Posts filed under ‘Series’

Alle Tage / Every Day

Ingeborg Bachmann

Listen (to Bachmann read)

Der Krieg wird nicht mehr erklärt,
sondern fortgesetzt. Das Unerhörte
ist alltäglich geworden. Der Held
bleibt den Kämpfen fern. Der Schwache
ist in die Feuerzonen gerückt.
Die Uniform des Tages ist die Geduld,
die Auszeichnung der armselige Stern
der Hoffnung über dem Herzen.

Er wird verliehen,
wenn nichts mehr geschieht,
wenn das Trommelfeuer verstummt,
wenn der Feind unsichtbar geworden ist
und der Schatten ewiger Rüstung
den Himmel bedeckt.

Er wird verliehen
für die Flucht von den Fahnen,
für die Tapferkeit vor dem Freund,
für den Verrat unwürdiger Geheimnisse
und die Nichtachtung
jeglichen Befehls.

Translation (by Peter Filkins):

War is no longer declared,
but rather continued. The outrageous
has become the everyday. The hero
is absent from the battle. The weak
are moved into the firing zone.
The uniform of the day is patience,
the order of merit is the wretched star
of hope over the heart.

It is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the bombardment is silenced,
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.

It is awarded
for deserting the flag,
for bravery before a friend,
for the betrayal of shameful secrets,
and the disregard
of every command.

I’ve been reading a lot of Bachmann recently, having just got my hands on a 2006 edition of her Collected Poems translated by Peter Filkins and entitled Darkness Spoken.

What I love about this poem is the first stanza, which seems to me to encapsulate the essence of modern warfare, the way the horrors of violence are converted into just another television feature, how routine steadily numbs us to the brutality of the truth.


P.S. Today’s recording comes to your courtesy of lyrikline, where you can also fine a whole bunch of other Bachmann recordings.

April 2, 2008 at 3:20 am 4 comments


Yusuf Komunyakaa


Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to me the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved. 

Anytime contemporary war poetry gets discussed, Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau is bound to get mentioned, and with good reason. Direct and moving, Komunyakaa’s poems combine brutal honesty with fragile lyricism, offer us an insider’s view of the war that is stripped of all rhetoric, above and beyond all politics. Reading them, we find ourselves placed in the human center of a maelstrom of savagery, loss, courage and hope, searching for a tentative beauty that is snatched away even as we glimpse it.

Today’s poem is, I think, a good example of what makes Dien Cai Dau so powerful. With its litany of narrow escapes, ‘Thanks’ shows us how the constant awareness of death is the constant awareness of grace, how the true horror of war is the way it proves death arbitrary, “slave to Fate, Chance, kings and desperate men” (as Donne would have it) and how if we come to believe in a power that transcends us, it is because we are constantly aware of how frail the thread of our life is, and how little we have done to deserve to keep it intact.


September 21, 2007 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

The Pilots

Denise Levertov


Because they were prisoners,
because they were polite and friendly and lonesome and homesick,
because they said Yes, they knew
the names of the bombs they dropped
but didn’t say whether they understood what these bombs
are designed to do
to human flesh, and because
I didn’t ask them, being unable to decide
whether to ask would serve
any purpose other than cruelty, and
because since then I met Mrs. Brown, the mother of one of their fellow prisoners,
and loved her, for she has the same lovingkindness in her
that I saw in Vietnamese women (and men too)
and because my hostility left the room and wasn’t there
when I thought I needed it
while I was drinking tea with the POW’s,

because of all these reasons I hope
they were truly as ignorant,
as unawakened,
as they seemed,
I hope their chances in life up to this point
have been poor,
I hope they can truly be considered
victims of the middle America they come from,
their American Legionnaire fathers, their macho high schools,
their dull skimped Freshman English courses,

for if they did understand precisely
what they were doing, and did it anyway, and would do it again,

then I must learn to distrust
my own preference for trusting people,

then I must learn to question
my own preference for liking people,

then I must learn to keep
my hostility chained to me
so it won’t leave me when I need it.

And if it is proved to me
that these men understood their acts,

how shall I ever again
be able to meet the eyes of Mrs. Brown?

It’s about time we updated this blog. And it’s about time we had a Levertov poem up on it.

I really like Levertov – at her best she’s one of the most stunningly lyrical poets of her generation. Today’s poem is taken from The Freeing of the Dust (1975) – one of her most political collections, featuring a whole series of ‘protest’ poems about Vietnam. Of these, The Pilots is easily my favorite, not so much because of its technical brilliance or the quality of its imagery (though it is a deeply eloquent poem) but because of the way it so perfectly captures the fundamental dichotomy between the abstraction of war and human reality of those who fight it, the way it’s so easy to hate War as an idea, and so much harder to condemn those who fight it in person. What do you say to the families of those killed fighting what you believe is a fundamentally unjust war? What do you say to the Mrs. Browns of the world, who are kind, generous and sincere human beings, and yet who take pride in the fact that their sons are out there attacking and killing innocent people?

The Pilots is set in Vietnam, but the questions it raises, the choices its narrator is faced with, remain (sadly) as relevant today as they were three decades ago.


