Charles Adés Fishman

Charles Adés Fishman took his mother's maiden name as his middle name after her death in May, 1999. He created the Visiting Writers Program at Farmingdale State College in 1979 and served as director until 1997. He also developed the Distinguished Speakers Program for Farmingdale State and led that program from 2001 through 2007. In addition, he was cofounder of the Long Island Poetry Collective (1973), a founding editor of Xanadu magazine and Pleasure Dome Press (1975), and originator of the Paumanok Poetry Award Competition, which he coordinated for seven years (1990-97). He has also been series editor of the Water Mark Poets of North America Book Award (1980-83), associate editor of The Drunken Boat and poetry editor of Gaia, Cistercian Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Genocide Studies, and he is currently poetry editor of New Works Review ( and a consultant in poetry to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Among Fishman’s most recent awards and honors are the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association’s Long Island Poet of the Year Award (2006) and the 2007 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. His books include Mortal Companions (Pleasure Dome Press, 1977), Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (Texas Tech University Press, 1991), and The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech, 1989), an American Library Association Outstanding Book of the Year that was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. His most recent poetry collections are Country of Memory (Uccelli Press) and 5,000 Bells (Cross-Cultural Communications), both 2004, and Chopin’s Piano (Time Being Books, 2006). Cross-Cultural Communications' mailing address is 239 Wysnum Avenue, Merrick, NY 11566.

Fishman’s poems, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in more than 300 journals including Abiko Quarterly (Japan), Beloit Poetry Journal, Contemporary Poetics (Korea), Cyphers (Ireland), European Judaism (England), Full Circle, The Georgia Review, Grain (Canada), Midstream, New England Review, New Letters, Nimrod, Salmagundi, and Verse—and in such major anthologies as Bittersweet Legacy: Creative Responses to the Holocaust (University Presses of America, 2001), Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust (Northwestern University Press, 1998), Fathers (St. Martin’s Press, 1997), and Carrying the Darkness: The Poetry of the Vietnam War (Avon, 1985).  The first full-length critical study of his work appears in Contemporary Jewish-American Dramatists and Poets (Greenwood, 1999).  A 52-page retrospective of his work is currently online at

Fishman’s awards include the Eve of St. Agnes Poetry Award from Negative Capability (1999), the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize of the Southern California Anthology (1996), and the Gertrude B. Claytor Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America (1987), and he has been a finalist or prizewinner in numerous other competitions, including the Pablo Neruda Poetry Award (Nimrod, 1998), the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award (PSA, 1994), and the New Letters Award for Poetry (1993). He has received NEH fellowships in poetry from Yale University (1982), the University of California at San Diego (1978), and Boston University (1974) and completed a Doctor of Arts (D.A.) in contemporary American poetry and poetry writing at SUNY Albany in 1982.  In 1995, he received a fellowship in poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Fishman has given more than 350 readings throughout the United States and in Israel and has conducted numerous poetry workshops. He has had poetry residencies at Mishkenot Sha’ananim (Jerusalem, 1992), Ucross (Clearmont, WY, 1993 & 1997), the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (Sweet Briar, VA, 1997, 2003), the Millay Colony for the Arts (Austerlitz, NY, 1999), and the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida (2002), and he was a featured poet at the 1994 Asheville Poetry Festival.

"Charles Fishman’s poems are deep, sensuous, musical, and fully alive.  Each one rings true.  What more is there to say?  This is, indeed, poetry." — Denise Levertov

"These poems of recuperative memory and redemption are written out of the wounded landscape of the body and its mortality—blood speaking—the world in its passing.  The elements become figural here: water, air, fire, the earth, in a language of mystery and desire. The Firewalkers is a work of great poignancy and breadth; the burning ground beneath this poet is time itself." — Carolyn Forché

"These poems [of The Death Mazurka] are beyond sadness and beyond anger. In their single-mindedness, in their sheer accumulation, they are terrifying, and pure. Fishman has done the unthinkable. He has written an entire book about the murder of the Jews. It is a delicate book, and dramatic and exciting. Most of all, it is brave." — Gerald Stern

"Charles Fishman's poetry is direct, captivating, philosophical, splendidly evocative of not only the Holocaust but of deep perceptions about life and death, what it is to be mortal. The Death Mazurka is a poet's assessment of the human condition." — Richard Eberhart

"Charles Fishman has the remarkable power of giving every thought a physical presence on the page." — David Ignatow

