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On "The Nazi Doll"


Phillip Ernstmeyer (2007)

Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Nazi Doll” inventively satirizes the Nazi subject. Written in 1979, it is not an immediate response to the horrors of World War II and the Shoah but is a reflection on an event, almost thirty-five years old, that Komunyakaa, born in 1947, never experienced. The poem is conscious of its distance in two ways. First, rather than relating a “personal” experience, it contemplates a historical artifact of the Third Reich: a German doll from the Nazi era. (Though the poem does not indicate whether or not the doll portrays a Nazi, “Nazi dolls” did indeed exist. They can be seen at the Museum of World War II near Boston, and are simply traditional Kewpie dolls dressed in red storm trooper uniforms, with rosy cheeks and black swastikas banded on their arms . . . ). Second, the artifact itself contains a memory. Its memory, a “lampshade of memory,” swarms with “guilt” and “benedictions,” though Komunyakaa seems unable to possess them and identify their contents in the poem. These limitations cause the poem to make some unusual moves. Calling attention to its own historical distance and a memory not its own, Komunyakaa’s poem tips into surrealism and absurdity. The doll, in its inanimate taciturnity, speaks. Limited within its historical and existential capacity, “The Nazi Doll” inhabits a Nazi subject position which, quite unexpectedly, seems to solicit sympathy and forgiveness, but then implicitly opens those solicitations and their affiliated discourses to self-deconstructive critique.

Such a subject position recalls World War II’s Nazi Trials. Convened in the years following the war, the trials prosecuted various members of the German Nazi party, including central political and military figures, doctors, and judges, for conspiracy, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In popular contemporary discourse, the Nuremburg Trials — dramatized in Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremburg — are well known. From them came the so-called “Nuremburg defense”: the defense, frequently utilized by Nazi Party members, which claimed their innocence on the account that “befehl ist befehl” and they were merely “following orders” from their superiors. Though many offered this defense, Adolf Eichmann, whose 1961 trial in Jerusalem was broadcast live, is exemplary. Documented in Eyal Sivan’s stalwart 2002 film, The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal, Eichmann can be seen enclosed behind bullet-proof glass, riffling through papers, answering questions, and responding to the prosecution’s argument with startlingly mechanical precision, shocking nonchalance, and frighteningly self-righteous confidence. In the film, he emblematizes what Hannah Ardent called “the banality of evil”: the human capacity to commit inhuman acts under the supervision of an authority, nationalistic and otherwise. Simultaneously, like so many other members of the Third Reich, he portrays himself as a mere cogwheel in the machine, an automaton, a Nazi “toy” subject to the desires of others. In the film, he embodies a profound dissonance. Though monstrous, there festers in his inhumanity a humanity with which everybody can sympathize, even if only through nausea.

“The Nazi Doll” is tormented by this same dissonance. Initially, the poem contemplates and represents a horrendously and monstrously grotesque figure frankensteined together from a variety of objects. The doll, eerily propped “lopsided / in a cage” and enclosed behind bars reminiscent of a ribcage (not to mention Eichmann’s bullet-proof glass), resembles not a fully developed infant but an inchoately formed, freakish, ghastly, and misshapen fetus removed ex vivo. The figure is unheimliche, teetering on the edge of the unnatural and inhuman. Rather than the typical appendages possessed by infants at birth, it constitutes a fragmented, amorphous mass of bone and transparent tissue: “Membrane. / Vertebra.” Its brain — the storage space for its “lampshade of memory” — is warped, “twisted” from “a knob of tungsten,” the metal filament used in electric light bulbs. And its mouth “bleeds a crooked smile,” its lips the edges of an open wound, gash, or surgical incision which never ceases to ooze. Unequivocally the doll is appalling, gruesome, and nightmarish. Indeed, Komunyakaa underscores its dreadfulness, calling attention to its “bogus,” devilish tongue, its dishonest eyes, and the toxic stench of “arsenic” that seems to secrete from its pores and “sizzles in the air.” Faithful to the majority of “Holocaust” poetry, the imagery seems possessed by the utmost gravity. Carefully, through the detritus of diaphanous memories and the wreckage of eroded objects, it begins communicating the 20th Century’s most uncanny horror: the inhuman in the all-too-familiar human.

