Conjunctions:28 Secular Psalms

The Berlin Sonnets
As if it were hard to begin. But one has already begun,
the air is there, the song, the smoke above the Norman plain
going up from Joan’s funeral pyre while the English stand around—
I saw the sky still smudged from it when I passed on the bus
years ago, passing by bus through famous places. Here Goebbels
was photographed with a cigarette and pretty woman,
here Paul Valéry stopped to light his pipe and peered
absentmindedly at a window full of soap, here Dvorák
fed pigeons on his windowledge and spoke English. And so on,
all in the same comic book called History, or,
Our Dream of What Must Have Happened To Make Things
The Way They Are and Hurt So Much. Or are they?
There’s something about Saturdays and politics, as if the flesh
knew it for what it is, a sinister tragic sort of golf.


But I sat on the bus fingering my ticket—good for two hours
of nonstop riding and changing and going—I could visit the poor
and still come back to the Zoo. I was in the middle of something,
a sky so clean it looked like they scrub it down with sand.
O blue Berlin you dream beneath my body! Or I am riding now,
remember, and the pretty aqua bridge across the Spree
coaxes me to alight and interview the swans. And the birds
—even these cultured and poetic drowsers—are all
that is free of history. Nothing ever happens where they are
except themselves. To live in the sky! They hardly notice us,
we are the ghosts in their lofty liberty, down here
in the cellar, where ghosts belong, where when I was young
they groaned all night behind the cellar door, choked me
breathless before I lost that soft virginity of fear.


One sits in one’s seat and listens to the conversation
as if the bus runs on words. Streets pass neatly,
traffic is mild. Why isn’t anybody worried? Not even me.
Look at our faces in the glass, a face is a vertical landscape,
a study of the distant heart, becalm thee, maiden,
there is hope among the wheels. No one is close,
no one far. Every person in the bus is enduring
a different city, each one mapped on all the others,
inexpressible, terrible, remote. The woman beside me,
jolly, with rucksack, fresh from flying, is in a city
further than Lhasa, unreachable, sacred to her,
her Berlin, her little neighborhood, I’ll never find it,
she’ll never find mine. Wherefore are we all Ishmael
to each other, vague drifters, sand and rain and rabble
and we are war. Fifty years ago all this was just a fire.


Bloody history. Who knows what you mean.
The mind that carries is also carried,
there is a galaxy that moves these things around
Go ahead and seem. Forgive the meaning.
Everything sweeping towards Sagittarius,
wise man with a beast’s body, arrow in his hand.
We used to think we spoke the consonants
that shaped some everlasting vowel,
howl or groan or moan or sigh of time
but I don’t know. Things come and go
without arriving or departing.
We are archers curiously void of arrows,
anxious in a targetless universe. We twang the bow
only for the music’s sake, I guess.


The summing up—such a long trial—begins. The evidence
died before any of us was born, the wind still smells of it
sometimes—a lawyer does what he can. The gold.
A morning sun reminds us, moonlight deludes us—
under every shadow we suspect the moon’s been buried
and we dig. Theology, geology, logic, analytics,
acoustics, optics, astrophysics—not one
from Galilee to Ganges does much good.
Witnesses shuffle and mutter in their chambers
weary of the trial they once volunteered to guide
with fine speeches and rememberings towards the real.
Who would be a lawyer in such weather?
In my poor dining room, hardly room to eat,
row after row of metal cabinets stuffed with truth.


Habe nun, ach ...! No need to mention all
the unprofitable fetishes and disciplines the heart
took for its master, then later broke
or forsook or ran right through the other side
into that clear blue absence of commodity
empty of discourse: the Actual.
The sky before we flew in it. Just read
the floating lights of fairies and divinities,
water drops and rainbow-lings, the gold
angel on the Victory Column winking
her eye to catch my glance, I see, I see,
that’s where all the trouble starts,
I try to touch what the eye, that holier hand,
already touched and measured, loved and let go.


And something was enough to say. Angels
interviewed by churchbells
answer with clouds. Little airplanes
bumblebee across the valley.
Every creature wants to go down.
I remember the fullness of your arms
while we wept and talked of Dachau and ate well—
I wondered at us—are we strange crows
grieving and feasting at once on a ruined world?
We are only an opera.
The names are forgettable,
what is remembered is the interval—
the heart leaping up a ninth, say,
or bathers in the surf up from an amazing wave.


Not when it is spoken to but when it speaks.
Landgraves and tyrannies, little counts and servitudes,
there is a goldfinch to my seed. Would she stop
if I asked her to begin? There are churches
where no matter how many visitors are stirring
the shape makes you alone with mind—Pieter
Saenredam painted them, Haarlem, the stones
give light—and in such dedicated spaces
I have silenced hungers that the mind lets go.
That’s why volcanoes speak, why Jewish women
have red hair, why summer night’s so long.
Something is stirring to be loose, or less, or lost
into the strange altitude we used to call heaven,
just Japanese businessmen hurrying in big jets.


Now everyone’s offended. We have one mother and some fathers,
we come from clan. O the poverty
of our identity, to be so proud of what we guess we are.
I am a church of that. Of such weightless stone
I build my plinth, with color alone. And set you on it one by one ,
you victors in the heart’s olympiads, I medal you
with the bronze of my body’s shadows, silver
of my deep water, gold of my vague eyes. I adore you
in the empty measures. There is no music yet,
it has not found the way to be. If it came to us
it would be formal and would grant us space
to dance inside it or alongside or not to move at all,
just watch it pass, can music pass, a train of conquerors,
what the not so ancient Greeks called a holy throng
and heard them leaving the doomed city all night long.


Sixty years ago the stadium filled up with song.
Two hundred thousand voices sang the opening hymn
the famous Richard Strauss had written for this day,
my favorite composer, here at the hub of hell.
I have a record of them doing it, how can you count
each voice in all that ardor, the orchestra
blatant as an airplane overhead. Yet over the years
I’ve come to hear and recognize them all, the born
and the unborn, music grants no exemptions to the dead,
a girl who won’t be born till Saturday, she
was singing loudest, and all the bitter athletes
black and yellow in that nightmare time, they
were singing too. Sometimes there’s really nothing else to do.
Music is the actual politics by which we’re ruled.


For it lusteth to take hold, and constrain
all the lads and maidens of the town to dance
midnight naked round the broken chapel
for no delight but its delight, no harvest
to its hoe-down. It is a kind of manacle
slips round your soft pale wrist and pulls
by pulsebeat to the chaffy floor
where one way or another dancing does.
And does it to us whether we’d be done or no.
And deadbeat elders huddle in their beds
refusing to be flesh among such eldritch liturgies
yet their minds can think of nothing but
do not listen to this music, do not listen darling
for music means nothing but manipulation.

Robert Kelly has published more than fifty books of poetry and prose, including Red Actions: Selected Poems 1960–1993 (Black Sparrow Press). He also wrote Lapis (Godine/Black Sparrow), Threads (First Intensity), and the novel The Book from the Sky (North Atlantic).