View Full Version : To Home, Winter 1943

Friday, February 4th, 2005, 09:57 PM

To Home, Winter 1943

"Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp'd in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm." 1

I can scarcely hold the bottle, these rags that hold my fingers on
Don't let me move much. They're frozen with blood
And hard and I can only imagine the pain of taking
Them off, so I leave them on. My trigger finger
Is beginning to turn black, but I can still use it, I think.
All my finger tips are black, like I touched fire.
I'm afraid to think what my feet look like beneath their
Bandages; I need to steal boots today. More vodka too. I must.

Early this morning I awoke crushed by the weight
Of a man, a soldier, death;
My arms and legs flailing beneath him -
From above we must have looked like a bug.
But this is good. This is survival. I hope
I can crawl into a man by tonight too, unless we make
Town or find a farm - and find either not burned or
Pillaged already.
I pulled this dead man onto myself for warmth last night
Beside our road; he wasn't long dead.
I got a feeling neither of us was too far from
Our moments of death . . . very close, just on different
Sides of the hill. I hear there is euphoria just before
Dying from cold. But I can't think like that. I can't slip away.

His German uniform was mostly burned off, much of his skin too.
Little was left of the Germany I clung to.
It must have looked like a still rape scene,
I the victim. But he held me warm, as I feared far
Worse lay in waiting not far afield in the night.
But it is morning now and there is sun and we have vodka.

Vodka is a Hell of a way to start the day warm.
Alive is a Hell of a way to start the day too.
These pigs make good vodka. We take vodka,
There's never schnapps, like we used ether to start
Strong German diesel engines on the way in.
What I wouldn't give for a ride.
What I wouldn't give for more vodka . . .
Or days without nights.

……………We take to the road……………

I can look in any direction and see nothing but snow.
The sun is there too. The sun is our only way home, our guide,
Our savior. Sometimes it's only a silver glow through
A heavy blanket of cloud cover (never a blanket less warm).
Sometimes we can't find the sun at all, but many days we can.
What good is a map when you don't know your own position?
Maps are useless except to start a fire.
We could walk right over any of these razed Ukrainian towns,
The ashes covered in new snow, and not know it.
There are roads and we use them sometimes, so long as
They don't stray too far from West. All we do is walk with our sun.
All we can do is walk West and hope we find a farm or men who died
With food and ammunition. We walk with our sun,
It's the only way home.

Sometimes this wind has fun with us.
It knocks us down, it takes our fingers and toes,
It laughs at our dress, pinching its innermost layers,
It hides our guide, it makes us think it's snowing.
Sometimes we can't tell sky from ground.
Sometimes it tucks us in at night with snow, lulls us
Into blissful sleep too comforting to leave.

Something far worse is out there too.
We can't always see what drags some of us away,
But something is there all the same, waiting, luring, and trapping.
It's always there. It promises sleep, it promises more drink,
It promises ends to our Hell.

…………We take rest………We drink…………

We know exhaustion well.
We collapse in the arms of a ghost of home,
For this frozen Soviet plain isn't fit for anything but killing
And dying. What animals! Who the Hell should
Live here but them? They must be born with an
Immediate sense that they will die and there won't
Be much in between those two inconsequential events,
Except the deaths of others.
On the way in, we used to see the onion bulb
architecture on temples to an Eastern
God evicted under Bolshevism . . .
They kill like they have no god, damned butchers.

But there are no landmarks anymore.
On a day when dead wheat is 1 meter beneath the surface
And ground becomes sky and life yields to death,
We walk in between and hope our path is true.

Where is my Germany?
Father Germany?

……We rest…And drink…………

Sometimes I can't stop, I cry for hours
And don't care if I'm not alone.
I am an officer in the service of our Fuhrer,
A Leutnant, yet still I cry like a child sometimes.
Or laugh like a madman.
My tears freeze, or I cut my frozen mouth
Cackling and the blood freezes too.
It hurts. God it hurts to be here.

……We take to the road………………

I suppose in a progression of events, these
Days begin to make sense . . . how I got here.
But I don't remember to think that way
Always and some mornings, like today,
I awake to a horror so cruel and twisted,
To rotting human and horse smells so fetid,
To scenes so demented,
Only the insane could know what we speak of.
It's prying into the mind of a maniac or reeling
The grotesque dreams of the retarded,
The fantasies of the drooling perverted
Obsessed with decay.
If this is a rite of passage to becoming a man,
I wish eternal boyhood on everyone who follows.

