LETTER FROM GERMANY
for my father (1909-1952)
Many things have been done
And many hours merged into so many days
Since I last had time to write you.
It has rained all day and the blossoms
Have nearly all been beaten down.
The bareness and gray scud clouds
Add to the gloom. Cold rain
Keeps us aware that there is a war on.
With the wind behind it, the rain feels like
Someone slapping you with a wet towel.
And the mud is like Prairieville mud.
I was fooled last month,
It was pleasant and the fruit trees bloomed.
I fell to 145 pounds at the front
And I am somewhat embarrassed
The way my clothes drape about me.
I am on swing shift tonight.
Staring into the river, I quit thinking
For a while. I have this dream that I pass
A place called "Hotel Moderne":
I want to rent a room and don't have the time.
The first chance I get, I am going back.
It looked clean from the outside.
Last night I went to the USO show.
Three performers in an old building.
I felt sorry for them. The dancer
Couldn't dance for sour apples,
But got a big hand from the boys
Because she had so little on.
The comedian was good, the best
Was the old fellow who just sang.
He was not good. We wanted his songs
And he sang them. Tonight
There are flares and tracers, stories
Of paratroopers, but no sign of them.
I bought a doll finally for the little girl.
I didn't pay much, it was the best
I could find; there are more dolls' heads
Than dolls on the shelves. I have a radio
Now and get the news hot off the air
And real American jazz. I need
A particular big eyed, light hearted woman
To dance with. But she is not on this side
Of the Atlantic. Looking
At your picture, I have almost
Forgotten how you are. Alabama
Better have a big sweet potato crop
The year I come home. And get a bottle
Or two of bourbon stashed away
If you love me. It has been too long.
There is nothing normal left.
The smell of guns massed in this valley
Hangs bitter in the air.
A town burns across the ridge.
I know the distance. It is late,
And being out of candles, I have to quit.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
“Letter from Germany” is the earliest poem in Ledger of Crossroads. I completed and published the poem soon after I completed graduate study. Since “Letter from Germany” I have published a number of poems that were not included in Ledger. But this poem has held up for me and for other people and has its place in the book’s themes.
My father died weeks after I was born. I knew him from photographs and from things of his—books, fishing tackle, pipes, objects brought back from WWII, etc.—and from stories about him. My mother had a box of his letters written during the war, many of them written on small V-mail pages. I read the letters during my last year of graduate school. In them I heard the voice that I think of as my father’s. The letters were the closest I had ever been to my father. As I read I took notes, many pages of them, and afterward carried the large correspondence in mind. Eventually the poem emerged, sculpted as a portrait.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I don’t remember how many drafts were necessary to complete the poem. Most often, many drafts are necessary.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration. In a sense the entire poem was dictated by my father, spoken as if from a moment in time about recent and relevant events under the ongoing pressures during a pause in combat. That I was learning who my father was, line by line, adding to his always incomplete and imagined presence, created a heightened intensity.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
From the beginning, the poem was conceived in what Frost might call “loose blank verse,” as a dramatic monologue in the form of an epistle.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I have no rules. Practice varies with each poem. I have poems that I have been working on for years, knowing they have yet to be realized. Tsvetaeva believed that a poem she was at work on had already been written. Her job was to remember the poem exactly. So there are times when a word might suffice, yet it is not, so to speak, what has always been written. Strange how a poem may seem to be remembered correctly, yet overnight, or over a week, or much, much later, the actual word or words come to mind, replacing the misremembered.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
From facts in his letters, the life-moment of the epistle’s occasion is a fiction made from thoughts and feelings of my father and me.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes and no. The letter’s details of remembrance have the feel of chronology, yet there is no story, per se. The facts’ storyline works wholly by association, by juxtapositions over the duration of the letter, that is, a pattern of associations is woven for the illusion of a summary story told on a single night.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was discovering many poets, poets in translation as well as English-language poets who may be present in the poem. Also, at the time I was much interested, as I am now, in what a line alone might convey, yet I wanted, too, to be able to write a more pliable line, not simply by utilizing an awareness of means for enjambment, but lines as extended resonances of tone unfolding down the page. When writing “Letter from Germany” I was studying the timing, the feel, the management of duration, in the stichic poems of Daniel Halpern (one of my mentors at the time), as well as in Lowell’s “The Public Garden” and Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” Well, since then, there are of course many more poems and poets I’ve come to admire for their various means of shaping a nuanced velocity for emotion.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
The addressee is my ear formed by poems that come to mind (and those deeper in mind, unrecalled but part of the psyche) as emotion to match the intentions of what I feel as I work. Reading widely is important for me, discovering new possibilities for what is sensed and thought to be heard and voiced.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It is the only dramatic monologue I have written. So the poem is “heard” differently, derived from my father’s words. Though I have written a verse play, I do not write usually in the guise of another, except perhaps in the way in which Yeats considered the mask assumed—“creative life is a rebirth as something not oneself…perpetually renewed.” “Who is it?” Stevens asks in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.
What is American about this poem?
Certainly, the arena, the soldier, the details of devastation, the moments of humor, the loneliness, and the message home are ancient and universal. But a few phrases are what might be called American English.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
The poem was finished.