill ten thousand ceilings with mosaics,
Not a glint of one of which remains.
But I forget that you’re also made of rocks,
Not a wanderer, after all, but a place,
Devoid of even the crudest human tricks.
And your enchantress’s serene, pearl face
Is actually nothing more than a reflection.
So whom am I talking to? And what does this
Make me, but a reflection of a reflection,
These lines a sort of verbal hall of mirrors,
Paling copies of copies in each direction
Of the copied plans of czars, doges, emperors
Not one of them accurate or thorough,
But variants on whimsies, envies, errors,
Something like my long obsession with you;
I, too, would love to alter every city
With my own flawless arsenal of silver-blue
And ignore the pressing accidents of gravity,
Or at least seem to, as you’ve always done,
And burn whatever’s dreary, banal, petty
With a subtle glitter borrowed from a sun
No one on their piece of earth can see.
I’d have a worthwhile answer to your question
If, by some fluke, you should one day call to me—
What’s up, loquacious person, what are you doing?—
As you rest against a local cloud or tree,
My face transfixed and overflowing
With so much white and silver that the jealous stars
Would leave their constellations and come following—
The sky a mess of limbless lions and bears,
Stranded centaurs, hunters, wingless swans—
Until they’d rearranged themselves as dancers,
Deposed Russian princesses, lost fauns,
Rebels, painters, architects, pretenders
To a restless century’s discarded thrones,
All of them waiting, breathless, at their windows
For even the most diminished kinds of signs,
Except for those few enterprising wanderers
Who scavenge local shores for telltale stones
And could be said, in all their travels, to mimic you.
Perhaps, among them, there are some lucky ones
Who find some rocks from which they can construe
A wall or tower or bridge or an entire town
And then there are those who simply wait for you
To come to them and tell them what you’ve seen.
I know for a fact you’ve obliged some of them;
With Akhmatova you had a nightly conversation
And with Peter, disappointed, on his voyage home.
He was lucky, really, not to have seen San Marco;
This way, he was satisfied with one gold dome
And a brick palace covered in yellow stucco.
Perhaps it was you who suggested it,
You who sent Matisse off to Morocco—
So Petersburg is lovely only by your light
And, as a symbol on a mosque, at least,
Matisse was finally forced to paint your portrait.
Poor old moon, I suppose you couldn’t resist;
You, too, have suffered great indignities—
Men trampling on you, shuttles roaring past,
Bits of you in all our major cities,
The nighttime sky clogged with manmade rivals—
You, whose likenesses had once been deities,
With sacrifices nightly, temples, festivals.
Now, some nights, you make your rounds as modestly
As a retired civil servant on her travels.
But, still, couldn’t you tell me what you see?
I’ve waited so long, and fairly patiently
Che fai tu, luna, in ciel? Dimmi.