Keeping Quiet

A young poet friend shared a poem with me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez declared the poet – Pablo Neruda – to be the twentieth century’s “greatest poet in any language.”

Such an accolade claims plenty poetic licence: does Mister Marquez read Sanskrit? Korean? Swahili? Arrernte?

Never mind: I think Mister Marquez is a good judge.

What is this power of the artfully selected offering of words?

This power that rivals music?

Read the poem; best of all, have someone read it aloud to you while you sit with your eyes comfortably closed:

Keeping Quiet Pablo Neruda

 

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.

Paint Me As I Am

A poet sent me this poem. It is a poem I could never write. It is the poem of a spirit stronger, freer and bolder. When a poem as true as this comes my way I feel I know the poet, I’d recognise him by the beauty of the poem. I marvel at the freedom he claims and I rejoice for him, while holding my breath as he skelters along life’s unseen edge. My timid spirit prays, ‘o let him not fall off the edge.’ 


Paint Me As I Am


Why don’t you paint me as I am?             

Running and reading, with waves and

Sand tangling in my hair.

With fire in my hands. 

Paint me as a surfer, catching opportunities like a wave.

 

Paint me without dark paint, for I am not

only shades of grey.  

Paint me somewhere else, where dew moistens leaves

and the chilly air circulating around me that

makes every fibre of my being feel alive.

 

Paint me with my wrinkles, for those are signs of me laughing.

Paint me so my tears and scars don’t show.

 

Paint me with my nightmares but most of all, paint me with my dreams.

                           – Miles, aged 11


Waiting for the Barbarians

In Washington they’ve arrived and taken up residence
What is it that we are waiting for, gathered in the square?
       The barbarians are supposed to arrive today.
—Why is there such great idleness inside the Senate house?
   Why are the Senators sitting there, without passing any laws?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       Why should the Senators still be making laws?

       The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.
—Why is it that our Emperor awoke so early today,

   and has taken his position at the greatest of the city’s gates

   seated on his throne, in solemn state, wearing the crown?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       And the emperor is waiting to receive

       their leader. Indeed he is prepared

       to present him with a parchment scroll. In it

       he’s conferred on him many titles and honorifics.
—Why have our consuls and our praetors come outside today

   wearing their scarlet togas with their rich embroidery,

   why have they donned their armlets with all their amethysts,

   and rings with their magnificent, glistening emeralds;

   why should they be carrying such precious staves today,

   maces chased exquisitely with silver and with gold?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today;

       and things like that bedazzle the barbarians.
—Why do our worthy orators not come today as usual

   to deliver their addresses, each to say his piece?
        Because the barbarians will arrive today;

        and they’re bored by eloquence and public speaking.
—Why has this uneasiness arisen all at once,

    and this confusion? (How serious the faces have become.)

    Why is it that the streets and squares are emptying so quickly,

    and everyone’s returning home in such deep contemplation?
       Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

       And some people have arrived from the borderlands,

       and said there are no barbarians anymore,
And now what’s to become of us without barbarians.

Those people were a solution of a sort.
 

In Canberra, they are circling…


(P V Cavafy, trans Daniel Mendelsohn)

 

“Daydream Believer: Rats dream of a better future”

You may scoff, human reader, but I, Rattus rattus – also known as black rat, ship rat, roof rat, house rat, Alexandrine rat, old English rat – I have my dreams.
 

I dream of a time without scoffing humans.

 

I dream of Old Hamelin, my home town, Hamelin to which I shall not return, not until the burghers beg forgiveness.

Meanwhile I live in the cleft of the rock, together with the lost children of Hamelin.

 

I dwell in Xanadu, of which you can only dream:

 

…that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see me there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

 

 

I have a dream

 

that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

 

 

I dream with smiles

On my rodent lips;

I dream my dreams

Of sinking ships.

 

 

 

The rat dreams:

 

 

All day in the one chair

 

From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged

 

In rambling talk with an image of air:

  40

Vague memories, nothing but memories.

 

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
 

 

During Wind and Rain

 

During Wind and Rain

Like Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, I defied my wife’s advice. She said, as I mounted the bike, ‘they predict wind and rain. Don’t go.’

I did go and a pleasant ride it was through darkened streets, shining in the streetlight. Clouds muffled sound, the traffic was not yet up or much about, my old legs pedalled a judicious way and I felt cheerful and vindicated, like Julius before the Rotunda. My rotunda struck with fine – indeed wifely – force in the park, about fifteen minutes out from warmth and shelter. 

The wind was a whip that circled and struck, now flinging the bike broadside, now howling head-on against me. I pushed the pedals and nothing moved except a wifely voice saying she told me so.

