"The Great Frost was, historians tell us, the most severe that has ever visited these islands. Birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground."
from Orlando, Virginia Woolf
As the midnight countdown became imminent--in a moment, somehow, that always seems stationed somewhere between the dismal past and the climatic present-- it occurred to me, as I glanced around the bar I found myself stationed in at that particular time, that here were assembled many of those lonesome figures who had haunted me since I moved back to New Orleans last July. One of the wonders of living in a city are those common people that linger along the periphery of your life--people who you see nearly everyday while going about your errands, while waiting for the bus on the same street corner day after day, those whose names you may never learn or even ever speak to, yet whose presence becomes an unwavering aspect of the urban landscape you inhabit. It seemed strange to me that there, in a gay bar on Dauphine Street, were gathered several of those individuals I do not know, but who have always struck upon my imagination. But it was altogether fitting, that there we were, the singular ones, sharing the moment when the year begins anew. It has been a difficult year for me--given to many solitary, dark, lonely, and heartbroken moments. However, in the end it has been a year of immense spiritual growth. Day by day I gather a better understanding of who I am, how I feel, how I relate to myself and my world. Being in the city helps me understand that everyone has times in there life where they must confront their fears, peer into the black wells of their souls to divine the meaning of love and understanding.
The company, both real friends and strangers, I was with gathered around for the awaited second. It came--a repeat of the ball dropping in Time Square that in reality had already occurred an hour before, followed by an immediate cut to a Ford truck commercial. A tiny girl, who had perhaps a little too much alcohol in her, danced around exposing her breasts to indifferent gay men. All in vain, I thought. A more farcical, impotent moment would be hard to come upon. This sad mixture of satire and dead seriousness became a dominant feature of the night that followed as my friends and I decide to move our revelries down to Rampart Street. The stroke of midnight, whether for the new year or any other time, is a signal that now comes the blackest, most potent hours of the night--where absolute horror is mingled with sleepy-eyed reveries and drunken joviality. It is the hours of wolves and witches.
Rampart Street, that borders the northern edge of the Quarter, has in my mind always been the desperate, desolate end of things. It is a place that has always fascinated me. The borders of places have always fascinated me. New Orleans is a city where oddity has long ceased to be a novelty. The city itself is fixed at the very end, and in some case, carries over--I mean, it has endured its own isolated apocalypse while most of America has moved forward, nearly oblivious, ultimately uncaring, and at worst chiding those who inhabit this city. It has survived only through the success of anarchism--as a theory in practice. Following the deadly blows of nature and the near total collapse of governmental infrastructure, the city survived because of the great love and desire that tragedy released. Nature, glorious and powerful, unleashed such love in this city, that through individuals working in cooperation alone a great humane revival occurred--thanks to people, and not the state. Once, as a teenager in this city, I by chance ambled onto lower Decatur street and a vast mysterious world opened up to me. Slowly I ventured further onto Frenchmen Street, and then beyond Elysian Fields into the Marigny, and the Bywater beyond the railroad tracks. Now these are all too common to me, but still excite some wonder. I think of a song I heard Jolie Holland perform about how they've cleaned up the quarter. These neighborhoods have gradually become more gentrified. All my old, old haunts on Decatur--the Whirling Dervish, Mythique, the Dragon's Den--have all changed hands and names, in some cases, several times over. Frenchmen has become less local. Apartments in the Bywater are no longer affordable. And St. Claude is some degree safer, and more white. The Treme to the north still has a bit of mystery gathered about it, but even that has changed. It used to seem like a terrible mistake to wander above North Rampart. That was before the city evicted, without much cause or reason, the people living in the housing developmental buildings. Now the streets seem safer--whether they are or aren't really isn't the issue--but there is some veneer of safety since this area has been purged. And new, luxury condos built on the corner of Esplanade.
But, still, Rampart, while I must admit it has very little cultural value, has retained some of its mythic quality for me--a street caught at the end of time in a great, Lynch movie that was never filmed. Years ago, in an abandoned house on Rampart, was the now, perhaps, infamous Dada Ball. I still think of that night when I go by the site--the dramas and stories that exploded within those wall on a chilly night in April, a dream world of rabbits, eggs, bloody crucifixions, naked bodies, covered in paints and cold meats, broken spirited butoh dances, prophesies, outrage, revolt, and desire. I have digressed far from my tale of New Years Eve night 2010. But, these descriptions are essential to this ghost world that is Rampart in the waning hours of night. For those who haven't chanced there, in a desperate moment. My friends and I went to Starlight on the Park, a gay bar across the street from Armstrong Park and Congo Square. I'd only been there several times. Back when I first lived in New Orleans a friend of mine would play piano there on occasion. It too is a last stop for aged and withered dinosaurs and performers. The air is full of ripened mystery and wisdom that drifts like a perfume around ancient queers and drag performers--of life devoid of essential facts, and formed of drunken artificialities and sorrows and lust, compassion and love. Last night, after a short conversation with a man I met only briefly, about one of my favorite italian horror movies--Suspiria--we were granted the pleasure of one of those late night cabarets. Past her prime, belting out a sad classic hit in a shimmering gown, groveling the money handed her, staring fixed--at what? What did those black staring slits conceal? Or, what specter did she see, coming through the door opening onto the street behind my back?
