In memoriam B.T.
They’re a little afraid to approach because they see us differently:
we live in metal cages, buttressed by rebar, with pipes for gas and water,
and we’re piled on top of each other, floor after floor.
There are so many of them, and just a few of us – but they envy us
for having the remarkable gadget that makes everything easier:
—B.M., during a seance
The sunny days are here. By five, the light’s
been up for hours. What’s gray turns pink and white –
the streets revamped as for some delegation:
scrubbed clean, seen fresh; all cause for lamentation –
the guy in #2 who snored; the trolley’s blare,
rude porter, dirty lift – has disappeared.
The morning ‘rises’ – actually stands upright,
woozy as a frost-tipped bough from excess light.
The cab’s a tiny craft in an ocean of sun,
the driver the captain, who stays on and on
even as a brine of light pours through
the porthole, sticky and thick as a roux.
One thinks at these times: death’s like a zeppelin,
a frigate, crossing the ocean for years on end,
transporting everyone aboard its fleet
to Entropy, kingdom where order’s absolute.
After leaving the taxi, there’s platform and train
where light and shadow pivot, lunge, and feint.
Out the window a different matins gets said
as tracks diverge atop a gravel bed
through fallow fields, a junkyard, mildewed sheds.
And now you think: death strikes like a cannonade
of nails, spade scraping a box, or butter pat
from a funeral feast on an unwashed plate.
When writing, should I use ‘you’ or ‘ma’am’?
The latter, probably. I’d not say ‘Mom’
if you still lived, since what divides us is,
well, everything. (Our situation’s obvious.)
Where you are, do polite forms still stand?
‘Dear Father, by your leave’, ‘Most Reverend’,
‘The Honorable’, ‘Your Grace’. Is it like in art –
some yet unresurrected mass of body parts
at a communal bath, where speakers pipe
flat trumpet hymns? A crowded afterlife
of nudists? What’s left of us? A scent, a name?
A shade of skin? What gives itself to flame?
What goes to maggots, larva, centipedes?
And what remains on heaven’s balance sheet?
Is there some core of being that won’t quit?
A particle, scrap – trinket clutched in the fist
of a toddler – call it the soul? And do you hear
that voice, trying to pierce through silent spheres
to reach you, ask you, beg your pardon, grieve?
May I ask the mother of the man I love
about things so personal, so close to us
as death? Is that all right? Especially as
I see his tears for you when he crops
close around your face in Photoshop.
What’s visible up there? Train cars in a queue,
silver lines of rails beside a band of blue
like on a map. Forests all around, and isles
of streets from time to time with red roof tiles
spreading like tumours. And all those other lines:
air routes, the treks of reptiles, and nearby
dashed ranks of ants, plus predators’ hatched tracks
(here the wolves’, there the fox’s solitary path).
The child’s route to school and back again.
Salt making the rounds at wedding feasts to fête
the pair. And in these lines, I’m present, too,
believing you exist and that you know I do.
But, wait, ‘up there’ – whence comes this sentiment
that our loved dead live like some blissful clan
in heaven’s fields? That, in the morning’s cool,
they stroll about, and at the centre – like a well –
they sit around a peephole in the clouds,
dangling their legs and chewing on blades
of ambrosial grass? And now and then they’ll glance
below at haystacks, cars, each dot and dash
of life. What naïveté! Both closer and deeper,
you’re the grain in the wood, the wetness in water,
response to a knock or the flute’s clear notes
from breath and touch. Or deer tracks in snow.
Here, where I’m headed – city of sterile towers,
roster of bus schedules – I can’t make out
the beat of your clock. But then I reach our street,
the stairwell an oasis from the heat,
and on our door, the card with both surnames:
his – yours – and mine. Like crystal, come the chimes:
ding ding, ding dong, ding ding, and on to twelve.
Strange, this inheritance. It clangs on a shelf
above my desk, this clock that strangers owned
in other times; it wakes at night and sounds
punctually at three a.m., then half past four
and 5:15. We sleep, and it keeps guard
as time elapses: trickster knows what’s what.
Strange, this inheritance. A cycling that won’t quit.
Your son paging through my granny’s books
and saying things my exes said; brass hooks
for drapes from former tenants, and the clock,
your father’s once, which earlier (look
at the monogram) belonged to Count V.L. –
all legacies from testaments and wills.
