Gastarbeiter

January 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

There was an old woman from Szechwan
Who worked in the suitably Brechtian
Town of Stettin
Where she ran a canteen.
Or was it a woman from Szczecin?

No, this was a woman from Szechwan.
She went around kvetching in Quechuan.
Philologists think a
Lost tribe of the Inca
Reside as high lamas in Szechwan.

They came to the mountains of Szechwan
To study Du côté de chez Swann
And Melchior’s question:
What time is the next one?
And Leda’s: why don’t we go chase one?

Should Yeats have attempted to hatch one?
Should Christ have turned left at Saskatchewan?
The track of Big Bird
Is erose and absurd
The trackers morose and Masaccioan.

– George Starbuck

Here names and places from across the centuries clash to form a metaphysical mystery. An annotated Ondioline:

Gastarbeiter: The title is German for “guest worker,” workers who came to West Germany after the war. How this connects to the rest…

Szechwan: A Chinese province. The first line plays off the standard limerick opening (“There was an old man with a beard…”) and Bertolt Brecht’s play “Good Person of Szechwan.”

Stettin: A town in Poland as spelled by the Germans. The Polish spelling is Szczecin, so to answer the narrator’s question, the woman is, indeed, from Szczecin. Curiously, Brecht makes no mention of the town in his play.

Quechuan: A language spoken by the Quechuan people of South America, primarily in the Andes. How an Incan tribe arrived in China is one of the poem’s many mysteries. (Did they do it for the rhyme?)

Du côté de chez Swann: Volume I of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

Melchior: One of the Three Wise Men. One assumes his humorous question relates to Jesus’ birth. He may have been expecting twins. Theologians still debate over whether or not Christ had siblings.

Leda: Slept with her husband and Zeus on the same night, the latter while he took the form of a swan. Out popped several children in eggs. Presumably, her question relates to Melchior’s baby question in the preceding line. Yeats’ poem ‘Leda and the Swan’ explains his [Yeats’] appearance in the following line. What any of this has to do with Proust, however, remains unknown.

Saskatchewan: A Canadian province.

Big Bird: This probably refers to Christ in the preceding line. His track would be “erose and absurd” to followers—difficult to comprehend, swerving to no logic, sublimated, and, like the zigzagging between geographic points mentioned in the poem, impossible to predict. One imagines his trackers saddened by their inability to keep up.

Masaccioan: Masaccio was an Italian Renaissance painter of religious works, and one of the first painters to use linear perspective and chiaroscuro. Perhaps the Masaccioan trackers can see their trail vanishing in the distance?

None of these items seem to relate to each other, but their appearance together suggests something just beyond the reach of the words, which, with the poem’s religious overtones, may be the point; Christ remains unknowable and supremely mysterious.

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