A pliant, predatory glue, a noxious mush, abrasive nectar, the ring of evil, flesh-eating flower, its petals closing over me, a black aquarium, a mausoleum, an ever-changing magic rug lining the floor of a deep well, or is it…what else should it be, what other names can I invoke?
Look, how flies have settled on its face—but its cheek won’t move….
Look, how I’ve held a mirror up against its breath—and there’s no fog….
Look, how I lift its closed lids, and the pupils have turned inside….
But it’s not dead.
It will beat you ten times over, in mourning-black, with foe and woe, with ice and fear, with a bewitching, blinding, cuffing tongue-twister, will lure you in with wondrous sparks, and should you quiver to break free, it strikes you back, it clasps you with its magic death-ring, it coils around you like a snake, and should you even grow some wings, it’s an embrace you won’t escape. Hush, it’s watching you, it will find you even with its eyes closed, laugh at you with its lips shut, grumble with its spinal cord.
The fair is foul and foul is fair, fair is foul and foul is fair, the fair’s not fair, the foul’s not foul1….
My stepmother took me to the woods to get me lost there. I scattered my beads in my path and then, once the moon came out, I gathered the shining little balls and found my way home.
My stepmother took me to a giant library to get me lost there. I pulled a thread out of my blouse and tied it to the cover of the very first book I saw, and isle by isle, undoing the fabric and getting naked line by line, I roamed the hallways of the written word and then, winding the thread into a ball, I traced my steps to escape that labyrinth and found my home.
My stepmother took me to the City to get me lost there. My necklace gone, my blouse undone. I’ll tell my brother2, I went to the right, and the snake charmer charmed me, robbed me, oh, how he robbed me. He played the kind of music that—string by string, that ring by ring, that waive by waive, was coaxing words straight from my throat, the stream of words, the luscious nouns, the kind that melt right on your tongue, the lasting adjectives that find their place and never leave, so many names one cannot name, that brush the palate’s gentle base, that flutter in your palate’s veins but never get beyond the lips….
I’ll tell my brother, I went to the left, the rope-walked enchanted me, robbed me, oh how he robbed me. And from my agile, yielding body, he coaxed out movements, string by string, then ring by ring then waive by waive, he tightened me tight as a rope, he bounced me up, then brought me down, he lay me prone, I tumbled down, head first, and leapt back up, he balanced me right on the edge of the abyss, he rocked me so….
I’ll tell my brother I went up, a star struck me, I came back down, slammed on a rock, the grass stung me, the water whipped me. And I was left, head hanging low, my bearings gone, my soul deaf, my path unsure, begging my bread, tongue-tied and tired, my voice subdued, my heart gone cold, my thoughts washed out….
Tousled by water, tossed by the winds, divorced and wanton, lost and confused, I raised the heat around my City….
The city must have been big.
What big if one’s successive lovers always know each other.
Then your lovers must be few and very notable.
What notable if all of them have the same face and bear the same ancient escutcheon, and what few if they would drink a river dry if all of them got thirsty at the same time.
Then the river must be shallow.
What shallow if its waters hide an entire world submerged in them3.
The hearts of myriad virgin girls, high-styled, polite, like many beads strung on a string, flutter together in one key, ring out politely, exquisitely, open and close their valves in unison to feed the transparent blood of love into the veins of the river….
And thousands and thousands of fertile, full breasts caress the water and press their luscious nipples to the gaping jaws of the water-caves, mixing their life-giving milk with the underwater streams to irrigate the fields of sea-weed….
And thousands and thousands of learned hetaeras, who thrust their thighs against the gliding of the stream, who ride its penetrating power with perfect, virtuoso moves, who undulate in unison with all the throbbings of its tide, and suck into their open wombs the silent flock that wants to reach their hidden pearl, that, when released, will be baptized with fountains of cascading lust….
And in thousands and thousands fall the tears of a pale-skinned girl crying endlessly in the tower of her pale-stoned castle perched over the city, and her tears flow into the depths of the river, for hers was the winning lottery ticket, but the wind stole it away, hers was the hot-air balloon floating high in the sky, but the fire burned it to ash, earthen and thick, washed off by the river….