Krysztof Kamil Baczyński was a young Polish poet killed in duty during the Second World War. His love poems are addressed to Basia/Barbara--his pregnant wife, who was killed almost a month after his own death during the Warsaw Uprising. She died unaware of that he had been killed. Baczyński's poems address the horrors of war and how love can be a mystical redeeming force in the wake of immense catastrophe.
EVIL LULLABY/ SŁA KOŁYSANKA
The scent of autumn leaves and of your hair,
fear's broken timepiece ticking. Summer's candles
blown out; the stars breathe down cold air
while my grief
like some dark beast runs nightly to your hand.
Do you know how to sleep? Dead alder trees
weep, howling long into the dome of night.
Without a goal, we roam on portless seas;
you know so well how sorrow lurks in wait.
The kindly dragon; now is the sleep of ghosts
frozen; night's lofty monument is waning.
Only a phantom cries, on pitchfork hoist,
only the mewling cats the moon is drowning.
Do you know how to sleep? The crazy poet
has hanged himself amid the pines' dark baying,
while rain drags by the hair a dead wax puppet
through endless streets, to windblown music playing.
all's quiet now.
The night rains on the windows, gathering power;
blinded like me, the wind kneels at our home.
Who stole from us this carefree time of ours,
my little one?
Night of September 10-11, 1940
WHITE MAGIC/ BIAŁA MAGIA
Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pour silver droplets of speech.
And then like a water pitcher
she fills with light, soon
she has taken the stars within her
and the pale white dust of the moon.
Through her body's trembling prism
white sparks of music will leap
while ermine will creep through her
like the downy leaves of sleep.
Bears are rimmed in its hoarfrost
with polar starlight imbued
and a stream of mice pour through it
in a clamorous multitude.
Till slowly she drifts into sleep,
filled all with milky white,
while time melodiously settles
deep down, in a tumble of light.
So Barbara's body is silver.
The ermine of silence within
arches its white back softly
at the touch of a hand unseen.
January 4, 1942
Three o'clock in the morning
LOVE POEM/ EROTYK
In your hair's torrent, your mouth's river, in
the forest dark as evening
a vain summoning,
a plash in vain.
I'll enwrap you in dusk, in night's rose-flower
and as a branch, scrap, or gesture, the world will turn,
then it will mutely stagger,
pass through the eyes like a blur
and I'll say: not being--I am.
Flowing into you still, and bearing your reflection
in pupils, or like a tear from eyelids hanging,
I'll hear in you silver seas etched by a dolphin,
like inside the shell of your body ringing.
Or in a grove, where you are
a birch tree, pure white air
and the milk of daylight,
a huge barbarian,
bearing a thousand centuries
I'll burst with the copse's noise
into your branches, bird-like.
one day--and a whole age in which to long,
one gesture--and endless storms at once come crashing,
one step--and here you are, and you alone
each time--a spirit waiting in the ashes.
To my darling Basia--Krzysztof
February 2, 1942
"but you are a tree"
R. M. Rilke
In every transformation you are like the ring of time,
just like the year you turn in place and still from where I stand
I see you on the plains, the hills, the trees on the skyline,
in which you pour light for the vessel of your knitted hands.
And like the sea you bear reflections of all kinds of weathers
which flow and play upon the brazen cauldron of the clouds.
You wave your hand--it's winter; then you smile--and autumn comes
to make thorns of the mayflowers with a draft of copper feathers.
You ripen in the apples, fill the plants with yellow juices.
I lock my fingers round the air--then you are every bird
upon the larch, and every bush
or else a cloud of music
and the tree's gold cord.
Oh, logs are burning in the hearths, sleighs glide on powdery snow,
the purring cat stretches and swells into a supple bow.
You're in the river, and in your every move yours smile repeats.
Wake up as snow, as clearing, be the antlers of the deer;
by evening you'll be flesh, and in my flesh you'll fall asleep.
Come morning I'll awake, the weary people will pass by,
and find upon my breast a white and sleeping mayflower.
February 11, 1942
I'll open for you a golden sky
where the white thread of silence is,
like a great nut with sound inside
which breaks in two that it might live
through small green leaves, the song of lakes,
the music that the twilight makes,
until its milky kernel's shown
by the birdlike dawn.
I'll turn for you the unyielding land
into the soft and gracious flight
of thistledown; from objects rend
shadows arching their spines like cats,
fur glistening; they'll fold it all into
the hearts of leaves, into storm-hues,
the gray rains' tangled knot.
And trembling streams of air like smoke
from angels' cottages I'll turn
for you into long lanes; I'll make
the liquid song clear birches sing
until they play, like the lament
of cellos, in pink shoots of light,
an anthem of bees' wings.
Only from my eyes take out
this stabbing shard of glass--the days'
image, by which white skulls are brought
over meadows of blood ablaze.
Only change the cripple's time, cover
the gravestones with a cloak of river,
the dust of battle wipe from my hair,
those angry years'
June 15, 1943
(Polish chanteuse Ewa Demarczyk does a marvelous interpretation of this poem--as well as others--of this last poem called Wiersze Baczynskiego/ War Poems.)
These translations are by Bill Johnston
from White Magic and Other Poems by Krysztof Kamil Baczyński
(Green Integer 138)
which is, unfortunately, out of print; but my library got me a copy via interlibrary loan.
I'd like to post some more at a later time.