In which a man falls in love with his reflection in
a mirror, and then with a child who resembles him.
Under the Nazis, this means death
Berlin burned until its bones showed. Flames spared
Only this apartment: crouched downstairs
The tiger Fire was hiding, cracking scraps;
Above, the socket of the top floor flat;
For miles, the rubble tundra’s sculpted walls
(Bedheads, headstones, Stonehenge, hedgerows) rose;
But here a lovely couple still remained
To patiently embrace the invading flame.
“I am a Cabaret,” Berlin affirmed,
So Paolo in Palermo sold the farm
Mamma and he had shared since pa departed
Via a giant, quiet, quite unguarded
Threshing mill. (Inexorably drawn
Toward the appalling straw-surrounded maw
He’d begged his helper’s aid to take the brake,
But Paolo only howled and ran away.)
But never mind – for providential Nature
Gave (like many a native matron) mater
In-born, home-grown, unmown mourning robes.
So locks like soccer socks enclosed her toes,
With armpits carpetted and knuckles gloved;
A mat, that matt-black matted back; a rug
Those shoulders broader than a Nordic soldier’s.
And how adoringly her boy explored her
Inner-arm chinchilla farm and traced
The tracery of lace that graced her face –
Until, holding a so-called safety razor,
Dashing from the bathroom, mother made a
Clotted dotted line across the farm
To tumble, pumping, into Paolo’s arms.
No wonder ever after women would
Wrinkle his winkle like a salted slug!
Paolo loved Berlin. In posh cafés,
Averted as a vase his lovely face
Graced a centre table all alone
To snub the other customers but pose
A morsel for them all. And how he’d stiffen
When eyes like double-barrels turned to hit him!
Like naked Saint Sebastian unashamed
At rows of Roman bowmen taking aim,
So with a noble patience Paolo kept,
Among their hungry glances, still erect...
…till one day someone spoke. Staring ahead,
All profile like a pawn until they went,
Offended and afraid our hero rose,
In kingly indignation gained the door –
Then messed his exit dancing face to face
With some disdainful waiter’s aproned waist.
For, oh! but he was small: a chessboard knight,
A flower-featured creature heart-beat high,
Who hidden in a window watched alarmed
(Days later from a cheap-rate station bar),
The tall sun lie down, darkness its duvet,
And crowds that would devour embowered beauty.
“Poor Paolo,” Paolo thought. Suddenly then
A lamp was lit. Its temporary tent
Recalled the farm, mama, his haloed brow
And evenings at the keyboard. Now he saw
How Berlin herds that circled seeking prey
Had vanished in an instant. In their place
His own reflection watching him! Transfixed
At loveliness at bay, pale, with parted lips
And fingers stilled around a lifted glass,
This image gazed compassionately back,
His beauty’s only equal! With fearful hope,
Paulo, smiling, shyly joined the toast
Adoring as the Lord when, newly wakened,
Adam like a mirror faced his maker.
In harmless happiness a decade passed
As jackboots trampled trash across the maps.
From sweethearts meeting through that bar-room window,
Even as Hindenburg appointed Hitler,
The twosome rendezvoused around the city
While Germany reversed the Versailles Treaty.
However, by the time of Kristallnacht,
His lover lived at ease in Paolo’s flat,
The bedroom wardrobe’s mirrored door his home
Before the Hitler-Stalin peace accord.
Enraptured in their intimate relations
Both ignored the Polish annexation,
Used the beginnings of the Berlin blitz
To spice their nights of unexampled bliss,
And comfortably sunk to dull old lovers
Missed the sudden Hunnish thrust at Russia.
But mummy’s money couldn’t last. Weekly,
Teacher Paolo, pale with rage, received a
Menopausal hausfrau’s powdered pout,
A clammy adolescent’s acnied scowl,
Twin pre-pubescent sisters sour with pee,
And last a lean Gestapo engineer
Who worked in “Deportations” – meaning “Death”.
(And how this grey-faced ancient’s ageless strength
Would overpower Paolo in his dreams
Of fraying railway sidings where the trains
Were pigeon-toed and panting, Poland bound,
Till tall on skater’s blades they slithered out
With crowds of Paolo’s fellow felons, decked
With Jewish lemon-yellow, red for Reds,
Or else, like him, with pink, pink – which means...
But Paolo never could recall his dreams.)
One week, while Paolo scowled with hopeless hate
At this mechanic engineer who played
Relentless as condemned-cell clocks that close
Scissoring fingers on their awful goal,
This latter licked his slit of livid lips
And rose and closed the scrolled piano lid
(So Nosferatu by his casket swayed,
Gorged on gore and dazed in day’s first rays)
And sighed that with his son-in-law and daughter
(One with Rommel, one in the bombing) slaughtered,
Their mourning son, his convalescent ward,
Must now incessantly be kept absorbed.
