Stalin on Stage
The angelic gilt of the ceiling lit
with stage-light imitation, fractured
surf of the goldleaf pouring across
the proscenium, the aging rafters,
the crowd speckled with reflection:
all this brings us to Stalin.
Stalin on stage. To the moment
when he has just finished speaking
and the audience rises in unison
to collapse the air with their applause.
Minutes pass and no one will stop,
the very air threatened by the noise,
until one general, veteran of wars
and Tannenberg, an armada
of ribbons blockading the deep Baltic
of his uniform, drops his hands and sits.
We know the history so we know
the story now, before it’s given.
How he is rousted and pummeled
at dawn and the trees in a cold grove
gather round him as the rifles rise.
Never be the first to stop applauding Stalin,
he is told, before the guns’ ovation
rises up into the glacial sky, birdcall
returning after a brief silence. This
is wrong, as I return to the source
to reread the history, the general just
an owner, his paper factory offering up
the forms that will be filled out to detail
the reams of his misfortune. He wasn’t
killed, wasn’t turned out into the morning
trees and introduced to the tiny mouths
of twenty weapons. He was given ten
years in the gulag, ten years at labor
in the flesh-splitting cold, ten years
in the joy of short sunlight. Ten years.
Does that make it better or worse?
On his release, his daughter’s there
to collect him, and they hobble into
the flat March light, holding on to
each other in the Riga station.
The train pulls at them as it leaves,
the sound of its wheels on the ties
at the crossing like men beating a horse
with boards. The train that once
carried the poem’s moral center
vanishes into a cold drizzle that falls
on their necks, gilds their hair with dew
the hue of piss, almost the color
of the wash of gold above Stalin,
who remains, of course, up on stage
beneath the clarion lights and seraphs,
his face bright as paper, drenched
in the warmth of the applause
that somehow never dies.