Drowning

First in a series of blogposts by poet-in-residence Sue Zatland, who reflects on different aspects of monumental commemoration, focusing on Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. She shares her poetic responses and experimentations with form. 

ONE

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Architect, Peter Eisenman.

Above ground is an installation of 2,711 massive unmarked concrete blocks, separated by narrow alleys. The maze-like grid is disorienting, a petrified forest in the heart of Berlin. Eisenman: ‘I watched people walk into it for the first time and it is amazing how these heads disappear — like going under water.’ Primo Levi writes of similar experiences at Auschwitz, of prisoners no longer alive, but not dead either. They seemed to descend into a personal hell. Aerial photos show the stones sweeping over undulating ground like an ocean fetch.
I have been lost inside this labyrinth. One thought leads to another: labyrinth, minotaur, Dante/ Everyman/pilgrim; Virgil/guide/poet; violence, innocence, the underworld, harrowing of hell. 

Form: Dante invented a new rhythmic rhyming form for the Comedy, called terza rima. Three-line iambic stanzas with the scheme, aba, bcb, ded, and so on. It’s a marvel of form = meaning. With lyric propulsion it drives you on, right into hell and back.

Terza rima works in the romance language of Italian with its straight Roman roads of conjugations and declensions, but the muddy tracks of the English language with its Latin/Anglo-Saxon/medieval-French roots do not give us so many convenient rhyming words. Although not terza rima, I want to keep meter as the engine of the poem, and the bewitching magic of the group of threes.

Drowning

    I came to myself 
    at the edge of a wood
    poet and pilgrim before me
    at my shoulder 
    the she-wolf stood
    in the shade of a linden tree.

    An ocean of stone 
    rose at my feet
    on the swell of a distant storm
    the siren call  
    of the city street—    
    a ligature, a subtle form
    
    of binding. From the shore 
    the brindled bitch gives tongue. 
    A  reboant  howl
    which, once begun    
    snarls through alleyways                
    on a bare-backed wind
    harrowing the aisles 
    until,   undone,   bleeds out
    in the deep-mouthed stones. 

    I came to myself
    at the edge of a wood        
    prophet  and  sinner.   
    Before me—  
    chthonic,    misunderstood— 
    a song of symmetry 
   driving me     into  the  gorge
    where the light unspools
    hanging on the air by a thread

    and silence breaks 
    on indifferent walls
    as the waters close over my head.

Susan Zatland
Poet-in-Residence;
Creative Writing Diploma, University of Oxford

Drowning
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