DISGUST. EMBARRASSMENT. LOVE.

 

 

IGOR POMERANTSEV

TRANSLATED BY FRANK WILLIAMS

 

This family feels right. I would live with it. First of all, should any of them so much as brush against anything hot, glowing, naked, they would immediately set up a yell. As to that, it's a cheery sort of yell, as if they'd been looking for a good excuse. They yell, too, even when not burned or scalded. The slightest thing and they're away - yelling. Secondly, should they be clearing away the dishes and wiping down the oil cloth, they would talk. Other people shut up when it comes to the oil cloth. Because everybody's got to hear the dishcloth rubbing against the roughness. But why the subjunctive? Ah well, it’s your life. The subjunctive's fine, so long as it's just for you. You come up with a justification: this mood is language's lyrical digression. Well, if not lyrical, then artistic. After all, even in families where they scrub the oil cloth to show everybody else up, there are some kind of coffers, storerooms of cheer. Like, say, the father cackles sensually before taking the belt to his son. These people have a different kind of yell. Put another way: this family has its outlet to the sea.

The main thing is not to pass it up. You're walking down a street and suddenly hear it: a sizzling. Not emasculated, like over gas, but the real thing. Meaning a fry-up. In good oil. Fish. Or sea food. Or lamb. You tell by the sound. If the sizzling's from the coals and not in the voices, then everything's fine in this family. Go to them. Not disease-ridden, pathetic, petulant, but clean, proud and beggarly. And do not arrive empty-handed, since you are no mendicant, but a benefactor. Incidentally, should you be out busking somewhere, be it in a subway, in theTube or anywhere outdoors, be sure to wear a tie and an ironed shirt front: nobody loves the poor. Bring something for the mistress of the house and the kiddies rather than the master. From the dump, maybe, but decently wrapped.  You're coming into a family, after all. Where it is both heaven and hell. Everyone sees you as an ally. You sit down to table. Summoned through gritted teeth. Check you out first. Give you a fork and grilled cubes of meat on wooden skewers. So, don't touch the fork. Eat off the skewer, as one does en famille. Let's assume that's the first test passed. Don't rush things. So much is pent up and they're just waiting for a convenient target. Listen and hold your tongue. Don't open yourself to offers of alliance and don't take anybody under your wing, either. Don't forget, harbour no illusions: you're not master of anybody's fate, nor can you sit in judgment. You're a tramp who needs shelter and a little warmth. But I know you: you'll forget, you'll harbour an illusion. All this isn’t enough: both the mistress's affection and the daughter's complaisance. You start to pontificate, lay down the law, wag your finger.  And they throw you out into the night as the mistress takes up scraping the fish, which will sizzle happily every after....

Or another family. They speak well, no accent or dialect. It's patently obvious; they're shamming. In actual fact, amongst themselves they speak some language of their own. Because they love each other and nobody else. Their daughters are married. All bonded by this underground language. I would also like to partake, to commune with them. But the daughters are faithful to their husbands to the death. Not a nook, not the tiniest little cranny for me.

The semiotics of resistance are defined by the nature of resistance. It all makes me want to vomit – though everybody thinks it's the poverty - the clenched fist, muscular song, ritual dance, jaw-clenching silence. There is but one dignified form of resistance, Widerstand - a grimy outstretched palm. All right, so he refused you a meaty cigar butt which might have made a spacious hut or a luxuriant leaf fall. You bide your time, sidle up to this smoking tree stump and, as the gentleman with the slicked back hair looks on, delicately raise this massive butt to your lips. Then the index finger - in full view of the gent – sends the stump, hut, leaf fall flying in the direction of the sputniks. A white flag, no matter how closely it resembles a starched sheet, is pathetic, too. Don't be in too much of a hurry, be patient. She's a foreigner. She smokes. The butt - she is a woman after all — is coming to earth next the bin. Go! You dive, catch the butt a millimetre from the asphalt and your lips relish the smear of lipstick. A meeting of glances. Disgust. Embarrassment.  Love.

