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One Touch in Seven Octaves

Whether it is Bolivian Edmundo Paz-Soldan writing from the point of view of a young Kansas woman exhuming graves in Srebenica or Romanian Dumitru Tsepeneag bending time and form in his romantic Robbe-Grillet-inspired fable, the writers in our International issue pushed the stylistic and emotional envelope. It’s an issue that stands up to the test of time, as does Vera Pavlova’s contribution to it.


One Touch in Seven Octaves

by Vera Pavlova
Translated by Steven Seymour


A light touch with a slant
like a first-grader’s handwriting, with a tilt:
you brush away a hair from my cheek
with a motion vaguely tender, stretching
my face slightly upward and to the left,
turning me into a doe-eyed geisha.
With a slant, yet in a straight line:
the shortest and the quickest path.


The trick is in the suffixes, diminutive and endearing:
to diminish first, then to caress,
and by caressing to reduce to naught,
and then to search in panic, where can you be?
Have I dropped you into the gap
between the body and the soul?
And all the while you are right here,
in my arms. So heavy, so enormous!


First, cursory caresses, on the surface,
light, a kind of coloratura: crumbs of
pizzicato in spots which seemingly require
a brusque, tempestuous treatment,
then with a bow across the secret strings,
the ones that were not touched at the beginning,
then across the non-existent strings or, more exactly,
the ones we have never suspected of existing.


Are my palms rubbing your shoulders,
or are your smooth shoulders rubbing my palms,
making them drier, sharper, more perfect?
The more repetitive a caress, the more healing it is.
Water slowly grinds stone; caresses
make the body light, chiseled, compact,
the way it wants to be,
the way it once had been.


Who plays blindman’s-buff with those aged twenty,
hide-and-seek with those aged thirty?
Love does. Ah, the silky pelts,
the simple rules, the witless stakes!
Is it easy at thirty-five to say goodbye to love?
It is, not for the reasons of great shame involved,
but because there is no spot more tender, rosier,
more concealed than a scar.


Within a hand’s reach from the foreskin
is fleshlessness, dense, resonant, boundless.
Touching, because of its nature, takes part
in the mystery of disembodiment.
I am rid of the body, but the shiver stays,
and so do the pain, the joy.
The shiver, the pain, the joy have no fear
that the skin might never reappear.


How tender the sensation of ants racing,
how many shivers in a slow progression!
Some take no less than a full five minutes
to get from one vertebra to the next.
For years a gentle hand has been the trainer
coaxing them to run from one tiny hair
to the next, until the finishing line,
until it is madness, until . . . Hey,
are you sleeping?

Vera Pavlova was born in Moscow. She graduated from the Gnessin Academy, specializing in the history of music, and is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, four opera librettos, and lyrics to two cantatas. Her works have been translated into eighteen languages. She is the author of libretti for two operas and of numerous essays on music. Her first collection in English, If There Is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poemswas published by Knopf in 2010.
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Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

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