2024/03/04 - 06:24

My Kafka. A Poem by Philip Terman

A cage went in search of a bird.     

1.  The Heron

The commotion of sunlight, rattling 

of clouds, the impossible crash

of daybreak, how loud the grass, how noisy

the gossamer wavering in the dust, how terrible

the explosion of the human heart.  The silence

you need cannot be found on this earth,

the circular saw grinding across the road,

the chattering teeth of mice in the floorboards.

At least from food you can escape into air,

like your hunger artist, you can dissolve

into skin and bone, into straw in a cage,

you can disappear into your own obscurity.

Zaru, Schelesten, Meran, Molinary

you tried sanitarium after sanitarium,

Ottla’s retreat into the countryside,

but sound materializes even in empty air.

If only a composing hut like Mahler’s, deep

in the woods, before dawn, after bathing

for purity, breakfast prepared, trees surrounding

in their host, where you can be unnoticed

like an indistinct insect, protecting

the writing from every disturbance, if only

a burrow big enough for your thin frame,

and a desk that keeps madness at bay,

like the one I’m writing on now, old oak,

in a cabin the other end of a hay field,

facing a pond where I saw a blue heron,

thin neck curving into a pencil-pointed beak,

on the edge of the water, its image

doubled back to the surface as the sun

poured beyond the trees.  It paused,

all attention, waiting, eyes fixed skyward,

standing stock-still in a concentrated silence,

waiting for something, a quality of light

to emerge or a cry inaudible to human ears,

and it happened, its wings outspread,

gone.  I traced it long as I could into its next life.


 2.  Jewish Middle-Class Fathers

 Impossible to take them seriously, these fathers of ours,

these Jewish middle-class fathers: in the synagogue,

rising with the congregation, mumbling their prayers,

distracted, bored, half-asleep, asleep, snoring.

On Sabbath and High Holy Days we could have loved them.

They might have taught us Torah and the Talmud,

instructed us, as it is written, in the sacred scriptures—

they could have passed on the wisdom of their ancestors,

demonstrated how to remove the t’fillin from the velvet cases

and weave them around our arms, securing the small black

boxes, commandments scrolled inside, to our foreheads,

instructed us in the proper way to don a scull cap, with a pin, to our hair,

how to wrap around our shoulders the tallism, not stiff

like a scarf, but tossed back like a cape, given us lessons

in the precise intonations of the chanting—not a mumble,

but in cadences that carry centuries, the sufferings, the exhalations.

And they should have modeled—rather than stumble and stand

in silence—the davin dance:  to sway, with one’s whole body,

to prostrate, not to meaningless words memorized

through repetition, but to the poetry of the prophets,

the complaints of the kings, the assertions of the righteous,

the story of a people exiled, like us—what we had to learn

by ourselves, had to find our own way back to—beggars, prodigals.

Our fathers!  We were nothing beside their enormous bulk,

their mammoth frames covered head to foot with fur.

They inhabited our entire houses.  As children scaling

their chests we reached the highest summit, standing

beside them they were towering as skyscrapers—

we couldn’t see the horizon beyond them, they stood between us

and the world.  We couldn’t keep step or stand their silences.

These Jewish middle-class fathers, full of conquest, enterprise,

these small business owners—work was their god, their religion,


their mantra, work was who they married, who they slept with,

the secret name they wanted us to inherit.  But we were putzes,

meshuginahs, shmegegies, shlemiels, shlemazels.

We didn’t know what it meant to live what they lived through,

how they had to sleep all in one room, eating potatoes and herring,

how they had to work as young boys—always the Depression,

always the War, how with nothing they made their own way.

We had no business sense, distracted, reading Dostoyevsky.

And the dinner table!  Their chamber, the Holy of Holies—

sucking their meat, slurping the gravy, cracking the bones,

cleaning their ears with toothpicks, filling the air with crude

humor at our expense:  Son, the best part of you went on the ceiling.

Oh, these fathers.  But on Sundays they didn’t shave and pranced

in underwear, sometimes nothing at all.  They burped and farted,

read the newspaper on the toilet till noon, their cigar smoke

circling through the house.  They’d play us a hand of cards,

wanting to win, yes:  still, those moments, a soft word, some laughter.

