Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope

All I have left of that country is this torn scrap
Of engraved lunacy, worth less now

Than it was then, for then it was worth nothing,
Or nothing more than

The dust a wren bathes in,

The fountain dry in the park off the Zeleni Venac,
The needles of the pines dry above it,

The green shutters of the fruitsellers’ stands closed
For the afternoon so that in the quiet it seemed

The wren was the only thing moving in the whole city
As it beat its wings against the stone

To rid itself of lice as the dust rose around it.

The sound of its wings, I remember, was like the sound
Of cards being shuffled, as repetitive

And as pointless.

The characters met on faint blue paper.
They were thin as paper then.

They must be starving now.


I don’t feel like explaining it,
And now I have to.

To illustrate its money, the State put lovers on the money,

Peasants or factory workers staring off at something
You couldn’t see, something beyond them,

Something that wasn’t Titograd.
They kept looking at it with their faces

Averted, as if they were watching it take place.

In the casinos, these two lovebirds would lie there
Absorbed in it, staring beyond the green felt

Counters of roulette & baccarat tables, beyond the action,
Beyond the men & women in formal attire.


Then someone told me what the money meant,
What they kept looking at:

They were watching the State wither away.

When I tried to imagine it, all I could see
Was a past

Where the ancient goat paths began reappearing,
Crisscrossing a straighter footpath,

Nothing else there except three pedestals lost in moss,

And a man washing a cart horse with soap & tepid
Water, &, at that moment, placing

A plaster of sticky leaves over the sores on the horse’s

Withers, the long muscle in the mare’s neck rippling
As he does so, as she goes on grazing without the slightest

Interruption, standing there in the shade of an oak
At the exact spot where the Palace of Justice

Finally turned into the mist it had always resembled.
In the moment before it vanished

Flies still buzzed in lopsided circles in the courtroom

And a witness accidentally inhaled one while testifying,
And then apologized to the court, apologized

For inhaling a fly, but no one knew what to say,
The room grew suddenly quiet, & then everything disappeared,

And a crowd strolled out of the matinee into a village
That was waiting for them, strolled casually

Out of history,

And into something else: forgetful, inexact,

A thirst, an arousal, a pairing off with whomever they desired,

Strangers even, trysting against walls,

Or in a field of dandelions, on wagonbeds, the moment
Scripted in the involuntary,

Lovely convulsion of thighs lathered as a horse’s back,
Because, as Marx said,

Sex should be no more important than a glass of water.


I can’t imagine it back.

I can’t get the miles of dust rubbed away from it,
Or the layers of sheetrock.

The fruitseller’s stand on Lomina Street with its closed
Green shutters was what

Reminded me of Big Sur in 1967,

Reminded me of the beach at Lucia with the vacant
Concession stand, the two unemployables

Entwined like salt in a wave inside it, asleep,
Naked in each other’s arms.

I can’t imagine it enough.

I can’t imagine how to get back to it, with something
In your eye, something always in your eye,

And everything becoming a scrap of paper:

The sprawl of the surf there & the cries of the lovers
Just pin-ups or illustrations behind the counter now:

“Gimme a Coke. Gimme a hot dog too, then,” someone
Says to him, tattoos from the navy over

His forearms, not liking what he does, not
Imagining doing anything else now

Except this. Just this.

What withered away?

I watch the guy working fast & suddenly it’s me who’s

Wrapping the hot dogs in waxed paper, me who
Half turns, grabs the lids & straws for the Cokes,

Adds it up without pausing & hands them the change.

I can’t imagine it enough, & even if I could, one day

That, too, would be the wave’s sprawl on the empty rocks,
The hunger in the cries of the gulls.

He pulls the shutters down & locks it up.

“Gimme This & Gimme That. You O.K., Mr. Sea?”
He says to the sky, to the gulls,

To the slur of water receding
On the rocks, to the empty sprawl of the wave

Showing its hand at last before it folds.

The lovers must have stepped out of their money
A few days after the State stepped out

Of its thousand offices.

At night you could look up, & all the black glass
Of the windows would glint back at you

Once, as if in recognition.

