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New Jersey Journey

Spent two hours at the end of December
on the Garden State Highway
In the ancient Ford’s trunk
nothing but my heart grown
heavier year by year

A protracted catastrophe:
the constant river of traffic
the endless business of overtaking
vicious eye-contact
with total strangers
in the adjacent lane 

Driven by yearning
for its prehistoric brothers
a Jumbo climbs out of Newark
airport over marshes and lagoons
a giant smoking
mountain of rubbish
and the countless lights
of the refineries

Mile after mile of stunted trees
telegraph poles fields of blueberries
a Siberian countryside
colonized then run to seed
with moribund supermarkets
abandoned poultry farms
haunted by millions and millions
of breakfast eggs
harboring the undeciphered sighs
of an entire nation

Near the retirement town of Lakehurst
a safari park soundless
under its coat of frost
cemeteries as spacious
as the world war killing fields
funeral parlours dubious
antique shops and a bus station
for last trips
to Atlantic City

In the twilight of the settlement itself
ten square miles of faintly
luminous bungalows
lawns dwarf-conifers
Christmas decorations
Santa Rudolph the Reindeer
and in front of one of the houses
my uncle feeding the songbirds

Drinking schnapps
he later tells me
of the conquest of New York
Drinking schnapps I consider
the ramifications of our calamity
and the meaning of the picture
that shows him, my uncle
as a tinsmith’s assistant in ’23
on the new copper roof
of the Augsburg synagogue
those were the days

Next day we drive out to the coast
Seaside Park Avenue at noon
the boardwalks deserted
boarded-up diners
Alpine-style summerhouses
with circulating draughts
yachts rattling in the cold
the sub-urban migration of dunes

With the brown house-high waves
in the background my uncle
leaning forward into the wind
snapped me again
with his Polaroid

Do we really die
only once

W.G. Sebald

—Translated by Iain Galbraith

This poem appeared in the February 2, 2012, issue of the magazine.