A poet’s question: Is God done with man? Part I

by Jordan Green

The buffaloes are gone. And those who saw the buffaloes are gone. — Carl Sandburg

If Hal Sieber were born today, he might be called an “anchor baby.”

A native of Mannheim, Germany, Paula Sieber arrived in Weehawken, NJ in 1931, just in time to give birth to her son. She and her husband Charles soon moved to Brevard, NC with their children. Paula proudly worked to become an American citizen. The Siebers ardently supported President Roosevelt. Among their reasons was the free government milk that arrived to nourish young Herman Alexander while Charles was not able to find work, and later they credited Roosevelt for Charles’ eventual employment with a company that made paper for Bibles and cigarettes when the supply dried up from France during the Nazi occupation.

At least three things set the Siebers apart from their neighbors in western North Carolina: They were liberal, Catholic and anti-segregationist, although there were not many blacks in the area. Another attribute marked Herman Alexander, or Hal, as an outsider: At his mother’s prompting, the boy was writing poems at the age of 4 or 5.

Sieber’s maternal grandfather was Jewish.

He said recently that his family lost many members in the Holocaust because they were variously Jewish, gay and Catholic, adding that his parents contributed money to help smuggle relatives out of Germany through bribery.

In the late 1930s or early ’40s, but before the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor — the years are fuzzy in Sieber’s memory now — a Mrs. Straus arrived in North Carolina from Germany, and Hal wrote a poem to commemorate the occasion.

“Black and white, rich and poor,” it read, “but at least we still have peace.”

The poem was published in The Transylvania Times, the weekly paper of record in the community, around the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Optimism about the human condition has been one of Sieber’s primary themes. That, and equality.

The title of a poem written by a teenaged Sieber and published in the North Carolina Catholic in 1947 baldly states his ideal: “Abolition of prejudice.”

With earnest religiosity that makes no effort to cloak its idealism in irony, he wrote, “What right have we to judge our fellow man/ By virtue of the color of his face?/ Our maker finds it no disgrace/ (As deems the Ku Klux Klan)/ To open the gates of Paradise/ To His Saints of different creed or race —/ Be they Catholic, Jew, or otherwise./ No one is flawless, so no one can,/ Regardless of his special case/ Or prestiged place,/ From progress ban,/ With biased snob or sneer to scan/ A fellow different — colored man/ Just ’cause his skin, instead of white, is tan.”

By that time, the family had moved one county over to the more populous Henderson, and Hal was working at the Kalmia Dairy bar. Fortuitously, the dairy bought goat milk from Carl Sandburg, who had once aspired to political office as a socialist in Milwaukee but had retreated by the mid-1940s to Flat Rock, NC to write poetry.

“I would hitch a ride on the Kalmia Dairy trucks to get to know Sandburg,” Sieber said. “And Sandburg would read my poems. He said he wouldn’t talk to me anymore about his poetry until I’d read it all. And so I sat down, and I read everything he ever wrote. And he and I became real friends.”

Sandburg was only the first famous figure in the world of literature that Sieber would meet. Through Sandburg, he learned about Harry Golden, the editor of The Carolina Israelite, and photographer Edward Steichen. Sholem Asch, the Yiddish writer, visited Sieber in western North Carolina before he enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an undergraduate. Later, as a restaurant manager, he got to know Randall Jarrell, a professor at Woman’s College in Greensboro and a poetry critic. Poet EE Cummings was a guest at the restaurant. Through his work on the Ezra Pound treason case, Sieber became associated with Robert Frost, who would read at the inauguration of President Kennedy, and also with Ernest Hemingway and Archibald McLeish. Sieber burst on the literary scene in Chapel Hill in his mid-twenties and was a member of the NC Writers Conference. Among North Carolina writers with whom Sieber rubbed shoulders were Frances Gray Patton and Paul Greene.

“I didn’t know what networking was,” Sieber said, looking back on his precocious youth, “but I was mighty good at exploiting what opportunities I had, to accomplish what needed to be accomplished.”

The preface to Sieber’s first collection of poetry, In This the Marian Year, underscores his signature theme.

“To the educators, a memo,” Sieber wrote.

“Take note that poetry is too important to be left to the poets. The generations now taking their communion from you are unmoved by poetry. And to the patriots and statesmen: Note! — the poets are too important, sirs, to be left to their lonely words. The generations piled at Dienbienphu and Pork Chop Hill are dumb to poetry.

“In that we are still in the Sixth Day of Creation and it is rumored that God has not yet finished with man, there is hope,” he concluded. “In this the Marian year, there is only hope.”

The preface is inscribed, “Chapel Hill, North Carolina, December 8, 1954.”

For someone who had witnessed the destruction of Europe and the mass murder of the Jews and had grown up surrounded by open racial bigotry in his native state, Sieber’s poetic vision was remarkably optimistic and imbued with a progressive faith that humankind might conquer its selfdestructive instincts and dark impulses after all.

No less an establishment publication than the Charlotte Observer hailed the young writer with this endorsement: “In the writings of such men as Mr. Sieber rest the hopes and ambitions of today’s culture.”

Literary historian Richard Walser, who was also active in the writers conference, averred, “The voice of HA Sieber is the latest and most important in the more than two hundred years of poetry in North Carolina. The sinew of his verse is entirely contemporary and therefor entirely vital. Not only does he find the new word and the fresh way; he does more, by discovering an untried approach to the expression of man’s experience and emotion. In Sieber’s poems there is, moreover, no frightened whimpering in the dark, but an optimistic, religious certainty of the future. It is Sieber’s assurance that poetry will uphold man in that brave green world before him — an assurance rhythmically compounded in his own lines.”

Sieber recalled, “Through Sandburg I had gotten to know so many people. I didn’t even really have to network; those were people I knew and could use them to get quotes and to make contacts as I needed to.”

Later a public relations professional for the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and his own private firm, Sieber reflected on how he was able to marshal supporters to create a sensation.

“I had ready-made blurb writers,” he said. “And I had ready-made PR people, in a sense. Not that I created them; they were just there.”

The endorsement that meant the most was the one from Sandburg: “Brother Sieber, you sure can write.”

The poetry stood up on its own merit, however, and Sieber was nominated for a National Book Award, a distinction that impresses him more today than it did then.


Toy Gun

by Hal Sieber

He aimed the toy gun At the other boy And with a play-war Bang, blew his brains out Gray and red pieces.

The white chalk outline Of the boy’s body On the sidewalk curb, Like a Dali watch, Rose and walked away.

It sounded so real When the crowd gathered And the man knelt down With scrub brush and lye To clean up the blood.

The sidewalk witness Praised the boy in white For his marksmanship And good marks, argued That toys will be toys.

A shot brought silence. The boys shouted joy. They made guns with thumbs And index fingers. Tanks rolled through the streets.

‘ Hal Sieber 2010