Embracing the Ashes
by Gail Rudd Entrekin
FOR THOSE OF US WHO are not Jewish, no matter how extensively we may have read about the Holocaust and been led into imagining the unthinkable, it is always ultimately not something that happened to us, to our own. It is not in our very lives and bone memories as it is for those whose parents and grandparents, aunts, and uncles were victims, their whole existence and community and culture ripped away and discarded.
The poems of Gail Newman in her new collection, Blood Memory, offer a clear window into the experience of growing up with parents who lost everything but their lives during that obliteration, their complex and terrible sufferings during that time going almost unspoken, at least in their second language, English, though occasionally shared among themselves and friends in their native Yiddish. What the poet knows is that her parents lost their parents and siblings and never knew exactly how they perished.
Newman's father, in a concentration camp, dug holes again and again in the freezing winter, filled them back up, dug again. At last to survive, he "feigns death. For three days / unmoving in the snow, his bones / so cold they could break." Her mother, after long and terrible suffering in a concentration camp, returned to her home to find "a stranger who came to the door, / wearing her father's shoes," and who would not let her come in for a moment "to take a breath of the air / that might still carry…the scent of her mother's soup." A child longs to relieve her parents' suffering, to make them happy and whole. These poems are an accumulation of a lifetime of imagining and longing, an unfulfillable wish to make things right for her parents.
In these carefully restrained and beautifully crafted poems, Newman presents moments, snapshots that bring us along through her parents's meeting after the war and her birth:
…my parents want so much right away.
Everything they own is in my body.
Her parents, strong and resilient young people, made lives for themselves after the terrors and deprivation were over. With the author's birth, they invested their future happiness in this new being, and their love for this cherished child was the catalyst of their happiness:
Some nights I wake to hear
my father crying out like a child—
then his slippers
brushing the floor
down the long hall,
walking past my room,
out of the apartment
into darkness that pools
around his feet like a river.
For hours, he sits
under the silence of the stars.
The poems make clear the great love and pain that connect the daughter and the parents, which enable them all to live. But in the end, of course, no amount of love can take the past from them. Nor can their past be eliminated from the author's own psyche. Now, after her father's eventual death, she writes of him:
When I open my mouth his words fly out, when I open my eyes, his tears.
And of his shoes:
They live in my garage now.
Someday, I will throw them away,
maybe next winter when the first storm
pours solace into the world.
The dead have been following her around all her life, and in the end she "can't feed them / …can't wash their faces or suture / their wounds with needles of pity."
Still, her living parents were incredibly unsinkable people. The poem "Valentine's Day" ends with:
My mother, who knows the brutal world,
who survived while others did not,
says, Me? I had it easy.
The book winds its way toward Newman's own old age, and we see that she has inherited that defiant spark. She plans, she says, to be buried in a plain wooden box with the blood still in her veins. Unlike her grandparents:
When I die, I won't go up in smoke,
fallen ash, with the smell of gas
in my nostrils, the fire burning
in my lungs.
In a particularly beautiful passage of empathy and compassion, she writes in "Mount Sinai Jewish Cemetery," that she will gather her grandmother's ashes in her arms,
and we will go together,
not led like harnessed horses
or leashed dogs
but streaming forward like the sun
With an ear for understated language and an eye for the small detail that best invokes the feeling of a moment, Newman's poems illuminate the damaged lives of these two people and the way the resilience of their characters, the determination to love and be happy, and their love for their child combined to offer them up moments of joy and forgetting.
Gail Rudd Entrekin's poetry books include The Art of Healing (with Charles Entrekin, 2016), Rearrangement of the Invisible (2012), Change (Will Do You Good) (2005), which was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, You Notice the Body (1998), and John Danced (1988). Her poems have been widely published in poetry magazines and anthologies. She is co-publisher and Poetry Editor of Hip Pocket Press, and Editor of Canary, an online literary magazine of the environment. She taught in California community colleges for twenty-five years, most recently at Sierra College in Grass Valley, and for many years she taught poetry to kids through California Poets in the Schools.