Rilke’s America


Tell us, poet, what you doI praise

Only, instead, the grave rasp of Kohelet
praising the dead, which are already dead
more than the living, which are yet alive.
Yea, better he than both, who has not yet been,
nor seen the evil work done under the sun.

The living freeze in fear and turn away,
except the ones who make a vulture’s living
perched on others’ fear.  I spit at both,
but the wind’s caprice doubles the spittle back
to my own face. Which, also, has turned away.

Chicago 2/15/03

Why are there not a few, three, five, ten, who stand to cry out in the public squares:  enough!  and who will at least have given their lives that it should be enough, while those out there are now succumbing only so that the frightful thing shall go on and on and there shall be no taking account of destruction. (RMR to Ellen Delp, 10/10/1915)

We stood together in the public square
and cried Enough!  Of course, nobody shot us—
quite unnecessary.  The frightful thing
would arrive on schedule. No one would keep tabs
on foreign bodies mutilated, dead,
or exiled.  Nonetheless, in bitter cold,
we mustered for the march along Devon Street,
jamming a Seven-Eleven parking lot.

Across the street, a sparsely-furnished restaurant
full of bearded men.  Assured that we,
outsiders, women among us, might come in,
we huddled over tea and asked the owner
what people had to say about this war.
“It’s terrible, of course, but he will do it,
he will do it, no matter what we say.”
At other tables, talk in another language,
opaque to us.  Since everyone seemed careful
not to look at us, we did our best
to look at them without being seen to look.
The march assembled finally, with a banner
the bullhorn said was Urdu (English underneath).
Too many speeches, as we curled our toes
to ward off frostbite.  Somebody yelled “Let’s move!”

Over the halal groceries, restaurants
named “Ghandi” or “Punjab,” and storefronts bright
with vernal saris in the dead of winter,
faces appeared at windows, looking down at us,
a mob of strangers chanting “No Blood for Oil.”
Nobody called to us, or smiled or waved.
What they looked was worried, as if some backlash
aimed at us might land, instead, on them.

At intersections, counter-demonstrators
reviled us as appeasers sold to Terrorists.
We didn’t answer.  Not that they wouldn’t listen,
though that was likely, but that we ourselves
were done with listening.  Brute repetition
husked our words of meaning, leaving only
three empty syllables:  blood, oil, war.

The bullhorn asked us what we wanted.  “Coffee,”
Somebody answered, spirit chilled with cold.


Then, all at once, in the midst of his thoughts, it seemed that from the raging storm a voice had called to him. . . . (Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, Memories of Rainer Maria Rilke)

Leaning into the dark, I listen:  nothing.
Thunder lagging the lightning, monochrome rain,
facefuls of drenching wind. Bored and unblessed,
I slam the window shut and read the Times.

An airstrike, it reports, blew up a wedding,
and last week, some “insurgents” hit a mosque—
or maybe it said a market?  The papers grow
interchangeable, fusing all days to one.
“Unnamed officials” tell us we can’t stop
doing the frightful thing, lest worse things follow.

If storms can speak, what this one says is “war.”
Not Who, if I cried, would hear me then among
The orders of angels
, but whether—if there were angels—
I could hear them, calling against the wind.


And you, who spent your war years fleeing women
in the arms of other women, writing poems
to A in rooms paid for by B, demanding
exemption from the army, lest a bullet
plug the Orphean fountain of your throat,

would leave the talkative party to stare at darkness,
waiting for angels.  When they arrived, their faces,
radiant with annihilating violence,
flashed images of everything you’d fled.

5.  # 333  (draft lottery, 1970)

And I, who spent my war years writing drafts
of C.O. forms, then tearing them in shreds
because it was not God who would forbid me,
but only my disgust, a human thing—
And what of the “The Good War,” for which my father
Volunteered (would I have done the same?);

visiting the consulate of Canada
to see about going back; getting my childhood
shrink to write a letter (“Don’t be upset,
you’re not as crazy as it says you are”);
dreading the thought of being put in jail
and really going mad, committing suicide.

The letter didn’t work—they said 1-Y
(not top-grade cannon fodder, but I’d do);
then came the wait to be excused or chosen.
And then my birthday drew 333—
the only game of chance I’ve ever won.
Or did I lose? The merely lucky squander
all their winnings, knowing them undeserved.

6.  O breath, invisible poem

We have devalued air, called spirit once.
Each breath enacts a faith in the invisible,
which speech, though made of breath, will not confess.
All that escapes is talk, which as the adage
illustrates in saying so, is cheap,
but gestures toward an honorable shame
at drawing breath and giving nothing back.
Now shame is gone; articulate speech is going—
what’s left is quantity, and we count everything
but this enclosing element, where all
we cherish rises, falls, and vanishes.
Who, in this reeking atmosphere, can tell
our flatus from afflatus?  Master, slain
by the tip of a rose’s thorn, you’d die halfway
through one of our inchoate childhoods
of coarsened music and confused desire.

