Inside the iron gates of Sachsenhausen,
a dozen prisoners unloading shoes,
boxes littering the ground in teetering columns.
The Gypsies, the queers, the malingerers & Jews:
the shoe-walking unit, who will now test the soles
of a new synthetic rubber. Before them,
The shoe-testing track, winding to the horizon
& surfaced with Teutonic precision. Fifty-eight percent
is concrete road, 12 percent loose sand,
10 percent cinder path, 8 percent mud & meant
to stay continually underwater, 4 percent cobblestone
(looted from cities in West Pomerania);
This is one of those poems that has so much going on it makes my head explode. And that’s just the stuff I can recognize; I’m betting there’s a lot more I’m not equipped (yet) to see.
One of the few things that has stuck with me from the poetry courses I’ve taken is that the voice of the poem cannot be assumed to be the poet; in fact, I was corrected so many times when I started out with “The poet says” to make it “the speaker says” that it’s become habit. This poem takes full advantage of that concept of separating The Poet from The Speaker.
The poem starts out with facts and figures, rather tedious, really, though it gradually brings the humanity of the situation into focus. At first there’s a reference to the looting of Pomerania at line 12, then to prisoners at line 15; we begin to see the horror of the scene – drugged prisoners on a forced march in icy rain, “the shoes prove more resilient than the men,” and the focus narrows to one prisoner fallen and drowned in the mud of the track. Then at line 26, The Speaker begins to emerge as distinct from the poet:
A chain-smoking corporal stoops to examine
the drowned prisoner’s upturned soles. Measurements
are taken. & thus David Wojahn has found some content,
another web search satisfied – prurient, calculated, cruel.
& now he retrofits these horrors into rime royal,
This is the point where the poem shifts, from recounting the story of the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen to recounting the poet’s rendition of that story; and The Speaker is Not Happy. The Speaker recognizes the work of the poet, using words and phrases such as device, skill, cunning, couplets, pixels, craft. The Speaker also seems to recognize that the poet means well, that he frequently invokes themes of social justice. But it’s not enough for The Speaker:
I would ask David Wojahn to step closer, to gaze
upon the shoe-walking track anew. The shoe-walking dead:
Bend down, bend down & touch. Stroke this bloated face,
with the left hand first & then the right, a bookkeeper from Danzig,
open-eyed. A bookkeeper, like your mother. You have fashioned him
& have betrayed him utterly. & for this you will not be forgiven.
From percents and concrete, we are brought to this intensely personal place, where The Poet is rebuked for his handling of an intensely personal tragedy. At some point The Speaker shifts from third person – “I would ask David Wojahn” – to second person – “like your mother,” moving even closer. There is no more intimate gesture between strangers than touching of the face, and not just once, but with both hands separately.
I’m fascinated by the grammar – yes, the grammar – of “open-eyed’: does this insist that David Wojahn remain open-eyed as he performs this intimate gesture with the bookkeeper drowned on the track he described in such detail, or does it refer to the bookkeeper, his eyes open in death? Or both, so they can gaze into each others’ eyes?
And that ultimate personalization, the dead man has something in common with The Poet’s mother. I’ve seen some social commentary to the effect that people suddenly become more sympathetic to another’s difference – be it drug abuse, sexual identity, or mental illness – when they discover someone in their immediate family is dealing with the same thing. Here, The Speaker uses similarity to connect The Poet to the bookkeeper, who is the subject of The Speaker’s Poem, rather than the composition of the walking track.
Now about rime royal: a seven-line pentameter with rhyme scheme ABABBCC. There are some aspects of the poem that fit this – the first four llines are ABAB, then there’s a couplet that has no rhyme, followed by another four ABAB lines. But the meter doesn’t really fit. The poem altogether has 42 lines, which divides by seven, so I guess if you squint it might work as a variant. But what I see is a progressive disordering of the rhyme scheme until it’s almost sporadic. Is the poem, which started out so rigidly with its percentages, fighting back? Was it initially under The Poet’s control, his voice, but then was taken over by… someone else?
Which brings us to the question of: Who is the speaker? Who is it who admonishes the speaker, who is it that will not forgive him for turning the agony of millions, represented by one drowned bookkeeper who can’t even close his eyes in death. Into proportional analysis? Who is it who is inviting more intimacy than those percentages can provide, who wants us to touch the face of the victims instead of counting grains of sand?
I think this is the question of the poem. Is it the poem itself, a poetic spirit of some kind who wrested control from a poet turning horror into neat little squares and precise rhymes? Is it broader than that, the aggregate spirits of the dead, or something that could be called God?
Whenever I write about stories that use dreams or premonitions as plot devices, I turn them back upon themselves and look at them as elements of the character. In this case, I turn The Speaker back upon The Poet. It’s the reading I’m drawn to: The Poet realizes his architecture fails his subjects, and rather than start again, he writes his own self-admonishment into the poem, and turns his self-rage into art.
Which might be the truest flow of any art: to simultaneously expose inhumanity, and turn pain into beauty. To comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
* * *
Excerpt of poem online at Project Muse
Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum website
Rime Royal described by the Poetry Foundation