"Charles Fishman’s poems have a metallic brilliance that is of our age . . . a lyrical pathos and psychological insight that are of any age. I respect them and recommend them." — Hayden Carruth

My Father’s Heart
My father’s heart stopped being angry
and started to love.  It decided to love,
as if to love were a thing given to us
to decide.  It decided to love, so he put away
his hate.  He put away his stern masculine face.
It decided to love, so his harsh childhood
was put away; no longer would those long-ago days
haunt him. He put more things away: the slights and cuts
and humiliations and all his disappointments as a man. 
And he put his pain away. He put these things away
and turned his heart to love. He became a loving man,
and his love outgrew his strength.  

from Country of Memory (Uccelli Press, 2004)

In your closed mouth, father,
I found words: long words
that described small islands  
short words that embraced
the deepest desires    esoteric
words    that transported me
to microambient worlds    words
that worshipped    and despaired  
that were toxins ointments salves  
words stripped from rare
ecclesiastical bindings    or ripped
from the air.
I loved words as much as you
loved silence: words that wakened  
intoxicated    explored    words
with the rank smell of viscera  
that excoriated    and restored    
I collected words, forged from gold  
or zirconium    words ethereal as breath  
and dark plutonium words    more fatal  
than death      Words my daggers  
my lariats    my fire-scorched tongs  
my antlers    my cockscomb    my
rhinoceros horn    words my plunging beak  
my wild and thorny cry.

from Country of Memory (Uccelli Press, 2004)

A Child of the Millennium

He’s five months old now — a little short
on experience — but if he could speak,
Jake would sit with the Dalai Lama on a red
and golden throne and hold forth on happiness
and compassion   on freeing the mind from vengeance
and regret   and living in exile from the sacred home:
he’s seen the end of days . . . and the beginning.

He doesn’t know about race or gender
or that we are murdering the planet   that the earth
is smoldering with underground fires and with the bone-
fires of hatred    He doesn’t know about ethnicity
or religion   and will not take with him into the new century
memories of calcined corpses or an interior landscape
peopled with napalmed children.

What Jake is best at has nothing to do with genocide
or the acid tides of history   He travels in realms
where tenderness is a face that brushes his face
He feels the strength of those around him   and their love
and time ticks at his wrist like the gentlest rain   His eyes
are the most translucent lakes, his smiles tiny suns
that shine a clear light on the living.

Praying for My Sister

This earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.
          — Bahá’u’lláh

I went to Acco and prayed for my sister.
It was a bleak day in January, the northernmost coast of the kingdom.
The bus ride from Jerusalem took hours.
What is a day to the heart that seeks absolution?
I had taken this duty on myself: I would stand in the Báb’s garden
where Haganah soldiers had been murdered by the British;
I would speak for her words of hope and comfort.

This was the realm of passionate martyrdom,
and I would read from Bahá’í scripture, The Fire Tablet
and The Seven Valleys. It was late afternoon and the sky
was rapidly darkening — soon there would be rain.
No one stood with me in this haunted place, but I reached out
to my sister through these words; I reached out to her God
for her, as the cool drops fell . . . and I felt the spirit of my sister
touch my lips, the breath of an old Spirit graze my cheek.

In Haifa, too, I prayed for her: at the great temple,
under the gold-leafed dome. Deep in the sacred gardens,
the sea stirred the ramparts; light blossomed
on the ripening fruit. I took off my shoes and entered.
The quiet approached me.

I prayed for my sister there. I asked for Bahá’u’lláh’s blessing
to descend on her like cool rain, to sweeten her days
with the scent of lush blossoms. In that small chapel,
I could not tell if the Earth had, at last, become one country,
but I knew that my sister should be minister of a world at peace.

I prayed for my sister in Acco and Haifa, and I prayed
for her again at the Wall, for this was the place
where the power of life fully spoke to me, where history
and heaven seemed entwined. I prayed for her
in the Judean hills, where the zealots had known God
through the strength of community and isolation;
at Stella Carmel, where Christian missionaries offered Christ
to my wandering heart (and where I said grace for them
in my heart’s best Hebrew). I spoke to my sister words barely spoken,
until what I murmured to myself felt like the sweetest blessing.

From Chopin's Piano, by Charles Adés Fishman. Copyright © 2005 by Time Being Press.

Nocturne with and without Stars

The grass is wet.  Enter the darkness.
If you can walk, do so quietly.   Go
like a slow breeze or like a tree’s shadow:
be in this place the way a wildflower opens
under the dews of heaven.  Flow like the breeze,
so that your knees bend to that rhythm  
so that your body sways to the night’s softest drum.

