Friday, February 24, 2012

Wisława Szymborska and Horst Beckmann’s Hat

—for Friko 

In yet another alarming gap in my cultural education, I’d not heard of Wisława Szymborska until Friko’s Poetry and Pictures introduced a poem of hers to me. The poem was The Joy of Writing, and its first line, as translated from the Polish by Czesław Miłosz, is this:  “Where is a written deer running through a written forest?”

In that one line, Szymborska summons up the act of imagining, and the poem celebrates its joyful power.
In a drop of ink there are quite a few
hunters squinting one eye,
ready to rush down a vertical pen,
to encircle the deer, to take aim.
They forget that this is not life here.
Other laws rule here, in black and white.
An instant will last as long as I desire.
“An instant will last as long as I desire.”  I imagine this pinned on a cork board above every writing desk, hanging from a banner in each artist’s studio, hovering in the air like melody while a composer sets down her notes.

I pored through the meager poetry offerings in a local bookstore and found a slim volume of Szymborska’s work.  The collection was called Here (Tutaj, in Polish), after its title poem.  “I can’t speak for elsewhere,” Tutaj begins,
but here on Earth we’ve got a fair supply of everything.
Here we manufacture chairs and sorrows,
scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins,
teacups, dams, and quips.
Szymborska takes as her starting point almost anything.  She begins Foraminifera with:  “Why not, let’s take the Foraminifera.”  Her subject, then, a type of plankton (the Polish word for which is the glimmering Otwornice).

Recently, I was reminded of Szymborska again when Friko posted Reality Demands, which begins
Reality demands
we also state the following:
life goes on.
The poem recites a litany of examples, including these
Letters travel
between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,
a furniture truck passes
before the eyes of the lion of Cheronea,
and only an atmospheric front advances
towards the blossoming orchards near Verdun.

I was put in mind of a visit some years back to the World War I battleground of Ypres.  This low, flat land in Belgium, which the Great War reduced to mud so deep that soldiers drowned in it, has long since been returned to placid farmers’ fields.  Brochures in hand, marking out the pathways, we walked the fields of battle, visited the graveyards, and trod a preserved area of trench.

Despite all that, I felt unequal to the task of imagining backward, for, as Szymborska writes in Reality Demands, “There is so much of Everything/that Nothing is quite well concealed.”  Yet Ypres stayed in my mind.  Slowly, haltingly, I began to set something down.

I started with the image of a hat, a sort of Magritte-style bowler, that a man, later known to me as Verstummt, set on a railway luggage rack before taking his seat.  He was traveling, to where I didn’t yet know.  After a thousand false starts, the train became a taxi taking him, as it had taken us, through the countryside toward Ypres:
Verstummt squinted through the taxi’s mud-spattered window at the Belgian countryside.  Between streaks of dried mud, he could make out puffs of cloud riding the sky.  The clouds reminded him, as they often did, of his father’s Schaumtorten and its mounds of meringue whipped stiff with a wooden spoon.  His father had shown him how to flick his wrist at each cycle of the spoon, but no matter how hard Verstummt whipped, the egg whites sat lifeless in the bowl.
Verstummt still had a hat with him, but in the course of setting down the story, its identity changed to “green velour, with a dark green cord wound around its base.  The cord secured a clump of dusty feathers that spiked up from the hat like the wing of a ravaged bird.”

As I continued to imagine backward, the hat traveled through many hands before it came into Verstummt’s.  Years before, Horst Beckmann, a German soldier, had spotted it in a shop “in the backwater of the war, the last stop for soldiers coming in from Germany before they got a taste of the front.”
It was Horst Beckmann who recognized the heron feathers—after all, hadn’t his family come from the Tegernsee?  . . . To see a hat from his homeland here in Belgium, that was the best of omens. Using the logic they all resorted to, he thought if he could keep the hat safe, then he too would make it safely home.
In her poem, Microcosmos, Szymborska writes
I’ve wanted to write about them for a long while,
but it’s a tricky subject,
always put off for later
and perhaps worthy of a better poet,
even more stunned by the world than I.
But time is short.  I write.
The same holds true for Horst Beckmann’s Hat.  Cottonwood published it so long ago it’s doubtful the volume could be found, if it even still exists.  Should you wish to read further, the story can be found in its entirety here.


Postscript:  My father served in the U. S. Army Air Forces in World War II.  His words, evoking the sounds of displaced people along the Augsburg-Munich highway, are included in Horst Beckmann’s Hat.  His father, too young by a hair to serve in the Great War, made Schaumtorten.  He beat the eggs by hand.

Adolph Joseph Scheid, b. 09/28/1923 (Milwaukee, WI), d. 07/25/1996 (Pacific Grove, CA), US Army, 1ST LT, interred, San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, Gustine, Merced County, California, Plot: C-1 0 439.

Wisława Szymborska, b. 07/02/1923 (Prowent, Poland), d. 02/01/2012 (Kraków, Poland), received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature.

In Memoriam. 

Szymborska reads Metaphysics


Credits:  The photograph of Szymborksa can be found here.  The photograph of Chateau Wood, Ypres, 1917, can be found here.  The quotations from The Joy of Writing and Reality Demands can be found here.  The quotations from Here, Foraminifera, and Microcosmos can be found here.  The quotations from Horst Beckmann's Hat are, of course, my own.


Elaine Sexton said...

such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post! Wonderful to hear the poet reading in Polish at the end here...

Suze said...

Susan, your posts glint.

Like music, poetry is a way to lightly cheat the filter which at once allows us to bob afloat in ignorance above infinity and hinders us from its terrible and splendid disorientation.

In response to three parts, I have a haiku I wrote earlier in the week -- published for the first time here at Prufrock's Dillemma!

The passages to which I am responding:

'In a drop of ink there are quite a few
hunters squinting one eye,'


'he thought if he could keep the hat safe, then he too would make it safely home.'


'perhaps worthy of a better poet,
even more stunned by the world than I.'

My words for yours (and Szymborska's) --

Eden’s sentinels —
no strangers to consciousness —
go by Space and Time.

From high coup
[or, I storm the metaphor]
a book of frequencies

(by yours truly)

Have bookmarked Beckmann's Hat and will return to it and write you a separate email with my thoughts. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Herringbone said...

It snowed last night. We shoveled the driveway this morning. Afterwards, I got some coffee and got comfortable with your post.

I read the post. Then Horst Beckmann's Hat. Then came back to the post. I have some feelings and observations. None definitive.

Maybe expression is what matters. As an art form and maybe personally too. Trying to get a handle on something. Reaching back, making that"instant last as long as I desire." It's kind of creative and therapeutic. A story related in a cool medium.

The apocalyptic picture from Chateau wood was eerily striking. I was reminded of Patton visiting Gettysburg. He felt a connection that was difficult to explain.

I'm not familiar with Polish. I found the reading of Metaphysics most beautiful.

Lastly, wonderful stories all around. Thank you!

The Solitary Walker said...

Like you, I hadn't come across Szymborksa before until recently. What a wonderful poet she was.

Tremendous post, Susan.

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
Oh my, compared to my alarming gap in cultural education, yours is not alarming, at all :)
And thus, dear friend, you have brought forth another trinket of knowledge to seep into this bewildered brain of my mine.
Wisława Szymborska is a revelation and I can now tell my friends that, thanks to you, I have obtained even more knowledge. No doubt, I will just get perplexed looks.
Here's to you and the memories it kindled in regards to your beloved father.
With respect and admiration, Gary

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

That was so beautiful. Your entire post. From the gently, gorgeous photo of Szymborksa ( a face you see and would dearly love to know ) to her deep and mirthful reading at the end, and everything in between. You challenge me, Susan, and I like it.

Mark Kerstetter said...

Sound the alarm: another one flounders in the gap no more!

I love the line you singled out as worthy of hanging above every writer's desk, and I wholeheartedly concur. I do appreciate you pointing out that the poet will start out anywhere. That's something I strongly relate to.

Susan, if this post is not an example of blogging as art, then I don't know what is. Sharing, meditation, mash-up, and important links. What an incredibly unique way to learn about Szymborska, to present her within a meditation on the creative process, to merge, in the imagination, the arts of fiction and poetry in this meditation (which is also a personal essay), and in the process to give the reader the gift of your superb story. Wow, and wow.

cybersr said...

