author’s note. With a small Saltonstall poetry grant, I visited
BIRKEN, PLACE OF BIRCHES
So many birch trees neighbored here, etched heights
that this place was called the place of birches—Birkenau.
A shadow cleaved to each contoured slenderness,
the white bark of each was touched with messages.
One graced near another, they rose together—comforting the blind who felt their way through this light, the
imprinting rapid momentary air, the mute whose praises,
are chorused by the angel of the day arising whole.
In forest legend the lost, the homesick, needed onlytap a birch tree and at once the missing village—
winter-trimmed white-and-black or fringed with summer
guttural, inflected, retold by generations, returned about us.
That it may.
The women—the unripened young, and those big with
tomorrow’s own,and of dignity in full, and the withering, stooped—were herded
faint amid the rear birken groves. The men, guarded
made to wait their turn near units 4 and 5: Which, worked day
backed up. Schedules haywire, war ending. “Here come more
loads.Boxcars out of
“Heard it from the top. Schnell! Turnover FASTER. Sent
no sorting, no numbers.” “Units 4 and 5 again! What’s with
“... Then shovel out the ash! Hose this sloppy floor! Skip hair,
justrings, knock out gold. Get what they got hid. Thought they
“... Then GET a shovel man dammit. You!” Almost all was
army near, guards threw down shovels, fled. “Schnell!” Smoke
Shadow-bearing, proof of light-lit substance—they, tree and
human,still entwine within the whispering freshness of their dance.
sway and turn—until tranced unmoving by first light. Now
their new weight
holds in place another dawn. All: Every each one unlike any
Auctioneer, let the bidding begin! All this is up for grabs—get
even as the sweet stuff dizzies and falls gorgeously away.
Bone fragments, splintered bits? We toothpick them, twice
for dislodging choice morsels and for twirling gums to panting
Knuckled knobs of bone ends? Crack, suck out the sumptuousmarrow lode, next whistle it dry to summon up the double-
This stretch of skin? Melting lids and lips? Buyer, what’s to
beware?Crackle-roast it: Rake. A savor to the nostrils
rises, a rendering of fat as famished flames leap to lick and
catcheach offering. Sing the high-pitched song of the spitted turning
The Three Ravens ask, with-a-down: “Where shall we our
breakfast take?”Then beak their punctual eyeball prizes. And refrain goes
Flung, the marbled brains clack broken into shards of silence:
Suchtaken by law as assent. To any queries as to reasons, answer
The jewels of vital organs spill lustrous through fingers—slip,
soonfestooning the nude bowl of belly: All let drip within the
But wait, there’s an offal lot more—”offal,” get it? Ya gotta love
it! This portrait,more warty than most, is matchless, of provenance
unthinkable. The agent
deaf-and-dumb signals to snap up these bargains! Prick, pop,
shrivel, shred,pouch to ash, sucked under the grate: Just forget these assets?
Not on your life!
Note the going rate, all items tagged, look you take not one bite
less. Soldfor a song! Lifetime guarantee. Nothing known that cannot be
And repossessed—sold again, a whinny, a cackle! Buyer,
peering closer, reelsat the issuing reek. Now see in the beholder eye such beauty
A good job to get! Some few are daily marched
to tend the pond for farming fish. At the pond
they scoop the fish food from their pails—
send it dimpling in. The ash
drifts downward: Down go the cousins.
Carp snatch and nibble—rare and rich and passing strange
such banquet. And they grow great,
sheathed in sheen of rosy gold. They do thrive!
How many? How keep count? Of the brilliance,one chosen lot is daily netted, thrashing. Only officers
are offered them,
the serving platters heaped along the length of dining tables.
For their one or two seasons the feedersare beaten to go faster. Their striped garment
angles sharper about their frame: Until the cloth is shed,
each scarce tenancy
vacated ashen. Or they trip or slide: One unstoppable slow-motion instant of falling—dropping into a skeletal sketch
in the road. Their tattooed numbers, stripped from roll call,
slant in ashen tidbits back into their pond.
Replacements never can march fast enough.Rutted, pitted, dust-dry, mud-laden, ice-layered:
Road that a former crew,
their broken forms dragged back, made
to fetch there the ash, fetch back the fish.
How did they get it to be so lifelike?
No sculpture before nor since
so well catches every rippled instance of flesh and muscle.
Is wind-hand slanting cheek and chin? Wind-thumb and wind-
squint aligning best profile? Now wind-wrist balances
on nose-bridge fulcrum: Where it wrests control, gets to
choose—from the inside out—which expression will stare down time.
What occult airchannels passageways, explores hollows?
Wind-harp looms the rare tissue that ensheaths the bones.
Look—the form-fit figure quivers—
must be reaching for its make! Wind-tonguehas grooved divinity’s image to the life.
Is our character playing dumb? Acting bored, a diplomat’s
trick?Holding rhetorical pause?
What illusion flickers through its aperture,
while the tidal hours crest and trough? The new moon slivers
centuries of query: Who now plays the part of armature?
When did the skeletal captive
know it was a trap?
An elemental switch: The form is sent into a blaze of bronze.Now absence, now solid. Now the molten good pours in—
wholly fits. What mad protocol next? Rising into view: This,
the molded issue. When to break open the cast? And now
to puzzle the entrails for portending signs.
See wrought our marked fate,
the telling of it even as the lips and tongue of language melt.
[NOTE. Carol Rubenstein, who had been an active participant in the New York poetry scene during the formative years of ethnopoetics & related projects, began a series of travels in the 1970s, that brought her then to Borneo, where for five years she collected & translated oral poetry from the Dayak people of that island. Her important book, The Honey Tree Song: Poems and Chants of the Sarawak Dayaks, was published by Ohio State University Press in 1985, after which she settled in