So you don’t like poetry? Give this one a chance, not because the author has won several prestigious awards for her writing, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. Not because she is one of the leading voices in contemporary poetry. And not because she’s got incredible range, writing about anything from family to political events. Give this poem a chance because in it Sharon Olds is getting at the same thing that zombie movies are getting at. And it’s not simply that the setting for the poem is a graveyard.
On September 8, 1941, the German Army encircled the city of Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg). They were in a hurry to get to Moscow, so they simply besieged the city so as to starve it into submission. The siege lasted almost two and a half years. It is estimated that a million city residents lost their lives.
Here’s the poem:
Leningrad Cemetery, Winter of 1941
That winter, the dead could not be buried.
The ground was frozen, the gravediggers weak from hunger,
the coffin wood used for fuel. So they were covered with
and taken on a child’s sled to a cemetery
in the sub-zero air. They lay on the soil,
some of them wrapped in dark cloth
bound with rope like the tree’s ball of roots
when it waits to be planted; others wound in sheets,
their pale, gauze, tapered shapes
stiff as cocoons that will split down the center
when the new life inside is prepared;
but most lay like corpses, their coverings
coming undone, naked calves
hard as corded wood spilling
from under a cloak, a hand reaching out
with no sign of peace, wanting to come back
even to the bread made of glue and sawdust,
even to the icy winter and the siege.
You will notice that there are two kinds of corpses in this poem. The first kind is described using two different similes–“like the tree’s ball of roots/when it waits to be planted” and “stiff as cocoons that will split down the center/ when the new life inside is prepared.” The second kind of corpse, the majority, “lay like corpses.”
The key difference between the two kinds of corpses is in the similes. The tree’s ball of roots and the cocoon expect to be planted and to “split down the center when the new life is prepared,” respectively. They have a future hope. The other corpses, “lay like corpses.” This looks like a simile, but it’s not; its the literal and brutal truth–for these, there is no hope after death. This is why they do not rest in peace. The symbolic “hand reaching out” is desperate for life because this life is all there is.
Zombie narratives present this same idea to the viewing audience. Zombies are a response to the fairly new idea that this life is all their is. This is why, in the classic zombie films, a group of survivors that are desperate to survive–they will do anything. I wonder if the desire for survival is also present symbolically in the undead as well–does their animation communicate the same desire as the symbolic hand in the poem? Life of any kind, is better than oblivion in a materialist universe.