Daytime Begins with a Line by Anna Akhmatova

- 1947-
The round, hanging lanterns,
lit faces in a window of the Marble Palace
Catherine the Great built for a lover, 
with the Field of Mars below,
snow falling inside two minds. 
One translated Babylonian folktales
so the other could stand in line early morning 
for bread at the House of Scholars.
A touch of dawn was again nightfall,
their room furnished with scattered papers,
rare books, a couch with springs poking out,
a bookcase, a floral pitcher, a china cabinet,
a naked light bulb dangling over a table.
Did the two poets learn it took more
to sing & reflect the burning icy stars  
of poetry where privilege & squalor
lived beneath the same ornate ceiling?
Did they tiptoe from the wintery dusk
of the servants’ wing, follow the pseudo-
Gothic stairs up to the forbidden aromas
of Turkish tobacco, sugar, & exotic teas?
Sometimes, they kept themselves warm
with talk of the empress’s love of horses
as they galloped another century. Then,  
sketches  of their time at the Stray Dog
lit the air around those neoclassic nights,
& maybe they also spoke about “Venice
rotting with gold” near the Arctic Circle,
& anger almost kept them warm on days
they bent over pages of snow-blindness
where tears brought them to laughter.

More by Yusef Komunyakaa

Cape Coast Castle

I made love to you, & it loomed there.
We sat on the small veranda of the cottage,
& listened hours to the sea talk.
I didn't have to look up to see if it was still there.
For days, it followed us along polluted beaches
where the boys herded cows 
& the girls danced for the boys,
to the moneychanger,
& then to the marketplace.
It went away when the ghost of my mother
found me sitting beneath a palm, 
but it was in the van with us on a road trip to the country
as we zoomed past thatch houses.
It was definitely there when a few dollars
exchanged hands & we were hurried
through customs, past the guards.
I was standing in the airport in Amsterdam,
sipping a glass of red wine, half lost in Van Gogh's
swarm of colors, & it was there, brooding in a corner.
I walked into the public toilet, thinking of W.E.B.
buried in a mausoleum, & all his books & papers
going to dust, & there it was, in that private moment,
the same image: obscene because it was built
to endure time, stronger than their houses & altars.
The seeds of melon. The seeds of okra in trade winds
headed to a new world. I walked back into the throng
of strangers, but it followed me. I could see the path
slaves traveled, & I knew when they first saw it
all their high gods knelt on the ground.
Why did I taste salt water in my mouth?
We stood in line for another plane, 
& when the plane rose over the city
I knew it was there, crossing the Atlantic.
Not a feeling, but a longing. I was in Accra
again, gazing up at the vaulted cathedral ceiling
of the compound. I could see the ships at dusk
rising out of the lull of "Amazing Grace," cresting 
the waves. The governor stood on his balcony,
holding a sword, pointing to a woman
in the courtyard, saying, That one.
Bring me that tall, ample wench.
Enslaved hands dragged her to the center,
then they threw buckets of water on her, 
but she tried to fight. They penned her to the ground.
She was crying. They prodded her up the stairs. One step,
& then another. Oh, yeah, she still had some fight in her,
but the governor's power was absolute. He said,
There's a tyranny of language in my fluted bones.
There's a poetry on every page of the good book.
There's God's work to be done in a forsaken land. 
There's a whole tribe in this one, but I'll break them
before they're in the womb, before they're conceived,
before they're even thought of. Come, up here, 
don't be afraid, up here to the governor's quarters,
up here where laws are made. I haven't delivered
the head of Pompey or John the Baptist
on a big silver tray, but I own your past, 
present, & future. You're special.
You're not like the others. Yes, 
I'll break you with fists & cat-o'-nine.
I'll thoroughly break you, head to feet, 
but sister I'll break you most dearly
with sweet words.