Karl Patten

Sometimes when I see water running
Everything is only part of everything,
And names are like that, slip away,
Get forgotten. The face, of course,
But I can’t remember his name.

My friend never drops names, she loses
Them, they roll away from her, marbles
That somehow vanished at recess.

She worries about her lost tags,
And she’s right to. We’re stuck with names,
The first and least-chosen things we spend
Life with, they’re cut into our gravestones.

Names come back. Something to whisper
When sleep won’t come, the past creeping
Through darkness right up to
The pillow—Jimmy Riddle, who was he?

Far better than numbers. I refuse
To memorize my social security number,
Though I know if I’d been in Buchenwald
I would have learned my blue wrist.
I would also have maintained my name.

COMMENT: As with most of my poems, in “Names” I simply let the poem run on its own lines (pun not intended but I’ll take it) meaning that I don’t know where the poem is going and I certainly don’t know how it will end.

This poem ran along pretty easily, especially when I introduced my friend into it. Then I began thinking generally about what names are like, and next brought it right up to the personal (I think Jimmy Riddle was the right fielder for the 1937 New York Giants). But names led to numbers, which lack individual meaning. However, that gave me the end, allowing me to fantasize myself in a Nazi concentration camp with a tattooed number on my wrist, but for me the last word had to be my name.

Most poems are not so easy to reconstruct, but keeping this one simple and straightforward made the above happen.


The Heart in Action

for Duduzile

You come from the darkness of injustice, Soweto,

That flat, artificial city you showed us photos

Of, that camp without walls, an imposed rigor,

And you approach our guilt with warming light.


You are the one who comforts, Duduzile, and we

Need you, shamed that in our name wrongs are done

Daily to you and your people, need your courage,

The heart in action, saying the hard No to tyranny.


Your light penetrates our mind of darkness,

And that hurts, for we know we avoid the light,

Except for false flickerings on a screen.  Truth

From Soweto appalls us.  But your words confirmed


And comforted me as you stood so bravely speaking,

Refusing to weep as you described humiliation

And fear, the Soweto story, and your heart in action,

Peace and love to you. Remember me, your friend.

Karl Patten

The Impossible Reaches

Comment:  I met Duduzile (her African name, her English one being Joyce) at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat where I had gone for a quiet place where I could write.  She and her friend, Ellison, were travelling around the U.S. speaking of apartheid and its evils (this was 1987).

Surprising myself, I took to going to early morning Meeting, and one time Duduzile stood and described, compellingly, her experiences (and her children’s) as a black person in severely segregated South Africa – fear, humiliation, and a desire to fight back.  It was the most moving personal account I have ever heard.

Some times things combine.  I had given a poetry reading at Pendle Hill; Duduzile and Ellison were to go to Washington, DC, following their stay there.  They had no way to get to the railroad station, and, hearing this, I offered to take them.  As we stood on the platform, she asked me if I would write a poem for her, a request a writer never wants to hear and invariably dodges, but in her case I had to say “Yes,” and “The Heart in Action” is the poem I wrote.  To my astonishment I wrote another poem for her, this one for Joyce, and I sent them to Soweto, of course.  That is the only time I have ever acceded to the question, and I now am glad that she made it – compellingly.

A Learning

for Joyce

We think we make the pot,

Eager hands at the wheel.

Ignorant, we forget

How things become whole


And whirl the wheel faster

As thumbs and fingers grope.

The matter is the master,

The clay knows its shape,


The dark mind within it

Will make what it can make.

I and me and mine sought

To conquer – a mistake.


The vessel won’t hold water.

We learn about the clay,

That form follows matter.

You taught me that today.


Karl Patten

Spaces and Lines

Comment: In my comment on “The Heart in Action” I said that Duduzile, the brave and eloquent woman from Soweto, had an English name, Joyce, too.  That tells you something about South Africa in 1987 under apartheid.

I knew her at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat, where she was Joyce.  Among her many talents, she was a gifted potter, and one day she demonstrated her pottery work for the residents.  I admired how she worked and how she showed the difficulties of the wheel.  As I said before, she wanted a poem from me, and to my surprise I wrote her two, “A Learning” being the second.   “The matter is the matter,” and a poem about making a pot wanted to be tight and rhymed, but, for me, the poem is also dealing with human ignorance and the will to conquer – until we learn we can’t. Then we make something worthwhile. 13084


thanks to Kurt Tucholsky



Good evening, gentlemen, how are you?

