By the River Neckar


Not far from Friedrich Hölderlin’s Tower, where under the care of a local carpenter the poet spent the end of his days, his ‘late-onset schizophrenia’ a probable result of his attempt to reconcile the mythos of Greece with the diluted hopes of Christendom, the alley of plane trees shines on as old women pedal over the cobbled street by the footbridge, their spokes glinting gently in sublime light of the plane trees’ double-dapple: first the dapple of light through leaves, then the dapple of light on flaking bark.

Breit leaves glow like characters’ faces in a play, sunbathers on the platenenalleé deliver lines into the Neckar’s mirror: well-timed, a gondola poles, mud-color slowly, along a lilt of laughter and golden light, as dragonflies and mayflies’ innumerable paths intersect in innumerable ways; in the haze, a swan slips through green reeds, its familiar softness for the noon’s duration. I would later be interviewed as a random tourist in Tübingen about what I did to stay cool. It was all about consorting with the right people.

In this heat of leaves, doppelgangers, laughter: I fail to imagine much. My ears follow a pigeon cooing after its mate, the end of its known world; calls blur strangely into sounds of a distant Turkish wedding where before the commiseration of honking horns and driving in circles, a violinist’s vein-green wrists spare as much sap as is needed to recapitulate with their passage this scene by the platenenalleé: willow branches hanging in water as a swan’s head resurfaces, turning the surface to a calm the wind has no strength to break.

In his poem ‘Half of Life’ Hölderlin notices a still lake mirroring the trees and sky, full of yellow pears and wild roses, a swan that dips its head in the ‘holy/sobering (heilignüchterne), water’ as if the water’s surface created a mirror image of a world more serene than this; yet there will be frost, snowfall, winds, cursed elements age will not resist, leaving the speaker to wonder where he will find flowers, sunshine, shadows of the earth, when winter comes. In the calming reflection of the Neckar my joints stiffen: piano wire of a suspended chord,

pale as a spouse with his memories the long grip of vehement ritual, bare as the trees are bare, extending their long fingertips into the narrow sea. The play of ducks and hushed sounds, dampening of leaves as grandmothers ride sleeplessly down the cobbles of other people’s speech. When I wake in the morning, I try to forget English: its storefronts, its licking flames. I try to picture myself encaged in the willow’s lace, falling like rain made solid, like years having laughed and laughed, that there should be no more questions, and past, present, future, ordered anyway you like: only the occasional the unity of its swan-glide, until, until.

Remembering this place along the Neckar, when winter comes I bury my thoughts in music.


A swan leans into a ‘V’ made of water, ribbons swept into the den of a willow tree. So the Neckar flows, has flown, fählt die Brucke, so slowly, oder so schnell, and I’m a man of small ability sitting on the grass beside the Neckar as it flowers evenly, bi-directionally, the color of mud following mud, leek soup, fall leaves leaving that scent hard to place, honeysuckle or thyme, time and aster flower, a thick, soupy placid blend Hölderlin might have seen as a device to harness fall colors resonating with the sweeping winds, he begins to sign his work ‘Obediently, Scardanelli’. Monsieur Librarian, Killalusimeno, Buonarotti.

A gondolier’s pole reaches down, drawing out one collective


passengers push off.


‘Often the innerness of the world seems clouded, closed’. The swan appears, kicking against the water, a logical positivist, or an idealist, reincarnated, tests his theory of truth against his back legs, the water returns its solid intuition, the swan reappears, legs stowed under white down. The weeping willow cradles the shadows of its den. Hölderlin’s poetics arises, how every light tone in a line had to be counterpoised with something other, to contain the seeds of its dark complement, until the tension broke in synthesis. On the grass, pigeons feed children the happiness they are not allowed, bobbing their heads so conscientiously as students fresh from lecture, heads so full of theory the landscape shifts, and they could almost fall over,

bicyclists wave along the platenenalleé, chatty, becoming etwas anderes, a sadness-banished moment this part of history’s summer follows the heatwavering wings of insects: mayflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, German idealists who wanted so much to transform ‘ding on sich’ into ‘will’; even Hölderlin fighting madness in the Türm overlooking the Neckar, christened himself  anew, absorbing the failings of his world with light-footed pastoral verse, ‘when from the level distance greenness shows’ drawn forth as effortlessly as those swan feet on return with rowers looking askance, whose grass reveals my shape as I rise.

Hölderlin rests in his tower, contemplating the complete unification between Christian and Greek ideal, the eternal echoes of St. John’s call from the isle of Patmos, or perhaps his time at university (all his other friends go on to be famous) or the time he crossed the Alps on foot, or his days spent tutoring while his friends enjoyed their fame; or his friend Isaac; political refuge (was he feigning madness to avoid being condemned as a Jacobin?) or perhaps none of that. Trees of the platenenalleé stand wonderfully, woefully still. There is something of us within them: a look we share when trying to recall a name, excluding all else as inconsequential, something that eludes our mother tongue.

What if it is someone we loved?

Memory’s growth is to not turn away: to not be the dove burst from a hand’s endless array, to not act the part of the Turkish bride clutching her snow-colored mass. Flower girls throw handfuls of themselves, purer snow collects at the feet of the Neckar, lessening spring’s cruelty; speaking of the dawn Hölderlin writes ‘it pierces humans, gently, and with delight…far away when springtime comes goes grief’. Late in life, he’d begin most of his poems with a ‘When’ curiously disconnected from any particular time, cyclical in nature. The dawn transforms, continues as day and at dusk a gondola poles down the Neckar, drifting sideways as they are dragged down by laughter in golden light, with nowhere to land they break open the canopy of the real.


The melodrama of why human leaves have been whorled down to again is answered: a season. I am home now, my city New Haven dreamt in dashed solos of heavy blue englishes, snowflakes first fall dampening the street. The inescapable romance of houses composed of ourselves, loudening from the inside out, again it’s daylight and I’m foiled in my attempt to hear English as another language not my own. I press handfuls of bulk into a bag, tines rewriting the ground with a strained back, yet remember what I learned from Hölderlin: things exist in good measure:

children, love, Greek tragedies, roof shingles that pile up from a construction’s incessant labor, papers with flavor of absences, remembrances of kisses—how often a form with warmth clung to the fresh bed sheets, as though they were clouds unobserved in the stratosphere, destinies spelled with the evanescent writing of lightning, how like the divine, near and hard to grasp, housing an element that saves.  



Perhaps because I couldn’t finish the Neckar cycle, I threw myself into it. Wanting to draw on its measured graces, slipstreams left by its swans, playful splashes when an oar dips in to find no resistance, how a work collects in cool reflection, while we, inventing demonically, become ‘lyrical’, cast about in a consciousness not the Neckar, posit weddings, swans, doves, characters, so that feeling can on its own arise from without, not too worried about the dilemma: if a work is immersive it is not fully understood, but if it is fully understood then it is not immersive.

David Capps is a philosophy professor and poet who lives in New Haven, CT. He is the author of four chapbooks: Poems from the First Voyage (The Nasiona Press, 2019), A Non-Grecian Non-Urn (Yavanika Press, 2019), Colossi (Kelsay Books, 2020), and Wheatfield with a Reaper (Akinoga Press, forthcoming).