The detail of Medieval stained glass from Long Melford Church in Suffolk is disturbingly appropriate as I stare at what reminds me of John Webster’s famous lines concerning ‘A dead man’s skull beneath the roots of flowers’ from The White Devil. The stained glass head is more likely to be female but the principle remains: beneath the surface of humanity there is death. Or, as Zoe Brigley puts it on the back of this striking new collection of poems, ‘Bleak and beautiful, the poems elegize and bear witness, lamenting the emptiness at the heart of Western society.’
The sense of inevitability about man’s turning his back upon the light in order to indulge himself in darkness is there in the epigraph Will Stone uses for the second section of these poems:
‘Posterity will not be able to understand that we had to fall back into the same darkness after having known the light…’
The second poem in the section focuses upon a photograph in the ‘Karl Höcker Album’ which is owned by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. As Stone’s low-key and essential notes tell us: ‘This remarkable album of 116 photographs, discovered in 2006, had belonged to Höcker’, an SS officer at the camp. Whilst the photograph reveals a gathering of the important officers taking a well-earned break from duty at a rural retreat named Solahütte the poem also ‘refers to other images, notably one showing a line of young female SS auxiliary staff, known as Helferinnen, perched on a rustic balcony gleefully tucking into bowls of blueberries’:
‘Karl Höcker himself presides over the fun, egging the girls on for the camera. The second image shows them holding their bowls upside down with mock sadness; now all the delicious blueberries are gone. Meanwhile, thirty kilometres away, thousands of human beings are being gassed, shot, or, when numbers of arrivals exceed capacity, thrown alive into firepits. Höcker faced justice after the war, but denied any wrongdoing, even though witnesses testified to his presence on the ramp during Selections. He made the following statement in court: “I only learned about the events in Birkenau…in the course of the time I was there…and I had nothing to do with that. I had no ability to influence these events in any way…neither did I want them, not carry them out. I didn’t hurt anybody…and neither did anyone die at Auschwitz because of me.”’
The poem is powerful in the way it captures what Auden was to refer to as the great artists never being wrong about understanding how human suffering takes place ‘While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’ (‘Musée des Beaux Arts’). In Will Stone’s vivid recreation of horror
‘Giggling typists and telephonists
look flirtatiously on from a sunny glade.
Some whistle, some wave, they are
just doing what comes naturally,
for they are young people with dreams
riding their float through the carnival,
lips stained with the blood
What gives this image such power is the combination of the word ‘giggling’, a slightly uncontrollable form of laughter associated with childishness, with an awareness of the position they are adopting ‘flirtatiously’. The ordinariness of the scene is captured with a Larkinesque matter-of-fact quality since, after all, they are ‘just doing what comes naturally’. And there’s the rub! As the reader places these lines next to those carefully chosen words of Stone’s notes there is a deeply disturbing jolt. Ah yes, gassing people, shooting them, throwing them into fire-pits, ‘just doing what comes naturally’.
Equally powerful is the first poem in this second section of The Sleepwalkers, ‘Reading Reck’ written in memory of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen who was shot in Dachau in February 1945. Reck had met Hitler in 1920 and had noted that ‘There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic.’ Stone’s notes are again absolutely right in their precision and unfussiness. He quotes Reck, whose diary detailing life under a dictatorship was never unearthed by the Nazis, as describing a ‘feeling of oppression’ remaining after the young Hitler had preached at length:
‘It was not that an unclean body had been in the room, but something else: the unclean essence of a monstrosity.’
The poem focuses on Reck hiding his diary, like hiding his mind, ‘in the wood / glancing around him, a silhouette / with his hands in the earth, digging…’. We are given a picture of Reck ‘who found a fawn torn by a dog’ and who ‘cradled it as it died’ with, according to the diary, ‘tears in its eyes’. Walt Disney had released his film about a deer and loss / tears, Bambi, in 1942 and yet you will have to work out for yourselves whether the tears of sentimentality hinted at in Will Stone’s poem cast a glance at that world or the world of the later tears shed by a survivor from William Golding’s post-war landscape:
‘Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy’
In these wise and disturbing poems Will Stone compels us to stare unflinchingly at the skull beneath the skin.
I shall be reviewing Stone’s translation of Stefan Zweig’s Messages from a Lost World (Pushkin Press) for The London Magazine.
Ian Brinton 1st May 2016