A Poem by Alissa Quart

SAKHALIN/MANHATTAN

I.
 
Sanctuary Island.
Sakhalin, that
Russian penal colony:
imprisoned yet free,
each person trapped.
Chekhov traveled here
by rail, months-long,
from Moscow, tubercular.
Took a transcendent
census of inmates
and freed men,
annexes, forest burdocks,
and nettles. Tragic, beautiful
numbers. The Better, the Verst.
The people he counted were barely
named elsewhere: the Oroks,
the Nivkhs. 58 living
residents, 40 houses.
No ideas but in things.
No things but in numbers.
 
 
II.
 
Americans went Wild
West. O Pioneers.
Sioux. Russians went
Wild East
Meet the Ainu,
and Koreans, forced
to Sakhalin, too.
My small gray Penguin
version of Chekhov’s Sakhalin
Island, a record of him
dying within the decade,
learning another world,
the prison wilderness,
a Russian Turner thesis,
his form of Second Life.
 
III.
 
All parallels are strange.
Manhattan, a media prison
island. My rattling carriage,
a digital interface.
The news I escape:
whack-a-mole, hackers,
Jewish cemeteries (our own babushkas
lying there), evil billionaires,
feed after feed, Russia throwing
elections to a Trump golden tower.
Census and OSHA numbers,
horribly pretty.
That’s 49,000 retail workers
with repetitive stress disability.
 
IV.
 
Not Chekhov but
an author friend
who learned Hindi
twenty years into a worst diagnosis.
It let her be a second
person, for just a little bit.
Like Anton in Sakhalin,
briefly exchanging
his death sentence for the one
of innocent men, hanging
in a Siberian-ish wilderness.
 
All data yet all uncountable.
No ideas but in things.
No ideas but in numbers.
 
V.
 
Loud and the silent
islands. The Times site blares
as another agency — mine,
yours — dismantles.
Age of power and no power.
Agentic layers
over non-agencies;
ashen impasto.
 
 
VI.
 
Take an Ativan,
let herself off
the Via van.
Chekhovian StreetEasy
parlor drama,
Irina Arkadina of South Harlem:
nettle-oil-moisturized.
Daughter in little wool
uniform, maidenly
body constricted. But not
her questions, which are always
free: why boys have beards,
why women give birth.
Her doorman keeper mutters
“You are late” in Russian.
Her noise-cancelling head
phones equal nouveau quietism.
 
 
 VII.
 
Icy waves, rusty porches.
All the 19th century
is poverty porn.
Where’s the outside?
I’ve that instant
urge to jump over the bridge, into
the railroad tracks, disused, nettled,
emblem of liberation and neglect.
Much like my childhood.
Escape both from and into.
Entrapment and freedom.
As Sakhalin. A city grid,
place and time,
tighten, like a noose.


Alissa Quart is the Executive Editor and co-founder of the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She is also the author of four books, including Branded, Republic of Outsiders, and the poetry book Monetized. Her next nonfiction book for Ecco/HarperCollins will be published in 2018. She is also a columnist for The Guardian and has written features and op-eds for many publications including The Atlantic and The New York Times. Her poetry has appeared in the London Review of Books, The Awl, NPR, Columbia Journalism Review, The Offing and elsewhere.

The Poetry Section is edited by Mark Bibbins.