I’m the PR man from Kokostech.


Kokostech has no harmful side-effects,

Since it has no effects at all.


We are only manufacturing it in order

To cover the high advertising costs,


And we advertise it in order

To be able to manufacture it.


In this way we symbolize what lies

Closest to our hearts – capital.




Questions? Capital? Gross accumulation,

Money begets money, ask your banker.


Lacking that we couldn’t be Kokostech.

No effects at all?  Of course not,


Because it we had effects, we’d have causes,

And nobody wants causes, right?  That’s


Logic.  Causes are dangerous, cause

Effects, side-, inside-, outside-, ugly.


We want beauty, henceforth Kokostech,

That miracle of manufacture plus


Advertising, all up the spout, friends,

Trusting trusses, our only support.


Karl Patten


Comment:  When writing “thanks” to Kurt Tucholsky, I am very direct.  I was reading a book on the Weimar Republic, which dealt primarily with the arts, and I came across a prose passage, lacking a context, from Kurt Tucholsky.  It was a parody of advertising and said that whatever “has no harmful side-effects since it has no effects at all.”  Immediately, I knew there was a satirical poem there and set off writing this poem.  The first half went very well, but when I read it to my Spilling Ink colleagues they quickly saw that I had failed to follow it up in the second half.  I listened to their criticisms carefully and went home and rewrote, thoroughly, that second half.  At least according to them I succeeded, and you now have the completed poem.


I had to give a voice to Tucholsky’s prose and invented a PR man speaking to a group of shareholders about his product, for which I invented Kokostech.  Ko- is a favored bit of sound for products of all kinds, and I liked it for this one, whatever it is, I don’t know, although it suggests to me something to pull off a pharmacy shelf and ingest for better health.


Tucholsky was a satirical poet, and, I believe, suffered and died under the Nazis.  He is little-known in this country, unfortunately.

The Feet

by Karl Patten

for Estragon

They walk together down the street –

Easy paces, easy strides, a bit

Of stop and shuffle – writing a poem.

The stepstepping eyes of the feet

Are lithe, never gawk or blush.

They look and look – calm potatoes.

Hopscotching girls, cathedrals,

Pigeons, funerals, bus-stops,

Trees, do not notice the feet

Measuring them into poems.  What

Touches, the tough sidewalk surface,

Matters most to the feet, their

Demesne exclusive and proper.

On that terrain left foot, right

Foot are confident, come down

Time after time, having long

Construed the offs and ons of slips

And balances.  Only the knees,

Other upper joints and twining

Muscles vex the feet, could

Deflect them from their poem.

Their only enemy is the head.

from Touch: Poems


Comment:  This poem had a memorable origin, which has nothing to do with its worth, but seems right to mention here.

On a sunny day in August, I was sitting on a doorstop across from the portal of the North Transept of Chartres Cathedral, and I jotted down what I was seeing.  Those details appear in stanza three, chiefly.  The rest of the poem developed later that fall.

I was taken by the notion that feet, just walking along, could write a poem.  I knew that poems come from one’s whole experience and that they are never written by the head, though of course that can play a guiding role.  The grittiness of the sidewalk and the particular ways of walking really mattered, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the legs.  I did not know how the poem would end until nearly through with a full draft, and then it become obvious.

I did know fairly on that poems in English are written in feet, generally, and I liked the idea of the feet “measuring” the world seen into poems.

Finally, I should add that the dedication to Estragon came naturally, for he is the bum in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot who has trouble with his boots and his feet.  I sense that Beckett would have approved of this.



The landscape of bread

Sleeps, sodden, rainbitten.


Under the waterfield

Memories of a leaf of flame.


Across the plain

A hard shadow on the dreaming wind.


Begin again at zero,

Crawl through the stone-hole,


Belly-down, and grovel

Into the earth’s dark eye.


Chew the bread of winter.


Karl Patten

from Touch: Poems


Commentary:  I would hope that this small poem speaks to our condition.  I mean, of course, the weather this winter, harsh and long, but also to the fact that we must face up to adverse situations and act, not merely accept them.  If one agrees, then I guess that this becomes an existential poem; we see what’s there and then do something about it, hard as that may be.


January 11, 1977: Three News Items



At 11:30 last night

On the other shore of the frozen river

Two children burned to death

In a mobile home.

