Poetry

Gail Newman: “The Dispossessed” and “Two Tales”

 

The Dispossessed

 

Mother

I left my father’s shoes, laces untied,
   beside the suitcase in the hallway.

 I left my schoolbooks, my honor badge
   and my application to University.

 I left the buildings stacked like dominoes and the stature
   of our hero in the plaza where four streets converged.

 I left the rain staining the upstairs window
   and the courtyard where women washed laundry in a tin tub.

 I left pigeons in the park roosting in dusty trees,
   and the Mandelbrot in the bakery, and the braided challah.

 I left behind my name and my good young body
   and I went wandering,

 a refugee, my dark hair shorn
   and a broken comb in my pocket.

 

Father

I left behind my mother’s shadow spilling like grain 
   through the doorway of the house.

 I left the smoke of my father’s cold breath
   and the horses inside the shed.

 I left the lake, a wooden boat, girls’
   fingers dangling in the eddies.

 I left the lark, the cherry tree,
   and the bundled lilacs dripping from branches.

 I left my sewing needles and thread and woolen cloth
   cut in patterns on the table.

 I left behind my name and the work of my hands
   and I went wandering,

 a refugee with holes in my pockets
and cardboard in my shoes.

 

 

Two Tales

 

    for my Father

 
1.

They took your clothes.
They gave you striped pajamas
in which your body swam
like someone far from shore.
They brought you to a barracks
and ordered you lie
beside others also without names.
In the morning, they marched
you to work.
In your hands, they put a shovel.
to dig. Which you did
until the hole could swallow the sky,
big enough for you to lie down in
and be done.

 

2.

They took your clothes.
They put you in a blue gown
tied at the neck like a child’s bib.
They fed you first with a spoon,
later through a tube.
Beside the bed you heard a voice
calling your name: Morris, Morris
persistent as rain on a roof.
In the hallway shoes clattered
like horses restless in stalls
and you were walking in the woods,
frost stenciled on the trees,
breath rasping like wind
in your throat.
Then you were home inside
your mother’s arms, your face
close to her breast and you
were a boy again laughing
with the stain of cherries
in your mouth.

 

From Blood Memory (Marsh Hawk Press 2020). Used with permission of the press. Purchase a copy at SPD or your local bookstore.

 

A child of Polish Holocaust survivors, Gail Newman was born in a Displaced Persons’ Camp in Lansberg, Germany. Her parents immigrated to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. Gail has worked as San Francisco Coordinator, as a poet-teacher for CalPoets, and as a museum educator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Her poems have appeared in journals including Calyx, Canary, Nimrod International Journal, Prairie Schooner, and Spillway and in anthologies including The Doll Collection, Ghosts of the Holocaust, and America, We Call Your Name. Her poem “Mishpacha” was awarded first prize by Nikole Brown in the Bellingham Review 49th Parallel Poetry Contest. She was the cofounder and editor of Room, A Women’s Literary Journal, and has edited two children’s poetry collections, C is for California and Dear Earth. A book of poetry, One World, was published by Moon Tide Press. Her new collection, Blood Memory, was chosen by Marge Piercy for the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize and published in 2020. Visit her website here.

 

Poet’s Note

“The Dispossessed” came to me during a day of meditation and writing at the Veterans Writing Workshop, founded by Maxine Hong Kingston. I was thinking about the news, what it’s like for refugees fleeing their homeland, what they leave behind. Although the poem is about my own family, I think the story is universal, relevant today more than ever.

After my father passed away, I began to write about him. I knew I was writing a book about my parents and the Holocaust, but I didn’t want to recount the atrocities alone. I wanted to recapture a lost world, one I never knew. The first part of “Two Tales” is a story my father told me about his time in Auschwitz. He would talk without emotion as survivors of war and trauma often do. But embedded in the telling and the silence is a world of feeling and loss. The second part of the poem takes place at the end of my father’s life but includes the memories that are part of him. Past and present merge.

 

Commentary by Amanda Moore

Gail Newman’s Blood Memory is a deftly-crafted collection of poems that explores her parents’ experiences during the Holocaust and their later lives as survivors and members of a loving family. Broken into three distinct chronological sections, the book’s first part, “Blood Memory,” introduces the young father and mother before they meet, imagining events like the father’s reaction to a hanging in Breziny in 1939, and the mother’s work in the Łodź Ghetto Documents Office. The book’s second movement, “Lost Language,” follows their brief courtship in a Displaced Persons’ Camp, their engagement, and their domestic life and emigration as a young family that included the speaker, their beloved child. The closing section, “Living with The Dead,” charts the aging of both parents and the father’s subsequent death, the speaker moving through her own life and their experiences at the same time.

