Snow Like Wool, Frost Like Ashes

For Stanisław Barańczak

 

Snow is false purity.
            —J.W. von Goethe

 

I: Death

 

But this is nothing. How could such nothing
stand between us [. . .]
Yes, I know you won’t reply to my last postcard.
But this I’ll blame on some real thing—
the postman, a plane crash, censorship—
not non-existence, which, you’ll grant, does not exist.
          —Stanisław Barańczak “For Grażyna”

 

My postcard shows a snowman who
has lost his eyes and nose.
And yours? An island between two
azures? Here it snows

 

weightless flakes of artifice:
words that cast no shade,
trifles so precisely nice,
delicately made,

 

that they seem barely to exist,
thin as razor blades
from the shaving foam of mist
carving bloodless shades.

 

Which side is the negative,
as yet unexposed?
Neither side seems positive
the other isn’t posed.

 

II: In Which We Live and Breathe

 

The common air in which we live and breathe
The air in which we gasp and suffocate
           —Stanisł aw Barań czak “Morning Hymn”

 

Although each breath predicts a thaw—
you see the lack of sound—
here tears and spit both freeze before
they ever touch the ground.

 

The air, transparent as a norm,
now hardens like cement;
the snow is marked by cuneiform
and pigeon excrement.

 

Triumphant summer in the dirt
and brittle litter lay,
it writhed in autumn’s Nessus shirt
burning in decay.

 

Now stainless-steel machines compact
(their goal: a monolith)
the rusty scrap of myth to fact—
a more convenient myth.

 

III: Snow

 

The street is empty; wafers fall
and freeze autumnal tongues
of maudlin trees whose pastoral
regrets and pagan songs

 

above the vital, blooded soil
quaver like tattered flags.
A puddle backed by glinting foil
is wiped by wispy rags.

 

Are these the words in which the dead
express their clear accord?
Or lace they tat above my head
to keep from being bored?

 

Are snowflakes tokens of one type?
Or species sent perdu
into the endless flash-bulb hype
attending each debut?

 

IV: The Word

 

That “Schnee ist weiß” is not in doubt;
it’s true that snow is white.
But what are all these words about?
God’s dandruff, which in spite

 

of its unearthly origin—
ho logos or das Wort
each winter falls from faultless Sinn
to idiomatic snirt?

 

Put baldly, do these feet in brute
boots defile to on?
Does “world” translate the absolute
hapax legomenon,

 

which is in view of being with
anarthrous deity?
Or is this white and brittle myth
anarchic tracery?

 

V: Counterpoint

 

In Memoriam: Karlheinz Kloppweisser

After the Goldberg Variations —‘superessential music,’
to employ the mystical jargon—we close our eyes,
giving ourselves up to the echo they have raised within us.
Nothing more exists, except a plenitude without content,
which is indeed the sole way of approaching the Supreme.
          —E.M. Cioran

 

These Goldberg Variations Death
tempts from the ivories,
while humming under puffs of breath—
compulsive maladies—

 

in perfect play perfect and limn
a crystalline motif.
How should we read the heteronym?
Suspending disbelief?

 

Organic, German silence, round
as Truth, is fit to represent
the difference between sound and Sound?
French silence is mere ornament?

 

Where is the mountain made of gold,
the virgin-haunted glen?
Here chalk is falling on the cold
cast of a unicorn.

 

VI: The Snow Queen

 

The palace ticks with crystal clocks;
to serve the icy Queen
a boy arranges frozen blocks
upon a blue-lit screen—

 

the best symbols in the best
order—a, b, c
by which the chip within his chest,
reflects “eternity.”

 

The ice has eyes, and other boys
survey the lurid scene;
they’ve put away their childish toys,
to see as they are seen—

 

reflected in the crystalware,
recursively defined,
Koch snowflakes falling through the air
of universal Mind.

 

VII: The Golden Fleece

 

The great trouble in human life is that
looking and eating are two different operations.
         —Simone Weil

 

The journey of each Jargonaut,
to find the mythic fleece
that catches flecks of golden thought
borne on the streams of Greece,

 

is subject to the caduceus—
aboard the speaking ship,
upon inhospitable seas—
the snaking, seaward rip.

 

The single-visioned Cyclops calls
and nobody replies.
Compelled the tempting apple falls;
fame-famished two-fold eyes

 

intend beyond the glowing orb
where earthly power lies;
while, tumbling in a plastic zorb,
their dirty washing dries.

 

VIII: The Frozen Swan

 

My soul is an enchanted boat,
Which, like a sleeping swan, doth float
Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing . . .
            —P. B. Shelley

 

A frozen swan. Its form implies,
in icy origami,
the signet-songs that eulogise
“swan” in proto-Sami—

 

a word as white as flaws that fall
on unmarked tundra snow—
or else some proto-Human call
across the pathless floe

 

of silence, flapping silent wings
to mimic that great bird,
which when the permafrost of things
broke thawing into word,

 

played on the surface of a pond
its self-reflective game.
In lisping numbers from beyond—
a thimble-full of flame.

