Guten Abend, Gute Nacht

Poetry / C. Samuel Rees

:: Guten Abend, Gute Nacht ::

          ...what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry
          and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear 
          on the black waters of Lethe?
                    —Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”

Lethe, they might call it, back East, your tongue less 
Sheol, less leather, less an excuse laid out for your teeth 
to mull. Here, it’s Stanislaus County dirt. A stone bought maybe
by the second family, maybe by the state. Just because maps
self-till, a potter’s field doesn’t slip mask as easy as you,
John Joseph, never Jack, kin to the Carpathians our blood 
crossed & recrossed like a great-great-great grandfather’s 
tongue trekking Yiddish & German & English easy as a finger 
plotting over scale drawings of the Rockies, in Rosenheim, 
in Philadelphia, at the kitchen door where deer spores strung 
farms like ley lines. John Joseph a micrography of beasts: foxes wired 
to fence posts, thorny lizard caltrops, horse cripplers, poisoned bulls 
rendered to squat malignant boot leather threatening to flee 
westward facing windows. This was his head, these his heels. Our gravestones face 
east, face west, who knows where the Old Deutsch god will rise up on us. 
Who dressed you with cold water? After the county sawbones extracted 
a gallstone the size of an eagle egg. After a bad twist closed the gap between 
workhorse, right leg, hardpan. After you choked on a pearl onion. After cooing 
our old words to your new sons, Guten abend, gute nacht, through lips gone 
soft with the miles between your former winter garden, the hawks nailed 
under barnstars, your past children sleepless tributaries polluted by runoff 
words, a wound, verletzt, your buried word. Our shadow word. Parting gift rutted 
so deep direction’s lost itself out where meaning is bloody, bone-ripped, a bad 
break swollen purple, a split heel, festered callus, lockjaw. Ah, copperhead, 
daguerreotype, barely whiffed family legend, land’s assembly of indecipherable 
bones, what crossed your mind when America popped the side door, 
stood you on the runner and, like mist lying about the difference between 
a deadfall and fata morgana, whispered a town so far-off 
your tongue could barely see for the distance laid down? 


From the writer

:: Account ::

John Joseph Urban, my great-great-great grandfather, came to America in 1903. In 1925, he abandoned his family. His wife, Anna, discovered he remarried in Minnesota. A census put him in Montana in 1930. Draft records show he lived in California during WWII. In 2014, we found him in Stanislaus County, CA. He’d been buried in 1944. A grave registry has a picture of his gravestone. It is roughly the size of a cinder block. That stone is the only account we have of his final nineteen years.

Guten Abend, Gute Nacht is a nekyia, or “night journey by sea.” In Book 11 of The Odyssey, Odysseus descends into the Underworld to question the prophet Teiresias’s shade about the future. To surmise the past, I ask questions of John Joseph: making assumptions about his departure and mapping his motives. But, to borrow from Mark Strand, the “maps are black, rising from nothing, describing . . . their own voyage, its emptiness.” As much as I reconstruct John Joseph’s life, I also navigate my own difficulty understanding why he chose to disappear.

I start and end responding to the final lines of Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California.” Like Ginsberg cruising grocery store aisles conversing with Whitman’s ghost, I track John Joseph’s shade cruising a gone American landscape conversing with his intentions, their impact.


C. Samuel Rees has been published or is forthcoming in The Fairy Tale Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Permafrost, Raw Paw, Pithead Chapel, JMWW, and Row Home Lit. Two poems are featured in upcoming anthologies, The Dead Animal Handbook (University of Hell Press, 2016) and a collection of Southwest persona poems by Dos Gatos Press. Currently he works as an educator in Austin, TX, where he writes poetry and reads about deserts.