By Jan Wagner
Translation Iain Galbraith
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Samuel Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
there always were some. but that morning
the water seemed thicker, almost hard
around the boat. stuck in the sea
the rudder choked. we men
were much afraid. that evening the beach
and front were crowded with strange people.
“like little bells,” except that people
wouldn’t hear, cried the man next morning –
he’d built himself a pulpit on the beach.
still half-asleep in bed we heard
him rail at the wind, intone amen
as if on bended knee. to that unyielding sea.
as if between this beach and the bering sea
ours was the only village, more people
poured in every day: muscle-men
and prima donnas, stalls, “mr morning
and his noted cup of tea,” a horde
of staggering drunks across the beach
from east to west. only when the beach
became a mass of jelly and the sea
merged with the land, did that herd
retreat behind the authorities’ fence. people
no longer spoke of spirits, the morning
come of judgement day, foulest omen.
when do exceptions become the rule? men
reeking of drink, unshaven priests, botch-
work, holes in clothes. whether morning
or evening, nobody cared. did we see
our children’s forlorn faces? were the people
blind? when it chimed thirteen, nobody heard.
a boy piped up but not one of us heard –
for how could it be true? then two men
confirmed the news; soon all our people
had it on their lips. beyond the beach,
as if nothing had happened, lay the sea –
the incoming waves. the very next morning
women returned to the hearth, all morning
people banged pots, cleaned. and on the beach
we men stood in silence, gazing out to sea.
“One of the nuts belonging to the regiment got out of the
trenches and started to walk towards the German lines.”
‘course we thought they’d gone loco,
each man-jack a sitting duck
armed with naught but mistletoe
and plum-pudding. but they were in luck –
the guns were still. in no-man’s-land
and mud we met between the lines,
at a loss for words, each hand
at a trouser seam, until the woodbines
did the rounds, were lit, and someone
shared a bar of bitter chocolate.
one man had news of a poison
that did away with louse and rat,
others, still too stiff to talk, swigged
rum, or got out family photos,
played halma, yelled, swapped
addresses, uniforms, helmets, jocose
till under the sheaves of streaking tracer
on that soft and naked common field
there was nothing left to offer
but the trenches and their nameless yield.
impossible to trace the note back to its author,
for keeping mum was thought a point of honour,
and yet the news was plain – herr richter
had three nipples. a tinkling peel of laughter
passed along the row of girls behind us
and died like showering pins. beyond the window:
early christmas snow. a train in the distance
split the white sky from the white below
when suddenly the bell gave us a jolt:
in the corridor on endless shelves, afloat
in their heavens of formaldehyde,
were tiny naked gods – each dewy eye
watched us walk past. as if they knew what
growth lowered under our skin, and why.