Poetry

Bridge 14. Feb. 45

Karl Kirchwey

Yet why not say what happened?
—robert lowell

On his way to New York at the time of the Trade Center attacks, 
Gerhard Richter’s flight was rerouted to Halifax.
  His response, having survived a childhood in wartime cities,
was to appropriate a black-and-white photo that depicts

Cologne after a bombing raid in World War II,
an American aerial reconnaissance photo
      containing only information, without judgment,
and mount it under reflecting Antelio glass, so

the self is not involved in it anywhere,
no composition, therefore, no style, pure picture,
      freeing the artist from personal experience
and yet incriminating every passing viewer,

for whom it is impossible not to be seen in
that landscape bleak and pitted as the moon,
      while the Rhine snags in darts of light on a broken bridge.
So it was that one day in a gallery on Madison,

as if drawn by the boisterous and nonchalant whistle
the Australian butcherbird uses to impale
      its prey on a thorn, I was drawn to this picture,
and watched my own image float and settle

inside the gray frame and the catastrophe,
though it wasn’t the cunning of it, but a memory
      that caught me: and what it was that I remembered,
or rather, what it was reflected there dully,

was a visit to the unfinished cathedral church
across town long ago, and the great porch
      for which a friend of ours was carving sculptures.
I had just dropped by, I wasn’t thinking much,

and in my arms I held our infant daughter.
Smiling, he turned to greet us, the ghastly pallor
      of stone dust on his face, and the baby screamed, 
as Astyanax does when he sees his father Hector

in the grim helmet of war and the plume nodding,
for it was as if she had seen a dead thing
      climb from the rubble, and she was inconsolable.
But just before we left, I saw what he was making,

which was a column capital with a scene of Armageddon
in which the Twin Towers seemed to waver and lean
      toward final judgment in the Valley of Jehoshaphat:
and you understand this was years before 9/11.

Then my face slid from the picture and I was back
in the gallery, in the world of poor passing fact,
      and I realized I had never seen it in place
on the church facade, that sculpture both prophetic

and now anachronistic of its own loss.
In the roaring avenue I took a bus
      —and I suppose it should not have surprised me
(I knew the stoneyard had been gone for years)

to find someone had climbed the Great Portal
and, driven by who knows what conspiratorial
      thinking, smashed those towers to limestone stubs,
someone for whom the moral mirror was intolerable,

the implication in a greater crime,
and no relief from self, and I by random
      ways come to witness this,
still squared, forever squared, in that gray frame.

Black and white map overview
Gerhard Richter, Bridge 14 FEB 45 (III), 2000. © Gerhard Richter 2021 (0027).
Karl Kirchwey is the author of seven books of poems. “Bridge 14 FEB. 45” is part of a long poem-in-progress called MUTABOR. He is a Professor at Boston University, where he serves as Associate Dean of Faculty for the Humanities.
Originally published:
June 28, 2021

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