~by Karl Shapiro
I was born downtown on a wintry day
Under the roof where Poe expired.
Tended by nuns my mother lay
Dark-haired and beautiful and tired.
Doctors and cousins paid their call,
The rabbi and my father helped.
A crucifix burned on the wall
In the bright room where I was whelped.
At one week all my family prayed,
Stuffed wine and cotton in my craw.
The rabbi blessed me with a blade
According to Mosaic Law.
The white steps blazed in Baltimore
And cannnas and white statuary.
I went home voluble and sore
Influenced by Abraham and Mary.
At one the Apocalypse had spoken,
Von Moltke fell, I was housebroken.
At two how could I understand
The murder of Archduke Ferdinand?
France was involved with history,
I with my thumbs, when I was three.
A sister came, we neared a war,
Paris was shelled when I was four.
I joined in our peach-kernel drive
For poison gas when I was five.
At six I cheered the big parade,
Burned sparklers and drank lemonade.
At seven I passed at school though I
Was far too young to say Versailles.
At eight the boom began to tire,
I tried to set our house on fire.
The Bolsheviks had drawn the line,
Lenin was stricken, when I was nine.
What evils do not retrograde
To my first odious decade?
Saints by whose pages I would swear,
My Zarathustra, Edward Lear,
Ulysses, Werther, fierce Flaubert,
Where are my books of yesteryear?
Sixteen and sixty are a pair,
We twice live by philosophies.
My marginalia of the hair,
Are you at one with Socrates?
Thirty subsides yet does not care,
Sixteen and sixty bang their fists.
How is it I no longer care
For Kant and the Transcendentalists?
Public libraries lead to prayer,
EN APXH ην ó λóγος — still
Eliot and John are there
To tempt our admirari nil.
I lived in a house of panels,
Victorian, darkly made.
A virgin in bronze and marble
Leered from the balustrade.
The street was a tomb of virtues,
Autumnal for dreams and haunts.
I gazed from the polished windows
Toward a neighborhood of aunts.
Mornings I practiced piano,
Wrote elegies and sighed.
The evenings were conversations
Of poetry and suicide.
Weltschmerz and mysticism,
What tortures we undergo!
I loved with the love of Heinrich
And the poison of Edgar Poe.
My first small book was nourished in the dark,
Secretly written, published, and inscribed.
Bound in wine-red, it made no brilliant mark.
Rather impossible relatives subscribed.
The best review was one I wrote myself
Under the name of a then-dearest friend.
Two hundred volumes stood upon my shelf
Saying my golden name from end to end.
I was not proud but seriously stirred,
Sorrow was song and money poetry’s maid!
Sorrow I had in many a ponderous word,
But were the piper and the printer paid?
The third-floor thoughts of discontented youth
Once saw the city, hardened against truth,
Get set for war. He coupled a last rime
And waited for the summons to end time.
It came. The box-like porch where he had sat,
The four bright boxes of a medium flat,
Chair he had sat in, glider where he lay,
Reading the poets and prophets of his day,
He assigned abstractly to his dearest friend,
Glanced at the little street hooked at the end,
The line of poplars lately touched with Spring,
Lovely as Laura, breathless, beckoning.
Mother was calm, until he left the door.
The trolley passed his sweetheart’s house before
She was awake. The Armory was cold,
But naked, shivering, shocked he was enrolled.
It was the death he never quite forgot
Through the four years of death, and like as not
The true death of the best of all of us
Whose present life is largely posthumous.
We waged a war within a war,
A cause within a cause.
The glory of it was withheld
In keeping with the laws
Whereby the public need not know
The pitfalls of the status quo.
Love was the reason for the blood,
The black men of our land
Were seen to walk with pure white girls,
Laughing hand in hand.
The most unreasonable state
No feeling White would tolerate.
We threw each other from the trams,
We carried knives and pipes,
We sacrificed in self-defense
Some of the baser types,
But though a certain number died
You would not call it fratricide.
The women with indignant tears
Professed to love the Blacks,
And dark and wooly heads still met
With with heads of English flax.
Only the cockney could conceive
Of any marriage so naive.
Yet scarcely fifty years before
Their fathers rode to shoot
The undressed aborigines,
Though not to persecute.
A fine distinction lies in that
They have no others to combat.
By order of the high command
The black men were removed
To the interior and north.
The crisis thus improved,
Even the women could detect
Their awful fall from intellect.
I picked the bouganvillea
In Queensland in time of war.
The train stopped at the station
And I reached it from my door.
I have never kept a flower
And this one I never shall
I thought as I laid the blossom
In the leaves of Les Fleurs du Mal.
I read my book in the desert
In time of death and fear.
The flower slipped from the pages
And fell to my lap, my dear.
I sent it inside my letter,
The purplest kiss I knew,
And thus you abused my passion
With “A most Victorian Jew.”
Karl Shapiro was called-up to the Army in 1941. He worked as a clerk in the medical corps stationed in Australia, the setting of the race conflict described in this poem. While working in the Pacific theater with a unit treating wounded and dying soldiers, Shapiro wrote many poems about the war and mailed them back to his fiance in Baltimore. She typed them and had them printed as manuscripts which were circulated among editors in the United States, resulting in his book V-Letter and Other Poems being published in 1944. It won a Pulitzer Prize and he returned home a literary hero in 1945. (He had also seen an earlier book published in 1942 while he was in the service, Person, Place, and Thing. And he produced the book-length poem, Essay On Rime, while on his overseas odyssey.)
“Cannas” refer to canna lilies, a traditional Easter flower in mostly Catholic Baltimore. Count Von Moltke was fired by the German Chancellor in 1914, stripped of his position as chairman of the general staff after his plan for the Battle of the Marne spectacularly fell short. The killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian nationalist assassin is often thought to be the spark that touched off World War I. Versailles’ Hall Of Mirrors was known for the conference held there to make treaty terms for the end of the war in 1919. Vladimir Lenin of Russia became very ill in 1922 and died of a stroke in 1924.
“Weltschmerz” refers to world-weariness and disillusionment. The “love of Heinrich” alludes to the lyric love poetry of Heinrich Heine, I’d say. Immanuel Kant was a German idealist philosopher of the Enlightenment era whose influence is strong in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists of 19th century New England. The Greek phrase near the end of the third section means “In the beginning was the word,” from the Gospel of John in New Testament literature. The Latin phrase “Nil admirari” is from Horace’s stoic advice to a friend, “Be astonished by nothing.” “Laura” was the beloved object of Francesco Petrarch’s sonnets.
I believe that “Eliot and John” refers to writers T. S. Eliot and John Donne. Eliot’s essay about Donne’s “metaphysical wit” has been very influential in modern poetry. Other literature alluded to here: Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Sorrows Of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Ulysses by James Joyce, and The Flowers Of Evil by Charles Baudelaire.