“Not Enough to Ski On” by David Oates

David Oates


This morning as Ukraine was invaded I shaved my neck
while listening to ancient orthodox music, with beards and ikons
on the illustration, Russian saints and astonishing harmonies
deep, slow, apparently permanent. And I noticed
that I needed to clean out the dirty soap-dish on the sink.
What an odd thing, I thought. A filth of cleanness.

Anyway, what is “Russia”? What I know is next to nothing.
It’s big but kind of useless, right? What does the world buy
from a nation of angry alcoholics? And wife beaters. And
wives who are beaten, and who admire the strongman leader.
I’ve always remembered a line from Gogol, or maybe Chekhov:
“He beat her right in the stomach, like a hero.”

When you know as little as I do, it’s hard to think.
I remember Khrushchev beating his shoe on the lectern at the U.N.
His bad teeth and peasant body. Peasant mind, too, I guess.
I knew about Ukrainian farmers killed by Stalin because
anticommunist conservatives mentioned them all the time. What else.
Amazing novels and music. How the heck does that happen?

I looked it up a few years ago: Russia’s economy is smaller than Italy’s.
Below Canada’s. Below South Korea’s! How can such a place be a Great Power?
I guess the collapse was because they couldn’t afford it. But here we are
thirty years later, same script. O then let us fear the Russians.
Let us rue them, and oppose them, and mock their shirtless
machismo. What their point is, we don’t know. Or what we offer instead.

Oh! And as a Sign to Poets, it’s snowing as I write! Late February. Weird.
Fluffy, pretty, symbolic. But not enough to ski on. Later
I’ll walk over to the little orthodox church with its wee silver dome
and signage in Korean. I went inside once and the walls were whited out
and all the ikons and strange double crosses taken out. I don’t know
anything about Korean Baptists, either, but I don’t like them too.

I’m an all-purpose bigot, catholic in the range of my disdain.
I can’t figure out why the world works this way, that evangelists
whose noisy ignorance failed so completely with me
should go to Korea and find success. Really, how the heck?
And how do soap-dishes get dirty? And why does Russian music
make me feel sad and joyous all at the same time?

My close-shaved dyspepsia offers no insight into this world.
My poetry will never appear on a syllabus at Moscow U. If there is one.
I don’t know why some are beaten while others are cheering. America
won the Cold War. What temperature will this one be?
The Luke Warm War, maybe. We’ll install tepid little dictators
worldwide to support the effort. Then forget them.

When I get lost while writing, I ask, What is the poem of this poem?
So maybe the question here is, What is the war of this war?
Who has been dying unnoticed, who made millions by it?
What’s the secret of this overt thing, what soap is its filth?
Questions like this vanish in a day or two. What I know
mostly is that I don’t know. Not enough to ski on.

I won’t make famous novels of it. Nor all-night vigils.
What we won, that we will lose. Suffering covers everything,
until later when it doesn’t. We will come out from hiding and
cleanse our wisdom with afterthoughts of great seemliness.
All the while wishing for beauty and harmony.
That alone is deep, slow, and apparently permanent.

from Poets Respond
February 28, 2022


David Oates: “Like everyone else, I woke up to war one day last week. It felt new/old. And I didn’t know what to think, except how lousy it was. Who ever really knows how to think about ‘history’ as it unfolds around you? There’s always this pathos of strangeness. And the scary question mark of what happens next—how bad it will get. And for whom. Later we’ll turn it into ‘history’ and know what the plot turned out to be. Once it’s in the rearview mirror, it all seems manageable. But in the moment—just weird and very hard to think clearly about.” (web)

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