Fifty thousand believers

I hike across Manhattan this morning to pick up my runner’s bib and electronic chip for the New York City Marathon. I’ve run this event four times before; somehow the Kenyans always beat me. On the last occasion I placed 6000th of 36,000 runners and felt pretty pleased with myself. That was about 1998. That was twenty years ago, in the lives of humans, a full generation. A generation on, my body tells the story of my degeneration.

The sun shines, the autumn leaves glow gold and blush red. The thronging streets empty into the Jacob Javitz Convention Centre. THe human tide washes me before it and sets me down gently before overhead signs that read: BIB NUMBERS 1-100; NUMBERS 100-1000 and so on, all the way to Numbers 70,000-80,000. My number is 57,072. The bib persons shine their smiles of American teeth at me. They welcome me. From Australia? Wow! How old are you? Wow!

I approach the line where you try on the official souvenir shirts for size. In America the seats in airport lounges are very wide. In this country I think I’ll be a SMALL. The SMALL t-shirt is tight and smells richly of the hundreds who’ve sweated within it before me. I need MEDIUM. To my left a dozen or two women of all shapes and ages tear off their shirts and expose their underwear. An unexpected display. They do this to try on the souvenir shirts for size.

I wander aimlessly around the vast hall in a beatific state. Accents of all nations, shirts of all nations, languages enough for Babel, smiles, smiles on all sides. What – as the poet asked – is all this juice and all this joy? Unbidden, unchanging, my own teeth have organised themselves into a crooked grin. This huge assemblage, all for the simple task of bib-getting and shirt-receiving; these mere thousands here of the many tens of thousands who’ll run with me on Sunday all look idiotically happy.

Why? For what? Eighty thousand adults all gathering for play. Eighty thousand innocents.

As I leave the happy concourse and thread my way through the incoming thousands I pass two police officers. They wear bullet-proof vests and helmets. They grip in their arms their weighty submachine guns. Fifty-one marathons down and I’ve never seen this before. But something broke last Shabbat in Squirrell Hill. A fabric was torn in Boston in 2013. When they told me then the race was called off because bombs had gone off I kept running. I would not believe it. This, this glorious foolishness was the marathon, this the ceremony of innocence.

Feeling mounts within me. The physiology of imminent weeping signals intensity. It comes to me that this might be my last one. And if it be the last, ‘What larks, Pip old chap! What larks!’

Blu, Blu, it’s Green they say… 

A lady young enough to jump rope inscribed her book of poems and sent it to me through my sister in New York City. The sister claims the poet as a friend. That is no small boast, for the poet in question is a celebrated thinker, a public intellectual who has advanced the thought of a generation.

 

First impressions: the book is slim, at my age a mercy. A quick glance at the cover – pleasing design, the lacing of leaves, a hint to the content, which is to do with the lacing of the generations.

 

The title, “Black Bread*” – innocuous enough; but then follows the subtitle:

 

Poems, After the Holocaust.

 

A sinking feeling, a bracing for the assault which must follow. A needful assault, I must declare. The world has forgotten; Europe has forgotten; the young at their universities agitate as if they never knew you needed to know.

But still, holocaust poems!  Did not Paul Celan write, ‘after the holocaust there is no poetry’? 

Inevitably there is poetry, inevitably man must sing. After Celan, as after Cain, we can sing no more of man in primal innocence. We sing on, however, because we remember, we sing because we lament, we sing because we breathe. This book of singing is singular because the commemorator was not there, not in the Shoah. But she was there – insomuch as I (with my family intact and untouched in Australia) – was also morally there, also implicated, wounded, alongside all my people, alongside all people of all peoples.

 

Open the book, read. You hear a voice that doesn’t hector or scream or even moan, a voice delicate, tactful; and lively with empathy. The poet, Blu Greenberg, born and raised in the USA, was not directly affected, but – as we have learned from the developing study of epigenetics – the trauma of a previous generation can, in a real and concrete sense, be heritable. Stress hormones are measurably increased in later generations of survivors. In this way the pain of one can spread, from the victim to her relative; from that relative – through her verse – to us all, an emanation for our sorrow and our enlightenment. Greenberg knows what she knows and by subtle indirection, she shares her knowing with us. And like Coleridge’s Mariner, we rise on the morrow morn, sadder and wiser.

 

 

Consider ‘TRIGGER WORDS:’               

             

 

Action

Barking

Boots

Butterfly

Bystander

Cattle car

Chamber

Chosen

Collaborate

Drek

Dysentery

Experiments

Eye sockets

Forests

Gold teeth

Lampshade

Latrine

Orchestra

Soap

Solution

Swine 

Transport

Wheelbarrow

Yellow
God

 

What’s poetic about that – a list?  “Trigger Words” is not a poem you’d recite for the beauty of its words.

 

But it all works as poetry by its density of meaning. Twenty-four words carry a universe of meaning, a world of pain. Without recourse to emphasis Greenberg manages to convey all.  Working simply through the alphabet of human experience she stirs the shared memory of humans. We read, we feel the uncommon jolt of twenty–four common words and we know what humans have known since Cain. And we remember.

 

 

Quite otherwise is “MAY 14TH: AN OLD PRIESTESS, A NEW PRIESTESS.” This complex poem weaves its path from the poet’s familial ‘Ke’hunah’ (her descent from the biblical high priest Aaron), through the appearance of two small girls of the 1990’s. The two wear green leaves and crepe paper in the pageant in which they represent the priesthood. Their appearance, ‘two laughing priestesses’, flings the poet’s mind backwards, forwards in time – backward to ‘that other planet’, forward to future great grandchildren, who will, like Greenberg, surely and inescapably remember:

 

 

“My Deborah will tell  

Her grandchildren

As they sprawl

On her carpet 

Inquiring

Of old photos

I once knew

A girl 

Whose mother

And

Father

Survived that other planet

Come here and touch me.

 

 

What that closing line works within me is alchemy. I remember a pain that was never mine but which is the inheritance of all, remembered through the electricity, the innocence of childhood, that universal time we all had and we all lose. 

 

 

* KTAV, Hoboken, NJ, 1994

Where Else But Alice?

Where else but Alice Springs can you run through Honeymoon Gap (part of the Macdonell Ranges, not part of the body) and see the world ablaze as the sun rises, greeting a file of self-selected marathoners with silent fanfare?
Where else than Alice can such a mediocre runner place fifteenth in a marathon? (There were only seventeen starters that year).
Where else than Alice do the volunteers – endlessly cheering us, feeding us, hydrating us – outnumber the runners?
Where else in the running world can you run through air as pure as crystal and finish your marathon in the mild golden glow of mid-morning?

Alice has the best kept secret in the world of marathon running. I’ve done Boston (four times), New York (thrice), Traralgon (ten times), Melbourne (15 times) – and Alice just as often. I come back for every third Sunday in August. My wife is suspicious: she should be: Alice Marathon is my secret love.