Espionage on Our Own Birthdays, poem by Janet Norman Knox

    When we ask our Russian friend,
    the hardship thieves sprout out of ground.
    Our spying self sits up at night, frozen
    in extremes, shivered with mercury,
    pouring over pocketfuls of candlelight
    bathed in a birthday wish. We have pinched
    her Russian pain. We think we know, but
    have not shared her fear like a gift.

    On that day, blame our skin
    like a room, its window shut and wheezing
    slower than a husband’s, air escaping
    from lungs, where the party ends
    in small balloons. Even on our birthday,

    we spy as we slice the neck
    of Romanesco broccoli its chartreuse
    past our Russian friend tells when potatoes
    or cabbage, let alone anything so baroque
    as Romanesco won’t sustain, will rot
    on the shelf of the Occupation—nine hundred
    days. Only the pyramid grain pointing from a hard
    shell—not the softer barley, rye,
    wheat, rice, but the buckwheat,
    its name so bully so buck up
    will stiff upper lip.

    We listen to our Russian friend because we grew in a time of cold
    war and we forget she did, too, on the other
    side. We graze each other’s faces, voracious.
    We love her so much a mystery,
    a hunger, a wish but somehow safe

    from outer Siberia, her sentence
    in translation, hanging
    on words. When she tells—flocks of crows
    chill Moscow hills, a crust of stale black
    bread she did not share, bribing men
    with alcohol clear as water, a shimmer like mercury
    waiting birthdays after birthdays

    for the next war having lived
    so much war always the jar sealed,
    holding seed not rice not rye,
    buckwheat like barnacles shut tight
    when the water left them, grains
    we will store and store, will

    not waste. We will boil
    them the day before they turn rancid
    and make a birthday
    wish that the button will not push
    while the jar sits empty, washed,
    upside down on a high shelf.


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