Go farther into darkness, to where apple trees whisper
behind you and the sky opens above you its garden
of lost stars. Where are you now
but where no light can find you
and the old gods come?

The Death Mazurka

It was late—late in the silence—
yet a mangled tune still rose
as if from a needle trapped
in a warped and spinning groove:
an inarticulate moan
fragmented out of sense
but insistent it be known.

Footfalls turned me around:
a troupe of dancers spun
and kicked and dipped as one—
three score minus one,
and that one danced alone.
I watched them skip and prance
but followed only her.

And yes, the drum was swift
and kept a lively beat,
and violins sang sweet
then stridently miaoued—
a mocking sliding note.
She alone danced on
uncoupled, incomplete.

But the trumpets shrilled their tongues
and the saxophones crooned deep
and cymbals scoured the night
to a clashing brassy gleam.
How the women's earrings shined!
like sparks from a whirling fire
that never would be ash.

Then the men whisked off their hats
and bowed to the slide trombone
as though it sat enshrined.
But still she danced alone
at the edge of the wheeling ring:
I could feel the horizon tilt
when she veered close to me.

Then she turned   then I   then the night
blew back forty years:
I stood in a desolate place,
a reservoir of death
—I could kneel anywhere and drink!
Yes, here was the shul in its bones
and here Judenrein Square

and here a few scorched teeth
from some martyred, unknown saint.
The sky was a scroll of pain
—each star a sacred name!
I saw through time in that light.
But I turned and blood rained down
and I turned and dipped and drank

and could not take my fill:
I yearned to find her there.
And I turned toward darkness again
where dancers in masks like skulls
twirled in smoke and fire,
whirled in fire and smoke.

Now! screamed the violins.
And she was near as my heart
as we clasped each other and turned.
And Now! they shrieked.  And Now!

From The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech University Press, 1989; first published in a letterpress edition by Timberline Press, 1987)


Nothing lasts forever.
—Withold Smrek
    Senior curator, Auschwitz

The camps age like bad wine:
nothing lasts forever.  Acres
of rusting spoons   crutches

eyeglasses   striped uniforms
empty shoes   undermine
our trust in a divine presence, 

and the weight of hair that presses
downward in its quest for dis-
integration   crushes all norms. 

What can we do with these
lovingly braided tresses
that astonish and strangle us

these fragments left by a storm
whose raging power to destroy
continues so long after its death

that   even now   we are left
breathless?   Where can we turn
for help that will make sense  

of such losses   and which language
can we employ to render
the inexpressible?  

Nothing lasts —not the page  
nor the image  
nor what can be listed

in the thick black book of the age —
and we who mourn   veer
toward idolatry  

until our hearts wake 
and something deep within us  
burns   and weeps.

Published in Midstream.
From Chopin's Piano, by Charles Adés Fishman. Copyright © 2005 by Time Being Press.

Who Will Count?

The numbers are known,
then unknown, revised
downward.  Numerals
on forearms fade
into hair and flesh.  Memory
is not what it once was. 

Consider the babies
born without names
and those murdered
in their murdered mothers. 
Who can recall such dark gifts,
given to be taken away? 

Who will count
these uncounted
beings, this unknowable
progeny, this slight weight
in the scales of knowledge
and justice?

Published by The Genocide Forum (as "How Many Jews Did Hitler Kill?").
From Chopin's Piano, by Charles Adés Fishman. Copyright © 2005 by Time Being Press.

Counting the Holocaust

He tried to get a handle on the Holocaust:
let others immerse themselves in questions
of time and intention    

He would leave the Nazis to history  
the endless litany of camps to architects
and statisticians    

Let the professors tussle over Hitler's evil
genius   the altruism of Schindler   the German
muse of Goldhagen

He wanted to know one thing only —
what six million of anything added up to . . .
and so he counted:

grains of uncooked rice   until the gallon jugs
he dropped them into filled his kitchen   un-
matched contact lenses  

newly-minted pennies   then soda pop bottle caps
battered shoe boxes   abandoned valises   and six
million periods in 12-point Gothic type:

thirty-seven hundred and four unconsumed
pages     He was counting the Holocaust   and he
kept counting.

Published in The Drunken Boat.
From Chopin's Piano, by Charles Adés Fishman. Copyright © 2005 by Time Being Press.