And our writings.  To our fathers—nothing, they’d get us nowhere.

But it was all about them, we dedicated it all to them.

They were offended, they bristled, they took it much too personally.

They wanted us to be lawyers or accountants.  They wanted us

to take over the business, they wanted us to be what they understood,

wanted us to be themselves, perhaps a little better, but not too much.

These fathers.  These Jewish middle-class fathers.

3.  Son of K.

                        “Few persons left behind so slender a trail as this child of Kafka’s.”

                                                                                              Max Brod

Mazel tov.  I learned the news from the chronology

in the back of Schocken’s Complete Stories.  A son!

Kayn anyhora, may you avoid the evil eye.

My own child’s sleeping now, long day, the playground,

the sandbox, coloring, chasing me around the house—

me, a father!  Not much writing today, but when I toss her

into the air, her hair splayed wild, her eyes wide,

skin flushed, arms flapping like a bird’s, the air stills,

it seems for those few moments time stops completely.

Too bad you weren’t informed.  Let me fill you in:

born 1914 or 1915.  In Munich.  His name?

Characteristics?  How he died?  Was he frail?

A little awkward?  Large-eared?  Lanky?

Did he keep to his room?

Did he have difficult eating habits?

Obsessed with the slightest noises?  Give

mama a hard time?  Harbor resentments

and imagine little ridiculous things about his father?

That would be you, of course, don’t feel guilty,

it wasn’t your fault, you had no idea, nobody did,

until twenty-five years later, except, of course,

the Mutter who, on April 21, 1940, identified you

in a letter—not, it’s true, by name, but what other

famous man whose “greatness is held to this day”

died in Prague in 1924?  What about the mother?

Can you guess?  You were delighted that she shares

a name with your insect’s sister, yes:  Grete,

your fiancée Felice’s friend, her go-between

when there was a pause in your correspondence,

the one she trusted, an intermediary, the messenger you fell for.

Don’t deny it.  Re-read your letter dated May 2, 1914,

the time, according to calculations, when little Franz Jr.

would have been born:  you cannot be fully aware, you pined

of what you mean to me.  And this from a writer whose reputation

doesn’t rest on his superfluity:  Everything you do, especially

your gaze, has its effect, Fraulein Grete, it has its effect.

Canetti says that if one reads your letters to Felice

and to Grete, often written on the same day, side by side,

“One can have no doubt as to whom he loves.”

And didn’t you want G to move in with you and F.

after the wedding?  Can engaged couples do that?

And didn’t you tell G. that your relationship with her

holds delightful and altogether indispensable possibilities?

And didn’t you want G. to join you and F at Grund?

And didn’t you write G. about your unmistakable longing?

Max thinks the impact on you would have been enormous,

there was “nothing he desired more fervently” than children,

you “longed to be a father,” you “would have taken loving charge.”

Perhaps, Max thought, it might even have “saved” your life.

And didn’t you tell your own father, in that famous letter,

that To get married, to found a family, to accept

all the children that arrive, to maintain them in this

uncertain world, even to lead them a little on their way

is the most a man may succeed in doing?

Max again:  “He longed to sit beside a cradle of his own.”

I’ve laid my pen down and sat beside a cradle

of a child of my own and stared into all that mystery and wondered

what she was imagining on the other side of language,

shapes of water and the dark, patterns of the sky,

what she made of this enormous shadow I cast over her.

She curled her tiny hand around my writing finger

and held it tightly gripped all the way into her sleep,

like holding fast to a rope fastened to this world,

floating in that great enigma that is her life,

what I will never know, the way two people, no matter

how close, are lost to each other, the way nobody

really knew you, not even Max, how you write

to Felice:  I would never expose myself to the risk

of being a father, because what you had to do

was to become clear about the ultimate things.

So how could you be a father?  Arranging your life

completely around your writing with a child in the house

when you could never be alone enough, there could never

be silence enough, sitting in your innermost room

of the locked cellar, notebook on a table and a lamp,

someone placing food outside the entrance?  Last night,

my daughter came into my study and yelled:  Papa!

