Heilige Dankegesang Dec 1945

Notes on a performance of Beethoven’s A minor quartet in December 1945, where the audience members were photographed in black and white

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – Emily Dickinson

Emily had the faces right: eyes not meeting
Mourning in the evening of the world.
Audience members thinking in their black
“It’s so strange that Joe won’t be coming back”

Black and white is all you need
As in the hour before the sun comes up, on a doubtful day
Black and white is light enough to read
Names on a wall made for wailing,
Names that left town two years ago
Cheerful enough considering the times
In which we lived then.

Beethoven had the music right: four by four
Drop by drop it comes like tears before rain.
Life resumes, what in God’s name what were we to do.

The Army sent us his remains
In nineteen hundred and forty six
So I was wrong, a part of him came back.
The other parts, the ready smile, his awful jokes
They are still in Europe I suppose
Perhaps he’s in a painting in a rebuilt museum
Eyes following you around the room. He’d like that.

Europe made him. His great grandfather
Was wanted by the police for paving stones
Hurled through palace windows in the year of paving stones
They bundled him on a ship in Bremen
His name appears nowhere in the records
But he bought land as cheap as tears in Missouri
Cried, sighed, and overwhelmed, he died.
But not before time, not before his wife
Cried, sighed, heaved a wriggling thing, and died.

After we threw Joe back to Europe, like Lot’s wife,
We did quite well. Our children are employee of the month
Our children make money in corporation law.
Our ghosts come only to weddings and funerals.

This music is about recovery.
The last recovery
Penultimate to the end.

Years later, his brother died in long term care
Refusing medication, and we buried him
(How were we to know)
On that day in September. As the towers fell
The priest hurried through the mass for the dead
And our funeral cortege
Went into a town everyone was fleeing
Because the plane was headed our way.
Normally silent we the living wailed in fright
Which was condign given the circumstances.

And I live in shadows now, and I see no colors any more,
Shifting shades of grey. The nurses say the sun is shining
The doctors say the sky is blue
But I am on a wheel refining
My soul in that fire that burns me through
With the things I did and did not do.

Thanks for stopping by this chambered place
This godown warehouse of waiting souls
Who endured it all, starting with the Archduke
And ending with American planes
Turning upon us, we who thought
During the wars, on other shores, that we fought
(Or had fought by proxies of the poor)
That we were the monsters of the deep
Not fearing, undismay’d and not wailing
Not mourning
Even in the time for mourning,
The small uncertain hours before day.

The lucky ones chose their alternative end
From smoke to sunlight
It was as if they wanted to quit
And I sense that some of them died
That it was time to quit
And make a leap. It was after all a nice day, wasn’t it.
They’d almost turned around it was so nice
To take the kids fishing or mow the lawn.

When everything is easy, war comes.
When we’re getting a little sleazy, war comes.
You ask me why I smoke, let me tell you a thing
Or two,
We lit them on Times Square like miniature funeral pyres
We figured we were going to die young
Like Joe, he was a Lucky one
I mean, what was I saying, that he was a Lucky man
I mean, what the hell was I saying, that’s what he smoked.

Four string instruments continue to do their thing
A wordless song of convalescence, that’s the thing
It’s sad but not depressing, like that Copland thing
They played when FDR died, and yes, we sighed.

What time is it
What day is it
Where am I
Who are you
What light is that
What light
What light

Edward G. Nilges 1 March 2009


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