European Movements

Córdoba to Hamburg   Bordeaux to
Strasbourg   Marseilles to Rome   Bucharest
to Belgrade   Kalisz to Lublin   Vienna to
Kishinev   Cracow to Lvov   Nomads,
why so restless?  Did you hear the voice
of Midsummer lightning?  All that back-
breaking portage: Granada to Corfu   Genoa
to Salonika, tireless!  Always hurrying
from one black patch to another: Cologne
to Bialystok   Prague to Kiev   Lisbon to
Amsterdam   Tallinn to Polotsk: ceaseless
in your translations!  Dear malcontents,
unsettled on dark nights under the moon
of horses: Soncino to Posen   Chernigov
to Frankfurt   Avignon to Tarnopol   Berdichev
to Worms   Exiles! Black Sea transports
Crimea Express   Zhitomir to Copenhagen
Helsinki to Antwerp   Starodub to Brest
whirling lights clustered at Satmar   in
the galaxy of Warsaw   starstreams   time
travelers on the dead continent   wrapped
in languages   in the Law's endless bindings
Why didn't you stay put in the whale's
belly?  Why didn't you pull the white sky
of silence over your heads?  Did the golden
bells of Chelmno charm you? the meadow flowers
of Majdanek bend their fiery cups?  Did you
rise to the black psalteries of Ravensbrück?
Wanderers! such desire for a life of Christian
culture! such anointings with sacred oils,
bathings in blessed waters!

From The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech University Press, 1989; first published in a letterpress edition by Timberline Press, 1987)


Where is the lightning to lick you
with its tongue? Where is the frenzy
with which you should be inoculated?

The Sieg! Heil!  Victory! Salvation!
jackboots out the last flame of reason.

The lightning comes later: blazing
arms of the sun twisted clockwise
toward pain, glittering on the dial:
little flares—each with its face,
its annihilation.

                         *       *                         

You refused to believe the bearded
faces, eyes that had seen into the nerve-
ends of civilization, had seen Kafka
shrivel in that holocaust, Einstein
reduced to a small cupful of ash.

Blond hair curled in the bookish heat.
Blue eyes cheered to see Marx char.
Freud blistered and blackened and cracked
like a burnt up child.

                          *       *

In the shtetls chess tables filled
with cooked fish.  Prayer shawls grumbled
with fire in the wooden shuls.  Kristallnacht
knocked the teeth from your skulls.

The vault clicked shut and Churchill
sipped his tea.  You wore the star
and time would make you free.

                          *       *

Death wagons gouged through the ghetto
like a rich man's purse.

Each Yid was corpse and hearse.

                          *       *

You were artisans, poets, actors, teachers,
coopers, cut-throats, dreamers, debaters.

You loved, hated, feared death, feared failure.
You lied to yourselves, to God, to each other.

You had nowhere to go, yet a train waited.

                          *       *

No food.  No water.  No air.
Wheels whacked against your feet
like rifle butts.

When they unbolted the car you stared
through the Butcher's door.

                          *       *

Himmelstrasse: the last tick of the clock.

And you moaned, and you cried out.
And you went singing, and you choked
on courage.

And God was there, and there was nothing.

                          *       *

In winter, ashes from the crematoria
were spread like a gray smudge
over the frozen roads.

From The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech University Press, 1989; first published in a letterpress edition by Timberline Press, 1987)

Eichmann's Defense

When I see the images before my eyes,
it all comes back to me.
—Adolf Eichmann, May 1960

He was sent to Treblinka   Auschwitz   Minsk
—how well was it going?   Who were the princes
of death and who governed the provinces
with a slackened fist? 

What he saw before his eyes was six million
corpses.  Not one retained a voice,
yet they spoke to him   they emoted in German  
and he heard each geschrei    each curse.

In the end, he had no choice but to order
more rapid and efficient slaughter.

Published in Midstream
"Eichmann's Defense" will also appear in Charles Adés Fishman's forthcoming chapbook, 5,000 Bells (Cross-Cultural Communications, 239 Wysnum Ave., Merrick, NY 11566).