Stolen by the wind, burned down to ash, washed off by the river….
The hairless hermit who lived on the sixteenth floor flushes the toilet and turns off the lights. And bubbling, grumbling, gurgling, in full stream, floor by floor, home by home descends that Universal Exile—the human refuse, the hand-coaxed semen, the unprinted word, the drunkard’s barf, the unsaid name, the rotten food, the woman’s blood, the stillborn kitten, the bald man’s secret…. It cascades down, floor by floor, home by home, flight by flight, turn by turn, bubbling, grumbling, gurgling, it spreads over the intestinal sewage grid in the City’s innards, and then somewhere bursts open, like a blemish on the City’s smooth and hairless head….
Ah, who will it be when morning comes, to place a foot on the mined surface, who will discard the winning ticket before the lottery begins, and with a bang who’ll open up the shutters of the closed heart, sensing the joy and exultation of pleasure given to oneself….
Lo, what is that noise coming from afar, the threatening Pompeian, rushing onward fast, wreaking smoke and soot, with lava for hair, with lead for her eyes, the voice of Naiades, the soul of a sorceress….
My dearly beloved, don’t you heed her call, shut tight your eyes, my body and soul mate, come and hide away in my tender kiss, venomous and sweet, let’s get boarded up in the attic of memories, a vault that will resist even an explosion….
Don’t you dare stick your nose out the door,
The boogie-man will chew your nose off,
Don’t you dare set your foot on the ground,
The ground will chew your foot off,
Don’t you dare trust your heart to a man,
The man will chew your heart off.
Don’t you dare go showing off,
You’ll get your eyes scratched out.
Don’t you dare, when you’re sad, to give yourself
To the water, to some bug or tadpole,
Watch out, I’ll put out your fire.
Don’t you dare shoot for the stars,
To reach any heights in this City,
Do you think you’re so special?
Do you think it’s your birthday?
Do you think you’re fitting?
Do you think you’ve been dealt all the aces?
Do you think you’re an adherent?
Do you think it’s suddenly springtime?
Little Violet, you silly, mischievous girl,
Defective, damaged and dowerless,
Bare-assed and easy-go-lucky,
Get your wits together fast,
Look around, catch yourself a match,
Get married to him on a faraway island,
Then sit home all day and just spin your spindle.
The virginal Arpenik spins the yarn, the slutty Kara rolls it into a ball, the barren Nune cuts it4.
A three-headed, six-armed mayor, a perfect mistress, a housewife, completely frigid, a hermaphrodite—old and creepy.
One head is laughing, one is crying, and the third doesn’t make a sound, just stares quietly.
One head is singing, the other bellowing, and the third doesn’t make a sound, just stares quietly.
One head is spitting, the other is kissing, and the third one doesn’t make a sound, just stares quietly.
One is spinning, the other playfully rolling the yarn, pulling it through hardships, through Paplavok5, through the elections, the regions in the disaster area6, through the postabortion anguish of the woman of Nairi7, the hysterical self-congratulation of the poets, through Doka Pizza, through ancient libraries, through the original good fellas, through the dear and unforgettable president, through “always coca-cola,” through I’m Armenian, You’re Armenian8, through tripper-infected housewives, the Argishti madness9, the parties for show, through Yerevan’s Pretty Girl10, the melancholy whores, the melodramatic beggars, the soft-spoken pimps, the municipal daycares, the made-up homosexuals, through Brabion floral service, the fair-weather clergy, the scoundrels with many children, the refuges trying to escape themselves….
The third one cuts the yarn.
