A moment for a painting: crisp, clean,
snow sparking over hill and hollow, barest
green halo hovering above branches. Taiga: the word smells fresh, unstained. Gone
are the long nights—woman, bottle, knife,
each good company in her own way—
swept clear by green noise.
Up front the driver tightens a wire in the engine.
Satisfying, these small victories:
the engine’s rev, the road’s drag, the marking
of another spring—as if it were
an easy thing. As if any of it
were easy. Just ask the river ice,
keening now over the carcass of her rank,
Listen to Katherine E. Young read "Siberian Spring"
Knitting in Siberia
Let me warn you that a genuine interest in knitting can keep you fascinated, eagerly pursuing it, and never satisfied, through a lifetime.
— Rose Wilder Lane, The Women’s Day Book of American Needlework
I’ve been thinking about the prairie, Rose,
how that word means the same in every language.
This prairie sweeps out east, not west, but speaks—
like all prairies—of freedom and fair chance.
It’s April in Siberia: dodging
drops from gables, eaves, rickrack bedecking
the city’s wooden homes, I can hear
ice blocks heave as the river wrenches free.
Tomsk, too, was once a prairie town like
the little towns in your mother’s books—girls
like me still gauge our childhood by her stories.
And now, grown up, my life telescoping
to depositions, divorce proceedings, imagine
my surprise at finding you and Laura
here before me—you, chaperoning your mother
in the Gold Rush city to which you’d run,
mother and daughter already colluding in
one another’s fictions: I do want to do a little writing with Rose to get the hang of it a little better so I can write something perhaps I can sell.
As good a myth as any, how things get started.
I’ve flown across the Urals, needles clicking
through the Russian sky. This morning I met
with modern-day homesteaders who’ll hawk
their business plans in America. Like
our ancestors, Rose, they’re a motley crew:
the naïve young mountaineer who’s engineered
new climbing gear; the ex-KGB hack,
mouth full of golden teeth, waving a letter
from the region’s governor; the woman
crafting an empire of cigarette kiosks.
Why does hope always lie over yonder,
in a place someone else has left behind?
Tonight, in my hotel on this strange prairie,
I’ll look at stars, their unfamiliar postings;
I’ll think of sledges packed with Old Believers,
women and children shivering across
the permafrost. Of the wagon your mother rode
to Kansas, Minnesota, and beyond,
kettle and washboard rattling in the back,
Jack the bulldog trotting along beside.
No turning back, not then. No second thoughts.
Here’s what I know: point of the needle jabbing
my finger, snarl of yarn, reel and loop,
the tying off of stitches. Rose, you taught me
how to knit when my own mother gave up:
she blamed it on my left hand, said she couldn’t
teach me backwards…. It’s not my mother, Rose,
nor any man, nor any dream that’s gone
awry: just the need to see what’s out here,
find what sort of place might be my own.
Home’s cinched inside a suitcase, hand-cabled
in a sweater: what I carry in my pack.
Phone calls from my mother—that singular ring
the phone makes when the call’s from overseas—
I learn that someone’s died, that someone’s
been born just from the way she says Hello?
Here on Siberia’s prairie, electric lights
wink on. Tangle of wire, cable, satellite
dishes: the knots with which we bind ourselves.
I thread over my needle, purl a new row
in the baby blanket I’m knitting for a nephew
I’ve never seen back there in America.
I parse each stitch backwards, steadying
the yarn as it slackens, twists free and, then,
pulls taut: same pattern that our mothers picked out.
That we teach ourselves. Repeat.
Listen to Katherine E. Young read "Knitting in Siberia"
Day of the Border Guards
for Barbara Roesmann
May 29, 1987: German Teen Lands Plane in Red Square
This story’s true: spring at last in Moscow,
time of thawing earth, of drying mud.
Sunshine and mist hopscotch across Red Square:
stones the color of smoke, St. Basil’s domes,
those child-sized Kremlin windows. Banners flutter
in the breeze, proclaiming it the national Day
of the Border Guards. In front of Lenin’s Tomb,
young border guards in parade regalia snap
photographs, some laughing, some tugging
girls by the hand, some already draped
across the shoulders of their comrades. Except
for the clothes, the cameras, today could be
any spring day in a thousand-year span:
I could be myself, or any one
of Pushkin’s women, or Margarita walking
the alleys with yellow flowers in her arms.
So many possibilities: a man
I’ve never met spots my flowers, knows
immediately he’s loved me all his life.
Onegin shouts at his coachman to stop.
I marry a general; I marry a madman.
I become a witch, an Old Believer,
a Streltsy wife sledging to Siberia.
Perhaps I poison myself (arsenic? hemlock?).
Just as I swallow the fatal dose, an object
darts from the western sky: silver, exquisite.
I watch it circle, descend, buzz Red Square.
Incredulous, someone shouts, He’s landing!
People start pushing, running, trying to get
out of the way. The airplane noses down
right there, right in Red Square. The pilot—he can’t
be more than seventeen—climbs out, extends
his hand. No one moves. We hold our breath.
Now an officer of the Border Guards
threads his way among the crowd, swaying
ever so gently across the sharp-edged stones.
Soon a thousand things will happen at once:
someone will shove a camera in my hand,
ask me to take his picture with the pilot.
Warning sirens will blare from the Kremlin.
Special Forces cops will swarm the plane:
they’ll handcuff the boy, cordon off Red Square.
I’ll be herded to the metro, lose
my flowers in the crush. Wonder what
it was I saw. Because now I’m a witness,
I stand and watch—we all watch—as slowly,
shockingly—that drunken officer
of the Border Guards stretches out ten trembling
fingers to print the faintest stain of hope
on the airplane’s shiny metal skin.
Listen to Katherine E. Young read "Day of the Border Guards"
Katherine E. Young's poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and many others. She is the author of two chapbooks, Gentling the Bones (2007) and Van Gogh in Moscow (2008). Her full-length manuscript was a finalist for the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize, while her translation of contemporary Russian poet Inna Kabysh was awarded a share of the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize. She teaches at the University of Maryland.