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Chekhov at Sumy

by Christopher Middleton

First to go, the right lung;
Then, at intervals, unanticipated
Spates of spitting blood.

Devotedly at work, the iridescent
Stories; unhopeful
“Doctoring in my spare time”;
Focus on fact, on detail, all those letters.

1890: by boat the long haul to Sakhalin,
The prison swamps, and duly eye-opening
His report. Somewhere else
He builds a school, takes charge

Of a cholera outbreak. Kropotkin
Quotes his dictum with approval:
We need desire most, force of character
To banish “whining shapelessness.”

Nightingales had nested in the open window
At Sumy, summer 1888. While he slept,
One lung, or both, might have whistled
So entertainingly, the light-winged
Dryad of the woods joined in.

Not a remnant, left to erode
In acidic debate,
He purposed and accomplished
The utmost he had known—

Sixteen more years above the dust.
In two, from Ukleyevo, Lipa, Lipa,
Her baby scalded, and her scream

Complete as now his pleasure is
To see “slip from their shells
The children of the nightingale.”


Christopher Middleton is a British writer living in Austin, Texas. He has published twelve collections of poetry, two books of essays, several volumes of short prose, and translations of work by Robert Walser, Friedrich Nietzsche, Christa Wolf, Paul Celan, Gert Hofmann, Elias Canetti, and many other German writers. “The Tenor on Horseback” is the title poem of his current manuscript. (10/2006)

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