Stalin's Library Card

By David Wojahn b. 1953 David Wojahn

A recent piece in PRAVDA gives the library books checked out by Stalin between April and December, 1926. Much has been made of their oddity...
Robert Conquest

I

THE ESSENCE OF HYPNOSIS
(Paris: LeGrande, 1902)

The woman has agreed to swallow pins,
and here, white-robed,
                                  stands great Dr. Charcot,

pointing to the needles in her palm. The photo
makes them gleam. The stovepipe-hatted amphitheatre strains,

heads abob for better looks. She's about
to lap them like sugar, but the Doctor's minion

stays her hand; down her dress they glitter and rain.
And now from the murmuring crowd he procures a hat,

placing it upon her lap.
                                       Your child is crying.
Can you soothe him? Tenderly the hat's caressed.

To and fro she rocks it as she sings—a case
of "simple congestive hysteria." He is dying,

woman, your child is dying! The tears cascade,
her shoulders twitch and tremble. Diagnosis confirmed.

II

SYPHILLIS: ITS DETECTION, HISTORY, AND TREATMENT—ILLUSTRATED
(Munich: Insel Verlag, 1922)

"The shoulders twitch and tremble at the tertiary stage,
signalling generally the advent of paresis."

Comrade Stalin tamps his pipe and struts
the carpet to the phone, having marked another passage

with red pen. Do not put him through, I said.
I am trying to relax. The receiver's slammed down:

collectivization can wait.
                                          He re-cracks the spine,
relights the merscham to Nietzsche gone mad,

to Schumann demented, to sepias of six noseless
Neopolitans, an aged whore whose arms are candlewax,

spirochettes that marinate the blood, x-es
and arrows to mark their swim. His pulse

crescendos and his forehead glistens,
x and asterisks—
                            all night the margins redden.

III

THE RIGHT TO KILL
(Moscow: Bezbozhnik, third ed., 1913)

X and asterisk: shorthand all night flowing
out the stenographer's hand. Agent Shivarov:

Why do you think we've arrested you? He   cups
his face in his hands while Mandelstam fidgets, blowing

on his tea to cool it.
                              Could it be your poems?
(The bulb's faint hum, the stenographer's cough.)

On the desk a bulging file, from which Shivarov
removes a smudged carbon, sliding it toward Mandelstam

along the tabletop. A recitation, please?
The hand begins to quiver as the carbon blues

his palm—
               "the Kremlin mountaineer ... the thick worms
of his fingers ... executions on his tongue like berries."

Do you recognize yourself as guilty of composing tracts
of counter-revolutionary nature? And the blue hand shakes.

IV

IS RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD POSSIBLE?
(London: Theosophy International, 1921)

Against the table the cadaver thrashes: its blue arms quiver—
a little. More voltage to the genitals.

and a kind of erection is achieved, which Dr. Lysenko
duly notes, yet Lazarus does not stir,

exactly.
               One week to Comrade Stalin's visit,
and the demonstrations must impress:

too much voltage and the corpses combust,
too little and the limbs remain inert

as noodles. Notes scratched on his clipboard, the doctor
scowls to his humpbacked assistant, who hits

the switch.
                   And Lazarus sizzles—flames emit
from the electroded temples. The good doctor swears

and flails his arms, as the corpse performs
its own suttee. The corpse has the final word.

V

RITUAL MURDER AMONG THE JEWS
(St. Petersburg: Grani Vot, 1910)

Do not wait until we force you: we will have the final say.
Begin your confession.
                                  Precise as a slide rule

and always natural as the smell of dill—
interrogation, too, is art. Babel sways

upon his stool, his neck goes limp. The aesthetics
of confession must be formalist:

The Trotskyist Babel will weep and stutter but list
in the end his cohort spies.
                                             Yet first he must wake.

Cold water to the face, a truncheon to the legs
and the writer's block is over. The singing

commences with the truncheon's sting,
the singing and the singing and the singing—

its own dark Kaddish, its own crematorium smoke.
The verdict is final, the case is closed.

VI

PRACTICAL VERSIFICATION
(Moscow: Nova Mysl, 1908)

Should the couplets be open or should they be closed?
The day requires signatures, decrees.

He longs for verse, but must speak in prose.
All the endless signatures.
                                           A photo shoot: he poses

with pen in hand, the Pravda newsman on his knees.
Should the couplets be open or should they be closed?

Signatures of every sort, the pace never slows.
The State revised, rewritten endlessly.

He hungers for verse but lives by prose,
Redrafted, retouched. The coffins set in rows

like Red Square parades, marching to infinity.
Should the couplets be open
                                          or should they be closed?

Late in the Kremlin, his desk lamp glows.
So much to excise, he's up until three.

(O to live by verse instead of prose.)
The drafts soar upward. On his desk the pile grows

skyscraper high, Babel tower and gallows tree.
O sentence in verse, O sentence in prose.

Should the couplets be open or should they be closed?

VII

PROPOSAL FOR REVISION OF THE FIRST SOVIET ENCYCLOPEDIA
(Moscow: Kommunisticheskoy Partii, 1926)

The people can be made to swallow anything.
For example Comrade Yezhov,
                                           Special Marshal

of the Secret Police, has been shot. He will
now require closure, require editing.

His service to the party, his Trotskyite past,
all must now be excised, even his birth

converted to white space.
                                        And first
his face must pentimento down to nothingness.

No longer can he pose with Comrade Stalin
admiring the Moscow-Volga Canal. Now he is water.

No longer at His right in parades at Red Square.
Now he is air, is brickwork on the viewing stand.

And now the past itself is air, is water, and finally fire,
whitening to ash.
                           In his fat fingers its pages flare.


Source: Poetry (October 1999).

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This poem originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of Poetry magazine

Biography

Ever since his first collection, Icehouse Lights, was chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1981, David Wojahn has been one of American poetry’s most thoughtful examiners of culture and memory. His work often investigates how history plays out in the lives of individuals, and poet Tom Sleigh says that his poems “meld the political and personal in a way that is unparalleled by any living American poet.”

His . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Health & Illness, Living, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Activities, Arts & Sciences, Reading & Books

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Imagery, Allusion

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