The Last Aurora

B. Zalinsky, Ad for Aurora cigarettes (1950)

[This poem is based on an article about Danziger Baldaev in The Guardian Weekly. Part of the ironic structure of the poem is that Aurora is of course also the name of the battleship which on 25 October 1917 refused to carry out an order to put to sea, sparking the so-called October Revolution. At 9.45 p.m. on that date, a blank shot from her forecastle gun signalled the start of the military assault on the Winter Palace and thus the Bolshevik counter-revolution that ended in the totalitarian system of gulags. The vessel is still moored in St Petersburg as a tourist attraction. This poem was first published in my chapbook On the Innocence of Clouds, Picaro Press Wagtail No. 104, November 2010]

The Last Aurora

he whistles for his Jews has a grave dug in the earth
he orders us play now for the dance

– Paul Celan, Death Fugue

I imagine Danziger Baldaev, Jew, screw,
enemy of the state, mainly at night.

Suburban tenements of Leningrad,
one room flat. There he sits bent over
the kitchen table under a bare bulb
lit by some workers’ miracle on the Dnieper.
Samovar, gherkin, chain Aurora smoking
in his left hand. Valentina long gone
to bed. His pencil etching memories
or expanding rough furtive sketches
from his dayshift at Kresty, the paper
filling with the ethereal skin
of filigreed men, his own cons,
thin bodies inscribed with the mad ink
of boot heels melted & mixed
with blood & piss, their hieroglyphs
of hierarchy & hate, tattoo texts
of status, suffering & subversion.

The skull marks the section’s boss
of death, the cat a thief, penis a pro,
knuckle crosses proud times inside,
swastika no Nazi but helpless rebel
against all prison rules. The tatts of terror
mean: no tatts no rank, false ones
removed by scalpel under screams
& a tossing light, queens & losers
held down & branded like rock spiders
who cop the irony of a warm heart
engraved inside an innocent
white triangle to mark fair game
for the violence of any hungry cock.
The ‘grins’ are Communist leaders
in obscene or comical positions.
These pragmatic prison signs among
the usual ornaments & dreams of loss:
fair & naked maidens, mother Mary
with child, tigers, eagles, grapes.
The tattooing is completely illegal.

All this Danziger draws precisely
as if in prayer, the kitchen hazed
with smoke. What dense mysteries
of the mirror state does this Talmud
reveal, mock obverse of the Red God’s
realm? Can this tortured art reveal
meaning where none exists? Reflect,
as in a mirror darkly, the violence
daily inscribed on souls in the total state?

Or is this some communion with the ghost
of his ethnographer father, denounced
as an enemy of the state, disappeared
like fifty eight other family members,
with Danziger an orphan & ward of state
then made prison guard by the KGB
& allowed his thirty three year docos
of these illustrated men beyond hope
or caring what more humiliations
the state had in its infinite store.

It is late. Danziger finishes off his last
drawing with a name & date, stubs out
his last Aurora, stands, stretches, adds
the drawing to the others in a bin liner
he keeps in the cupboard, again bone
weary yet refreshed from sloughing off
another skin as through the frosted
window the tip of dawn’s cheap cigarette
glows on endless vistas of the same.

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 23, 2011.

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