Yesterday I spent the day at Longwood Gardens and Simon Pearce glassworks with my wife, aunt, uncle, and two old friends, Maria and Norbert, from Germany. I hadn’t seen Maria and Norbert since 1995 when I met and stayed with them at their pastoral home in Voltlage, a quaint village near Osnabrück. My aunt was hosted by Maria and Norbert in the 1970s while an exchange student. I stayed with them for a few weeks during the Germany portion of my 1994-1995 Watson Fellowship.
I received the fellowship to follow the life of T.S. Eliot to see how the spaces he was in affected his poetry and write poetry that was greatly influenced by the spaces in which I found myself. I no longer write poems, but in honor of yesterday’s visit I present two that I wrote back in 1997: “Hasëlunne Jewish Cemetery, Near Osnabrück, Germany” and “An Afternoon in Voltlage, Germany.” Please let me know what you think.
Hasëlunne Jewish Cemetery, Near Osnabrück, Germany
Thick-trunked white birch shadows
Slant across the headstones.
Dew drips from uncut grass,
And Queen Anne’s Lace, peeking
Through a low trellis fence,
Bends with the weight. It is May,
Cool, and sunrise in a passed-over cemetery.
Sapling mimosa pods scrape the stones.
Sunlight slides through the birch.
A man wearing a yarmulkah squints,
Scratches his beard, and using a rock
From atop the stone, secures the paper,
Smooths it with his hand. A redbreast sings.
He frowns, rubs coal over the stone,
Sighs, outlines ברוך, blessèd.
Shadows pass over the cemetery.
A pink rhododendron opens in the distance.
An Afternoon in Voltlage, Germany
A vacant breeze carried the smell
Of fresh peat through the white birch,
And spores drifted into our coffee.
We sat on lawn chairs, built
Drank black German coffee,
And sipped gin from shot glasses.
Herr Grasbon read Eliot in German
And I, Rilke in English. We talked about loss
In The Great Gatsby, and guilt, in general.
My mother had feared for a young Jewish man
Heading into the heart of Germany;
But the movies and the news never
Mention rank peat fields below a pink sunset,
And how, in the east, white birch
Stretch as tall as blue spruce—
And how trains still carry people
To Dachau and Auschwitz,
Fast, quiet, with coffee and gin.
In April, 1945, the Battle of Voltlage
Left sixty British soldiers dead,
Their tanks stuck in the rain-soaked peat
A day before the end of the war.
But in May, 1995, with a lone bumblebee
Lifting from marigold to honeysuckle,
And with the stale smell of peat mixing
With the dark coffee, barefoot and in shorts,
I forgot, for a time. “It’s a shame,” he said,
“That the willow blocks the sun, so early
In the afternoon.” I looked into the shadows,
And heard a car skid into a tree.
After we pulled the boy from the car,
Dead, his hair as soft and brown
As the hair on display in Auschwitz,
The car as gray as the pond of ashes in Birkenau,
I looked west into the setting sun,
Down a road veiled by white birch
And swollen Dutch elms, and tried to forget
That people still die in Germany.