It is a rare thing for a war poem to lead one to muse, afterwards, that had there indeed been redwoods in Alsace, the difficulty of one man's final solution to the German draft would have been greatly eased. George Oppen, in his poem "(In Alsace)," manages to convey this tragic absurdity with clear, plain prose. His language is more measured, in a sense, than much verse.
The concise first stanza fills in the background as any good war story might. The speaker's squad is "on the edge of the Battle of the Bulge;" history is being written as they "d[i]g in" near Pierre Adam's farmhouse. It could almost be the beginning of a humorous episode, or, more likely, the kind of sentimental Greatest Generation tale John mentioned in his analysis of "Crash Report." Pierre Adam's family and the American troops might have gone on to have fire-side chats about hope and freedom, sending each other Christmas cards for years after the war. Thankfully, we get none of that; instead, Oppen continues with practiced restraint. Men are digging holes and staying there for years in order to avoid German conscription. Oppen gives us all the practical details. In the winter, the men can't leave their holes because they will leave tracks in the snow. So Pierre helps them and brings them supplies while the snow is still falling. Like the American troops, these men are "digging in," waiting.
While they wait, the Nazi army is killing their parents and wives and children. Yet "a man should not join the Nazi party." Either way, it seems, you betray your own people. "You must try to put yourself in those times," Oppen writes. Choices have to be made. Pierre and his wife discuss, openly and plainly, whether they should tattoo the children so they can be found after the Germans take them away (or will the tattoos be cut out?). It is as if they are discussing what clothes to buy them for school. This is just another decision they have to make in their lives, but the choices are few and all have tragic consequences.
It is difficult for us to decide, even if we do "put [our]selves in those times," which choice would be worst. So it must have been for Pierre, his wife, and all the men in the holes. But Oppen's poem seems to nullify all this. The characters in the poem do not deliberate, they decide and they act. Pierre says, simply, "if you dig a hole, I will help you." Similarly, a man single-mindedly pedals his bicycle into a tree, as if that were the most logical recourse for a man in his situation. And perhaps it is. Yet the poem doesn't clarify why he did it. He gives no farewell speech; he only pedals. When the speaker remarks "It must be hard to do," he isn't referring, as we might expect, to the decision-making, but to the details of the act itself. How could you pedal your bicycle downhill into a tree? It would indeed be "easier in an automobile." The engine would take over, the wheels would spin out of control. Volition would cease to be a factor after a certain point. What the bicyclist does is seemingly beyond will power, something he does because he does it, with the same instinct that led other men to dig holes.
As an afterthought to the last stanza's musing over automobiles and redwoods, the speaker adds, "and, of course, the children had no father. Thereafter." The spare language is shocking, the wonderful absence of poetry's more obvious traits (metaphors and flowery language) gives Oppen's poem a rare directness and reality. It is pedaling swiftly downhill toward us, without swerving.
Copyright © 2001 by Luke Owens