"Empire" and other poems
by Snežana Žabić
There are life forms who slash the cheek
of a refugee, lay eggs like lizards, drown in their siestas.
Immigrants talk about papers, Dubai, Cambodia,
Singapore, migrate pleasure and work.
There was that “before” and now is that “after.”
The loom industry minds the middle.
As an undergrad, I fed my hunger
almost nothing. A cup of green Russian
tea at the Belgrade Philharmonic
Orchestra club served in a demitasse,
on a small plate with a sugar packet
and a silver spoon that had lost its sheen.
Undergrads and orchestra members sat
at parallel tables with glass ashtrays
and you lived with tobacco, smoke,
and ashes whether or not you indulged.
I fed the single bookshelf in my rented
apartment with soft- and hard-bound volumes,
two rows per shelf, many books acquired
through theft. Was I a talented thief or
did bookstores and libraries let me walk
away with the loot? The world had collapsed
by then. I fed my walkman batteries.
I fed my hunger corn I would pop in a large
pot on the stove top. Sometimes an egg
stolen from an almost-empty supermarket.
I’d pretend I wanted to buy a quarter
of a loaf of day-old bread. They’d give it
to me for free. The sales clerk in her blue
uniform would pretend she did not know
there was an egg in the depths of my
coat pocket. The faint warmth of my thigh was
sending new information through the egg
shell to the very center of the yolk.
A VERY IMPORTANT MILKMAID
Among the comrades of our beloved Blue Line,
I remain upright, legs slightly apart, back straight,
chest open, chin up, gaze straight ahead,
a very important milkmaid, milking
every particle I can add to my stature. All over
Chicago, this engineered seagull habitat, soles
of my shoes stick to the tectonic plates
of the industrial era. Cement and steel
and concealed bolts keep all this together,
support my secret mission. It’s only at
night when I’m at home, in my bed,
that I become no-one, a body. A set
of eyes, a gaze that sweeps and reaps alphabets
off of pages and screens and into my ever-
repairing and ever-deteriorating cells. A set
of ears, a listening that picks up the polyphonic
neighborhood behind the open window. A distant
siren. Midnight road vehicles. Intermodal rail traffic,
weighted down with ore and waste. Dogday cicadas
relax their abdomens, one timbal at a time.
All the pristine black vehicles are the low notes
in this film score, with their tinted windows,
and the passengers’ moving desire for safety.
All the cups in panhandlers’ hands
are full of calendulas. The lake and the prairie
birth a fog machine for the special effects
that flatten all the hotels, all the glass shopping centers,
for the high drama of softened features high up
among window washers. Lavanderia carts arrive,
filled with volumes of old narratives and poems.
My fingers turn yellow against the cloth-bound
covers, gilded spines, generous print, pages
never read. The smell of ink and cellulose,
once trapped for the future, is released like
a good ghost. The former regime, in the long-gone
state, ended with the people singing the only
folk song they knew, the one recorded on cassettes
and broadcast via radio waves ad nausea.
That signal has long passed the first frog star.
Under the new regime, fears drown in the sound
of seagulls, cicadas, horses, squirrels, and dogs.
We can’t wait to be drowned out.
We crack open our aluminum cans, our drinks fizzle.
If you take a sip, a gulp, and a mouthful, the invisible
hand strikes a chord.
FIVE DAYS OF READING TURKISH COFFEE GROUNDS
A flamenco dancer at the center, and she’s creating a world, it seems.
Turtles, foxes, snails, people, and a network of roots and growth.
A turtle (with a very long neck) about to climb up a living, erupting volcano.
Or a snail with a very large shell, in the shadow of a mushroom cloud.
The flamenco dancer again. This time she’s topless and masked: a white fox head
and a pineapple crown. A bust of Karl Marx in the background.
A herd of horses atop a mountain in China. Horses, a plow, and a mound of dirt.
A big comet in the sky above them. Behind them a blacksmith. Sparks fly.
A map of Eurasia, and three silhouettes: a girl child playing with a baby
and a woman with two mounds of fleece she’s about to spin into yarn.