Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"The Jews Reading Rilke"

[Here's another fine poem by B.N. for your enjoyment!]

The Jews Reading Rilke

All night the Jews are awake
At their oak tables, Rabbinical insomniacs
Mistaking the intonation of restless birds
For the sure knowledge of something beyond
This world, the ghastly redness
Of the spilled wine that never suggests blood.
They read Rilke to the slow monotonous
Pull of the underworld, and have become
Orpheus each turning to address you as the errant
Uncle who conned the family out of the fortune.

In Prague at this time of year nettles have sprung up between
The cracks in the pavement; if you were to just
Brush against them lightly they'd burn your hands.
A few still may remember how a soup or tea
Of these boiled in shallow black pots.
But I imagine you far from the city, at the window
In the tower you could see swans pulling their
Lengthening reflections across the water. Sweet afternoons
Poured into Dresden cups. In those days
Europes' aristocracy had to satisfy your longing,
You inventing your own ancestry. It no longer matters.
How could you know that your lyrics were celebrating
The last innocent hours of your language.

From my window the world is repeating itself
In the arch of tree branches. Your city comes to me
Tonight as a memory of bridges, archways, and ornate
Bavarian clock I saw once as a child. Perhaps a replica
In a gift shop window. Figures marching to the
Precise mechanism of an empire flung down
Like a stone into the dirt. What we in the Americas
Call history, names of towns and cities we have
Traveled to (for whatever reason) dropped as if
To say, yes we know we've been there and stood and
Looked out from that very bridge also.

Down by the river, the construction keeps the time
As longshoremen men adjust their belts and hoist up
Sacks of grain, readying for a strike. On the news
Prague is a celebration in streets, one long drink
Taken up and spit back out defiantly. Tonight
I read you in disguise—a translation.
You bow a kind and haloed head, your advice
Moves like an emissary taking a princess's
White hand to your lips.
I am writing because lucidity fades like language
Or lyric, and I know that it is an unlikely
Connection to make, but when my grandmother calls
She speaks to me half in English and half in Yiddish.

There in the subtle stages of her senility, I
Believe that I might be able to make out the thinnest
Hint of your German. It is in this confusion of
Words spoken in a dying language, sounding so poetic
So damned poetic that it keeps me up.
For me an understanding of that language always
Depends on something purer than fluency—
Call it hope, or expectation, or even the simple
Knowledge that it was the language used to
Render me the beautiful girl I was not.

Once she stood in a line, in your city for D.P.'s
I do not know how she came to be there
Or how long she stayed—a night or two I imagine.
There was still a shop left then with an
Unbroken window with Hebrew letters spelling
Out the word, books in Yiddish and a long list
Of names of people and towns had been posted.

Tonight all the people you knew
Are dead just as all the people she knew are dead
But someone close to you must have lived
Long enough to have seen what I am talking about.
Those pages inscribed with the names
Of the righteous. Maybe some of the names you
Might recognize, people you knew in passing,
Someone who sold you a woolen suit, someone
Who served you a meal, someone who touched your hand.

© to the author 1983-2010


  1. A lovely atmospheric piece. Were were in Prague recently and visited the Jewish quarter and I could feel the streets and the buildings - and some of the sadness - as I read the lines.

  2. I know I say this every time, but B.N. is so incredibly talented. I'm amazed each time I read one of her pieces. This time, I was right there in Prague.

  3. Hi Alan & Willow: Thanks to you both. I share your admiration of B.N.'s poetry--I've always felt very fortunate to have her as a poetry colleague.


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