September 19, 2007 at 4:11 am Leave a comment


Hart Crane


We will make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

What better way to end our poems about movies theme than with this exquisite poem by Hart Crane. Crane is one of the greatest and most original visionaries of twentieth century poetry, shaper of an inimitable aesthetic, master of finding the lyrical in the prosaic, the astonishment of beauty in the tedium of the everyday. What other poet could have taken something as out and out entertaining, as raucously funny, as a Chaplin film, and written a poem this gentle, this heartbreaking? What other poet could have written a line as perfect as “we have seen / The moon in lonely alleys make / A grail of laughter of an empty ash can, / And through all sound of gaiety and quest / Have heard a kitten in the wilderness”?

I can think of no better summing up of this madcap enterprise of illusion and fantasy, of moonlight and tears,  that we call the movies.


August 14, 2007 at 2:40 am 3 comments


A. E. Stallings


Late at night,
One of us sometimes has said,
Watching a movie in black and white,
Of the vivid figures quick upon the screen,
“Surely by now all of them are dead”—
The yapping, wire-haired terrier, of course—
And the patient horse
Soaked in an illusion of London rain,
The Scotland Yard inspector at the scene,
The extras—faces in the crowd, the sailors;
The bungling blackmailers,
The kidnapped girl’s parents, reunited again
With their one and only joy, lisping in tones antique
As that style of pouting Cupid’s bow
Or those plucked eyebrows, arched to the height of chic.

Ignorant of so many things we know,
How they seem innocent, and yet they too
Possess a knowledge that they cannot give,
The grainy screen a kind of sieve
That holds some things, but lets some things slip through
With the current’s rush and swirl.
We wonder briefly only about the girl—
How old—seven, twelve—it isn’t clear—
Perhaps she’s still alive
Watching this somewhere at eighty-five,
The only one who knows, though we might guess,
What the kidnapper whispers in her ear,
Or the color of her dress.

We’re almost at the end of our poems about movies theme now, so it feels apt to indulge in a little nostalgia. This little gem comes to you from the archives over at Blackbird, via a recommendation from Space Bar. It’s a pleasant, clever poem, which reminds me, for some reason, of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (the 1934 version with Peter Lorre, not the 1956 one) and also makes me think of the time before we had color television, and the shock of seeing some of the shows I’d only known in Black and White suddenly blazing with color.


August 12, 2007 at 5:26 pm Leave a comment


B. H. Fairchild


Before the lights went out, looking back
in a full house, you must have seen
old faces, child-like with expectancy.
The strangest things can happen. Here.
And then you knew we wanted dreams
where all the terrors that we learned
weren’t real, were real, here, in the dark:
dreams that flickered like venetian blinds
in a white-frame houses where we stood
in halls with roses on the walls, stared
at doors the wind slammed shut, yelled
up stairs before we took one step,
and then another, up. And ran back down.
You took us only where we’d been
before, and then made every fear
come true. The hall that darkens
at the end, leads to darker rooms.
The door that keeps the unknown out,
lets it come in. The winding stairs
that draws us from our mothers’ laps,
won’t let us come back. We stand there,
looking up, and all the shrieks and
flapping wings we ever woke up from,
we wake up to. And when we leave,
glad for light outside dim movie houses,
we grow back into day and wide, white streets.

I have to admit I’m not terribly fond of this poem. There are a couple of phrases in it that make me wince, and I think the end is terribly weak. Plus, frankly, I’m tired of the whole Hitchock: Master of Suspense thing. Yes, the man was brilliant at building up that sense of nerve-wracking tension, of fear and foreboding. But to focus exclusively on that is to miss out on so much more in his films – the quirky little comic turns, the natural ease of his characters, the sheer audacity of combining light-hearted romance with tales of murder and intrigue. Admittedly this is probably more true of his early British films than of his later work (why, oh why would someone with Hitchcock’s talent waste it on Tippi Hedren?), but still.

Having said that, Fairchild’s poem does accurately capture the nightmarish menace of Hitchcock’s films, the way he shows us, again and again the possibility of terror in the heart of the ordinary, so that we can never step into a shower or stare out of the rear window at a neighbor or watch birds gathering on a nearby tree without experiencing that slight premonition of horror, without imagining, for only a split-second, how things could turn out terribly wrong.


P.S. You can read more about B.H. Fairchild here. This poem comes from his collection Arrival of the Future (Alice James Books, 2000)

August 4, 2007 at 3:47 pm 2 comments

Ave Maria

Frank O’Hara


Mothers of America
let your kids go to the movies
get them out of the house so they won’t
know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by
silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you
they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know
they’ll be in some glamorous
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or
playing hookey
they may even be grateful to you
for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
and didn’t upset the peaceful
they will know where candy bars come
and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before
it’s over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment
is in the Heaven on
Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge
oh mothers you will have made
the little
so happy because if nobody does pick
them up in the movies
they won’t know the difference
and if somebody does it’ll be
sheer gravy
and they’ll have been truly entertained
either way
instead of hanging around the yard
or up in their room hating you
prematurely since you won’t have done
anything horribly mean
except keeping them from life’s darker joys
it’s unforgivable the latter
so don’t blame me if you won’t take this
and the family breaks up
and your children grow old and blind in
front of a TV set
movies you wouldn’t let them see when
they were young

My thanks to Space Bar for reminding me of this delightful poem. It’s the ultimate ode to escapism, and who better than Frank O’Hara to pen it?


August 2, 2007 at 1:41 pm 2 comments

Older Posts