You’ve been deprived of the redness of the sun, dear City,
You’ve been deprived of the green of leafs, dear City,
You’ve been tossed and tousled by winds and waters, dear City,
Prettily dressed in red stripes, dear City,
Rings on your fingers, keys at your heart, dear City,
War decorations on your chest, stars on your shoulders, dear City,
A veil ov’r your face, like a new bride, dear City,
A crown on your head, you—a crowned king, dear City,
The masses following you, their general, dear City,
Who jinxed you with an evil eye, who cursed you,
Scattering your feathers over mountains and plains
Spreading your bones over boulders and sands,
You once were the sun, but now you’re dead, dear City,
You once were a violet, but you withered away, dear City,
I took too long to come when you called,
Too lazy, I didn’t run when you called,
And now I can wail and cry all I want,
I can beat my chest and pull at my hair,
But never again will a mother or sister cry over you,
Oh, but never again will a mother or sister cry over you,
Woe, never again will a mother or sister cry over11.
Look how long this baleful poem has flowed on, its breath—fiery, its panting strong, its little heart ablaze, its soul ever-present….
Poem, my dear poem, my own dowry, the ER nurse, her saving shot, the hero in a movie plot, my cunning, wily cowboy, my skillful horseman—American boy, my sentimental Decembrist, my immortal superman, my bravely fighting fedain12, and my beloved president…. Just bear with me a little more, and I’ll be done in a few lines.
If my stepmother hurts me, I won’t cry, I’ll come and quietly sit by your side.
If Paplavok hurts me, I won’t cry,
If flaccid boys hurt me, I won’t cry,
If Doka Pizza hurts me, I won’t cry,
If the president hurts me, I won’t cry,
If Coca-cola hurts me, I won’t cry,
If the bald jerk hurts me, I won’t cry,
If the party hurts me, I won’t cry,
If the toadstool hurts me, I won’t cry,
I’ll come and quietly sit by your side, within your
comforting breath’s reach, a silent, tame, obedient daughter, a perfect pupil….
And I will sprawl over your pages, I’ll hide away between the lines, in your words’ boiler or in the attic of the title, or in the outhouse of the drafts….
Born of one mother or two fathers, we are two orphans, sister and brother, but man and wife we shall become, and be each other’s canopy, two bodies welded into one, we’ll live in love, in shame and incest, we’ll live sex-ridden and diseased, blind to the staring gaze of others, condemned and voiceless outcasts, unwed and sinful, dragged by the water and the wind, wrapped in one skin, boxed in one body, turned into one hermaphrodite….
It will be us, when morning comes, to open with a loud bang the shutters of our closed hearts, sensing the joy and exultation of giving pleasure to ourselves, and we’ll discard the winning ticket before the lottery begins, we’ll be the first to set our feet on the mined surface, retreat into a tender kiss, which will be venomous and sweet, and we’ll explode and burst like ash, like an infected blemish on the city’s smooth and hairless face….
1 Reference to the opening scene of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (here and forthwith, translator’s notes).
2 Rhetorical emulation of Armenian folk narrative tradition, elements of which recur throughout the poem.
3 Reference to a fairy-tale by noted Armenian writer Hovhannes Tumanyan (1868-1923) entitled “A Talking Fish.”
4 Reference to the three Fates of Greek mythology: Clotho, who spins the thread of life, Lachesis, who measures it, and Atropos, who cuts it, determining the length of one’s life. Here, the names of the three fates have been replaced with commonplace Armenian names.
5The colloquial Armenian name for Poplavok (float in Russian), a cheap cafe during Soviet period, where actors used to hang out. Now it is a popular hot-spot in Yerevan famed for its jazz music.
6 In 1988, a devastating earthquake practically leveled the second- and third-largest cities in Armenia, leaving behind destruction that until now has not been completely rebuilt.
7 Here, Armenian. Nairi, derived from Assyrian, refers to the early Armenian tribes living in the Caucasian region.
8 Reference to a song by Armenian pop-singer Aram Asatryan.
9 The founder of Erebuni, current-day Yerevan, was the Urartu king Argishti I, left a cuneiform inscription in the city’s fortress: “With the power of Khaldi, I, Argishti, Son of Menua, erected this stronghold, and named it Erebuni to the glory of the country of Biaina and to the fear of its enemies.”
10 A reference to a popular Armenian folk song.
11 Emulation of traditional Armenian funereal laments.