What a great discovery! I love her words.

But, what really caught my attention was the mention of schaumtorten. Gpa S called it schaumtorte. Memories of Gpa and Cliff T. comparing the wrist strength required to whip up Gpa's torte v Cliff's specialty, angel food cake, brought a smile to my face.

cybersr said...

Look what I found when I returned to your new post, your story Horst Beckmann's Hat! This is an absolutely brilliant tale that kept me in suspense until the last sentence. To think that I might have missed it altogether in the busyness of the day is frightening.

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
I am overwhelmed with this post of yours! Sometimes, when one will give a 'perfect' appreciation I toss the words in my head - and don't write (my best frien Anne calls that 'writing in secret' - when she 'speaks' to me, without jotting a mail down, but having the feeling she already has written). So, I just start with a part of my observations.
Wisława Szymborska was unknown to me - and I am really grateful that you brought our attention to her! I might buy her poems in English, and then look if they exist in German too, because I have another friend who is deep into poems (and Poland).
Szymborska writes in a way I can see the situation at an instant, by a very new way to reduce a scene to some lines: "ready to rush down a vertical pen,
to encircle the deer, to take aim." - that's really great!
To the second part of your post I will come later - have to read it again to be sure that I understood it right (I will look into the link you gave). It enthralls me!
Till then I wish you a beautiful Sunday! Britta

Steve Schwartzman said...

I'll repeat what others have said and say thanks for passing along the introduction to Wisława Szymborska.

Till yesterday I could have said: "It's been a long time since I've read a short story," but now that I've read yours I can't say that. I didn't know that you'd written fiction—and written well. I'm glad you decided to make your story available.

A question about it: the German adjective stumm means 'silent, quiet', so I'm wondering if you used that as the basis for the name Verstummt, which might be interpreted as 'made silent'.

Suze said...

Hi, Sue.

I've just read Beckmann's Hat.

Last weekend, I drove with my father through Truth or Consequences, NM, and we stopped, as always, at the replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Verstummt's journey and the destination of the heron (hero?) -feathered hat made me think of my father laying lilies at the top of the wall over specific names for which he searched. It was windy and grey that day, but no rain. I sat in the truck and watched him, allowing him the dignity of distance, as he applauded alone and cried.

Your short story, to me, seems an exercise in grief and a stab in the vast ocean of senselessness for meaning. Meaning which we invest in hats and lilies and, even, applause for no ears but our own.

I also find it interesting that the two names, Beckmann and Verstummt, bear such strong resemblance.

The Solitary Walker said...

Susan — I have now read properly your short story, which I did not do on first glance at your post. Oh, my, I'm just so impressed! You have a great gift for writing, Susan. Reading your story just made my afternoon. Not a word wasted. Terrific stuff.

Jayne said...

Hey now, Susan. You're a writer! :) Horst Beckmann’s Hat is marvelous. The grief conveyed, the need to understand and find meaning in all that we do, the pace and mood of this piece-- it's captivating.

We lost a grand poet when Szymborska passed earlier this month. She inspired so many poets. Look at her face. How sweet she was. Your writing, in fact, reminds me of hers, and I'm surprised that she came to you only recently. It's as if you've known her all along. Perhaps you have.

Joan Didion's writing reminds me of Szymborska, as well. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the way she gets right down to the nitty gritty. No fear.

A fearless and evocative post, Susan. As always. Thank you. :)

Britta said...

