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Vegemite interrogation on the Prague night train

Anne M. Carson |  18 February 2013

The librarian witnesses the burning (Berlin, 1933)

'Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.'
Heinrich Heine, 1821

The room offers sanctuary, holds her while adrenalin
palsies her limbs. At the back of her eyes flames flare.

Singed skin, the reek of burn as if bodily doused.
Images repeat — spiralling smoke, black and acrid.

Violence pulls a soldier's mouth out of shape, his arms
lob handfuls of hate. Thousands of flimsy pages

ascend on updrafts like spirits departing. Her arms
reach, desperate to catch charred paper. Momentary heat,

text lit like a negative, a few seconds to decipher
script before pages collapse into dust on her palm.


All day charred odour clings to hair, clothes. All day griefs
gather, tugging hem, hand. All day — relentless rain

of once-were-words, falling black like sorrowful snow.
The city's loss reverberates, a dirge repeated.

A city without library, a library without books? And she
guardian. So visceral the memories — thick pages,

the must of old volumes. She grieves for the sheer
physicality of books — bodies you can hold in your hand.

Mourns the loss of sparks within — tolerance, peace
between peoples, cherished values under siege.


A blanketing dark falls at last. She collapses, drifts,
dreams she's peering out her window. Wind stirs ash

into billows; beauty in the sweep and stoop of floating
cinders. She watches, incredulous. Book-souls rise

from the ruins, ideas and meanings liberated from
the bodies of books, the chastity of words. Released

from the confinement of shelves, stacks, free to roam
at large in the world. People rush into the street

with upturned, hopeful faces. Some who have never known
the reach of ideas, are touched for the first time, others

come running for renewal. A soldier staggers into her field
of vision, stung into awareness. His mouth forms the 'ohhh'

of amazement, his eyes wide with illumination, limp
arms by his side. She dreams deeper into him, through

his covering to the core, watches thought unfurl banners
of meaning in his mind, more potent than hate or flame.


Milk: Michael Frank

'Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
drink it and drink it.' From 'Todesfuge' ('Death Fugue') by Paul Celan

I once was Adonis, slim, lithe, my faultless Aryan body
_____toned to perfection. Now I make up in volume
_____what I had then in looks. Two hundred kilos and not finished yet.
_____I don't know whether to stand proud or head-down ashamed.

I can't stomach what the country's come to — overrun
_____by foreigners, worse now than in the thirties.
_____After all the lies they told about the Nazis
_____these days no-one's got the guts to lead.

Even the NDP — we've been meeting for years,
_____talking, talking, talking but mein Gott, what I'd give to act
_____some bold step there's no coming back from.
_____Instead we tongue-flap, scrabbling
_____like a bunch of chicken-livered losers!

I churn all the should-haves, could-have-beens. My vitals roil
_____like kittens in a drowning-sack,
_____howling, scratching, desperate to escape —
_____turning belly-juice to bile.

The only thing that soothes all the red and black acid
_____is milk, only ever milk. Others like a stein or two —
_____I can't get enough of the cool white glide down the gullet.
_____A coat of calm, covers drawn, baby to bed
_____mother's rhythmic hand on forehead, belly.

White milk of comfort — I drink it and drink it.

If I start early I can down ten litres, pacing myself through my daily dose.
_____The doctor says my innards are packing up.
_____Bed like an invalid — fifty-three years old
_____and I can't walk unaided.

At least my father did something — his lot had balls!
_____How snug I would have fit — a hand into the perfect,
_____waiting glove —
_____into my father's Reich.

Michael Frank died aged 53, weighing over 200kg from organ failure due to drinking ten litres of milk a day. He was ultra right wing and defended his father's politics and actions as Governor General of occupied Poland. His father was hanged as a war criminal at Nuremberg.


The limits of goodwill

'In pretty Berlin you're never not asking why.' Robert Haas

Cash-strapped, post midnight arrival on the Prague
night train. The doss-house dorm vibrates with snores

chronically homeless men and women, possible
ex Nazis and resistance together. Huddled in the bathroom

for a final cigarette, perched on the hand basin's rim,
we take in courage with illicit nicotine, exhale fear

through louvred windows, into the Berlin nacht
like so many before us. My breath still catches.

Czech transport politzi had pricked Prague's romance.
They rifled our rucksacks, suspicious of backpackers,

unescorted women. One prises open my Kodak canister,
sniffs, says ach! fires staccato Czech questions at me.

Vegemite für früstuck, I say, am der brot trying to convince
Vegemite is not hash resin, wanting them to share the joke.

Schoolgirl German and humour plummet down the ravine
between us. My fingers mime breakfast, a knife scraping

spread onto my other hand; open, wholesome as a slice
of bread, an Aussie backpacker. I smile the smile of someone

who doesn't know how bad it can get. The leader plants
himself opposite, interrogation position. A short-strapped

briefcase hangs from his bull neck, over his barrel chest.
His colleague flicks the cabin light switch, plunges us

into instant darkness. In perfect accord, the leader snaps
the case's clasp, the drop-down lid opens towards me.

A spotlight inside blasts a beam so bright I gasp, shield
my eyes. He barks commands, demands papers, passport.

The light pins me to the seat, rakes my eyes for fear, for
Capitalist lies. Already cast as drug smuggler.

The third soldier touches his firearm like some men touch
their balls. They hold us for a long time but, let us go

in the end. The encounter sears my nervous system,
an imprint I carry to the doss house, under the Capitan's

stern gaze, past creepy eyes,into my basic bed. Too cold
and distrustful to undress, I twist myself into knots under

two thin blankets, all my clothes, inside a narrow sleeping
sheet. I shudder from danger's aftermath. All night people

grunt gutturals, shift phlegm up and down windpipes. This is
nothing, I tell myself, don't you dare complain, about any of it. 

Anne Carson headshotAnne M. Carson is a Melbourne writer and visual artist. She has been published widely and recently broadcast a series of poems on slavery in Ancient Greece on Radio National. Anne writes about writing 'The limits of goodwill' on Going Down Swinging


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