A Sestina: “The Book of Yolek” by Anthony Hecht

The Book of Yolek

Anthony Hecht

Wir Haben ein Gesetz,
Und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben.*

The dowsed coals fume and hiss after your meal
Of grilled brook trout, and you saunter off for a walk
Down the fern trail. It doesn’t matter where to,
Just so you’re weeks and worlds away from home,
And among midsummer hills have set up camp
In the deep bronze glories of declining day.

You remember, peacefully, an earlier day
In childhood, remember a quite specific meal:
A corn roast and bonfire in summer camp.
That summer you got lost on a Nature Walk;
More than you dared admit, you thought of home:
No one else knows where the mind wanders to.

The fifth of August, 1942.
It was the morning and very hot. It was the day
They came at dawn with rifles to The Home
For Jewish Children, cutting short the meal
Of bread and soup, lining them up to walk
In close formation off to a special camp.

How often you have thought about that camp,
As though in some strange way you were driven to,
And about the children, and how they were made to walk,
Yolek who had bad lungs, who wasn’t a day
Over five years old, commanded to leave his meal
And shamble between armed guards to his long home.

We’re approaching August again. It will drive home
The regulation torments of that camp
Yolek was sent to, his small, unfinished meal,
The electric fences, the numeral tattoo,
The quite extraordinary heat of the day
They all were forced to take that terrible walk.

Whether on a silent, solitary walk
Or among crowds, far off or safe at home,
You will remember, helplessly, that day,
And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp.
Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.

Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal.

* We have a law, and according to the law he must die.


The compelling sestina by the late, great Anthony Hecht is a good example of the old Medieval form., the sestina, which consists of 6 six line stanzas and a tercet (three lines at the end).

The sestina is governed by the 6 end words, or syllables, which pop up in each stanza according to a preordained arrangement.

Hecht’s six words are:
to (2, too, tattoo)

Notice that all 6 appear in the final tercet. Also note that the final word of each stanza becomes the final word of the first line of the following stanza.

The first two stanzas of “The Book of Yolek” depict a peaceful and almost opulent scene: a midsummer camper is enjoying a walk after a meal of grilled trout and then remembers a childhood summer camp and the sense of homesickness.

Then there’s a segue: “No one else knows where the mind wanders to”.

The next three stanzas are dedicated to the speaker’s thoughts of a young boy named Yolek who perished in a concentation camp. During WWII, Hecht, an American serviceman, was in a division that helped to liberate the few survivors of a concentration camp. Because he knew a few languages he interviewed and transcribed the statements of the survivors. That’s my theory as to where he got the story of Yolek.  But his fecund imagination would have sufficed.


According to Poetry:  “Much has been written about Hecht’s experience as an infantryman in wwii, both in combat and at the liberation of Flossenbürg concentration camp. “The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension,” Hecht said of the camp, an annex of Buchenwald, in an interview with Philip Hoy. “For years after I would wake shrieking.” The survivors were naked, skeletal, their yellowed skin stretched over bony frames; contemporary reports note that the smell was unbearable. Hecht explained to Hoy how he let go completely [of] illusions of heroism when on another occasion he saw American soldiers mow down a group of women and children who were attempting to surrender.”



This poem is daunting to write about because it is so powerful; Hecht must have worked at it for a long time to achieve such a breath-taking, heart-breaking effect. I think he’d like us to always be prepared to receive Yolek in our thoughts, at our tables, in our souls.

Be kind, for you never know who might be a Yolek.   And even if you don’t know him, and you possibly don’t, keep a place for him.



“Not Waving But Drowning”


Not Waving but Drowning

By Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith is an odd duck, in the very best sense of the phrase. Her poetry can be witty and she clearly attends to strong rhymes and meters much of the time. She does not eschew anything–seemingly. Yet this impression fails to acknowledge the clear craft of her work.

“Not Waving But Drowning” looks at English “refinement” less directly than the epigram below. The poem has three speakers: the narrator, the drowned man, and his friends. The narrator gets lines 1-2 and line 10; the drowned man “speaks” lines 3-4, and the final stanza save line 10. The chums speak the second stanza.

The poem is a quick glance at the anthropology of the English. No matter how distressed one is, one puts on a hearty appearance of “larking”. Better to assume a person has had a heart attack than a possibly preventable death. And how do you discern the differences between the language of drowning and the language of play?

The dead man tells us that he’s been out too far all his life; drowning all of his life. In his few words he manages to convey a Prufrockian sense of isolation (Prufrock, too, spoke of drowning).

It’s easy to “get” the snap! response to an epigram such as:

“This English woman is so refined
She has no bosom and no behind.”

The mills of refinement have ground away at her sexuality. The two line poem pokes fun at English stereotypical ideals of class and refinement. A refined English woman would never be callipygian and would never qualify to work at Hooters.

April is Poetry Month!


I’m a riddle in nine syllables.
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

–Sylvia Plath

Plath is not best known for her humor. Many critics comment on the resentment seething in this poem.

