(A story created following a conversation with a friend in Devizes)
For all artists, past, present and to come; for freedom, for art, and for her…
Light was hinting over the horizon as Tom wove his way through the streets towards home. Another year, another Carnival. He had been drinking since noon and was none too steady on his dancing feet. When he got to the Market Place he sat on the steps of the Cross to finish his last drop of beer. The town was silent, in stark contrast to the night before when to incessant drum beat the procession had started and stopped, twirled and trumpeted in the August heat. There had been dancers from different countries, excited children waving from trucks, military orchestras, young women with painted faces and men in dresses, sellers of trinkets from wheelbarrows, old boys on bicycles, old women cooing over toddlers dressed as fairies, belly dancers, jugglers, a unicyclist and The Mayor, all marching slowly through the summer evening, filling their buckets with coppers, becoming wearier and sweatier with smiles and face paint fading as the night progressed.
He was a dapper man who looked younger than his forty years, although the lines of life upon his face were clearly visible and deepened by a long night of excess. He was a natty dresser, trendy, his preferred style being a sharp jacket over ironed jeans with ironic tee shirt and neat but luxuriant hair. On this occasion he was adorned by celebration with silly string, a distinct lip stick mark upon his cheek and an unsavoury stain down the front of his shirt. He supped from his bottle on the step and surveyed the detritus of humanity left by the procession. Around the Market Cross radiated all manner of discarded and lost things; a baseball cap, the remnants of several takeaways, someone’s phone, someone’s knickers, a plastic glass half full of an amber coloured liquid, scraps of coloured paper, artificial feathers, cigarette ends, a large pile of vomit and a child’s shoe. He lit a cigarette and as he blew a cloud of smoke in to the air she appeared.
She sat beside him on the step without a word. “Hello” he said, as seemed polite. She nodded in response and silence. “Did you enjoy the procession?” he asked “Yes and no” she said. Her accent was not one with which he was familiar. “Not from round here then?” “No, just passing through.” Until she said this he presumed that she had been on one of the floats, there had been people dressed as Victorians and land girls and she was rocking a look somewhere in between. He couldn’t really see her face, partly due to the half-light and partly to the obscuring effect of her headscarf. He guessed that she was in her early twenties but couldn’t be sure. She was wearing a lot of clothes, heavy boots and lipstick. He hoped that she was pretty. “My name is Tom” he said and held out his hand to her “Hello, Tom, I am ……….” He didn’t quite catch her name, which was frustrating as he was too polite to ask twice, or her eye, but her handshake was warm. He asked her where she was from and she said that she was Czech. He offered her his bottle but she declined.
After a few minutes of companionable quiet he was unable to resist using his Viking funeral line “So what lights your fire and floats your boat?” “Excuse me?” “What do you do for fun, or work, or both?” “Oh, I understand. I am a poet” she said. He didn’t expect this at all. “What kind of poems do you write?” She thought for a few moments. This was always a difficult question to answer. “All kinds of poems. For birth and death, for laughter and tears and anger and grief.” “Can you recite one for me?” “Do you understand Czech?” “No.” “Then there would be no point” she said. He disagreed and asked again and she recited some verses in Czech with a faraway gaze. She had a lilting tone and the poem was clearly sad and somehow defiant. He didn’t have to understand the language to be affected by her words. “That’s lovely.” He was sure he saw tears glinting in the shadows of her eye. “I am published,” she said “you can read my work translated if you wish. I like people to read my work.” He was curious and wanted to read the words in English. She told him the title of the book in which her poems appeared, something to do with landscapes, and the name of the author, which he wrote on the back of his cigarette packet.
