Down a country road from Buchenwald
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is writing a hymn.
I can hear him write and sing
and sing again and again
until he gets it right. He has so little time.
He has this journey of costly grace
the all-embracing sound
of greater things …
to save one life is sufficient to the end of
time to end with, I mean, the scaffold’s
truth at Flossenburg. He stepped up
and dropped, they hung him again and again
confused about sufficiency.
He could be anywhere along this road
grey today as a bowl of fog
the door at which we have to know
singing at his threshold of the real
to the music of silence onward,
unbounded, to greater things.
Questions and Answers
What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?
After a number of years spent reading the life and work of work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I had occasion to visit Buchenwald, where he was held before transport to Flossenburg, where he was hanged by the Nazis. Obviously, I was moved like many by his courage and sacrifice; however, I was also aware that while held at Buchenwald he composed some poems and hymns. In those pieces he further expressed some key ideas in his theology, including his concept of “costly grace”. The vision of Dietrich Bonhoeffer singing in his cell, moved me to write the poem.
What poetic techniques did you use in this poem? How much attention do you pay to form and metre?
The poem is in free verse. The only addition to that plain form are the italicized quotations from Bonhoeffer’s songs and writing.
How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?
The poem went through many drafts due mostly to my unworthiness in even attempting to write about the German resistance to the Nazis and the brutality of the death camps. At Buchenwald I was able to experience humility and empathy in such a way as to bring about the poem in its current form. Some part of me remains in shame at the arrogance of my even trying to do so.
What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?
The challenge was to avoid useless pity and instead try to weave in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s radiant faith in the face of death: his singing. My first drafts had too much “me” in them. When I discovered who the poem was really supposed to be about I was able to side-line the “me” and fully embrace the subject. I touch on my own challenge in the second stanza with a stumble in the third line.