September 1944
variations on a theme by Arnost Lustig

I stood in the gypsy camp
by the high-voltage wires,
around us the bare Polish
plains and forests.
A thin transparent fog
enveloped the ground, the people. 
It penetrated the soul.
A purple fire flashed
from the chimneys,
glowing a deeper purple
before turning into black
smoke.  Everything stank.
The smoke became a cloud,
and slowly a black rain—
ashes—dropped down.
Like everyone else, I wished
the wind would shift
or the earth reverse its
direction.  The ashes had
a bitter taste.  They were
not from coal or burnt wood,
rags or paper.
They fell on us—mute, deaf,
relentless ashes, in which
human breath, shrieks and tears
could be felt.
I stood at the concrete fence post
with white porcelain insulators,
taking it all in like
an hallucination.
A tune from Strauss's Die Fledermaus
ran through my mind.
based on the translation from the Czech
by Josef Lustig

The Liberator

What he saw he has not forgotten. 
The country that skirted the camp
was drenched with a red light:
light of first leaves    light
of early morning darkness

What he saw he saw.  Sprinkled
with quicklime, the image dissolved
swiftly, but his eyes held the white
aurora.  There was a faint hiss
when his boot scraped the rim,
a watery crackling
as if something in his wrist
had begun to escape.  Thirty-six
years later, his throat constricts,
memory floods his chest: each year,

an aneurysm ready to burst.

From The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech University Press, 1989; first published in a letterpress edition by Timberline Press, 1987)

Five Holocaust Memories

I.  A German Witness

She was living with her parents outside of Munich. 
One day, her mother had sent her to obtain some cheese,
and she was heading back along the country road
that was filled to the brim with fleeing civilians and soldiers.
She had been thinking about her father, the industrialist,
and about how their cheese was paid for.
Then she rounded a curve in the road and saw the prisoners:
they were guarded by SS men and leaned against a wall. 
She could see that these were, in fact, skeletons, wrapped
in a skin of black-and-white-striped cloth: the cloth was threadbare
and the bones showed through.  She knew they were prisoners
but didn't understand what their crime was . . .

and she thought of the cheese, white and creamy, growing riper
in her rucksack.  She thought of giving the cheese to these shadows,
for their eyes held her, and she opened her sack and reached in.
The cheese emerged in her hand with the power of sunlight.

II.  A Dutch Witness

Her father was a judge and had taught her
the Dutch tradition of offering refuge.  One day,
on her way to school, the sky, which was clear
and blue in Amsterdam, darkened. 

She saw a truck parked near a home for Jewish children,
and there were German men, in uniform, laughing
and joking.  What pleasure it was to be conquerors! 

She saw that these soldiers were lifting the children
by their legs, by their skinny arms, and by their hair,
and throwing them into the truck.  It was a sunny day,
nine o'clock in the morning, a fine hour to walk to school. 

And she saw that, for these men, who harbored no child
in their hearts, murder would be easy.  She would climb
onto the truck.  She would honor her father's words. 
She would rescue children.

III. A Polish Survivor

At Birkenau, he helped push a wagon filled with sand
that was dumped each day on the ashes:
each day, they pushed the sand   yet the ashes
could not be covered.

At Majdanek, there was no water for prisoners
so he never washed.  After 9 weeks, his flesh drank
only darkness: it was as if the sand of Birkenau
had taken the form of a man.

In Auschwitz, he pulled blackened rags
from his emaciated body and let the shower
engulf him, but his pain was unslakable   and Majdanek
clung to him   like burning cloth.    

IV.  A Czech Survivor

Her father's last words to her: If you survive, keep
your principles
.  He was killed when they arrived
at Auschwitz, but she would remember his words.

These are her words to us:  Auschwitz . . . there is—
there has not been
there has not been . . .
When the sun came up it was not the sun . . . it was
always red    always black    it never said, never was life. 
It was destruction.

V.  An American Officer

The tanks stumbled on Mauthausen,
and he came in after them. 
This is how he saw the living skeletons,
who had carried heavy rocks to the precipice. 

He counted the steps himself: 186
of them.  He weighed the victims who still lived,
and he held his breath in the barracks. 

It was unbelievable.  The bunks and their stench
—unbelievable.  The quarry and its dead: unbelievable.
And the silence of the nearby town.  Nor could he believe
the responses of his own heart   that ached for a new language
in which to speak.

Published in the Poetry Porch Forgiveness issue (Sections 1,2, & 4).
From Chopin's Piano, by Charles Adés Fishman. Copyright © 2005 by Time Being Press.

Landscape after Battle
For Andrzej Wajda

To a nocturne accompaniment —
Chopin—they perform Liberation.
As they starved to Vivaldi.
As they burned to Bach.

