by Richard Jackson
Saving the Last Dance from Lambertville
…for we lived mostly in the understories…
So what if those stars had long ago become
we still believe what we see, still read
our lives by them.
So what if we say it really was
the crows that pulled this darkness over me,
that the mockingbird was singing only for us,
that the Leonids wrote a few quick lines to you across
Every metaphor is a truth just out of reach.
And so what if we say the sound painted the walls,
or your words touched us with their soft hands,
for we were stars ourselves, galaxies spinning,
dancing around the kitchen with you chanting
Mingus’ Eat that Chicken,
telling stories whose
truth never mattered, but flashed like meteors,
singing out of tune, half hoarse, half saxophone,
and, yes, those stories sliding from the shelves of
didn’t we want to believe your opossum
really was Lazarus?
Tonight, I put on
Oh Yeah, listening to the whole band join in,
Eat that Chicken, Eat that Chicken Pie,
the whole cosmos was spinning around
which brings me to that star, L 1527, being
born again in the Webb telescope’s lens eons ago,
and now, but also far into its own future, a kind of
chant itself, a kind of prayer, that returns us to a time
we all lived, as you did, partly underground,
as if practicing
to resurrect ourselves in dance, in chants, with memories
almost out of reach,
but for those few words we repeated
as if repeating the lives we wanted them to fill once again,
those loves you’ve never let turn to cinders or to darkness.
One terror catapults over the last.
On a night the owls
fear to ask questions.
Family photos filling the smoke
Svetlana Kostrykina rolling her husband’s riddled
body back home in a wheelbarrow, his arms flopping
over the side, first light creeping over Kyiv rooftops
Garbage piled on top of the other bodies.
The light from stars looking for a detour.
your skull explodes somewhere in you must hear the shot.
Not insects but the low clank of distant tanks.
The distant morning seems a hoax.
in neat uniforms and Nubuck boots passing
around a bottle.
on his cell phone.
Curious pigeons at his head.
Above it all, only the shredded tent of the sky.
Holed up in the cellar you’d need a calendar to keep
track of the days,
you’d need a mirage to count
the window boxes full of fresh flowers,
else to keep track of the bodies fast becoming
mere headlines or news spots?
How easy it was
to name them here where the future’s bodies
are stripped for valuables,
where our own
memories sit down beside us for a nervous smoke,
maybe even put down their wine glasses to speak
The reflection in the store window is
not always ours, powerless as ever—
puppets whose strings have been cut.
On his Kobza playing,
By his songs the people know him…
For he drives away their sorrows
—Taras Shevchenko, “Prebendya,” trans. C. Manning
It’s because we live on a tilted world that we don’t see straight.
It is like ignoring the dark side of the moon, content with
questions that smolder in the fireplace, and answers
that take the shape of ashes that have forgotten the fire.
It is like looking through one of these window panes and ignoring
the rest of the window.
Outside the deer follow a single
trail from one frame to another. Seams of sunlight open
in the woods. A few clouds shadow the distant hills.
In the middle of writing those lines, the music of Vera Lytovchenko
came from her cellar bomb shelter in Kharkiv, playing for a few
neighbors, the apartment windows above her blown out,
playing beyond the charred vehicles, beyond even the stars
that frost the sky above the roofless buildings.
But here I am
safely watching the meandering ground birds hunting for seed,
the top branches of the Tulip Poplar reaching out as if
to track the vapor trails of planes but never abandoning its
and there’s a false wishing well tilted like the tree that fell
last night, but it had only reminded me of the toppled minaret in
Banja Luka, shelled during that other war, from another frame.
The congregation prayed from cellars. Bullet holes covered
the walls like dead stars.
How many people live inside stories
that never come true, histories that are gestures we offer
to the darkness. It’s true, we are the only species that weeps.
It is our silence that leaves the emptiness of shell holes in the earth.
In truth, I had originally started this poem in anger by describing
a Pileated Woodpecker’s gun firing off several rounds, and two hawks
circling us like drones,
but when Vera’s violin entered above playing
“What A Moonlit Night”
it was as if each note lamented the one before it.
“I’ll cradle you close to my heart” the lyrics finally promise.
Ashes. Stars hesitating, forgetting.
I remember how it was my own heart
that searched like the bird that kept flying furtively against
my grammar school window while we listened to the radio broadcast
from Budapest, 1956, as the tanks rolled in and the nuns kept
promising safety if we prayed as we hunched beneath our wooden
Budapest, Banka Luka, the same pictures we see
now from Karkhiv.
Outside my window, a woodpile, each log
decaying into the next. The moon rising like a whole note. A few
night sounds adding their own chorus.
When her violin ends
I can play it again as if her dream could dream on without
her, but listening to that desperate music as it searches
for a way to live among the ruins,
I understand this poem’s
desire to outlast its ending, to understand the bones of brush
kindling a song against the wind, what is written beneath
the bark of trees, how fear takes the shape of the doe slipping
out of the window’s frame, to cradle the world’s ruins close
to our hearts, and that, while our own words may die,
it is her music that grows in our lungs towards speech.
Richard Jackson has authored 17 poetry books and 12 editions; anthologies; and books of essays, interviews, and translations. He has edited 30 chapbooks by eastern European poets and was awarded the Order of Freedom by Slovenia’s president for literary and humanitarian work during the Balkan wars. He has won Guggenheim, Fulbright, NEA, NEH, and Witter Bynner Fellowships. His poems have been translated into 17 languages.