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A shed where a child was born.
She bled into straw—
Who can write this?
Rubble of light:
We have no words
For what is happening—
Still language endures
As he stood in a torn
Shivering a little,
In a night theater, in Bremen.
I wrote this poem, in summer within earshot of the sea. What Celan said about language in extremity has always haunted me. I was also thinking how we have no words for the act of giving birth. It was important to me that the poet’s coat should be green.
August 14, 2004
From Quickly Changing River (2008); first published in The Harvard Review 28 (Spring 2005)
I have never been to Krakow,
I imagine it filled with chestnut trees.
It was a green day when you died and hard the telling of it,
Now is the time for patience.
The west is a knot of thundershowers,
The east, a nest of small scale fires.
On terraces covered with roses
Instead of honey bees, bullets swarm.
In alleyways torn silk reveals the bodies of infants
Laid head to toe in caskets of desire.
On a dresser made of mahogany
A woman’s hand arranges a display of attar,
Each vial culled from a separate continent —
Jasmine, lilac, rose — last of all, attar of earth,
Red earth in pouring rain,
August 14th in the year of the Lord, 2004.
Was it wet in Krakow when you died?
Through airport lounges and shuttered doors,
Through coast lines gashed by mist
Through barricades of blunt words,
Torment of the ant and ox,
In a miserable century with its corrupt couplings
You kept note of it all,
Petticoats trimmed with lace from the black heart of Europe,
Cotton from India, crystal from Lithuania,
A woman’s cheek wet with dew as paradise swims up,
Gold fish, icon of the journeying soul,
In a garden pond struck by muscular roots and fleshly scents
Ferocious toil with pitchfork and spade.
How much time is enough in the life of a poet?
You cannot answer now.
The chestnut trees are thick with rain.
You turn away from the window pane,
The dirt is a honeycomb of consonants.
Hour by hour as you come close to your death
Someone whose face is covered with a veil,
Man or woman I cannot tell,
Reads from the Letter of Paul to the Corinthians.
Reads in a slow, clear but quavering voice,
In speech that erodes the clarity of your own,
Crystalline disturbance of the liquid atmosphere
Where sun and storm collide,
Reads in the tongues of men and of angels,
From the poems you composed and poems to come,
Zone of limestone, chestnut and linden
Zone of sweet water, laced by fever,
Book of the migrant soul,
Now losing, now finding love.
– In memory of Czeslaw Milosz, 1911-2004