A friend of mine once said,
“All my experiences of Russia have been sad.”
I stare down the chainsaw-carved bear
in the courtyard of this Russian restaurant.
It actually looks like the little I pretend I imagine I know
I have but one experience of Russia,
but it’s a sad bear indeed: I was conceived in Russia.
I’ve done the math.
I was born in New Jersey
five months after my parents got back from the USSR
where my dad was a guard at a consulate,
and I don’t know what
my mother was. It feels sometimes as though
there was no womb between me and that country.
It was the Cold War back then, Eagle and Bear
engaged in frosty standoff. I could sense it then
in my preborn bones, and I still can, though I’m much harder.
Every time you see a political bear, it’s Russian.
Every time I see any bear, it’s Russian.
Even this bear-figure before me in this cheesy theme restaurant,
this pine log barely rendered as Bear with dead glass eyes
and splintered coat, makes me wish I’d been born
in Leningrad and not Fort Dix.
I have to turn away. I’ve lost my appetite
for thin borscht and frozen blintzes and such tourist fare.
Goddammit, before birth I should have pleaded with the angels of distribution,
the ones in charge of where the souls go:
I should have demanded a Soviet nuclear-fired hospital
that looked like hell
and not a warm suburban facade
of heaven on earth, asked for
a birthright that would have growled inside me
instead of one that keens and screeches. You can
keep the eagle, all sharp nose and ripper hands and
condescending, supererogatory flight.
Gimme that bear, called in Russia medved, honestly predatory,
reeking of fish, berries, looking to add me to the menu –
Medved. Predator, symbol, totem
of mine, stuck always stinking in the back of my mind.
Medved, predator, grizzly, brown, black,
that honey eater’s taken all the sweet out of me.
true and real, something I know about all bears:
they can outrun, outswim, outclimb
any human — unless you run downhill,
as their center of gravity screws them up.
Then you can barely get away.
So that’s it. That’s the story of how I came to be — this.
There was Mom, the Italian girl, fresh out of the Ivy League,
out in the big bad world.
And there was Dad, the dashing, hard drinking Apache, fresh out
of reservation, government school, frozen Chosen, POW camp,
Army brig, finally last stand diplomatic cage. They ended up in Russia
where a bear looking over their shoulders shoved them together,
the usual something happened, and I was sparked.
All my parents’ experience of Russia was sad.
I am my parents’ experience of Russia.
Behind me, since birth, a bear.
It’s been downhill ever since.