Different Skies
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Russian JourneyZac Gvirtzman

packing up the old apartment
as it happened
there was an end to many things

when granddad died
he took with him
the keys to its inner workings
leaving us to dabble and guess at
the intense schemata
that only an engineer
   could have originated
in an age when engineering
wasn't just a matter of
commanding the physical world
but of constructing
   the future itself,
a future the dream of which
had long since run dry

the apartment, overflowing
   with the details of
   4 decades of life
frozen in time,
a perfect counterpart
to the bitter-cold January
   streets of Moscow

newspaper clippings from
   the Soviet days
adorn the library
brimming with books on
   every subject;
the classics - Dostoyevsky, Chekov, Pushkin et al.
ancient tomes on modern art
books on urology
Jack London's Call of the Wild
cook books
the complete works of Mark Twain

next to them photographs of
   the family - grandma,
who had died 12 years before,
the two children at various ages,
the two grandchildren
   dancing together aged 16
there is also one of myself

a bureau full of sensitive papers
   - as yet untouched,
3 cabinets of fine china,
an Imperial German piano

beige, red and brown
the divan, the rugs on the floor and wall

a ubiquitous layer of dust
confronts us as we work,
choking our sinuses
and our capacity to think
outside these walls

we use boxes marked
recovered from some corner
   of the house
to stack the books,
an exchange of magical
   orange fruits
for the dried and forgotten
   ones of knowledge

according to superstition,
granddad's clothes have been
   taken out and disposed of
so that his spirit can run
   as it wills, naked through the snow

the living room clock is playing tricks
its thrifty hands
   stealing away seconds, minutes, hours
whenever possible,
as if it wished to reverse
that which by nature
   it is designed to expound

the room in which I sleep
contains a freezer
bought in the 90s to guard
   against the impending
   collapse of the economy;
in it are said to be
   berries from the dacha
   unknown quantities of meat
   fish caught by the son
   and other survival necessities
after my step-sister arrived
   she informed me
that at night it is permitted
   to turn it off
thinking about it now,
despite the terrible rumbling
I slept better with it on

on the balcony are kept
a host of preserves
apples, currants in sugar
cucumbers in brine
dried roasted buckwheat;
all these will have to be dealt with

the kitchen is small but sufficient
just big enough to play the role
   of the heart of the whole place
3 can sit comfortably,
   5 at a pinch,
which we do when the other
   family members are helping
keeping them going
with tea, coffee,
   bread, kasha
   butter, cheese, jam and meat
   chocolate and dried fruit
the water must be filtered
   then boiled before it’s
   kept in a glass jug
   with a nickel coin and a bit of granite
watching the cathode ray TV
while sitting next to the stove
with a butter-bread
is the cosiest way to let
time slip into eternity

the toilet wears a plastic seat
the green of which places it
unmistakably in the Soviet Union

next door in the bathroom
there is an elaborate system
for switching between the tap,
   the overhead shower,
   and the hand-held shower,
all of which discharge
   into the bathtub
the latter was installed
specifically for washing the dog,
which was a noble Airedale
the companion of my step-sister's childhood

inside we are always warm,
so much so that it is not unusual
to throw the window open
for a brief moment,
the stark air that rushes in
momentarily piercing the comfort
that is as illusory, impermanent
as the great billows of smoke
that pour from the red and white
   striped towers, which are
interspersed through the cityscape

on the metro everyone is wearing
their furs - hats, coats, gloves
in black, white, brown and orange
beaver, mink, fox and bear
the wagon is full of animal spirits

the stations are monumental
with their statues, paintings, mosaics
in red, white and gold
there's Lenin,
there's a soldier,
touch the brass dog’s nose -
   it will bring you luck

at the bottom of the interminable escalators
sits a guard in a booth
wearing a hat with
   the emblem of the hammer and sickle
watching the flow of crowds
   with indefatigable suspicion

in the passageway
   a war memorial
   amongst the kiosks

on Pushkinskaya Boulevard
the Christmas decorations
are still up
   lights on the trees,
   gateways along the paths
but tonight it’s far too cold to take a stroll

at Gorkaga Park a new
   ice rink has been set up;
it skirts the park,
   passing under wooden bridges,
with a coffee/smoking area
nearby is an outdoor cinema,
a French cafe with boules pitch,
a contemporary art museum;
we stop for tea in a place
with a huge samovar outside
an American radio station plays
we sit on vintage plastic-covered
   bar stools by the window
then a crack - our neighbour's
   seat has given way underneath him
an attendant from one of the
   Central Asian republics removes
   the broken seat
nothing is said

further along by the Moscow river
is a genuine spaceship,
   inconspicuously poised

in the first room of the church
there are icons on either side
and in the middle is a statue
of Christ on the cross,
behind which a passageway
leads to a room of similar dimensions,
except that the ceiling
rises up impossibly into the
onion-shaped dome that tops it,
the back wall of which
is immense, painted in gold
and covered by paintings of
scenes from the Bible
at the centre of which
are the doors to heaven,
the figure of God the
   Wise Old Man
at the very top
and everywhere some slow music
is faintly sounding
that's where I pause to say
   goodbye to granddad

in the cupboard above the corridor
there are things
we don't know about
but we're probably not
   going to even look
   at what’s in there;
in fact we're leaving behind
the things we can't give away,
   send to charity shops or recycle
because after we leave
   this place won't be here anymore
because it's 20 years overdue
   for demolition
because it was built as
   a temporary accommodation
by a regime that propagated
3 and 5 year plans,
that eradicated unemployment,
that ruled by the terror of conspiration
and that ultimately crumbled
   before it could surmise its legacy
long before it could imagine
   the dreams and aspirations
   of future generations

behind the kitchen door
is an ingeniously crafted cupboard
that's where the spices have lived
in all this time they have lost
   some of their flavour
but the dish I cooked
when my step-sister's uncle and
   cousin came
to commemorate grandma and granddad's
wedding anniversary,
yes, the last family meal
   we shared in the living room
with the old CCCP clock,
the rug on the wall,
the piano still remarkably in tune,
the dish flavoured with
onions and prunes,
coriander and caraway,
nonetheless tasted rich
   and heady
when the 5 of us toasted
   with glasses of
                             pure spirit
which my step-mother had
   accidentally poured,
believing it to be vodka

— The apartment at Dom. 26, Yartsevskaya Ulitsa, Moscow was demolished in June, 2014.