Drinking in my kitchen

I heard the sirens and goose-flesh

Raised hair on my arms.  We enjoyed

Another drink and went to bed.

I don’t know those people

Over there, never will,

But can’t clean from my mind

Today’s front page picture

Of the burning white

Upright ribs of that trailer

Against black.  Silence

Of those children dying.

These days are so cold you could

Walk across the frozen Susquehanna.



Otis Simmons, a 58 year-old

Derelict from Alabama lay

For 15 hours immobile on Broadway

Near the Americana Hotel

In sub-freezing weather

Then walked barefoot to the hospital.

Doctors say his right leg and left foot

Both lethal with gangrene

Must be cut off.

Otis Simmons says

He wants to die with his legs on.

Psychiatrists say Otis Simmons

Is not competent to decide.

A judge said Otis Simmons

Can choose his death.

I never thought I’d love a judge.

But what of all those passersby

On Broadway near the Americana Hotel?

Are we so cold we’ve forgotten cold?

I think Otis Simmons

Knows what warmth is and legs.



The Mayuruna Indians in the remote Amazon

Are killing their children in despair

Because white men are stealing their land.

A few years ago the Mayurunas

Ambushed several bands of rubber trappers and lumberjacks

But there are always too many white men.

The number of Mayurunas has decreased

In three years from 2,000 to 400.

“Desperate, and feeling that they have nowhere to go,

They have decided to die in order not to surrender

And to escape hunger,” a scholar said.

The Mayurunas have not fled into Peru

Because they venerate the land they inhabit.

I’m a white man writing for white men.

Brazil is an integral part of the free world.

Rubber keeps my various things moving

And I drink coffee twice a day.

How many Mayurunas have I killed this year?

I – and you, reader – are black helicopters against the sun,

Spiders of rationality and death,

Whose blades of progress and acquisition

Wrench loose the Mayurunas’ broad sheltering jungle leaves

And flatten their grasses

As we make our improbable descent.


If I could cross the river.

I have to cross the river.

Karl Patten from Touch: Poems

Commentary:  Although this poem may seem rather old, when I read it recently it was clear that nothing had changed over the years.  Disaster, cruelty (and courage), and exploitation can all be found daily in the news.

The title is exact.  I did read these three articles on 1/11/77.  I think now that the French term fait-divers would be a better title, for these are three completely unrelated stories.  The first I read on the front page of the local newspaper under the photograph of that burning trailer; it’s true that I will never forget those ribs standing out against the blackness.  The other two I read elsewhere though where I cannot remember, though their details remain vivid, and one does not need photographs of them, if such were even possible.

The poem is a good example of how poetry fuses unrelated things.  The items stand alone, but it simply takes a mind to pull them together to show how horror and injustice reflect the world we live in.  Beyond that, I think there is little more to say; the facts should speak for themselves, and as I thought then (and now) the theme is obvious: we are all connected and responsible for others; one must overcome the bland egotism shown in the second stanza.

MacNamara’s Memoirs

I live in a small town, where,

In my backyard, grackles attack

Squirrels along the telephone wire,

Guarding their nests.  Elsewhere,

MacNamara’s released his reflections.

In this town, three or four men,

Whose eyes never seem to see,

Live, too, always on Market Street.

Viet Nam veterans.  No jobs for them,

Who once saw or did too much.

They wander past the shops or lounge

Against the drugstore, silent,

Listless, half-lost.  Some days one

Wheels a bicycle, never rides it.

The bombs all dropped, what can one say

To Robert MacNamara this spring

Except: come visit our town,

The grackles might interest you.

Karl Patten

From Touch: Poems


There is very little to say about this poem.  Many will remember that when Robert MacNamara published his Memoirs, he, who had such a major role as Secretary of Defense in promoting the war in Viet Nam, had very little to say about the consequences of that disastrous war, not merely about the millions of dead and wounded Vietnamese, but of the massive number of American casualties, including the thousands of American soldiers who survived but returned home broken in body and spirit.

I was angered by MacNamara’s book, but it took the very low-key tone of a few local images to express my anger, and, in fact, rather graciously extending a visit to our small town to him.  He never came, as far as I know.

P.S. Is it simply another example of American hypocrisy in high places that we denominate our war office the Department of Defense?  Surely it should be called the Department of Offence, for it only offends other people – and us.  Long ago, it was know as the War Department, surely more honest a moniker.