Today I thought this burnt man preserved in iced winds,
The man who saved me last night, the man I came into,
The man who held me, with his dead bulk,
Was trying to kill me when I woke,
His frost-bitten mouth frozen in a black snarl, he was hard and cold as steel.
I won't soon forget that face, that black snarl, that black nose,
With soot from the cauldrons of Hell.
It stalks me by night.

…………We plod onward, West………………………………

Sometimes I imagine pretty scenes of home and hear soft tones.
I see the University, Lake Constance, my Christiane; I'm eating wurst
And drinking weiss bier with her in July in a meadow with
Aster, alpenthistle, . . . .
It makes me wretch in convulsing fits
For what was and what may or may not ever be again.
But they're all I have, those scenes, that draw to home, that faith,
That religion that my homeward pilgrimage has become.
And I'm losing them. I can scarcely picture Christiane . . . .
At least I can't picture her face. It's as if my character
In my mind can't pick his head up to see above her neck.
Why can't I see her face in my mind? What has taken it from me?

………………………We make camp for the night………………

I seem to be coming up more often in rotation for
Night watch - our only defense against the Red Army
And the Cossacks. But something else, something
That no watchman can warn against takes more
Of us every night.
Attrition is a fact of losing.
Soon I'll outrank everyone here, a burden of duty
I'd sooner pass on that put on my shoulders.
Getting drunk is a fact too.
It's part of losing, hiding, retreating; it's part of our daily dying.
But drinking is all we can do; it's all we have;
It's an easy escape.
It's warmth in the cold and life amidst so much death.
It's home, for a moment or two, so far from home.
Kapitan von Bischoffshausen
Said getting drunk is weak and it's a way to sleep late and
Wake up to a cold bayonet hammered from Ural steel.
He wandered off alone the other day, I could swear
I heard him whistling. You don't always have to see
A man die to know he has.
He was a proud man, a handsome
Man with warmth and life. He lost an eye somewhere
Where we were victors and lost his life somewhere
Where we're losing badly, both inconsequential points
On a blank white map.

God help us if the Cossack dogs wake us though.
"A Cossack Alarm - that's the end,"
Someone said before he froze to death.
I've heard what they do; we all have.
They cut you many times over and leave you
To whatever eats at dying men… slowly dying men.
Cloven-hoofed sons of the devil, they are.
We should have killed them all on the way in.

"Give me some vodka, Hartmann. To you, my friend!"

………We rest…………We drink well tonight…………

Our Fuhrer knows our tragedy, our struggles.
Our Fuhrer has a victory plan.
We are not forsaken, . . . foregone losses.
We hear there will be a massive counter-offensive
To the south. SS Panzer Divisionen, hundreds of Panthers and Tigers….
We shall regroup.
Our Fuhrer and his vengeance weapon will lay waste
To this Slavic Hell.
We are safe in his arms, safe against what lies
Beyond what we cannot see, what tickles our ears at night
And plays in the corners of our eyes.
He carries us, . . . Germany and home, carry us.
Tomorrow we can rest.
Tomorrow we'll have no one to run from.
Tomorrow we'll have warmth in winter
And dry clothes in snow.
Tomorrow we take comfort in victory.
Tomorrow we have leave, we have peace.
Tomorrow our Fuhrer will carry us home.

Yesterday Muller, at least I think he's Muller,
Screamed and cried he can't see anymore.
We killed him, old, blind, and deranged at 19 or 20;
He would have sacrificed our position.
He was screaming, raving drunk, siphoning benzene
From a crippled Mk IV with the turret blown off,
A decapitation in steel. He was swilling benzene
On parade - his wedding day, hallucinating warmth
And love and happiness, before he took his bride's hand,
Marrying death. The fool. Yet for him, this torture is over;
For me, it goes on. Is he a fool?
But no, I can't think like that. I can't slip away.
We lost three more this morning, leaving them by the road,
They reached up for help, drowning in the snow.
We can't help them. We can scarcely help ourselves.

Last week Hofflin was stabbed by a young whore,
Stabbed with glass in the pelvic artery when
She went down on him . . . he bled like a sheep at a blood letting,
Sacrificed to nothing, to pointlessness.
He died a man though, a proud soldier - and save survival,
That's all any of us can reasonably ask for.
The whore was silent, dark, cold, beautiful.
She must have been 14. Her eyes were so bloodshot, I thought
They would start hemorrhaging. She had that distant, hollow stare of
Someone not part of this world. If she would survive the war,
What would become of her anyway? How could she survive life?
But I'm a fool. I was trapped into caring, her eyes took me in.
The other Muller killed her.
He killed her after and before
Redressing the balance of services her mouth had promised to Hofflin.
He wouldn't stop and bade us farewell.
We left Muller at the farmhouse, the sorcerer's apprentice
Alone with his gasoline spirits.
He turned a dead girl into a wife with his magic spells and loved what he created.
He turned himself into a madman, and then two.
He drank his undoing and poured a mind bound by no sanity
Behind blind eyes. He flooded himself with demented oils
And found it fueled far worse.
We left him alone.
He was a man, a proud soldier, very proud.

