Abend (Evening) - Poems of Germany
A cat is sitting in a window in Bruhl.
Fields of mangold, beets, carrots, kartoffeln .
Silver rows of onions, first morning's dew.
Sunflowers are wrapped in plastic against the birds.
Flat plains of the northern cities, rich in
minerals, oil fields burning.
Church steeples herald a time before the wars,
how strange! Everything is fresh and new,
except the old men who hobble in traffic
of youngsters, blonde, red-cheeked,
who skip to school.
The leaves are turning yellow
as the world does too,
growing older with each step,
we crunch across the ears of frozen corn.
Schwadorf. The train squeaks to a halt.
Every person is silent.
A farmer is pulling up heads of cauliflowers,
a joiner walks on a busted knee.
The train starts moving.
A spider makes its way slowly towards heaven.
Reformation Day in Cologne
In the morning, we visited
the candle-lit chapels of the old cathedral,
inspected the remains of a medieval
history of art, a plaster Saint Barbara
with quill, goblet, and host in hand,
a rotten wood Schmerzensmann who stood
with tears in his eyes, outside
the tomb of the three kings.
But it wasn't until evening
that we headed for church, hauling out
our sacks of empty beer bottles,
a ticklish rain gracing our descent
to the recycling center, the giant
bottle dome outside the hospital,
where we made our oblations, carefully
slipped each flask through the green hole
as glass returned to be glass again.
Then we could walk home, break out
a few new ones, begin the month again.
Watching the River Flow North
Death starts at the head,
works its way down into the mouth.
The old poets ask,
why is the Rhine so beautiful?
But a gull is laughing
her black head like a child
in the midst of the dome
of Cologne, says what I see
is something else,
the grandeur lost to man-made gods,
as we dump our poisons
into the music of the river.
The poets ask, where is
the treasure of the Nibelung?
Soaked in the stones
like Hitler's gold, the mercury
lingers and will not wash away
with the tides from the mountains
high above the Bodensee.
When the rain is sour
and the bottom so fouled,
the heart cannot keep pumping.
Boatloads of croaked eels
pass by the concrete banks
under the Hohenzollern bridge
where I count swans,
the old ferries for Lohengrin,
messed and tangled into
the green weeds of the deep.
A white horse stands tied
to a pole, listening to whispers
of how we might begin again.
A housecat chews on the up-chucked
head of a large-mouthed carp.
(Will the circle be unbroken?)
Cars of coal in tugs from Rotterdam,
schlepping their way up
to Basel, to the source of the fires
still burning on the surface
of the water. And the barges of oil
go north, to the North Sea
where in the heaths the ocean birds
are sickened and stumbling
like drunken sailors, feathers slickened
down by crude and quicksilver.
Pike, perch, salmon and trout,
dyed, dried-out, bloated and stinking
from this watery drought.
And yet, the beauty is undying.
But it withers like grapes on a vine
along the banks of the Rhine.
Remember that death starts at the head,
works its way down, into the mouth.
We went to watch the night come out.
Slowly it unfolded its wings and like a frog
it peeped outside itself to see
what was left of day,
the city shaped like an octagon
or sparrow from high above
where God could see what was going on.
In a rock grotto,
we drank your Muscadet and spoke
of Irish peat bogs,
the Helgoland of the spirit
where every German dies every day.
In a rock grotto
we shed our tearless words
into the belly of darkness which unfroze
around us, lights of the city
spotlit Hercules, the one big Greek
who'd lost his power to mesmerize
or at least seduce us into the truth.
His body was bare, the tarnished bronze-
green muscles of a man in love
with money, fire, journeys
to the things we said were too far
away to ever reach. And then
we spiralled down, among our treasures
and each others' words, into
a soft spot in the rocks
where we could smile and hold our tongues.
Speer in Prison
These walls of Spandau--
even in winter,
covered with vines.
And the snow,
wasn't I always a child of the snow?
How different from Hitler,
born into flames,
he lived to see things burning.
For me, this quiet white,
a tall arcade of glass
or stone tableaux...
Hess and the others, Dönitz--
they won't speak to me today.
Is it still because I embrace, appalled,
all of the crimes of Nazi Germany?
