Olga Livshin

Martial Arts


The night Sandy Hook’s children were killed,
I bought four boxes of pancake mix.
Recently immigrated, I wanted an underground
bullet-proof bunker. Whole Foods had to do.


It was our date night. Dave had to watch the comedy
solo. I walked across the glittering street.
My kindergartner shouted: mama, mama,
let’s have thousands of breakfasts and live


an awesome American life! A black belt in breakfast,
that’s what I want, punching life with pan-fried suns
every morning. I’d wrap my son in silky camouflage
of flapjacks and hotcakes, those warm secrets


that English opens for the newly arrived. But Kolya
peeks out from history: mama, what do you do
all day long but think of the kids who were almost me,
who put on little rain boots on a real morning


before someone swept away all their trains
and dinosaurs, dolls and small funny clowns,
and so many packages, all sorts of presents,
tons of purchases pinning us to the ground?




The Xanax Debate A Quadrupalogue


The Brain:


Mind, when did I stop being your sister?
When did I become the mule you threw
bag after bag of work at? Sand, clay, cement
spluttering, hurled at wherever I tried
to tend to a garden of stop. We worked
when the world had its short rib stew,
petted its cats before the dumb, lovely TV
show, and sugar-powder snow fell. When we
needed sleep, when we really did need
to fall prostrate and sleep, instead
you and I dragged ourselves on brisk walks
under the bulging sky, or worked right after
giving birth. That’s when we first zigzagged
down the world-of-medicine stairs. Yes,
our culture demands exertion; but not so fast.
Remember how you basked in work, Ms. Cog-
of-the-Month at Self-Sacrifice Corporation,
Perfect Mother Who Just Can’t Get it Together?
You loved ravishing me. Now I’m frayed.
Don’t get dressed, Mind. Don’t eat, Mind.
Take that pill! All dials scream fear, fear!
We are fellow travelers. Hear me, hear.


The Mind:


(Swallows a Xanax. Waits ten minutes.)

That’s better. But how it tortures me,
this shame that I give voice to. Brain,
let’s not kid ourselves. You threw me out
at your whimsy, Your Crazy Majesty.

I was once a rational animal, mother of all
my work. When you said, “I am real,
too!”, how you loved crushing me into you,
like America’s favorite medication

smashed now into my mouth!
Medical nomenclature calls us an organ –
and just that: a smallish, mortal and twisty
sort of cinnamon bun, black raisins of illness

baked into our folds. GAD—that’s my name
thanks to you: Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Should I be glad? Bodies are real, your wisdom
declares. I’m not myself until Xanax doles me out

and then that suddenly ends. And Xanax
needs to take me again, and again. That’s
my only feasible, cyclical return to me.
No: not to the healthy woman I used to be.

To our easy-to-memorize, our dearly beloved
formula: 8-Chloro-1-can’t-live-without-it-


The Xanax R&D Team


If we may: we are biochemists. Which is why
we meet you here. Poor Brain, how hard it is –
we know this better than anyone. Please
accept our response – these meds – as-is:
you’re not in a madhouse, at least! Some facts
for you, Mind, too, so that they might balance
the heavy medical authority that upsets you.
We have no idea how Xanax works, and only vague notions
about why you’re sick to begin with. Hormones,
the environment, what you dreamed of, drank
this morning, what your boss said at 3 p.m. No
cure, but treatment, and we still try—


Pfizer Corporation:


Now, Drs., if you don’t mind, step aside.
We’ll speak directly to our customer. Ms. Mind!
(It’s illegal for us to speak to your damaged organ,
we’re advised that diseases are biology. Also,
you’re paying.) Let’s face it: Xanax is the best-
available, premiere anti-anxiety medication.
Unrealistic worries vanish after oral administration.
Join our fifty million clients per year, plus illegals,
and growing under our leadership. What else
can you do? Why do you people add this cause
for worry to your already-enormous list? You’re one
powerful army. Ms. Mind, soldier on!




Thoreau in Russia


Outside Moscow, a sixteen-year-old girl in thick glasses
looks for something in the littered, self-shedding woods.
At home the TV has exploded: Americans have brought down
their own skyscrapers, now they’re destroying our ancient
homes, poisoning minds, snatching girls. The girl runs away,
reads Genri Toro in translation, and Walden rolls out.


By the hand, by her pinkie finger, Toro takes her away
from near the cranberry bush that almost shades shards
of vodka bottles, to the vaguely clean willow, eva in Russian,
not weeping, but bathing her lithe arms in the pond.
Genri liked washing off his nights, he announces vigorously:
morning baths in the pond were his religious exercises,


and the best. The girl dips a toe: icy, October, black water.
Moscow’s autumn has been mute to boys and girls
noiselessly reading poems, microscopic, untranslated.
Do Americans read Genri? She forces herself to undress,
falls nude into the pond: a blast of liquid icicles, then
warmth. This, too, is real. It fits her like glasses.


As she hides in her jacket, she watches the oaks and maples
lift their yellow leaves – clubs, spades – against the sky’s
booming blue gouache. It’s just a bet, a quick card game,
yet the post-empire plants stand up, small-tall, no defenses.
Propped by a birch stump, Thoreau sits quietly with the girl:
irrelevant to their countries, legible to their dreams.

Olga Livshin (olga-livshin.com) is a bilingual Russian-American poet. Her work has appeared in The Mad Hatters’ ReviewEleven Eleven and other journals, and was included in The Persian Anthology of World Poetry (in translation). She teaches Russian at Boston University. 


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