Abend (Evening) - Poems of Germany

Caspar David Friedrich, Abend, 1824


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.

Spinach blossoms.

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.

Up Wilhemshöhe

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.

Abend (Evening)

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.

© 1987