Poem by Sheila Black

A Suite for Kristallnacht
By Sheila Black

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(And to begin): The girl had red hair or perhaps it was a red scarf.
This is why you remember her.

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Someone asks if the rings were cut from the fingers or the fingers from the rings.

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A city of trams and department stores, fruit markets and theater performances (now the other/city behind). People looked across. People boiled water or resoled their shoes.

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My friend Ellen says “they chose to celebrate the fall of the wall just so they could forget and it disgusts me.” Say Kristallnacht and I, too, get the wrong picture.

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On YouTube a short film (silent) of the crowds visiting Entartete Kunst, Munich, 1938. A patient, lining-up crowd. Urban. They wear clean woolen suits. The women have hats with silk flowers, and colored gloves of felt and cotton which they hold or pull on and off across their fingers, their purses squared at the bottom like pleasure boats.

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They do not respond visibly to the words scrawled on the walls. On the contrary. Sometimes slight smiles as the words gave them pleasure: Degenerate, moron, whore, Jew.

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Kristallnacht—sound like pine in winter (fir trees lit all over with candles of beeswax, a light that stretches to ceiling or sky). Shivering.

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In the short (silent) film, a bony man in a coat with too-short sleeves enters the frame. He bends almost sideways towards the camera. He smiles and—because he has no teeth?—we feel a frisson, a horror. Or is he himself afraid?

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Another frame: a woman turns and dashes out of the gallery as if she had just remembered a saucepan boiling dry on the back burner.

*
Entarte Kunst could be seen as the origin of a “punk aesthetic.” The scrawled red and black and ochre words crossing over the paintings, which are often deliberately rough—bright raw.

Pigments, canvases layered with color and texture. The stuccoed walls behind. The price tags hung crooked

or upside down, as if to show a contempt for value.

The disconnect aesthetically speaking between the scene and the onlookers—the “ordinary” crowd. “Lumpen bourgeoisie.”

Degenerate, whore, Jew…

*
What can we say about the twentieth century. What greetings can we make?

*
In 1983, my friend Sue was studying art history in Hamburg—the German mannerists, and she visited Berlin and the famous Jewish cemetery on the corner of ______and ______ , sending me a postcard of a still life of a dead rabbit and some pears across the back of which she wrote “The Jewish cemetery in Berlin—pretty overgrown.” A few weeks later, she posted a black-and-white Polaroid she had taken so I could see the evidence. One might say it was a picture of “innocent weeds” with some “pale rocks between.” She wrote on the back: “Lieben, Sheila. See here…what happens when there is no one left to tend the graves.”

I think, this time on, I am most interested in the ellipsis. What is the space we occupy in the moment or in retrospect—the small breath of …

*
The girl in the red scarf is in the film or not her but her idea, say her ghost. I have not spoken to Sue in almost ten years. (I am scared by what I let go.) Stephen Spielberg who made the film of the girl in the red scarf—or is it coat? or is it shoes?—was in danger of “giving a false sense of security” because in general his film tracked only those who were “among the few who survived.” Primo Levi says that we have no witnesses because “the true witnesses are not the survivors.” Maybe these are not his exact words, but something along these lines. In short, we only notice the foreground—the speaking parts, which are the ones who do not perish. Except for the girl with the red garment (and I have forgotten what it was—I say scarf, but might it not just as well have been a coat. It would be so easy for me to find out the answer. Yet somehow I can’t bear to—as if it would be a greater dishonesty for me to go and fact check myself.)

(Viz: the twentieth century—what did the multiplication of information, the faith in relative fact do for us?)

*
She was wearing a red “thing.” We followed her in the crowd. But she was still a part of the background.

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And when the announcer speaks in jubilant tones of the historic moment “the wall fell” I respond to the stock footage even though I do not entirely believe the story being told. A crowd surges against the wall. A young handsome man on top of—a car, a jeep, a tank?—waves a slender ribbon of a flag. A red streak, a white bloom. The shape of a flame. A family is reunited.

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Let us consider cause and effect. Or what are the conditions that create the conditions that follow. Viz: The argument advanced in the film Shoah that the final solution could not have happened without the trains. Or without the design for the ovens. “This considerable feat of technological engineering which demanded an intense and minutely
planned coordination of resources.”

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(I read once) the walls of the camps were painted every month with distemper to prevent infection so the work force would not “die before time” resulting in a “discernible loss of productivity.”

