Friday, April 29, 2011


there are hundreds here
more will arrive soon, they say

I can see the horizon
and I’m looking up

now there are thousands
watermelon watermelon, they say

my stomach is a small country
looking for immigrants.

some day I will take history out back
one of us gonna learn something

smile, they say
let’s pretend there’s a camera

barbwire is dental floss only
if escape is teeth

I dig in the ground
all I find is more ground

when I give up
I find the hole

I begin by learning their names
only one is actually called ‘Watermelon’


How does a poem begin? What vague sense of a somethingness ends up in the desire to form something out of words? I was listening to a remarkable interview on the CBC show "Ideas" about Timothy Snyder's book Bloodlands about the inconceivable horror of the mass killings of Stalin and Hitler in the 30s and 40s. The 'Bloodlands" is Eastern Europe. Something about the specificity of numbers struck me. Snyder talked about millions but how he tried to be exact and not round off each number. A two or a three. Those two after all those millions could be your grandfather and grandmother, or your neighbours.

I wasn't exactly thinking about encompassing the entire horror in a poem. There was something which caused me to think about my five hundred mothers reaching back into history. Five hundred mothers reaching forward into the future. I wrote down this line. It was the sense of connection, of, I guess, compassion. How we all find ourselves swimming in history, in some kind of fate. And it isn't six degrees of separation. The six degrees collapse into the single fact of our humanity, of the happenstance of history.

So I wrote some more lines. There's always the embarrassed attempt to encompass something large emotionally and conceptually in a little poem. As if I could sit down one morning and neatly complete it. And then, how to write and encompass such a thing in a 'readable' poem. It shouldn't be readable. Or, should I write another poem, about something readable within this unreadable horror? I don't agree with Adorno that after the Holocaust that there can be no more art. But, writing about such a horror, simple artifices and techniques can seem awfully coy and simplistic. Maybe one needs a larger, complex web of text, one, perhaps, without obvious textual strategies. One which examines the issue and the language and its framing. But perhaps, at least for this poem, my initial goal is off. I'm just not aiming for the right result. I should think through what I am trying to accomplish.  

As I was writing, I was also thinking of some of Jim Smith's politically charged poems in his Back Off, Assassin. Jim is able to pull of some powerful poems, filled with anger, perspective, and a kind of political wisdom. There are some poems in Matthew Rohrer's recent and brilliant Preserver and Destroyer (see "Casualties" in this review) which somehow place different issues into a powerful yet domestic context, far from the horror.

I was thinking of relatives of mine who were hidden in hole by a farmer in Germany during the Holocaust.

The poem that I have posted above is very provisional. I have pulled away from the initial issues, broken off only a tiny molecule of a vast history and experience. There were specifics in an earlier draft. I've excised these. The initial poem was in numbered sections. I've elided the sections and cut much out. I offer this poem as an object lesson, as a small foothold in a vast cliff face which hopefully serves to illustrate something of a process, something of an ambition.

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