Berlin Poems

Gleisdreieck, 1985

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 (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.

Museums Insel, Germany

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

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.

Ghost U-Bahn

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

Prenzlauer Berg

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.

The Titans

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.

Sans Souci

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.

Museum Island

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.

Kino Babylon

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.