ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Pasternak and Other Poems" by Oliver Rice



. . . There is no force on earth which could grant
me freedom if I do not already have the potential
for it and if I myself do not take it — not from
God nor an authority but from the air and from
the future, from the earth and from myself . . .

    I am lost like a beast in an enclosure.
    Somewhere are people, freedom and light.
    Behind me is the noise of pursuit,
    And there is no way out.

First, a cosmopolitan, intellectual milieu at home,

then, an infatuation with music,
tutored by the likes of Scriabin come for dinner,

then, the enticements of philosophy,
which provoked images and phonemes
that insisted on instant expression,
enfolding literature as its natural ally,

then, My Sister Life, hesitantly published
for its daring, its newfound linguistic tiltings,
but establishing him among the new voices.


First, private enthusiasm for communism,

next, occasional quiet acknowledgments   
of disenchantment with Soviet leadership,

next, attempts to placate his critics,
simplifying his style and avoiding controversy,
diverting his talents to translation and stories,
much condemned by his admirers,

next, upon Stalin’s accession,
although never arrested, never unthreatened,
forbidden travel, publication, official acclaim.


         Is it, comrades,
         that uncountable,
         unwritten, unsounded
         poems murmur themselves
         in his grave?

         How countable
         is the world’s loss?

         Is it, comrades,
         that he belongs to history
         less for his deranged syntax,
         his urban cacophonies,
         his idealization of reality,
         integrity, sincerity,
         than for our memory
        of the valor of the silence
        he invented?




He himself, who has been to war and the university,
would agree that he is, basically, a placid person,
he who elected to return with his degree
to his origins, a town large enough for a public man,
a convivial man, an acculturated, domesticated man,
a prospering insurance agent, to have, nonetheless,
of late, developed a private quirk of uncertain gravity,

who, at unpredictable moments, about his business,
appearing to gaze benignly upon the mores,
or at a wedding or changing ends at tennis,
receives a flash, a fragment of revery,
a houseboat on a lake in the Vale of Kashmir,
a duck banquet in Beijing,
not a syndrome. not an affliction, he assures himself,
making the drinks, or exiting the freeway,
the listening silence of Venice at night,
Windward Island sloops at anchor in Granada,
harmless, something to do with aging,
he informs the streets he knows best,
a nerve in his head acting up — or, honestly,
his extreme self walking beside him, in a mood,
a safari camp or as a child walking with his mother
or a chair in the reading room at the British Museum
where Churchill sat, or Marx, or Freud.




How morbidly inclined must a nation be
to have a cantina with photographs
of young toreros making their last pass
or lying in state?

How blasé must a people be
to have carved their Emerald Buddha
of green jade?

Or how inspired must a democracy be
to allow a drunken fool to vote?

How effete must a city-state have been,
its assembly meeting outdoors at dawn,
having sacrificed a pig to Zeus,
to allow only professional orators to speak
and of those only the most reputed?

How perverse must a society have been
to litter its cathedrals with gargoyles?

Or how distracted must a democracy be
to cede its popular culture
to the vulgar, the callow, the trivial?


Oliver Rice’s poems appear widely in journals and anthologies in the United States and abroad. Creekwalker released an interview with him in January, 2010. His book of poems, On Consenting to Be a Man, is published by Cyberwit and available on Amazon. His chapbook, Afterthoughts, Siestas, and his recording of his Institute for Higher Study appeared in Mudlark in December, 2010.

See more of his work in Offcourse.

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