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Primo Levi writes of the building of a rubber plant in Auschwitz for which he was plucked from the body of the camp to serve as a consulting chemist on a specialized work-team (which may well have saved his life) that not one single rubber tire or rubber stopper or rubber hose or rubber anything was ever produced.

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What do you consider “information” to mean? Or what is the historical function of “a story”?

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& we are addicted to stories.

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I saw in the mid eighties in Paris a recreation of Entarte Kunst. Strangely, I did not remember, in the years after, having seen the famous, the revolutionary paintings of Beckman, Ernst, at this show (which was held in the Beauborg, then—or am I misremembering?—called more commonly, the George Pompidou Center) or I did not remember seeing them in that context (for I had seen them, often, before—I knew them as praiseworthy), but I have never forgotten the so-called approved Nazi art—blonde women, farms, pigs, cats, children. Not poorly painted per se but a disjunction between the combined reality and unreality, or “the story they were telling,” and “the story of which they were relic, ‘evidence,’” a series of paintings, in short, which one could not exactly behold without considering “the larger context.”

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The big sadness and the small sadness. Viz: Often, at night, in my home in the relatively small (safe) city I live in New Mexico, my family and I are “on the computer.” We watch films or surf through websites, stream television shows from cable we don’t subscribe to. In each room, a little blue wave of light. Also a little wall or many walls. The house sometimes
so quiet.
As if we are sleeping.

*
I watch films that tell me what I already know in ways that confirm that (I say) I know. I do not necessarily believe what I know. Often, for instance, I regard, say, the familiar stories of “romantic comedy” or “family drama” with a great deal of contempt. They make me feel something—I have been known to weep, but in the middle of this weeping, a coldness that is often exhilarating. Not true. Not like that. Not even close to the real story—this real story I refer to so casually, which if pressed, I would confess is an ideal like the fir tree covered with candles that is not Kristallnacht. I watched the footage (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX) of the footage for a good half hour, flicking between the four stations, and I did not hear once that the fall was also the anniversary of the famous (infamous) Kristallnacht.

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Recently a pair of Swedish ex-cons neo-Nazis (brothers?) stole the famous sign Arbeit Macht Frei—work (work) will save you and cut it into three pieces, which they hoped to sell for a considerable sum “to fund their ongoing political activities.”

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In several works of literature with which I am familiar the color of distemper is described as yellow like a star, by which I assume is meant, like a star in, say, a child’s drawing since the stars in the sky are not (or are only rarely) yellow.

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With most words the sound is not the same as the meaning which can be a problem for the translator or create problems of interpretation or understanding. Viz: I think: Kristallnacht: “Night of crystal” though that is not the proper translation, which is closer to “Night of broken glass.” I think “Christmas” because it sounds somewhat similar. I think: fir trees lit with candles each December, which once seemed to me a holy thing—the candles which are supposed to stand for stars, our dead lights or to make “the dead lights breathe again.”

*
My friend Sue liked Germany, but she decided she could not be an art historian. She decided, on the one hand, the only way of understanding anything was to gauge its aesthetic effect, but, on the other, this was precisely the most wrong way of gauging anything. She said “I want to believe I would be able to see the truth aesthetically, but it is like Berlin. I was happy there; it made me happy—the way it was so new and stripped down and anonymous and the wall and the bars and the clubs but there was the cemetery where no had picked the weeds for years and the stones had the names
entirely rubbed off so that no one would be able to read them.”

She said surely it counted, that you knew where you came from, that you knew where someone you loved had died. Or your ancestors. That you knew them or could imagine them, but that, she said, is not the story of history.

The story of history is “the ship, the black freighter.” She said she could not sleep picturing herself becoming an art historian.

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My friend Ellen writes to me on Facebook in parody of the Fox News announcer who is speaking as she writes in real time about this triumph of democracy and this “happy moment in history”: “The story I am telling you today is a lie, but it is a lie that should tell you what we cannot bear to have you know.”

Sheila Black is the author of House of Bone (CW Press, 2007) and Love/Iraq (CW Press, 2009), and two chapbooks, How to be a Maquiladora (Main Street Rag., 2007), and Continental Drift with painter Michele Marcoux (Patriothall Gallery, Edinburgh, UK, 2010). Her poems have appeared in Conte, Diode, Blackbird, Superstition Review, Puerto del Sol, and Poet Lore, among others. She recently co-edited with poets Jennifer Bartlett and Michael Northen, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, from Cinco Puntos Press. She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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