Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 94 (June/July 1999): 9,16, 30,35, 39.
A photograph of a German slum
in Toland’s life of Hitler
Circa 1932: flags from a dozen windows,
Swastikas slightly outnumbering
Hammer and Sickle.
Behind those tenement doors
Are all the answers—everything we need
To analyze the coming rubble,
The endless lines of gray people
In smoking cities and snowy fields.
The last shot was fired—in some Berlin
Alley, I guess—every flag on that slum street
Waves for a dead man, cartwheeling swastika
Or crossed golden tools,
Deadly symbols that lured as Baal’s
Furnaces lured all Carthage in the days
Of infant sacrifice:
We produce, we can do . . .
You are the wild
Olive branch, St. Paul told the Romans.
Unto Caesar, Berlin replied.
When I was a child
I talked as adults did,
Thought like an adult,
Acted like one, too,
Obeyed as commanded,
Walked wards I never
Wanted to set foot in,
A subject to serve.
Now that I am a man
I talk as children do,
Think like a child,
Am the sun for earth
to orbit, flaunt a whim
as wind a mote in
the eye while a beam
pins down a patient.
Ezekiel was calm
even when lifted by his hair
to see the glory of God—
arms at his side.
Equable, too, when his wife died.
He mourned not, as instructed,
nor threw off his sandals.
The first time he saw the Cherubim,
each with four wings and four faces;
for the entirety of a week
he sat and he shuddered—
God held him.
It left no field for imagination.
"His horses will be so many
they will cover you with dust.
You will be sought
but never again will you be found."
The width of each door and window
is measured by a man of bronze and
the doors and windows are gone.
This he saw and no spittle formed
at the corners of his mouth.
The sober man has his place in prophecy
and the fevered man,
what can we say of his burning charity?
Chiseled on the great stone
Before tomb without bone:
He was a good man but
Of his father’s estate
A disgrace, a scandal;
He lent without profit
Coins imaged with Caesar,
Often gave outright from
Stores of oil and grain,
Let poor and puny use
The shacks and fields for free,
Latecomers and lazy
Paid same as diligent,
Made forgive and forget
Requisites for foremen,
Second capital crime,
Expecting change with time.
With the father away
Holdings began to wane;
Son’s policies could not
Much less Roman Empire;
So not without reason
Some rascals killed the son,
Each hoping to be one
Of those named to succeed.
She was a staff nurse, great thighs
barreling round the corridor
with chains of trolleys
stacked to the port holes with pills
potions, ointments for the gout, charts stuffed with magic—
once in the operating theatre
when they brought in a dead father
well almost dead
in a Hawaiian shirt blessed with flowers
streaming, his hands all wet with papaya juice
(he was stabbed, in a restaurant)
he opened his eyes and looked straight at her
"My name is Pablo Chanto" he said
and he closed his eyes and she could hear
as they opened his chest
and tried to get his breath
fishes leaving the sunk reef
opening the carafes of their throats
and swallowing wine out of the reeds
like bubbles reaching hands
in streams out of his mouth
at the bottom of the ocean in a galleon,
fish swimming in streams out of his chest
and the flowers on the gurney
in his shirt, flowers soaked and billowing
with red all whisper as she reaches
in his chest to scoop the fish out
"You must go home and write this down."