Domain by Ian McBryde
Five Islands Press, 2004
In the media release for Ian McBryde's latest collection, Domain, Peter Porter states that World War II and the Holocaust — the content of McBryde's collection — have been “subjects defiant of poetry”. Here, I think, Porter is trying to make a claim for this collection's uniqueness. While this powerful book is in many ways unique, I find Porter's claim strangely ignorant: many poems have been written about this darkest period of history by, amongst others, some of the best known poets of the 20th Century such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, WH Auden, Randall Jarrell, Primo Levy, Geoffrey Hill and Czeslaw Milosz.
That so many poets have written about this unparalleled human tragedy should come as no surprise. The sheer numbers and the scale of the casualties and the devastations aside, the images of the death camps, atom bombs and levelled cities have come to, in many ways, define the lexicons of our contemporary world and shape our perceptions.
During the events of the recent years, for example, Saddam Hussein was described, and perhaps seen, by many Western pro-war politicians and demagogues as the Arab Hitler, while many liberal commentators noted distinct similarities between the punitive treatment of third world refugees by the first world governments (e.g. the Tampa incident) and the US Government's refusal to accept Jewish refugee ships at the outset of the Third Reich's final solution during the 1930s.
The author of Domain does not seem immediately concerned with these possible present-day resonances of the World War II narrative. In Walter Benjamin's terms, McBryde, for the most parts, does not recognise the images of the past as present concerns, and depicts them as flashes of times gone by. In the majority of this collection's poems, McBryde seems more interested in representing the realities of the Nazi tyranny 'as they really were' and does not aim to bridge the distance between their precedence and our presence. In a number of other poems, however, the narrator does the almost unthinkable by trying to come to terms with the genocide's perpetrators. These latter poems are, in my opinion, some of the most startling, daring, and interesting poems published in Australia for some time.
To begin with, for the most part, this collection is a vivid, and lurid, history lesson conveyed in a particularly detached voice, a voice removed from its dreadful subject matter by virtue of the distance between then and now. This distance is clearly summarised in the collection's last poem in which McBryde presents an image of a Holocaust survivor setting a dinner table in New York in the 1990s. We see her setting an extra plate for a loved one lost during the genocide. The narrator, while clearly moved by his protagonist's enduring love, is baffled by her action. While the protagonist herself is ‘fully aware' of why she continues to retain her connection with the past, the narrator does not share this awareness and reminds us of the distances and his own disconnection:
…Forty years have passed,
and she still shops and bakes and cooks for two.
She is fully aware of what she does, and why.
Auschwitz is far behind her. Poland is an ocean
away. But each night she sits quietly at the table
set for them both…
The chasm of ‘forty years' and ‘an ocean' that separates the narrator from the horrors of Nazi Europe should not be seen as a failure on McBryde's part. It is precisely due to his separation from the realities presented in his poems that he is capable of narrating the atrocities without sentimentalism; of watching the horrors without letting tears cloud the sharpness of his vision; of detailing the disasters of war and hatred in their full, unabridged reality; and of providing clear and comprehensible snapshots of the greatest crime committed, by humans, against humanity.
Among these snapshots are depictions of some of the best known motifs and moments of the World War II history: ‘the night of the broken glass' in ‘Kristallnacht'; the Battle of Stalingrad in ‘Russian Sniper, 1942', ‘Stalingrad Briefing, 1943' and ‘Stalingrad Aftermath, 1944'; the French Resistance in ‘Outside Nice, the Marquis wait'; the German air-raids on London in ‘Blitz'; the Allies' bombing of Dresden in ‘Dresden'; and the dawn of the first nuclear bomb in ‘Flashless Cordite'. These poems are lucid, more or less objective reports of the particular events, narrated in the voice of an observant historian. In ‘Einsatzgruppen', for example, the narration is a meticulous, straightforward retelling of the Nazi army's march into Russia:
Under orders from Berlin, they call it
mopping up. Behind the lines, bound
for Moscow, fortified by schnapps
and vodka, the Waffen SS shock-troops
fire and reload, drink, fire and reload.