You ask us to remember when a corpse
was esteemed 'incompletely processed'
that could not, of itself, rise
above the ashfields . . . and dance.

Andrzej, you understand the silence
of your poets: self-hate and catechetical
obedience; violent, unassimilable grief.

Life should taste sweet, milk warm
from the nipple, but in your language
it is salt and blood.

You give us a victim to remind us why we speak.

Her name is Nina and—offkey—she sings,
and we are moved by her bare legs
and her loose hair, and we are almost
ready to follow . . . Red leaves

build soft mounds under the emptying trees

Poland, here is your Jew!
She will swallow the wafer, translucent
as pale skin, and kiss your numb body
—unkosher meat!

And she will draw you out of your Christ-
blazoned prison, until each bloodied finger
wakens from its dream, until your strangled
voice bears witness:

One life is history enough to mourn.

From The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech University Press, 1989; first published in a letterpress edition by Timberline Press, 1987)

Eastern Europe after the War

Wisps of memory   ragged dips in the grass

A few years earlier, millions died in sub-zero
temperature     Stripped to their underwear,

they were whipped    beaten with fists
and rifle butts   their infants ripped

from their arms     Their prayers to God
changed nothing     Shot in the neck,

they were kicked   into ditch after ditch    
Those still living clutched at prayer shawls  

or thrice-blessed amulets   but their words  
their tears   called down no power    

Their deaths did not alter the sky, which continues
to shelter their murderers     The earth

that churned for days afterward has yielded nothing  
but fragments     The years swept by, blurring

the landscape   though, on occasion, something
in humanity   twitched     A list of the names

of the missing   slipped from official fingers  
and drifted into history     In Eastern Europe,

not a stitch was mended     The gash
in the abandoned universe   could not be healed  

Published by The Scream Online.
From Chopin's Piano, by Charles Adés Fishman. Copyright © 2005 by Time Being Press.

Special Report on the Holocaust
for Rudy Vrba

Six million Jews did not die
in the Holocaust: one was missing
. . . escaped to hell or heaven,
to nowhere and to nothing, wrapped
in his prayer shawl, in prison
stripes, in flames: escaped
though gassed, mutilated, hanged;
though frozen with starvation
and exhaustion; though tortured
beyond pain.
Six million did not
die—though robbed of all he had been,
one was saved: the one of memory,
of dream, of continuance, of revenge:
the one destined to bring the Star
to completion . . . one million lives
for each burning prong.

From The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech University Press, 1989; first published in a letterpress edition by Timberline Press, 1987)

In Black Rain
for Elie Wiesel

Some nights only leaves talk
Not a spark catches flame
Not a dog barks

It is cold and late—only you walk
street after empty street

Each yellow leaf is a smoldering star:
torn from a million jackets,
not one could be extinguished

Forty years have scattered
but, in black rain, you burn.

From The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech University Press, 1989; first published in a letterpress edition by Timberline Press, 1987)

A Camp Song Newly Heard

Once there was Elzunia.
She is dying all alone,
Because her daddy is in Maidanek,
And in Auschwitz her mommy . . .

Elzunia's remains,
scrawled on a card, sewn
into a coat pocket . . .

1943.  The rest of her song
is blood, though we know
the tune to sing: "A Spark
Is Twinkling on the Ash Grate."
A spark is glowing

on the page that keeps
Elzunia' s words—
a voice long dead is heard,
a voice from the fire cries

because her mommy in Auschwitz
died, and in Maidanek her daddy,
because she died alone,
because she was Elzunia.

The Children

I thought my poems were finished—
but your tears for the children  
and for the mothers who could not bear  
and for the mothers who had to quiet their young
forever . . . your tears woke the words in me again
where they had slept, where my thoughts
had withdrawn from the pain of so much death.

Dear wife, I have you to blame for this yielding
to memory, this warfare of the spirit.  I have you
to thank: you, and your wise heart that will not retreat
to the safety of ignorance.  You have called me again
to witness and be maimed, to name and remember,
and to not be healed.

Published in Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust  (Northwestern University Press, 1998)
"The Children" will also appear in Charles Adés Fishman's forthcoming chapbook, 5,000 Bells (Cross-Cultural Communications, 239 Wysnum Ave., Merrick, NY 11566).


God cannot be directly the cause
of sin, either in Himself or in another . . .
—Aquinas, Summa Theologica

I've heard it said that lives
are valueless as smoke,
that only God survives
the poisoned drink of death.

