Reconstruction

All it takes is a five-year-old in pale blue overalls drawing in a coloring book for a door to open into the light, for the house to be built again and the ochre hillside covered with flowers.

— Max Jacob

Max Jacob, Cows in a Landscape (Vaches dans un paysage), 1943.Image: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

Max Jacob, Cows in a Landscape (Vaches dans un paysage), 1943.
Image: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

Painter and poet Max Jacob was arrested by the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied France. Though Catholic, Jacob was persecuted for his Jewish heritage. In 1944, he died in the Drancy internment camp.

[Research note: from William Kulik, trans. The Selected Poems of Max Jacob (Oberlin: Oberlin College Press, 199): 129]

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Lackawanna Elegy

America
   The tongues of your rivers burn with thirst
America
   The coal in your mountains goes mad with sunlight
America
   The arms of your sequoias ask pity of the storms
America America

     Your heart’s drum
     Eats its own bones
     The eyes of your clocks
     Turn counter-clockwise seeking the past

And on her crumbling headland the Indian woman
Turns toward you eyes weighed down with asphalt
Her mercury and orange head shrinks just slightly
Her small breasts bared to the gnawing white ants

     She paints on the sand
     The oracle which a night effaces
     A rattlesnake gripped in her teeth
     She exorcises the white ghost
     Locked in the Kiva of hate

A shiver of feathers down the reed of the spine
Stirs your ash body America
A thorn is stuck in your twilight brow
A thorn is sown in the fields of hemp
A thorn is screwed into the heel of your dancers

America beware of your past
Of the Katchinas filled with menace
For wrath ripens its fiery apple
In the orchards of the Appalachians
In the desert colored by witches

In the rose-garden of your sick soul
The holocaust waits to begin.

— Yvan Goll
(Trans. by Galway Kinnell)

Cover Lackawanna ElegyBorn on the border of Germany and France, poet Yvan Goll worked in both French (Surrealist) and German (Expressionist). Worried because of his Jewish background, he fled Europe for New York at the beginning of World War II. In 1945, he returned to Paris, where he died of leukemia in 1950.

Epitaph

I lived in those times. For a thousand years
I have been dead. Not fallen, but hunted;
When all human decency was imprisoned,
I was free amongst the masked slaves.

I lived in those times, yet I was free.
I watched the river, the earth, the sky,
Turning around me, keeping their balance,
The seasons provided their birds and their honey.

You who live, what have you made of your luck?
Do you regret the time when I struggled?
Have you cultivated for the common harvest?
Have you enriched the town I lived in?

Living men, think nothing of me. I am dead.
Nothing survives of my spirit or my body.

— Robert Desnos

L’Épitaphe

J’ai vécu dans ces temps et depuis mille années
Je suis mort. Je vivais, non déchu mais traqué.
Toute noblesse humaine étant emprisonnée
J’étais libre parmi les esclaves masqués.

J’ai vécu dans ces temps et pourtant j’étais libre.
Je regardais le fleuve et la terre et le ciel.
Tourner autour de moi, garder leur équilibre
Et les saisons fournir leurs oiseaux et leur miel.

Vous qui vivez qu’avez-vous fait de ces fortunes ?
Regrettez-vous les temps où je me débattais ?
Avez-vous cultivé pour des moissons communes ?
Avez-vous enrichi la ville où j’habitais ?

Vivants, ne craignez rien de moi, car je suis mort.
Rien ne survit de mon esprit ni de mon corps.

— Robert Desnos

Robert Desnos

The last known photo taken of Robert Desnos at Terezín Concentration Camp, 1945.
Public Domain

Surrealist poet Robert Desnos used his art in support of the French resistance during World War II, using a pseudonym to publish a series of essays that mocked the Nazis. This, in combination with his anti-Nazi poetry, led to his arrest by the Gestapo in 1944. After interrogation by torture, he was sent to a series of concentration camps: Compeigne, Buchenwald, and Floha. He died of typhus at Terezín on June 8, 1945.