But is it not possible that she’s created a little jocundity of nineness? And the poem is a riddle. Many readers do not first understand that all of the metaphors, all of the syllables in each line, the number of lines, even the number of letters in the word metaphors all add up to a “nineness” or a “novecissimo” comment on pregnancy and its 9 months. Plath could indeed be funny–the triolets of her poem “Mushrooms,” for example, or “Balloons” are archly sportive.

To begin poetry month on the first of April, I thought I’d post a brief and amusing poem.

Happy Birthday to Robert Frost

Today Robert Frost would have been 143 years old.  I remember him well as the celebrated elder statesman of American poetry.  He could fill a football stadium.  So could T.S. Eliot.  FrostRobertYouth

When I was young many academics paid scant attention to him, dismissing him as some sort of country bumpkin farmer poet.  But one, Prof. Arthur Mizener, paid close attention to Frost in a class and taught us to look for the complexity and craft in such ostensibly simple language.

Here’s a significant contrast to John Milton; Frost gives us a sonnet and not an epic.

“Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same”

“He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.”

The coming of Eve and her voice has changed the sounds of the songs of nature; these sounds will be forever mediated by human sensibility.  Readers are accustomed to the great bird songs of poetry that change their listeners:  Keats’s nightingale, Hardy’s thrush, Shelley’s skylark, Yeats’s indignant desert birds.  Birds have been the ur-poets and singers and their song has come down over centuries.  But Frost reminds us that the “oversound” of birds can have taken on a certain eloquence of the human voice.    Traditionally Eve is thought of as the weak tempted female, besotted by sin, giving way to an apple and that feminine love of carbohydrates.  Here we have Eve as an important influencer of the birds.

The poem uses intriguing words that seem to either undercut or add to the complexity by their own lack of declaration:  “would,” “could,” “Admittedly,” “could only,” “Be that as it may,”  “Moreover,” “probably”.   Is this Adam a complex thinker?  Somebody whose mind is roiled about with interpretive possibilities?  I think so.  And did any poet make so much of simple monosyllables in that devastating final line: “And to do that to birds was why she came?”

The poem is also wistful:  if Eve has changed bird song for the better, there’s also the irretrievable fact that we can no longer hear the bird song that existed previously; something has been lost to us and nostalgia for what we cannot have known pervades the sonnet.

Frost is among the least-self indulgent poets I know of, by which I mean that he does not stand on a ledge above his readers and tacitly proclaim that there’s no room for you up here, reader.  His poetry is filled with music we can all appreciate and it also invites us to dig deeper into the various moods that pervade his work.  Apples can be joyful and also can lead to confusion.  Birch trees can be beautiful and also their branches can trail to the ground confounded by the works of winter.   He invites us into a world of speculation in which both delight and depression can co-exist as needful companions.   In an early poem, “The Pasture,” Frost extends an invitation:  “You come too.”  He’ll keep us from obstructions and from falling on our feet.





Grief is the Thing with Feathers


This is a remarkable book, the first by Max Porter.   It’s bound to appeal to all sorts of readers without being facile or treacly or academic.   The poetic story ranges into all sorts of diction.

A woman has died.  She’s left her two sons, the brothers, and her husband.  The books is divided into short segments in which we hear the voices of the brothers, the husband, and the Crow, who has come over from the book by Ted Hughes to talk this family through—as advisor and savant and a “doctor or a ghost”.   The father/widower is writing a book on Hughes, and the parallel story of Hughes  and his two children losing Sylvia Plath pervades the text as a diatonic underscore that never seizes control of the main dirge.  The book is entitled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch:  A Wild Analysis.

As the mourners have left, the main speaker, the “Dad” is left alone with his mourning.  But the crow comes to call:  “There was a rich small of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast”.   The Crow tells Dad that “I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.”

The brothers try hard to be cleaner and nicer.  But sometimes they are overwhelmed with the impulse towards bad behavior.  “We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test.”  “We used to think we would both die at the same age she had.”  They fear that their Dad will die.

“The one son went for drawing, furiously concentrating like a little waist-high fresco painter scrabbling hands and knees on the scaffold. Thirty-seven taped-together sheets of A4 paper and the full rainbow of crayons, pencils and pens, his front teeth biting down on his lower lip. Heavy nasal sighing as he adjusted the eyes, scrapped them, started again, working his way down, happy with the hands, happy with the legs.

The second son went for assemblage, a model of the woman made from cutlery, ribbons, stationery, toys, buttons and books, manically adjusting – leaping up, lying down – like a mechanic in the pits. Clicking and tutting as he worked his way around the mosaic mum, happy with the face, happy with the height.”

Crow himself has known grief:  “I lost a wife once, and once is as many timas as a crow can lose a wife….He flew a genuflection Tintagel-Carlyle cross Morecambe-Orford, wonky, trying to poison himself with forbidden berries and pretty churches, but England’s litter saves him.  Ley lines flung him cross-country with no time for grief, power cables catapulted loose bouquets of tar-black gone and feather and other crows rained down from the sky, a dead crow storm, a tor top burnt bird bath…Blackberry, redcurrant, loganberry, sloe.  Damson, plum-pear, crab-apple, bruises.  Clots, phlegm, tumours and quince.”