And yet I count these ghosts
and think of one who died
with a young child at her breast,
unnoticed and unmourned.

The ditch was nearly filled
with people she had loved
and it flared before her eyes
like the lips of a mortar wound.

Only her child seemed to know
how quickly time could run:
he himself was the sun
aflame in his mother's arms.

Only her child seemed to know:
here time would cease forever.
They tore him from her throat,
and then it was her turn.

And then it was her turn— 
she heard the loud report— 
again! again! again!
until her soul went deaf.

All night she lay with the bones— 
here, where the Old World ended:
Aquinas mute as a bug
and God with his left wrist branded.

Our thanks to Leo Haber, editor of Midstream, for allowing us to use "Ghosts" before its publication in the January 2005 issue of Midstream. "Ghosts" will also appear in Charles Adés Fishman's forthcoming chapbook, 5,000 Bells (Cross-Cultural Communications, 239 Wysnum Ave., Merrick, NY 11566).

A Child Survivor

For Arthur Kurzweil

With the help of a Catholic
woman, one of the righteous
among the nations, she escaped
from the blazing furnace of Warsaw.

For 18 years, she was protected
even loved   but it was only when a nun
let the truth flare under the sun
that the child —long since become

a lovely young woman —listened
and learned.  Yet that other world
remained unapproachably distant —
the dark side of her private moon —

for the child she had been
lived only in whispers   in fleeting dreams  
in the unilluminated space of a lost galaxy  
in the billionth billionth lightyear

of the heart.  Only after marriage
and the birth of her own child —
that miracle of history and continuance —
could she feel in her blood

the true worth of the gift her mother
had given her: she was a Jew
who had survived.

"A Child Survivor" will  appear in Charles Adés Fishman's forthcoming chapbook, 5,000 Bells (Cross-Cultural Communications, 239 Wysnum Ave., Merrick, NY 11566).

My Mother's Candlesticks

My mother couldn't read Hebrew
but she knew the value of things
That's why she saved newspapers
until the pages turned brittle
and the newsprint broke into flakes  
and why she kept old friendships burning
long after her friends were dead:
anything worth reading would speak to her
next year   and true friends would never tire
of listening     My mother loved those candlesticks  
and kept them polished faithfully   yet she
did not kindle their fire     Neither silver nor gold,
they had come down to her from her mother's —
from her grandmother's —hands   tarnished  
pitted   the last brassy patina gone     The cups
were akilter   the wobbly bottoms would not align  
but these battered objects could hold two candles    
My mother knew the blessing once   far back  
in her girlhood   but the flames blew out
when her mother died     These flames
that glimmer still   in Malaga   Thessaloniki  
Berlin     These flames that are the ancient news
of our people     These flames that await the match
in my fingers   and the Barukh atah on my lips.

"My Mother's Candlesticks" will  appear in Charles Adés Fishman's forthcoming chapbook, 5,000 Bells (Cross-Cultural Communications, 239 Wysnum Ave., Merrick, NY 11566).

We Polish Jews
for Mother in Poland or to Her Dearest Shadow
New York, 1944

And at once I hear a question—From where that we?
Somehow it is just, that question: I am asked it
by the Jews, to whom I have explained that I am not
a Jew, and by the Poles, for whom I will always
remain a Jew.

Here is my answer for them all!  I am a Pole
because this is the way I like it.  It is my business
and I need not explain or justify.  I do not have
to divide Poles into those born right and those born

At the innermost, the primitive, there I am a Pole! 
A Pole because I was born in Poland, because there
I was both happy and unhappy, because there I learned
and sought to unlearn, the way one may attempt
to discover a new method of breathing.  Because
from exile it is necessary for me to come back
to Poland, even if elsewhere I were promised heaven.

A Pole because the Polish language was fed to me
from birth, because when the first shock of poetry came
it came in Polish, because what became most important
—this life, this poetry—is unthinkable
in any other language.

A Pole because in Polish I confessed the anxiety
of my first love, in Polish mumbled of her happiness
and troubles.  A Pole because a birch and a willow
are dearer to me than a palm or a cypress, and because
Chopin and Mickiewicz are dearer than Beethoven
and Shakespeare—dearer for reasons I cannot explain
with logic!

A Pole because from that country I took many faults
and because I hate those faults with a deeper intensity
because they are of my nation.  After my death,
may the earth of Poland take me!

