Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “That Year I Read Anne Frank’s Diary,” by Susan Cohen

this-is-a-page-from-anne-franks-diaryPages from the diary of Anne Frank

I first heard about Anne Frank when I was a high school student, not much older than Frank was when she died. This poem brings back the sense of incredulous identification I felt then, and for an unbearable moment invokes and reincarnates the girl we all once were and could have been but for luck or fate. How does this poet make it new, this story we know so well? One way is by bringing Frank close with an intimate conversational tone (“Did she have the same trouble with her hair?”) and empathetic detail (“She’s my age”). Another is through vivid figurative language like “shy as my buds of breasts” and the potent image and sound of “soot twin.” Another source of the poem’s power is its restraint, where a single word, “soap,” evokes all the horrors of concentration camps like the one in which Frank lost her life.

Cohen makes strategic use of repetition of words and sounds to heighten the effect of her poem on the reader. “She’s my shadow” occurs twice, indented and set off from the other lines to underscore its importance. Cohen uses end rhyme to bring sounds back again and again, but she does it subtly, substituting slant for full rhymes (for example, “ash”/”wash” and “breasts”/“confess”) in an irregular stanza pattern that keeps the echoes from becoming predictable or singsong. As in all good poems, sound makes sense and is used to intensify the poem’s meaning, here forging the speaker’s—and the reader’s—identification with Frank, so complete that it becomes, in the end, a haunting.

—Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


That Year I Read Anne Frank’s Diary

She is my shadow, made of ash
no soap or time will ever wash
away. She shares my observant stare.
Did she have the same trouble with her hair?
She’s my age in her last photograph.

I’m thirteen, shy as my buds of breasts,
that year my best friend chooses to confess
I’m the only Jew her mom can bear.
………..,She’s my shadow,

see how tight she clings—first black dress,
soot twin. Why else would my friend ask, not
meaning much: how many of you are there?
As if I’m me and others, too. That year
a new girl sits with me in class:
………,she’s my shadow.

“The Year I Read Anne Frank’s Diary” was originally published in 
Throat Singing, by Susan Cohen, 2012, Cherry Grove Collections, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Cohen_4-15-15Susan Cohen is an award-winning poet and journalist in Berkeley. She was a professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism and contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine before studying poetry while on a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. Since then, she’s published two chapbooks as well as the full-length collection Throat Singing, co-authored a nonfiction book, and earned an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely, including in the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry.

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