In the cafes when you woke out of a trance
the wine trembled in crystal glasses
and even the wintery light stopped to listen,
your voice a wave cresting over noise.
Back then, surrealism smelled like leaves
and cigarettes and willowy girls
whose gowns shimmered piano keys.
Back then, you couldn’t stop for logic
or just plain sense—the world
an iceberg melting in a desert, its hot
jazz seas fanning out across monotony.
It wasn’t until Auschwitz that you really
got it though. Knew that to read happy lives
in the sea of palms held open before you
was to be, for an hour, immortal—
the guards confused, unsettled,
even a little afraid as they loaded
so many would-be skeletons back onto the truck
and drove away from certain death
while awaiting further orders.
This poem is dedicated to the surrealist poet Robert Desnos, who was a member of the French Resistance during World War II. It is based on a remarkable story, told by Susan Griffin, which I quote here in full:
"Even in the grimmest of circumstances, a shift in perspective can create startling change. I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette explains, Desnos reads the man's palm. Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy. As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems so inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination."