The US-Jewish poet Anthony Hecht never sparkled at school! He often referred to his ‘conspicuous’ lack of talent as a boy and explained that it was only when he began studying English at Bard (liberal arts) College, where he discovered Modernist poetry that he decided that he wanted to be a poet.
But the Second World War intervened and his experiences fighting in Europe and helping to liberate Flossenbürg Nazi concentration camp, later became central to his work.
Two of Hecht’s most famous pieces are Holocaust-based and one of them, The Book of Yolek was the subject of the opening lecture at this week’s Voices Israel Western Galilee Poets' Workshop. The other, More Light! More Light! is generally considered to be the best English language poem to discuss the Holocaust. For my part, I’ve never read one finer than The Book of Yolek.
It was chosen by new Voices president, Susan Olsburgh as an example of a sestina. This is a tightly structured, complex verse form comprising six stanzas of six lines plus a concluding three line ‘envoi’ – ‘tornada’ - or ‘tercet’. The trick is for the writer to repeat the six words ending each of the poem’s first six lines in a particular pattern throughout the subsequent five verses while the final three lines include all six recurring words.
Mrs Olsburgh also noted the sestina’s ‘nod’ to the acrostic, a popular form in Jewish liturgy and she pointed out that the letters for the name ‘Yolek’ are spelt out in the final words of five of the lines in the first stanza of Hecht’s poem.
“The Book of Yolek
‘Wir Haben ein Gesetz,
Und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben’.*
“The dowsed coals fume and hiss after your meal
Of grilled brook trout, and you saunter off for a walk
Down the fern trail. It doesn't matter where to,
Just so you're weeks and worlds away from home,
And among midsummer hills have set up camp
In the deep bronze glories of declining day.
“You remember, peacefully, an earlier day
In childhood, remember a quite specific meal:
A corn roast and bonfire in summer camp.
That summer you got lost on a Nature Walk;
More than you dared admit, you thought of home:
No one else knows where the mind wanders to.
“The fifth of August, 1942.
It was the morning and very hot. It was the day
They came at dawn with rifles to The Home
For Jewish Children, cutting short the meal
Of bread and soup, lining them up to walk
In close formation off to a special camp.
“How often you have thought about that camp,
As though in some strange way you were driven to,
And about the children, and how they were made to walk,
Yolek who had bad lungs, who wasn't a day
Over five years old, commanded to leave his meal
And shamble between armed guards to his long home.
“We're approaching August again. It will drive home
The regulation torments of that camp
Yolek was sent to, his small, unfinished meal,
The electric fences, the numeral tattoo,
The quite extraordinary heat of the day
They all were forced to take that terrible walk.
“Whether on a silent, solitary walk
Or among crowds, far off or safe at home,
You will remember, helplessly, that day,
And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp.
Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.
Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you're sitting down to a meal”.
© Natalie Wood (30 April 2015)