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

No-one Likes Poems.

My father said, “I don’t like poetry.” But he recited whole stretches of Shakespeare and odd fragments he learned at school. They shaped his thought and ferried it forward until he died, more than threescore years after his schooling ended. And Dad loved song, singing sea shanties to us through the hours of boat trips and long drives in the country. Dad imagined song was not verse and persuaded himself he ‘didn’t like poems.’

Many feel the same: confronted with verse they shrink and expect to be baffled by this often complex, always dense mode of expression.

Some poems however are quite straightforward. In First Class at Leeton Public School, Mrs Paulette announced, “Today we will learn a new poem. It is ‘Ding, Dong, Dell.'” I raised my hand: “I know that poem already.”
“Good, Howard. Please recite it for the class.”

“Ding, dong dell,
Pussy’s in the well:
How can you tell?
Go and have a smell.”

“Howard, leave the class immediately.”

Whether in the original version, that features Little Tommy Thin as the malefactor, or in the Howard version in which putrefaction proceeds, the lines race along in straight lines from straightforward beginning to clear ending. The charm is in the music and in the energy-packed compactness. Next to a picture and a graph, a poem is often the most efficient mode of conveying experience.

If you are like me, you might be daunted by lengthy poems. Try this one, a shorty:
I, Too, Sing America
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I know too little of American verse, but the phrase, ‘I sing America’ rings a bell. I think it was Walt Whitman who wrote a poem by that title. Here the poet claims American folk memory – together with Emily Dickenson, Whitman is said to be the most original of American poets – and with graceful economy and marvellous power, protests against his exclusion to the kitchen of America, ‘when company comes.’
If you like that, try the even shorter, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

I found both poems in ‘The Great Modern Poets’, edited by Michael Schmidt (Quercus). The CD enclosed inside the front cover features all the poets – from Yeats T S Eliot to Plath – reading their own work. Langston Hughes sings his lines with a jazz rhythm and in an accent faintly redolent of the Caribbean. Buy the book, listen to the CD and weep for beauty.