From today's New York Times: nine poets on the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, including Mark and Marie. Click here to read the entire set.
The Iron Curtain
And the nun asked us-- were we seven?--what we would do if the
stormed our houses and bound our parents and threatened to kill
them. Would you
renounce Jesus in order to save your mother from being murdered?
We knew what the true answer was--
and what was the right one.
My mother stood, cooking a dozen pork chops in the two big frying
pans, when I told her
that I'd said that I'd let her die before
I turned my back on Jesus.
And my mother said that that was all right; she understood.
When the wall came down I was distracted. By what? A man I loved
and longed for?
A self integrating so slowly most days I hardly knew who I was?
Brick by brick. Some men pushed it with what looked like
Some kids sat on top, waving.
We'd been told families had been divided--crossing the city to work or
caught on the wrong side when the wall went up. And that was that.
lived and died, and married.
How strange to see them walking, on TV, through the empty air--
what had been solid--stupefied, astonished...
How they touched the faces of their loved ones
and ran their hands over their heads and hair.
Some workers put up a wall on 25th Street,
plywood sheathing a frame of 2 x 4s, to seal the building
they’d gut and remake. Then they added layers:
stacks of metal pipe bound with black webbing,
a layer of permits, photocopied signatures far removed
from whatever hand inscribed them.
Then a blue expanding ladder, hydraulic,
squatting on its haunches. My friend John took pictures
of the whole unlikely and elaborate composition,
barrier and palimpsest, warning and advertisement.
How could you not look at it, with its tears and concealments?
And though such photos might aestheticize,
allowing us to stand at an annealing distance
from the wreck of things, I think his do something else;
in this way I begin to look at walls.
Decaled plexi between my face and the back of the cab driver’s head.
Blue shroud on 16th like the robe of Venus rippling over the entry
of Pottery Barn, and inside it some burr-grinder
scouring away at the stone. The insidious barrier –
who could put their hands on it? – dividing me and the dark young men
under the scaffolding near my corner, smoking by the door
of the technical school. All going back somehow to the story
one of my teachers told, voice slipping to a register we’d never heard
in our room’s calm rows: how a lover,
desperate to reach the beloved on the other side,
strapped himself beneath a car, face pressed up
into the undercarriage, the back of his head
inches above the pavement; how he’d tried to refuse,
with his own body at least, the sundering of his city.
Did he live, did he ever arrive? I remember only
my teacher beginning to weep, and we children
in our low-slung new school building in Tucson,
the desert freshly scraped to make way for us,
we didn’t understand, what was the lesson?
John’s pictures brought that back -- and how,
decades later, the night they first scaled the wall,
the people at the top reached down to pull up
the others, and shouted Come on, come on!
When the guards turned the water cannons on them,
they sprayed back from open bottles of champagne.
Then the broken chunks appeared, in the hands of those
who had loosened them, fragments of concrete
glazed with spray paint inscriptions, scarred
with sledgehammer and chisel: instruments of union.
A demanding beauty about them,
whatever was scrawled perhaps capable
of realigning, as words in what language?
Something barely spoken yet.