Saturday, July 28, 2018

Baptism of Fire

August Stramm
Writing to friends from his front-line position with the German army, August Stramm wrote,
There is so much death in me death and death. Inside me, there is crying, and outside I am hard and rough… Words fail me because of terror… I no longer compose poems, everything around me is poetry.  Miserable cowardly sinister horror and the air giggles tauntingly and gargles thunderingly down the mountains….*
Before the war, Stramm had been an inspector of postal services and an aspiring dramatist. He is now best remembered for his war poems that communicate the chaos and fear of battle in halting, broken rhythms. 

Baptism of Fire

His body shrinks its loosely-fitting tunic.
His head creeps down into his boots.
Throttles his gun.
Rattle shrill,
German soldiers on the Eastern Front
Rattle swathe,
Rattle stumble,
Trigger off
His eye
A shot.
Hands grip schnapps.
Defiance loads.
Determination aims
A steely look
Another’s fate.
            —August Stramm, trans. Patrick Bridgwater

Thrown into combat, the soldier shrinks into himself until he is more uniform than man, trying to present as small a target as he possibly can. The first two lines are the longest in the poem, and then in the third line, the word “Fear” stands alone, a visual reminder of the way in which it halts and interrupts all of reality. And then the word is repeated—it returns in its plural form.  Fears and shrill noise push everything else aside. 

Stramm's poem communicates the din and confusion of battle by repeating the word Rattle five times – this is the sound made when something is loose, unmoored, and unsteady. Everything that happens seems disconnected and random, and the constantly changing conditions of the fighting are mirrored in the short, staccato lines.  Spying an enemy soldier, the man depicted in the poem seems to stand outside himself as he watches abstract emotions kill Another: Defiance loads the gun and Determination aims.  The entire encounter is summed up as if this is merely a hunter bagging game. 

Many found it necessary to distance themselves from their emotions if they were to remain sane.  In the winter of 1915, Stramm wrote to his friends Herwarth and Nell Walden about the conditions he was experiencing at the front:
German dead at Guillemont, 1916
Have you ever seen a butcher’s shop where slaughtered people are laid out for sale, with machines making a terrific racket as they slaughter more and more people with their ingenious mechanism? And you lie there mute, thank God you are mute, at once the butcher and the beast. And then suddenly black devils are everywhere as they make their way up from the depths—the butchers, the grenades… bustle about…. Yesterday one of those butchers smashed the person next to me into pieces with one blow and mockingly covered me with blood and flesh and guts.**

Stramm was aware that the war had dramatically changed everything – language, relationships, emotions—as well as himself.  In another letter home he had written, “War. Everything is behind me.  Hope friendship and love.  I love you but you are behind me far far do not be angry but another knew you another not I.”*** August Stramm was killed in hand-to-hand combat on the Eastern Front on September 1, 1915.
* August Stramm letter to Herwarth and Nell Warden, quoted in Martin Löschnigg’s “Expressionist-Artillerist: ‘Poet’ and ‘Soldier’ as Conflicting Role Models in German Avant-Garde Poetry from the First World War,” in Bearing Witness: Perspectives on War and Peace from the Arts and Humanities, edited by Sherrill Grace, Patrick Imbert, and Tiffany Johnstone, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012, p. 85.  
** August Stramm letter to Herwarth and Nell Warden, quoted in Maria Tatar’s Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany, Princeton UP, 1997, p. 119.
***August Stramm letter, quoted in Geert Buelens’ Everything to Nothing, Verso Books, 2016, p. 76.

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