I haven’t eaten for seven days
And shot a man right in the face.
When I scratch, the bright blood runs.
I’ll soon be turning twenty-one.
When I’m drunk, I’ll plant my fist
In those pasty faces. Rage is my hymn.
Lice and fleas eat from my shins.
My stubble sprouts like garden cress.
And so I take my seed in my hand –
Europe’s future, black-specked spawn;
A god drowns in a sludge-filled pond! –
And shit my legacy on the wall.
Notes on this poem
Carl Zuckmayer (1896–1977) was a prolific and successful German- born writer who fought on the Western Front, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He began publishing poetry during the war and became a playwright and screenwriter from the early twenties on. Although the poem ‘1917’ was written during the war, it wasn’t published until forty-nine years later, when Zuckmayer included it in his 1966 memoirs, Als wär’s ein Stück von mir, which take their title from a line from a poem by Ludwig Uhland about a comrade who falls at the narrator’s feet and lies there ‘like a piece of me’.
Zuckmayer explains that, prior to his memoirs, he hadn’t written books or stories about the war and, more to the point, had ‘also rarely, almost never, talked about it, especially not with people who weren’t there. And with the others a word or two was enough to make ourselves clear – ‘Somme, 1916’, ‘Flanders, July 1917’ – after that we preferred silence.’
There seem to have also been other factors at play with the poem ‘1917’. Zuckmayer wrote it in a bunker on the front in the summer or autumn of that year after an ‘experience that was impossible to relate’. Although the impact the event had on Zuckmayer is clear from the poem, he only gave a hint about what had really happened eleven years a?er the publication of his memoirs, in the revised version of the poem he included in his posthumously published collected poems. Here the word ‘man’ in the second line has been changed to ‘friend’.
‘1917’ is reproduced from Als wär es ein Stück von mir, Horen der Freundschaft with kind permission of Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.