Writing to Onegin

by Ruth Padel

(After Pushkin)
Look at the bare wood hand-waxed floor and long
White dressing-gown, the good child's writing-desk
And passionate cold feet
Summoning music of the night; tumbrils, gongs
And gamelans; with one neat pen, one candle
Puttering its life out hour by hour.
Is "Tell Him I love him" never a good idea? You can't wish this
Unlived; this world on fire, on storm
Alert, till the shepherd's song
Outside, some hyper-active yellowhammer, bulbul,
Wren, amplified in hills and woods, tell her to bestow
A spot of notice on the dawn.
"I'm writing to you. Well, that's it, that's everything.
You'll laugh, but you'll pity me too. I'm ashamed of this.
I meant to keep it quiet. You'd never have known, if -
I wish; I could have seen you once a week. To mull over, day
And night, the things you say, or what we say together.
But word is, you're misogynist. Laddish. A philanderer
Who says what he doesn't mean. (That's not how you come across
To me.) Who couldn't give a toss for domestic peace;
Only for celebrity and showing off;
And won't hang round in a provincial zone
Like this. We don't glitter. Though we do,
Warmly, truly, welcome you.
"Why did you come? I'd never have set eyes
On a star like you, or blundered up against
This crazed not-sleeping, hour after hour
In the dark. I might have got the better of
My clumsy fury with constraint, my fret
For things I lack all lexica and phrase-book art
To say. I might have been a faithful wife; a mother.
But that's all done with. This is Fate. God.
Sorted. Here I am; yours, to the last breath.
I couldn't give my heart to anyone else.
My life till now has been a theorem, to demonstrate
How right it is to love you. This love is love to death.
"I knew you anyway. I loved you, I'm afraid,
In my sleep. Your eyes, that denim-lapis, grey-sea-
Grey-green blue, that Chinese fold of skin
At the inner corner, that shot look
Bleeping "vulnerable" under the screensaver charm,
Kept me alive. Every cell, every last gold atom
Of your body, was engraved in me
Already. Don't tell me that was dream! When you came in,
Staring round in your stripey coat and brocade
Vest, I nearly died! I fainted, I was flame! I recognized
The you I'd always listened to alone, when I wrote
Or tried to wrestle my scatty soul into calm.
"Wasn't it you who slipped through the transparent
Darkness to my bed and whispered love? Aren't you
My guardian angel? Or is this arrant
Seeming, hallucination, thrown
Up by that fly engineering a novel does
So beguilingly, or poems? Is this mad?
Are there ways of dreaming I don't know?
Too bad. My soul has made its home
In you. I'm here and bare before you: shy,
In tears. But if I didn't heft my whole self up and hold it there;
A crack-free mirror; loving you, or if I couldn't share
It, set it out in words, I'd die.
"I'll wait to hear from you. I must. Please let me hope.
Give me one look, from eyes I hardly dare
To look back at. Or scupper my dream
By scolding me. I've given you rope
To hang me: tell me I'm mistaken. You're so much in
The world; while I just live here, bent on jam
And harvest, songs and books. That's not complaint.
We live such different lives. So; this is the end. It's taken
All night. I'm scared to read it back. I'm faint
With shame and fear. But this is what I am. My crumpled bed,
My words, my open self. All I can do is trust
The whole damn lot of it to you."
She sighs. The paper trembles as she presses down
The pink wax seal. Outside, a milk mist clears
From the shimmering valley. If I were her guardian
Angel, I'd divide myself. One half would holler
Don't! Stay on an even keel! Don't dollop over
All you are, to a man who'll go to town
On his next little fling. If he's entranced today
By the way you finger your silk throat inside your collar,
Tomorrow there'll be Olga, Sally, Jane. But then I'd whisper
Go for it, petal. Nothing's as real as what you write.
His funeral, if he's not up to it. What we feel
Is mortal, and won't come again.
So cut, weeks later, to an outside shot: the same girl
Taking cover ("Dear God, he's here, he's come!")
Under fat red gooseberries, glimmering hairy stars:
The old, rude bushes she has hide-and-seeked in all
Her life, where mother commands the serfs to sing
While picking, so they can't hurl
The odd gog into their mouths. No one could spy
Her here, not even the sun in its burn-time. Her cheeks
Are simmering fire.
We're talking iridescence, a Red Admiral's last tremble
Before the avid schoolboy plunks his net.
Or imagine
A leveret; like the hare you shot, remember?
Which ran round screaming like a baby?
Only mine is shivering in papery winter corn,
While the hunter (as it might be, you) stomps his Hush
Puppies through dead brush. Everything's quiet.
She's waited; how long?; ages: stoking pebbly embers
Under the evening samovar, filling
The Chinese teapot, sending coils of Lapsang Suchong
Floating to the ceiling in the shadows, tracing O and E
In the window's black reflection, one finger
Tendrilling her own breath on the glass.
Like putting a shell to your ear to hear the sea
When it's really your own red little sparkle, the echo
Of marching blood. She's asking a phantom
World of pearled-up mist for proof
That her man exists: that gamelans and tumbrils
Won't evade her. But now, among
The kitchen garden's rose-haws, mallow, Pernod-
Coloured pears, she unhooks herself thorn by thorn
For the exit aria. For fade-out. Suddenly there he is
In the avenue, the man she's written to; Charon
Gazing at her with blazing eyes! Darth Vader
From Star Wars. She's trapped, in a house she didn't realize
Was burning. Her letter was a gate to the inferno.
(This poem appeared in Pushkin: An Anthology, ed. E. Feinstein, Carcanet 1999)

Last updated May 02, 2015