7000 Oaks

7000 Oaks, documenta VII, 1982

Das Chaos einer Nacht

22 October 1943,

cities shrunken into history

at the dead-most hour

of the night,

English bombers, storms of fire,

factories billowing,

Flammenmeer. Soot, bone,

human waste, later

snow and ruin.

In the dark of a cellar

I felt along a neckline to a cold breast

in a fur coat.

The hawks' woods burned,

childhood spiraled to an end.

The archeology of war

spread its footprints into

the mountains of rubble.

Horse carts, Fleischmarkts,

the shoveling of endless bricks.

Streams of refugees make

for the gates of the city,

fleeing anywhere Arbeit macht frei

as American soldiers come

to occupy, along with stragglers

from Kiev. Speer's architects

are left to reconstruct

as they see fit, this wasteland

of sewage, iron, and cement.

In 1955, a bear visits

from the Berlin Zoo,

the Rembrandts are restored,

the first art documenta,

a trust in smoky glass again.

But not one tree is standing.

Baumschule (Tree Farm)

Our tree truck didn't come,

the sun now high over the pines

of the valley, so I walked

through the rows of sapling oaks,

and linden trees, gingko, cherry, birch,

and wrote this poem in my head,

as Mayakovsky always did,

bounding through meadows

or snow-covered steppes,

embellishing himself with

the words, the rhapsody,

scaring off plough men, cattle,

rushing home without one phrase

written down, to scrawl

from memory his odes to hope

and homelessness and fury.

I found a love-worn swallow's nest

and a red-breast chat who chirruped

into noon, and still,

the tree truck didn't come.

Greybeard Holger sat at the wheel

of the flatbed pickup, humming

to Connie Francis on the radio,

Tu mir nicht weh,

and, Darling, du bist alles,

while in the penitentiary

on the hill, a poet of the RAF

walks in circles in his cell, vogelfrei,

scribbling against the light

streaming in through bars

that are bent to hell. On the wall

are pictures of caves and cunts

and Scamander River fowl without wings,

hairy arms and exploding things,

a circle of girls, sketching trees,

trying to sing the sky back in.

The leaf mulch dump beyond,

its sooty fires and raven cries,

and naked Hercules atop the baroque

gardens of the Landgraf Karl,

duck ponds where strangers could

meet and make love in the dark.

Finally, when the men came,

we hauled out the balled roots

already dug from the ground

and we drove the twenty trees

to the streets of the city.

Stadtverwaldung (Planting)

Rain on Dresdnerstrasse, a smog

worse than that in Hollywood--

we had to plant along the Autobahn,

by the Mercedes works and the Holiday Inn.

One basalt rock for every tree--

the prism of volcanoes Beuys would say--

we laid them out the length of city.

We dug, cut roots, stamped the earth

around the stones and false acacia.

Three smashed tree trunks,

felled by a drunken driver,

whose grave became their stone.

Turkish sheep in a meadow

(with giant Dumbo ears!),

a field full of ravenous crows

and ripening cabbages

on the first day of frost in December.

Later, trees had to go to the Theaterplatz,

the Fridericianum and museum,

near the pile of stones which

prompted all this digging.

Five trees for the parking lot,

each one to be given a name:

Uta, Veronika, Charlotte,

Johanna and Christina;

the middle one now will grow

for the daughter we do not have,

not yet waxed into this busy world.

We walked then to the Fulda River,

to the huge pickax thrown by

Hercules, and to the single

hermitage of the sixties,

the abandoned house of Kassel,

the only one whose yard is full

of weeds in all of Germany,

where a man lives toothless

on welfare, building scarecrows

and tractor parts to pass the time.

Even there was a line of our trees,

the miraculous seven thousand

sprouting and tilting everywhere,

green windmills without Quixote.

This taking care might insure

a lifetime for our children.

Nature Morte (Still Life)

Up before dawn, we get our trees

and two guys from the prison ward,

drive down to the South End

to plant six trees by lunchtime.

After three days of rain, the earth

was like a pond, and we had to

sling our axes into mud

with each thrust, as Holger spoke

on and on of Perry Rhodan, cartoon

outer space adventurer, savior

of the twenty-first century.

But the lifers wanted to talk

of the here and now, so happy

to be out at least on Saturdays.

The plug of this gift to the city,

what might the world be like

if all these trees weren't here.

We sat in the truck at lunch

with breads and würst and coffee,

as Ulrike talked about acid rain,

how all Beuys' rabbits were dying,

even without his ritual sacrifice.

Feeding the god, Matthias sang,

this worship of the oak, pruning

of the golden bough we thought

we knew too much about.

How to save the world, not by Reds

or Greens or SPD bureaucrats,

but all of us harsh listening.

I heard, saw how much joy they had

to have found this time to share

their chocolates and clementines.

As the rain fell, a kerchiefed hausfrau

scrubbed her porch, and stared right through

us, as if we were from the seventh moon.

We Germans are good at looking after things,

but beware the taking charge.

And as the prison bus came

to pick them up, we were out again

in orange vests, pounding stakes

for the last tree, so they whistled,

waved, and shouted to me, be sure to

plant a stone and tree for every poem.


Flammenmeer, a sea of flames.

Arbeit macht frei, Work makes you free, words inscribed above the gates of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

vogelfrei, free as a bird, also the name of a book of lyrical poems by Peter-Jurgen Boock, arrested and life-imprisoned, as a member of the RAF.

Scamander--ancient name for a river of northwestern Turkey which flows into the Aegean Sea.

Tu mir nicht weh, Don't do me no harm.

Darling, du bist alles, Darling you're everything.

RAF (Rote Armee Faction), the left-wing group of which Baader and Meinhof were members and founders.

SPD , the Socialist Democratic Party of Germany.

Red, communist party

Green, ecological party

hausfrau, housewife (Saturday mornings are porch-cleaning time all over Germany)

In 1986, as his first book of poems was coming out in the United States, William Allen planted trees with the 7000 Eichen project in Kassel, Germany, Joseph Beuys' documenta 7 exhibition and gift to the city. This book provides a lyrical and social eye at the inside of a project which has worked to redefine understandings of social sculpture--art employed to radically empower people to challenge urban planning with respect to democratic and healthy city community.

© 1987