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Absent Friends

Father Chomski, the vicar of Vaidotai parish,
Died at the age of ninety-seven, worrying till the end
about his parishioners, for no one would succeed him.

On the shore of the Pacific, I, his former pupil,
Was translating the Apocalypse from Greek into Polish,
Finding it the proper season for that labor.

They had to hold up his hands on both sides
When he raised the host and the wine above the altar.

He had been beaten by thugs of the Empire
Because he refused to bow before the world.

And I? Didn’t I bow? The Great Spirit of Non-being,
The Prince of this World, has his own devices.

I did not want to serve him. I always labored
In order to at least delay his victory.

So that God might be resplendent with his angelic crowd,
He who is all-powerful but whose mill grinds slow.

He who in the huge war is defeated every day
And does not give signs through his churches.

To whom in our school chapel I vowed faithfulness
While Father Chomski approached on tiptoe and put out candles.

And yet I could not distinguish Him from the rhythm of my blood
And felt false reaching beyond it in my prayer.

I was not a spiritual man but fleshbound,
Called to celebrate dionysian dances.

And disobedient, curious, on the first step to Hell,
Easily enticed by the newest idea.

Hearing all around me: It is good to experience,
It is good to feel, be bold, free yourself from guilt.

Wanting to absorb everything, comprehend everything,
And darkness proved to be forebearing toward me.

Did I toil against the world
Or, without knowing, was I with it and its own?

Helping the Ruler to tread with his iron treadle
An earth that did not merit any better?

* * *

And yet it wasn’t so, oh my accomplice in sin,
Eve under the apple tree, in the delightful garden.

I loved your breasts and your belly and your lips.
How to comprehend your otherness and sameness?

Convex and concave, how do they complement each other?
How is it that we feel and think alike?

Our eyes seeing the same, our ears hearing the same,
Our touch making and unmaking the same world.

Not one divided in two, not two united in one:
The second I, so that I may be aware of myself.

And together with you eat fruits from the Tree of Knowledge
And by twisting roads make our way through deserts.

* * *

By twisting roads from which one sees, below, the golden domes of rising and sinking cities, mirages of undulating streets, hunters pursuing gazelles, a pastoral scene by a stream, plows at noon resting in the fertile fields, so much and in such variousness, with a music in the air of pipes and flutes, with voices calling, voices that once were. Twisting roads, uncounted centuries, but could I renounce what I received, consciousness, knowledge, a never-fulfilled striving toward the aim? Even if it was fated that the aim, of which for a long time nothing was known, would hold our expectations up to ridicule. To renounce, to close, and to mortify sight, hearing and touch, to break free that way and not have to fear anymore that something will be taken away from us—no, I did not know how to do that.

* * *

Lt. Randolph Smith USAAF
1919–1943
Your duds, my dears, don’t fit much better than ours.
Pot-bellied we, our old brass buttons strain.
Come off it, Randy, straddled like a crane.
You left your flesh in the Kraut fire showers.

We served our terms. The Army is the Army.
We went where told to. Now what do you want?
Your clever hands, your bones, are all aslant.
Randy did you come here to harm me.

Randy it’s true we carve an appled duck
And drink the goddamn grand cru every night.
Your ashes floated, drifted out of sight.
In the oiled Kempinski we take girls to fuck.

The concierge dare not since we are Yanks
Be at our throats. Herr Ober, hier Steinheger.
Our girls are warm, Randy, why beleaguer
Your old pals with your clapped-out spindle shanks.

Don’t, Randolph, don’t, and none of your damned friends,
There are more of us and fatter than you, you are dead,
You are out of uniform. Everything ends.
Everybody says I’d as soon have gone instead.

Randolph take your lousy troop and go,
You look like hell, your damn snub nose is gone,
You’re out of uniform! I don’t want to know.
Randy, hey, man, leave me alone.

“Ta ta then laddies. Guide on me. Squad left.
Our Detail’s done. We are a proper sight.
Sorry old sport. And when did shows go right.
I’d pipped you crew, then Staff…Staff…staffed….”

As who should loosely string in sheaves and cocks
Awry, some tall pellucid rotting stalks
And set them filing past the bronze torchères
Through glass and walnut down the granite stair

And past the höchst-festooned commissionaire—
Der Türhüter? They’re blind and deaf and dumb
And vapored in light, as wheeled from the Ku’damm
Mercedes panzer midnight headlamps flare.

Absence becomes you. We know the dead are proud.
No graveyard like some tufted feather bed
For you, you burned in air. Parade your dead
Back where you muster. Still, had Wing allowed….

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