Covering such a wide sweep of history and the expanse of so many full lives might make for a lengthy, dense, or overwhelming collection, but Blood Memory is compact, lithe, and lyrical—a scant 65 pages of moments and images that evoke the significance of history while carefully depicting and celebrating the individual lives that endured and thrived within it. Through the poems, readers come to know several generations of the same family, and although the Holocaust touched each life deeply and irretrievably, it is not the only the story of this family. The love and cherishing they hold for one another is a profound and moving element that binds the collection.

Each poem featured today contains two parts and is emblematic of the way Newman uses the specificity of one person’s experience to tell the story of many. In them, she uses contrast, the differences between specific details, to do her storytelling; there is no didactic voice explaining significance. As readers, we are trusted to draw lines and make connections between the stories and situations in each part of a given poem, finding a narrative in the ways the halves come together and move apart.

“The Dispossessed,” from the first section of the book, contains two distinct persona poems, one written in the voice of “Mother,” and the other, of “Father.” The war is over, but these voices have not yet met one another and do not know what their futures hold. They speak in first person and mostly of the past: what was left behind when they were taken to camps, the details of their interrupted lives. In both parts of “The Dispossessed,” an anaphoric “I left” opens each couplet and functions as an anchor holding disparate memories. The poem doesn’t explicitly say the parents come from different backgrounds but rather allows the details of their homes to tell their stories: the mother leaves a city and her studies while the father leaves the farm and his tailor’s trade. Despite these divergences, a commonality of loss comes through via the details shared about their families and personal identities, also “left behind.”

The “mother” opens with an item belonging to her own father—his shoes, “laces untied, / beside the stairway in the hallway”—which we know from previous poems in the collection he will not come back to claim. The next items are her own “schoolbooks” and “application to the University” before the lens widens to include buildings, rain, and pigeons—communal elements shared by the inhabitants of her city. Although not a mirror or one-to-one comparison, the “father’s” section also opens with a reference to his parents: “I left behind my mother’s shadow . . . the smoke of my father’s breath.” His widened lens includes horses, a lake, a cherry tree, and  “sewing needles and thread.”

We see here the differences are not profound—each section includes parents, animals, nature, and community. The details coalesce in the penultimate stanzas of each section, where each voice states “I left behind my name” to acknowledge the loss of the person who once lived the left-behind life. Each voice goes on in the same line to describe a physical change that accompanies the loss of a name, the mother leaving behind her “good young body” and the father the “work of [his] hands.” The mother and father make their way toward one another in the book as they did in life—changed and diminished, as in the last lines where we look inside their pockets to find “a broken comb” in hers and “holes” in his. While these details are specific to the characters and render them fully-formed individuals, the story of their dispossession is all too familiar and universal. The tone is somber and the stories are heartbreaking, and yet I find the section titles, “Mother” and “Father,” full of assurance and hope. That they are named as the speaker’s parents suggests a future, and a goodness that awaits in their lives.

“Two Tales,” from the collection’s final sequence, is also split into two sections to create an inherent narrative through moments of concert and divergence. Both sections begin with the line “They took your clothes” and go on to describe key moments of the father’s life in the face of impending death. The first depicts the father’s arrival at Auschwitz, where he was given “striped pajamas,” taken to “a barracks,” and made to “lie / beside others also without names.” In the second section, he arrives at a care facility, a nursing home perhaps, and is given a more comfortable welcome: “a blue gown” and a bed, where he hears “a voice / calling [his] name: Morris, Morris.”

In the camp, by contrast, the father had been “ordered” to dig a hole, where he recognizes he could “lie down / and be done.” He doesn’t, and his refusal to die this brutal death is partly what makes room for the poem’s second, softer part where, on the cusp of death, he finds himself “fed” and “home inside [his] mother’s arms . . . laughing.” The contrast between these two similar moments tells the story of a man—his will, his tenacity in survival, and also his longevity and gentler end. Without interjecting commentary or affection, the speaker communicates an abiding appreciation and love for her father in these closely examined parallel scenes.

“The Dispossessed” and “Two Tales” are only two of many poems in Blood Memory where Newman navigates complex, painful territory with an incisive use of poetic craft and an abiding, enduring love for her family. This is a collection full of moments that carry us deep into dark memories of the Holocaust while holding us in the light life later brings to these mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons.

 

Coeditor Amanda Moore‘s poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, the Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center board member. She lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.

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