Choked sunset glow
Of crashing time.
Intersections of flight.
Cart tracks across the ploughed field
That with the eyes
Of killed horses
Saw the sky in flames.
Nights with lungs full of smoke,
With the hard breath of the fleeing
Struck the dusk.
Out of a broken gate
Ash and wind came without a sound,
That sullenly chewed the darkness.
Flung over the rail tracks,
Their stifled cry
Like a stone on the palate.
Humming cloth of flies
Closed their wounds.
---Peter Huchel (translated by Michael Hamburger)
Peter Huchel’s Roads
20th century Eastern European poets were (and some still are) consumed with images. Their eyes are different than most poets’; their vision is sculpted by harsh landscapes, mysterious disappearances, and the lingering cloud of the state and communism. Michael Hamburger, the editor of the anthology East German Poetry, provided insight as to why poets like Peter Huchel are important, writing , “All of them, beginning with Brecht, have been preoccupied with moral and social problems to a degree rare among non-communist poets; and that is another reason why their work is, or should be, of special interest to American and British readers with no direct experience of an almost totally collectivized society.” Hamburger is correct; the artists, actors, writers, and poets are sometimes the best lens through which to view a society, especially one that is vastly different. Who knows, maybe during the Cold War our government was employing literati to pore over volumes of fresh writing from Soviet and Communist Bloc nations? That might have been military money well spent.
What can we learn now through a close reading of Peter Huchel’s poem Roads about life in East Germany during communist rule? Of course, we won’t learn logistics, statistics, and government secrets. What we will learn is the intricacies and nuances of being a citizen. The fears, which there were many, of the average man. The poem begins in violence: “Choked sunset glow / Of crashing time. Roads. Roads.” So many poems focus on the serene beauty of sunsets, whereas Huchel destroys that immediately by terming it a “choked” sunset. This implies violence, but also an unknown person or force committing the choking of the sunset. Additionally, the sunset isn’t a calm end to the day, instead it is “crashing time.” This introduction of time and place leads us to the poems main focus: roads. Already, we’re off to a bumpy start.
I find it interesting that in the examples of roads Huchel provides, the first is overtly the most positive of the bunch, yet it is also the most vague. “Intersections of flight” is an interesting definition of roads, but it also implies an industrious voyage beyond the constraints of the ground. I view this line as a glimpse of hope, because the rest of this first stanza is marred by death: “Cart tracks across the ploughed field / that with the eyes / of killed horses / saw the sky in flames.” These are the type of lines that jolt you from your seat. I remember reading this poem for the first time on a plane and I literally grabbed the armrest when I reached the end of the first stanza. The tracks of a ploughed field are representative of a valuable local road, but Huchel has them viewed through the eyes of killed horses. These horses aren’t just dead, they’ve been killed. There is a large difference, the kind that writers in communist countries would have noticed immediately.
From the flames the dead horses view, we land in a second stanza “with lungs full of smoke” and “hard breath of the fleeing.” We are now citizens of this dangerous state. Huchel invites us to join him as inhabitants of this broken land. Broken is an apropos adjective; Huchel uses it to describe a gate in this stanza, but so much of the land seems broken. There are shots that trigger the fleeing and a fire that “sullenly chewed the darkness.” There is no respite from the onslaught of disturbing images. The third stanza begins: “Corpses, / Flung over the rail tracks.” These corpses are treated to “a black / Humming cloth of flies” to shore up their wounds and gashes. The poem ends so gruesomely, and yet I’m in awe of the commonplace presentation of death. Death is not the rare moment that comes after a life has reached its completion; rather, death is common and indiscriminate, arriving for everyone, even the young. Is this the type of thing we might have found valuable to learn about life in East Germany years ago?