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.
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.
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,
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,
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.
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 (1991)
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.
Hamburger Bahnhof (Revisited, 1996)
Along train tracks, in flooded moonlight, I shake all over
in a daydream of the Wall come down to thunder-snow.
Lost in a thicket of forsythia, cold and sopped with dew.
Barbed wire, guard dogs, I hear the son of a god sing out
his name as Nobody. He notes the recent dead that loiter
at the gates: Max Roach, Grace Paley, Luciano Pavarotti.
Ice melts in our shoes at an onyx entranceway, as I spot
one poet who reads tea leaves, who hears tides come in
as preemies squirm alive at Martin Luther Krankenhaus,
skies now crimson with swallows topping Blankenfelde.
Under a cumulous cloud of unknowing, a red fox snaps
up beetles in a tempest in the land of Nod, where sleep
is medicine and paper bags will clot the Alexanderplatz
as if the world was new and we were ten years old again.
In Zossen, I’m typing ostrzxy and ulstigo before I know
what I’m doing, in a youth center where teary-eyed teens
with ear phones peek at me from under boxer hoods
as I check my mail in cyberspace. A man in Lagos
wants to leave me millions, a Buffalo professor says
my invented lines have come many years too late.
The fifteen-minute walk to town is time to breathe,
to watch the cat clouds pile up into thunderheads,
just hours from the Polish border town of Slubice,
where cut-rate hair salons are full of foreigners.
Tonight we feast on fawn and boar and zanderfish
at Hotel Reuner – private quail grounds of a king,
where stubble fields from the Prussian wars hide
remains of boys from Turkmenistan and Turkey.
In a military bookstore, mother and daughter scrap
over who knows more about the Panzer tanks,
or how many died in snow drifts outside Stalingrad.
Oma takes a schnapps and warms in the sodden,
steady rain. We visit a concrete A-frame bunker,
camouflaged to bluff the Allied aircraft, graffiti
from the Spring of 1990 broadcasts Home to Altay
and Lugansk or Bust. We drive through radish
and cabbage rows, put niece Johanna in an Audi
that snakes its way back to the center of the city.
At bedtime we have beer and marzipan, city streets
cleared of all but neighbors who spy on neighbors.
The Autobahn will run through here, cries Oma, right
to her rosemary garden, to rocket on to Budapest.
Luckily, a nightingale raises a song to the Dog Star.
I write this now in a NYC subway car, rumbling under Cortland Street,
its exits barred since 9/11, like the forgotten spectre U-Bahns of Berlin.
Newspapers littered the tracks there, streets black as pitch most nights.
When we stalled at a station, shadows framed the walls of yellow tile.
Glass shattered without a sound. We were in the East, where patrol
dogs had sore red eyes, sand sifting down from iron Doric columns.
I heard a polka: I peered to see cathedral space, Michelangelesque,
at Potsdamer Platz, a commuter hall teeming with suspicious folk.
Remember Checkpoint Charlie guards, mocking me for hours on end?
The silence at the subway stops was ghostly, total, and I was gone
until I heard you whisper, Remember what you lost that day.
It was a dream of relics from the past, not this newer, brighter galaxy.
At the Berlin Philharmonic, I close my eyes as if to sleep.
I see a garden of rhododendrons in the sleet: last century’s
analog clocks wound too tight, and auto graveyard bodies.
I hear a tympani beating out behind the running crew—
my backside turns to quicklime. Early Shostakovich blares
from a hundred percussive sticks: it’s as if shuddering viols
have ushered in a herd of elephants that sleep on a crag
and dream of a Great Migration. Is it Orc’s children who
hide among the chestnuts on a giant hill of beaver-grass,
as sheep in a storm bleat home the defeated Ionian army?
Dissonance prevails. In a soggy hinterland of Permian
wetlands, I shake off drips, turn to address a red-haired cuckoo.
* sound landscape
This is where I’ll live, in a beer garden festooned with linden blooms.
Our friend Werner Kernebeck sleeps late in a loft that once belonged
to Stauffenberg: he gets free greens, day-old fruit, over-ripe papayas,
red rutabagas, enjoying that European sense that there is no tomorrow.
We smell bread baking under the floorboards where he roams a studio
with 12-foot ceilings, free to tell Polish jokes all day and drink. It’s where
I toweled off a girl after too much crème liqueur on New Year’s Day
in a Communist chess hall, seas of people throbbing towards Tiergarten
and a victory plinth called Else. Pokeweed sprouts in jagged rainspouts.
I’m writing about bikes and peace in Mauritania, while my better half
bangs coffee grounds onto a rubbish heap. Later we walk a bit north to
where the Wall used to be, where it’s colder in the cavity of in between.
