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Berlin Poems

Am Landwehrkanal

In the Zoo, where the park is thick with monkeys

there lies the bridge from which they dumped

the bodies off on a cold winter night.

Luxemburg went straight to heaven,

but Liebknecht made a stop

in purgatory, to see what was left

of the Communist Party.

The International Hotel stands tallest now,

and all the museums-- and animals from

across the world are there, and God

only knows what the two of them are thinking.



The larch has grown like wildfire

in this triangle of track.

Once the giant maw of traffic

these rotten spurs now only cary

the larva of the beetle.

Only a shadow of the black widow

casts an aura over Gleisdreieck.

Sumacs grown up into the abyss

of Prussian history,

the ruins of a Hauptstadt.

Rats gather around the jewelweed

and the broken-down mobile homes.



I ate cold bratwurst in the sun,

this being the windiest of cities.

Across the cobblestones

he sat with the smirk of a woozled drunkard

and a half-cracked carton of milk,

to which he periodically mixed in gin,

then downed the rest before

I knew what had happened.

And then he wobbled off,

leaving me to ponder why this place

was called what it was.


Schlesisches Tor

I can look across and see the turn of the century

embodied in a red brick factory that now bangs out

kitchen pots, even a woman is waving...

Here by the Wall some boys are fishing

for who knows what in these stagnant waters

of the Landwehrkanal.  The garden

is full of chickens, ducks, and only

a Coke can floats through to the other side.

This is Kreuzberg:  outside an Ouzeria

three men with thick groggy heads

from a night of dancing try to dry out,

licking their lips at sweetnesses.

Here are the herds of sheep

that soon will be the lamb we eat.

Steam pipes, drain pipes, rusted cannisters

of lard grow mold by the sign that says

Off Limits.  The clouds pass over easy

like the border guard who did last night

without a sound or word to anyone.

His family sets out his dinner just now.

But he is clambering down some bulwark.

How long can this cold war continue?

And still, the boys-- 19 to 25--

fish for luck or something that is neither

of the West nor of the East.

A Vopo guard in a drab gray uniform leans out

his watchtower window to see

the Turkish boys as they launch a rubber

life raft into the sewer gutter.

He lazily dreams of caviar, unlimited sex

with Westerners for days on end,

as two Jeeps with black-faced troops

roar by, then men chewing gum, offering a song

of America, made up for just this afternoon.


Familienbild George after Max Beckmann

It could be the butcher's narrow rooms

in a corner of Moabit, 1935.

The woman is reading Wallenstein

while a dog licks its lips

of the ribs of something feathery.

Georg is just in from carving a steer

and listens now to Radio Berlin

broadcast in shadows of the Führer.

The untermieterin in skirts

holds close the thin gray son

with uncombed hair who sits and dreams

of the shelling that soon will come.


Prenzlauer Berg

Worker's quarters of East Berlin,

New Year's Day and not a soul

was stirring anywhere.

Deserted city, coal-smoked skies,

the streets belonged to soldiers

and bleary-eyed crows, snowed-in

alleys that whitened with light.

We walked along the Spree

and tried to find the things

to say, found a snowman

smoking an imported cigarette.

We took a tram to Alexanderplatz,

away from the militaristic monuments

to Anti-war, under the lindens

where Allies took snapshots

for their girls back home, where

museums were histories

of the Prussian armaments machine.

It was already dark by four

and you could see by the red noses

of babies hauled on dogsled how

grim it was.  One bar had no name.

Everything was ruined, dirty,

swollen or broken, and

customers were hysterical

with laughter.  Torn Arctic parkas,

scarred flesh of a woman's arm.

Gritty tables for the single mark of beer,

as the barmaid stoked a coalstove

to the strains of Midnight Lady       

Franz Biberkopf cooed over

his pots of ale, with Russian jeans

and nicotined fingers, they all welcomed

us to celebrate the coming

of another year in the Eastern Bloc.

At the bar, a flurry of folksongs,

accordions-- how about another round?

By the time we were out, making

our way back to the border,

we didn't know where we were

or where we were going,

stumbling into other bundled,

teetering hulks out in that

frozen cold.  But we had to keep

asking, could it be, that these were

the devils out to conquer a planet

and put us all in chains, to make us

their obedient slaves and harlots?


The Museum of Natural History in East Berlin

The ticket-taker was also

cloak room cashier, janitor and baker.

Rooms of glass as high as the Imperial Palace,

stocked with dinosaur bones from centuries

before we sprouted up and learned

to rule the earth, but none

of them the least bit recognizable.

I wandered into a display

of river horses and one tiny

almost shivering Eohippus,

and the guard didn't like my American accent.

A Prussian washerwoman, floor-walker,

perhaps the curator of the museum,

she warned me not to tip my pen

against the glass, that I might break it.

Marsupials I thought imaginary,

short-beaked toads and long-billed

hedgehogs lined the walls

alongside hairless bats and the butterfly

collection which led to

the Marx Engels Darwin Room,

crowded with cases and quotes

from social scientists,

somehow lauding the theory

of natural selection, the S.S. Beagle

transformed into a Potemkin.

