The Swan

(after Ranier Maria Rilke)

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Despite having so many things still left undone
(Important things, things you were meant to do)
You spent the hour observing swans.

Swans waddle; are awkward; you hadn’t known. One—ungainly thing—
You watched slowly approach the verge, like one would who
Faced death by drowning—till, resigned to sink,

It pitched into the pool at last
With an undignified, un-swan-like splash.
Then bore up, unsurprisingly, upon the waves.
The water endless came—oh, but the swan
Glided, glided, glided on and on
As if it were no miracle it had been saved.

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A Trick

(a translation from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges)

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Fifty-two cards push real life aside:
flimsy, parti-colored charms
that make us forget where we’re bound to end up in the end.
And who cares where? —we’ve stolen this time, anyway,
let’s build a house of cards,
decorate it, move in, and then play
as we were always meant to play.

Nothing beyond the table’s edges
carries any weight.
Inside, it’s a foreign land
where bluff and bid are high affairs of state:
The Ace of Spades swaggers authoritatively
like Lord Byron, capable of anything;
the nine of diamonds glitters like a pirate’s dream.

A headlong rush of lethargy
slacks conversation to a drawl:
our slow words come and go
the while chance exalts some, lays others low;
the while the players echo and re-echo all the tricks they know:
until it seems that they’re returned—or nearly so:
the crones and cronies and their bony friends
who showed us what it meant to be true Americans
with the same old songs, the same old works for idle hands.

 

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The Second Coming (Variations on a Theme by Yeats)

(after William Butler Yeats and James Harbeck)

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First Gyre

The falcon circled, then flew off; the falconer was pissed.
Well, what did he expect she’d do, with everything so dis
-combobulated?

Second Gyre

There’s a book I read, predicted this: come
the millenium, and things would fall apart, get discom
-bobulated.

Third Gyre

As you see: just look at this rum job:
A riddling monster, shambling through the sand, has discombob
-ulated the indignant birds.

Fourth Gyre

Brother, it’s a bad job—who
can stand to swim? The bloody tide’s so loose and discombobu
-lated.

Fifth Gyre

While the best lack all conviction, haters hate;
No wonder everything’s so fucking discombobulat
-ed.

Sixth Gyre

It’s been more than twenty centuries our end’s been fated:
And now it seems the whole damned world is discombobulated.

 

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Toy Boat

3238836601_08e731b2d7_oInadequate paddles, a child’s boat.
It got us to the far bank
Where summer grass choked the shore
And the heat scent of summer grass grew heavy on the cooling air.

Somewhere a car-camper played a radio.
Everything seemed to stand still:
The boat still; the water still;
But we startled the shorebirds and they rose all about us, all at once.

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To Tempt Spring to Return

After Han Yu

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The low grasses, the tall trees: which of them tempts spring to return?
In fall, the trees flaunted their dying leaves; the grasses withered, leaving us melancholy.
Now they vie in beauty, tempting spring to return.
Even the poplar and the subtle elm offer up their pallid blossoms to the wind
To overflow the sky, to fly like snow, to tempt spring to return.

 

 

 

 
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Post-Script (Anno 1945)

(by Mascha Kaléko; translated from the German)

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I’ve traveled far in thirteen years –
Although what I looked for was hardly romantic;
But without any taste for new frontiers
Still I seem to have crossed the Atlantic.

All that I had, I’ve left behind
But the moment I look around, I find
I’ve a child like the one my parents knew:
His parents are immigrants, through and through.

My son writes “ALIEN” – learning to spell.
He tells me, “Don’t speak German, dear.”
He’s eight. He wants to know, as well,
Is it “all right” not to be from here?

Just what I once asked Rector May!
And like me, too, in another way:
For he’s sure that peace will come to stay
Once the stupid War has gone away.

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Interview with Myself (Anno 1932)

(by Mascha Kaléko; translated from the German)

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In the talkative town where I made my debut
My parents were immigrants, through and through.
We had a church, a doctor or two,
And a loony bin with a lovely view.

My favorite word as a child was “NO.”
If I made Mother happy, it didn’t show.
And thinking back to that long-ago
I wouldn’t wish my own child so.

The Great War found me under the sway
Of the parish school and Rector May,
And thinking that peace would come to stay
If only the War would go away.

Well, I entered the academic race
And the teachers were pleased at my rapid pace –
Despite my having not a trace
Of Nordic hair or an Aryan face –

At graduation, Teacher said
We were all so smart, and so well-bred,
We could go forth, work hard, get ahead.
But I took an office job instead.

I work eight hours of every day
And my duties are light, but so’s my pay;
And at night I while the time away
With poetry – to Dad’s dismay.

I love to brave the wilderness
Of maps, and wander, bodiless;
Still there are days, I must confess
I sometimes wish for happiness.

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That Old Feeling

(by Mascha Kaléko; translated from the German) 

Erich Heckel, Still Life with Wooden Figure, 1913The first time that I thought to die
–I still recall the scene–
I died with so much skill and grace
In Hamburg, just the perfect place,
And I was just eighteen.

And when I died the second time,
It filled my heart with woe
That I could leave you nothing more
Than just my heart, laid at your door,
And footprints, red in snow.

And when I died the third time,
I hardly felt the pain;
Familiar as my toast and tea,
Like an old shoe, is death to me.
I needn’t die again.

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Kaddish

(by Mascha Kaléko; translated from the German)

Red shriek the poppies in the green fields of Poland.
Death lies in wait in the black forests of Poland.
Wheat rots, unharvested.
The reapers are all dead.
However much their mothers starve
The children cry for bread.

And frightened from their nests, the birds have ceased
To sing; the trees lift up their limbs for grief
And bow and whisper lamentation towards the east;
And when the wind takes up their sorrows like a prayer
And when they bow down like old Jews in attitudes of prayer
The broad, blood-sodden earth is shaken,
The stones themselves awaken.

This year, who will sound
The Shofar for the supplicants beneath the ground?
The hundred thousands whom no headstones name,
The hundred thousands God alone can name.

How shall they be entered into Heaven’s book aright?
Lord, we beseech you,
Let the prayers of the trees reach you
Tonight, as we light the last light.

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Still awake

3853566155_771f35d751_bThat time you lay with me
and the moon so bright

we doubted our own eyes: springtime,
and silver frost on the ground!

Like a blow, your absence.
I look for you under the bright moon
in the springtime

but the moon sinks. You are absent.

That’s why.

 

 

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