Clouds of starlings congregate above your father’s grave in Kreuzberg.
We wait for your brother to arrive with wreaths, but he never shows.
A century of misgivings is answered in one stone epitaph across a path
from the Swiezinski family plot. Individual snowflakes capture the boy’s
attention, he who used to roam these lanes as a werewolf on the loose.
It’s doomsday, the German day of sadness, where at halfway houses
pregnant girls smoke on stoops, waiting for the song of the Magi. So many
blackbirds in the too-tall pines. The time has not yet come, you pantomime
from Hölderlin. They are still at large, the Titans, like words not spoken,
without volume or inflection until they’re pronounced in a human voice.
At Sans Souci, Frederick’s gardens are pleasure domes for squirrels.
Under trellised palisades and boxwood yew, I picture Stalin
wheezing from a cough at Potsdam, carving up unknown
cantons into hocks of meat for flocks of carrion crows.
At Sans Souci, chimpanzees and limes, cabinets of curiosity
and giant bean pods from the Great Antilles everywhere.
At San Souci, obelisks bear hieroglyphics from a time
when to be noble meant to turn your head from gold.
We drive past turrets for viewing the Northern Lights.
At Sans Souci, I sleep in a queen’s study, where Nerval’s
flowers bloom each night for passing diplomats,
and eider ducks on frozen ponds are basking into dawn.
At Sans Souci, adolescents pole the green canals,
sipping tea and strolling through the Dutch Quartile,
where silk stockings hang in shops like roof moss.
We scribble out an archaeology of ice, an alphabet
of storms, a lifelong curse on the House of Cadmus.
At Sans Souci, the sleeping poet of Germany
recites his odes to owls and pinkish coral
in a rain-soaked garret as he thumbs a concertina.
At Sans Souci, we make love to cries from Baltic gulls.
A broken-down Trabant at the street’s crook. An island of museums!
Snow powders our noses. Is it true that the Gates of Ishtar stand
so far from the Euphrates? In Circe’s underworld, Odysseus
meets his mother after death, wishing for an end like hers.
I sit and stare at Nefertiri till my limbs go numb from heat.
Lost treasures trickle back to the Baghdad National Museum:
figurines of flowering beetles, inlays of a goddess on a punt,
water spider pot shards, cylinder seals with snakes and ferns,
a torn, papyrus Gilgamesh, lyres of girdled deities, amulets, rosettes.
A restless pharaoh is searching the seven hills for coal and peat,
for stone bull stelae, cuneiform tablets, chits for counting wheat.
Iraqi desert frogs at Ezra’s Tomb, black gold from the Bitter Sea.
In the land of water buffalo, lazy boat paths through the salt marsh,
the rising of the Pleiades, the Ziggurat at Ur-- all this can be seen
in the faces of museum visitors, like palm trees hidden in the dust.
Knut’s First Snow
How cute was Knut? Even now we see him on a Flickr screen in Brooklyn.
He was the ice bear cub that captured the will of all good Germans.
Why did his mom abandon him? At the Berlin Zoo, a million
children come to watch him nurse down flasks of fish oil, cuddling
with his stepmom Thomas, so silky white and streamlined in the water.
Toddlers (we, too) screamed with joy! Knut, der kleine Eisbär!
In Reinhard’s flat, we listen to football on the radio and somehow
root for Stuttgart. November snow-- a country electrified with love.
But Knut grew, filthy from the mud and weighing up to 90 kilograms.
The crowds have thinned. Our daughter’s living on her own now, too.
At the Berlin Zoo, two girls carefully trace a park’s perimeter, one foot
in front of the next, marking the boundary of their known universe.
Nearby, behind bars, a Bengal tiger who survived the Nargis cyclone
paces the shadowy walls, next to where I sit and put this poem down.
Outside the Kino Babylon, I wait for a package to arrive.
It takes me fifty years to understand that science isn’t art:
that neither offers guarantees for a warm-blooded heart.
We come to drink good beer and watch the silent movies.
How cruel, how horribly rank of Edison to publish films
to prove the primacy of voltage. Each time I cringe to see
the elephant execution: Coney Island’s belligerent Topsy,
burnt black by the onus of the age: just look what we can do,
the pale and ghostly film asserts, even from the relative
bliss of Kino Babylon. I see all of Luna Park behind her--
a lady with M Y S T E R Y etched on her forehead as tattoo.
First movies, then ballooning, diamond mines, hunting elk.
A butcher and his dog at an Imbiss, driving history back
as they wolf down chicken schnitzel in a morning breeze.
No light for the garden: I just wish for lunch with friends.
The film in my mind has torn, I can only see in pictograms.
A sign says ‘You Are Now Leaving the American Sector.’
Outside the Kino Babylon, I wait for a package to arrive.