26 January 2014


                   by Michael Ondaatje

In the medieval darkness of the Holland Tunnel
with luminous green paint, on whitewashed walls
of the Madrid zoo, in his think-fingered handwriting
onto dust at the dry Casablanca aquarium

                                   "When last I held you in my arms,
                                    my love, the West African Black
                                    Rhinoceros was still magnificent
                                    and still alive . . ."

What have you been doing to Paul Vermeersch?
He searched for you encyclpedically
in Albacete, in Zagora, in those cities
whose names have changed,
till the maps he relies on wear out.
In what disguise did you leave him?
So he will not recognize
your gait anymore,
or your stare out from a diorama.

Hunt and Torment. Call but no Response.
In the end words of love reveal
just yourself. Not why
or the wished-for thing. Only the Spanish
consider his plea, only the drivers
deep in a tunnel into New York
nod wisely, agree with him.
But it is the black rhino whose loss they mourn,
not the person he held once in his arms.

When it is over, it is over
they say in the passing dark.
There are no longer great nostrils
to scent out the source of torment.
It is a generation since our love,
to justify anger, had a horn, a tusk.

The New Yorker, 1/13/14.

19 January 2014

Psalm of Despair

               by Radmila Lazic

I dwell in a land of despair
In the city of despair
Among desperate people
Myself desperate
I embrace my desperate lover
With desperate hands
Whispering desperate words
Kissing him with desperate lips.

In despair we make children
In despair we strangle them
And feed our desperate offspring
With our own despair
So that they may multiply
By giving birth to ever more desperate children
And so on.

For the God of Despair is our Lord
And his envoys of despair
With their instruments of despair
That coat our homes with despair
Drape our windows with despair
And board up our doors with it
As despair rises around us like walls.

Preaching the religion of despair
For gain and wealth
Instructing us in Holy Despair
For which we are to earn life eternal
So our dead will rise again
In despair.

The wandering lamb
That found no path or shelter
No dawn and no morning
Forever and ever --

Damn you wicked hand
That wrote this in the year 2013 of our Lord.

Trans. from Serbian by Charles Simic. NYRB 12/13/2013.

12 January 2014

The roar of a thousand orchestras

     by Wislawa Szymborska

My fallen, my turned to dust, my earth,
assumes the shape he has in the photograph:
with a leaf’s shadow on his face, with a seashell in his hand,
he sets out toward my dream.

He wanders through darknesses extinguished since never,
through emptinesses opened to themselves forever,
through seven times seven times seven silences.

He appears on the other side of my eyelids,
in the one and only world that he can reach.
His shot heart beats.
A first wind stirs from his hair.

A meadow spreads between us.
Skies come flying with clouds and birds,
mountains rise silently on the horizon
and a river flows downward, searching for the sea.

You can see so far, so far,
that day and night turn simultaneous,
and all seasons of the year occur at once.
A four-quartered moon unfolds its fan,
snowflakes swarm beside butterflies,
fruit falls from the blossoming tree.

We draw closer. In tears,
in smiles, I don’t know. Just one step more
and we’ll listen to your shell together,
to the roar of a thousand orchestras,
to the roar of our wedding march.

Translated by Clare Cavanaugh.  NYRB, January 9, 2014.

05 January 2014

Train Dreams

from Train Dreams

                    by Denis Johnson

. . . . . .
Her whimpering ceased as he got closer, approaching cautiously so as not to terrify either this creature or himself. The wolf-girl waited, shot full of animal dread and perfectly still, moving nothing but her eyes, following his every move but not meeting his gaze, the breath smoking before her nostrils.

The child's eyes sparked greenly in the lamplight like those of any wolf. Her face was that of a wolf, but hairless.

"Kate?" he said. "Is it you?" But it was.

Nothing about her told him that. He simply knew it. This was his daughter.

She stayed stock-still as he drew even closer. He hoped that some sign of recognition might show itself and prove her to be Kate. But her eyes only watched in flat terror, like a wolf's. Still. Still and all. Kate she was, but Kate no longer. Kate-no-longer lay on her side, her left leg akimbo, splintered and bloody bone jutting below the knee; just a child spent from crawling on threes and having dragged the shattered leg behind her. He'd wondered sometimes about little Kate's hair, how it might have looked if she'd lived; but she'd snatched herself nearly bald.  It grew out in a few patches.

He came within arm's reach.  Kate-no-longer growled, barked, snapped as her father bent down toward her, and then her eyes glassed and she so faded from herself he believed she'd expired at his approach.  But she lived, and watched him.

"Kate, Kate.  What's happened to you?"

He set down the lamp and club and got his arms beneath her and lifted.  Her breathing came rapid, faint, and shallow.  She whimpered once in his ear and snapped her jaws, but didn't otherwise struggle.  He turned with her in his embrace and made for the cabin, now walking away from the lamplight and thus toward his own monstrous shadow as it engulfed his home and shrank magically at his approach.  Inside he laid her on his pallet on the floor.  "I'll get the lamp," he told her.

When he came back into the cabin, she was still there.  He set the lamp on the table where he could see what he was doing, and prepared to splint the broken leg with kindling, cutting the top of his long johns off himself around the waist, dragging it over his head, tearing it into strips.  As soon as he grasped the child's ankle with one hand and put his other on the thigh to pull, she gave a terrible sigh and then her breathing slowed.  She's fainted.  He straightened the leg as best he could, and feeling that he could take his time now, he whittled a stick of kindling so that it cupped the shin.  He pulled a bench beside the pallet and sat himself, resting her foot across his knee while he applied the splint and bound it around.  "I'm not a doctor,: he told her.  "I'm just the one that's here."  He opened the window across the room to give her air.

She lay there asleep with the life driven half out of her.  He watched her a long time.  She was as leathery as an old man.  Her hands were curled under, the back of her wrists calloused stumps, her feet misshapen, as hard and knotted as wooden burls.  What was it about her face that seemed so wolflike, so animal, even as she slept?  He could say. The face just seemed to have no life behind it when the eyes were closed.  As if the creature would have no thoughts other than what it saw.

He moved the bench against the wall, sat back, and dozed.  A train going through the valley didn't wake him but only entered his dream.  Later, near daylight, a much smaller sound brought him around.  The wolf girl had stirred.  She was leaving.

She leaped out the window.