In a very gripping and moving way ‘Horst Beckmann’s Hat’ accomplishes to web three generations into one story. The grandfather, who died in World War I in Ypres, the father, who had been stationed in World War II in Germany, and the narrator himself, now a grown-up man.
We get the surname of that American family: a ‘speaking’ name – because “Verstummt” means “s.o. has become silent”. The grandfather is Jake and the father Bern – but we are not told the forename of the son.
With few words the atmosphere of the house where the narrator lived is created: his father a baker, whipping the egg white with a wooden spoon by hand - to do that you must be a master – and you must be proud of your profession, because to ‘cheat’ by using an electric eggbeater was ‘verboten’ – forbidden – “the metal (…) ruined the taste.”
That the father decides what is right was the way fathers were at those days. He doesn’t make many words or gives easily explanations or praise. But his son does love him: he thinks of the Schaumtorten, he looks at the clothes of the deceased as “redolent with absence”, and he makes a long journey to find out what the hat’s secret is, “in search of his own lost past”. The father brought his son “gebrauchte Geschichten” - and with those the son creates dioramas “to transform” those old things “into anything he could imagine”. p5 .
The generation of World War II, the fathers, did not tell much – if at all – about their experiences and suffering in the War. “His father responded with frozen silence” – and I have the impression that not only “the hat in front of him” (…) “were an unexploded shell.” (p.2)
We might be able to build dioramas with the “used stories” our parents told us – “but he could not conjure battlefields from this flat, green landscape” p6 – and I am glad we cannot, though “Germans, he thought, know better than anyone how to brood.” p8
Such an interesting story linking the generations and the nations together – but I will not spill that – you have to read for yourself.
I can reveal that the narrator succeeds to bring all those topics in a clear and moving way “under one hat”.
Thank you, Susan!

shoreacres said...

Perhaps three years ago, I used the phrase "a long moment" in a bit of writing. A reader took me to task, informing me that any one moment is the same as any other moment, and I should cease from such foolishness.

I didn't cease, of course. But I began thinking about time, and our culture's impoverished understanding of it. I'm quite fond of the distinction in Greek between chronos and kairos - the ticking of the clock on the one hand, and the infinite elasticity of event-filled time on the other.

Reading Szymborska now, and pondering my own writing experience, I think I'd allow for a third "time" - creatos, where written deer run through written forests, as long as the writer desires.

I very much enjoyed Horst Beckman's Hat. I suspect Verstummt's father wouldn't approve of me at all. The last merinque I helped make was on board a boat, and we were reduced to duct-taping a whisk to an electric drill to accomplish the task. Now that I think of it, there was a certain metallic tang to the finished project.

Susan Scheid said...

A special note to all those who managed to find the buried link and went on to read Horst Beckmann’s Hat, I’m still a bit astounded by the response. Though Szymborska’s stunning poetry truly did take me off on a rumination that led back to that story, I wavered a good bit before deciding to post the link. I think what Mark has written in his comment sums up what swayed me—it was part and parcel of what Szymborska’s poems meant to me and where they took me. It seems to have turned out to be a happy accident. You’ve all given a story I do have a fondness for a burst of new life. Indeed, I’m quite sure it has now been read and, more importantly, and the wonderful gift to me—enjoyed by more readers than it was on its initial publication.

Elaine: Wasn’t that a nice bit of audio? More reasons to thank you for stopping by will emerge in the next post.

Suze: Ah, music and poetry, poetry and music (and then, as Friko has pointed out before, the music in poetry)! I love that you wrote haiku in response to lines in Szymborska’s poetry (and even a bit of the post). You have a way of seeing like no one else I know. More below . . .

Herringbone: “Maybe expression is what matters. As an art form and maybe personally too. Trying to get a handle on something.” I so like what you’ve written and the way you write it—very much like your lovely posts, and I agree.

Solitary Walker: Yes, she is, isn’t she? Truly wonderful. I’m once again, as I often am, grateful to Friko for the introduction. More below . . .

Gary: Love the idea of walking around with newly gained knowledge and getting, in return, perplexed looks. (Actually, I feel that way quite a bit of the time!)

Cathy: I so agree about this particular photograph of her. I would have gladly credited the person who took it, but as often happens on the web, the credit disappears.

Mark: Blogging as art! Good heavens! But of course I’m thrilled with what you’ve written here. You describe so well exactly what resonated for me right off in Szymborska’s poems. You have such a marvelous way of capturing the essence, and it’s a great gift to me to have your insights here. (There’s a way in which, and more than a little, you know better what I was aiming at than I did at the time.) That you also read the story and enjoyed it, wow, and wow back to you!

cybersr: And of course, now that you’ve prompted me, I, too, remember the wrist strength competition! Very pleased that you enjoyed the story, and, as we’ve said by telephone, there are several more threads that can be followed from here.

