Vietnam Classic

The Vietnam classic
was a seventy-year-old child,
with the face of a tired, wise turtle.
Not from his own extraordinary fame
did he suffer,
but from the fact
that he was in fear
of the behavior of a red-haired tomcat
that followed after us with an ulterior motive.
The cat reclined on a bookshelf,
choosing a volume of Saint-John Perse as his mat.
The Vietnam classic kept a wary eye
when he tossed three pepper pods on a saucer,
though cats-
when sitting half-starved-
won’t eat, perhaps, only peppers.
A prose writer,
but, in essence, a poet,
though afraid of not entertaining,
as one should-
the classic never once fell to complaining
that
there wasn’t a spare crust in the house.
He poured a dropp of whiskey in a glass of water,
and over an alcohol-lamp,
with a rolling laugh,
heated small pieces of cuttlefish-
a dried delicacy of war.
In him was the striking,
deeply moving,
spiritual staying power of a Buddhist,
and on a bicyclist’s trouser leg
was a forgotten clothespin.
Dismissing with a hand the flames of battle,
he spoke of Bo Tzu-i,
Baudelaire,
and I thought:
'What could be meaner-
than to destroy such a man! '
And fear
pierced through,
broke through,
burned through me:
the tomcat
made a jump
from the bookshelf.
Burning hunger had flared up in him.
The cat landed near a bottle
and snatched a piece of cuttlefish in his teeth
right from my fork.
The host in Vietnamese screamed:
'Scat! '
and, dismayed by the tactless act,
spread his hands,
visibly afraid,
that I will consider it all unseemly.
I took the cat joylessly in my arms.
The cat himself was none too joyful about the theft,
and I froze with numbness,
when
suddenly I sensed:
he weighed nothing.
A red-haired bit of nature and a warm grain of sand,
trying to arch his back like a wheel,
he was weightless in my palms,
like the fluff of a poplar.
'Forgive me...'-
sadly glimmered in his pupils.
And nothing-
I say in all conscience-
did I ever hold in my hands heavier
than the weight of that terrifying weightlessness.


1972
Hanoi
Translated by Albert C. Todd

by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

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