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May 17, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
From the smoking ruins of World War II comes beauty not normally associated with the destruction and tatters of a broken country. Missouri poet Walter Bargen captures alluringly sad memories of his youth in postwar Germany and Missouri in his 14th publication, Endearing Ruins.
Missouri’s first poet laureate incites compassion bordering on depression. The happy memories in some poems are punctuated by the sharp edge of grief. The memory of camping on his grandfather’s dairy farm ends with a herd of cows attacking the site and evokes the mindless, bloody attacks of soldiers in the war. He also reminisces about conversations with his aunt and uncle, who have boundless stories to tell of the falling empires they witnessed and the concentration camps knocking on their door. But because of the language barrier, all he can ask them is, “Are you hungry?”
Publisher: Liliom Verlag
Where: Get Lost Bookshop, MU Bookstore or walterbargen.com
Some poems are fully transparent in their desolation. “Zoonotic” describes the deaths of the animals in zoos in warring countries. They are the forgotten casualties in battles too large for remembering such details. “Tonky and Wanly / weak and thin, lifted their bony bodies, / stood on their hind legs, raising / their trunks as high, / performing their bonsai trick, / begging for food, for water. / No one said a word.”
Bargen wrote Endearing Ruins quickly; the book of poems was finished in only six months. It was then translated into German by Josef Wittmann and published by the German press Liliom Verlag in January 2012. The German translation sits side-by-side with the English poems, and although the translations don’t really enhance the reader experience, they do serve as a constant reminder of the greater audience the book aims to reach.
Bargen grew up playing in the ruins of Mannheim-Heidelberg in Germany and moved to Belton in 1960. His first poetry book, Fields of Thenar, was published in 1980. Currently residing in Ashland, Bargen works in MU’s College of Education at the Assessment Resource Center and continues to write poems in his spare time. His 15th book, Trouble Behind Glass Doors, will be published in February 2013.
Bargen became Missouri’s first poet laureate in February 2008. His main duties were making appearances throughout the state to bring poetry back into focus in people’s lives until the next poet laureate was chosen in April 2010.
“Poetry cannot be pigeonholed,” Bargen says. “The most interesting and provocative poetry is the one that breaks all the rules and still tells a poignant and authentic story.”
There is no doubt that the captivating memories Bargen shares with readers in his newest collection of poems are genuine. His stories elicit sadness tinged with the nostalgia of a time and place few have endured and even fewer dare to imagine. Through his poetry, memories are encapsulated forever, even as the distance grows from the wars that sparked them.
In the flashlight’s beam, he follows the frantic
flutter of a dusty brown bird up and down
the shed’s cobwebbed window, leaving dusk
streaked with dust and stars. This bird, perhaps
a flycatcher, tries desperately to fly deeper into
night’s glittering glass as he approaches and fails
at rescue before grabbing it with one hand
rather than scooping with two. He is surprised
by its weight, or lack of weight, and feels
uncertain how tight to hold a handful of air.
He steps from the door into the dark
And he almost doesn’t notice his empty hands.
So the long muddled lines drudged into a dark forest
to a strange mumbled cadence — the belch of boots being sucked in
and out of mired miles — fifty thousand struggling vowels
and rifle reports the only consonants spoken over the dead
guarding the ditches. Soon the forest turned blacker than
its wet pines. For years, the raw upturned earth burst
into small blooms of brass buttons and bones. An entire country
stopped breathing. Each year the trees grew more bloated.
by order of the Japanese army,
at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo,
shortly before the flash and ash
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
the cages left open: tigers, leopards,
bears, snakes, all poisoned.
Three elephants, John, Tonky, and Wanly,
wouldn’t eat the poisoned potatoes.
Syringe needles too weak
to pierce their skins. Seventeen days later,
John starved to death. Tonky and Wanly,
weak and thin, lifted their bony bodies,
stood on their hind legs, raising
their trunks as high,
performing their bonsai trick,
begging for food, for water.
No one said a word. No one said
their trainer went mad giving
them what they needed.
Everyone prayed for one more day
that tomorrow the bombing would end.
Two weeks later, they died, trunks stretched,
hooked high between the bars of their cage.