Autobiography: New York

By Charles Reznikoff 1894–1976 Charles Reznikoff
I

It is not to be bought for a penny
in the candy store, nor picked
from the bushes in the park. It may be found, perhaps,
in the ashes on the distant lots,
among the rusting cans and Jimpson weeds.
If you wish to eat fish freely,
cucumbers and melons,
you should have stayed in Egypt.

II

I am alone—
and glad to be alone;
I do not like people who walk about
so late; who walk slowly after midnight
through the leaves fallen on the sidewalks.
I do not like
my own face
in the little mirrors of the slot-machines
before the closed stores.

III

Walking along the highway,
I smell the yellow flowers of a shrub,
watch the starlings on a lawn, perhaps—
but why are all these   
speeding away in automobiles,
where are they off to
in such a hurry?
They must be going to hear wise men
and to look at beautiful women,   
and I am just a fool
to be loitering here alone.

IV

I like the sound of the street—
but I, apart and alone,
beside an open window
and behind a closed door.

V

Winter is here indeed; the leaves have long been swept
from the winding walks; trees and ground are brown—
all is in order.
Only the lamps now flourish in the park.
We walk about and talk;
but the troubles of the unsuccessful middle-aged
are so uninteresting!

VI

Now it is cold: where the snow was melting
the walk crackles with black ice beneath my careful steps;
and the snow is old and pitted,
here grey with ashes and there yellow with sand.
The walks lie in the cold shadow
of houses;
pigeons and sparrows are in a hollow
for cold, out of the wind; but here,   
where the sunshine pours through a narrow street
upon a little tree, black and naked of every leaf,
the sparrows are in the sun, thick upon the twigs.
Those who in their lives braved the anger of their fellows,
bronze statues now,
with outstretched arm or sword
brave only the weather.

I find myself talking aloud
as I walk;
that is bad.
Only Don Juan would believe
I am in conversation with the
snow-covered statues;
only St. Francis   
that I am talking to the sparrows
in the naked bushes,   
to the pigeons   
in the snow.

VII

The ropes in the wind   
slapping the flag-pole
(the flag has been hauled down);
behind the bare tree-tops
the lights of an aeroplane
moving away slowly.

A star or two shining
between factory chimneys;
the street dark and still
because the street-lamp has been broken
and it is cold and late.

VIII

Bright upon the table
for your birthday,
the burning candles will dissolve   
in rays
and lumps of wax.
Unlike a skull,
they say politely,
This is you!

IX

I am afraid
because of the foolishness
I have spoken.
I must diet
on silence;
strengthen myself
with quiet.

Where is the wisdom   
with which I may be medicined?
I will walk by myself
and cure myself
in the sunshine and the wind.

X

I do not believe that David killed Goliath.
It must have been—
you will find the name in the list of David’s captains.
But, whoever it was, he was no fool
when he took off the helmet
and put down the sword and the spear and the shield
and said, The weapons you have given me are good,
but they are not mine:
I will fight in my own way
with a couple of pebbles and a sling.

XI

“Shall I go there?” “As you like—
it will not matter; you are not at all important.”
The words stuck to me   
like burrs. The path was hidden
under the fallen leaves; and here and there
the stream was choked. Where it forced a way
the ripples flashed a second.
She spoke unkindly but it was the truth:
I shared the sunshine like a leaf, a ripple;

thinking of this, sunned myself
and, for the moment, was content.

XII

There is nobody in the street
of those who crowded about David
to watch me   
as I dance before the Lord:
alone in my unimportance
to do as I like.

XIII

Your angry words—each false name
sinks into me, and is added to the heap
beneath. I am still the same:
they are no part of me, which I keep;
but the way I go, and over which I flow.

XIV
The Bridge

In a cloud bones of steel.

XV
God and Messenger

This pavement barren
as the mountain
on which God spoke to Moses—
suddenly in the street
shining against my legs
the bumper of a motor car.

XVI

A beggar stretches out his hand
to touch a fur collar, and strokes it unseen,
stealing its warmth for his finger tips.