I could still feel my fingers but they were not the fingers of one alive. My face stung, my shapely legs experienced piloerection within the all-weather tights that now sogged and flapped. My nipples froze and I knew I’d never breastfeed.

I thought of Thomas Hardy, the voice of winter’s wintering and I was warmed and cheered.  I saw beneath my wheels ‘the sick leaves reel down in throngs.’ I bethought myself of my loved ones, both those warm and safe and those lying outdoors, as ‘down their carved names the rain drop ploughs.’

Remembering a loved poem is like meeting a loved friend. Hardy wrote ‘During Wind and Rain’ in 1917, five years after his wife died.

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face …
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat…
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee…
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs…
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

 

Thomas Hardy: During Wind and Rain 

Blu, Blu, it’s Green they say… 

A lady young enough to jump rope inscribed her book of poems and sent it to me through my sister in New York City. The sister claims the poet as a friend. That is no small boast, for the poet in question is a celebrated thinker, a public intellectual who has advanced the thought of a generation.

 

First impressions: the book is slim, at my age a mercy. A quick glance at the cover – pleasing design, the lacing of leaves, a hint to the content, which is to do with the lacing of the generations.

 

The title, “Black Bread*” – innocuous enough; but then follows the subtitle:

 

Poems, After the Holocaust.

 

A sinking feeling, a bracing for the assault which must follow. A needful assault, I must declare. The world has forgotten; Europe has forgotten; the young at their universities agitate as if they never knew you needed to know.

But still, holocaust poems!  Did not Paul Celan write, ‘after the holocaust there is no poetry’? 

Inevitably there is poetry, inevitably man must sing. After Celan, as after Cain, we can sing no more of man in primal innocence. We sing on, however, because we remember, we sing because we lament, we sing because we breathe. This book of singing is singular because the commemorator was not there, not in the Shoah. But she was there – insomuch as I (with my family intact and untouched in Australia) – was also morally there, also implicated, wounded, alongside all my people, alongside all people of all peoples.

 

Open the book, read. You hear a voice that doesn’t hector or scream or even moan, a voice delicate, tactful; and lively with empathy. The poet, Blu Greenberg, born and raised in the USA, was not directly affected, but – as we have learned from the developing study of epigenetics – the trauma of a previous generation can, in a real and concrete sense, be heritable. Stress hormones are measurably increased in later generations of survivors. In this way the pain of one can spread, from the victim to her relative; from that relative – through her verse – to us all, an emanation for our sorrow and our enlightenment. Greenberg knows what she knows and by subtle indirection, she shares her knowing with us. And like Coleridge’s Mariner, we rise on the morrow morn, sadder and wiser.

 

 

Consider ‘TRIGGER WORDS:’               

             

 

Action

Barking

Boots

Butterfly

Bystander

Cattle car

Chamber

Chosen

Collaborate

Drek

Dysentery

Experiments

Eye sockets

Forests

Gold teeth

Lampshade

Latrine

Orchestra

Soap

Solution

Swine 

Transport

Wheelbarrow

Yellow
God

 

What’s poetic about that – a list?  “Trigger Words” is not a poem you’d recite for the beauty of its words.

 

But it all works as poetry by its density of meaning. Twenty-four words carry a universe of meaning, a world of pain. Without recourse to emphasis Greenberg manages to convey all.  Working simply through the alphabet of human experience she stirs the shared memory of humans. We read, we feel the uncommon jolt of twenty–four common words and we know what humans have known since Cain. And we remember.

 

 

Quite otherwise is “MAY 14TH: AN OLD PRIESTESS, A NEW PRIESTESS.” This complex poem weaves its path from the poet’s familial ‘Ke’hunah’ (her descent from the biblical high priest Aaron), through the appearance of two small girls of the 1990’s. The two wear green leaves and crepe paper in the pageant in which they represent the priesthood. Their appearance, ‘two laughing priestesses’, flings the poet’s mind backwards, forwards in time – backward to ‘that other planet’, forward to future great grandchildren, who will, like Greenberg, surely and inescapably remember:

 

 

“My Deborah will tell  

Her grandchildren

As they sprawl

On her carpet 

Inquiring

Of old photos

I once knew

A girl 

Whose mother

And

Father

Survived that other planet

Come here and touch me.

 

 

What that closing line works within me is alchemy. I remember a pain that was never mine but which is the inheritance of all, remembered through the electricity, the innocence of childhood, that universal time we all had and we all lose. 

 

 

* KTAV, Hoboken, NJ, 1994