Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 29: Carolyne Wright

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.


photo credit: Erik Rucker

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

Women Writers Wednesday 7/22/15

Today’s review of some gripping historical fiction comes to us from Natasha Claire Orme. The book she has chosen is The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff.



I settled myself down over the weekend and decided to read The Kommandant’s Girl. It had been recommended to me by a friend, and because I had nothing else to do, I thought it would be a good idea. It’s not my usual kettle of fish. In fact, recently I’d gotten myself in a bit of a rut. So I started out a little sceptical, but perhaps thought it was time to change my ways.

A page or two in, I wasn’t really feeling it and I was finding it hard to focus on the story. Hours later, though, I closed the book and put it down, finished. I think this was one of the very first times I had sat and read a whole book in one sitting. And do you know what happened the next day? I went and found the sequel, sat down, and read that in one sitting, too.

The Kommandant’s Girl is the spellbinding story of Emma Bau, a Jewish girl in the Polish city Krakow during the Second World War. Forced to live in the Jewish Ghetto outside the city, Emma is eventually smuggled out by the Resistance to live with her absent husband’s cousin, Krysia. Under the pretence of caring for an orphaned Jewish boy, Emma, now Anna Lipowski, is given an offer she can’t refuse. She becomes the personal assistant to the Kommandant, the most powerful man in the city, and finds herself facing conflicting emotions.

This book is truly outstanding. Jenoff has a natural gift for storytelling and conveying human emotion. I loved Emma and how real she felt to me. The book, told through her eyes in the present tense, feels very real. The relationship that blossoms between Emma and the Kommandant is one of heartache.

Jenoff attacks the traditional issues of the holocaust and is even able to avoid the clichés associated with this period of history. She takes a hard look at the prejudices and injustices of the holocaust as well as the suffering and the helplessness. But these aren’t at the forefront of the story; instead they float around in the subplot and contribute to the overall atmosphere. The conflict and tension apparent throughout the novel is one of its main driving forces and will have you, as a reader, sitting on the edge of your seat. Each new chapter, each new page brings with it more chaos, more problems, and a greater amount of heartache as things go from bad to worse in Emma’s struggle to survive.

I was completely captivated by Jenoff’s style of storytelling and her detailed descriptions, an attribute to her experience as a historian. I loved the sense of adventure that she creates and the romance. For me, it was this forbidden romance that had the biggest impact. I loved the tenderness and the gentleness of the characters, particularly the Kommandant. He gave the impression of this dark and mysterious man who was worthy of admiration as well as fear. The dynamic between the couple felt electric and had me reading each page more quickly than the last.


Natasha Claire Orme is a German-born Brit with a love for the unusual and a thirst for culture. She loves to explore in her writing and experiment with different styles. Her blog is full of insightful writing trips, food for thought, and encouraging tidbits from the best and brightest. She focuses her efforts on helping others better their writing and unlocking the mysteries of a novelist. She loves what she does and can’t stop writing. Her adventures and romances are what keep the day going! She’s a book addict and a petrol head.



To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.