Poetry Monday: Herbert Asquith (1881 – 1947)

AFTER THE SALVO

from the anthology The War Poets: An Anthology (Norwich: Jarrold Publishing, 2nd printing 2005)

Up and down, up and down,
They go, the gray rat, and the brown.
The telegraph lines are tangled hair,
Motionless on the sullen air;
An engine has fallen on its back,
With crazy wheels; on a twisted track;
All ground to dust is the little town;
Up and down, up and down
They go, the gray rat and the brown.
A skull, torn out of the graves nearby,
Gapes in the grass. A butterfly,
In azure iridescence new,
Floats into the world, across the dew;
Between the flow’rs. Have we lost our way,
Or are we toys of a god at play,
Who do these things on a young Spring day?
Where the salvo fell, on a splintered ledge,
Of ruin, at the crater’s edge,
A poppy lives: and young, and fair,
The dewdrops hang on the spider’s stair,
With every rainbow still unhurt
From leaflet unto leaflet girt.

Man’s house is crushed; the spider’s lives:
Inscrutably, He takes, and gives,
Who guards not any temple here,
Save the temple of the gossamer.

Up and down, up and down
They go, the gray rat, and the brown:
A pistol cracks, they too are dead.

The nightwind rustles overhead.

“Life Simply Went On.”

The conscience that had failed so terribly ticked on as if nothing had happened. Hunger dictated the next steps and fear of socially uprooted, disoriented fellow men re-framed people’s morals. Zapp-zarapp, organized theft, trophy-hunting, Fringsing — that was the vocabulary of relativisation and self-exculpation. Fine distinctions were made between different kinds of stealing, designed to differentiate between protecting one’s own property and life and expropriating the property of others. A piece of coal was, once it had been personally claimed by someone, more protected by the collective sense of justice than when it merely lay on the freight train as the possession of some abstract institution. The person who took coal from a railway wagon was Fringsing; anyone who removed it from a private coal cellar was stealing. Post-war Germans liked to use animal imagery for their activities: the person who removed potatoes from a field was “hamstering” (stockpiling), while the person who stole them from the hoarding “hamsters” was a “hyena.” And wandering back and forth between them was the “wolf,” whose sociability one could never be quite sure of, since the “lone wolf” had just as frightening a reputation as the whole pack.

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, pp. 182 – 183

Poetry Friday: “Inventory” by Günter Eich

found in Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945 – 1955, by Harald Jahner

Inventory

by Günter Eich

This is my cap,
This is my coat,
here are my shaving things
in their linen case.

In the bread bin are
a pair of woollen socks
and some things that I
will reveal to no one.

This is my notebook,
this is my strip of canvas,
this is my towel.
this is my thread.

Poetry Monday: Xuan Quynh

Xuan Quynh (1942 – 1988) was born in Vietnam’s northern province of Ha Tay. She wrote “My Son’s Childhood” in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War.

MY SON’S CHILDHOOD

Translation by Phan Thanh Hao with Lady Borton

What do you have for a childhood
That you still smile in the bomb shelter?
The morning wind comes to visit you
The full moon follows you
The long river, the immense sea, a round pond
The enemies’ bomb smoke, the evening star.
At three months you turn your head, at seven you crawl!
I long for peace every day, every month for a year.
For a year, you toddle around the shelter.
The sky is blue, but way over there
The grass is green far away on the ancient tombs.
My heart is a pendulum
Pounding in my chest, keeping time for the march.
The small cricket knows to dig a shelter
The crab doesn’t sleep: it, too, fears the bombs.
In the moonlight, even the hare hides.
The black clouds hinder the enemy’s sight.
Flowers and trees join the march
Concealing troops crossing streams, valleys, villages.
My son, trenches crisscross everywhere.
They’re as long as the roads you’ll someday take.
Our deep shelter is more precious than a house.
The gun is close by, the bullets ready
If I must shoot.
When you grow up, you’ll hold your life in your own hands.
Whatever I think at present
I note down to remind you of your childhood days.
In the future, when our dreams come true,
You’ll love our history all the more.

Also Reading: Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars

Julius Caesar, born 100 BC, murdered on the Ides of March 44 BC, left us his Commentaries, on his seven campaigns against the Gauls. Since self has been getting most of her book recommendations from the wsj (at least, while she isn’t traveling), she’s been reading a lot of books about wars and colonization. The book that’s her main current read, Andréa Reséndez’s Conquering the Pacific, is absolutely fascinating. She’s also reading Bewilderment, her second Richard Powers novel (more on that later), and just today she began reading the Oxford World Classics version of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War. The translation is by Carolyn Hammond, who has written the very comprehensive Introduction.

It’s been a long time since self studied Roman history, but here are a few things she’s gleaned from the Introduction so far:

  • Caesar’s great rival was Pompey. As a very young man (in his mid-20s), Pompey raised an army to defend the legate Sulla, and was sent to Africa to defeat Sulla’s enemies there. He returned to Rome in triumph at the age of 26, and was rewarded with the surname ‘the Great.’ (No wonder Caesar hated him)
  • “Succeeding in Roman politics was an expensive business . . . but a foreign war offered opportunities for enriching self” which Caesar learned just from watching Pompey’s example.
  • “The largest unit of the Roman army was the legion, with a nominal strength of 6,000 soldiers.” Each legion was made up of cohorts: “ten cohorts per legion, each containing 600 men.”
  • “Legionaries typically served twenty years or sixteen campaigns before discharge . . . All the soldiers in a legion . . . carried the same equipment: defensive body armour made of leather and metal . . . a shield made of wood covered with leather and metal. The usual offensive weapons carried were the sword and javelin.”
  • The legions were supplemented by “auxiliary forces . . . supplied by subject territories. They were often stationed on the wings in battle, though if the Roman commander had doubts about their loyalty he would sometimes place them in the centre to stop them running away.”
  • There were also “about 300 cavalry” accompanying each legion. “They were mainly used for skirmishing, scouting, and pursuing routed enemies, but the mobility afforded by their being mounted made it easy for them to run away in times of danger, and they were thus treated as unreliable.”

