by the time

We show up in Moscow three months after the first gap appears in the Berlin Wall. Is the Cold War still on, or is it over? No one’s sure, but the Russians are playing it safe. This isn’t like studying abroad in France or Spain, where they find a nice family to stash you with and you learn to speak the language over leisurely European dinners. Here we have our own separate-but-equal American wing in a fourteen-story dormitory for foreign students, most of the rest of whom are from the Eastern Bloc. The wing opposite us is full of Bulgarians who are always burning their food in the kitchen we share and won’t talk to us. None of the other students will talk to us. Only the black-market dealers and illegal-currency traders are interested in being our friends. They speak perfect English and have great clothes, so we feel right at home with them. They cheat us constantly, of course, and cast a wolfish eye over our piles of amazing American stuff, but that, too, feels familiar. We came from lives that—we now realize—were mostly about wanting, and shortly thereafter acquiring, stuff. Life here is different. Life here has the slightly tinny sound of a five-kopeck piece dropping into the fare box on the tram, and the thin, fragile texture of the paper ticket you tear off with a mittened hand to prove you paid.

by the time
another war
harvest moon


prose: here, now. haiku: Frogpond 38.1.

Yorick in Moscow

Gravestones behind a hedge

(Artwork by Rick Daddario, 19 Planets)

The cemetery is full of trees. How do they dig the graves? You couldn’t get a backhoe between the trunks. Are there still gravediggers here, men with shovels making dark jokes about the things they unearth in the course of their work? I think about dying here and what it would be like to lie with my head against one set of roots and my feet against another. With a rock over my chest that told everyone my foreign name. People would walk back and forth over me, murmuring, in a tongue not my own, the first and last years I was alive. For decades I would dream my life, until the gravediggers retrieved me, held me up to the light, let the sun shine through my skull.

last frost
my footprint melted
into the soil

Contemporary Haibun Online, July 2011

The Rainbow Cafe

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We like to visit a co-op cafe in our Moscow neighborhood, one of the new private enterprises that Gorbachev has encouraged; they have more and better food than most of the state restaurants, and are never “Closed for Repairs” when the employees feel like taking a day off, never display “No Vacancy” signs when the place is empty. The staff are solicitous and polite, and apologetic if something on the menu doesn’t happen to be available, instead of incredulous that you might ever have expected it would be.

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winter flea market —
a wind-up doll
that’s already broken

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It drives the staff crazy if I order for myself instead of letting my boyfriend do it for me. For this reason, I make a point of always ordering for myself, and always before he does. They stare ferociously at him while I speak, and only after he gives a slight nod do they write down my order. Even after I’ve been doing this for months, they don’t yield on their principles. No one there ever asks me what I want.

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I eat my chicken Kiev watching them as they bustle from table to table with worried lines in their foreheads, as if they’re calculating profit margins in their heads. Butter drips down my chin. My boyfriend reaches over and wipes it off with a napkin.

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meteor shower
the wishes I make
in another language

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.Haibun Today 5:2, June 2011

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April 28: Post Office

The main post office on Gorky Street in Moscow. A line of squat beige phones —  a line of people in thick coats to their ankles standing beside them. Staring at them like half-boiled pots, waiting for them to ring. Waiting to hear the voice of someone from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

You’ve filled in the required forms. When do you want to talk? Whom do you want to talk to? For how long would you like this conversation to continue? Be careful: they’ll give you exactly the amount of time you ask for, no more and no less. But the phones are ringing, your mind is buzzing, you can only make awkward, half-thought-through calculations.

Not long after our phones ring and we lift the receivers to our ears like stones, we realize we answered all the questions wrong. The conversations should have been earlier or later, longer or shorter. The people we are talking to are not people we really know. We’ve forgotten the languages they’re speaking. We live in different countries for what we now know is forever, though we meant it to be temporary. “Wait —” we say. “It’s about to end —”

The phone makes a noise that means my life has returned to me. Everything goes silent until it’s the next person’s turn. Down the line, feet shuffle, stirring the hems of coats.

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melting snow —
letting go
of what I meant to say

___________________________________________________________________________

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(Chrysanthemum 9, April 2011)

September 20: Haibun all over again

Protest

This is why I’m here, after all. This is why I left. This is why. Do you understand now?

Do you want to go? Of course, do you? Should we go together? When should we go?

