So this is what dawn looks like. I have no memory of how the sky appears so early, although I have seen it described many times, in other people’s poetry. This makes me reluctant to describe it myself, that faint slash of light arriving through the gates of the morning, reminding me of when I was a child and asked whose hand opens those gates. I was sent to a Siberian prison for a week. There, I shared a cell and my turnips with a young brown bear about my size that had been a little too jaunty and failed to keep in step at a military parade. Just as we were running out of turnips, its mother came into the jail through the flimsy wall, bit and spit out the hand that the warden raised to stop her, bent an opening between the bars with her arms and her teeth, and took us both out on her shaggy back. For the rest of my life, I was astonished by my own mother’s smooth skin.
With this as my first real memory, it was inevitable that I become a poet. Nonetheless, I lack such confidence in my skills as would allow me to attempt to describe the sunrise, when it has already been done so well, even by those who only saw dawn through a crack in the ceiling of their cells. In the children’s prison, we had windows and animals that juggled while the jailers stared out at the Siberian girls flouncing by with their long almond eyes. Icicles forming at those eyes’ corners as they looked in at we poor prisoners. They often returned to feed vodka to the guards until the guards fell asleep against the walls. Then these girls gave us dark rye bread and candy and sang us old Slavic lullabies and dried our tears through the prison bars with handkerchiefs already damp from the cold.
Freud would call it inevitable that I eventually married a Siberian girl who had somehow never seen the dawn. We traveled around Russia freeing any underfed bear from its circus. Most of them returned to the wild but we heard that one somehow reached the front door of the KGB complex. A military policeman was about to shoot it when a nearby child of some spy fell off the bicycle he was learning to ride, and the bear climbed on and pedaled in a circle, tooting the horn and roaring in delight. The child’s father and his uncle, both security chiefs for different Moscow districts, brought the bear into headquarters and kept it as their mascot, serving it only caviar and champagne. In the end, it lived longer than most poets. Fatter too.
But I survived all that. I discovered that the only way I can find to describe the dawn for my wife, now in Siberia with her father, who is dying of age, is that it is rather like the moment when our eyes adjust after we have entered our bedroom to sleep and turned off the light. As far as it goes, I prefer that dawn to America’s, which has something of the glow of her skin in that moment, but is utterly lacking its heat.