“And you?” she asked “Your, what is it, fires and boats?” “Me? I’m not very interesting. I don’t do much and there’s not much to do round here.” “Your work, your fun?” “I’m just a gardener.” “How lovely!” “I do a bit of acting sometimes, and a bit of directing, a bit of writing and a bit of drawing. But I’m not much good at anything and I haven’t done anything for ages.” “Why is that?” “No inspiration. Can’t be bothered. What’s the point?” She said nothing for some time. “There’s always a point. Always. How can you say there is no point?” He felt that he had touched a nerve and was taken aback by her reaction and the rise in tone of her voice. “Well I’m no good and nobody is really interested in what I have to say.” “How do you know that and what exactly do you have to say?” He had to think about this, hard. “Tell me your story” she said, for she needed to understand, so he did. His was a tale of one life left behind and another begun, of a rough take off, a turbulent flight and a comfortable landing, of early challenge and late complacency. Of how once there had been certainty and direction, hungry energy and subjection to a higher will and how now there was ease and a plate full of everything. He told her about how he had found himself at the hub of all the Art in town when he moved in with his brother at The Space, a coffee shop and performance space frequented by the local intelligentsia. He described his town as “the obese but much loved wilful spoilt child of the county music scene.” He said that his boat was set to sea by history and politics and that when he danced he felt that he was walking on water. And yet despite all this he was weighed down by his past, petrified at the thought of a mundane future, and purposeless.
“No inspiration?” She was incredulous “You have art and music in your life. You live in this beautiful place. You earn your money by working the earth and bringing it to bloom. You have time to smell the flowers. You have interesting conversation with interesting people. You can dance and draw and you want for nothing. And you and your society are free!” “Yes, but,” he said “all this pain within me, how can I use a pen to write or draw when my arms are so full of this cross that is my past and my regret?” She had come to this place at this time for reasons known to her and although she was incensed she was a peaceful soul and knew she had to say the right words carefully “I do not believe in your cross,” she said “you should leave it at the side of the road for the poor and cold to use as firewood.” He was mortified at the words of this strange poetess, which rang true on every string of his soul’s guitar “Have you ever thought,” she said “of what it might be like to have all the inspiration it is possible to have, and more, with no means of expression, no pens or brushes, no audience, no surface on which to write, no instrument, no energy, no candle or sunbeam with which to see, no voice or no life left to live?” Her voice shook with tears “Have you ever considered what it would be like to have all the words and images within yourself to heal and save and bless, to confront stupidity or evil with itself, and be forbidden your say, or to have your bequest to generations yet to come destroyed? What say you now of inspiration and your rotting cross?” He opened his mouth to speak but had no words. She uttered three more words only but these would stay with him forever “Create for me” she said. And then she vanished.
Tom was bemused. He knew that he was drunk and he had had some pretty unnerving experiences late at night in town but this one left his very soul naked and shattered like a brick through a stained glass window. He looked all around but of her there was no sign, just a gathering of crows scattering across the lightening sky and swooping down over a kebab. He drained his bottle and swayed on home, dismayed, through littered alleys, the eerie silence broken only by the incoherent mumblings of one lost reveller, a distant siren and two teenage girls looking for a phone. He fell in to his comfortable bed still clothed and slept till lunchtime. All day Sunday he was good for nothing, hung over and morose, her words turning over and over in his painful head, the truths she had spoken adding to his nausea and chemical guilt. He had no internet with which to research her work as he would have liked to do immediately, and the hours until Monday dripped slower than the bathroom tap. The café was busy but his brother’s plea for assistance went unheeded and he found the noise of laughter and humorous Sunday banter wafting through his window from downstairs a distraction to his thought.
He was at the library before the doors opened and sat in front of a computer impatiently waiting for the system to spring in to life. He typed in to Google the name of the author that he had scrawled on his cigarette packet and the title Landscapes. There it was, “Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death” by Otto Dov Kulka*. He typed the details in to the library catalogue page which told him that it was on the shelf. With trepidation he scanned the history section and removed the thin blue volume with a shaking hand. It was not a book of poetry but a private mythology, a memoir and reflection of a historian who had been in Auschwitz as a child. There were photographs of ruined death camps, long dead Jews and Nazis, there were dreams and musings on the nature of God, biblical references and images evoked with words of the inexorable nature of Death, seen through the eyes of a small boy and remembered through the lens of an old man’s memory. There were children’s’ drawings, pictures of dead men’s shoes and the musical notes of Ode to Joy transcribed on thin paper in fading ink. And then there was Chapter Six, entitled Three Poems from the Brink of the Gas Chambers. There she was. She had been twenty and nameless and had thrust her poems in to the hands of a guard at the entrance to the gas chamber, as her last act before descending in to death in the March of 1944. The guard had passed them on to the author’s father and they were the only poems to survive the liquidation of the Theresienstadt family camp at Auschwitz.
