Civilization in Shambles

AtmosphericSkull Sodomizing A Grand Piano 1934

Salvador Dali, Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing A Grand Piano (1934)


Keys rattle
on the way down
to join the coffee grounds, guts
and trash for the haruspex.
Every notation is fitted
to its skeleton lock
where they turn,
revolving to the music,
never changing,
as the keys on a keyboard remain the same,
however disparate the music.
This checkerboard mysticism
serves only to underscore
a ceaseless Catalan sky
under which arthritic sentries,
one black one white,
stand in useless formality
in boots caked
with daisies.


Schwitters in Exile

Freedom is not dissoluteness, but the result of artistic discipline
—Kurt Schwitters

Over and over again
you find yourself
with whatever is laying about—
pieces of a civilization in shambles.

In Lysaker you built onto a house on a hill, without a permit.

Interned as an enemy on the Isle of Man
your jokes had them in stitches while you stole pieces of lino
from their floors—the only material to paint on.

When nothing else was available you used porridge
to make sculpture.

Years after you had gone the residents of Ambleside remembered
the eccentric foreigner who eked out a living
hawking tourist portraits.
On crutches you envisioned a journey back to Hannover
to recover the bombed merzbau.

Your last year brought a series of breakdowns
that left you bedridden much of the time.
It was also
the most productive year of your life.

Kurt Schwitters, the legend goes, was never
without a pot of glue.

Shall we attach a romantic epitaph to your name?
Shall we paint a sentimental halo over your image,
smiling and whistling the Ursonate?
You are the poet who, at fifty, renounced his native tongue.
But I can’t believe that writer’s block
was on your list of concerns, that you fretted over
inspiration, or wondered if, in a world of books,
you could dare to add one more.
I see you picking flowers
while armies leveled whole city blocks.
Were you naive? Or weak
because you did not fall down,
another sack of flesh in the heap,
divided by dogs and parceled by insects?

Chased from your home, from country
to country, removed from Helma,
whose lips you would never again taste,
hungry, forgotten, in a strange city,
you never once pasted a picture of a tank
onto a collage.
Those collages grew, breaking out of the cubist grid
like flowers out of a broken sidewalk,
out of mud.

I don’t know if my heart is big enough,
if I can grasp evil on a grand scale,
if I have the courage to embrace
extraordinary beauty when it comes to my town
in the form of a refugee.
I need your help.

Over and over again
you go to your beginning
so as not to lose yourself
amongst whatever is laying about,
since to dream civilization is to build,
not dissolute, but free.

An Other Room

Elbowing my way into the place
where I can spread out jets
of controlled wantonness;
a room like Pollock’s,
where pain and rage are unfurled
and made to dance off
the fingertips
—wave riders and storm chasers have a sense of it:
one door shuts as ten windows burst open—
Elbowing, I say, with many
“excuse me’s” and felled shoulders,
to seem less a threat (though no more
a murderer than Maldoror), sucking
in stinging tears
to mold them on the tongue
—Hot Canton, in golden wavelets
to banner
yet another

escape biopicMark Kerstetter is Poetry Editor for Escape into Life. Along with poetry, he writes fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on his blog.

One response to “Civilization in Shambles”

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