Poems About Things I Can’t Fully Understand

One of my classes this semester is about the Holocaust, and as our final project we had the option of doing either a research paper or a creative piece. I had intended to do the paper–I enjoy research, and I can put together a good paper pretty quickly–but when I met with my teacher to discuss the class and my project, he seemed to be pushing for something creative. I mentioned that I (used to) write poetry and could do a dozen poems or so in about the same time it would take to write a paper, but he tweaked that a bit: he wanted six poems, but with explanations of what each one meant.

I think explaining the poem ruins it a bit, but I wanted to share the poems themselves with you, along with the introduction.

When I agreed to do our final project as a creative project, poetry was the only medium that came to mind. It is the only creative thing I do moderately well, and it is generally a safe bet that I can write poems to fit the bill. But immediately after agreeing to take this road, an uneasy horror set in. How was I to write poetry about the Holocaust? So much poetry, literature, and memoir has been written by survivors and those who have studied the subject in great detail that anything I write will be cheap by comparison. I cannot connect with the events emotionally in the same manner, nor can I represent what really happened or its implications.

I decided that my only option was to shift my focus slightly. While I could not write poetry about the Holocaust akin to Wiesel’s, I could write poetry from the student’s perspective. This work focuses on how we cannot fully understand the events of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Reading the names and dates, seeing the pictures, and watching the movies do not convey the depravity, cruelty, or terror of the Holocaust. Instead, my focus is on the realization that these terrible things happened—rather than a full comprehension, these poems point to the dawning awareness of the Holocaust. Perhaps its depths cannot be realized, but its shape and shade can be somewhat understood.

Keats writes that the value of the soul is identity. It allows us to know something, and that without that soul, knowledge cannot be gained. We cannot see the soul, but its intrinsic value is still somehow communicated to us. I accept that my poetry cannot illuminate the Holocaust like those who have written before me, but I hope that it can helps us identify it a bit from our perspective: the student and outsider, years later and struggling to cope and comprehend.

Boston Chimneys

I was looking for a pub
too early. Old city streets
empty of all but dog-walkers
and locals dropping bags of trash
on the curb. Across the way, steam rose

in six glass chimneys with a walkway.
Crossing curiously, I saw numbers
lined up like Arlington, tiny like
tax figures marching down
each pane; steam-filled ledger
with a soul.

Popular Education

I knew Dr. Jones
before I knew Goebbels,
let alone Hitler,

and the Ark
was familiar before Moses,
or Jesus, or Nebuchadnezzar.

Swastikas on red
and thick German accents in sharp
tan uniforms were exciting

like children singing in Austria,
hills ringing while a nun
smiles and twirls. I thought

those Nazis, they’re bad people
I guess. Clean though. Different.
Just want to make things better.


I didn’t know
until the gray, dirty,
stringless shoes filled
the room; twine box to hold
us out, as if
	      I could do more
than look away.


Her audio video recollection
of: camps with guards that killed,
and showers that killed,
and food, and spies, and bad luck
that killed; numbers and dates, and sisters/
parents/friends lost; “only survivor”
in a distant deadpan.

And I get it, like a textbook
timeline/chart/wave sin,
but what good is textbook learning?

She needs distance to speak
like I need nearness to feel;

what good is this learning
if it doesn’t make me weep?

The Romani Question

The lasting lesson
of the Shoah
is the shame; collective burden
of fools who thought these people
were so blasphemous and evil
that they must be found and burned.

Yet we ignore
dark Porajmos
and maintain a racist hatred
of Romani who wander,
and maintain their ways and culture,
proving lesson never learned.

Aging Hipsters


We gave up solving the problem of pain
Finding it too hard.
First we wept,
and then we slept,
and now we do nothing at all.


The Jews were once our bogeymen
Now we don’t know who to fear
Except the Muslims, Socialists,
Communists and Queer.


The answer to the Forties
was not the silent Fifties,
nor the sexy Sixties/
nor the loudly booming

and on into the Nineties
and the ticking of the ‘Oughts
we find it still elusive
and repeat what we ought not.

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