One twist of the hook,
and there it is:
a whole new fabric.
A young Gogo woman of central Tanzania
can expect with judicious bidding
to fetch some fifteen scrawny cattle
and a pack of shaggy goats for her relations.
Then she will leave her mother’s house
to become her husband’s property, his kin’s.
She will leave her mother behind
and reside forever after
among her husband’s people.
The Gogo are but one of a host of tribes
whose position in the cattle belt of central Africa
lies midway between
the matrilineal and patrilineal.
Descent passes through the brothers of females
but theirs is patrilocal marriage.
This I learned in my anthropology class
but it will be a while before
its meaning will implode in me.
Likewise the impact reading for a history class
of the travels of a German princess
who journeyed by coach to Russia
to become the betrothed of the future tsar.
The distance in space and time
between Sophie Augusta Frederika Anhalt-Zerbst
of Stettin and the Gogo girl
ensconced with her future husband
in the chamber of her mother’s compound
cannot begin to be measured
yet the connection if gossamer,
clung enough to make me
want to brush it aside.
want to brush it aside.
First, the image of the Gogo girl:
naked with her fiancé proudly tumescent
in her mother’s chamber,
her dark skin anointed,
aglow in the light of the oil lamp,
as flies buzz around the cow pats,
and brass bells tinkle on the goats and cattle.
And from the other classroom:
a filmic sequence of the fourteen-year-old princess
bundled in sable pelts,
sailing on her imperial sleigh
through virgin snow that twinkles,
quartz-like, in the moonlight.
Princess Sophie Augusta Frederika,
daughter of a minor Prussian prince
and overly-ambitious mother,
a Holstein princess herself,
is destined for greatness, empress of the land,
but not before surmounting the obstacles,
the first of which her painfully dull betrothed.
The Grand Duke Peter Feodorovich,
if Peter’s own grandson,
is no more a Slav than Sophie
but loyal to Prussia and Luther’s church,
German to his military bootstraps.
Sophie, on the other hand, makes the perfect immigrant,
applies herself to Russian, forsakes Luther,
and commits herself unstintingly
to her adopted people.
Naturally, I envied her, if it is possible
to envy a historical figure.
The pangs of homesickness never seemed to pierce her,
nor was she daunted by the ways of her new country,
this vast and barbarous nation.
As I did, she buried herself in study,
devouring the texts of antiquity,
Cicero, Tacitus, Herodotus,
and gobbled up the philosophes of France.
She wrote to Voltaire and Diderot,
and they in turn wrote back.
She was grooming herself for the throne,
although no one but she imagined
she would sit on it one day,
up there on her own.
And what were my hopes then?
To be a teacher, I imagined,
would be enough
to make a woman of me,
tumescent husband notwithstanding.
No longer did I nurture other dreams,
when I dared to be a singer, or an actor.
A child, I had tried my hand at stories,
but would settle for a calling
homelier, less fanciful.
I shared her unquenchable curiosity
but little of her discipline,
let alone ambition.
Yet in dusty, draughty Dickensian classrooms
I learned of the Gogo’s bride price,
with women like cattle
in savannah-belt Africa
the principal means of exchange;
and that Sophie not only changed her country,
her religion, but her given name.
Becoming Ekaterina, Catherine,
and spent her lavish allowance
(thirty thousand rubles no less)
creating alliances, securing power,
a strategy pursued on a grander scale
when on the throne herself.
And yet how the humbled me
disapproved of her shenanigans!
Still, those clinging connections -
at first no more than dreamily imaginative,
though soon it emerged
from beneath the specific ornamentation
of our specific, separate cultures:
this quiet insistence,
but growing ever shrill and louder,
the images flaring of the three of us:
the Gogo bride in earrings and lip inserts;
Sophie bundled in her sables;
and lonesome me, scribbling in my classrooms,
taking hurried peeks at the sunshine
streaming through the dusty transoms.