I ate horse meat again tonight, too weak and tired to skin the hide and hairs,
It tasted like a burnt tire. I wondered if the horse was a German one
Or a Russian and scolded myself at the insanity of the question.
I can't slip away like that.
I can't give in to what lies around us.

All we have is a draw to home - it's our faith. Our draw together is of necessity
And a lingering precept of country. We are connected to
This draw to home, and together by the pilgrimage.
It's too late for anything more than that. It's too late for friends.
Schnapps is warmth, and sometimes it's home, for a moment or two.
Benzene is dementia and blindness. Horse is food. Women, Russians,
Dogs, cold, insanity, . . . . Death and killing
Are fact and are certain. Death and killing are near.
They have many forms and they play before us with trickery
And temptation nightly, knowing many will give in.
I live in the body of a man tonight, a new man,
Shot in the back with a high explosive round, it entered and
Blew out his front, taking with it his identity.
A German man, a boy last year like I was too, I'm sure; that's all
That's here in the East. I could tell he was German by his boots I stole.
Wrapped bleeding feet leave a trail on a blank white map; they mark our slow progress.
Maybe this will help. The boots are too big for me, but I leave on my bandages
And they fit well. The blood on my feet is warmth sometimes,
But I know it's drinking saltwater in a lifeboat; they need to heal.
It's comforting walking in a man's shoes; it's warm inside the body of a man.
I feel I'm growing into him.
I hear the Cossack dogs baying revenge. Sometimes it's so
Goddamned close, it scares the life from me.
Sometimes I stop noticing or caring -
And that scares me even more when I sober up.
I know I've nearly not escaped.

We live to walk home. We look forever for food and ammunition
And warmth. We drink our warmth. We sleep to wake early.

Shultz rapes peasant daughters. Sometimes we laugh.
Sometimes he kills them first. Sometimes we help.
He is a man too, a proud soldier. He will survive I think.
I will be with him. I wear the uniform of men.
I will survive too, I think.
I hear there is more vodka for tomorrow.

We retreat from the morning sun. It tracks us,
Flanks us, overtakes us, and heads us off. It appears in morning and breaks camp
Before we do, advancing quickly behind us, it encircles us.
It takes a handful of us every night, dragging them down to do its killing.
We enact the same slow dying maneuver every day
In our slow retreat to somewhere we hope is still there.

"The father gallops now, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and dread, -
The child in his arms he finds motionless, dead." 2

1) Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. "The Erl-King." Collected Poems of Goethe. Trans. Edgar Alfred Bowring, 1782. 29 May 2002
2) Goethe, "The Erl-King." Collected Poems of Goethe.

This poem won an Honorable Mention in the 2002 War Poetry Contest sponsored by Winning Writers. Author Geoffrey Clay received a $50 award. Copyright is reserved to the author.

About the author

Geoff Clay writes:

I only started writing poetry a few years ago, less as a serious foray into creative writing and more as a means by which to put on paper a number of things I wanted to forget (all of it rather pedestrian in hindsight). I was bolstered by what F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: "Fine dives have been made from flimsier spring-boards."

I am 26 years old and was born, raised, and now reside in suburban picket fence New Jersey, not far from Manhattan. I've had the great privilege to have traveled to many out-of-the-way places across the great girdled earth. I've been lucky enough to study at Oxford for a spell and for 4 brilliant years at "The College on The Hill". As for those 4 glorious years, I'll let one of dear old Dartmouth's more illustrious presidents speak for me (paraphrased, of course): "Before a man can be expected to live upright and respectably, he must be afforded the opportunity to be completely irresponsible."
I am presently writing advertising copy at a leading specialty chemicals company and enjoying it very much. I use my time outside of work to write - both poetry and fiction - and often times I find myself writing about war and other unpleasant topics. It turns out I have a rather low opinion of my writing when the subject is a happy and cheerful one. It just doesn't have that extra little something that things bleak and desolate have springing forth from my hands.
As for the future, I am hoping to find the time to pursue an MFA in poetry or fiction, while being tempted all the while to pursue a "more practical" MBA instead. For now, I'll remain immersed in the written word. I'll be posting work to my own site, http://www.geoffclay.homestead.com/, very soon.