By Diane Sahms-Guarnieri
J.C. Todd’s chapbook, The Damages of Morning, has been written to remind us of the horrors of the World Wars. You can’t escape it! Page after page, poem after poem, you are reminded of the terror; of the desolation; of the lost lives; of the inhumanity of war. Hell on earth.
Todd steps in (as time traveler) with her meditative, yet explosive poems about these silent horrors; perhaps her eleven poems (one of which is five parts) more like snapshots, each a poetic narrative of a frame-frozen moment captured in the history of wartime. She has gathered these poems (as photos) for you, through the lens of research and discussions with her students, and ultimately in her own silent musings of war and its fall-out.
These tragedies appearing understated on the silent page are nothing of the sort. For instance, in the poem “Pylimo Gatvė, Vilnius” (Gatvė: street in Lithuanian) we have the seemingly silent, giving fruits of nature, “the chestnuts” that “no one stoops now to gather.” So, at once you may think of starving women wanting to pick up a few chestnuts to eat later, but to do so, they would be taking a chance. But what kind of chance or risk, might they be taking?
“…In the midst of this history / imprinted in stone, along a street that bordered / Ghetto 2, the chestnuts fan their boughs / and bloom, the leaves brown and droop, the nuts / fall and no one stoops now to gather them / as women did then, slack shouldered and starved / to the pith of their bones, returning under / guard from the fields or factories, passing / through the gate into the ghetto each night, / the burning question, did Shulamith / or Menke make it through the day. They risked / the boot, the rifle butt, the bullet, to scoop up / a few russet shells. Horse chestnuts… Eat, it’s food.”
Raw horse chestnuts are toxic, that is, the fresh, unprocessed seeds contain esculin. Therein lies the rub. These desperate and starved women risked death every day. Chestnuts are healthy for the body, but not horse chestnuts, as they may cause death, if eaten raw. So, the question the poem presents to these women and to the reader as well, would be: Is it worth staying alive “to work one more day for the Germans” and “to want to outlive the war?” Knowing that physically outliving a war doesn’t necessarily mean that you can ever “outlive your sorrow or your death.” Here, “your death” as in a kind of living death, meaning that you live through each and every day physically starving, but worse than that you are already dead on the inside (inside your mind) living inside this captive life. Maybe, this is what Todd is saying, yet not saying at the start of her poem by cleverly using “chestnuts” and ending with the deliberate “horse chestnuts;” and the eerie lines that lead the reader to the end, “An act of will to chew and swallow, / to say to yourself, Eat, it’s food.” Food, no doubt to escape. As in the burning question: “Did Shulamith or Menke make it through the day?”
Dismal / dark. Horrific times. Even in “Country Living” there is:
“…the man-plowed fields of one-cow farms, /holdings that yield enough to keep the body / Alive, not more… Here, winter last for twelve months, / the rest of the year is summer.”
Another poem “Flayed,” metaphorically hints at the flaying of the speaker’s “my Oskar” and his “flapped open” vest and that of the flaying of a spring hare:
“…the night they took him into the forest. / Sternum cracked, yanked out with ribs attached, lifted into a cast iron / pot, laid on a bed of early greens and sorrel for a sour stock tomorrow.”
Subtle, the metaphor of Oskar, as the “flayed,” or not so subtle. On first read the poem leans more imagistically toward the preparation of “this one a spring hare. Not fat enough” with all of its crude culinary skinning and butchery, “the meal for today.” Yet, on a closer second read, here, is where Todd’s craft is perfected. With no explanation, Oskar, no doubt, the hunted game for the death pot, cast iron, no less. Hunted and killed by the Germans as predators, upon the helpless prey. What really struck me was Todd’s choosing of the German name “Oskar” and how closely it resembles the word, “hare,” and also (intentionally or not) how ironically Oskar as in Schindler, the German industrialist (from the movie Schindler’s List), credited with saving the lives of over a thousand Jews. Deliberate or not? I think Todd’s choice.
There’s so much more to “Flayed,” but for the sake of space, I will return to Oskar and touch on the wonderfully crafted, double (quiet) meaning of the line (quoted above, yet worth repeating): “laid on a bed of early greens and sorrel for a sour stock tomorrow.” Yes, our Oskar and hare laid out (in death) on natural “greens and sorrel” and the sourness of it all, when death is felt more on the morrow. And a line from the last stanza:
“…They took the chickens, eggs, the cow, the pretty girls, the men.”
Those living day to day, working for the Germans, lived in their own trenches of fear, starvation, and daily despair. Also, apparent in Todd’s succinct, poetic accounts of war’s abuse: “Daughter,” “Mother,” women, men, unborn, and children, all of the preyed upon and their predators (Doktor and “Commander”). This cast of characters caught in the ugliness of hellish war, as it tore apart basic fibers, scourged human-essence, and demeaned dignity of those whom should have been spared, yet made to endure the crippling torments of bare bone survival: cruel, non-sacred war.
Every page a reminder of “Not our lives, but lives / of the dead, escaped / into us. Grave, / we open to them.” J.C. Todd makes your gut wrench, brands you mind with horrific images—lest we grow too comfortable; lest we forget that freedom comes at an extremely high cost; lest we stop listening to the voices of all whom suffered cruel injustices, the brutalities of wartime. Beware: some of these same atrocities happening, even now, on “Earth.”
You can find the book here: https://squareup.com/store/moonstone-arts-center/
Diane Sahms-Guarnieri is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently The Handheld Mirror of the Mind (Kelsay Press, July 2018) and Images of Being; Light’s Battered Edge; and Night Sweat. She has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Many Mountains Moving, Indiana Journal, among others, with poems forthcoming from Sequestrum Journal of Literature and Arts. She is poetry editor at North of Oxford, an online literary journal. Visit her at http://www.dianesahms-guarnieri.com/