And him. From you there’s him, sweet remnant,
like ‘love’ declined from one case to the next
or the verb ‘to love’ in a new conjugation
(I’m just one person in a longer recitation).
Ding dong ding. Three o’clock, the air feels thick.
Beyond cut poplars, one can see the crack
on the house across the way. And your son sits
and works, sun falling on the copper wisp
of his good profile. Do you see it? Or him?
Here, within arm’s reach, just at the rim
of desk and windowpane. Or are you bound
by rules of how you can approach, by rounds
of visiting hours? Such as only at night.
Not midnight, of course. No trembling from fright
and shivering under quilts. No shaking of chains
or rustling crinolines, the cheap domains
of horror films. Nothing more than a visit
without the right to speak. A lesser ticket
where the living strut the stage. But in a seat
where you see everything, within the reach
of a warm hand, which you don’t have. He sits
and writes some more. When do you look at him?
Just now, at night, or dawn? At home? Outside?
When he brews coffee? Puffs his cheeks out wide
while shaving or takes a nap there on the couch?
When we make love? Or maybe there are bounds
of privacy just like in life? Doors shut,
averted gaze, a smile, a muffled gait.
Since you’re here, well, sit and dine with us:
this is your empty plate beside the cup.
Have poppy, chanterelles, and compote from dried fruit,
plus cockspur rye in this feast of midnight hue.
Black the wine in goblets of blackest glass,
black the bottle pouring silent, never fast.
Black honey and poppy on platters black as lead,
and around the table, conversations of the dead.
Meet these shot through the lung, those dead of TB,
some struck down by stroke or an unknown disease,
the one killed in the war on a Breslau stoop,
Gram’s cousin from scarlet fever after strep,
the wrinkled great-grandmas, the aunts who went mad,
the uncle with V.D. and swarms of pale lads,
all those unrecalled who passed without a trace,
who had, in truth, no bad luck or uncommon grace:
they lived, gave birth, and died silently as plants –
like it or not, they too are members of your clan.
So sit with them and sup – time’s not of the essence:
we’ve aeons to arrange our mutual presence.
Sit with them, dine – we’re in the next room
though linger, dear one. You showed up too soon.
Next to your plate lie other ones for us
and those to whom we’ll will tray, bed, and tub.
A shiver down the spine. Like the cold whirr
of tailor’s shears. Whence comes this sudden fear
while in a train or washing up from lunch,
when something in the chest constricts that bunch
of muscle? Is this omen a primer of pain
after loss? Some Sunday school lesson
on suffering? With workbooks in stained covers
and punishments of bitter pills from wafers?
Departed neighbours, family, and close friends,
do you give notice at these banns of death?
With tenderness? Or as a hedge? So disaster
won’t take us by surprise when someone’s sister
does not return from Antilles. Or flight
A60 from Michigan winds up a site
of red, scorched earth, strewn with debris.
Or child’s tumour, no mere lump above the ear,
sends out shoots like kudzu to the pancreas
or liver. And nothing or no one can help us.
Is the omen in the note you sent to us
that on our holiday, a wasp would skulk
so slowly to the fruit on the hot oilcloth,
and in that span, like the clicking of a lock,
we’d feel the sudden absence, stunning
lack, of the hand that still feeds us honey.
Łódź-Leszno-Warsaw, 9 May 2006–6 June 2006
By Jacek Dehnel
Translated by Karen Kovacik
The Queer Riveter is honoured to publish this exclusive – the English translation of prize-winning Polish author and poet Jacek Dehnel’s ‘Timepiece’.
With thanks to Jacek and his translator Karen Kovacik.
Read Karen Kovacik’s introduction here.
Read The Queer Riveter in its entirety here.
Jacek Dehnel, born in 1980, is an award-winning poet, novelist and translator. Two of his novels are available in English: Saturn and Lala, both translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Aperture, a poetry collection selected and translated by Karen Kovacik, was a PEN America Award finalist. He lives in Warsaw with his husband Piotr Tarczyński, with whom he is also a co-author of three crime novels. The first volume, Mrs Mohr Goes Missing was recently published in English.
Karen Kovacik is a poet and translator of contemporary Polish poetry. Her books include Metropolis Burning, Beyond the Velvet Curtain, winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, and Nixon and I.
Photo of Jacek Dehnel by Cezary Rucki