School Room, Upper Silesia 1933
Freedom and Bread
In that moment when the shutter was pressed
no-one looked away. So the camera
held each luminous face in its gaze, kept
them there, each grin, lost look or open stare.
Fifty boys in rows, with folded arms or hands
in front, their grubby fingers curling over
the rims of wooden desks. The master stands
at the back, his hat on a peg by the door.
He tells them that knowledge is wealth.
My father looks out from the third row
chin raised and clear-eyed, sure of himself,
but there were things he couldn’t know.
The alphabet hangs on the wall, every
underlined letter chanted until known
well enough for words to come easy,
as beyond the door, the first stones are thrown.
One boy blinked and is given clouds for eyes.
The smallest sits at the front and wears
a dirty striped jacket, his face betrays
that he already knows the use of words.
The words on the streets are Fire and Murder
they ring clear against the tenement blocks
and shop windows. The schoolmaster
turns the key of a black music box,
its wooden bird rises from her burning nest
a voice as pure as the serious child –
black tie and leather strap across his chest
which rises and falls where his heart is held
and beats quietly in a bed of soft ash.
Its slow grey storm coats tongues, clogs nostrils
and stings eyes. By the time they can wash,
scrape it away from under their fingernails,
they’ll have become men of sorts, outgrown
the classroom’s hard benches and made their way;
some in polished boots, some with triangles sewn
on their shirts and nothing left to know.
Martin Figura’s collection Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine (Cinnamon Press) and pamphlet Shed (Gatehouse Press) are both due out in 2016. The show of Dr Zeeman starts touring in 2016. He was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award and won the Saboteur Award for his previous show Whistle. He lives in Norwich where he works part-time at the Writers’ Centre and runs Café Writers.
Note: School Room, Upper Silesia 1933 was first published in The Rialto and was commended by Anthony Thwaite in the Ledbury Poetry Competition.