Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Crossed-Out Swastika by Cyrus Cassells

(Cyrus Cassells)

Introduction by Charles Adès Fishman:

There are poets who change the emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic landscape for us, whose words seem to fly even as they stagger with the weight of what they’ve imagined and what they’ve seen. They are our brothers and sisters in this life, yet they leap ahead of us at each stage of the journey because their hearts ache to write it all down, to say what has wounded and exalted them, and they say it with all the blood and flesh still clinging to the bone.

Cyrus Cassells is one of these poets, and the wonder of it is that The Crossed-Out Swastika, this most recent gathering of his poems, has an antecedent: Soul Make a Path Through Shouting (Copper Canyon, 1994), the first part of a projected three-book sequence that will deal with human rights and spiritual endurance. John Guzlowski and I have selected 5 poems from The Crossed-OutSwastika that we feel illustrate and embody this goal. The feature includes links to a wonderful reading Cassells gave in November at the Rothko Chapel in Houston and to a recent review of this book by Dan Shewan, as well as a personal statement about his enterprise and his vision.

I would like to add one more item to this feature: a 20-line excerpt from “The Weight of Brothers,” from Soul Make a Path Through Shouting: here is the drusy beauty of phrasing and the moral clarity that I associate with the writing of this exceptional poet:

To see at all is grace:

This child offers the camera
His blighted gaze.
This man peers through a mask of fire;

It has come to this:
Hen feathers, rubble, shards of broken dolls,
Rubbish from the pockets
Of a Russian soldier’s corpse,
Culled from the dust
Of his gutted shelter;
A tourniquet of turban cloth:
His blood and shock
Carried on a ragged mule
Through the winter-toothed mountains,
Over the poisoned ground,
Under hoary stars, grenades
Strapped to kites,
Over the border,
A cusp of iced trees,
To the camp —

And when her son never returned
from the meant-to-crush-him camps,

the crucible of Poland,
always-hard-at-work Isa slept

for endless hours,
and once, under her lids, she was led,

by diligent female Virgils,
to a vast meadow

where an inspirited Isa embraced,
one by one,

countless women who remained
in mourning for their cherished sons.                               

Gallant and stricken,
together the myriad bereaved               

but defiant women formed
an ever-widening circle,

prodigal with bitter tears,
and then, suddenly,

like a jackdaw darting
from eave to sun-drenched eave,

something flew between the throats
of the grieving,

heart-gutted mothers,
and a great beauty arose:

In the dream, Isa recalled,
the singing of the harrowed women

with war-taken sons   
hushed the world’s barrenness.

In the dream, the startling river of sound
altered the embattled earth.

I.  A Girl of Vichy France

Blue paper filled her first windows,
not snatch-gossip sparrows

or the sun’s reveille,
but a verdict of iron,

perfect-for-hopscotch parks,
Seine-lit stores

with exquisite engines
of this-and-not-that,

became, for “me–first” Sabine, impossible:
everywhere almond-green greatcoats

and boots like trampling hooves—
Bells of invaded parishes

tolled the sallow hours;
fine-made mezuzahs were mauled

by braying patriots,
and learners whose hair

would never thin or silver
were banished from their desks and inkwells:

École de Garcons, rue Neuve Saint Pierre,
École de Filles, rue de L’ave Maria . . .

Where a cellophane France,
all flyapart assurances,

renounced Sabine and her peers—
plane trees and regretful plaques

urging N’oubliez pas
or Ne les oublions jamais,

so that the questing pilgrim
or the alert passerby

might perceive,
in the midst of the sumptuous city,

where even the smallest Parisians

were obliterated without pity.

II. A Resemblance

A contrite Paris has unveiled
photos and still-vile documents to decry

the specter of sundering trains
aiming star-patched children

through tunnels and laconic fields:
11,400 hopes--

Sabine, who was hidden in the mountains,
has nudged me to city hall

to live awhile in the duress,
the dog’s-snarl cosmos

of never-grown deportees.
But will Parisians take time,

Sabine laments, to bear in mind
the children of verboten sidewalks,

verboten parks?
Look, Sabine remarks:

before his transport to Poland,
a brave boy left on a wall,

We are leaving Drancy in good spirits,
but for the traveler, the commuter,

today Drancy, where we Jews were held,
is only a place you whisk by

on the train to the airport—
Near us, some vying kids

are unsettled
by the uncanny resemblance

between a child in a yellowed photo
and a schoolgirl who lingers,

crestfallen, hollow before
the image of her deported twin–

When the welter of kids passes,
Sabine whispers:

Ma pauvre petite!
Hurry, we’ve got to help her:

she was too stunned to notice
the girl in the picture lived!

III. Ghosts

Sabine with her forest-colored blouse
fills my summer rooms

on the rue des Rosiers;
on Sabbath mornings,

Hebrew singing floats
from the temple on the rue Pavée,

competing with the voluble
pigeons who adore my ledge.