I am a conformist all the same. Windy. Fragile. A weathercock. Any old bench and onto my flank. You lie on a bench like a sponge, like a line enshrouded in mist, and you drink it in, soak it up. Beard long, bifurcated, absorbent. Over the sands of the Sahara, where people are just longing for precipitation, a jumble of clouds is discerned. But the force of love drags them away to the north, to my spongey beard. That's who I am: the weather god. Hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep. Oh, no. You'll be woken. By a broom. Life's as slow as undressing. First the jumper. Then the sleeves. Then the children. Just let him grow up any  old how. What's it to me? That he's spoilt, selfish, capricious. Cosset him, dandle him, give him presents, that's all. It's a joy indulging your own. His character can look after itself. I love him, so I indulge him.

Couldn't give a toss if I do spoil him. So long as it makes me happy. And all the doubloons you'd pick up in a day! People'd give without you having to ask. But when these  moist, crimson rosebuds poke into your loofah. There never was anything of the sort, nor will there be.

They're hollering at the mother. Son's over forty.  Going bald. The daughter-in-law the wrong side of thirty.  The mother smooth, comfortable, stupid. Her eyes swim beautifully. Her main aim is to prove she's nobody's slushy, she's the boss here. She's standing behind a bar for her family's sake. Her customers sympathise. And they don't complain when she gives them red instead of white.  Though her own folk get angry. Blow a fuse. Mum, mother-in-law.  Water off a duck's back. She's there for form’s sake.  But they get angry.  What are you doing, mum!? She's cheery, though. She feels like another dance, a sing-song.  When she's behind the bar, she's living. They think it irritates the customers. Nonsense. The customers come because of her. So there was a mix-up. So she forgot. Didn't look. So much the better. We all make mistakes.  They'll give her what for for that. So we've all got to die sometime. What of it?  Nicest thing about her, after all, is her cow-eyed stupidity. You ask for red and get white.  What can you do with her? That sort of family. Hollering at their mother like that, even the grand- children. And not much of a life without her. I could live with people like that, too.

A drop or two of cider first thing and you blossom. Some prefer sherry. But sherry's a dead-end. While cider's a path into a garden. Weather-beaten cheeks, mossy, almost wormy. They’re simply bound to have a whiff of cider about them. Just now a little girl bent over, had a look, saw as much as she needed and started taunting: "Beggar man!  Beggar man!" Her mother came running over, pulled her away and gave her a slap. Shouldn't have. I love attention.  Came back over and begged her daughter's pardon. She was embarrassed and muttering something about midgets. I was playing her along. Then I looked serious and joked: "Now, if I was sitting or standing instead of lying here, you’d see I was a midget into the bargain!" She went red as a beetroot. Threw me a handful of coins and scuttled off. I managed to shout after her: "And tell that daughter of yours I'm not a beggar,I'm a tramp". The daughter was looking daggers at me. Being poor is a trade. To be a beggar needs talent. I don't like poverty. I like beggary.  Or wealth. I love style, letting my hair down. Power - poverty. I love people who are brash and abrasive. Despise the sensitive.             

A square, motionless as an hour hand. Horizontal. The only vertical is a boy striding along the diagonal. White shirt, cream pullover, white silk gloves. Around his neck a heavy gold cross worn on a chain outside his shirt. This boy will finish up on a bench for certain. His imagination won't fail him. My lethargy left me at the graveyard when my grandfather was buried. It was just as if my eyes had been opened. No, not just as if, they were simply opened.  It was then I first saw them. They were all in a huddle, their crowns, roots, beards, rags grown together. They weren't begging and weren't keeping a look-out. They were playing something, though, some kind of game of their own with a coin. For the first time in my life my face lit up with a happy smile. Before I could see it coming, my father gave me a box around the ear, but I kept staring, craning round. Next morning I ran off to the graveyard instead of school. They crowded round, examining me carefully. As I inhaled their thick, condensed smell, I knew this was the smell of happiness. There was but one barrier between us: age. By the age of eight I had already begun to put my father's razor to my cheeks and by fourteen I had grown a beard. I smeared whitewash into my mane and beard. Drew in wrinkles with an eyebrow  pencil. True, it wasn't until I was thirty the blood vessels and capillaries began to show on my nose. The graveyard in the town where life washed us up was Latin, Ancient Hebrew, Provencal, Castilian. He hovered over me. The gold cross blinds my eyes. A child's hand in a snow white glove reaches for my beard. Be bold, little one. There, and you thought he'd grab you?

