“GERMANY DECLARED WAR ON RUSSIA
— SWIMMING IN THE AFTERNOON”
An entry in Kafka’s journal that stops you cold. You’re in Prague,
having retraced his steps from his family quarters to the Moldau’s edge
he sought refuge in, thumping blindly around in the rippling tides,
trying to scrub away anti-Jewish slurs surging through Czech arteries,
the whole landscape awash in blame-and-defame currents with the war
dying out in the trenches and little to do but stomp down on the lowliest.
Imagine having been named after an emperor, beloved but already dying,
as Franz himself would be not long afterward, in the greatest confusion
imaginable, personal and public terrors having made everything more
and more difficult by the moment. I’d have rolled myself up in the towel,
too, remained motionless till night fell, the fog lifted, no more ideas came
into my head. Relief is not having to teach his stories anymore, not having
to help students understand exactly what they mean in ways they’d demand.
A candle’s flickering in the window of my room at the inn when I come back
strung out, flushed and sweaty, hoping there’s warm water enough for a bath.
Tomorrow someone will read from the stories in a beer hall around the corner.
I’ve stashed the poster announcing the event in my suitcase for tacking up on
the wall over my workbench. I hear they’ve stopped searching bags at the border.
Back on my stool, my tools scattered where I’d left them, I start drinking to
the health of Kafka’s image, chiaroscuroed in the poster. It’s hard to stop, now
that I have no more business in Prague, Miroslav Holub also having died off,
who’d taken me to visit Kafka’s grave but hadn’t cleared it with the authorities,
so we tried boosting each other up over the wall, past embedded glass splinters.
When we bled, Miroslav said Kafka’s tubercular blood was probably brighter.
What Jews accused of raising grain prices in Germany
in 1816 were called, “the year without summer,” I read.
So what else is new? The old man ate his gruel, the old
woman licked her bowl clean, but only after she ground
her teeth and he clenched his fists, while we sometimes
still cry, our faith no answer for much of anything these
dreary days absent peace between the usual adversaries.
Time for less silence, our Israeli cousins finally wrote,
along with a tinny CD of their youngest practicing to play
like Horowitz, they joked. When I knocked after decades of
of nothing between us, our common language German
because I bailed out of Hebrew school and their Yiddish
could morph into German between deep breaths, we sat
circled around little Esther, pecking away at the keys.
Abba Kovner, wired to everyone alive, made just two calls
via the Hebrew fragment on the “precious” postcard from
mom’s long-lost cousins we thought murdered, which she’d
sent me off with to hunt for them. Cousin Max, Esther’s father,
tipped his jigger to toast the coming rye harvest, the grain that
can poison you if it’s not detoxified. We ate our fill, moving
from table to stove and back again all through the long night.
Zitronencreme —for Sylva
The lemon mousse after the Christmas goose:
back in 1933 it was, when after baptized Jews
blew out the candles on the tree and led their
children to the Christmas Eve supper, servants
left behind to pitch the bucket of water at any
wayward candle, blessings were said and hopes
were high “the storm” would blow over, but of
course it wouldn’t & didn’t. Grampa would talk
and talk till gramma flew at him and seized him
by the sleeve. Shortly afterward, when uncle Julius
disappeared, even the children realized they’d best
pull their caps down farther over their brows, not
repeat a word of talk around the house. “Lord, how
afraid they must have been,” my mother took to
saying when she sliced up the brisket for Sunday
meals in Milwaukee in the weeks after the war.
From time to time I’ve asked myself if heavy hugs
and kisses had kept most of the family from fleeing
Senice, even after great gramma Fanny was murdered
at the age of 102: in the album, she’s wiping her hands
on her apron before she walks out into the flock of SS
in the yard, pecking away at the icing on the mousse.
BRIEF REFLECTION ON THE BLACK 6 MOUSE
One dreary Prague morning, everyone wall-eyed,
Russian tanks still circling the crumbling Clinic
for Experimental Medicine, Dr. Holub, as I’d
call him in those difficult days, introduced me
to his “silly poetic pals,” he joked in his way –
a special strain of nude mice, which his Russian
assistant, who’d often forget to wash her hands,
doom ongoing experiments, padded in with –
a new generation in their little tray, buried under
woodshavings, dozens of beady eyes protruding.
Fingering a tail, he pulled one up, swung it back
& forth, and put it on my arm before coaxing it
down into his palm, reminding me of my Russian
grandmother making a mouse from a big kerchief,
popping it along her arm by flexing her muscles.
I felt its skin, rubbery like a rhino’s I once touched.
Then it hit: where is the fur!? Incredible, something
we know by one skin, in another. Something so fetal
I looked around for a tube to slide it in. When Dr. Holub
was called to the phone, his assistant left me with the tray.
As if my life depended on it, I fed the whole lot tidbits
from a jar, providing like a mother. “What do you think
you are doing, feeding them unsterile food? It will ruin
our data,” Dr. Holub shouted when he returned, which
brought his assistant running too. “But Professor,” her
voice dimming, “What difference does it make? No one
cares anymore...” His head drooped. “Well, then, you might
as well pet them too,” he said. “Let’s go try to see Kafka’s
grave now, he’ll be eager to know all’s quite normal still.
But first let’s repair to the Zlata Studna for some Pilsner
to toast ‘normality.’ Long may we pretend not to need it!”
he sang, brushing crumbs from table to floor for a black
mouse whiskering by. After tipping back a few brews, we
spoke more cheerfully, if little from then on to the end of
my first of many stays, resting heads on hands till closing.
Stuart Friebert's 13th book of poems, "Floating Heart," will soon appear from Pinyon Press; as will 3 volumes of translations, Selected Poems of Kuno Raeber/Selected Poems of Karl Krolow/Selected Poems of Sylva Fischerova. "The Language of the Enemy," a collection of stories will also appear (Black Mt. Press).... Founder and Director of Oberlin's Writing Program for many years, co-founder of Field/Oberlin College Press, he's now retired...