I turned from this page and lifted her on my lap,

I swirled away from my desk and twirled her around,

she climbed onto my back and I crouched down like a horse,

she laughed hysterically, I stretched my back up and neighed.

No:  even the noise in the next apartment congealed your blood.

Better off you never knew about him, this Franz Jr.

And besides, maybe you’ll be relieved, the whole shtick

about the son, I discover, despite Schocken’s chronology,

despite Max’s certainty, is now in dispute.

Scholars are saying the fellow didn’t even exit.

Other than the woman’s claim, there’s no proof,

none of her friends thought it possible, the researchers

don’t think anything intimate took place at all.

In early spring, 1914, Grete showed no signs in the stomach

and, though in 1916, she complained of “sufferings,”

the dates don’t work out.  The story, says the biographer

Frederich Karl, falls too closely into the realm of a fantasy

of a woman spurned.  The editors of the Letters to Felice

concur:  “doubtful.”  “Unlikely.”  On the other side, Karl

speculates there might have been a “consummation,

even without proof.”  Let’s allow Canetti the final word:

“Whatever occurred between G. and K. remains secret.”

Such are the ambiguities of history.  Was there a son?

Would you have wanted there to be?  How…Kafkaesque!

Brod, we know, thought a son would have confirmed

your worth from the “highest court of appeals,” the verdict

pronounced:  not guilty, the message finally arriving

from the Castle.  But of course nothing arrives from the Castle,

nothing definite, what we can be sure of, lay our hands on,

all agree with, you taught us that, that was your burden,

oh great father of Modernism.  Was that spoken like a true son?

That’s all from Gerte, no more words, only the letter,

April 21, 1940.  According to the Red Cross,

She was arrested in Italy after Hitler’s occupation.

Max received reports that a soldier “beat her

to death with the butt of his gun.”  And so this son

trails off, slender as you are, almost an airy nothing,

a small passage in an obscure letter, another soul

who may or may not have existed, whose legacy

is otherwise annihilated, one more mystery, a perfection

that you would have chosen for yourself.

Every day you wished yourself off this earth,

preferring, you told your father, the absolute nothing

over the alternatives:  marriage and fatherhood.

You said you would mature from childhood into old age

and bypass manhood completely, another statement

we’re forced to agree with:  at forty, near death, a wisp

of gray in your hair, your expression almost Chinese,

a comparison the great Chinese scholar Arthur Whaley

wouldn’t argue against, he said you’re the “only writer

in the western world who is essentially Chinese,”

and you yourself wrote to Felice:  Indeed, I am Chinese.

What a coincidence!  So’s my daughter!  Adopted,

there’s the wisdom of 5000 years in her expression,

her ancestors surely worked on the Great Wall,

her eyes remind me of Tu Fu’s, but that’s kvelling,

everything she does is astonishing, she’s opening those eyes now,

she’s leaping across the room, she’s waving her arms:  Papa!

4. Last Jottings or Flowers for Franz



On the treatment of cut flowers.


Aslant, so they can drink more.

Strip their leaves.


                        The peonies,

they are so fragile.


                        Move the lilacs

into the sun.


Do you have a moment?

Then please lightly spray the peonies

and please see that they don’t touch

the bottom of the vase.


                        That’s why

they’re kept in bowls.


A bird was in the room.


I’ll hold out for another week.


Careful I don’t cough in your face.


How trying I am.


The craving itself is some sort of satisfaction.


See the lilacs, fresher than morning.


I am already so poisoned that the body

can hardly understand the pure fruit.


Cut flowers should be treated differently.


Show me the columbine,

too bright to stand with the others.


Scarlet hawthorn is too hidden,

too much in the dark.


Where is the eternal spring?

Greenish translucent bowls.


A late bee drank the white lilac dry.


Cut a deep slant; then they can touch the floor.


How wonderful, the lilac, dying,

it drinks, goes on swilling.


Every limb as tired as a person.


It was all so boundless.

Revision: 2021/01/09 - 23:40 - © Mauro Nervi

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