September 2010

The Chalk Cross

I am a maidservant. I had an affair
With a man in the SA.
One day before he went off
With a laugh he showed me how they go about
Catching grumblers.
With a stump of chalk from his tunic pocket
He drew a small cross on the palm of his hand.
He told me, with that and in civvies
He’d go to the labour exchanges
Where the unemployed queue up and curse
And would curse with the rest and doing so
As a token of his approval and solidarity
Would pat anyone who cursed on the shoulderblade, whereupon the marked man
White cross on his back, would be caught by the SA.
We had a good laugh about that.
I went with him for three months, then I noticed
That he’d taken over my savings book.
He had said that he’d keep it for me
Because times were uncertain.
When I challenged him, he swore
That his intentions had been honest. Doing so
He laid his hand on my shoulder to calm me down.
I ran away terrified. At home
I looked at my back in the mirror to see if it didn’t bear
A white cross.

Everything Changes

Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
But what has happened has happened. And the water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again.

What has happened has happened. The water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again, but
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.

Great Babel Gives Birth

Great Babel vomited and it sounded like FREEDOM! and coughed and it sounded like JUSTICE! and farted again and it sounded like PROSPERITY! And wrapped in a bloody sheet a squalling brat was carried on to the balcony and shown to the people with a ringing of the bells, and it was WAR.

Finland 1940

We are now refugees in

My little daughter
Returns home in the evening complaining that no child
Will play with her. She is German, and comes
From a nation of gangsters.

When I exchange loud words during a discussion
I am told to be quiet. The people here do not like
Loud words from someone
Who comes from a nation of gangsters.

When I remind my little daughter
That the Germans are a nation of gangsters
She is glad with me that they are not loved
And we laugh together.


I can hear you saying:
He talks of America
He understands nothing about it He has never been there.
But believe you me
You understand me perfectly well when I talk of America
And the best thing about America is
That we understand it.

An Assyrian tablet
Is something you alone understand
(A dead business of course)
But should we not learn from people
Who have understood how
To make themselves understood?
You, my dear sir
No one understands
But one understands New York.
I tell you:
These people understand what they are doing
So they are understood.

There is no greater crime than leaving

There is no greater crime than leaving.
In friends, what do you count on? Not on what they do.
You never can tell what they will do. Not on what they are.
May change. Only on this: their not leaving.
He who cannot leave cannot stay. He who has a pass
In his pocket – will he stay when the attack begins? Perhaps
He will not stay.
If it goes badly with me, perhaps he will stay. But if it goes
Badly with him, perhaps he will leave.
Fighters are poor people. They cannot leave. When the attack
Begins they cannot leave.
He who stays is known. He who has left was not known. What left
Is different from what was here.
Before we go into battle I must know: have you a pass
In your coat pocket? Is a plane waiting for you behind the battlefield?
How many defeats do you want to survive? Can I send you away?
Well, then, let’s not go into battle.

The burning of the books

When the Regime commanded that books with harmful knowledge
Should be publicly burned and on all sides
Oxen were forced to drag cartloads of books
To the bonfires, a banished
Writer, one of the best, scanning the list of the
Burned, was shocked to find that his
Books had been passed over. He rushed to his desk
On wings of wrath, and wrote a letter to those in power
Burn me! he wrote with a flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you:
Burn me!

The Democratic Judge

In Los Angeles, before the judge who examines people
Trying to become citizens of the United Sates
Came an Italian restaurant keeper. After grave preparations
Hindered, though, by his ignorance of the new language
In the test he replied to the question:
What is the 8th Amendment? falteringly:
1492. Since the law demands that applicants know the language
He was refused. Returning
After three months spent on further studies
Yet hindered still by ignorance of the new language
He was confronted this time with the question: Who was
The victorious general in the Civil War? His answer was:
1492. (Given amiably in a loud voice). Sent away again
And returning for a third time, he answered
A third question: For how long a term are our Presidents elected?
Once more with: 1492. Now
The judge, who liked the man, realised he could not
Learn the new language, asked him
How he earned his living and was told: by hard work. And so
At his fourth appearance the judge gave him the question:
Was America discovered? And on the strength of his correctly answering
1492, he was granted his citizenship.

The Transformation of the Gods

The old heathen gods – this is a secret –
Were the first converts to Christianity.
Before the whole people they stepped through the grey oak hedges
Mumbled homely prayers and crossed themselves.

Throughout the entire middle ages they took their stand
As if absent-mindedly in the stone niches of God’s house
Wherever godlike figures might be required.

At the time of the French Revolution
They were the first to don the golden masks of pure reason
And as powerful concepts
They stepped, the old bloodsuckers and thought-stiflers,
Across the bent backs of the toiling masses.

Lullabies IV

When in the night I lie and stare unsleeping
Often I turn and reach out for your hand.
How can I make you see through their lying?
I know you’ve already been numbered for wars they’ve already planned.

Your mother, my son, has never pretended
You’re the special son of someone’s special daughter;
But neither did she bring you up with so much hardship
To hang on the barbed wire one day crying for water.



i always resented all the years, the hours, the
minutes i gave them as a working stiff, it
actually hurt my head, my insides, it made me
dizzy and a bit crazy — i couldn’t understand the
murdering of my years
yet my fellow workers gave no signs of
agony, many of them even seemed satisfied, and
seeing them that way drove me almost as crazy as
the dull and senseless work.

the workers submitted.
the work pounded them to nothingness, they were
scooped-out and thrown away.

i resented each minute, every minute as it was
and nothing relieved the monotonous ever-

i considered suicide.
i drank away my few leisure hours.

i worked for decades.

i lived with the worst of women, they killed what
the job failed to kill.

i knew that i was dying.
something in me said, go ahead, die, sleep, become
them, accept.

then something else in me said, no, save the tiniest
it needn’t be much, just a spark.
a spark can set a whole forest on
just a spark.
save it.

i think i did.
i’m glad i did.
what a lucky god damned

-charles bukowski