Voices on the train. At first we understand them only in theory. Stand very still, listening. Look at each other, calculating.

What are they saying?

They’ve closed the metro stations all around Red Square.

Why? I guess to make it harder to get there?

The train stops short, and we see it has no intention of proceeding. All the passengers get off and walk away in the same direction. It’s as if the world has ended and everyone understands it but us, everyone else knows the way to the afterlife.

Do we really want to do this? How will we get there? Is it this way? Well, that’s the way everyone else is going, right?

There are a million people in the street — not hyperbolically, but literally. One million people with no concept of personal space. Two million feet, just missing mine. I feel like a stick that’s fallen into a swollen stream. I feel like a penny tossed in a jar and shaken. I feel like a stranger. I feel like someone who left home and isn’t sure how to get back.

Hold my hand. We don’t want to get separated.

I’m terrified of being lost. I’m holding on tight, being pulled along. I remember this feeling. Do I want to feel like this again?

Can I trust you?

Up ahead, someone is calling for freedom. He shouts so loudly that the voices in my head quiet in response. He shouts so loudly that I understand everything he says.

birthday cake
the first taste
of you

_______________________________

I am taking the many helpful suggestions on my last haibun into advisement. Feel free to dissect this one too. I still feel like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing in the haibun arena, so I am just throwing things up against the wall to see if they stick.

This one’s connected to the last one, obviously — actually it comes right before it in the sequence. How does that work out for you? Are you mystified? Do you mind being mystified? (I often quite enjoy it, but I find that most other people are far less tolerant of the sensation.)

I am foreseeing that all these haibun will end up looking very little like their original versions — when I get them into something more like a final state I’ll put them all up together in order. Then you can tell me what’s wrong with them as a whole instead of just individually.

September 18: Giving haibun another shot

Persephone

March in Moscow — snow not melting yet. Everything I see that muddied shade of ash I call Communist Gray. My only solace the white marble and gold leaf of the metro stations — all that richness, so deep underground. I stand by the tracks closing my eyes as the breeze of the train sweeps my face. Where I come from, spring feels like this.

I wonder if he’ll miss me when I’m gone.

onion seeds
deep in my pocket
warm tickets

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Steve Mitchell of Heed Not Steve and I made a humorous pact to write one haibun that we didn’t hate by the fall equinox. He went and jumped the gun on me though and posted his today (you should check it out, it’s pretty good). So I said, “Fine, be that way,” and took a deep breath and posted one of the ones I’ve been working on this week.

I don’t hate it. I don’t say I like it. I think Persephone probably deserves better. But I don’t hate it.

I think this will be one of a series — I’ve already written another but the haiku part is giving me some lip so I’m having to talk sternly to it. Watch this space for more installments.

(And she may not want to be associated with this effort in any way, but thanks to Roberta Beary for her excellent example and for the inspiring and informative haibun workshop she led last weekend in Mineral Point.)

May 31: 2-10: Russian memories

sun hanging low
long line for Cuban
oranges

zoo in midwinter
the boy in heavy clothes
cries, “Eagle!”

spring tram journey
high-rises hemmed in
by birch forest

frost on the window
blini
with coarse sugar

laundromat steam
the breath
of sleeping cats

sick from lack of sun
a lemon drop from
a fur-hatted woman

blooming bulbs
children play
near the famous prison

warm riverbank
smell of fish
from the store called “Ocean”

melted snow
reveals worn lettering:
Faster, Higher, Stronger

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I’ve been wanting to try to experiment with writing haiku from very old memories. Do haiku moments need to be captured when fresh, or can you let them mellow for a while? Might the moments that you still remember after so long actually be better candidates for poetry than the fleeting glimpses of things that briefly move you today?

Twenty years ago I spent a semester in Moscow, then the capital of the Soviet Union. It was a life-changing time in many ways — for one thing, I met my husband there. (He’s an American, in case you were wondering.) For another, it was a world so different from the one I was used to that I got used to staring at things and noticing them, which is good practice for a writer. There are still so many tiny moments of astonishment that flash across my brain from that time.

I will say, though — I don’t think most of them really fit themselves well to haiku, maybe because my mind was relentlessly prosy then. I keep wanting to write whole essays about them, describing the whole surrounding scene and pretentiously analyzing cultural differences. Or maybe it really is futile to write haiku about things that happened so long ago; maybe you need to seize on haiku moments the moment you see them.