In the poems dealing with the death camps, however, a change of style appears. While McBryde's clinical voice is capable of evoking the grotesque and shocking realities without letting his repulsion disrupt the recounts, he seems less distant, and more involved, than in the previous poems. In ‘Dr Mengele is IN', for example, he follows a Nazi ‘doctor' to his laboratory where female prisoners are used in macabre experiments. The doctor then decides to let the Kapos — guards chosen from among the prisoners — to rape the younger women who have survived the experiments. The doctor is nothing if not professional:
The Kapos can have them
until they are finished.
But ensure they are back
in their cells, conscious,
by 0900 hours.
In ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' the most musically talented prisoners are picked by the Nazis to “play the vibrant strains/ of Mozart… A little night music”. From this point, the poem assumes an ironic tone verging on very dark, even sadistic, satire: “Auschwitz is daily filled with untapped/talent. Chamber music. Gas chamber music.” In ‘Lastwagen', the children of Nazi officers are seen playing outside the crematorium of an unspecified death camp. They are having a great time; and, thanks to their new shoes:
…soon stray pieces and bits of teeth and
vertebrae will be flattened enough to make
smoother, more comfortable walkways.
It could be observed that it is not only the narrator's inability/refusal to empathise with the victims that makes these images grotesque — in a number of other poems, such as ‘Auschwitz Flower', he is both capable and willing to narrate from the victims' point of view. The stylistic quality that gives these poems their distasteful, even repulsive, characteristic is that they are written from the Nazi point of view — something that should come as no surprise to even the most casual reader of this uncompromising collection. The very first page (after the author's brief notes) is taken up by a ‘concrete poem' in the shape of a large swastika.
More significantly, a small number of the poems here are not only written from the Nazi point of view but also addressed to particular Nazi leaders, including two written for Hitler. It is in these poems that McBryde's poetry moves beyond being either objective or abject recounts of past protagonists' actions, by making these historical monsters real, by bringing them to life and making them as threatening as ever. Here McBryde builds on Hannah Arendt's famous description of the evil as ‘banal' by depicting some of the most malevolent figures of modern European history as terribly, and terrifyingly, ordinary human beings.
In ?´Goebbels Has More Books Burned, 1935', McBryde tells Hitler's minister of propaganda that it was ?´your lack of stature' and a physical deformity — a limp — as well as jealousy towards ‘better writers than you' that resulted in the burning of the books and then, as Brecht would have it, the burning of people. In ‘Heydrich Dining', McBryde addresses one of the organisers of the ‘final solution' and, while mentioning some of the numbers of the Jews killed in Lithuania, comments on his addressee's fondness for brandy, cigars, Mozart and adultery. In ‘Himmler Retires Early', McBryde watches Hitler's second-in-command masturbate and notes his small penis:
In private, erect, you still barely fill
your small, girlish hand. And so,
the black clothes, black boots
black leather, a death's head on your
In these poems, McBryde identifies the motives behind these historical figures' appalling barbarity — the causes of the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II — as fairly commonplace human traits: personal insecurity, jealousy and an ‘inferiority complex'; the ‘middle class' taste for the finer, more ‘aristocratic' things in life; and a lack of gender and/or sexual confidence.
McBryde portrays the Nazi leaders' evils and horrors as timeless, human themes, as opposed to temporal, societal motifs. Such a discourse may be an essentialism; but it is, to my mind, a genuine attempt made at coming to terms with the evils that are, as the other poems of this collection so vividly and grotesquely remind us, too horrific and too important to ignore and forget.
Domain may prove too ‘heavy' for some readers— particularly those lovers of contemporary Australian poetry raised on a diet of Australiana, pastoral landscapes, witty metropolitan satire and the like — but it is, for this reviewer, one of the most compelling and most ambitious collections of poetry published in Australia for some time.
My thanks to Dr Justin Clemens for his feedback in exploring some of the themes of this review.