As a grief counselor, Crow lets Dad know that there is no “moving on.”  “Any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project.”

At a spare 115 pages, this book reads like both a prose poem and a riveting thriller.

I don’t know if the references to Hughes and Plath are essential.  I don’t know Hughes’s crow, nor did I feel I needed to.

Porter has added a fresh, original voice to the literature of death and grief.  The book is generated, in part, by his own experience of losing his father when he was a 6 year old and of his fascination with Hughes and Emily Dickinson.  I recommend it highly and know I will reread it.

Deal Me In: Week 11, Elizabeth Taylor: “Spry Old Character”


Taylor continues her streak of heart-breaking stories with “Spry Old Character,” about a man, Harry, who has been forced by circumstances (his sister’s death) to live in “The Home For The Blind,” where not a week passes without some “dispiriting jollity being forced upon him.”

Going blind was not easy for him:  “This orderly aspetic world was not only new to him, but beyond him imagining.  Food and talk had lost their richness; central-heating provided no warmth.”

He is juvenilized by the staff; he has been unable to learn Braille; and he decides that the other inmates are quite unfit for him because they are so virtuous, so wholesome, so upright–always turning off the radio when anything “suggestive” is on.  Miss Arbuthnot is a particular nemesis:  “She had been a governess in Russia in the Tsarist days and had taken tea with Rasputin”.   She describes her English Ascot experience as being “The cream of the cream, as one might say, but; dear, dear me…my poor feet. I wore some pale grey buckskin shoes…”

Harry finds a way to escape his insipid companions by learning how to make his way to the bus stop with his white cane.  There, bus drivers take sympathy on him and permit him to ride the bus route for free.   He finds a sense of true fellowship there:  “In their company he opened out, became garrulous, waggish, his old manner returning.”

He loves the bus, but the bus-drivers and the regular riders feel as if they’ve been “saddled” with an “old geezer”.

There are so many ways in which people fail to fit into the respective worlds into which fate has flung them.  Miss Arbuthnot is the “Queen” of the Home for the Blind, but perhaps only in her own head.   Harry feels that he’s in a community with the bus drivers, but they tolerate him and the warm feelings he had with his cockney friends in his youth are not reciprocated here.

Instead of remaining individual people, the elderly and infirm become “characters”.   That Taylor makes his feel fiercely in favour of Harry  as person and not merely “spry old character” speaks to her eloquence and skill as an author.




Deal Me In: Week 10: “A Red Letter Day” by Elizabeth Taylor


The Jack of Hearts returns me to Elizabeth Taylor and her “A Red Letter Day” is a triumph of astute character revelation.   Tory, the divorced mother of an eleven year old boy, is going alone to a parent’s visiting day at his school.  The atmosphere could not be less propitious:
It’s a “malevolent landscape” with “wastes of rotting cabbages, flint cottages with riakish privies, rubbish heaps, grey napkins drooping on clothes-lines, the soil like plum cake.  Even turning in at the rather superior school-gates, the mossy stone, the smell of fungus” is dismaying.

Tory has caught one of the last cabs because, she thinks she has “no man to exert authority for her.”  At home, she had spent too much time trying to figure out what to wear so that having tried on so many hats and flinging them, rejected, on the bed, “It resembled a new grave with its mound of wreathed flowers.”

Tory has one child and she begins to hate a rather random woman who “looked as if she had what is often called a teeming womb.”   She thinks of her “spitefully” and imagines all the fun her sons must have.  Tory’s own “love for her son was painful, shadowed by guilt.”  She thinks to herself, disparagingly about her son, “Between Edward and me there is no promise of love, none at all, nothing taken for granted, as between most sons and mothers.”  It’s very painful reading:  Tory does love her son, but has no idea how to spend an afternoon with him.

Edward tells her that he is not popular with the other boys–“unbearable news for any mother,” but she is not able to respond.  They go to a museum and are bored together.  For Edward, “sinking down within him are the lees of despair….alone with his mother he felt unsafe, wounded and wounding” and thinks of death.

“So lovely, Darling,” she remarks to him as she drops him back at school.

The story is heart-wrenching because both the mother and the son have been caught in traps of self-loathing, depression, and despair.   Edward seems to think he’s the worst child at school and Tory has an inferiority complex that emerges in spite towards others.

There seems to be no way out.  Tory, as a mother of an eleven-year-old, deserves to be scolded for her lack of empathy for his plight; for her perhaps associating him (by indirect contamination) with his father, who has left her.   She’s stuck to far into her slough-of-despond which has become a quicksandish quagmire.  Both Tory and Edward are thinking of death — prematurely — and seem to have no way to escape the entrapment they feel around each other.

Taylor knows her to dangle her readers between judgment and sympathy in her exquisitely wrought stories about people who are unable to connect.  She has a clear empathy for young people as the story I read last week about the young girl who does not want to drink alcohol despite her parent’s expectations indicates.