The New York Times
The New York Times
- Godine, David R. Publishers, Inc.
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THE POEMS OF CHARLES REZNIKOFF 1918-1975
David R. GodineCopyright © 2005 The Estate of Charles Reznikoff
All right reserved.
The stars are hidden, the lights are out; the tall black houses are ranked about. I beat my fists on the stout doors, no answering steps come down the floors. I have walked until I am faint and numb; from one dark street to another I come. The comforting winds are still. This is a chaos through which I stumble, till I reach the void and down I tumble. The stars will then be out forever; the fists unclenched, the feet walk never, and all I say blown by the wind away.
The dead are walking silently. I sank them six feet underground, the dead are walking and no sound. I raised on each a brown hill, the dead are walking slow and still.
So one day, tired of the sky and host of stars, I'll thrust the tinsel by.
I step into the fishy pool as if into a cool vault. I, too, become cold-blooded, dumb.
The dead man lies in the street. They spread a sack over his bleeding head. It drizzles. Gutter and walks are black. His wife now at her window, the supper done, the table set, waits for his coming out of the wet.
6 They dug her grave so deep no voice can creep to her. She can feel no stir of joy when her girl sings, and quietly she lies when her girl cries.
On Brooklyn Bridge I saw a man drop dead. It meant no more than if he were a sparrow. Above us rose Manhattan; below, the river spread to meet sea and sky.
8 I met in a merchant's place Diana: lithe body and flowerlike face. Through the woods I had looked for her and beside the waves.
9 The shopgirls leave their work quietly. Machines are still, tables and chairs darken. The silent rounds of mice and roaches begin.
Hair and faces glossy with sweat in August at night through narrow streets glaring with lights people as if in funeral processions; on stoops weeds in stagnant pools, at windows waiting for a wind that never comes. Only, a lidless eye, the sun again. No one else in the street but a wind blowing, store-lamps dimmed behind frosted panes, stars, like the sun broken and scattered in bits.
I walked through the lonely marsh among the white birches. Above the birches rose three crows, croaking, croaking. The trumpets blare war and the streets are filled with the echoes.
Wringing, wringing his pierced hands, he walks in a wood where once a flood washed the ground into loose white sand; and the trees stand each a twisted cross, smooth and white with loss of leaves and bark, together like warped yards and masts of a fleet at anchor centuries. No blasts come to the hollow of these dead; long since the water has gone from the stony bed. No fields and streets for him, his pathway runs among these skeletons, through these white sands, wringing, wringing his pierced hands.
The troopers are riding, are riding by, the troopers are riding to kill and die that a clean flag may cleanly fly. They touch the dust in their homes no more, they are clean of the dirt of shop and store, and they ride out clean to war.
How shall we mourn you who are killed and wasted, sure that you would not die with your work unended, as if the iron scythe in the grass stops for a flower?
Her kindliness is like the sun toward dusk shining through a tree. Her understanding is like the sun, shining through mist on a width of sea.
The fingers of your thoughts are moulding your face ceaselessly. The wavelets of your thoughts are washing your face beautiful.
When you sang moving your body proudly before me wondering who you were suddenly I remembered, Messalina.
The sea's white teeth nibble the cliff; the cliff is a man, unafraid. She eats his strength little by little, his might will be lost in her depths.
My work done, I lean on the window-sill, watching the dripping trees. The rain is over, the wet pavement shines. From the bare twigs rows of drops like shining buds are hanging.
I have not even been in the fields, nor lain my fill in the soft foam, and here you come blowing, cold wind.
I leave the theatre, keeping step, keeping step to the music. It sticks to my feet, stepped into dung. Night falls in still flakes.
I knocked. A strange voice answered. So they, too, have moved away. We had walked up and down the block many times until alone. I wonder where they have moved to.
I look across the housetops, through the leaves in a black pattern: where are you hidden, moon? Surely I saw her, broad-bosomed and golden, coming toward us.
The winter afternoon darkens. The shoemaker bends close to the shoe, his hammer raps faster. An old woman waits, rubbing the cold from her hands.