Britta: Yes, I so agree, that Szymborska has “a very new way to reduce a scene to some lines.” Astounding, in fact, how few words she uses to communicate so much. And, of course, Friko has chosen a wonderful translation (not that I know any Polish, but I have other translations of the two poems Friko posted that aren’t nearly as good). More below . . .

Susan Scheid said...

Steve: So pleased you read and enjoyed the story! On the name question: In thinking back, though I can no longer be sure, I believe I first went for the sound of the name, then looked up words in German that fit the sound I had in mind. I seem to recall I rooted around a bit, as the definition for the first “sound-word” I chose didn’t really fit the character, then finally arrived at Verstummt. The “made silent” did seem to fit (though Britta in her comment on the story comes up with a far better analysis than I had at the time), but I suspect I also stayed with it because the sound of the word was a bit like “I’m stumped.” Not a very exact science for a wordsmith like you, I know, but I certainly had fun coming up with the name.

Suze: You’ve drawn a lovely and poignant association here, beautifully described: “I sat in the truck and watched him, allowing him the dignity of distance.” And yes, isn’t it interesting how a small talisman can become such a repository of meaning?

Solitary Walker: As I’ve already noted to you over your way, believe me, you made my whole day with your comments. Thank you so much for spending a bit of your day with Horst Beckmann’s Hat.

Jayne: I keep saying this to everyone, but I can only say again, and I mean it each time, that I’m so pleased you enjoyed the story. Great comparison to Didion: “Maybe it's the way she gets right down to the nitty gritty. No fear.” I think you’re on to something there, for sure.

Britta: Wow! And I must now reveal that I was in a bit of a sweat, for many reasons, but particularly because I have little German and what I do have is very rusty, so to think I may not have gone straight off the rails with my German words is quite a relief! And Britta, so many interesting insights you bring to my little tome! Here are a couple I just have to repeat: “That the father decides what is right was the way fathers were at those days.” and: “‘His father responded with frozen silence’ – and I have the impression that not only ‘the hat in front of him’ (…) ‘were an unexploded shell.’” Thank you so much for reading the story and delving into it so beautifully, and for sharing with me a true story of your own from those times. Precious goods, which I have copied for safekeeping.

shoreacres: Well, now, seems to me you’ve got a Schaumtorten story of your own there! Beyond that, your three times are brilliant. And you’re certainly right to stick to your guns (as I am sticking to my clichés) on those long moments—as long as you desire. Aren’t we all grateful to Szymborska for giving us permission?

Last, not least, to Friko: Thank you for your note, and thank you, above all, for the gift of Szymborska’s poems. Without your introduction, I would likely never have known.

Peaches Ledwidge said...

Szymbo's poetry is so beautiful leaving the reader with much to think about.

I always walk away from your posts knowing more about writing or how you add meaning to what you write about.

Heidrun Khokhar said...

This is a very intellectually compelling post that had me searching in my own mind where I wanted this to take me. Great stuff!! Images galore.
I have been directed to study in a new direction. Thanks for that.

Suze said...

Where else is meaning invested, but in talismans (coffee spoons, trousers, lillies, hats) and visions (lonely men in shirt-sleeves leaning out of windows, muzzle-rubbing yellow smoke) and names?

Though I am (officially) not blogging, I am lurking. Missed a post from you, this week, dear friend.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. this is an amazing post and comments .. and I loved the Polish at the end .. I need to come back to read your short story ..

I'm just behind .. cheers for now - Hilary

Susan Scheid said...

Peaches & Heidrun: So pleased you enjoyed the post. Always nice to see you over here.

Suze: Yes, indeed, where else is meaning invested?

Hilary: Thanks for stopping by--isn't hearing her read in Polish lovely (even if, as is true for me, one doesn't know a lick of Polish)? I'm glad you thought so, too.

anu said...

Its amazing !!
I love it .... beautifully written ..

Hektor Karl said...

I know I'm months late, but I really enjoyed this post, and look forward to exploring this poet in more depth.

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