The lovers must have stepped out because I saw them

Sitting at one of the tables outside the Moskva & shouting
At each other, shouting so loudly

They did not notice their friends beginning
To gather around them.

I gazed past them at the crowds on Terazije passing by
Amid the smells of exhaust

And grilled meat & the odor the sticky bark of the trees
Gave off in the summer afternoon,

The leaves still & exhausted & not turning or
Falling or doing anything yet

Above it all. I liked them. I liked the way the leaves
Had a right to be there & say nothing about it

Hanging there, motionless, without expression,
Without faces, not looking at all

Like passing generations but exactly as leaves look

When they’re still, looking as if
They are refusing to enlist, looking as they always did,

If I glanced up from the book I was reading,
And rubbed my eyes,

And tried to trace her shape I had thought
I’d memorized,

But hadn’t.

Her shape like the sun on the roads.


Too bad, with all the evacuations,
All the troop movements & closed offices,

Each black window shining like a contradiction,

“You’d think the Parliament would . . . 
You would think out of common decency, that . . . ”

But the State did not wither away,
It looked just the same, with the rain

Falling between the treeless, bleached yellow
Of cheap housing projects, the rain

Showing them the way home, showing them the Future:

When they get there they find her uncle living
With them, he’s eating dinner

When they arrive, he’s sucking on a fish bone
When they walk in.

In a few weeks Failure & Limitation
Shows its hand in the cold bud

Of her body refusing to open itself,
Refusing to wake up in the morning,

And the uncle by the end of summer walking naked
Through the apartment, pausing one day

Beside her, leaning over her a little, not to
Seduce her but to show her a few things,

To introduce her to

The real head of state grinning through its veil

Of skin as if there was

This joke, something just between

The two of them.
And later the uncle just grins at her,

Grins & says nothing.


Love’s an immigrant, it shows itself in its work.
It works for almost nothing.

When the State withers away it resembles
The poor sections of Wichita or Denver.

They held hands the first day & walked under the trees,
And so they were warned about the trees,

About straying into the parks.

A fuzzy haze of green in someone’s yard comes back,
But then it forgets it’s there.

The streets are forgetting they are streets
And they cross other streets

And at the intersections those streets
Begin to forget.

Most of the stores are boarded up, most of what
Is left is braced with two-by-fours in X’s

Over the doors like spells with no power in them,
The sun like neglect bathing the walls,

Bathing the beams you can see right through to,

It’s always the day after the day after here,
And every rebellion’s a riot,

The riot goes on though no one’s there, the streets
Looking burned still, looking as inexplicable

To them as it did the first day
They saw it,

The days are inexplicable,
Their unvarying routine where children not yet

In school peer through the chain link
Of a storm fence above the boulevard & the traffic

To watch for cops,

Where their older brothers with their girlfriends
Sprawl on a car seat ripped out

Of a van & placed here to overlook the city, the river,
Its history an insult in which

They were property.

When it was over, history became a withered arm,
And everyone entered history & no one could find them.

The children keep staring through the chain links

Of the storm fence. The older ones on the car seat
Get high from a glass pipe & watch

The planes on the runway taxi & take off,
They get high again & watch the planes

Glide in & land, & do one last hit before
They stand up & one of them pisses into a small ravine

Of trash. The five-year-old girl keeps peering
Through the storm fence without letting

Her attention stray

Because the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,
Her brother tells her, laughing,

And because the task assigned to her is sacred.
I can’t imagine her enough.

I remember standing in broken glass at the foot
Of a stairway, the woman beside me

Frightened & crying, & the way the glass felt
Like a river freezing under my feet.

I remember how expensive it all seemed,

And after we had split up, in the years that followed.
I would feel my body turn

Slowly away from others so that it could live alone,
So that each afternoon it could

Become wholly a body. It swept the floors of the house
Each day until it was a routine,

Until it became the finite, thoughtless beauty
Of habit.

Whenever the body swept, it could forget.

And the habit was neither pleasure nor work but an act
That kept the stars above it

In the night, kept the pattern of the stars
From rattling out of their frames,

Whether you could see them above you or not,
Whether you looked up & noticed them or not,

The body swept the floors & kept the light above it.

