Marilyn Hacker

(1942 / The Bronx, New York City, New York)

Desesperanto - Poem by Marilyn Hacker

After Joseph Roth

Parce que c'était lui; parce que c'était moi.
Montaigne, De L'amitië

The dream's forfeit was a night in jail
and now the slant light is crepuscular.
Papers or not, you are a foreigner
whose name is always difficult to spell.
You pack your one valise. You ring the bell.
Might it not be prudent to disappear
beneath that mauve-blue sky above the square
fronting your cosmopolitan hotel?
You know two short-cuts to the train station
which could get you there, on foot, in time.
The person who's apprised of your intention
and seems to be your traveling companion
is merely the detritus of a dream.
You cross the lobby and go out alone.

You crossed the lobby and went out alone
through the square, where two red-headed girls played
hopscotch on a chalk grid, now in the shade,
of a broad-leafed plane tree, now in the sun.
The lively, lovely, widowed afternoon
disarmed, uncoupled, shuffled and disarrayed
itself; despite itself, dismayed
you with your certainties, your visa, gone
from your breast-pocket, or perhaps expired.
At the reception desk, no one inquired
if you'd be returning. Now you wonder why.
When the stout conductor comes down the aisle
mustached, red-faced, at first jovial,
and asks for your passport, what will you say?

When they ask for your passport, will you say
that town's name they'd find unpronounceable
which resonates, when uttered, like a bell
in your mind's tower, as it did the day
you carried your green schoolbag down the gray
fog-cobbled street, past church, bakery, shul
past farm women setting up market stalls
it was so early. "I am on my way
to school in ." You were part of the town
now, not the furnished rooms you shared
with Mutti, since the others disappeared.
Your knees were red with cold; your itchy wool
socks had inched down, so you stooped to pull
them up, a student and a citizen.

You are a student and a citizen
of whatever state is transient.
You are no more or less the resident
of a hotel than you were of that town
whose borders were disputed and redrawn.
A prince conceded to a president.
Another language became relevant
to merchants on that street a child walked down
whom you remember, in the corridors
of cities you inhabit, polyglot
as the distinguished scholar you were not
to be. A slight accent sets you apart,
but it would mark you on that peddlers'-cart
street now. Which language, after all, is yours?

Which language, after all these streets, is yours,
and why are you here, waiting for a train?
You could have run a hot bath, read Montaigne.
But would footsteps beyond the bathroom door's
bolt have disturbed the nondescript interior's
familiarity, shadowed the plain
blue draperies? You reflect, you know no one
who would, of you, echo your author's
"Because it was he; because it was I,"
as a unique friendship's non sequitur.
No footsteps and no friend: that makes you free.
The train approaches, wreathed in smoke like fur
around the shoulders of a dowager
with no time for sentimentality.

With no time for sentimentality,
mulling a twice-postponed book-review,
you take an empty seat. Opposite you
a voluble immigrant family
is already unwrapping garlicky
sausages—an unshaven man and his two
red-eared sons.
You once wrote: it is true,
awful, and unimportant, finally
that if the opportunity occurs
some of the exiles become storm-troopers;
and you try, culpably, to project these three
into some torch-lit future, filtering out
their wrangling (one of your languages) about
the next canto in their short odyssey.

The next canto in your short odyssey
will open, you know this, in yet another
hotel room. They have become your mother
country: benevolent anonymity
of rough starched sheets, dim lamp, rickety
escritoire, one window. Your neighbors gather
up their crusts and rinds. Out of a leather
satchel, the man takes their frayed identity
cards, examines them. The sons watch, pale
and less talkative. A border, passport control,
draw near: rubber stamp or interrogation?
You hope the customs officer lunched well;
reflect on the recurrent implication
of the dream's forfeit. One night in jail?


Comments about Desesperanto by Marilyn Hacker

  • Fabrizio Frosini (2/24/2016 8:44:00 AM)


    ''You are a student and a citizen
    of whatever state is transient.
    You are no more or less the resident
    of a hotel than you were of that town
    whose borders were disputed and redrawn.''

    - IN ITALIAN:

    Sei uno studente e un cittadino
    di un qualsiasi stato che sia transitorio.
    Tu non sei che l'ospite di lungo periodo
    di un albergo, così come lo fosti di quella città
    i cui confini furono contestati e ritracciati.
    (Report) Reply

    11 person liked.
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  • Fabrizio Frosini (2/24/2016 8:44:00 AM)


    BTW [see Wikipedia]:
    Moses Joseph Roth (1894 – 1939) was an Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist. His best known works are:
    Radetzky March (1932) , a saga about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire;
    Job (1930) , a novel of Jewish life;
    Juden auf Wanderschaft (a seminal essay written in 1927 - translated into English in 'The Wandering Jews') , a fragmented account of the Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution.
    A few years ago, publications in English of Radetzky March and of collections of his journalism from Berlin and Paris created a revival of interest in Roth.
    (Report) Reply

  • Fabrizio Frosini (2/24/2016 8:43:00 AM)


    ..
    Roth's novel 'Hotel Savoy' (1924) is set in the Hotel Savoy in Łódź, where lonely war veterans, variety dancers and others dream of better places.
    Herbert Gold reviewed the book for The New York Times in 1987: Like the ceiling of the hotel room, the narration is transparent, revealing a hallucinatory loneliness, a presence out of time, a soul floating in Middle and Eastern Europe. None of this is mere cafe surrealism or angst; one of Roth's achievements is to give a sense of strict accuracy; his story is a laconic scenario, with characters offered like facts. Gold continued: Roth's swift style makes things happen naturally; we see, hear, smell and believe. A joyous storyteller's gift remains precariously alive within the pessimism of decay and loss. Although the teller of the tale says 'there is no end there, no break - always continuity and connection, ' his art is kind and draws us to a satisfying conclusion after the luridness of events.
    (From Wikipedia)
    (Report) Reply

  • Kim Barney (1/31/2015 6:52:00 PM)


    Fascinating poem. I usually don't like longer poems, but I didn't want this one to end! (Report) Reply

  • (2/10/2006 8:36:00 AM)


    'The widowed afternoon' A superb image.
    An extremely visual and moving piece.
    Thanks again, Marilyn
    (Report) Reply

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Poem Submitted: Friday, January 3, 2003



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