from After Paradjanov's Color of Pomegranates

Alex Cigale

1. The Birth of the Poet and the Rigors of Youth

How is the whole world but the monastery –
lit brightly so that each detail is revealed –
in shadow so dark we can see no stars?

The monks practice by night sleeping in holes,
their cells planted grave-like below ground,
every day instructing the good people, leading

by example – a good life is learning how to die –
they descend willingly into the well
of the heart with book and candle only

for company, manhole cover close behind.
All day long threshing hay, stomping the grape
into wine, performing last rites and, most

valiantly, christening newborn swaddled
in quilts pieced from a hundred bright parts:
shard, shred, sever, sliver, split, sunder, rend.

Though the devil may sneak a dirty thumb
on his side of the scales at Judgment Day,
his two cents' worth, St. Peter triumphs,

the soul's net worth lighter than truth's feather.
When the poet was young not all could read.
He was told to place one hand in a book

the other on his heart, to take an oath,
to disturb the look, to stand on his head,
a perspective permitted no one else.

After that it rained many nights and days
and the pages of the tomes grew in volume
absorbing the waters of heaven's grain.

Soaked books piled haystack high to strain them
under heavy stones, draining rivers of light,
pollinating earth with letters and laws,

for what is the soil if not the promise
of the soul's and of society's fruition,
whose cultivation – turning over the loam,

hoeing, tilling, sowing, tending, reaping –
brings about all civilization can create,
labor one measure of man's growth and worth.

Pages turning on their own.  The sound of
illustrated texts flipped, read by the wind:
fish out of water, flopping, one hand clapping.

The ladders are soaring to the roofs like
arrows shot in the direction of heaven.
It is spring, time for beating the carpets,

shearing the lambs, whipping up the strands
of wool with long canes, boiling and dyeing,
spinning fiber into yarn, weaving cloth.

Here are the vessels and jars for the rams
to drink from, distinctively square at the base
to cleave clean from unclean, beast from mankind.

They lap up their last water at dawn before,
their hind legs tied, they are wrestled down
and raised up so that their throats may be slit,

the bellies sliced open and the cavities,
organs and intestines, emptied, carcasses
dressed as meat and the exposed ribs rinsed

so that the blood runs down the long staircase.
Decapitated heads piled on silver trays,
frozen in death, their open eyes stare at us,

seemingly human, more so than when alive.
And so we decide after all to live,
woo, marry, raise children, not wait for death.

Click here for a movingly lyrical documentary on the life and work of the Soviet Armenian film director Sergei Paradjanov.



Alex Cigale is an Editor-at-large at Asymptote. His poems have recently appeared in Colorado, Global City, Green Mountains, and North American reviews, Drunken Boat, Hanging Loose, McSweeney's, Redactions, Tar River Poetry, and 32 Poems. His translations from the Russian can be found in Crossing Centuries: The New Generation in Russian Poetry, Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, PEN America, Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, The Manhattan, and St. Ann's reviews. He was born in Chernovtsy, Ukraine, and lives in New York City.