Punch Line

Walter Bargen


Not quite after dinner, but after the jägerschnitzel
in burgundy sauce heavy with mushrooms,
noodle dish of spätzle, ending with apfelstrudel,
when the elderly woman crowned by her coiffed,
dark-dyed hair begins her story in her six-decades-long,
accented English. She wants to make it clear
how primitive the Russian army was when it overran
her town near Berlin at war’s end.  A soldier needed
to wash his only pair of socks. In the occupied house
that still had half its windows, the kitchen sink
didn’t work and neither did the bath,
but there was water in the toilet where he dropped
his socks and began to agitate them. He accidentally
flushed his socks. His face reddened as he shouted,
“Those damn Germans even trained toilets to steal
from us.” I didn’t realize she was telling a joke.
It’s how the defeated become victorious.
It’s really not that funny. Maybe you had to be there,
in the rubble and rape of it all.
In 1945, a clean pair of socks might have been worth
a man’s life. The bootless corpse he’d passed, seated,
leaning against a sign post beside a cratered road.
The soldier thought, Why does a dead man need
warm feet? The beginning of another joke.


Walter Bargen has published 21 books of poetry. Recent books include Days Like This Are Necessary: New & Selected Poems (BkMk Press, 2009), Trouble Behind Glass Doors (BkMk Press, 2013), Perishable Kingdoms (Grito del Lobo Press, 2017), and Too Quick for the Living (Moon City Press, 2017). His awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the William Rockhill Nelson Award. He was appointed the first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2009). www.walterbargen.com