XVII

The elevator man, working long hours
for little—whose work is dull and trivial—
must also greet each passenger
pleasantly:
to be so heroic
he wears a uniform.

XVIII

This subway station   
with its electric lights, pillars of steel, arches of cement, and trains—
quite an improvement on the caves of the cave-men;
but, look! on this wall
a primitive drawing.

XIX
Subway

People moving, people standing still, crowds
and more crowds; a thousand and ten thousand iron girders
as pillars;
escape!
But how,
shut up in the moving train?
And upstairs, in the street,
the sun is shining as it shines in June.

XX
Poet with Whiskey Bottle and Sailor

There is anguish there, certainly,
and a commotion
in the next room;
shouts of
words and phrases that do not make sentences
and sentences that do not make sense.
I open the door:
ah, the hallway is crowded—
descendants of the three wise men,   
now male and female,
come again to worship in a stable.

XXI

The white cat on the lawn,
lying in the sun against the hedge,
lovely to look at—
but this stout gentleman,
who needs a shave badly,   
leaning in an arbor hung with purple grapes,
purple grapes all about him,
is unpleasant.
Am I becoming misanthropic?
An atheist?
Why, this might be the god Bacchus!

XXII

The bearded rag-picker
seated among heaps of rags in a basement
sings:
It was born that way;
that is the way it was born—
the way it came out of some body
to stink:
nothing will change it—
neither pity nor kindness.
A paralytic,
hands trembling like water,
listens.

Behind her
the sparrows cluster upon one tree
and leave the others barren;
and the town clock,
that stern accountant,
tells us it is six,
and would persuade us that the night is spent.

XXIII
Cooper Union Library

Men and women with open books before them—
and never turn a page: come
merely for warmth   
not light.

XXIV

A row of tenements, windows boarded up;
an empty factory, windows broken;
a hillside of dead leaves, dead weeds,
old newspapers and rusted cans.
Now come a group   
in old clothes and broken shoes
who say politely,
The way, sir? If you don’t mind
tell us
the way, please.

XXV

The young fellow walks about
with nothing to do: he has lost his job.
“If I ever get another, I’ll be hard!
You’ve got to be hard
to get on. I’ll be hard, all right,”
he says bitterly. Takes out his cigarettes.
Only four or five left.
Looks at me out of the corner of his eye—
a stranger he has just met; hesitates;
and offers me a cigarette.

XXVI

I am always surprised to meet, after ten or twenty years,
those who were poor and silly
still poor and silly, of course, but alive—
in spite of wars and plagues and panics,
alive and well.
Is it possible
there is a Father in Heaven,
after all?

XXVII

On a Sunday, when the place was closed,
I saw a plump mouse among the cakes in the window:
dear ladies,
who crowd this expensive tea-room,
you must not think that you alone are blessed of God.

XXVIII

A fine fellow, trotting easily without a sound
down the macadam road between the woods,
you heard me,
turned your pointed head,
and we took a long look at each other,
fox and man;
then, without any hurry, you went into the ferns,
and left the road to the automobiles and me—
to the heels and wheels of the citizens.

XXIX

The sun sunks
through the grey heavens—
no brighter than the moon;

from the tower
in single notes
the winter music of the bells.

A stooping Negress walking slowly
through the slowly falling snow.

XXX

In your warm room,
do not judge by that line of clothes
behind the wall of the warehouse—
in the sunshine;
on other roofs
other lines of clothes
turn and twist;
yes, a cold wind is blowing.

The pigeons will not rise
from their roof;
fly to the coop, find the door closed,
and huddle on top,
facing east, away from the wind.

XXXI

The sky is cloudy
but the clouds—
as the long day ends—
are pearl and rose;
spring has come
to the streets,
spring has come to the sky.

Sit still
beside the open window
and let the wind
the gentle wind,
blow in your face;

sit still   
and fold your hands—
empty your heart of thoughts,
your mind of dreams.

