Sunlight streams through the filmy
curtains of a man’s hotel room. He
stirs, hearing joyful sounds of a crowd
on the street below. Rouses from bed
to the window. A crowd has gathered
in joy to share in beating an old man,
yellow star visible on his tattered coat.
The boulevard is busy with shoppers.

A brilliant sunny day in spring,
twitter of bird song in the linden trees,
a man walks, blue sky and his reflection
in shop windows, a lightness to his step.
Despite himself he feels happy, thinks
Glorious day! Must remind himself,
And all my friends are in jail. Breathes,
beautiful day! And again, All my friends
are in jail. Is it Berlin, 1933?

A child washes up on a beach along
the Mediterranean, a father weeps,
bystanders weep. Sadness sweeps
among us. We turn to our day,
is it raining? Is snow coming, is it
a day to wash a car, a day to read?
Who can hold another’s pain for longer?

4 Comments

  1. Len Kuntz

    Hi Martha,

    These juxtapositions are striking, like going out for a walk on a sunny day, then getting struck dead by lightning. Each little stanza does so much work and tells its own tale, yet they work together marvously. The last one with the dead child is a heartbreaker. I really loved this piece.

    • Lisa Alletson

      I love how you use juxtaposing lines to maximize impact. The ordinary and human moments of our lives countered with the violence we have, also as humans, begotten. It’s startling and memorable. Wonderful writing. I hope to read it published somewhere.

  2. Alina Stefanescu

    Martha, the title is divine. Truly. It builds so much suspense and hangs ominously like a tomb marker over a portrait. Love it.

    I’m going to take this line by line, and read it carefully, since it uses the field in a columnar fashion, and builds a sort of visual column at the outset, thus foregrounding use of space. If you wanted to keep the lines from having a ragged edge, you could also justify them? That lets you worry less about matching the number of letters to a line. I’m not sure if this was your intention but I wanted to suggest it just in case it was.

    I love how it begins with light in a hotel room, and the delicate touches–and I think if there is room to play or experiment, it will be with words, with language, with verbs that are unfamiliar or slightly disorienting, to build into the images. For example:

    “Sunlight streams through the filmy
    curtains of a man’s hotel room. He”

    Yes. But–if you wanted to risk this initial atmosphere and let sunlight do something it doesn’t usually do, you could try “Sunlight steams through the filmy” (which preserves alliteration) or “Sunlight stipples” or something in a strange vein–and you could also let sunlight be the loudest part of this beginning by changing the second line to “curtains of his hotel room. He”. Sometimes the word man lends abstraction or brings the dearth of abstractions to bear on the poem, and “his” has fewer associations. It hides better in a line. It asks less of the eye and the reader, given it’s ending in “s” (an open sound) rather than the drumming of “n” (a closed sound).

    “stirs, hearing joyful sounds of a crowd
    on the street below. Rouses from bed
    to the window.

    Loved this motion, this stirring, this first act of the protagonist. I wondered if there might not be another word for “joyful”? Even jubilant? Or elated (to bounce off the sound at the beginning in “stirs)?

    “Rouses from bed to the window.” Love love love the rousing, the arousal, the motion and the word. I don’t think you need “the” here because you’ve clipped the beginning of the line and so “Rouses from bed / to window.” preserves the beat and sound better, gives them their own space.

    “A crowd has gathered
    in joy to share in beating an old man,”

    Great stanza break here. I keep thinking about the word joy, and the importance of this line? And how to tighten it so that abstraction doesn’t quiet it? “A crowd has gathered / to share joy in beating an elder.” (I’m always messing with the word man because it’s one those words that perplexes me 🙂

    “yellow star visible on his tattered coat.” Perfect. Perfect image and beat here.
    “The boulevard is busy with shoppers.” Again–perfect. Perfect banality of evil.

    “A brilliant sunny day in spring,
    twitter of bird song in the linden trees,

    Great sunshine image, again, that unspeakable banality–maybe next line could keep beat with “twitter of birds among the lindens” (I’m not sure you need “trees” here, and ending on lindens completes an image because of that “n” sound. And it also moves well into the next line, where “man” appears, and aptly I think. 🙂

    “a man walks, blue sky and his reflection
    in shop windows, a lightness to his step.”

    Perfect.

    “Despite himself he feels happy, thinks
    Glorious day! Must remind himself,
    And all my friends are in jail. Breathes,
    beautiful day! And again, All my friends
    are in jail. Is it Berlin, 1933?”

    I love how we move into the man’s mind here. The only thing I’d consider is whether there’s a way to not repeat “himself”, to phrase it so we only have that tag in the first line–and then stay inside his head. Ending this in a question is stunning and painful and powerful. Well done!

    “A child washes up on a beach along
    the Mediterranean, a father weeps,
    bystanders weep. Sadness sweeps
    among us. We turn to our day,
    is it raining? Is snow coming, is it
    a day to wash a car, a day to read?
    Who can hold another’s pain for longer?”

    I love how the final stanza moves into what could be the present, or into a broader time-span. Maybe one of the “weeps” could be “sobs” or “wails” just to keep them from losing resonance through repetition? I read somewhere that a pain word or a sad word when repeated is blunted by the repetition, and that thought has stayed with me. To bring banality but not to blunt the pain: a way of treasuring each other, even when writing the cruelty of ordinary evil?

    The rest of it, from “We turn”, is impeccable. This poem moved me and broke my heart and I am so grateful to your for writing it. For writing the difficult parts of pain, including our presence in it, and our refusal to let it touch us. Beautiful work Martha! Wow.

  3. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Thank you, Alina, for the close read. I will think about a number of suggestions. Probably not shift “man” to elder because I wanted a “thump” sound there, one syllable, an elder also feels too much like formal diction to my ear. Man feels generic, and at that moment I wanted that. Someday I hope there is a further chance to explore your problems with “man” (I can think of many– gender generics among them– ).

    This is taken from a true account, and the listener in the hotel heard “joy” and that has stayed with me for a long time, particularly when I think of large demonstrations that I have been in– protests that include the joy of participation– the reasons were so different, but I had to ask myself about the dynamics of a crowd, and under what circumstances are do human dynamics turn dark.

    Once again, thank you for this weekend.

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