Volker von Törne, Memorial to the Future, trans. Jean Boase-Beier, Arc £10.99

Volker von Törne was clearly a very interesting man. The son of an SS unit commander, he dedicated his life to reconciliation, particularly with camp survivors, and became a director of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (AS) (Action Reconciliation-Service for Peace) and befriended a number of Auschwitz survivors. He died in 1980. The inevitable question is, ‘does all that make him an interesting poet?’ And the answer is a qualified ‘yes’, as a number of the poems in this selection from his poetry, deal directly with the psychology of Nazism, its defenders and its aftermath. In his introduction, David Wheatley suggests that von Törne is a poet of ‘skeletally reduced lines’ with a ‘seeming auto-allergic reaction to the very existence of his poetry after the great catastrophe’, with ‘stripped-stripped down yet bountiful landscapes’. And such a sense of von Törne’s ‘minimalism’ is most true of the more political of the poems. In these poems von Törne’s unvarnished attack on the political legacy of Nazism is a kind of anti agit-prop.

In ‘History’s True Heroes’, dedicated to two fellow workers in the ASF, von Törne writes ‘What will become of us?/ How should I know?/ We are history’s true heroes – / That’s easily said/ But I know for certain/ If we fail in this/ The earth itself/ Will cease to be’. Such writing does sit uneasily in English, and particularly in the British poetry tradition of stiff-upper-lip and irony; particularly when written about political engagement. But that is possibly why this book is so important in English. It shows at close cultural hand, what such engagement must surely entail for those so close to the worst excesses of history. And this is particularly true in an age of populist politics, where the forces von Törne fought against all his life are now in resurgence.

Elsewhere, von Törne’s language can almost be opulent. In ‘Autumn Festival’, for example, von Törne’s attachment to the German countryside shows itself in rich detail, ‘Darker rush the waters of evening / And deeper grows the silence of stones / In the wind drifts the angling-line of autumn / And the leaves shudder on the trees’. Those line initial inversions are true in the German, so von Törne shows he can ‘poeticise’ the line when he wants. Thus, the poetry can be very atmospheric. As David Wheatley notes in his introduction, von Törne is also capable of depicting the German countryside with a Michael Hanake like sense of disturbance, of things occurring behind curtained windows. In ‘Midday Light’, for example, the narrator of the poem seems alive to both the beauty and the aftermath of the rural landscape; ‘Summer, leafy gold, thorn-bush / Burning in the wind, the corn calls out / For the scythe, empty I haul / The bucket out of the well / My heart is cracked like the earth / Crying out for rain’. In the poem, there is no explanation for why the corn has not been harvested or the narrators heart ‘cracked’, and in many ways the poem is better off for that lack of explanation.

Here and elsewhere the poetry is clearly haunted by both the definable and indefinable legacies of the past. And Von Törne is clearly in a particularly strong position to explore that haunting. He does that with a variety of styles and approaches, and the final result is both illuminating of a particular attitude in German literature, and also deeply affecting.

by Ian Pople

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