Stubborn flies buzzing in the morning when she wakes. The flat roofs, higher, lower, chimneys, water-tanks, cornices.
One shoulder lower, with unsure step like a bear erect, the smell of the wet black rags that she cleans with about her. Scratching with four stiff fingers her half-bald head, smiling.
In the shop, she, her mother, and grandmother, thinking at times of women at windows in still streets, or women reading, a glow on resting hands.
With green stagnant eyes, arms and legs loose ends of string in a wind, keep smiling at your father.
On the kitchen shelf the dusty medicine bottles; she in her room heaped under a sheet, and men and women coming in with clumsy steps.
She who worked patiently, her children grown, lies in her grave patiently.
Beggars about the streets pray to God between set teeth. Up by star and star until the outer frozen blackness, down the earth between stones until black rocks in ledge on ledge.
The Park in Winter
It rains. The elms curve into clouds of twigs. The lawns are empty.
Dark early and only the river shines like grey ice, the ships moored fast.
Streamers of crepe idling before doors.
Shadows, mice whisk over the unswept floor, tumble through rustling papers. Squeeze into desk drawers, biting the paper into yellowed flakes and leaving crumbs of filth.
The sandwiches are elaborate affairs: toast, bacon, toast, chicken, toast. We sip our coffee watching the rouged women walk quickly to their seats, unsmiling, contemptuous.
The imperious dawn comes to the clink of milk bottles and round-shouldered sparrows twittering.
We heard no step in the hall. She came sudden as a rainbow.
A white curtain turning in an open window.
A swan, dipping a white neck in the trees' shadow, hardly beating the water with golden feet.
Sorrow before her was gone like noise from a street, snow falling.
The horses keep tossing their heads and stamp the hollow flooring, wheel knocks into wheel as the terry glides out into a damp wind. The coal-truck horses, three abreast, ponderously; sides and rumps shaking. With blown manes and tails the horses fling themselves along lifting their riders. The thin horses step beside the lawns in the park, the small hoofs newly oiled, heads high, their red nostrils taking the air.
No stars in the blue curve of the heavens, no wind. Far off, a white horse in the green gloom of the meadow.
The sun was low over the blue morning water; the waves of the bay were silent on the smooth beach, where in the night the silver fish had died gasping.
Old men and boys search the wet garbage with fingers and slip pieces in bags. This fat old man has found the hard end of a bread and bites it.
The girls outshout the machines and she strains for their words, blushing. Soon she, too, will speak their speech glibly.
The pedlar who goes from shop to shop, has seated himself on the stairs in the dim hallway, and the basket of apples upon his knees, breathes the odor.
Her work was to count linings- the day's seconds in dozens.
They have built red factories along Lake Michigan, and the purple refuse coils like congers in the green depths.
The house-wreckers have left the door and a staircase, now leading to the empty room of night.
Followed by his lodge, shabby men stumbling over the cobblestones, and his children, faces red and ugly with tears, eyes and eyelids red, in the black coffin in the black hearse the old man. No longer secretly grieving that his children are not strong enough to go the way he wanted to go and was not strong enough.
Showing a torn sleeve, with stiff and shaking fingers the old man pulls off a bit of the baked apple, shiny with sugar, eating with reverence food, the great comforter.
Sleepless, breathing the black air, he heard footsteps along the street, and click-the street-lamp was out; darkness jumped like a black cat upon his chest. Dawn: the window became grey, the bed-clothes were lit up and his sleeping wife's head, as if the darkness had melted into that heap of loose hair.
