There was a time when I would have watched the starlings diving after flies, the gentle esses of their swaying over the meadow like the effortless swing of the trapeze in the circus of the clouds.I might have noticed the sweet apostrophes of leaves as they fall in the still summer’s heat, remembered Goethe’s poetic evanescent rise and fall of the spirit as it ascends to Heaven drawn by God’s gossamer web, the tug and ease of his certain pulling on the line, the fisherman reeling in the souls afraid to depart, afraid not to; Schiller’s Ode to Joy, Beethoven’s music making the words immortal.I might have written in my notebook of galleon clouds sailing over the Black Forest, more like albino dolphins cruising reefs off northern shores, the blue calamite coral like the spires of fallen Babylon, city of iridescent kings.“My love,” I would have written, “will you remember me when I am gone? Will the flagstone terrace miss my shadow, the lilacs wonder that days have passed when I have not mixed my breath with theirs?You would never understand, my love, what brought me here, what duty so possessed me that I…”The words evaporate in the air of the Eastern Front.
The men, the women and the children are all running through the woods, their stifled screams and cries, whimpers, a dismal chorus to the clicks and clacks of breaking twigs, the wiry staccato call of an infant, sadly bouncing breasts, red knees, grey hair, sallow skin, sunken eyes, the miniature genitalia of the children, scrotums, the bric-a-brac of the false humanity of the Jew, a herd of them corralled through this pristine woods, a pink python slithering for shelter.
“Schnell,” I yell out, “Schnell Jüden.”Into the trench they go, dirt to dirt, I think.Would Friedrich still marry me knowing the great task I have undertaken?...and am accomplishing.Does it matter, Friedrich?Did you know the steel that has replaced my bones?I love you still, my darling, even as I give the order to fire.So many bullets nesting in the trench, like bats at dusk returning to their cave, so many the air is grey, the bodies of the Jews writhing, then flattening, then still, an occasional hand reaching to its empty sky.
The vapor from the SS guns rises like jellyfish tendrils over the trench.Is that thunder?Will the rain finally come?No, it is the earthmovers, four dun bulldozers chugging and belching diesel smoke, a fog at noon, pushing loam over the excrement my squad has deposited.In a half-hour, the floor of this clearing is restored, though flat and bald.I can see the billion seeds of grass, of buttercups, of milkweed, of bluebells hugging the rich soil, their infant roots soon to reach down.Do the dead below wait for them?Do they dream of home?Do they face judgment? No. They have no souls. They are the damned.
I straighten my death’s head uniform. I am an avenging angel.My car pulls up.A lieutenant opens the door for me, clicks his heels.“Heil Hitler,” he says, “Fraulein Komandant.” I nod and feel God’s reassuring hand on my shoulder.
Entrant for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters, 2009, Best New American Poet, 2007: Pastore owes all he has, and has ever had, to a saving engagement with his art. What I particularly admire is the gamble he takes, and wins, with those classic stylized poems. In less accomplished hands they might have been distractingly archaic, but here, defused by the beautifully plain and heartfelt thanks for everything into which they flow, they connect back to the great tradition from which Pastore has drawn strength not just artistically but personally, one feels throughout one of the more impressively and, I might say, spectacularly, composed first poetry collections in contemporary American poetry.Madeleine Montenegro: The Poetry Review
An Excerpt from Brink of the World
My cousin was Gregory Corso,
But his real name was Nunzio,
After the grandfather we shared
That he never knew.
I didn’t see Gregory until he was 70;
Bopped with Ginsberg
Who gave him a bed
Snapped fingers in SoHo
With Kerouac for booze;
Whored with Burroughs
Who rose in the sky like the A-Bomb blast
They each had seen on a small TV screen,
Black and white with shades of fear.
All of them hugged their rage
And screamed their false warnings
(It turned out)
To the world from a stage
Where the audience had eyes only for Elvis.
I didn’t see Gregory until he was 70,
Toothless and hippie-haired.
His anger was a costume,
A vestigial organ
Which didn’t have a use anymore.
Left at the orphanage by his mom.
Never knew her until he was 70.
Spent the money his life had earned
To find her—she didn’t care.
She had her own troubles she said;
She thought he was dead.
He didn’t need the Bomb to be pissed at.
In the end,
His life was enough.
Down and out in Paris;
Sleeping in the alleys off Bleecker Street.
Selling enough copies of his pissed off poetry
Beat Beat Beat
To pay the rent.
Hippie-haired and toothless,
Would have traded it all
For a few years in high school,
Finding a job—maybe a pension.
Would have traded it all
To see his mother grandmother his kids.
Would have burned all his poems-false alarms-
And thrown them in the river
For a night in his mother’s arms.
Another excerpt: Not my best poem for sure, but the most popular and most often reprinted:
The Animals’ Heaven
No man or woman or child enters without their mute consent.
Dominion was not decreed here, nor misunderstood.
In this place the rains are always gentle,
Falling in the morning air to keep
the endless rolling steppes verdant and deep.
Springboks forever graze and bounce across the line of buffalo, all running for the green joy of it.
Deer and gazelle necks curving gracefully to nibble new grass, ears twitching but hearing no flies, no footfalls, no riflecrack.
Horses bound where cinch and saddle and bit and shoe have long ago dissolved as if made of dust.
Teeming and sinuous herds gallop to acreless pastures of clover, corn, carrots and fallen apples, orange and red and glistening in the dew.
No leopard hides in the tall grass; no cheetah bounds from below the slyly curving hill.
Flashing perfect hooves do not fail
to escape the phantom wolves that never down mare, or foal, or stallion.
Beyond the treeline lions laze in the sun, ever by a draughtless stream; unaging cubs pawing and mock hunting near poacherless rhinos.
A black-maned king pounces on a spirit antelope,
joyous crunch of bone and sinew, slathering flesh and ritual sharing without death or fear or pain.
Each stalk is a success.
Near the lake great packs of dogs and wolves run.
Tongues lolling, slurping water, chomping bones and slabs of perfect meat from no animal that ever lived, fresh and flyless, left in the shade of gladly curving birches.
Collarless, leashless, ropeless, cageless, all leather and cord and metal evaporated in the mist that followed the warm rain on that first warm day.
Cats catch mouse ghosts that,
with perfect timing, leap from the grass as they sidle by.
Cows chew in fenceless pastures, plod past bluish fields where no fence or prod ever flashes in the midday sun.
Chimps, gorillas, orangutans climb and wrestle, wrestle and climb in rain forests where no ax ever echoes in the dying light.
Each in its own way worships God who gives each this place as reward for enduring the other.
Back in high school I struggled through Red Badge of Courage. Likewise, Crane's novel about a young prostitute, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, bored me in college. But along the way I discovered that Crane wrote poetry as well. His poetry is not the sentimental and genteel poetry often associated with the 19th century. His aggresive free-verse is more an agonized scream and a punch in the gut. Crane delights in calling out hypocrisy and exposing it to the light of day.
Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Menken were the "paragons of pessimism" during their days. To that group add the voice of Stephen Crane who was their equal in expressing the cynicism of the age; but Crane's cynicism often came wrapped around a seed of hope for mankind.
Pastore's intriguing and insightful Epilogue to these poems may be the greatest contribution to Crane studies in the last 30 years. His analysis also appears in Stephen Crane Studies published by The Stephen Crane Society at the University of Virginia.