How beautiful were her words, translated from the Czech, anonymous and powerful. ‘We, the Dead, Accuse!’, ‘Alien Grave’ and ‘I Would Sooner Perish’, three poems saved from annihilation, gifted to history by an unknown young poetess, snatched from the mouth of the grave and passed through careful hands to speak to justice and the future. She has no rotting cross, she cries for vengeance for the innocent dead, mourns a generation of young men betrayed and asserts her belief in her verse that the glory of war is all bloodshed and violence of which she wants no part. He had to look up the word ‘threnody’ and learned that it is a lamentation to the dead. He wondered what the verses sounded like in Czech and thinks perhaps it may have been the first one that she recited to him in the Market Place. He is amazed and humbled by her words and cries in the library quietly in response to the grief that swells within him. And she, what of she, her final moments, her dignity and terror and her last minute decision to leave her work behind in trust with a stranger in the hope that it would remain. He imagined the procession of the doomed towards the gas chamber, children, mothers, old soldiers and young men, their fear and helplessness, some singing defiantly, some praying, the slow walk in to darkness and oblivion, and that afterwards there would have been silence and only crows picking at the remains of their humanity left blowing in the thin March wind.
And suddenly he understands; what she meant when she spoke about what it is to have inspiration and no means or life or liberty to express it, and what that means for him. A drop of clear quartz falls in to a shining pool somewhere deep within him and he Sees.
His journey, although he knows it not at this point, will take him to dark and frightening places; where artists scrawl their pictures with bloodied fingers on walls in darkness, where condemned men bury poetry in pots in earth round crematoria, where stones and ash are used for paint and bones are whittled in to whistles. Places where cartoonists are incarcerated for satire and children shot for singing; where sacred texts are burned with their authors and the flight of dancers is interrupted by death; places where secret orchestras play whole symphonies and where violinists are forced to use their bows against their will at executions. His enquiring mind will take him through the centuries to gulags and asylums and oubliettes, where he will empathise with artists in straitjackets and blindfolds, facing firing squads, starvation, endless loneliness and obliteration from history. Voices from the past will speak to him in prose and verse, in whispers and deafening rage, and the faces of anonymous prisoners will plead to him from painted fragments. Armed with his interest in politics and history he will come to understand why the power of the artist has been and remains so threatening to hate fuelled stony ground built regimes past and present. His vision of the past will become infused with colour and life and meaningful abstraction. He will devote hour upon precious hour trawling through obscure tomes in the corners of libraries and websites, and become shocked and enthralled, angry and energised, enlightened and inspired.
In time he will make his own art, writing poems and stories and crafting images in pen and ink and paint. He will act and direct and perform in his own play one day. At times he will be lauded and at other times scorned, but he will always get his art seen and make his voice heard. From that point onward he will fight for the right of artists of all kinds to freely make their art, and use the connections that he has to good end, raising awareness of the persecution of artists all over the world amongst both friends and strangers. He will dance with joy at every opportunity, and rejoice in his freedom; he will put down his rotting cross and satirise himself in a caricature that will achieve some minor fame; he will review and promote the work of local artists, and is destined to become a patron of the arts in his old and interesting age.
And every day, for the rest of his life, he will bless and thank her brave poetic spirit for coming to him on that Carnival night; and every night, for as long as he lives, he will burn a white candle in his window, and remember the lost poetess of Auschwitz, and the last three words she said to him.
“Create for me.”
Copyright Gail Foster July 2015
* Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by Otto Dov Kulka, published by Allen Lane January 2013 and translated from the Hebrew by Ralph Mandel