A Rostock family entered,

frowning, skeptical,

a four-eyed child sucking her thumb.

Two boys, one in a Pink Panther

pulli, the other decked out with

a horse head, flowing mane of yarn,

followed us as if we were CIA,

into the rock room, the miles

of feldspar, quartz and azurites,

even some gathered in Virginia,

every specimen of mineral

oblivious to the Iron Curtain,

to the curious ways of social animals.

Then came The Dawn of Man,

skeletons slumping out of prehistory

and prehensiled toes

to thick-skulled creatures who knew

how to use tools.  A. Africanus,

a communist.  Anti-semitic Neanderthals,

the origins of the family,

right-wing Cro-Magnon,

the fascist meathead Homo erectus,

first seeds planted and later the wheel.

Then I saw it all was words,

like our own distorted images of the past,

evolution made patent

and ownable by a few, this time not

capitalists, but the seekers

of a certain point of view bent about a hammer

and a sickle.  Luckily, on the way

out I saw the boys again,

horsing around the brontosaurus,

cheering out loud, thrilled

to death to see such miraculous things.


On Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island)

  for Rosa von Praunheim

These stone benches are warm to the touch

though the clouds have overcast this universe

of cars, cobblestones, and dryrot bread.

Nature-- or whatever other violence threatens

the serenity of this artificial place--

gobbles up moments like chunks of meat.

The mawcaw-like squawk of the ring-tailed peacock

is like a sad hand of God which reaches

each leaf, hoof, and tiny face,

the cry of a giant feline Argonaut

or the guillotined speech

of a rabid and worn-out Jacobin.

A wild boar sleeps in the last spot of sun

and I wonder how he finds it there.

We are not so different, he and I,

our breathing and loving and eating

depend on material things.

Yet while he eats greens and grubs

I gnaw the grizzle of his domesticated brother.

A hawk is shadowed by jets, propelled

from the GDR, and the wild ee-aah!  ee-aah!

comes back to stun the bees and me

into an awkward wordlessness.

The boar is surrounded by his chicken wire

as I am by the concrete walls

of this strange and undependable city,

and by the walls I've built up

around myself, around what is me

 and what is in me,

the skull, the skeleton, and all the rest.

And in this prison-house we share an unanimity

of thought, the boar and I, or at least

a loneliness which grows up out of ivy weeds

and celebrates those moments

when the sun does come out, after rain,

to dry off these birds, these mystical trees

and islands, these stone benches

that we insist upon.


Hamburger Bahnhof

Was it a dream of Sarah Kirsch

that the stampseller found his blue Mauritius

and the walls of East Berlin came down?

For I crossed at the Hamburger Bahnhof

on a streetcar, past oven factories,

hospitals, and Potsdamerplatz

through Niemandsland with the Reichstag

now gloating on the other side.

What I saw was wasteland, inhabited

by the saddest gulls who had their beaks

raised up to a wind that wouldn't blow.


Die Rote Harfe (The Red Harp)

I'm sitting in a bar that I adore

down here by Hallisches Tor, where Jim Morrison

or is it Blood, Sweat, and Tears

dreams of a crystal Zion,

light years beyond the psalms of Nietzsche?

Here, West Germany is a fairy tale

or very very far away.  Burning draft cards

settle as ash on the crowds at the door.

I only wish I was a chimney sweep

and girls would kiss me on the cheek.

Oh how I thrive on this city

of seven-year olds with coal-smudged noses!


At Rudi Dutschke's Grave

Tiger lilies surround the rock

that he lies beneath,

years after he sought a way out

of the mire of the right wing's rising.

Behind him is the church where Niemöller preached

his famous words, and nobody was left

when they came for me.

It threatens rain, the wind is chill.

Love is greater than death,

says a nearby stone, and closer

still the lindens are blooming.


Müllübergang (Garbage Crossing)

At dawn the skies were blown with Russian winds

as dump trucks lined up for the wait

and crossing to the East Side.

In several dozen flatbed backs, flasks of beer

and age-old underwear, the refuse

of a civilization kept alive, galvanized

like an old frog pumped with juice.

The border guards picked through shit

with fine-toothed combs, hoping to find

car parts, scrub boards, rock'n'roll magazines.

By dusk the burning leaves and smoke of mulch

were stench and ashes in the air,

which passed back over to the other side.


Gleisdreieck, Revisited

Six years pass and I come back to this triangle of track,

to the high-arched fruit trees of the ouzel

grown sea-furious across Berlin's

railroad’s split-rail, poison ivied-fence.

By the Reichsbahn, Martin Reckhaus cries so loud

that crows start, and flee for France.  Peter Falk

now stalks milkweed in the filth of the lot

of the library of angels:  in the rustle there’s


Bartók, Janácek, ghosts of my mother’s bones. 

The beetle’s grown beyond the scope of any

worldly carapace.  What’s hidden in dusk

descending is whatever it was I came back for. 

Curse of the earth, sores now blister

what once was sweet, clean, mysterious.