Here is another poem I had the good fortune to encounter during last year’s Poetry Super Highway contest. “KZ” by Carolyne Wright doesn’t need very much introduction from me; you will see its list of accolades beneath the poem itself.
But I do want to comment on its form, a sestina, one of my favorites to work with. The interlocking rotation of six key words at the ends of the lines offers the poet the opportunity to circle an idea, to bring it back around and around. In this way, in this poem, we remember the Holocaust, genocide, a looping cycle of circumstances and consequences, a history that we must always hold at bay.
“Arbeit Macht Frei“
—Motto over the entrance
of every Nazi concentration camp
We walk in under the empty tower, snow
falling on barbed-wire nets where the bodies
of suicides hung for days. We follow signs
to the treeless square, where the scythe blade, hunger,
had its orders, and some lasted hours in the cold
when all-night roll calls were as long as winter.
We’ve come here deliberately in winter,
field stubble black against the glare of snow.
Our faces go colorless in wind, cold
the final sentence of their bodies
whose only identity by then was hunger.
The old gate with its hated grillework sign
walled off, we take snapshots to sign
and send home, to show we’ve done right by winter.
We’ve eaten nothing, to stand inside their hunger.
We count, recount crimes committed in snow—
those who sheltered their dying fellows’ bodies
from the work details, the transport trains, the cold.
Before the afternoon is gone, the cold
goes deep, troops into surrendered land. Signs
direct us to one final site, where bodies
slid into brick-kiln furnaces all winter
or piled on iron stretchers in the snow
like a plague year’s random harvest. What hunger
can we claim? Those who had no rest from hunger
stepped into the ovens, knowing already the cold
at the heart of the flame. They made no peace with snow.
For them no quiet midnight sign
from on high — what pilgrims seek at the bottom of winter —
only the ebbing measure of their lives. Their bodies
are shadows now, ashing the footprints of everybody
who walks here, ciphers carrying the place of hunger
for us, who journey so easily in winter.
Who is made free by the merciless work of cold?
What we repeat when we can’t read the signs—
the story of our own tracks breaking off in snow.
Snow has covered the final account of their bodies
but we must learn the signs: they hungered,
they were cold, and in Dachau it was always winter.
This poem has been recognized by the following:
* Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, Poetry Society of America (selected by Michael Harper)
* Honorable Mention, The Pushcart Prize XV: Best of the Small Presses, 1990.
* Originally published in Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, ed. Charles Adés Fishman. Texas Tech U Press, 1991; second edition, Time Being Books, 2007.
* From Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire, (Eastern Washington U Press / Lynx House Books, © 2000, 2005 by Carolyne Wright). Blue Lynx Prize; Oklahoma Book Award in Poetry; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation.
* Reprinted in I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights, ed. Melissa Kwasny and M. L. Smoker. Lost Horse Press, 2009. * Published in This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2017).
* © 2017 by Carolyne Wright.
* Airlie Single Poem Prize, Airlie Press, 2019.
Carolyne Wright’s latest book is This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2017), whose title poem received a Pushcart Prize and appeared in The Best American Poetry 2009. A Seattle native who has lived and taught all over the country, and on fellowships in Chile, Brazil, India and Bangladesh, she has 16 earlier books and anthologies of poetry, essays, and translation. A Contributing Editor for the Pushcart Prizes, Carolyne has received NEA and 4Culture grants, and a Fulbright Scholar Award will take her back to Bahia, Brazil after the CoVid-19 pandemic. https://carolynewright.wordpress.com