Six Poems

The Day-After Pill

An unwanted person? So what,
you’re polite, you have been one
yourself, still are now and then.

Sometimes you see, through gray
curtains, a dead man driving
toward you, not him though.

Aren’t we all in that difficult phase
of being older than before
and younger than we’ll be?

Don’t hesitate too long
the smaller it is the longer it takes
to start kicking around.

Now it is nothing but growingness
an old man who isn’t here yet,
maybe a party-goods salesman?

Too small to imagine its form
and because of its tininess
too lost to make loster.

Less than frogspawn or eggshell,
not a sign of a prince,
just a me.

Such a small crayfish, thinner than
a gnat’s wing, unfit to defend itself –
almost like everyone.

From Slanting Light (Strijklicht, 1971)
By Judith Herzberg
Translated by Shirley Kaufman

 

Bad Zwischenahn, 1964

The bride hobbles out of the church on too high
heels
and smiles her chafed smile under topheavy hair
and lets herself be kissed by the uncles and stands
between the graves and looks her small new
husband in the eyes.

Begonias burst into bloom, ivy grows
up the medieval churchfront,
all for the sake of the photographer.
Now the pastor can explain
the old altar-piece to us.
The man beating Jesus must keep roaming,
he is the Jewish people, the wandering Jew
last seen, according to legend, in Bremen, 1510.

I swallow and ask him in this warm and stifling
Germany
why his church honours the heroes of the First
War
not those of the Second with a plaque.
He speaks for himself, me, god,
the photographer, the dead:
It doesn’t come easy for any of us
to fit into ourselves and go on.

From Wire Grass (Beemdgras, 1968)
By Judith Herzberg
Translated by Shirley Kaufman

 

Fish

If I were a fish I would know
how to swim, softly streaming through
the water and braking with a turn.
Oh why do I feel what is never meant
for me in my spinal column, while I
equipped as human with such difficulty
wade through the rooms.

From The Way (Zoals, 1992)
By Judith Herzberg
Translated by Manfred Wolf

 

Yiddish

My father sang the songs
his mother used to sing
for me, who half understood them.

I sing the words again;
nostalgia flaps in my throat,
nostalgia for what I have.

Sing for my children
what I don’t understand myself,
so that they later … later?

Before the roses are faded,
we drink the flowers’ water.

Sad, intimate language,
I’m sorry you withered
in this head.
It no longer needs you
but it does miss you.

From Wire Grass (Beemdgras, 1968)
By Judith Herzberg
Translated by Manfred Wolf

 

The Way

The way you sometimes enter a room, and don’t know why,
and then have to go back along the track of your intention,
the way, without groping, you sometimes grab something from the closet
and only when you have it know what it is,
the way you sometimes take a package somewhere,
and when you leave keep thinking, worrying,
that you feel too light, the way you, while waiting,
fall in love for a second with every new person
but still are mainly waiting,
the way you know: I have been here before but don’t know why,
and you suddenly pick up a scent which
reminds you, the way you know with whom you have to be watchful
and with whom not, with whom you can lie down,
that is the way, I think, animals think, and know their way.

From The Way (Zoals, 1992)
By Judith Herzberg
Translated by Manfred Wolf

 

Program

Fear wakes first. Then it wakes
Reason and the Program for the Day
that will tuck it in again. Why
can’t Calmness get up first, or
Joy, why is Fear so unruly,
so pushy?
Teacher! Me! Me!
Yes, yes, the teacher has noticed. Now
go back to your seat and don’t talk out of turn.
After lunch when we have history, you can
tell us all you want, what actually has happened.

From The Remains of the Day (Dagrest, 1984)
By Judith Herzberg
Translated by Shirley Kaufman

Poems first published in The Low Countries, 1998