After Joseph Roth
Parce que c’était lui; parce que c’était moi.
Montaigne, De L’amitië
The dream’s forfeit was a night in jail
and now the slant light is crepuscular.
Papers or not, you are a foreigner
whose name is always difficult to spell.
You pack your one valise. You ring the bell.
Might it not be prudent to disappear
beneath that mauve-blue sky above the square
fronting your cosmopolitan hotel?
You know two short-cuts to the train station
which could get you there, on foot, in time.
The person who’s apprised of your intention
and seems to be your traveling companion
is merely the detritus of a dream.
You cross the lobby and go out alone.
You crossed the lobby and went out alone
through the square, where two red-headed girls played
hopscotch on a chalk grid, now in the shade,
of a broad-leafed plane tree, now in the sun.
The lively, lovely, widowed afternoon
disarmed, uncoupled, shuffled and disarrayed
itself; despite itself, dismayed
you with your certainties, your visa, gone
from your breast-pocket, or perhaps expired.
At the reception desk, no one inquired
if you’d be returning. Now you wonder why.
When the stout conductor comes down the aisle
mustached, red-faced, at first jovial,
and asks for your passport, what will you say?
When they ask for your passport, will you say
that town’s name they’d find unpronounceable
which resonates, when uttered, like a bell
in your mind’s tower, as it did the day
you carried your green schoolbag down the gray
fog-cobbled street, past church, bakery, shul
past farm women setting up market stalls
it was so early. “I am on my way
to school in .” You were part of the town
now, not the furnished rooms you shared
with Mutti, since the others disappeared.
Your knees were red with cold; your itchy wool
socks had inched down, so you stooped to pull
them up, a student and a citizen.
You are a student and a citizen
of whatever state is transient.
You are no more or less the resident
of a hotel than you were of that town
whose borders were disputed and redrawn.
A prince conceded to a president.
Another language became relevant
to merchants on that street a child walked down
whom you remember, in the corridors
of cities you inhabit, polyglot
as the distinguished scholar you were not
to be. A slight accent sets you apart,
but it would mark you on that peddlers’-cart
street now. Which language, after all, is yours?
Which language, after all these streets, is yours,
and why are you here, waiting for a train?
You could have run a hot bath, read Montaigne.
But would footsteps beyond the bathroom door’s
bolt have disturbed the nondescript interior’s
familiarity, shadowed the plain
blue draperies? You reflect, you know no one
who would, of you, echo your author’s
“Because it was he; because it was I,”
as a unique friendship’s non sequitur.
No footsteps and no friend: that makes you free.
The train approaches, wreathed in smoke like fur
around the shoulders of a dowager
with no time for sentimentality.
With no time for sentimentality,
mulling a twice-postponed book-review,
you take an empty seat. Opposite you
a voluble immigrant family
is already unwrapping garlicky
sausages—an unshaven man and his two
You once wrote: it is true,
awful, and unimportant, finally
that if the opportunity occurs
some of the exiles become storm-troopers;
and you try, culpably, to project these three
into some torch-lit future, filtering out
their wrangling (one of your languages) about
the next canto in their short odyssey.
The next canto in your short odyssey
will open, you know this, in yet another
hotel room. They have become your mother
country: benevolent anonymity
of rough starched sheets, dim lamp, rickety
escritoire, one window. Your neighbors gather
up their crusts and rinds. Out of a leather
satchel, the man takes their frayed identity
cards, examines them. The sons watch, pale
and less talkative. A border, passport control,
draw near: rubber stamp or interrogation?
You hope the customs officer lunched well;
reflect on the recurrent implication
of the dream’s forfeit. One night in jail?