from Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of my City

Durs Grünbein

                                                                      "My little bird won't come"
                                                                                                          —Immanuel Kant, 1803


Why moan about it, Johnny-come-lately? My friend,
When you were born your city was long gone.
Misty eyes don't turn hair grey and you,
Your name: too quick for it, too green.
Seventeen years, a childhood hardly, were plenty
To erase the past. They sealed the wounds all up
In strict and somber grey; enchantment ceded to bureaucracy.
The Saxon peacock wasn't slaughtered out of need—
Lichens, inexorable, bloomed on sandstone flowers.
They come back like hiccups, elegies: why brood, why bother?


The frosty air was calm. Under the wings, a feast for the eyes:
The river, slender S, beckoning the bomber squads;
The city, no time to dress herself against the night.
Witch on broomstick brewed up glass and metal, asphalt, stone.
Bomb and bomb—all brightly polished, tons of rubble
Fell through the shaft into the waiting mistress's lap.
King August's glory . . . "this night is irredeemable,"
His sandstone castle black with phosphorus.
Spain's skies burned too, and Coventry and Guernica—
The bella ante bellum: we've lost it all.


Repeat after me: It's easy to make a moonscape
Of a city, charcoal of its people. In the time it takes
To duck out of the opera during intermission, go for cigarettes,
The streets were turned to death traps bubbling with tar.
A moment ago your fingers froze, blue
On your handlebars; now desert winds scrape
Over ocean waves of houses. Never was summer such a scorcher;
Stiff as pharaohs they burned, still in their winter coats.
The last air raid siren had barely faded,
And in the city center ash was warm.


                                                                        "2000 tons of high quality porcelain clay"
                                                                                                          —Johann Friegrich Böttger,
                                                                                                                  Saxony's court alchemist

Porcelain, so much porcelain was shattered here.
Dollies, vases, dishes made of whitest Meissen gold.
But not just that: Oh—once upon a time—a tinkling sound,
and thunder, rumbling, rolled upon the scene.
No, not a rowdy wedding, this night the sharp-tongued people
dubbed Kristallnacht, that glazier's lucky day:
Until the next Ash Wednesday it seemed like just a crack.
Fools and Nazis had—hurrah!—a grand old time.
You call it innocence. Hadn't the city long since been defiled?
Hey, where are you, Dresden shepherdesses, German bands?


Every year in February, quiet and from afar,
That Lorelei-call Dresden, Dresden . . . hits a nerve.
Silent movie on late-night TV, the city, archived,
Again untouched: she still can't comfort you.
There they go, the passers-by, off to the weeklies. No one knows
What's coming. People strolling, slender ladies, invalids.
Look, by the post office: horse and wagon, streetcar, bicycles,
A cinematic world full of Dietrichs, Buster Keatons.
Only Germania, her tons of stone presiding like a Wagner diva,
Stands aloof above the traffic in the Altmarkt square.


Let her be; you'll never find what you are seeking.
How vulgar—the wounded war victim pretends she's deaf!
Only her hollow shell shows up for routine visits, an inspector.
Mother's mother, when she grieved, told many tales
About the city in the valley, cheerful in her beauty sleep.
No, memory: the store of legends ran out long ago,
And every homecoming is punished. The blind old man
Stands by the cemetery gate with empty hands;
He doesn't have to look. He knows where every house was,
Everything that vanished in the storm.


It's a marvel, not even thumbnail-sized,
A pit the cherry-thief spit out—no more.
As a boy I'd stare at it for hours. Under museum lights
And magnifiers it was a tiny planet, auratically far.
A jeweler's masterwork carved in stone-hard wood:
Eyes wide with terror, screaming faces all, inferno
On a needle's point; droplets glistening.
Hard to fathom: emblem of the city's future
There, composed in nuce. Dresden was itself
That cherry pit as seen from outer space.


                                                                               " . . . I did say yes
                                                                                            O at lightning and lashed rod . . . "
                                                                                                          —Gerard Manley Hopkins,
                                                                                            "The Wreck of the Deutschland"

Black snow. Early childhood.
Silent Dresden, ruined city resting proudly.
Elbe, lazy river—taken for an early ride,
I saw my childhood home engulfed by mud.
Sandstone and cupola: dusted winter-white,
This city, trouble-tested, fills me with shame,
More shame, and nothing else.
Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael: and then
This nothing—downfall, melodrama trash.
How long ago was that, you ask? Oh people, I can't say.
The only word for "gone forever" is "today."

translated from the German by Monika Cassel