I could settle with this poetry, too. It's little, like a wee piggy snout. And nobody really knows it on the Continent. Nobody reads it at home either, because only the farmers speak this language, they and their livestock. It is self-sufficient. Poetry for poetry's sake: not out of snobbery, simply to stay alive. They were issued paper, one quire say, in proportion to the size of their holdings. So new poems have to be written on top of old ones. They're all mixed up: ones with the ink still wet and ones with the green patina of age. But the amazing thing is that in every single poem by any one of the dozen or so poets hereabouts there's always something, whether a line or a comma, to do with the sea. Well, this one for example. It goes like this: a merchant is on his way to market. On his right a lass, a layer cake, satiny, frilly. On his left a lambkin, curly fleeced, white as snow, light as thistledown. And all this described so succulently you immediately feel for the merchant: which one of them, indeed, should he choose? So, where's the sea? And to have to make the choice between the lass and the lambkin is the same as leaping into the abyss.

An oak table, stumpfooted, ox-like. A loaf of bread, criss-crossed with ruts, weals, scars: and the reaper puffed and the miller pounded and the baker pooped. A round of cheese, mangy, micaceous like a big toenail. Apples.  Ripe to bursting. Not plucked pell mell, but with love, with the stalk left on every last one. Or grapes. Sprinkled with water, but the bloom remains. This bloom from the sun is no road dust, it won't wash off. An earthenware pot of milk, clayey. What sort of milk's in there: rich, lean, frothy?  That's a secret. A knife and fork, strong and real, lie gleaming in a velvet case. The fork has but two prongs. But if you stick it into smoked meat it won't come out. Alongside - because this is the most important thing - a goblet of wine. You wouldn't regret giving your life for that goblet. Taste it and you understand everything. All the same, the best day of the week is Sunday. The museum's free, you can stroll around to your heart's content.

Of course, sleeping in an ordinary graveyard's much better. As long as it's not too squalid. A dozen vaults at least. You couldn't sleep in my forebears' graveyards.  They'd no life in this life or the next. Fashioned nothing, modelled nothing, fired nothing. Well, they gathered berries,  mushrooms, caught and gutted fish, pickled cabbage. Their imagination went no further. The same with their graveyards. Deadly melancholy. Just occasionally they reach through with words. Words instead of hands: it's the words that touch. LIFE, LIFE, WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME? A rude tombstone, but the words shout. And there are other graveyards. Not along, but up. To give room for manoeuvre, for a run-up. They don't spread, they scrabble up walls.  That's where I'd like to be fixed when my time comes.  Somewhere in a little niche. To place flowers or light a candle, my kin'd have to climb wheeled tapering steps and roll up to where they needed to be. Maybe somebody'd notice me, rather like a book on a shelf. That's why I like it: a library rather than a graveyard. Happen to spy you, blow away the dust, brush down the stone, read your name.

The girls get prettier the further south. But it wasn't for their sake I bounced on my backside down the spurs of the Alps with the court Generalissimus, bored a tunnel beneath the Great Wall of Germany with burrowing moles, breasted a radioactive cloud with migratory birds.   But for the sake of a park on the northern outskirts of a Mediterranean town. There to be avenged for a swaddled infancy, the constricted corridors of childhood, the suffocating embraces of youth. This park is enormous, fits onto the palm of a hand. Here nature has been brought magnificently to heel. Nothing is left to chance, everything finely calculated, mitred so the conception is invisible. The stones grow, while the trees are laid out in patterns. In this park direct questions smash against evasive answers and straightforwardness has its eyes opened to its own ugliness. Fit yourself snugly to the curve on that great bud - couldn't be tighter - go to sleep in its arms and when it bursts in your groin sleep deeper, deeper. 

 

 

This and other essays, poems, short-stories by Igor Pomerantsev you will find in the bibliophile book "Late Vintage" published in Russian by Victoria Korchina and Andrej Maksimkov, Sankt Petersburg, 2013. ISBN 978-5-905048-44-9. More about the author Igor Pomerantsev and his publications you will find on Zeitzug.

 

 

 

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