Churchbells

Listen to the poem in English

Churchbells — Read by Greg Nedved

Samuel HoffensteinOriginal Text

When I was a little lad,
Sunday churchbells made me sad,
Made me wish I hadn’t been
Born a Jew and deep in sin,
For as many a Christian boy
Told me with unChristly joy
I had personally done
A thing to blacken sky and sun,
In hate and malice sacrificed
His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,
And though, since I was barely ten,
I couldn’t quite remember when
I had done the hellish thing,
I used to hear the churchbells ring,
And dogs of terror scampered blind

Through Ghetto alleys of my mind,

And barked in bells from Christian spires,
And ran in rings ’round Christian fires,
And crucifixes, wild of eye,
On their single legs strode by.
I watched the people, still and strange,
Passing in their Sunday change,
Knife-lipped women, rock-faced men,
Seemingly the same as when
I saw them every other day,
Yet skies and seas and lands away,
And felt forlorn and child-alone,
And felt that way among my own –
No Gentile dark with love of Christ
Whom I and mine had sacrificed,
No Jew with skullcap on his head
Mumbling something Moses said –
A leaf that fluttered from no tree,
Nor came to rest, nor yet was free,
A tree that walked, but never grew,
A living semblance, but a Jew
Lost in the United States,
Lost behind the Ghetto gates,
No bird, yet wingless, lost in air,
Along and alien everywhere.
Now I am a large and mellow,
Mild and philosophic fellow
Of amiable thought and speech,
Sweetly disposed toward all and each,
A stanch disciple of Saint Paul,
A friend of sparrows as they fall,
Contained, reflective and resigned,
Of equable Franciscan mind,
Content with almost anything,
I hear the Sunday churchbells ring
Upon a morning broad and bright,
And think the little lad was right
And will be till the gods unite
And One God says, “Let there be light!”

Ghetto


An Italian word meaning “foundry.” It originally referred to a part of the city of Venice where the Jews of that city were forced to live; the area was called “the ghetto” because there was a foundry nearby. The term eventually came to refer to any part of a city in which a minority group is forced to live as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure. Because of the restrictions placed upon them, ghetto residents are often impoverished.

Author Notes

Samuel Hoffenstein (Oct. 8, 1890 – Oct. 6, 1947) was born in Lithuania; his family emigrated to the US in 1894. He graduated from Lafayette College, PA, then worked as a reporter for a local paper. By 1913, he had become the drama critic for the New York Sun. He also wrote articles for the magazine Vanity Fair and the New York Tribune newspaper. He married Edith Morgan in 1927. His first book of poetry, Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing, came out in 1928. In 1931, Hoffenstein settled in Los Angeles, working as a screenwriter for Paramount Studios until 1936, then for 20th Century Fox from 1941-1947. During that time, he was employed as a scriptwriter for over 30 movies. He was twice a co-nominee for an Oscar: for “Best Adaptation” for the 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and for “Best Screenplay” for the 1944 film Laura. Hoffenstein’s revision of the screenplay for Laura – in which he turned the novel’s narrator, Waldo Lydecker, into the screen character portrayed by Clifton Webb – caused 20th Century Fox to upgrade the movie from its original B status to an A picture. Other notable film credits for Hoffenstein include The Miracle Man (1932), Phantom of the Opera (1943), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Tales of Manhattan (1942). He also collaborated with Cole Porter and Kenneth Webb in composing the musical score for The Gay Divorce (1933), which in 1934 was turned into the film The Gay Divorcee, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Hoffenstein died in Los Angeles. His second book of verse, Pencil in the Air, was published to critical acclaim three days after his death.

Sources

Hoffenstein, Samuel. Pencil in the Air. Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1947.
“Samuel Hoffenstein.” Wikipedia, 14 Sept. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Samuel_Hoffenstein&oldid=1044269250.

Fanni is Radnóti's wife
Located near the Tang capital city of Chang’an, site of the modern city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, in central China.
Soldiers of that time commonly wore a white head cloth, similar to what is still worn by some peasants in China today.  The implication is that the conscripts were so young that they didn’t know how to wrap their head cloths, and needed help from elders.
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
The area of Guanxi, meaning “west of the passes”, refers to the area around the capital city of Chang’an.
This is an alternative name for a province in western China, now known as Qinghai, which literally means “blue sea”.  Kokonor Lake, located in Qinghai, is the largest saline lake in China.  
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
Oulart Hollow was the site of a famous victory of the Irish rebels over British troops, which took place on May 27, 1798. The rebels killed nearly all the British attackers in this battle. (Source: Maxwell, W. H. History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. H. H. Bohn, London 1854, pp 92-93, at archive.org)
The phrase "United Men" is elaborated upon in the Notes section below.

"You’re five nine, I am do-uble two"


A reference to the year 1959 and the year 2020.

"The Currency"


Meaning US dollars - this is drawing attention to the fact that Cuba is effectively dollarized.

"Sixty years with the dom-ino stuck"


This sentence is a reference to the Cold War notion that countries would turn Communist one after the other - like dominos. Cuba was the first domino, but it got stuck - no one else followed through into communism.

رحلنا


رحلنا, or "rahalna," means "we have left."

Habibi


Habibi means "my love."

Ra7eel


Ra7eel, or "raheel," means "departure."

3awda


3awda, or "awda," means "returning."

أهلاً


أهلاً, or "ahalan," means "welcome."

a5 ya baba


a5 ya baba, pronounced "akh ya baba," means "Oh my father."

golpe


Treece translates "golpe" as "beating", which is correct, however misses the secondary meaning of the word: "coup".

Carlos


The “Carlos” referred to in the poem is most likely Carlos Bolsonaro, a politician from Rio de Janeiro and the second son of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president. His and his father’s involvement in Marielle’s murder has been questioned and investigated.