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.