However, the weight of so much horror overwhelms the poem. The initially and seemingly unambiguous monstrousness and grotesquery of “The Nazi Doll” is ostensibly undermined and complicated by strikingly more attractive and welcoming imagery. Contrary to expectations, the doll’s “lampshade of memory” is not haunted by screams and rank with putrid decay. Instead, alluding to the Nuremberg trials, it is abuzz with the cheerfully exclamatory acknowledgement of contrition and the image of flowers in bloom: of a “guilt” that “yahoos” and “benedictions” that “blossom.” Additionally, evoking “the banality of evil,” its thoughts are naturalized. Juxtaposed with the “knob of tungsten” and the odor of arsenic, there are phosphorescent flashes glimmering in “a flurry of fireflies” and a mellifluous fragrance comparable to honey in “the song of dust / like a sweet beehive.” (Importantly, these troubling images are themselves troubled. First, they are hodgepodged together with the precarious suggestion of a venomous snake in “vowels of rattlesnake beads.” Second, although the poem focalizes their sweetness and bioluminescence, the “flurry of fireflies” and “sweet beehive” nonetheless do connote insects, as though the “beauty” of the images themselves was infested by creepy-crawlies . . . ). Dissonance torments the poem; one image contradicts another. Not only does the inhuman figure of the “Nazi doll” contain the human (and vice versa); its repulsive ugliness seems to be softened by a natural beauty which encourages sympathy. “The Nazi Doll” does not only occupy a Nazi’s subject position. Contained within its rhetoric, it sympathetically suggests that there is something natural immanent in that position which asks for and should be given forgiveness.

Yet this suggestion evaporates under closer scrutiny. Concomitaneous with the naturalizing language associated with confession and benediction, “The Nazi Doll” begins employing a diction which is absurdly surreal and comical, disauthenticating the subject’s sincerity. Contrary to normative behavior, its “guilt” does not regret or mourn; instead, alluding to the horrid inhuman humanoids of Gulliver’s Travels — and apparently ironically using the noun as a verb — the “guilt” expressed by the Nazi doll “yahoos,” as though celebrating its own accomplishment. Similarly, echoing Swift’s brutish characters, rather than being spoken by modern man, the doll’s “benedictions” effloresce in a caveman, “in its Cro-Magnon skull,” in a primitive mind which, unable to use language properly, confuses nouns with verbs. Such peculiar and sardonic diction satirizes the poem’s naturalizing language. The doll’s deceitful eyes and nefarious tongue discredit its confessed guilt and wishes for happiness and prosperity to the world which remains after the deliberate and systematic death of six million. Like Adolf Eichmann, enclosed behind glass, the Nazi doll is not only unbelievable; it is absolutely absurd. Moreover, the poem suggests, it has always been absurd. Its testimony, its sugar-coated “song” and scintillating, flowery speech, neither ameliorates its position in history nor compels forgiveness. Such linguistic pyrotechnics merely color the swastika-banded murderer’s cheeks rosy, dissembling its noxious odor, open and oozing wounds, and mechanical, man-made memory. Rather than sympathy, the language of the poem encourages ridicule and repugnance.

Ironically, through its naturalizing language, “The Nazi Doll” produces an uncompromising critique of both the “Nuremburg defense” and “the banality of evil.” Occupying a Nazi (doll’s) subject position, the poem does ask for sympathy and forgiveness, but it articulates the appeal in a language which ultimately divulges and scoffs that appeal’s unimaginably abhorrent contents: the malevolence and fallaciousness always already legible within the monstrousness and grotesquery only partially concealed by this “toy” of the Third Reich and its defense. In the end, Komunyakaa’s poem offers no forgiveness or sympathy. Considered in relation to Adolf Eichmann (and other Nazi Party members prosecuted for crimes against humanity), “The Nazi Doll” repudiates the defense which would disavow an individual’s responsibility for their choices in the world. Furthermore, in both the ironic portrayal of the Nazi as a “doll” and the refusal to implicate his own identity in the poem, Komunyakaa rejects the discourse which would naturalize the inhumanity and horror encountered in the concentration camps and crematoria of the Shoah. The Nazi is “uncanny,” simultaneously strange and familiar, only insofar as its own rhetoric and its gestures, like Eichmann’s, are fraught with contradictions. The Nazi “song of dust” is “like a sweet beehive.” It is infested with insects, and the insects are filled with poison.

Copyright © 2007 by Phillip Ernstmeyer.


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