XXXII
Dawn in the Park

The leaves are solid
in the gloom;
the ledges of rock
in this new world are
unsubstantial.
The sole inhabitants, it seems,
are birds—

until these two,
his arm about her waist.

XXXIII

Stream that a month ago
flowed between banks of snow
and whose grey ripples showed
a sky as grey—
now the stream is seen
clear and as green
as are the willows on its banks,
for it is May:
this stream was turbid, grey,
that now is clear and green—
for it is May!

Your hair be dyed and curled the more,
your dress be gayer than before—
your beauty had its praise,
your anxious eyes now ask it;
but your face will soon be crumpled
like a ball of paper tossed
in the trash-basket,
in the trash-basket.

XXXIV

Holding the stem of the
beauty she had
as if it were still   
a rose.

XXXV
Going West

The train leaves New York—leaves the tunnel: yesterday’s snow
in the corners of roofs, in the furrows of ploughed fields,
under the shelter of the naked trees,
on one side of roads and one bank of streams—
wherever the morning sun did not reach it;
turbulent streams running in twenty parallel currents;
slopes showing on top a dark band of naked woods.
Bits of coal rain on the roof of the car,
smoke from the engine is blown in front of the window,
and on the flat land beside the rails
the snow is blown about.

Next morning, across the lots, blocks of brand-new houses;
old wooden houses with back porches facing the tracks;
the railway yard widens and the ground is evenly lined with rails,
and we are in Chicago.
The flat fields on either side covered with dried corn-stalks,
broken a little above the ground and flat on the black earth;
ice in the hollows; shaggy horses
trot away from the train; a colt with lifted hoof
looks at us; towers of steel girders, in an endless row,
carry wires on three pairs of arms across the fields. A beam to
    guide planes
flashing in the night.

At last only the morning star is shining;
the plain is covered with sparse yellow grass;
a great herd of cattle—red cattle with white faces and legs—
    grazing.
Hills with flat tops; snow in the hollows on the steep sides;
a cement bridge with a bright new railing;
reddish ground; above a ridge of hills
black mountains, sheets of snow on their sides, black mountains
    veined with snow.
Low rolling hills covered with sage; neither house nor cattle. By
    nightfall it is snowing.

The dark ground is flat to the river—bright with dawn;
beyond rise the mountains blue and purple;
the blue of the sky becomes purple, in which a star is shining.
The desert is white with snow, the sage heaped with it;
the mountains to the north are white. The train turns
south. We are among rocks;
grey rock and red rock; yellow rock and red rock;
cliffs bare of any growth; walls of red rock crumbling;
a mountain covered with boulders, rocks, and stones;
and not a living thing
except a large bird
slowly flying.

The ground beside the roadbed is green with bright grass;
the trees along the muddy river are bright with buds;
trees in the hollow have budded and are green with leaves.
Palms in the streets of a town.
Purple and white flowers on the desert.
White sand in smooth waves.
A gravel plain like rippling water.
Single lights; many lights; lights along highways, lights along streets,
and along the streets of Los Angeles.

From The Poems of Charles Reznikoff by Charles Reznikoff, edited by Seamus Cooney. Reprinted by permission of Black Sparrow Books, an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. Copyright 2005 by Charles Reznikoff.

Source: Poems 1918-1975: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff (Black Sparrow Press, 1977)

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Poet Charles Reznikoff 1894–1976

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

SCHOOL / PERIOD Objectivist

Subjects Activities, Travels & Journeys, Arts & Sciences, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Charles  Reznikoff

Biography

Emerson remarked that the best writers often have the shortest biographies. The genius “draws up the ladder after him,” and the world, which had consigned him to obscurity during his lifetime, “sees the works and asks in vain for a history.”
 
Whatever judgment may ultimately be passed upon him, not much more than his works is ever likely to be known of Charles Reznikoff. He left no fervent disciples. The record he wished to . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Activities, Travels & Journeys, Arts & Sciences, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

SCHOOL / PERIOD Objectivist

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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