Cyrus Cassells’ fifth collection of poems, The Crossed-Out Swastika, treads the familiar yet treacherous and muddy ground of World War II. For a less skilful poet, such hostile territory may have presented an insurmountable challenge. For Cassells’, however, the atrocities of war provide an opportunity to show us that, even in its darkest hour, the will and tenacity of the human spirit endures.
The scope of The Crossed-Out Swastika ranges from fleeting, isolated moments to stories spanning sixty years passed down from one generation to the next. Cassells approaches his subject with diligence, often choosing to craft poems inspired by the struggles and experiences of real people. This purposefulness is evident throughout the collection, from his choice of subject to the voice of his narrators.
Cassells moves confidently from one story to the next, and while the range of voices in The Crossed-Out Swastika is varied, those told from the perspectives of children are perhaps the most accomplished. The loss of innocence and the death of childhood are certainly nothing new in literature, but Cassells manages to illustrate the indomitability of the human spirit through the eyes of children without straying into the realm of cliché. “The Ravine,” based on the testimony of Crimean survivor Nina Roufimovna Lisitsina, tells the story of a child who, upon awakening in a pit filled with the corpses of the townsfolk of her village, begins to crawl out, her eyes fixed on the “rose light” of her “twilit village.” Cassells shows us this same resolve throughout the collection, often in the face of terrible adversity, offering us poignant glimpses of hope amid the despair.
Love and hope are prominent themes throughout The Crossed-Out Swastika. Cassells weaves a powerful interplay of optimism and anguish in poems such as “The Fit,” loosely based on the lives and experiences of Pierre Steel and Gad Beck, two gay men who survived Hitler’s relentless campaign of extermination. In an act of grim foreshadowing, we are introduced to a young man’s lover in the pre-war France where they met, the ache of longing and admiration evident in each line, before learning of his grisly fate at the hands of the concentration camp guards. Even as their tale winds inexorably toward this inevitable conclusion, hope – or perhaps the lovers’ quiet disbelief masquerading as such – is still evident in their whispers, exchanged in a brief moment of stolen intimacy:
Embracing in scouted-out basements
and fusty attics,
or emboldened between
burly rolls of cloth
in Luc’s meticulous father’s shop -
they were purblind,
a worldlier Loïc explains,
and, in their youth, believed
risible Hitler would never
In addition to the people who populate Cassells’ compelling, often claustrophobic narratives, everyday objects tell their own stories and those of their owners. A green penknife, a spool of thread and a woolen scarf deftly illustrate the struggles of wartime life in an unnamed city in “Pencil and Dragon Slayer.” Cassells uses clothing to evoke strong imagery in poems throughout the collection, such as “Riders on the Back of Silence,” in which we are shown “a child in a jacket of flies,” as seen through the lens of a camera and the eyes of an observer who cannot reconcile such terrible scenes.
The Crossed-Out Swastika moves between shorter, more immediate poems like “The Galician Spade,” and longer works, such as “The Young Doctor from Krakow.” Whether fourteen lines or forty, Cassells’ poems provide us with stories of hope and tragedy, struggle and loss. The sense of pace is beautifully sustained throughout the collection, alternating between frantic moments of panic to somber reflections on the nature of suffering. His use of language is bold and decisive, and his work flows elegantly.
Though many of the poems in The Crossed-Out Swastika deal with strong emotional concepts and wider ideas, Cassells’ work doesn’t shy away from powerful sensory details. We are frequently presented with the smells and textures of the war, as well as the sights. Tiny details grab us in a moment of terrified urgency in “Three Kings,” the dusty flour on a mother’s apron clinging to the narrator’s skin as they descend into the “acrid underworld” of the privy to avoid detection by invading soldiers:
Unmoored, I fastened on the bookish
name of my slingshot -
Aramis, Aramis, Aramis -
as if in that shit-drenched dark,
I could summon, abracadabra,
the slingshot’s Y-shaped, trusty wood,
and from that musketeer mantra, I acquired
a little certainty, a little stamina, a little consolation,
like three resplendent kings
come to a filthy manger.
Even when presenting us with visceral detail of the horrors of the war, Cassells never strays far from the underlying emotional call and response. The account of a skilled surgeon coerced and corrupted into performing Nazi experiments asks questions of identity and responsibility. A little girl’s struggle to free herself from the makeshift grave dug by her would-be killers reveals a powerful sense of belonging. The first few notes of a Beethoven symphony, played on a contraband violin, allow us to hear the defiance and resolve of the human spirit. It is in these moments that The Crossed-Out Swastika, and Cassells’ skill as a poet, truly shine.
Stories are central to many of the poems in the collection. The simple questions of a child in “Sabine Who Was Hidden in the Mountains,” the chasm between generations of survivors in “Riders on the Back of Silence,” and the long-awaited communique in “Salute” show us that the finality of death and closure are rarely the same thing. The stories of people who gave their lives, and those whose lives were cruelly snatched away, live on in Cassells’ poems, their tales of love and sorrow as powerful and relevant today as they have ever been.