Soon her eyes would open, disks of light blue, strange in a Jewess. He would turn away; the eyes would look curiously, the way they had been looking for months, how are you getting on? still not doing well? And her left hand would raise itself slowly and pull on the lobe of her left ear; and her eyes shine with a slight pity, the way a woman looks at a mouse in a trap. No longer the calm look with which she had greeted him, when he was chief clerk in a store in that Russian town which he now carried about like picture postal-cards in a pocket, the town where he had shone in the light of the big store. Day: the noise of splashing water, his children in underwear thudding about with bare feet, pulling on clothes in a hurry and bending over to lace shoes. Soon the door would close, again and again, all would be gone, the elder to shops, the younger ones to school. For these he had come to America that they might study and the boys be free from army service, to lift and spread them as he had been doing, boughs of himself, the trunk. Now the elder were going to work and could study only at night, snipping bits for years, perhaps ten or more, to make their patched learning, and pooling wages to buy food and lodging for the younger children, his wife, and himself. He could only bring them food from the kitchen, or run downstairs to the grocer's for pickles or a bottle of ketchup- to make life tastier, to try to stick hairs in the hide of life and make it a fur to wrap them snug. Forty years in a store where business was done leisurely over glasses of tea, and now to walk the streets and meet men hasty and abrupt, between tenements and their barrels heaped with ashes and garbage. Younger relatives now excused themselves after a few words and hurried into the noise of their shops to some matter of their own. If only his business were not a flower-pot into which he had spilled his savings day by day carefully and had spilled loans- and nothing came up from the black earth. The day was the first warm day of spring. The sunlight through the windowpanes fell in large living oblongs on the floor. He opened a window; the air blew in, warm and fragrant. The sunlight fell on his shoes, cracked and gaping, his faded trousers, the bottoms frayed. In winter, when rain drummed sullen marches on pavement and windowpanes, or the streets were heaped with snow turning black, his own music was sung and his despair imaged. Now he was forgotten-easily, like the thought of somebody else's sorrow. The yards and fire-escapes were glinting with sunlight, and the tall fences, dirtied by rain, their rows of nails on top bleeding rust. Women were opening windows and shaking out clothes, his own wife had gone to the grocer's or butcher's, his children were at work or school; only he was useless, like an old pot left in the kitchen for a while. He pulled down the window-blind and laid himself near the stove. He folded his coat under his head, over the floor's hardness. The pour of gas sickened him, he was half-minded to pull the rubber tube out of his mouth; but he felt dizzy, too weak to move.
She sat by the window opening into the airshaft, and looked across the parapet at the new moon. She would have taken the hairpins out of her carefully coiled hair, and thrown herself on the bed in tears; but he was coming and her mouth had to be pinned into a smile. If he would have her, she would marry whatever he was. A knock. She lit the gas and opened her door. Her aunt and the man-skin loose under his eyes, the lace slashed with wrinkles. "Come in," she said as gently as she could and smiled.
The house was pitch-dark. He entered his room. Books and papers were heaped over the floor. He stuck a candle in a corner, and on his knees began to go through the papers. He must finish that night: the next day the others would move in. Yes, here was the bold handwriting, the bundle of letters tied together. He took these into the kitchen. He did not need a light: he ought to know the way, had walked it so often. He crammed all into the stove and lit a match. The fire ran over the surface and died out. He tore the letters into bits and lit match after match, until nothing was left but brown pieces with black, crumbled edges. As the papers twisted and opened, tormented by fire, Darling had stood out in the writing against the flame for a moment before the ink was grey on black ash that fell apart. Here was the bedroom where she had been sick. Her teeth fell out; before the end her nose rotted off. He uncovered a bunch of dried flowers and white gauze- her bridal veil and bouquet left in the rubbish. He went back to the kitchen stove. The gauze flew up in a great flame, but the flowers remained-blackened stalks. Now he was through. He closed door after door softly behind him.
From where she lay she could see the snow crossing the darkness slowly, thick about the arc-lights like moths in summer. She could just move her head. She had been lying so for months. Her son was growing tall and broad-shouldered, his face becoming like that of her father, dead now for years. She lay under the bed-clothes as if she, too, were covered with snow, calm, facing the blackness of night, through which the snow fell in the crowded movement of stars. Dead, nailed in a box, her son was being sent to her, through fields and cities cold and white with snow.
The twigs tinge the winter sky brown.
A slender tree, alone in the fields, between the roofs of the town and the woods like a low hill. In the open the birds are faintly overheard.
Excerpted from THE POEMS OF CHARLES REZNIKOFF 1918-1975 Copyright © 2005 by The Estate of Charles Reznikoff. Excerpted by permission.
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