By Will Stone.
A souvenir of Old Vézelay
What silence could have once existed,
to keep the doves so still in their niches.
The wire hum of the cloister bats
ushered in the last dark-robed monk
who had climbed along decayed walls
of fortress towers, massive and rooted.
No neat arrow slits but brute gouges,
rough apertures lacking legend or faces.
Terraces pitched under rigging of vine,
extinct gates bled their rust into weeds
and trails of cats around subsiding tombs
that scatter their bleached litter of bones.
The elderly nun sits under the lime tree
and selects another bead of patience
from the shade, enfolds it in her palm
like a found coin. She at least is saved.
Sunflower fields brightly enclosing
concede to the scattered lamps of Asquins.
A few pray in the chapel of La Cordelle,
a German woman leans into the cross,
pipes and folk violin rise by a scented bush.
In the narthex of the Madeleine, pilgrims,
faith’s sailors who outswam the currents
or wrecked were miraculously picked up
kneel as one, gaze on the eternal
rippling folds of the redeemer.
Placed on a pile tenderly
as if to encourage brief sleep,
or easily torn from a tiny fist —
a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand
companions and twice the number
of unseeing eyes made of glass.
No child parent would return
to reclaim their mannequin infant,
no cry of recognition, no reaching out
to lift them lovingly from the dune.
The hut where they were taken
was cool and dark, on dry shelves
they placed the orphans head to toe
layered like sardines to save space.
The laundry girl was conscripted
because she could knit and sew
new outfits for the naked; dresses,
uniforms, sailor suits and blouses.
The master made his selection;
This one shall be a little SS man,
a festive gift for my son back home,
Christmas is for family as you know.
Carefully she buttoned them,
smoothed the new frocks down,
laid her changelings carefully
like fine wines nestled in straw,
and they arrived the saved by
Deutsche Bahn to Frankfurt,
Leipzig, Heidelberg, Cologne.
Resistance in Paris
In order to see
Rilke closed his eyes
Monique Saint-Hélier said.
In order to speak he employed
the costly services of silence.
How illness surprised them all
lying in wait in dark hedgerows.
When death stepped into the road
a slender white figure, a stranger
asking for directions to the community.
Then some form that thrives unseen
and is only imagined, changes direction
from that place no light reaches
at the deepest part of the ocean.
So she was left by the open window
as doctors and machines crowded in.
Paris stole through like a cat at night,
over-scented, quivering, mewling
for human warmth and new prey,
unknowing of the love she had
already exhausted on that creature
exploring every room restlessly,
ignoring the remembered portraits
she was desperately sculpting,
within a narrowing shaft of light.
To the memory of my father Walter Ernest Stone (1929–2020)
When the urn came to me
I bore it like precious water
through our drought-bleached land,
where I saw ribs of stricken herds
anchored into sculpture by sand
shining even whiter under a sun
that again unsheathed new blades.
Then suddenly we entered shade,
those silent courts of oak and beech
with their new green suspended,
the always burgeoning arboreal
that once protected the child I was.
Childhood, those gentle wavelets
meeting a barbed wire shore…
Boys hiding under low crab apples
Tracking each other, playing war
or racing down on ‘trolleys’, made
of crates, rope and old pram wheels.
One winter gifted the never before
our sledges hissing over new snow,
the sweetest sound, that ice smell.
Along the parched bed of the stream,
I lay my father, to wait for the water,
gleaming eddies and jewel pools,
the return of blood and movement
as half a century ago at Trebarwith
when he rose powerfully from the sea,
and I swaying astride his shoulders
rode high, fearless, untouchable.
Slowly the leaves grow yellow and fall,
and I hear leaders of corporate empires
fully confident of achieving eternal life
for select customers in their lifetime.
But in the Aveyron in the year 1851,
most peasants the traveller encountered
expressed a sincere longing for death.
Lone swan on the Goudenhandrei
lifting off, permitted by ancient law
to tear open the pristine onyx surface,
All is spent then before ripples embalm
and the little skiffs of down are borne
beneath green and violet venetian glass.
In the chapel above Raron I light candles,
pay the franc due for each finite flame.
Our lifeboats sit too low in the water,
around us white arms break the surface,
cries slip eagerly out of the blackness,
but there are just too many to rescue,
in the end the weakening, the unprepared
can be easily fended off with an oar.
