Here is the 29th poem in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
Through the open window
the half moon rises, perfect
to fill the gap in the mountain’s teeth
the Dachstein range: grotesque serpentine skin
of vertical stone; grinning skull-like
in this summer evening sky
while the children of the village
below it all, leap naked, confident as fish
off the roof of the ferry which brought us here
into the freezing waters of the lake, laughing.
Far below them the lake has a false floor
millions of years of accumulation of soft sediment
have silently received the pots and swords
of countless civilisations and more recently
the gold and guns of the retreating Gestapo.
Every night climbing the stairs we pass
our host’s careful exhibition of these artefacts
dredged from the lake floor over decades
and shiver at the rusted grenades and rockets
the death’s-head rings, the swastikas
symbols still potent: burning long afterward
into our unquiet dreams.
In the churchyard above the village
the modest wooden crosses stand patiently
over graves lovingly adorned with alpine flowers
until after ten years the flesh is boiled off
and the bones displayed in the Beinhaus:
skulls painted with leaves and flowers and names
while below the legs and arms are stacked tightly
exactly resembling the stores of logs
under every porch in the town below.
This is not the horror of casual death
(Hitler rewarded his Heimat Austria
with the Eagle’s share of camps)
but the dignity of something deeper:
a whole town asleep (the current town
is merely part of a continuum of towns,
past and future), these bones stored, waiting
in silent fraternity, a kind of immortality
for some revelation, resurrection.
Later that night
the answer sinks through your consciousness
like an anchor falling through the black waters
of the lake outside your open window
as you roll into sleep:
layer upon layer of sediment
cliff faces striated like marble cake
cut through by some vast geological knife
the past is never rendered safe
but an unexploded shell, rusting.
The dead hold their breath,
waiting for us.
-(Hallstatt, August 20th 1999).
Number 29 in the sequence should actually be my Austrian poem “Deep Cover” but since I have already posted that one (late last year on the Dog Horn Publishing blog… check it out here), we’ve gone straight on to its sister piece written around the same time, in the ludicrously pretty little town of Hallstatt. These two photos taken at the time say it all, one from the boat on the way over the lake, and the other one from the window of the guest house we stayed in. Really, this place was like something out of a Tolkien film set, as inhabited by elves, or the alien setting of an Ursula Le Guin classic. Nothing in the poem is invented. Our host, Herr Zauner really did have a terrifying display of Nazi artefacts on show in glass cases on the staircase we climbed every night on our way to bed. After the first couple of days, he added in some English captions, to reassure us perhaps. He was a diver, and obviously finding all these things on the lake floor must have been enormously exciting, but like every sane human being he wanted the mistakes of the past to be held up as a warning. The holocaust could have happened anywhere and could happen again, unless we remember it and understand how human beings can be led so far astray. That responsibility and guilt rests with all of us, not just Germans and Austrians.