Jerome Rothenberg The Burning Babe (three excerpts)

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The trees bring forth sweet Ecstasy
To all who in the desart roam
Till many a City there is Built
And many a pleasant Shepherds home

But when they find the frowning Babe
Terror strikes thro the region wide
They cry the Babe the Babe is Born
And flee away on Every side

W.B., The Mental Traveller

Poems with Variations & Coda

The Vision

along the road he saw
a row of babes
brightly implanted    singing
babes in many colors
red & blue & yellow
was a fantasy of babes & lights
whose eyes spelled europe
& were bright with blood
a chorus muttering forgotten names of god
whose leader was the arch babe
chewing at his mother’s breast
a tiny hand upraised in grandeur
gloved & regal
he who would place a ring upon the finger
of his willing bride
pale katerina playing with her child wheel
that she offers up to him
from window of a passing train
the picture of a babe
with glaring eyes
& fingers tightly pressed
against the scepter
held in one hand
& a ball held in the other
by a babe

The Marriage of Saint Catherine

the groom
a babe
in bright green shirt                      after Lorenzo Venziano
& red cape
with a red sun overhead
& dark blue moon
when they have come together
nightly in the dark
& staring at herself inside the mirror
of his god eyes
what will she do to please him
how will the pressures of her body
rest on him
her breathing filling up the nursery
the crib in which he stands
or will a babe
hands cupped    go mad
with pleasure

Variation & Coda

babes with yellow eyes cry out their names the mother draws a ring around each child a picture of a risen babe with scepter grasped between his fingers he whose train she holds unfolding it in grandeur & the arch babe joins the chorus under blue lights rows of babes each with a ball to bounce with eyes that stare out of a window at the waiting bride her hand clutched in the leader’s red with the blood of babes that stains the road the babe’s hand playing with her wheel one finger on her breast he is the god of europe spinning fantasies & colors in a vision that won’t end

& from his crib in which the pressures of the dark so weigh on him that he no longer can distinguish red from green the babe wrapped in her cape feels the moon sinking in his eyes the nursery aglow with pleasures that can change a red groom to a blue god breathing lightly on his hands his marriage shirt emblazoned with the sun that’s now a mirror into which he stares & sees
himself reflected as before in body of a babe


the babe
is infant boy
he sings

he is so regular
his arms grow feathers
& he flies into your dream

& lost from sight
he sails among the dead
the dear departed

little king
how many times will we
still muddle through

& fit as any fiddle
ride with you
lamb in pursuit of lamb

into a babe’s world
bright & brutal
raising a hand to strike

& watching how
your own hand

like worlds emerging
into flame

after Southwell

a pretty babe
in air
aglow & glittering

his skin split
from the heat, his tears
a flood

but useless
cannot quench the flames
but feeds them

newly born
& burns like babe
like lamb on spit

he cries but no one
hears or feels
the heat he feels

his breast a furnace
fuelled by redhot thorns
that make him cry out

"blameless love
"o sighs & fires
"smoke & ashes

"shame & scorn
"the flames of angry justice
"mercy’s hungry smile

a babe dissolved
like molten iron
casts himself

into a pit
where others fall
& vanish

bathed with blood


. . . . . . .

a babe sits placidly in schwitters’ bau
now burnt but saved in memory
the center of a column
that his german hands sealed up
& makes me think
of dolls & dwarfs small metal cars
from childhood buttoned shoes
that fit imperfectly a walk between
high walls of buildings painted white
& nowhere have I seen
a door or found a street to turn into
escaping from the stillness of the moment
as if death wasn’t an option
but a fact my mind had never entertained
till now the babe arisen looming up
then crawling where a gang of babes waits
where they fill the air with apples
thrown against the sky the devil in the details
hitting the old mother topsyturvy
in her falling down o ravissement o subterfuge
& lost in wonder a belief that time is endless
that we follow in its tracks like children
bound never to reach the place where nuns & bishops
dance to strains of monk & satie
where the taste of warm beer
fills their mouths & ours
cigarettes aglow in lost cafes
in flow of talk so rapid that the mind
grows numb the father pulls a dove
out of his hat a stick & water glass beside it
& the sky as slick as silver fills with doves
the babe with swollen head can wave at
making some stop cold
& drop to earth the plumage at their necks
once white now red with blood
& ants inside their eyes a silent army
like all armies massed for murder
& the ball that rolls across the square
finds no one there to grasp it
but it lies there fading in the sun & rain
remembered from a photograph
shot from a hundred miles in space
& bleeding salty at the edges
where the walkers pass
out of your line of sight a blur
of children’s faces shrunken
without teeth or fingers
punished for the fact of childhood
now surrendered to the babe in heaven
helter skelter bowing to his will
the little master of past lives
sad king who wears a bonnet
whom the mother wheels around
in carriage words of warning
written large along its sides declaring
JESUS KILLS the voice of someone
crying in the wilderness
the butcher’s hand raised with a knife
to strike the final blow the babe
a real babe now & powerless
while from a window like a jail’s
above his head a false babe
has the scene in view his whirling eyes
are cameras poorly focused red
& green & purple
partner to your love & partner
to the task of bearing witness
the discovery of an age when all
was lost when even time itself
not being counted     had no meaning
but only mindless space on which
no voyager had cast a thought
no babe had come to birth or knowledge
& no schwitters made a monument
to misery that eats into the flesh
that procreates a life of pain
& pleasure where the babe who springs forth
grows to be the man     the man becomes
the voyager     the voyager no less a man
than you becomes the bearer of sad tidings
playground rumbles anxious nights
beneath the stars the city not a playpen
but a temple     home to babes & crones
the sad fragility of towers bright against the sky
no babe can yet survive in
but they tremble belch & bottom down
the blind & lame who fill our streets
the fate of merzbaus spread over the earth
the powder from their walls a distant cloud
from hannover to oslo columns rising up
in each a babe’s head reaching to the room
in which we sit we are the witnesses
ourselves from dresden to new york
from ambleside to hiroshima
new millennium for fools new monuments
for babes & bearded prophets worship
deadlier than unbelief the battle lines invisible
in which you are the child again the father
mad to drive the mice out of your home
the center of your paradise a looming babe
arisen reaching through the ruins
for a place to soar

The foregoing poems are from a work in progress and a projected publication by Granary Books, New York, with collages and illuminations by Susan Bee.

This material is © Jerome Rothenberg

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