And strangers will arrive as they’ll depart, shaking your hand,
And friends will say, “Sorry,” and walk right through you,
And thought will slip through a sieve, honeyed with sadness.
And lovers will spin in the windows of a cinquefoil,
And minutes will stream like corpuscles through the streets
Until they’re caught in a frontage road labeled, “No Outlet.”
And dogs will listen for a master who’ll never return,
For a garage door to rise at the touch of a remote control,
For the latch to unlock and the presence of a god to enter in.
And a god will throw down a fog that clarifies, not obscures,
And leaves will grow clear and have no need to fall,
And a root-sphere will pulse in the clear ground, like a mind.
And your father will grow senile and fretful, and your mother
Will lose the strength to lift the side of her hand,
And the gravedigger will send a bill marked “Past Due.”
So why the outrage, why the dread, if the funeral is dark
As you willed it to be, and the stained glass luminous
With temporary light? Why not rest here, in the nave,
Where the living will pass by and murmur how rich
Your life was, after all, in the end? Say “I am poor,”
Show them the invisible patches in your black suit,
Ask them to praise your forgetfulness and make it last.
“Ballad of Infinite Forgetfulness” appeared in the collection of poems, The Eclipses.
This poem is indebted to “Ballade des äußeren Lebens,” by Hugo von Hofmannsthal; or “Ballad of the Outer Life” in Michael Hamburger’s superb translation:
Ballad of the Outer Life
And children grow with deeply wondering eyes
That know of nothing, grow a while and die,
And every one of us goes his own way.
And bitter fruit will sweeten by and by
And like dead birds come hurtling down at night
And for a few days fester where they lie.
And always the wind blows, and we recite
And hear again the phrases thin with wear
And in our limbs feel languor or delight.
And roads run through the grass, and here and there
Are places full of lights and pools and trees,
And some are threatening, some are cold and bare . . .
To what end were they built? With differences
No less innumerable than their names?
Why laughter now, now weeping or disease?
What does it profit us, and all these games,
Who, great and lonely, ever shall be so
And though we always wander seek no aims?
To see such things do travellers leave their homes?
Yet he says much who utters “evening,”
A word from which grave thought and sadness flow
Like rich dark honey from the hollow combs.
—Hugo von Hofmannsthal
From Poems and Verse Plays, translated by Michael Hamburger, 1961.