Fascinating stuff!

Bushboy’s World: Last Photo on the Card, December 2021

What a year we just had. WHAT. A. YEAR.

Thanks to Bushboy for hosting the Last on the Card Challenge. Since the Last on the Card is also the Last of 2021, it is extra significant.

The last group of photos self took were on the day she lined up for her covid test (which turned out negative — HOORAY! VACCINES WORK!). Because it was a three-hour wait, self had ample opportunity to read (None of the other people in line seemed much inclined to talk).

She snapped a picture of the book with her cell:

The passage she was on was about the anonymous narrator standing in line for food, in April 1945 Berlin. The parallels! The parallels!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Coda

Anonymous = Marta Hillers

She moved to Switzerland and passed away 2001. A Woman in Berlin, first published in the 1950s, was re-published after her death and immediately caused a sensation. Self desperately hopes that the rest of Hillers’s life was happy.

Friday, June 15, 1945:

I found a copy of Tolstoy’s Polikushka and read that for the umpteenth time. Then I plowed through a collection of plays by Aeschylus and came across The Persians, which, with its lamentations of the vanquished, seems on the surface well suited to our defeat. But in reality it’s not. Our German calamity has a bitter taste — of repulsion, sickness, insanity, unlike anything in history. The radio just broadcast another concentration camp report. The most horrific thing is the order and the thrift: millions of human beings as fertilizer, mattress stuffing, soft soap, felt mats — Aeschylus never saw anything like that.

Saturday, June 16, 1945:

I haven’t been writing. And I won’t be, either — that time is now over.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 257

SPOILER ALERT

Gerd, the long-absent boyfriend, resurfaces, well-fed and healthy. In shock, he tells the author: “You’ve all turned into a bunch of shameless bitches, every one of you in the building. Don’t you realize?” He grimaced in disgust. “It’s horrible being around you.”

She gives Gerd her diaries, “there are three notebooks full.” He says he can’t find his way through the scribbling.

“For example, what’s that supposed to mean?” Gerd asks, pointing to Schdg.

Schandung,” of course — rape. “He looked at me as if I were out of my mind but said nothing more.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 260

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Life Goes On

Far from being bleak, as this book nears the finish line, eight weeks after the Soviet Army occupied Berlin, stories of individual women who managed to avoid the Russian soldiers emerge (All throughout this book, self would just like to say, the narrator’s comparisons of the Russians with Berliners showed how much more open Berliners’ sexuality was. For instance, no Russian soldiers propositioning German men — this was worthy of notice!):

Stinchen, the eighteen-year-old student, has finally come down from the crawl space. The scars from the flying rubble have healed. She played the part of the well-bred daughter from a good home perfectly, carrying a pot of real tea from the kitchen and listening politely to our conversation. Apparently our young girl who looks like a young man also managed to come through safely. I mentioned that I’d seen her in the stairwell last night. She was arguing with another girl, someone in a white sweater, tan and quite pretty but vulgar and unbridled in her swearing. Over tea I found out that it was a jealous spat: the tanned girl had taken up with a Russian officer . . . more or less voluntarily — drinking with him and accepting food. This evidently irked her young friend, who is an altruistic kind of lover, constantly giving the other girl presents and doing this and that for her over the past several years. We discussed all of this calmly and offhandedly over a proper tea. No judgment, no verdict. We no longer whisper. We don’t hesitate to use certain words, to voice certain things, certain ideas. They come out of our mouths casually as if we were channeling them from Sirius.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 181

Ripples

Germany surrenders and suddenly the temperature is lowered at least 50 degrees: that is, Russian soldiers stop terrorizing the populace and begin to practice some restraint.

The narrator looks back on what she has endured and tries to puzzle out her future (The “red flag” she refers to in the passage below must be the Russian flag: She was enamored enough of Communism — idealistic enough — to travel around Russia. She even enrolled in school in Moscow. That must have been why, when the Russian soldiers arrived, she tried to practice her Russian on them. Poor, naive woman!)

When I was young, the red flag seemed like such a bright beacon, but there’s no way back to that now, not for me: the sum of tears is constant in Moscow, too. And I long ago lost my childhood piety, so that God and the Beyond have become mere symbols and abstractions. Should I believe in progress? . . . The happiness of the greater number? . . . An idyll in a quiet corner? Sure, for people who comb the fringes of their rugs. Possessions, contentment? I have to keep from laughing, homeless urban nomad that I am. Love? Lies trampled on the ground. And were it ever to rise again, I would always be anxious, could never find true refuge, would never again dare for permanence.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 176

Germany After

But our country is despondent, our people are in pain. We’ve been led by criminals and gamblers, and we’ve let them lead us, like sheep to the slaughter. And now the people are miserable, smoldering with hate. “No tree is high enough for him,” I heard someone say of Adolf this morning at the pump.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 131

A reprieve for the narrator and the other people in the building: some German men show up at the apartment building with wooden planks. This they nail against the back door. Later, a Russian tries to gain entry but even after kicking hard, the boards hold.

It turns out the strongest door in the entire building belonged to a bookseller. Neither he nor his wife were bothered by any Russian soldiers. So booksellers were like elite, in pre-war Berlin? Books had great value? Why else would a bookseller build such a sturdy door?

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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