Lyn Coffin: My Memories of War

I

because war was happening somewhere we couldn’t buy real butter so Mom bought a big white brick of fat with a red dot at the center and my job was to put my thumbs on the red dot and squeeze until the brick turned yellow At school we hid under our desks when we heard sirens because if atomic bombs dropped on us we would still be safe under our desks as long as we didn’t eat the dried out gum wads stuck there I asked if the people who made the bombs had made the gum and no one answered but I was used to that I was used to being unheard unhappy and unhurt

II

being American and ignorant my husband and I took a bus from Dublin to Belfast and arrived at night everyone even the bus driver fled as soon as the bus stopped leaving the door open there were boarded up buildings everywhere and we heard gunshots not far off  we were panicked strangers in a strange panicked city getting darker by the moment and saw above a jabbed sky HOTEL INTERCONTINENTAL   and we went toward it like camels toward a star that led us into a dark maze of crooked lading and  makeshift tunnels of disjointed plywood and twice as we stumbled ahead men with guns came out of the dark and searched us for guns and told us to keep moving and we did and we came to the actual light at the end of the actual tunnel and a big glass door and  pushed our way  into a big glass lobby    with a big crystal chandelier and a band was playing Stardust in another room and a sign on a brass post informed us: “G E N T L E M E N   M U S T   W E A R   T I E S.” So the war I remember is a war that never arrives  And a war that never arrives is always someone else’s.

 

Lyn Coffin

Ned’s Aria
a rhymed sestina

Beginnings, yes. But who knows how things will end?
As a feverish child, singing in my everyday sickbed,
I didn’t. Neither did my seamstress mother, forced to bend
every night over her own lap, biting off thread
as she sewed. She said, “The truth isn’t in wine,
or song. If you want the truth, you have to divine

it like underground water, with a stick, not try to define
it as yours, but the one truth worth knowing, we learn at the end.”
My Sunday school teachers didn’t confine
themselves to the truth: “Sing at the table, sing in bed,”
they told me. “The Devil will get you when you’re dead.”
They really thought– I thought, as well– God would send

singers of love songs to hell. But my path there took a sudden bend
in high school, when my art teacher praised “the Romantic, divine
Fragonard…” She said Classicism was hanging by a thread,
his swinging girl, her half-off shoe, marked its end.
I hung a poster of that girl above my bed:
I could almost hear her singing. Some nights, I’d dream her fine

blue day, her lover, her after-world, were mine–
I’d swing into heaven on a song!  But that dream would end
in daylight guilt, my covers at the foot of my bed…
Mom said “You need dates, Carolyn— a cocktail party line.”
Her words wandered. When she finally found the deep end
of her life, her mind bent over, and bit off the thread

of her thought.  ed, my college voice coach said
“Your voice is hopeless, and I love you.”  Ned drank too much wine,
but he wove my name into an aria. He became my friend,
my confidante, my lover.  The school year came to an end,
and Ned had no job. He got drunk and enlisted one fine
May day— Nine months later, his last letter home said

“Music obscures the truth.”   When I’m lying in bed
some nights, the aria Ned rewrote for me starts to thread
its way through the dark of my mind like a musical vine.
The ticking clock is a metronome, then, not a mine.
I hear his love song coming from beyond the bend,
“Car-o-lyn ben, Cre-di-mi al-men.”

A sword hangs by a thread above the bed
I call mine. I hope our spirits will blend into mercy
like music at the end: it’s a hope I savor like wine.

Lyn Coffin (born November 12, 1943) is an American poet, fiction writer, playwright, editor, and translator. Coffin was born on Long Island, New York. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Michigan in 1965. She holds an M.A. and an M.S.W. from the University of Michigan, an M.A.T., Master of Arts in Teaching from Columbia. She has an honorary doctorate from the World Academy of Arts and Culture (UNICEF).

Coffin is the author of ten books: three of poetry, one of poetry/fiction/drama, and six of translation. She has published fiction, poetry and non-fiction in over fifty quarterlies and small magazines, including Time magazine. One of her fictions, originally published in the Michigan Quarterly Review appeared in Best American Short Stories 1979, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Her plays have been performed at theaters in Malaysia, Singapore, Boston, New York (Off Off Broadway), Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Seattle. She has given poetry readings with Nobel Prize winners Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz, and Philip Levine, among others.

Lyn Coffin’s publications include:
White Picture (Night Publishing, 2011) Translations of Czech poet, Jiří Orten
Crystals of the Unforeseen (Plain View Press, 1999) Poetry, fiction and drama
Human Trappings (Abattoir Editions) Poetry
The Poetry of Wickedness (Ithaca House) Poetry
Elegies by Jiří Orten (translation from Czech)
The Plague Column by Jaroslav Seifert (translation from Czech) Used by Nobel Committee in granting Seifert his prize.
More than One Life by Miloslava Holubova (translation from Czech)
Selected Poems of Akhmatova (translation from Russian).

Her awards include:
Recipient of an NEH grant and an International Poetry Review prize
Grants from Michigan Council of the Arts
Natl Endowment for the Humanities
First prize in Translation from Academy of American Poets (for the Orten Elegies)

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