There were more eyes looking into the pot than looking out.
This metaphor has stuck with me for forty years. Telling the story is my German host father Dieter, a ruddy, lusty little man much more prone after a few glasses of Rheinwein to grab his tall wife around the waist and waltz her about the living room than to recite poetry. But the eyes are the punch line of the story. After we’ve finished the second bottle, or perhaps the third, he launches into stories about the war years. Not so much for me, the American exchange student who would live with his family in West Berlin for a year, but more for his own son. To remind him again how easy his life is. To remind him again how lucky he is that his father has provided him with this bungalow in Spandau; the education; the fat goose and full pot.
Dieter was a Prussian conscript on the Eastern front, eighteen years old in 1945, the same age as I was in 1971 when he opened his home to me. He survived, returned to the farm, and spent the following years slowly starving. Tempted they were, so tempted every winter to boil the seed potatoes. And finish dying. He would dig the bare fields over again and find a couple of shriveled tubers for his mother to make into a thin soup. There was no meat, no eye of grease floating on top of the grey water to peer back at the hungry eyes looking in.
When he told these stories Dieter would grin as if daring me to believe his tales, but he never lost a defined hardness around his eyes. Klaus, also my age, would just roll his eyes. He never used the word, but he acted as if he considered his father an unreconstructed fascist. Klaus had to invite his leftist friends to the house when his father was working (which Dieter did about all the time). To have the slouching longhairs show up in the father’s presence invariably ended in a shouting match. When I had lived as his guest-brother for nine months, Klaus took me to Ernst Reuter Platz for the huge May Day march (I think I even carried a red flag), just blocks from the concrete, razor wire, mines, attack dogs that during those years still separated Dieter from his cousins in the East.
Too many German political parties for a teenager who couldn’t at that time clearly state the difference between a Republican and a Democrat: I just watched, took it in, tried to feel less confused. What exactly is it that we’re protesting here? Nowadays I can get on my soapbox about the gap between the haves and have-nots in our great prosperous oppressive nation, about how badly we need a national health program and how impossible it is to conceive of our self-serving politicians even taking one step toward consensus. But all politics must evaporate before that stark image: the desperate eyes looking into the pot, and no eye answering their supplication.
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In Counting the Lost, Gail Peck unveils image after grave image. These ekphrastic poems are inspired by drawings and photographs of World War II: refugees, displaced Jews, concentration camp victims. Each poem is the story of a person, a human soul caught in high relief and presented to us, the readers, that we may share their life. Their death. Faces and hands, mostly, mothers and children. You might read my description here and say, “How utterly depressing,” and the poems are indeed sobering, but taken together they are a memorial that has lifted me to a higher place. I feel the shared humanity of us all. Just as the Jew is healed by his ritual of the mourner’s Kaddish and the Roman Catholic by the sweeping Latin of the Requiem, so may we be healed by remembering those that have suffered. By remembering, as Gail states in her dedication, all those who have perished in war, especially the children. Faces turning face-to-face, eyes seeing eye-to-eye.
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Seed for the Planting Must Not Be Ground
after Käthe Lollwitz, drawing
Her arms are shelter, her body.
Every birth was a wake of pain
until they were lifted from her, washed
and placed on her breast to nurse.
She touched fingers and toes.
Older now, they are playing with
a wooden wagon, a ball, while she ladles
soup into bowls, trying to scoop
a bit of potato in each.
Hans spills his, and she wants to cry –
instead, takes spoonfuls from the other portions
She will never let these boys go to war.
Look at Berlin, windows with nothing behind.
Come see the hunger of six eyes,
hear the begging of stomachs.
Once there was an apple she cut
into threes, telling the boys to chew slowly.
The war goes on – who can rest?
Peter, Herman, Hans, almost numb
to the constant sirens, and explosions,
want to stay in their beds and sleep.
Count them and count them, the numberless sheep.
from Counting the Lost, Gail Peck, © 2011, Main Street Rag Publishing
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Read more poems by Gail.
Also by Gail Peck: Thirst
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That’s me, seated lower right-hand corner.