Immortal Wreckage. The poem concerns again the medieval village of Vézelay, whose relative dominance in my poems may be because I have spent long periods of time there over recent years and have seen the changes wrought. Most are for the worse. This poem is a paean to the old Vézelay, the one which was intact spiritually before the makeover teams arrived and began cleaning the brickwork of the façade of the abbey and most tragically the surrounding battlements and medieval war towers. These at my first visits still bore the rare patina of centuries; hence they were characterful ‘beings’ showing their long-lived experience through that weathered outer skin, the grass growing between the cracks of their masonry, the unique tone of the brickwork and stone, the rough, uneven ground at their feet. They were an essential part, the bedrock of old Vézelay. Then suddenly some five years ago they were stripped of all this over a month or two, and reappeared clean and white, like models, or Disney towers, with neat parking machines at their approach. All spick and span the new look pleased the urban-minded who professed it was a vast improvement. Bravo! Unesco grants well spent! But in one fell swoop they had eradicated the past and it could never return.
Living Dolls. The poem was inspired by the 2017 documentary Four Sisters by Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah (1985). One of the four survivors of Nazi tyranny was unfortunate enough to end up in the extermination camp of Sobibor in Poland and there was conscripted by the SS overseers as a seamstress. As one of the few survivors of the camp she recounted her story. One of her jobs was to make new clothes for the dolls of the Jewish child victims, which were renationalised, recycled so to speak, and sent to Germany as dolls for German children. The SS men in the camp ordered dolls for their own children and had them dressed as to their taste. This account is quite possibly the most disturbing of all the testimony I have heard over some forty years of writing about and studying Holocaust literature in all its genres. But aside from the grotesquery and inherent evil, it holds something terribly significant concerning the German mania for making use of every offcut from their extermination programme, even a lowly child’s doll. For here they go as far as to recreate another doll from the expunged one, a new being from the old. Why then one might be tempted to ask, in an admittedly futile venture, could they not recreate a Nazi child from a Jewish one, instead of just murdering them?
Resistance in Paris. Monique Saint-Hélier (1895–1955) was a Swiss French writer who as a young woman had met the poet Rainer Maria Rilke at a ball in Switzerland and maintained a correspondence with him until his death in 1926. Most of later life was spent in a state of invalidity in Paris where, briefly fleeing the German advance on Paris in 1940 aside, she barely left her rooms. Doctors were never to properly diagnose what her ailment was, but she still managed to write from her bed or wheelchair penetrating and sympathetic portraits of those writers and artists she had known, most notably Rilke. She also wrote novels and stories which received much praise, though after her death her reputation stagnated somewhat until her rediscovery in the 1980s through the L’âge d’Homme Swiss literature series.
Eternal Life. This poem came about by hearing of billionaires seeking eternal life through cryogenics. At the same time I had read in Graham Robb’s book on France an account by a traveller passing through the Aveyron in 1851 and how the people there apparently sought the opposite course. The middle part of the poem repairs to Bruges and the final to Raron in the Valais, places well known to me. The sense of being trapped within a terminally damaged ecosystem with too many seeking rescue is the crux of the poem.
WILL STONE is a poet, essayist and literary translator who divides his time between East Suffolk, Exmoor and the continent. His first poetry collection Glaciation (Salt, 2007), won an international award for Poetry in 2008. Subsequent collections Drawing in Ash (Salt, 2011), The Sleepwalkers (Shearsman, 2016) and The Slowing Ride (Shearsman 2020) have been critically appraised. A fifth collection Immortal Wreckage will be published in 2024. Will’s published translations from French and German include works by Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Georg Trakl, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gérard de Nerval, Georg Simmel, Maurice Betz, Emile Verhaeren and Georges Rodenbach. Will’s latest published translations published were Nietzsche in Italy by Guy de Pourtalès (Pushkin Press, 2022) and Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (Wakefield Press, 2022). Letters around a Garden, a collection of Rilke’s letters in French will appear with Seagull Books in 2024 and Conversations with Rilke by Maurice Betz will be published by Pushkin in January 2025. Will has contributed reviews, essays, poems and translations to a number of literary publications including the Times Literary Supplement, the London Magazine, the Spectator, Apollo Magazine, the White Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, Agenda, Irish Pages and Poetry Review.
Image credit: photo by author.