Thursday, January 8, 2009


Almost thirty years ago my best buddy Pete stopped by to say hello after work one day. Pete, one of the greatest minds I’ve ever known, was a hod carrier at the time and was probably covered in mortar. I was an art student writing Rimbaud-inspired poetry and short stories under the influence of Brautigan, Vonnegut and—not paradoxically—Kawabata. Through my Zen teacher I’d discovered Japanese writers, and Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand Stories opened my eyes to a wider range of possibilities.

At that time, I wrote at a huge particle board drafting table, hand-built by my other brilliant best buddy, Jenny, who lived two doors down in another of the former motel rooms serving as off-campus housing. Laid out on the drafting table’s angled surface were drawings, photographs, scraps of ideas, and lists of topics about which to write satirical palm of the hand stories.

Topics ranged from the Reagans’ sexual fantasies to an excommunicated Mormon missionary (me) who becomes a television evangelist to pay his tuition (I didn’t go there personally). The list went on and on …

Pete giggled as he scanned it. “The only people you don’t make fun of, Pittard, are the poor.” He’d spotted my sacred cow. My parents were born during the Great Depression that Americans are just now rediscovering. My father’s stories about his father’s struggles to keep their North Dakota farm solvent, and their life after the farm failed, made a deep impression on my impressionable self.

These memories resurfaced when I came into contact with Hans Magnus Enzensberger via a Lannan podcast ( After listening to this bright and engaging man, I quickly purchased a copy of Kiosk (The Sheep Meadow Press, 1999). No subject or sector of society is off-limits to his mind or pen. Not even my sacred cow—the poor.

THE TIN PLATE (translated by the author)

About poverty all has been said:
that’s it’s tenacious, sticky, persistent
and of no interest to anybody
save the poor. It is boring.
It has too much to worry about
to complain about boredom.
Like dirt, it is to be found
way down. It’s contagious,
smelly, a nuisance.

Its omnipresence is striking.
It seems to partake of eternity.
Attributes which are divine.
Helpers and saints seek it.
Monks and nuns are betrothed to it.
With the rest of us,
all our lives on the run;
poverty catches up
at the next street corner,

unmoving, unmoved, majestic,
tin-plate in hand.

Of course, Mr. Enzensberger just as readily writes about the rich.

THE RICH (translated by Michael Hamburger)

Wherever do they keep on coming from,
these luxurious hordes! After every collapse
they’ve crept out of the ruins,
unmoved; through every eye of a needle
they’ve slipped,
rich in number, good heels and blessings.

Those wretches. Nobody likes them.
Their burden bows them down.
They offend us,
are to blame for everything,
can’t help it,
must be got rid of.

We’ve tried everything.
We’ve preached to them,
we’ve implored them,
and only when there was no other way
blackmailed, expropriated, plundered them.
We have left them to bleed
and put them against the wall.

But no sooner did we lower the rifle
and seated ourselves in their armchairs
than we knew, incredulous
at first, but then with a sigh of relief;
we too were irrepressible.
Yes, yes, one gets used to anything.
Till it happens again.

I admire the way Mr. Enzensberger positions the speaker in his poems: the way the point-of-view shifts. Sacramento poet James DenBoer talks about point-of-view as the “I” versus the “eye” in the poem. The poems in Kiosk help me better understand what Jim is talking about. Here’s an example from Mr. Enzensberger’s “On the Algebra of Feelings.” He writes, “I often have the feeling (intense / obscure, indefinable, etc) / that the I is not a fact / but a feeling / I can’t get rid of.”

In the Preface, Lawrence Joseph writes: “Often a poem will switch, or seem to switch, speakers; we’re in aesthetic realms similar to Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, John Ashbury.” He goes on to write, “Voice, for Enzensberger, is alive, emotional; when you read an Enzensberger poem you’re inside a patchwork, a mix, diversities of thought, held in suspense.”

Kiosk also includes a worthwhile essay on translation, “Translator’s Disappearing Act,” by Michael Hamburger. Mr. Hamburger translated the majority of the poems in this collection. Only a handful are translated by Mr. Enzensberger himself, as opposed to his Selected Poems. Mr. Hamburger writes about his enthusiasm, after an association of nearly forty years with Mr. Enzensberger, to translate the new poems in Kiosk. “Partly this must have been because, so strikingly, Kiosk had been composed as a single, coherent work, its four sections linked by the four parts of one on-going poem—and by a pervasive dialectic I cannot begin to trace. This made it more than another collection of short poems—a summa of all of Enzensberger’s diverse and wide-ranging concerns.”

I’ll close this posting with one of my favorite poems in Kiosk. Perhaps it’s a favorite today because I mentioned my Zen teacher, Koyama Shojiro Sensei, at the beginning of this piece. Whatever the reason, it’s a fine poem.


The Buddha takes to his legs.
The herald jogs along behind.
The fixed stars undulate.
Progress fidgets in the lay-by.
The snail loses its way, running.
The rocket limps.
Eternity limbers up for a final spurt.

I do not budge.

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