|PR 4/ 2001 VOLUME LXVIII NUMBER 4|
The Necessity of Poetry:
Anthony Hecht's "The Book of Yolek"
Anthony Hecht was a witness to the Holocaust. He served with the U.S. 97th infantry and participated in the liberation of Flossenburg, an annex of Buchenwald. It was in Flossenburg that Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged, only days before the camp was liberated. In a conversation with Philip Hoy, Hecht revealed the shocking nature of his experience: "When we arrived. . .prisoners were dying at the rate of five hundred a day from typhus. . . .The place, the suffering, the prisoners' accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking."
So it is not surprising that the Holocaust is a persistent subject in Hecht's oeuvre. It provides the ironic conclusion to "It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You. Avoid It" and is the central concern of the much- anthologized "More Light! More Light!" In my opinion, "The Book of Yolek," which first appeared in The New Statesman in 1982thirty-eight years after the initial shockis one of the most powerful Holocaust poems ever published.
The Book of Yolek
Haben ein Gesetz,
coals fume and hiss after your meal
peacefully, an earlier day
of August, 1942.
you have thought about that camp,
August again. It will drive home
on a silent, solitary walk
to receive him in your home some day.
* We have a law, and according to the law he must die.
is a sestina, and Hecht's use of a classical form to treat his subject
is striking. I say this because the very notion of form has been suspect
among many poets who have dealt with the Holocaust, particularly those
from Eastern Europe. In their attempt to confront the horror and name
the unnameable, poets such as Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz
Rózewicz, and János Pilinszky committed themselves to a
dry, laconic anti-poetry. They displayed a powerful ambivalence toward
the very work they were creating, mistrusting it for outlasting the Catastrophe
and, in the words of Rózewicz, "for having survived when those
who created the poetry were dead." Their resentment and unease were crystallized
in the now-famous utterance of the philosopher and cultural critic Theodor
Adorno: "After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry." Under the weight
of such a confrontational statement, poets approached the blank page with
a heightened sense of accountability. They goaded themselves into discovering
poetic strategies that would enable them to draw embers from the ashes.
Such an enterprise required them to be vulnerable to the savagery their
century had witnessed and to do that they felt the need to relinquish
the strict conventions and structures of classical poetryconventions
which, in their opinion, tended to shield the poet from the truth of experience.
Czeslaw Milosz, in his book The Witness of Poetry, quarrels with
classicism because it tempts the poet to "surrender to merely graceful
writing," and prevents or limits "a passionate pursuit of the Real." In
his book Government of the Tongue, Seamus Heaney beautifully encapsulates
in this definition, becomes a negative aspect of the Horatian dulce,
a matter of conventional ornament, a protective paradigm of the way things
are, drawn from previous readings of the world which remain impervious
to new perceptions and which are therefore deleterious to the growth of
Heaney, a traditionalist who himself has employed classical poetic structures to render the dire reality of Northern Ireland, leaves room for a different understanding of classicism by qualifying what he says about it with "in this definition." Indeed, in "The Book of Yolek" we see how effective classical structure can be in dealing with one of history's most problematic events.
In the sestina pattern, the end words of the first stanza are repeated in strict order throughout the poem. The resulting echoes and reverberations open the possibility for endless layers of irony and for a shifting between past and present occurrences. The repetition of word and syllable creates a mirroring effect, where words look either backwards or forwards to their prophetic doubles. It is this intense doubling that often distinguishes poetry from prose and which prompts us to read a poem again and again. Verse comes from the Latin vertere, which means, "to turn around." And turning around, one looks again, reconsiders. Once we have read "The Book of Yolek" and know its import, we turn back to the first stanza and are discomforted to see that even though we are fishing and camping in some arcadia, those "coals that fume and hiss" are ominous. We know too that one of our end words, "camp," is suddenly charged with the significance of its disturbing historical double, and that the last phrase of the stanza, "declining day," is preparing us for a descent into Night.
From the beginning of the poem we are faced with the fact that the innocence of the present has been contaminated with the crimes of the past. We can no longer take the language at face value. History has imbued it with a disquieting, connotative presence. And it is not only words that are doubling, but intonation as well. The opening phrase of the second stanza can be heard not only as a mild, introductory statement, but also as an injunction"You remember." For that of course is the moral intent of the poem: to prohibit forgetfulness. And what is it we are remembering? We have moved from the present of the first stanza to the reader's childhood summer spent at camp. We are still free to get lost "on a Nature Walk," which seems "worlds away" from the "terrible walk" Yolek and his fellow orphans will later be forced to take. We are still "peacefully" leading an idyllic existence, sitting before a bonfire, and feeling slightly homesick. But the stanza ends with the portentous line, "No one else knows where the mind wanders to." Hecht is preparing us for a major leapacross an oceanto a different sort of home and camp.
In his perceptive study The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell uses the phrase "irony-assisted recall" to account for the triggering mechanism that allows war's survivors and witnesses to remember disturbing incidents. To assist in bringing forth those memories, what is required, according to Fussell, is the application of "a paradigm of ironic action." Where the mind wanders to, then, is not so much a place as a thought: How incredible to think, Hecht insinuates, that on that very day ("The fifth of August, 1942") when you were a child at a summer camp, another child was being forced to walk to a "special camp." This ironic awareness links us to Yolek and thrusts us into an anti-world where the safety of home and the certainty of our daily meal are forever shattered. The adjective "special" adds to the poem's ironic baggage, for it calls to mind the host of Nazi euphemisms: "final solution," "special treatment," and "prompt deployment unit" (Einsatzkommando)the name given to the death squads.