7. Excursus Abroad (for Hugh Ormsby-Lennon)

In London’s Clerkenwell, the well itself
sits in the basement of a postwar building
filled with clerks, not “clerkes.”  You’d walk right past
except your friend, who knows it’s there, has pointed
to the small sign in the plateglass window.  Garbage
swirls on the curb; nearby’s the office of a paper
and a data entry firm whose workers linger
outside on summer nights to flirt and smoke.
In Dickens’s time, these side-streets were a slum
where desperate children stole their daily bread.
Press your face to the glass.  It isn’t much,
this pool of ancient water, neatly filed
beneath the corporate decor, almost
hidden in shadow on this August day.
Back in my country, we would pave it over,
or else contaminate its water-table
drilling for oil.  Or, finding none, we’d build
a Clerk’s Well Theme Park, with a replica,
made from the pulverized wellstones, of the well.


Under this garbage, if we rake away
discarded wrappers of commodities
ephemeral as their packaging; with wire brush
scrub off the shit of birds and dogs built up
since whenever it was we first decided
we had rights but no attendant duties;
if we blend mortar to rejoin the stones
and match their edges till the fit is just,
restore the shaft to its original depth,
shall we have built a dry memorial,
or is there water still that seeks a way
back toward the surface, where we live and die?

9.  Nowhere, beloved, shall world be but within

What’s in us leans on what sustains us—
Which we have slighted.  Even you forgot
your manners, calling it an emptiness
to be flung away.  Now “it” is losing patience.
Somehow, we took a vote to kill ourselves.
Of course, the ballot called it something else—
all we had lacked and furtively desired
under its many names:  deliverance
from every jail of false identity
and bodily limitation, to become
whatever the self we loathe would rather be.
And you, with your exquisite Old World scorn
for such experiments, somehow agreed:
no world, you said, except the one within us.
What do we eat and drink there?  How shall we breathe?


The figure cast from the mold of emptiness . . .

At the seam where heaven and hell are joined, Master,
you meet our President, who, with his cleaver-
heavy tongue, dissevers words from things.

The contrast seems absolute:  your short, slight body
dwarfed by the benchpressing Texan, his eyes void
of the least memory of what they’ve seen,
while yours are burdened with too much remembrance.

No ground of meeting but your shared contempt
for mere embodiment.  Everted, upside-
down, he mirrors you; his anti-poem
is corpses shoved into abstract nouns
that vaporize them, as if they never were.
The vapor screens our eyes from what is done.
He clothes what the eye sees in glozing names;
things appear that are not, and, terrified,
the people leap to strike at apparitions.

Nirgends, Geliebte, wird Welt sein als Innen—
Be careful what you wish for: it isn’t art
our entrails seethe with, it is fear and war.

11. Coda

he, who so recently
Considered a hundred voices, not knowing which is right . . . .

When I was ten, we took the California
Zephyr as far as Denver, late in August.
Out in the dark beyond my sleeper window,
the fields rolled by, with hovering fireflies,
while Swan and Eagle flew the whole night westward,
pacing our gliding train. During our sleep,
the Rockies slowly built their jagged wall.
Next morning, I climbed to the “vista dome”:

Above the plain, so far I saw it sideways,
an anvil cumulus hung down its rain
in curtains, ripped by the bright claws of lightning.
Then two weeks in the mountains, where we climbed
to streams where you could cup your hands and drink,
and lakes, carved by departed glaciers, clear
to depths where sunlight disappears in blue.

My parents were still married.  Two years more
before the need to touch a girl would bring inside
the lightning I’d been watching at a distance.
Then the humiliations came, as thick
as rain, and what went wrong inside and out
seemed all one thing.  My father, between his breakdowns,
said the Northern Hemisphere was fouled
by nuclear testing; I could come with him
(bringing my first girlfriend) to New Zealand.
Was saying that to his son, just turned fifteen,
insane?  Hard to tell, when fewer and fewer
among the sane are drinking from those streams.
He thought the world was poisoned, and the world,
its deserts swallowing farms, both ice caps breaking off
in splinters larger than Connecticut,
Begins to wonder if it might be so.

Standing on Twin Sisters’ taller peak
(shorter by four Chicago blocks than Long’s,
but all my half-grown legs were up to then),
could we hear angels speak American?
Would they still mutter dark, implosive quatrains
shrinking all life’s terror to a fly,
or praise the slow arc of a gliding hawk
the wind has carried, and depart as air?
By now, they must have learned, with Caliban,
our politesse: “Fuck you.” “Up yours.” “It sucks.”

If, instead of the voice that is great within us,
I’m channeling my foul-mouthed teenage self,
should I say, “get lost, kid,” or ask him in
(already lost, and yet unlosable)—
he might be tinged with angel, sang-mêlé—
to spew obscenities that purge his rage
at who he is and must become, until,
all anger spent, he falls asleep inside
the child we were, who thought the world was whole?

— Paul Breslin


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