My Dear Anton,
I just came from The Seagull, and it’s still
the tour de force it was when it was written.
The jaded past, a tragic Russian vaudeville,
ushers in the star-struck and the smitten,
the ingénue, the predator, hard-bitten,
artists in a trance-like state and sordid,
bewitched by when and how they’ll be rewarded.
Success too young is said to be a curse
for writers—yours was neither smug nor rude.
By twenty-one, your stories filled a purse
to pay your famished family’s rent and food.
Your father’s violence had finally been subdued.
Doctor, writer, you could dress a wound
or stage a scene of pettiness lampooned.
Though philistines have claimed your plays lack action
there are secret histrionics of the mind
where characters break through the stupefaction
and character unfolds when it’s confined.
Whether tight, oblivious or blind,
the diva crippled by her little fame
reveals herself in fear of change, or shame.
Your plays still plumb the interplay between
words and silence, plotlessness and plot
in which you show an uneventful scene
composed entirely of what was not
to be—the spent emotion scattershot
around the stage in wraiths of lost pretension,
and meaning haunted by the fourth dimension.
How women loved Antosha! You could be
flippant, daring, timid, or a charmer.
Biographers today are on a spree:
computers link to lovers and their armor,
unsigned stories, letters to a farmer,
notes on pets. But did your gentle crane
mean more to you than Masha or demesne?
And Lydia Avilova! Tantamount
to love affair or game of cat-and-mouse,
no one could say by reading her account
of unrequited love, the empty house
once lent by friends, your hunch her child and spouse
(Karenina, or Lady with a Dog?)
would haunt her like a countermarch, a fog.
Or worse. Perhaps it was her child for whom
you stopped. Could she have let him go?
It might have meant despondency and doom,
and why should history have the need to know?
Eventually Avilova’s book would show
the years you spent inventing cryptic ruses,
the stifled passion, the letters bearing bruises.
Four years before you died, you took a wife,
the theater’s Olga Knipper—Like a colt,
you said—who thrived on acting, laughter, life,
and you. Your own Teutonic thunderbolt.
Masha would be the sister in revolt.
She’d broken her engagement years before
at your insistence. Masha was keeping score.
Juggling marriage, jealousy, TB,
and writing plays, in Yalta you missed Moscow,
Olga, the theater—in Moscow you craved the sea,
the ease, the heat. You dreaded every flow
of springtime melt, the break of ice and snow.
With spring came spitting blood, and you were weak.
Writing was a trial. You couldn’t speak.
In youth, you wrote: Of all the doctors in town,
I am the sorriest case. My carriage is broken,
my horses mangy, I don’t know the roads, I frown
at night and still can’t see, and I’m awoken
by pleas for cash, of which I’ve none. Unspoken
disease is rampant. I tire very quickly,
practice medicine gratis, and am sickly.
My paraphrase, and fraught with emendations.
The tragedy is clear. The truth is that
you struggled with the people’s deprivations
and gave yourself away sans caveat.
En route to France’s kinder habitat,
you died a “doctor’s death”—TB, champagne,
the German spa, and morphine for the pain.
Terese Coe writes: “The letter-poem speaks for me.”
Terese Coe’s poems and translations have appeared in Agenda, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Moth, New American Writing, New Writing Scotland, Ploughshares, Poetry, Poetry Review, Potcake Chapbooks, The Stinging Fly, Threepenny Review, and the TLS, among many other journals. Her collection Shot Silk was listed for the 2017 Poets Prize.