This is why

The girl keeps squinting through the storm fence,
This is why the task assigned to her is sacred,

Why her love for her brother
Is unconditional,

And though she suspects that her brother
Will one day turn into mist behind her,

A space on the car seat, that he will
Disappear like the others have,

It hasn’t happened yet.

I swept the floors to let the worlds blur
Into one another.

But the lovers, the emigrants?
I never see them anymore.

I don’t know where they went.

I remember the idiot in the park near Zeleni Venac,
Standing there without a shirt on,

With his fly undone,

The way he’d hold his penis in one hand, & simply howl
And keep howling to anyone passing by

On Lomina Street, because, as Ratko explained it to me,
He believed that he held one end of a leash

He would never find him, this Master he had waited for,
This owner whose whistle he listened for

In the faint blue stillness of the summer daybreak.

In the mornings he would seem calm & play cards
Without understanding them with the others

Who slept in the park & tolerated him, but by
Late afternoon he would begin

To stammer & beg beside the dry fountain, the pine needles
So dry by now they seemed

About to ignite above him, & then, at the certain moment,
He would seem to realize

What had happened, he would become completely still
At that moment, & then . . . 

Then the howling would start up again.
It was not the howling of an idea.

It was the flesh being flayed.


My friend Ratko used to drink brandy constantly

In little sips throughout the day & could lie
So beautifully about anything

That the government awarded him, each year, a grant

To write stories, but of course he never wrote them
Except on the air as he walked with friends

Through the city.

Continuing his almost endless commentary,
Asking if the idiot did not admit, without knowing it,

The great truth

About us, that a broken string or snipped-off thread
Is all we remember, & that even this is

Less real than the pulpy flesh he held between his fingers.

History has a withered arm.

And the love of these two adhering to paper, delusional,
Vestigial, the daydream of Capitalism,

The last transaction of the State by which it vanishes,

The flies caking the face of the horse standing there
In its innocence again,

I can’t imagine them enough to bring them back.
After a while, when any subject is forbidden,

All thought is deviationist.

And the young schoolteacher in Rijeka is . . .  where by now?
And the young Muslim poet from Sarajevo is . . . where by now?

And the harmless, lazy bellman at the Atina Palace is . . . 
Where by now?

And the pipe-smoking translator with his office overlooking
Princip Street & the river,

Who was last heard on the phone shouting to someone
As the beams & window glass let go of themselves

In the laughter that shatters all things is . . . where by now?


Those nights when I couldn’t sleep in Belgrade,
When I could no longer read,

When there was no point in going out because everything
Was closed, I’d glance at the two of them

On their worthless currency, as if I might catch them
Doing something else, & once,

I turned from their portrait to the empty street
Beneath the window, the thick trees like a stillness

Itself in the night,
And . . . I saw them there. This time they were

Fucking in the rain, their clothes strewn beneath them

On the street like flags

After a war, after some final defeat—fucking each other
While standing up, standing still in the rain & the rain falling

In sheets as if there were no tomorrow left
In it, as if their mouths, each wide open & pressed against

The other’s mouth, stilling the other’s, & reminding me
Of leaves plastered to the back of a horse

Trotting past after a storm, leaves plastered to the side
Of a house by the wind, to what is left of some face . . . 

Had taken the breath out of everything. I thought of
The horse passing easily

Under the exhausted-looking mulberry trees, under the leaves
And the haunted scripture—

Some of its characters shaped like blossoms, others
Like a family of crows taking flight, others like farm tools,

Some of them moving in circles like swirls in a current—

All of it written in the cracked, weathered Cyrillic of some
Indecipherable defeat, though once its shapes had been

Perfect for showing one things, clear as a girl’s face,

The girl who skipped rope in her communion dress,
Dry & white as a petal—

Jedan. Cesto?, Nema, Zar ne?
Chaste & thoughtless as the thing she chanted

And then lost interest in, until I could hear only the endless,
Annoying, unvarying flick of the rope each time

It touched the street.  end  

“Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope” from Elegy, by Larry Levis, © 1997. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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