You will not expect this letter so soon. I never wrote from our camp
being your ham-fisted Hans – but you knew I would be home on leave.
My face is still wet from the tears you wept as I marched quickly away
– I may not say to where. The Kaiser has ordered that those we love
now have to be informed if we are injured or if death is imminent.
The Kaiser wishes to inform you that I conducted myself with honour.
We engaged the enemy and the fighting was close but with my brothers
by my side victory was certain. We did not flinch. It is so important,
that you understand we never turned our faces away from the enemy.
For the very first time your clumsy, shy son looked – only to see himself,
find myself, there in the enemy’s eyes: knew the enemy lay in my own.
Knew also that it was his first time too. His buttons still bright
as are mine.
We both drew handguns. Why? We had bayonets! He was fast, I was
We both fell face to face yet now I saw in his eyes, felt in my own, no hate.
His mouth moved. His message seemed urgent. I tried to lean
nearer to hear
his words but his lips went slack so his breath, a sigh, did not reach
His left hand lay on my thigh. I held it. We understood killing is
an intimate act.
I am lucid. All is clear. I am not alone. My visitor comes, sniffs, returns each hour.
My papers will be sent to you. I have wrapped my friend’s in mine. His name is Henry.
Ihr liebevoller Sohn, Hans.
Then, the trains were not the worst of the matter.
Now I know that so many arriving meant so many had died.
Father said it was a season of renewal, like corn.
I was to obey him at all times. He would protect me.
I asked if he meant the thick smoke that harmed lungs.
He kissed me. Called me Son. Said nothing of the ash.
The ash would creep in. I was forbidden to open my window.
Forbidden to play outside. That was the worst of the matter.
I would hear the others outside. They were silent,
marching barefoot on stones. I sang to the tune of the gravel.
I envied their game of picking leaves, swallowing them
before their guide turned. Like in What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?
When the trees were leafless and the grass gone
they dug in the mud. Father said there’s nutrients in mud.
I knew they liked me – they gave Father toys they’d made.
A top from bone or a doll so real its hair and skin felt like mine.
I couldn’t thank them but Father said he’d make sure they knew
how matters stood. I never saw them again.
I was forbidden to look out but I heard their high, strange song.
That was the day everyone was running.
The smoke was thicker. The ash covered the house, entered it.
Father shouted at me.
He pulled papers, dashed outside with great bundles.
The sun glinted on his buttons. Others rushed past, didn’t salute.
Some soldiers scrabbled at the gate. Father had to discipline them.
The gate stayed shut. The soldiers were motionless, playing Fish.
Mother threw clothes in a case. Father travelled in civilian clothes.
In Nuremberg I heard a sparrow. I think I was six.
It is February. From the tracks beyond the cemetery
the last train defies the dark, defies the dark
beyond the cemetery. It is February. Onto the tracks
a body may fall, fall from the bridge
the bridge that springs over the tracks, the tracks
on which a body may span, horizontal
east to west or west to east, never north to south
south to north. Horizontal.
Too late, too late to grind the brakes, the brakes
too late if a body breaks on the tracks.
The woman at the window sees the man on the bridge
to the man on the bridge the woman at the window cries Wait.
Spanning the tracks that the driver can see
but not a body spanning the tracks
there is no body spanning the tracks as he moves on,
moves on defying the dark
beyond the cemetery. It is February. The rails are sharp
the night is clear, he is on time.
The driver’s on time. All is ordered in this dark. He’s taken advice.
He can implement procedures. Procedures.
Vera climbs the stairs of the bridge, sees the man on the bridge
hears the cry of the woman at the window but not the word. She is alone.
He cuts a swathe towards the tunnel. He is on time
he is a man who defies the dark
he is a man moving on, moving on through the night
the night is ordered, he is ordered
the driver’s on time. He’s taken advice. He keeps his hand
he stays his hand, he can implement…
The boy sleeping under the bridge hears slippers shuffling the bridge
hears a woman’s cry. He doesn’t move. It could be a ploy.
Procedures. He knows procedures. He knows this track.
He knows the exact, the exact point
to release, to release pressure. The driver’s taken advice.
The air is clear. The rails are sharp. He is a man defying the dark.
The man on the bridge hears the train on the track, hears a voice calling, footsteps
dragging. He turns. She is cardigan-ed not white-coated. Disguised.
It is February. The air is clear. They are beyond the cemetery.
Beyond fear. The fear on the face of the man in the train of the man in the air.
We had heard the dove’s three notes and seen
the curve of light against a naive sky, smelt
unguent from crushed palms beneath our feet
and were caught between hosanna and crucifixion.
Knowing what was written we were afraid
of what might be demanded, wary of that we might discover
beyond birth. So, yes, we did travel slowly, each decision
an indecision, each suggestion once, twice, questioned
but at the first snow-melt we began our journey,
followed rivers in full flood from the abundance that ice
had borne through winter’s keep, had, at the hint
of a reluctant spring, chosen, if choice were possible,
release. Of course, dying framed the silence.
There was the call of one reaching out for the comforting
cry of another, the hand held, a touch,
though all were beyond the reach of language, beyond
those small hypocrisies of death. The first true birth.
The knot cut close.
For what is the past but the scar of other centuries, a spike
of time to beat against locked doors? And who will dare
to open to the stranger whose words are differently chosen,
whose promise is exemption? Yet, unhope,
framing the silence, clings tight as a caul and krumholz*
smothers abandoned gardens
where those who have sown thought falter. Perhaps,
only the blind man, he who rocks at the edge of the known,
his world a long cane’s length, may pierce those dark tangles,
may witness what is written.
But who would believe in the word of the unseeing?
Or know in the unseen is the silence unheard?
Though when the bleed of shadow behind the sun
darkened the sky
we held fast to the charred end of that day,
knew the cry was the pith reluctant to release the flesh.
And still we failed, unprepared
for linen unwound, the re-composition, sheltered by stone.
*krumholz – dark tangles of dwarf hemlock