Outside, in a country with no word
for outside, they cluster on trees,
red bunches. I looked up
ryabina, found mountain ash. No
mountains here, just these berries
cradled in yellow leaves.
When I rise, you fall asleep. We
barely know each other, you said
on the phone last night. Today, sun brushes
the wall like an empty canvas, voices
from outside drift into this room. I can’t
translate—my words, frostbitten
fingers. I tell no one, how your hands
ghost over my back, letters I hold.
Reading children’s stories by Tolstoy,
Alyosha traces his index
over the alphabet his mouth so easily
unlocks. Every happy word resembles
every other, every unhappy word’s
unhappy in its own way. Like apartments
at dusk. Having taken a different street
from the station, I was lost in minutes.
How to say, where’s the street like this,
not this? Keys I’d cut for years coaxed open
no pursed lips. How to say, blind terror?
Sprint, lungburn, useless tongue? How say
thank you, muscular Soviet worker, fading
on billboard, for pointing me the way?
Alyosha and I climbed trees to pick berries, leaves
almost as red. On ladders, we scattered
half on the ground, playing who could get them
down the other’s shirt without their knowing.
Morning, the family gone, I ground the berries
to skin, sugared sour juices twice.
Even in tea they burned. In the yard,
leafpiles of fire. Cigarettes between teeth,
the old dvorniks rake, scratch the earth,
try to rid it of some persistent itch.
I turn the dial, it drags my finger back.
When the phone at last connects to you, I hear
only my own voice, crackle of the line.
The rakes scratch, flames hiss and tower.
This morning, the trees bare. Ashberries
on long black branches. Winter. My teacher
says they sweeten with frost, each snow
a sugar. Each day’s dark grows darker,
and streets go still, widen, like ice over lakes,
and words come slow to every chapped mouth,
not just my own, having downed a little vodka
and then some tea. Tomorrow I’ll bend down
branches, brittle with cold, pluck what I can’t
yet name, then jar the pulp and save the stones.
What to say? Love, I live for the letters
I must wait to open. They bear across
this land, where I find myself at a loss—
each word a wintering seed.
“Primer for Non-Native Speakers” first appeared in New England Review Vol. 22, No.4, Summer 2001, and was later published in Best American Poetry 2002, and Primer for Non-Native Speakers (The Kent State University Press, 2004).