Second in a series of blogposts by poet-in-residence Sue Zatland, who reflects on different aspects of monumental commemoration, focusing on Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. She shares her poetic responses and experimentations with form. 


Beneath the stones there is an ‘Information Centre’. It contains those things we expect to see in a conventional museum: personal effects, names, photographs– faces of the victims that are absent from the anonymous installation above. Eisenman: ‘I wanted a place without information… But as an architect you win some and you lose some.’ 
Here is a family at what appears to be Passover Seder. I am struck by the expression on their faces. Seder night is the start of a festival. It foregrounds children, yet here there are none, except a little boy, unnoticed, at the back. They are caught, each in their own space.  I find it a haunting, melancholic image. I am addressing each one of us. Me. We must eschew forever the role of bystander. 

Form: The Villanelle. This comes from the pastoral round songs of renaissance Italy and has been called an acoustic chamber for words. Highly structured, repetitive, whole lines repeated in every verse, the rhyming scheme severely limited: aba, aba, aba, aba, aba, aba, it festers and broods over its subject matter. It is a song of mathematical precision, a verbal Rubik’s Cube. The rules are so restricting, it is a form I have so far avoided. With all the repetition it can easily become tedious. So, why is it such a necessary form to use here?

Form is meaning. The Shoah, genocide, crimes against humanity: going over and over the same old story, no narrative drive, no resolution; a little mad, a little obsessive, moving forwards, if at all, very slowly. Leading inexorably back to our starting point.

Ideas too of the canonic counterpoint of the fugue, one voice against another, looping, the same tune repeated against itself. Two stories, two songs pushing and pulling at each other: the ‘old’ songs are bloody ones too. The rise of nations, the killing of the firstborn… we are forever on repeat. And yet, like the fugue, some threads move away into a different order of magnitude.



      Why is this night different from all other nights?
      A new song, rising in a noose of air
      as we close the shutters and dim the lights

    —hush the boy so that nothing incites
     this counterpoint chorus (‘SIEG HEIL VIKTORIA!’)        
     Why is this night different— 

    Jackboots beating time in Potsdamer Platz
     Unter den Linden     Wilhelmstrasse
     as we close the shutters and dim the lights
    —muzzle the völkisch hymn. The child recites    
    the seder puzzle with no real answer:
    Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh—
    Good German music, metric, precise,
    a stretto in steel, sparks on the stair—
    Close the shutters! Dim the lights!

    It’s the mark on the doorframe that indicts.
    It’s hard to declare you are unaware
    why this night is different from all other nights
    as they close our shutters and turn out the lights.

Susan Zatland
Creative Writing Diploma, University of Oxford