Salvage Veuve

for Adam Zagajewski

Swedish divers investigating a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea have found 30 bottles of champagne, produced in the 18th century. The divers believe that they have stumbled upon the remains of a cargo ship that carried the Russian Empress Catherine the Great gifts from the French King Louis XVI.

Voice of Russia, July 18, 2010

1

No matter how far we sailed,
French would be spoken there,
spreading like scarlet fever

or tendrils of morning glory:
a syrupy drawl in the tropics,
crisp in the Northern tundra;

chaste as a handmaiden’s veil
& then knife-like, piratical
in the service of Revolution.

Voltaire’s serrated tongue
ploughed up the black earth
for Rousseau to sow his seed,

the crop of freedom, stand
of reason, fed by the will,
a new weed, unstoppable

except by the toxic brand
of enlightened ruler, fond
of champagne & quick to kill.

If thought was cruelly quelled
we still supplied frivolity
aplenty in golden bottles

filled at the blushful source,
turned gently at intervals
& hauled off to sea in crates

bearing the widow’s name.
Fun & trade would prevail
where war & words had failed.

2

We never found Russia.
Our inadequate instruments
or the volatility of oceans

scuppered all our hopes.
We tucked the delicate wares
under cold Baltic waves,

a gulp of salt & then
the comradeship of fish.
Our Veuve survived us.

Two centuries of tears
washed over our grave,
ages of war and waste,

good men turned foul,
hot ideas cooling off
froze millions of souls.

Our lingua franca peeled
away from the curved face
of the overexploited earth.

Nothing spoiled the taste
of our profound ruin.
Once you’ve fished it up

you will find yourself back
at the O mouth of a cave
filled with echoes of bliss,

a lake indifferent to time,
intoxicated with itself,
making your head swim.

Alissa Valles

Alissa Valles

Alissa Valles is the author of the poetry books Orphan Fire (2008) and Hospitium (2019), as well as Anastylosis (2014), a limited thermal paper edition printed for the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London; she has been the recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Poetry Foundation and awards from Poetry magazine and the Modern Language Asociation. She has also published translations of Polish poets Zbigniew Herbert and Ryszard Krynicki, among others.
Alissa Valles

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Author: Alissa Valles

Alissa Valles is the author of the poetry books Orphan Fire (2008) and Hospitium (2019), as well as Anastylosis (2014), a limited thermal paper edition printed for the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London; she has been the recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Poetry Foundation and awards from Poetry magazine and the Modern Language Asociation. She has also published translations of Polish poets Zbigniew Herbert and Ryszard Krynicki, among others.