Philip Metres



between two stone griffins                                                     
splaying golden

wings the policeman
shrugs his shoulders

straightens his descended
arms & zips his fly—

& then struts past Tsar
Peter cigs that hang

from stoned kids' lips
dropping lines to hook

what moves inside
the dead poet’s canal— 



Griboyedov, in Russian, means one of the mushroom-eaters. His name snakes from Moyka to Fontanka, from cleanse to fountain, from Mars Field to Akhmatova's house. During the 900-day siege of Leningrad in the Great Patriotic War, everyone starved. The dogs disappeared, the cats disappeared, then even the birds.  People ate anything. Someone saw a corpse in the street whose buttocks had been scooped out, like a bowl of earth where mushrooms clustered. At the canal, Moldavsky found himself entering a frozen trolley. Three people were inside, stacked like cordwood. Moldavsky and three corpses continued along the canal. What I know of Griboyedov I know from Pushkin's story, which I know from a poem by Gandlevsky. In the Caucasus mountains, at the margins of the empire, Pushkin stopped a wagon hauling a coffin to ask who it was. The driver murmured: Griboyedov. A Persian mob, enraged by rumors that he was harboring women who'd fled a harem, had stormed the Russian embassy.... Only because of the scar on his hand—a wound he’d received in a duel—could they put a name to the flesh they found.  


a bábushka
wearing babúshka hunches
behind a cart

lugging a yellow                                                                                             
tank of kvass, as if she were                                                     
feeding herself

to the machine—
how a mouse leans to open
the jaw of the snake—

she lifts her face
only after I snap
the shot



Across an empty street, a door opens like a mouth. Someone emerges, wrapped entirely in white bandages—only his eyes showing. He sprints across the street, chased by two men, and now past me, frozen and fumbling in backpack for camera. His eyes ablaze—by madness or laughter? One grabs a trailing bandage, and they wrap him in their arms, drag him back across the street, and stuff him back inside the open door. The door slams, a mouth without words.          




Образ. Образ. Образ. 
These are the faces

staring down our faces.
No cracks will show

their expression
-lessness. Each sacred image

is doom & door. Is wind
& bound to the invisible

precipice. Like a name,
it looms—not you

& yet you. How to rupture
into usable scraps, ritual 

to hew



These poems are part of a working manuscript, Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album. A book-length meditation on the problems of travel, memory, and perception, the work is scored to the movements of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition." Most of the sections bear titles relating to each of that piece’s movements. “The Peasant Cart” is a section of Musorgsky’s “Pictures,” whose musical awkwardness is supposed to enact a rickety cart; the poem takes on images of carts and other conveyances of Petersburg in its transhistorical vision of that city. “Iconostasis of the Former Museum of Atheism” references the transmogrifications of one cathedral from the Soviet to post-Soviet period. The word “Образ” is Russian means “image,” “icon,” or “way,” as in “way of life.” An iconostasis is the front wall facing the congregation, and is covered by the forbidding faces of saints and holy figures of Christianity. There are stories that the icons were destroyed by Soviet soldiers—sometimes to warm themselves in the bitter winter, but often just to desecrate the religion in favor of the new religion of Soviet power.