Zoo Station

“It turns out you are the story of your childhood

and you’re under constant revision . . .”

–William Matthews

 

Call it the Berlin of childhood,

the occupation marks, the cheese

and real coffee you give away

 

until the pile of ash beneath

a streetlight’s vague umbrella

of light reconstitutes as bones

 

and a handshake, a trench coat

and dusty fedora, a cough instead

of small talk. And admit it:

 

he owns you, remembers you:

your lies and the dice

you shook as you walked the alleys

 

off Zoo Station talking

to anyone, selling counterfeit tickets

to next week’s opera, as if ghosts and exiles

 

had left behind their voices, their music.

He remembers what you traded:

a little whiskey for a letter

 

from someone’s father, cigarettes

for a handkerchief stained

with lipstick. And then nothing, nothing

 

left to sell. So you listed your friends

one through eleven and drew maps

to their apartments, sewed numbers

 

on their sleeves as they slept, made calls

from pay phones near men’s rooms,

by fountains filled with rubble,

 

then watched until you were all

alone amid the ruins

snapping pictures, a Baby Brownie

 

stolen from the wreck of a soldier’s

Willy, his wink as he died permission

enough, though it was raining

 

as always, as today in dreams

and sepia snapshots, in novels so dire

and sad the library pages are stained

 

with tears and fingerprints, even here,

even now, it is raining. The past:

we contracted our sins in the vestibules

 

of bombed-out monuments,

did the “Lord’s work” in the light,

which increasingly stayed to itself

 

beyond city limits, motes dusty

and yellow in barns and farmhouses.

“Fallow are the fields filled with mines,”

 

said the drunk vicar in his rectory

next to the empty lot, the timbers

and charred stones, the chips

 

of stained glass holding a sallow memory

of sunlight. “I speak for God,” he said.

“What have you done to earn my love?”

 

And there again the wink as the rain fell

like bits of lead exploding the mines.

And now the other confessor, also recently

 

of ashes, the once-a-week session:

“You were saying?” he says, fidgets,

looks past you at the clock, an hour

 

nearly gone. And all the light

in the parking lot bounces hard off

the blinds, the books aglow in stacks,

 

Passages, Finding Our Fathers,

Iron John (Oh God). “Let’s start

at the beginning,” he says. Yes: Berlin,

 

the years after the war, the years

sold off or abandoned and somehow

still there, all there for trade:

 

a blue black market at the end

of every street, years to buy back

when the time is right. As if it will ever be.

About James Harms:

James Harms is the author of seven books of poetry including Comet Scar, to be published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2011. He is a recipient of an nea fellowship, the pen/Revson fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, among other honors. A Professor of English at West Virginia University, he also directs the low-residency mfa program in poetry at New England College.