Some Brief Thoughts About a Few Things
Hello. Hope all of you who find this are in good health and spirits today.
I’ve been thinking about what my poems are like. What usually crops up is the importance of place, real or imaginary. I like to give place names: roads, towns, stores, rivers, etc. I think place is important to me because it gives me a sense of belonging to the world, and the tension that erupts when I’m in a strange place. And with place comes people, also real or imaginary. And again, that gives me a place, an identity.
I wrote a book in 2018, EVERYDAY I WILL REMEMBER, about the Holocaust, and the survivors and the first generation after the war. If you’ve heard about the book, you know that it’s partly about my family and those who survived: exactly two. My maternal grandmother, Elfriede (great name, isn’t it?), and my mother, Sirje (pronounced sir-REE-ya). I was the first child in my family, first generation of a survivor in this country. The book will be out in early March; you can get it and read it then.
Anyway, I have a little poem in the book asserting daily identity under those conditions of being a number. I think I can print this here, as it’s basically published:
My real name is Abraham.
Yesterday my name was Jew.
Today my name is A-1778.
Tomorrow my name will be grave-digger.
My name once was human.
Secretly, I know my name is Child of God.
Knowing your name and place is crucial to your identity, and your relation to the world. I think of the Torah: in Leviticus (or is it Numbers?), there is a long list of names, odd to us, of the genealogy of each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Like most of those who get to that part, I sort of—well, more than sort of—skim over that. I mean, what about those names? And how would anybody remember that? So-and-so begat X; X begat G; G son of X begat T, etc. etc. Is it made up? And each of the twelve tribes, except for the half-tribe of Manasseh, goes on for miles. Again, what’s the point? What are we to make of it?
And then one day it hit me: a genealogy (think of all the genealogy crazes going on today) gives you your identity. You know who your father was (mothers weren’t named), your grandfather, your ggfather, and so on. And that sticks with you; nobody, wherever you are, wherever you go, can take that from you are. These are your people. There are women in modern times who can recite their family line to say that they’re DAR, or came over on the Mayflower, or were a daughter of the Confederacy . . . But there are also, in my congregation, individuals who claim they can name every person from his own father back to those named in the twelve tribes. I do admit I’m skeptical. But I don’t know. So anyway, even though I don’t know my whole genealogy or how true it was, given the war, and new papers with new names and relations and birth places and religions, I took the time to sit down and read every name of every one of the twelve tribes. I felt like I was praying,
And maybe I was. To speak someone’s name is to establish a relationship, to recognize who they are. And I’m not limiting that just to family members; Adam named everything and finished hashem’s creation of the world. Conversely, to curse someone by name is a tremendously evil act. And to take someone’s name away from them, reducing them to a number, as is done in prisons, and was done by the Nazis, is to kill them.
Poems are like little places and identities. A poem written is a world created. Some poets do a lot with names or places, often thinking of, or basing their work on things from their early years; some write about characters and places that are mythic, and find more angles as to who we are. And given that material, and the incredible difficulty in making a poem TRUE (which does NOT mean poems are autobiographical, or historically accurate), you discover things about you and others in the world, not just limited to other humans, but all creation: all creatures, from octopuses to the Pope (even if you’re not Roman Catholic) to the sequoias to historical persons to grizzly bears to CPAs.
I wrote a terrible, violent, cruel poem that nobody’s ever seen, and never will. It’s so awful and scary that I can’t breathe, I can’t live with myself. And no, it has nothing to do with mass murder or even people. That’s all I can/will say about it.
And then there’s the poem I wrote, RAGE, after two of my friends died three days apart at the literal beginning of the year. The poem was awful, and I tried to fix it, but the premise was faulty, as my writing partner pointed out to me, and I had to go a different way. I threw RAGE aside, and reapproached, and found my way, in what had become a lovely tribute to them, and helped bring me peace. (If you want to read about how that happened, check my writer’s page on Facebook at Christopher Kuhl Writer.) And with the terrifying poem and the RAGE contortions, all I can say is (and I would like to end with this),
Sometimes you eat the poem, and sometimes the universe of the poem eats you.
I know this is long, but I hope you’ve stuck with me. My next blog will consider some other “few things.”