Raeder rests on his cane, aloof, old admiral
who detested Hitler, come to this.
Outside my colleagues rebuild Berlin
in total mediocrity, only
the valley of the Spree remains.
Is this always the German way,
either one extreme or the other?
Around my garden twenty times
and I've traversed a mile,
by now I've crossed the Bosphorus
and the Black Sea, hurriedly
each night I read a book
to prepare me for the next day's journey,
Ankara, Yozghat, Lake Hazar.
I cut a lilac from the shrubs
and press it to my nose,
call up frankincense and myrrh.
I walk until the moon is full.
The Russian guards have found a wad
of excrement, wrapped in Amrican newsprint.
They set it on the torture table,
interrogate. It reminds me of an evening
at Obersalzburg, the coterie of us
surrounding Hitler, gloating
over a model of the new Berlin,
the pearl of our Utopia.
Now it strikes me, the hilarity
of both these scenes, the ball of shit
which we have made of things.
This morning I heard starlings in the courtyard
but I am not allowed out. The English food
is not worth eating. Everything I write
must not be found. All I have
to scribble on is post-war toilet paper.
Memories of a life, the Thousand-Year Reich,
and my history of the window, all
to be smuggled out in Pavel's underwear.
How can I manage such a task as this?
The walls this morning have closed in.
I don't feel like doing anything.
All of us sit in the garden,
the fifteen birdhouses have arrived.
Hooded crows speak in all four
languages of the Allies
from a parapet. Today I
don't feel like walking
and talk with neurath
about the devil and Dr. Todt,
their midnight soirées, fingering
maps of the Roman Empire, Westwall,
the Autobahn, all in the name of Lebensraum.
We, too, make our plans for illuminated roads,
a philosophy of the beauty of the highway.
We sketch our citadels for the German dead,
imprisoned; bridges, vaults, ancient tumuli.
Still-- hopelessly lost to unforgotten dreams,
we devise a network of electric trains
which bring our Volk to Brittany.
We watch a beetle struggle in the grass,
try to redirect it with a stick, but can't.
We are no better off than earlier.
We haven't learned a single thing.
Summer, 1962. Airlift over Berlin.
This season in my garden, peas.
I, Mendel, measure each one each day
to follow its progress skyward.
A black acacia planted sixteen years ago
has reached the height of my head.
I no longer wish that I was dead.
A Trümmerfrau, I sift through bricks
and lay out spits for the tomatoes.
Larkspur, stock, clematis, I use the hours
to find a door which opens on Gethsemane.
I was a tabula rasa for the Führer,
none of my buildings now remain.
A stand of chestnuts in the Grünewald,
a memory or shadow or a dream.
I still sketch houses for the guards,
and palaces in homage to Ledoux,
but everything scaled down now,
after the Chancellery, my monument
to agony and fame,
what could be left for me to do?
A laundry in Detmold, gymnasium in Thun...
At night I hear tirades of hate
from the Nuremberg rallies,
the fanatical turn of the wrist
and terrible beauty of the sword made sexual,
a thousand physical bodies made into one,
the triumph of the mindless will.
Pyres of tomes on fire, Freud, Zweig,
centuries of Ovid and philosophy
turned in the cold to stone.
But still in dreams, Die Walküre come
to drag off souls of soldiers to the deep.
Snow again. And still I'm walking,
having crossed the Bering Strait,
six thousand days in Spandau,
everything has changed. My children grown,
and Albert, an architect!
I gave myself to fire, brimstone,
when my element was snow. But
the books are written and a garden
still needs caring for,
Now when I dream, I leave this place
only to return to serve my days again.
after Caspar David Friedrich
Imagine a yard of chickens at sunset
but the smell of pine transcends
the yard and you might fly
this narrow valley all the way to France,
to the end of the horizon, where
the Forêt Noire becomes
a miner's village
and the song becomes the story
of the wastrel fox,
dark syllables are the trees
which loom at midnight
as the train for Rome sets down its head
like a bull and plows through
to Switzerland, Italy,
stands of olives
still gleaming in the sun.
These poems are from a larger manuscript put together while on a D.A.A.D. stipend from the German government in 1968-87.