I would like to publish an eclectic anthology. I don’t know yet who will be included or excluded, it is a journey of first steps. Today, I try to say what I like about this little verse by the Czech immunologist and poetic giant Miroslav Holub, called ‘the end of the world’.
The bird had come to the very end of its song
and the tree was dissolving under its claws.
And in the sky the clouds were twisting
and darkness flowed through all the cracks
into the sinking vessel of the landscape.
Only in the telegraph wires
a message still
We meet a very anthropomorphic bird who has the notion of the ‘end’ of a song. The end of our song is the end of all meaning. After that, everything dissolves.
Then, ‘darkness flowed through all the cracks’. When I read cracks, I hear Leonard Cohen singing ‘and that is how the light gets in’. But here it’s darkness and there is no escaping it. The landscape is sinking, not dissolving. There is a life after the song, but it consists of sinking darkness while everything else has dissolved.
Against this background, the message in the telegraph wires, is as powerful as can be. Holub once said he wants to make his short lines as effective as possible. We don’t know if the message in the telegraph lines is orphaned or if the messenger is still alive. I assume there is nobody to read this message. The poem tells us that technology survives the end of meaning. And that makes sense, since Holub was an acclaimed scientist.
The message announces a newborn son, so it is safe to say (I hope gender studies scholars will forgive me here) that the adressee is a male. To become a parent is one of the most meaningful things that can happen to you, and here we are: in a barren, sinking landscape at the end of the world where birds don’t sing (or crackle) anymore – we have come to the end of meaning. Yet technology still serves its master, relentlessly loyal, beyond the end of the world.
What is it that I like about the following early John Ashberry poem (he was 21 when he wrote it)?
These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance
To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.
And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges
A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.
It’s the second strophe. After the standard, but somehow fresh observation about the still speech of trees the words “to meet as for from the world as agreeing / with it” sound mysterious yet are perfectly clear if we look carefully. A quality that is typical for Ashberry, I have been told. The enjambement (I like to call it syncopation) “what the trees try / To tell us we are” is brilliant: for a brief moment between the 2nd and the 3th strophe, we are simply “what the trees try”, namely the still speech between neighboring trees. The tension is released and explained in the rest of the poem, that is weaker. The chorus of smiles and the silence filled with noises are worn-out metaphors that don’t add much. The last two lines with their strong rhyme “reticence / accents / defense” sound like kitsch to my ear.
But what this poem accomplished in the second strophe makes up for its later mediocrity. We get a glimpse of Ashberry’s later genius.
On today’s walk I go further than ever before: all the way to the Sky Park and the Sunset Park, two wonders of urban development right next to the neighborhood I live in since March. The Parks were formerly the world’s largest mound of municipal waste, spreading an unbearable stench and belching forth methane, which gave it the infernal qualities rendering the surrounding residential area rather unappealing. All this changed when, simultaneously with the World Cup, the city reconstructed the entire site and inaugurated the Parks, boasting incredible biodiversity (butterflies, grasses, sedges).
I am fasting today. The walk through the parks, that are separated by Seoul’s ubiquitous concrete veins but connected by pedestrian bridges, refreshes my soul. A different location, a different self. I walk on wooden steps and gaze at the big orange ball that is our sun; I walk on a platform that leads through high vegetation where the fireflies hide; I walk through a tunnel with industrial lights and large spiders: Nephila clavata had spun webs in front of almost every floodlight and the webs were full of insect cadavers suspended sullenly in the harsh light. I look at the venomous spiders and smile. Now I know where you live, my little friend. I’ll come visit you in your tunnel again one day.
In the library I see an old man sitting at a table and a large dictionary. I stand behind him to pick up a newspaper that includes New York Times articles I want to read because of the recent hydrogen bomb test in the North. The man greets me and asks what ‘rags-to-riches’ means. I explain it to him and look up a Korean translation and suggest he installs the dictionary app on his phone himself. Thank you. I look at his leathery but smooth skin and quivering eyes. We do study group he says and I should join. Helping the older Korean generation who had performed the economic miracle that transformed this country sounded good to me so I said yeah and asked him to write down the address. Why had I ignored the topic of what he was reading? There was Jesus and Hallelujah written all over it. It was no English class. I had signed up for Bible study, dammit. The man handed me the piece of paper I had given him with the address of the church written on it and told me see you on Sunday. I might have other obligations I wanted to say but that sentence didn’t render well in basic Korean. Leaving the library I saw the man again standing in the bathroom washing his face. Bye I said and he rushed out pursuing me with a dripping face. What do you do? he asked. I write I say, and I have to do it now.
…and then in the subway station something beautiful happened I was waiting for line number 3 to take me home and saw an older man at the vending machine going through his bag for some coins to buy himself a cup of instant coffee which tastes like yesteryear as I told him and he replied in English to my clumsy Korean I said hurry up using the best honorific form I knew as the train was entering the station and he was still sipping his coffee from the paper cup, and just before the doors closed he zipped into the subway train and asked me to come sit next to him on a seat reserved for the elderly, which I did quipping I now had a special license. After the usual exchange about my provenance the man asked how old I was, thirty-eight I said, thirty-nine in Korean age I should say, he replied I am eighty-one in Korean age so I should say eighty. You look very young I said, and he really did, so you were born in 1937 I said yes he was he said and out of his bag he pulled out this hardcover book published in the year 1937 and I guessed he always carried it along it was a book of songs and as we passed the stations he started flipping through the pages until he reached Schubert’s Ode to music and then the old man began to sing. His voice was clear not quivering and he sang with intonation and beautifully and I had my little moment right there and then until we arrived at Yaksu station where I had to change trains and let him go and said goodbye using the best honorific and then with only little hesitation I put my own coins in a vending machine and treated myself to a small paper cup of cheap, bitter, magical coffee…