To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, January 16, 2015

Carol Rubenstein: Four New Poems from “Vanished Number”

author’s note.  With a small Saltonstall poetry grant, I visited Auschwitz in 2004-05 during all the seasons.  I had to get the sense of the place on my skin and know at least that reality as it was felt by the inmates.  It was hard to find a way into the overwhelming “pity and terror” of the Auschwitz tragedy, and many poems took on a surreal cast.  I welcomed the variety of approaches that presented themselves.  Some poems, like “Birken, Place of Birches” and “The Carp Feeders,” are based on where and when events occurred.  The exhibits of hair, clothes, shoes—in relation to the human body—required poems that compressed artifacts into a black-humor reality of their own, as in “Possession.”  Extremes of weather in such a place called for poems like “Wind Tongue (2).”  The voices of persecutor and persecuted alike echoed through my stay at Auschwitz.  All the poems represent a slant on reality imagined but not imaginary.  At present I am developing a manuscript of the many poems—working title, “Vanished Number.”  

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 only
tap 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
      elsewhere.  All 
made to wait their turn near units 4 and 5:  Which, worked day
      and night,

backed up.  Schedules haywire, war ending.  “Here come more
Boxcars out of Hungary—retching, shitting, pissing, half-dead.”
“Heard it from the top.  Schnell!   Turnover FASTER.  Sent
      straight here,
no sorting, no numbers.”  “Units 4 and 5 again!  What’s with
      the furnaces?”

“... Then shovel out the ash!  Hose this sloppy floor!  Skip hair,
rings, knock out gold.  Get what they got hid.  Thought they
      were smart.”
“... Then GET a shovel man dammit.  You!”  Almost all was
      done when,
army near, guards threw down shovels, fled.  Schnell!  Smoke
      still rising.

Shadow-bearing, proof of light-lit substance—they, tree and
still entwine within the whispering freshness of their dance. 
      Their limbs 
sway and turn—until tranced unmoving by first light.  Now
      their new weight
holds in place another dawn.  All:  Every each one unlike any
      other ever.


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 sumptuous
marrow lode, next whistle it dry to summon up the double-
      headed dogs.

This stretch of skin?  Melting lids and lips?  Buyer, what’s to
Crackle-roast it:  Rake.  A savor to the nostrils

rises, a rendering of fat as famished flames leap to lick and
each 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: 
taken by law as assent.  To any queries as to reasons, answer
      you none.  

The jewels of vital organs spill lustrous through fingers—slip,
festooning the nude bowl of belly:  All let drip within the
      feathered pubes.

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.  Sold
for a song!  Lifetime guarantee.  Nothing known that cannot be

And repossessed—sold again, a whinny, a cackle!  Buyer,
      peering closer, reels
at the issuing reek.  Now see in the beholder eye such beauty
      hollowing, pitted.

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 feeders 
are 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.

WIND TONGUE (2)                                                                          

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
from the inside out—which expression will stare down time.      

What occult air
channels 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-tongue
has grooved divinity’s image to the life.


Is our character playing dumb?  Acting bored, a diplomat’s
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 Ithaca, New York, where she continues today to write & work.  Her Auschwitz project began in 2004, for which she made three separate trips to Poland during 2004-05, to see for herself (in so far as that was feasible) the place of holocaust “in all the seasons."  The work presented here marks the first publication from the many poems that resulted (“imagined but not imaginary”) & otherwise speaks for itself.  (J.R.)]

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