Clear-eyed Sabine is quick to notice
how my writing desk faces

the École de Travail with its doleful plaque
blessing deported pupils and teachers--

So the war has become
your devoirs:

Yes, Sabine, my homework
that I can’t seem to escape:

My friend, when I entered your flat,
I could feel it in my bones:

the family that once lived here
was deported!

No surprise in your neighborhood:
the Pletzl!

Sabine, yesterday my landlord read
my poem rooted in the war

and revealed: as a small girl,
she was hidden like you.

Poet, from cellar to cellar, I remember
I held onto, of all things,

a picture book about a magical goat,
inscribed by my witty father:

This storybook belongs
to Mademoiselle Sabine

the way Paris once belonged
to Marie Antoinette—

Somehow having that book
helped me to endure

the cold and fear---
And when I returned to Paris

it was to a world of ghosts,
the void shaped

by my murdered generation.
Was it the same for you

in the epidemic--
when you returned,

after so many deaths,
to San Francisco?

Do the men, like my school friends,
still come to  you in dreams?

At the exhibit, I thought:
Small as they were in life,

my playmates,
their souls must be immense by now.

Even here?
In this snowbound barrack?

Suddenly, the illicit sounds
of Beethoven’s concerto

erupt from Juliek’s smuggled violin,
suffusing this doomsday shed

teeming with the trampled
and the barely alive,

realm of frostbite and squalor,
clawing panic and suffocation—

Insane, God of Abraham,
insanely beautiful:

a boy insisting
winter cannot reign forever,

a boy conveying his brief,
bounded life

with a psalmist’s or a cantor’s
arrow-sure ecstasy—

One prison-striped friend
endures to record

the spellbinding strings,
the woebegone—

and the other,
the impossible Polish fiddler,

is motionless by morning,
his renegade instrument

under the haggard weight

of winterkilled, unraveling men.
Music at the brink of the grave,
eloquent in the pitch dark,
tell-true, indelible,
as never before,
as never after—

emending beauty,

linger in the listening,
the truth-carrying soul of Elie,      

soul become slalom swift,
camp shrewd, uncrushable;

abundance, be here, always here,
in this not-yet-shattered violin.


There is the lightning-white moment
when I learn—

the way my costive train to Krakow

and I woke to find myself,
in jostling twilight,

at the Auschwitz platform—
that the Italian postcard

I garnered in Milan years ago
as a genial talisman,

isn’t of a pipe-dreaming
Italian boy,

no, no, but an androgynous
image of Sophie Scholl,

the young, intrepid resistance heroine—
as if I’d registered,

in my Schubert-adoring daughter,
my school-resisting son,

a fire undetected before:
Doric-strong nouns demanding

What would you undertake
to stop tyranny?—

stouthearted nouns:
integrity, probity, courage;

in benighted Munich,
the spit-in-the-eye swiftness,

the unbossed bloom
of a crossed-out swastika,

the fierce integrity
in the gust of the word freedom

sprayed over the walls
and ramparts of a deranged

fatherland that rent flesh
as if it were foolscap—

Someday you will be
where I am now,

a steely, premonitory Sophie
proclaimed to the rapacious

Nazi tribunal that rushed her
to execution—

Gazer, collector, in clarity’s name,
look close, then closer:

it’s not just a bud-sweet,
pensive beauty,

a bel ragazzo’s charm;
all these years:

it’s the spirit of crusading youth
that I’ve cherished.


Look, we have made
a counterpoint

of white chrysanthemums,
a dauntless path

of death-will-not-part-us petals
and revering light;

even here,
even here

before the once-wolfish ovens,
the desecrating wall

where you were shot,
the shrike-stern cells

where you were bruised
and emptied of your time-bound beauty--

you of the confiscated shoes
and swift-shorn hair,

you, who left,
as sobering testament, the scuffed                   

luggage of utter hope
and harrowing deception.

Come back, teach us.
From these fearsome barracks

and inglorious fields
flecked with human ash,

in the russet-billowing hours
of All Hallows,

let the pianissimo
of your truest whispering

(vivid as the crunched frost        
of a forced march)

become a slowly blossoming,
ever-voluble hearth—

revealing to us,
the baffled, the irresolute,

the war torn, the living,
more of the fire

and attar of what it means
to be human.


The Crossed-Out Swastika by Cyrus Cassells is available at Amazon

A review of Cassells' book by Dan Shewan appeared recently online at The Rumpus.  You can read it by clicking here.

Cyrus Cassells is the author of five books: The Mud Actor, a National Poetry Series winner and finalist for the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award; Soul Make a Path Through Shouting, hailed as one of the Best Books of 1994 by Publishers Weekly, the winner of the William Carlos Williams Award, and a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Prize; Beautiful Signor, winner of the Lambda Literary Award, the Sister Circle Book Award (for African-American literature), and a finalist for the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award; More Than Peace and Cypresses, a Lannan Literary Selection, named one of the Best Poetry Books of 2004 by Library Journal; and The Crossed-Out Swastika, 2012. Still Life with Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas, translated from the Catalan, is forthcoming. Among his honors are a Lannan Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, and two NEA grants. He is a Professor of English at Texas State University-San Marcos.