“Thus,” the dilating pupil dared to add,
“The child requires from you a daily class.”
At length his death’s head student leaves
And Paolo, heading for the bedroom, meets
His flat-mate, also angry. How they rage
To lose their sweet seclusion, rave and wave –
Until, like lovers that a row arouses,
Their fingers find the lump that fronts their trousers.
And always Allied bombers trawl for souls,
Their loads like ladders leading to the Lord.
Yet Paolo strolls this city where the sun,
Impending like incendiary bombs,
Emulates the daylight raids he braves:
Burly Berliners, only, make him quake.
As fattened cattle butt a butcher’s gate
With incoherent fear and snouty face,
Or wronged and tongueless zombies dumbly yearn
To argue terms but largely gargle worms,
Each beefy burgher’s words come belching up
In grunted gutterals from bulging guts.
He is an artist; only artists live;
But open graves the pavements in Berlin!
From whited sepulchres a city wide,
Fled to his bedroom wardrobe Paolo finds
Refreshing, cool, reflecting pools to bathe
With him (his only friend) so frail, so brave!
But then the door-bell. Agitato still
He turns the catch – at which there enters in
Amazing brightness, with, within that blaze,
Himself! Full length, with equal solemn face,
Enveloped in the level evening light,
A shining child, precisely eye to eye,
Meets him completely like the wardrobe glass.
Again like moving mirrors comes that flash
As Paolo shuts the door, and turns to see
The child smile shyly by the gleaming keys.
“So beautiful! So beautiful!” he called
At midnight at the mirror’s prison wall,
When (pressed impetuously breast to breast
To hear his sweetheart’s heart, and breathe his breath,
Moaning to know the other also moans
When hands that reach to feel impede his own,
Or – bending tenderly to tendered necks –
When kissing lips by kissing lips are checked)
He witnessed mirror symmetry that proved
Their perfect empathy, their perfect love.
Cacophonous as crashing Cadillacs,
Raskolnikov’s trepanning axe attack,
Or England’s Empire’s senile flatulence,
The stamping Allied ordnance advanced.
It scattered plaster dandruff round his head,
Made cutlery like crickets chafe its legs,
Brought whiffs of shit like fear from fractured drains
While tearful tremors shook his flatmate’s face.
Yet still the lovely youngster every day
(His beauty like a naughty playmate) played.
And how reluctantly the notes flew free,
As shook buds surrender drunken bees –
The struck piano wires an opened cage
Where song-birds, long-immured, still hesitate.
And Lord, how gorgeousness had not forgot
His smallest corner, love-lorn Paolo thought,
Bewildered in unnumbered infant fingers,
Lost in labyrinthine ears, in tresses tangled,
Seeing that peerless profile pulsing out
As ripples replicate an anchored boat,
Or merged with air that clouded outline shimmer,
Blurred as the bevelled edge of bedroom mirrors,
While mirrors face to face might show him grown
To just such kindergarten crowds as now
Gathered to grandad’s welcoming embrace,
Thence with accelerating pace escaped,
To leave the teacher reaching for his stool
Before that pinnacle of pleasure cooled,
With thoughts like flashlit snapshots, all
Showing a fractious brat that played, or paused,
Or kicked the instrument, or pouting whined
For ever-escalating chocolate bribes.
“So now what happens to our happy home?”
His flatmate asked. And Paolo’s post-grope glow
Failed as he faced the other’s worried gaze
And dying smile. Perturbed, he turned away,
Over a shoulder showing frowning brows,
But seeing his sweetheart sneak a parting scowl,
Wondered, as suspect husbands always might,
What brought this on – and was it worth a try.
And when in bed (instead of sweet unease
Playing a game they named “Whose Bit Is This?”,
Indubitably sure the wardrobe door,
If once he chose to check, would stand ajar),
Paolo, solo, scornfully disowned
Thoughts of that winsome infant’s flawless form.
Nor did that scribble of delicious limbs,
So slim, so small, at all call out to him.
“More! More!” The orphan flexed his neck
Erect for chocolate like a cuckoo chick,
Then satiated played his favourite game,
Became again a Deportation train,
And stamping past the cramped flat’s bric-a-brac
He rattled teacher’s cheap Venetian glass,
His leaning Pisan souvenirs, the shelves
Of withered lilies, lamps and candle-ends,
The curling calling card that praised
A curious Kreuzberg club he’d briefly played
(They’d all adored him so: but he was bored!),
Then half on purpose kicked across the floor
His only books – a six-part set that held
The “favourite poet” Paolo never read.
(D’Annunzio it was, that Fascist scribe
Who, all Sicilian schoolboys know, devised
The oral form of Onan’s lone abuse
And ordered both his lower ribs removed –
A symbol of the scribbler, and a mockery
Of Adam’s rib that merely made monogamy.)