What is remarkable is how much the poem is able to say about the Holocaust as a psychic phenomenon. Already in stanza four we are thinking of the camp as though "driven to." The orphans are "made to walk." We are now far from the freedom of the first two stanzas, when it was possible to saunter or become innocently lost. Just as Yolek's fate is inescapable, so too, it seems, is our thinking of it. And that thinking is tinged with the darkest irony, for Yolek is off to "his long home." The longest home anyone has, of course, is death. "Shamble" also has its double, resonating with the noun "shambles"a slaughterhouse.
Stanza five stands out for two reasons. First, we have a change in the use of pronoun. Hecht has been using the morally implicating "you." This is somewhat different from the recriminatory "tu" of Baudelaire's "Au Lecteur" or the accusatory "you" of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est" with its indicting lines, "If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in. . . .If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs. . . ." Hecht's reader is not the smug and oblivious Jessie Pope (the original addressee of Owen's poem) who was largely representative of her English compatriots. Hecht is addressing us: modern readers who have seen the film footage of the camps and heard the survivors' accounts. If we are complacent it is not through ignorance. Just the opposite: we are likely to be overinformed and jaded. Therefore a contemporary poet's tactics have to be subtler than Owen's.
So in stanza five it is not "you" but rather "we" that are addressed. The poem becomes inclusive and universal. We are all approaching that August when the memory of Yolek's death will be driven home. "They all were forced to take that terrible walk." All who are sensitive to the Holocaust have, in some imaginative way, taken "that terrible walk." The second difference in this stanza is the absence of irony. We have arrived at the camp and irony would only act as a buffer, preventing us from taking in the stark reality of "the electric fences," "the numeral tattoo."
Stanza six returns us to the present. But we are transformed: No matter where we are or what we are doing, we will remember "The smell of smoke, the loudspeakers of the camp." But which smoke and camp is the poet referring to? The summer camp or the death camp? It turns out to be the latter, but during this moment of ambiguity these two pasts are linked in the reader's mind. The summer camp has been transformed into the concentration camp and we have become like survivors "who will remember helplessly." Helplessnessimpotence in the face of fellow inmates' sufferingwas what the actual survivors had to endure and accounts for their abiding guilt.
It seems certain that the orphan Yolek will not be remembered; for him, no one will survive to recite Kaddishthe prayer for the dead. This is the implication of "unuttered name." But in keeping with the paradoxical nature of the poem, this is not the case. Though Yolek's name is unuttered, already in the second-to-last stanza he has become omnipresent: "Wherever you are, Yolek will be there too"providing us with a presentiment of his final status. It is Yolek's utter absence that is about to become a supreme presence. Perhaps the supreme presence, for it should be noted that in Judaism one may only speak the substitute names for GodHis actual name must remain "unuttered."
The last stanza, the tercet, begins with an injunction typically reserved for royalty"Prepare to receive him. . . ." Just as soldiers interrupted Yolek's meal, so he, in keeping with the poem's reversals and ironies, will interrupt oursbut for a very different purpose. In literature, ghosts often appear because we have done them an injustice: Palinurus returns to remind Aeneas that his body was left unburied; the ghost of murdered Banquo appears to Macbeth as the usurper sits down to a meal. Hecht's poem has a religious theme, indicated by the biblical nature of the title, and Yolek's reappearance leads us to the Gospels.
To understand why, we must deal with the poem's epigraph. It is taken from the Gospel of John (19:7). The Jews made this response to Pontius Pilate concerning the fate of Jesus and this is an obvious reference to the blame they have had to endure for their supposed involvement in the Crucifixion. Hecht's decision to quote from Luther's translation is intended to remind German Christians of their complicity in the Holocaust. In another segment from his conversation with Philip Hoy, Hecht states:
It is the Vatican's dubiou s position that German anti-Semitism as it was exhibited under the Nazis "had its roots outside Christianity," and that the people who ran the camps were essentially pagan. This, however, fails to agree with the Nazis' own view of the matter.
Hecht then refers to Peter Matheson's documentary account, The Third Reich and the Christian Churches, which cites a German report of 1944, claiming that only 3.5 percent of Germans were self-declared "neo-pagans." The inference is that whether lapsed or practicing, most perpetrators of the Holocaust thought themselves Christian. In "The Book of Yolek," Hecht is continuing the argument made by several postwar Christian theologians, including Rosemary Reuther (Faith and Fratricide) and Franklin Littel (The Crucifixion of the Jews), who hold Christian teaching accountable for sowing the seeds of the Holocaust.
Hecht's Yolek is Jewish; yet in another profound reversal he has, by interrupting our meal, become Christ. In two of the Gospels, Mark and Luke, the resurrected Jesus appears during the disciples' meal. In Mark, He "upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of hearts"; in Luke, He asks the "terrified and affrighted" disciples "why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?" Yolek, the murdered Jewish child, has in spirit returned as the discomfiting Hebrew prophet, reminding us of our complicity in his Crucifixion.
"The Book of Yolek" is not an anti-Christian poem. As literature must, it shuns dogma while leading us to a more complex sense of the Real. The poem rightly holds Christianity accountable for its role in the Holocaust; yet by turning Yolek into Christ, Hecht reminds Christianity of its moral imperative. The poem exposes the hypocrisy and eruptive barbarism of Western civilization; yet its success as a work of art is an affirmation. Its unadorned language, its restrained voice of moral authority, and its strict pattern bring home (to use one of the poem's end words) the tragedy of a small child. By implication, Hecht is imploring us to inquire after today's Yoleks. It seems to me that he has effectively countered Adorno, so that we might say, "After Auschwitz it is necessary to write poetry."
Editor's Note: "The Book of Yolek," from The Transparent Man, copyright © 1990 by Anthony Hecht. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.