I seem to live on and on.
Perhaps I should make more of an effort.
But while I still hobble—
rather like Chaplin, that first angel
of popular culture to descend to us—
I’m included in groups like this. And group photos,
once we have crossed the quadrangle
of whatever college this is.
(It is no doubt distinguished,
only I can no longer distinguish it.)
We all wear name-tags. They show up in photos.
I love my name-tag.
It is like some tattoos, unlike others,
in purpose; unlike all, and much blessed,
in that it can be removed.
I relate this parable,
such as it is, to my colleagues;
and whether I’m speaking French, German, or English,
what emerges is my own language, which lacks vowels.
They are all vowels, my colleagues:
round, colorful, young. Am I, among them,
a consonant, a bone to give them structure?
Or merely an anti-vowel, a catch in the throat?
Likewise I amuse an American colleague
(so much old news to us is news to them)
by quoting Metternich: “Asia begins on the Landstrasse.”
It’s a street in Vienna,
I explain. And explain
that I, who come from so far east of Vienna,
must be an Asiatic! He doesn’t see
the war-helm on my spotted pate,
the sinuous dagger between my dentures!
(Instead he glances at my name-tag,
as if it held, perhaps in microdots,
my reason for being.)
Meanwhile we have almost crossed the quadrangle,
and my wife, who walks slower than I
and has somehow misplaced her name-tag,
at laughing students passing faster than light.
I seem to live on and on.
I nap sometimes.
Then awaken, knowing I’ve talked or cried out
in my vowelless language.
Afraid that I’ve given away
Amazed that my captors
have recruited, made use of
a man such as this— what is he?—
Old Hamburg aristocrat, anglophile, raffiniert—
The cleverest Romanov, arch-survivor …
Such subtlety, such techniques are,
I thought, beyond them! Or beneath …
Then I realize: he’s a colleague.
What’s called a liberal, and a Wasp,
white-haired from both. And this sunlight
and space belong to his gentleman’s farm
in Vermont. Like the lake before us.
And those geese belong for a while to the lake
and need flee no unpleasant smoke.
And the books on the table between us like battling dreadnoughts
are his and mine. And his look is one of concern.
And the cough from somewhere behind me belongs to my wife.
So I cover the moment with an anecdote
from my long, funny life (the Germans
had a general named Witzleben),
and sleep again; and the lake, the farm,
even the Ural-sized mountains beyond,
are transferred (I’m mildly amazed
by the feeling of rightness) to the roof
of a building in New York—
he’s that rich, my colleague?
And the view beyond the mountains
is of the buildings of New York,
the tallest, safest, and kindest, goal of all exile,
where I have arrived at last.
In my early years, after the first war,
I hung about circles
in Vienna that somewhat overlapped
the Vienna Circle.
(Saw Wittgenstein one evening, behind the Opera,
in earnest conversation with a youth.)
I had already written my famous poem
to the effect that what the Dadaists were doing
in their rowdy demonstrations was no different
from what the learnèd Positivists wanted.
I’ve no idea what it meant.
I’d no idea then what it meant. Still I thought
how, shabby, nicht salonsfähig
as I was, I would never attend
a meeting of the actual Circle,
but could attend a lecture. So one evening,
in the Hall of some Verein, I listened
to Carnap proclaim his program
for the Logical Reconstruction of the World.
We should start— he said, if I understood him—
with the corner of a room,
a bureau, say, a bed and wall,
and learn the chemical composition
and the molecular and atomic structure
of its various fabrics, woods,
and plaster, then the albedo of surfaces,
the makeup of the air, the angles of
and among the bed, bureau,
and wall, the variations of gravity—
and having learned all there is
to know about that corner,
move on to the rest of the universe.
My problem from the beginning wasn’t
only that pain was meaningless, but that meaninglessness
was pain. My childhood.
The initial village, “timeless peasants
bursting with hebetude” said a colleague.
Later, despite Carnap’s efforts, the camps.
Later prison, the other camps.
And, oh, the Church. To hear them talk,
you’d think in the camps there were hordes of them
with their collars, bustling to be killed.
Great envious thieves of suffering, their God its gourmand …
In the camp I lay on straw, breathed stench, and prayed
to a Platonic realm beyond it
of beautiful air. Then the Russians
closed in, their artillery threshing
our straw. They were one head and torso
of a multiple being— a chimera at odds with itself,
Man the Vile; the Germans another,
irredeemably vile, while the Ivans
cried when they saw us,
brought doctors and food, were drunken and childlike
yet pawing somewhat after meaning …
Eventually Sartre refused to print my story.
It wasn’t because the truth of the Russian camps
would bring despair to the French working class
(his usual reason), but because I was a poet.
He didn’t like poets. “He’s more than a poet,”
my wife said. “But being a poet
is a choice, and a choice one returns to,”
said Sartre portentously, staring
with the one eye that faced us.
He seemed to believe a poet is like
the Frenchman in Tucholsky’s story,
who, asked to draw a circle, drew
a richly decorated oval. I added
the obvious: “Not even a French poet.”
(By the time I was translated,
the truth had also arrived.) “He’s so very ugly,”
my wife said, as we circled, hungry,
the Jardin des Plantes. “He attracts many women,”
I answered as we waited in the rain
for a contact on the Boulevard Haussmann.
“That’s hardly surprising,” she said
beneath the empty sky of Cannes
years later, and solvent, but failing
(like so many of us barbarians and Sarmatians)
at France. “Still,” I muttered,
“I liked his nonsense better than most.”
By now the spires of Strasbourg and Oxford,
the canals of Stockholm had montaged
on a strange and delicate screen. Peace
had descended, atom bombs
delayed, storks no doubt roosted again in Prague.
Her cough, repeating an obscure word,
“flight” perhaps, “steppe,” or “fear,” even “love,”
jarred in that harmony; America
found it intolerable.
I wrote my sonnets anywhere and nowhere.
And it was evening, and it was morning, fifty years.
I seem to live on and on, and then
seem not to. My name-tags are now on my wrist
and charts. Meaninglessness
has at last caught up
with the lovely skyscrapers, and so
with me; I watch it on TV.
“Always polite,” as a colleague advised,
I don’t make them take
the crucifix from my wall; the figure there
is company, nothing more.
My wife still sits beside me and a bit behind
if I don’t look too closely. I mourn
what my death will do to her,
what my life did— and then feel relieved.
In a last essay I point out
that poetry is always translation:
a way of escaping the great theme
your times hand you at gunpoint
so that (as they like to say here) you can’t refuse;
and finding another, then realizing,
gradually, they are the same. She alone
reads it. My colleagues have turned away.
Carnap has turned away. General Witzleben
never comes. I have one other visitor,
but surely it can’t be he,
breaking the rules, smoking …
Why would Stalin sit by my bed,
the great Father of Peoples
weeping for some inconceivable reason?