Thence with a shriek of steam he crossed the hall
Where shaded by a parching parlour palm
Unsteady pedestals held dusty busts
Of Paolo’s heroes frowning at the fuss.
(Again a head displayed d’Annunzio,
That nasty blackshirt bard whose toilet bowl
Through ranked reflectors let the wretch inspect …
But let some southern schoolboy tell the rest.)
Then, helpless, Paolo saw the infant sprint
Around his filthy kitchen’s stinking sink
Where every pot he’d got was long since stacked
And none was ever washed except the last,
Then back to thunder under and around
The tunnel of the humming baby grand,
Shaking the weighty silver frame thereon
(The only photo known of Paolo’s mum),
And lastly open (Paolo shouting, “No!”)
With operatic force the bedroom door.
But here he halts. He heaves. His quivering lip
Like cappuccino foams. He’s being sick!
Swiftly Paolo points the voiding boy
Round to the sordid toilet where he toils
A kind of clotted cocoa up. But then –
Insanity! For as the spasm ends,
A solitary chocolate droplet spots
The youngster’s shirt. So Paolo pulls it off.
His shivering fingers strengthen as they feed:
Quickly the boy is bare. Now Paolo sees
The meagre room, narrow, its towels sour,
The maps of damp, and how a mushroom sprouts
Behind the toilet where his water falls,
Transfigured in an instant by a form
Palid as plaster statuettes that shine
Dimly in Sicilian hillside shrines;
Or Dresden shepherdesses somehow found
Cushioned on rubble, saved in that razed town;
Or Viennese ice cream (his little dick
The Sempiternal Chef’s concluding quiff);
A Sistine Chapel ceiling cherub’s cheek;
Cathedrals in Venetian streets, their feet
In honey-coloured mud (around his shoes
The pretty outfit of the Hitler Youth);
But mostly notes the infant’s gimlet gaze
Shining triumphant from that spiteful face.
It rained that night. Cross-legged on the floor,
Shrunk to a skull and crossbones by the cold,
Paolo’s mirrored lover scowled him down:
“I’ll tell,” he said. Then the emerging moon
Bared its beggar’s bruises, spilling chill
Illumination like an open fridge
And lit a lunar duplicate – his face,
Cratered with dented features in its frame
Of ever-rarer hair and gecko throat.
“I’m almost forty,” Paolo thought. And dozed.
And in a moment woke, seeing a train
Zipping Poland open to his burned remains,
Then slept again. Then felt a banded snake,
Clamped to his pants, fatten to railway track
Bleeding him east. His pants were grabbed
In some piano’s stallion fangs. And trapped
In train doors, so he was dragged and died,
His pants erect with broken bones. Barbed wire
Snaked from his score and circled him. He choked
Oceans of broken glass – and at last woke
Convulsively. Again his lover said,
“I’ll tell.” But then the stern reflection wept,
And Paolo, kissing slippy lips, vouchedsafe –
Through his own tears – never again to stray.
His flatmate met mama – when mother’s picture
Splintered his image in the wardrobe mirror.
Held hostage (while the prancing brat had smashed
Paolo’s household ornaments and danced
Around the wrecked apartment shedding clothes,
Yelling “I’ll tell, I’ll tell,” till Paolo saw
His mirror like a river slip, raw wood
Surge to its surface like some coffin lid)
The heavy silver picture frame released
Lover and mother, bursting into tears.
Paolo, crawling, saw reflected eyes
Wide as a diver’s dying under ice;
Discovered the parental portrait torn,
A sliver like a razor through her throat;
And turned toward the boy.
For one so young
His pupil proved unconscionably strong,
But pacified at last agreed to go
In all good order through the wardrobe door,
Where stubbornly he crumpled like a coat
Till teacher’s necktie kept him on his toes.
Paolo slowly closed the wardrobe door,
Then, for parity, removed his clothes.
Paolo opened wide the wardrobe door,
And wrapped a matching necktie round his throat,
And thought. He felt aesthetically distressed
At the lad’s chest’s projecting spike of glass.
He pushed his mother’s picture on the point,
And climbed inside, the shard against his heart.
Beside the youngster’s tie he tied his own
And softly shut the wardrobe on them both.
Two blocks off, long as a grandfather clock,
The lad’s dead grandad – solemn, spotless, stopped –
Lay beside his car, which (splintered by bombs,
Its fat Gestapo chauffeur knocked to chops)
Hard-pressed SS investigators guessed
Mingled the missing infant in its grisly wreck.
Berlin burned until its bones showed. Flames spared
Briefly this apartment – till up the stairs
The tiger Fire came raging, bursting walls,
Ate the piano, snatched after soaring scores,
Tiptoed over broken glass, then clawed
Holes through the embers of the wardrobe door –
And found a lovely couple still remained
To patiently embrace the invading flame.