 

IX: The Night Descends

 

Above our heads above our words
Above our homes above our fumes
Above our roofs above our breaths
The night descends
            —Stanisław Barańczak “Evening Hymn”

 

Upon our words the night descends—
an untranslatable
sentence meant for foes and friends.
We fade beneath the pall

 

it drapes upon our plywood ark—
law’s remnants, odds and ends.
We dive, and rising from that dark
we suffer from the bends;

 

or tangled in its tentacles
drown in a cloud of ink.
And gathered in our cenacles
wir trinken sie, we drink

 

this amen absent all amends.
On hate and tenderness,
upon our worlds the night descends—
waste howling wilderness.

 

X: Idioms

 

From my lips you removed, snow,
this tongue, which I mistakenly took
for my own . . .
          —Stanisław Barańczak “10.12.79: Snow I”

 

To break the tongue / to get tongue tied—
the common sense: mere frost;
again the dictionary lied,
the poetry was lost.

 

The living tongue is raw and red,
a wild and tropic fruit
inside the glasshouse of the head.
Outside, blows dissolute

 

the blizzard of the literal.
Sense shivers to stay warm;
lost in the immaterial
it seeks a distant form

 

indifferent to all difference,
or traffic sign that points
beyond the mirror-storm of sense,
the sense-world’s bloody joints.

 

 

XI: Introspection

 

I now think that introspection is pure
boredom—that is, if you see introspection
as self-absorption, and not as attending
to the voices of others, the living and the dead.
           -Adam Zagajewski “Another Beauty”

 

The introspective paradox
is that introspection
is not—unlike Johnsonian rocks—
subject to inspection.

 

The subject who reflects upon
himself is never whole;
one doll, the wholly-seeing-one
contains the other doll . . .

 

But I digress. The subject I
had in mind instead—
seen out the corner of the eye,
the living and the dead—

 

refuses to be held in view,
glints off a pewter bowl.
The eye is made for seeing through—
Nothing containing All.

 

XII: The Puppet Theatre

 

Skin-deep gravitas and dun
frills of faux-Baroque;
caryatid, telamon—
nicotine and smoke

 

stained—support this stone mirage.
Puppets have no tact;
animistic bricolage
strains to resurrect

 

creatures without qualities,
conscious of their lack—
absent folk-psychologies—
of the feel of black.

 

Every night the demi-monde,
innocent as things,
play their part; at dawn they’re found
hanging from their strings.

 

XIII: Wrocław

 

A preschool: children—fed and bored—
compelled, pretend to sleep.
Discretion is its own reward
behind the starchy crepe

 

that veils the one, distinguished cot
sick children occupy,
who—swaddled in their common lot—
won’t condescend to lie

 

still. While a watchful and benign
silence stalks the halls,
a boy behind the snowy screen
draws shit upon the walls.

 

Once, in that isolation cell,
my finger traced the faint
fresco of his gestural,
primitive complaint.

 

XIV: The Last Days

 

The cautious, muffled thud
of fruit loosed from the tree
in the unceasingly
chanting silent wood . . .
          —Osip Mandelstam

 

Shades in transit. By the bank
of the second river.
Leafy recollections. Blank
distances dissever.

 

Utter limits crystal clear,
everything slides off
glass untouchable and sheer:
the frozen water trough.

 

Lice-infested clothes are sprayed.
Slandered lilies freeze.
Pretty patterns fall and fade
leaving only lees.

 

Outside: scrounging sleep and food,
in the manna squall.
No-one, in the chanting wood,
hears the almond fall . . .

 

XV: Apophany

 

In the beauty of the world harsh necessity
becomes an object of love.
           —Simone Weil

 

Insubstantial motes of soot
rise from burning coal;
seeds of randomness take root—
white, arboreal

 

lawful states proliferate,
perfect systems grow
round a tiny speck of hate—
strict regimes of snow.

 

Angels in white uniforms
pour out vials of bleach;
breath submits its fleeting forms,
cities built in speech.

 

A crystalline cacophany—
the humbled body numb—
a heavenly apophany,
perfection’s phantom limb.

 

XVI: Prayer

 

Our Father, Who art not . . .
           —Stanisław Barańczak “John Doe
           Tries to Remember the Words of a Prayer”

 

Children watch the falling snow
of white phosphorus.
Absent Father do not show
mercy upon us.

 

Break—inhuman as the sway
of impartial laws—
idols made of bloody clay
shaped like Santa Claus.

 

Let the wasteland wind that turns
passion’s weathervane
chase the prodigal, who spurns
exile, out again.

 

Do not hear us, do not bless,
unable—though you ought—
to be, except as emptiness,
Our Father who art not.

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