The Czar's Last Christmas Letter: A Barn in the Urals

Norman Dubie

You were never told, Mother, how old Illya  was drunk
That last holiday, for five days and nights
He stumbled through Petersburg forming
A choir of mutes, he dressed them in pink ascension gowns
And, then, sold Father's Tirietz stallion so to rent
A hall for his Christmas recital: the audience
Was rowdy but Illya in his black robes turned on them
And gave them that look of his; the hall fell silent
And violently he threw his hair to the side and up
Went the baton, the recital ended exactly one hour
Later when Illya suddenly turned and bowed
And his mutes bowed, and what applause and hollering
All of his cronies were there!
Illya told us later that he thought the voices
Of mutes combine in a sound
Like wind passing through big, winter pines.
Mother, if for no other reason I regret the war
With Japan for, you must now be told,
It took the servant, Illya, from us. It was confirmed.
He would sit on the rocks by the water and with his stiletto
Open clams and pop the raw meats into his mouth
And drool and laugh at us children.
We hear guns often, now, down near the village.
Don't think me a coward, Mother, but it is comfortable
Now that I am no longer Czar. I can take pleasure
From just a cup of clear water. I hear Illya's choir often.
I teach the children about decreasing fractions, that is
A lesson best taught by the father.
Alexandra conducts the French and singing lessons.
Mother, we are again a physical couple.
I brush out her hair for her at night.
She thinks that we'll be rowing outside Geneva
By the spring. I hope she won't be disappointed.
Yesterday morning while bread was frying
In one corner, she in another washed all of her legs
Right in front of the children. I think
We became sad at her beauty. She has a purple bruise
On an ankle.
Like Illya I made her chew on mint.
Our Christmas will be in this excellent barn.
The guards flirt with your granddaughters and I see...
I see nothing wrong with it. Your little one, who is
Now a woman, made one soldier pose for her, she did
Him in charcoal, but as a bold nude. He was
Such an obvious virgin about it; he was wonderful!
Today, that same young man found us an enormous azure
And pearl samovar. Once, he called me Great Father
And got confused.
He refused to let me touch him.
I know they keep your letters from us. But, Mother,
The day they finally put them in my hands
I'll know that possessing them I am condemned
And possibly even my wife, and my children.
We will drink mint tea this evening.
Will each of us be increased by death?
With fractions as the bottom integer gets bigger, Mother, it
Represents less. That's the feeling I have about
This letter. I am at your request, The Czar.
And I am Nicholas.
From Selected and New Poems, published by W.W. Norton & Co., 1983. Copyright © 1983 by Norman Dubie. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Poems by This Author

February: The Boy Breughel by Norman Dubie
The birches stand in their beggar's row:
For Tranströmer by Norman Dubie
In the cold heavy rain, through
Of Politics, & Art by Norman Dubie
Here, on the farthest point of the peninsula
The Novel as Manuscript by Norman Dubie
I remember the death, in Russia

Further Reading

Poems About War
Henry V, Act III, Scene I [One more unto the breach, dear friends]
by William Shakespeare
The Iliad, Book I, Lines 1-15
by Homer
War Music [Down on your knees, Achilles]
by Christopher Logue
A Wedding at Cana, Lebanon, 2007
by Tom Sleigh
April 27, 1937
by Timothy Steele
At Bay
by Carl Phillips
Bagram, Afghanistan, 2002
by Marvin Bell
Before the Deployment
by Jehanne Dubrow
Death Fugue
by Paul Celan
Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
Eighth Air Force
by Randall Jarrell
For the Fallen
by Laurence Binyon
For the Union Dead
by Robert Lowell
Forms of Range and Loathing
by Ruth Ellen Kocher
by Carl Sandburg
I Have a Rendezvous with Death
by Alan Seeger
I Hear an Army
by James Joyce
i sing of Olaf glad and big
by E. E. Cummings
Memorial Day for the War Dead
by Yehuda Amichai
by David Hernandez
My Father on His Shield
by Walt McDonald
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
by Henry Vaughan
Phantom Noise
by Brian Turner
Poems about War
by Charles Reznikoff
Ships That Pass in the Night
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Spoken From the Hedgerows
by Jorie Graham
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
by Julia Ward Howe
The Coming of War: Actæon
by Ezra Pound
The Fall of Rome
by W. H. Auden
The Long Deployment
by Jehanne Dubrow
The Mask of Anarchy [Excerpt]
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
The War After the War
by Debora Greger
The War Works Hard
by Dunya Mikhail
The Wound-Dresser
by Walt Whitman
Untitled [1950 June 27]
by Don Mee Choi
Veterans of Foreign Wars
by Edward Hirsch
War and Hell, XVI [I am a great inventor]
by Ernest Crosby
War Is Kind [excerpt]
by Stephen Crane
War Rug
by Henri Cole
Web Prayer for Milosz
by David Wojahn