The Tartar Swept


The Tartar swept across the plain
In their furs and silk panties
Snub-nosed monkey men with cinders for eyes
Attached to their ponies like centaurs
Forcing the snowy passes of the Carpathians
Streaming from defiles like columns of ants
Arraying their host in a vasty wheel
White, gray, black and chestnut steeds
10,000 each to a quadrant
Turning, turning at the Jenuye’s command
This terrible pinwheel
Gathering speed like a Bulgar dance
Faster and faster
Until it explodes, columns of horsemen
Peeling away in all the four directions
Hard across the puszta
Dust from their hooves darkening the sky
They fall upon village and town
Like raptors, like tigers, like wolves on the fold
Mauling the sza-szas
And leaving them senseless in puddles of goaty drool
Smashing balalaikas
Ripping the ears off hussars and pissing in the wounds
They for whom the back of a horse
Is their only country
For whom a roof and four walls is like unto a grave
And a city, ptuh, a city
A pullulating sore that exists to be scourged
Stinky dumb nomads with blood still caked
On shield and cuirass
And the yellow loess from the dunes of the Takla Makan
And the Corridor of Kansu
Between their toes and caught in their scalps
Like storm clouds in the distance
Fast approaching
With news of the steppes, the lagoons and Bitter Lakes
Edicts, torchings, infestation
The smoke of chronicles
Finding their way by the upper reaches
Of the Selinga and the Irtysh
To Issyk-Kul, the Aral, and then the Caspian
Vanquishing the Bashkirs and Alans
By their speed outstripping rumor
Tireless mounts, short-legged and strong
From whose backs arrows are expertly dispatched
As fast as they can be pulled from the quiver
Samarkand, Bukhara, Harat, Nishapur
More violent in every destruction
This race of men which had never before been seen
With their roving fierceness
Scarcely known to ancient documents
From beyond the edge of Scythia
From beyond the frozen ocean
Pouring out of the Caucasus
Surpassing every extreme of ferocity
From the Don to the Dniester
The Black Sea to the Pripet Marshes
Laying waste the Ostrogoth villages
Taking with them every last cookie
Then dicking the help
These wanton boys of nature
Who shot forward like a bolt from on high
Routing with great slaughter
All that they could come to grips with
In their wild career
Their beautiful shifting formations
Thousands advancing at the wave of a scarf
Then doubling back or making a turn
With their diabolical sallies and feints
Remorseless and in poor humor
So they arrived at the gates of Christendom

from The Strange Hours Travelers Keep (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2003), copyright © 2003 by August Kleinzahler used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Poetry Foundation recording made on 2 October 2007, New York

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