But each grave is the limit of the earth.
You died on a cold night in January.
It was Superbowl Sunday. A supine empire,
Preoccupied with bread and circuses,
Land Rovers, stratagems of muscle-
Bound heroes. Next day, fire
Swallows the famous opera house in Venice.
Not with a bang – with a light rustle
Of red silk, your heart passed the final
Exam, black-sailed, in the science of farewells.
Snow falls on the fleeting moiré of the sea;
It falls on horsemen passing by, on the halfbacks
Of the dolphins' curved smiles (in a mirror
Of alien tribes). Snow falls on night grass
In the trackless pine forest; it falls with the stars
Drifting down from unnumbered, shiftless heaven;
So it fell, and will fall, on those bronze eyelids.
A guarded glance, coiled in frozen hexagons;
Shy cedar voice, immured in pyramids.
Snow mixed with tears signals a hearth somewhere.
Not in the street, not in this Byzantine air
Of columns and cenotaphs – no. Just a home
By a river of marrying streams; a certain Rome
Where tongues descend – ascending voices mingle
In companionable flame. This friendly fire
Eats brotherly dusk, shakes fearful ether
Into evening wine... one hawk's cry
Screams – and melds into the Muse's profile.
Life's flimsy laundry, easily
Unraveled. Transparent butterfly net,
Wing of a moth, how slyly they
Trap the hunter, iced on an alpine sheet.
You fight the droning in your head
With all the cunning you can muster;
Turning its power against itself, you lead
A life Laertes would approve (bluster,
Business laboring for acclaim)
Only to drown the voice above the trees.
Relentless, impervious to shame,
It finds you out, brings you to your knees.
And like the heavy signet ring,
A chieftain's ring, that hidden in hand
Sealed Hamlet's heart (O molten, circling sting) –
The droning issues forth its stark command.
You listened, followed. A shuttling pencil
In a nighthawk's beak – a spear in your side;
And a huge sea-moth with crossbone stencil
Shattered your lamp. Died.
Summer ends, the droning subsides.
The ruthless tango of prose and poetry
Is dead. Cicada shells, butterfly hides...
Some leftover spider's ecstasy.
In the depths of the Soviet winter, in the ponderous cold
Of Siberia, a boy cups an abandoned moth in his hands,
Born – to die a few hours old –
Into a false firewood springtime. Its delicate wings
Are only an affront to the divine benevolence; he understands
Nothing; his hands, like an insect coffin, bear the stings
Of the nails themselves; like a dry cocoon, absently,
They drift to the shack wall, and the fingers fan,
In unison, a camouflaged figure in the pinewood pantry.
This tender sign... a tenderness snuffed out.
This heavy icon, then... true mimic of an action?
Or only the swollen, distorted wings of a parasite?
Or only the screech of broken chalk on slate?
Droning brittle wings, poets take their stations
At the edge of the cliff – their noise intuitive, innate...
The butterfly is gone. Its form was here, immaculate;
The hands tracing its flight, aimless, serpentine,
Mimic its undetermined motion – late, late –
Since that double-woven fountain, afloat with indirection,
Surging, sparkling, translucent, seeks its mate
In a signal heaven – a camouflage beyond dissection.
The final section of this poem alludes to a Brodsky poem about a boy and a moth, which in turn alludes to a Nabokov short story. Oddly enough, the 2nd and 3rd sections of this poem were written before Brodsky died. The original version was not an elegy for Brodsky : the poem had opened with a section about my adolescent infatuation with Nabokov! So, when you consider that this elegy is part of a cycle of elegies - Auden for Yeats, Brodsky, echoing Auden, for TS Eliot - then this Nabokovian reference forms a second loop.
cf. Mandelstam (in a not-so-great, not-terrible translation) :
Sisters - Heaviness and Tenderness - you look the same.
Wasps and bees both suck the heavy rose.
Man dies, and the hot sand cools again.
Carried off on a black stretcher, yesterday’s sun goes.
Oh, honeycombs’ heaviness, nets’ tenderness,
it’s easier to lift a stone than to say your name!
I have one purpose left, a golden purpose,
how, from time’s weight, to free myself again.
I drink the turbid air like a dark water.
The rose was earth; time, ploughed from underneath.
Woven, the heavy, tender roses, in a slow vortex,
the roses, heaviness and tenderness, in a double-wreath.