Sketch of devastated Cologne
These two poems are from a set of eight Vignettes of Boyhood which I wrote a few years ago. I would add by way of explanation that just after the war, my father was appointed to the Control Commission of Germany and my mother and I went across from the Isle of Wight to the Ruhr to be with him. The impact of that prolonged stay in war-torn Germany on an impressionable 14 -year old was, not surprisingly, profound.
I do not expect that these poems will be of interest to anyone other than myself, but for me they are important and that, in the end, is what matters most. Afterall, personal satisfaction is the only really justifiable reason behind any of us bothering to put our often very personal bits and pieces on the Internet. To seek for more is, in most cases, bound to lead to nothing but disappointment. All that the majority of us can hope for is that our efforts, however imperfect some of them may be, are received with kindness and not contempt.
VIGNETTES OF BOYHOOD
Two – 1946
Landfall – mouth of the River Elbe – on board the Empire Halliday
Darkness and a clammy sea-mist
With softly throbbing engines
The vessel creeps slowly ‘fore,
O’er the silent, lifting waters
In the haunts of Wotan and Thor.
Ancestral murmurs wake and stir
From fabled ages by
When Teutons swept these northern seas
With ravening battle cries.
A sunken ship and oil-slicks;
Gutted trains – silent sheds;
Empty berths – twisted cranes
And a dockside voice, harsh and thick:
“Warten Sie hier einen Augenblick”
VIGNETTES OF BOYHOOD
Three: 1946 – 1947
Ruhr/Rhine – Westphalia. Then and in retrospect.
Raise no more spirits than you can conjure down – proverb
Dortmund, Essen, Krefeld,
Dűsseldorf, Remscheid, Kӧln,
Duisburg, Bochum and Dűren
And Wuppertal – Elberfeld too.
The places, names and faces
Are seared in memory’s soul
And on the tablets of my mind
Their skeletons stand whole.
What images, what misery,
What horrors and what pain:
From Tiger tanks and “Labour” camps
To sights ne’er seen again.
Mile upon mile of destruction,
Of pulverised cities and towns,
Of streets and streets of buildings
Reduced to the level of mounds;
Acres of burnt-out houses,
And factories of twisted steel;
A desert of craters – and spectres
Too numbed and hungry to feel.
They, too, had followed a vision,
This mighty, warrior race,
But theirs was a vision of horror,
A Valhalla of terrible face.
What if these men,
But a decade before
Could have stood in the rubble
Like this boy – lost in awe.
What if these men
But a short time before
Had gazed into Hades,
Would there still have been war?
The pendulum swings
From pole to pole
In their dark, mysterious,
But who but a Nietzsche
Could plumb their depths,
Or who but a Goethe could tell,
If German hearts and German minds
Will lead to heaven or hell.
Sketch and poems@Thurstan Bassett.