But I hear voices saying, Fine, but if a Pole, then why
"We Jews"?  Here is the answer: blood.  So it is
another kind of racism?  No, on the contrary!  Blood
is double: to and from the veins.  The first is the juice
of the body; the other, the blood of a slaughtered
people—not Jewish blood, but the blood of Jews . . .

from this, the deepest and broadest brooks, from this,
a stormy, foaming river.  And in this New Jordan I
take my bath: a bloody, hot, tormented brotherhood
with the Jews. Take me in, my brothers! It is to this
community, to this church, that I wish to belong!

In Warsaw and every other Polish city, there will
remain fragments in permanent and untouched form. 
They will be found, these embers of destruction!
And these we will surround with chains, chains forged
from the scraps of Hitler's army.

To the Church of national Memoriams shall be added
another: this sanctuary.  Let it be encased in glass
and let an eternal flame flicker at its heart.

Only then, when citizens cross themselves near that
shrine, when they kneel before that imagined heat,
will we carry the mark of the Polish Jew—only then,
in pride and mourning, all other ranks diminished.

We who—by miracle or by accident—remain alive,
who breathe contrition and shame in the aftermath
of your glory, Redeemers!  We—no, not "we Jews,"
but we apparitions, we the shadows of our murdered
sisters and brothers—Polish Jews.  We Polish Jews, we
return home now, preserved in our perished bodies. 
We return, we arise from the ruins of Europe.

We apparitions!  We Schloimes and Shmuels and Moishes,
whose names are adorned now with the shawl
of a revived dignity: our exploits in the catacombs
and sewers, our burials and resurrections—your soap
will never wash out the stains of our blood!

We apparitions!  We walk now in the ruins of our stolen
houses, we rise from the bunkers wearing our
murdered names—we soldiers of freedom and honor.
We, for whom every threshold was a fortress.  We
crawled toward death, begging for air and choking
on your mercy, but now we take back our skulls, now
our fingers unclasp, and we announce to you our pain:
a scream so fierce and long the furthest generation
shall hear it.

We horrors, we the uncreated, we Schreckenskammer. 
We apparitions who a new Barnum can present
to the world: Polish Jews! The biggest sensation! Nervous
people, please leave the hall!

I call your name O God from a scatter of graves,
from the graves our children seeded in the body
of Poland.  You seed thrower, how far, how thickly
you scattered us!

And now, over Europe, this giant and ghastly skeleton
—in his eyes a violent fire rages, his fingers
tightened in a bony fist.  We Polish Jews and he,
our Führer and Savior, who will dictate our rights
and desires!
reimagined from the Polish of Julian Tuwlm
(with Doris Kemp)

From The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech University Press, 1989; first published in a letterpress edition by Timberline Press, 1987)

An Interview

For Tricia Hexter

Where did you and your family live
before the Holocaust?
Lodz, Poland.
About 80,000 Jews lived there.

What happened after Hitler came to power?
Don't talk to me like I'm stupid! It was death!

When were you taken to the ghetto? 1939
I was locked up. 1940 I was in the ghetto
starving to death. Young lady, it was death.

How many people were in the ghetto?
I don't know. It doesn't matter: it was death.

Did your family try to avoid being captured? 
There was nothing that we did. You would die.

Did anyone try to help you? Who, young lady?
Don't talk stupid to me! They were there
to kill you, not help you.

Were you with your whole family? Yes, yes.
What do you think? I watched them all die.

What happened to you during your time
in the camp?
Death! What do you think?
Death every day. Are we finished, young lady?

Just a few more questions . . .

What happened after you were liberated? 
General Eisenhower saved us. We were skin
and bones. Young lady, he cried like a baby.

Did anyone else in your family survive? No,
I am only one.

If you could tell me one thing, what would it be? 
I am luckiest person in America!

How have you coped with the trauma? I go
to visit the oven that I put my mother in.
Young lady, are we finished?
_______________ __________________
The number of Jews in Lodz in 1939 was actually
about 223,000.  Lodz was the largest of the ghettos
established by the Nazis and lasted the longest.

"An Interview" will appear in Charles Adés Fishman's forthcoming chapbook, 5,000 Bells (Cross-Cultural Communications, 239 Wysnum Ave., Merrick, NY 11566).

A Dance on the Poems of Rilke

I remember a Czech dancer who danced on the poems of Rilke.
—Stennie Pratomo-Gret

In the particular hell of Ravensbrück
where Gypsy girls were sterilized and babies
were drowned at birth   where dysentery  
lung cancer and typhus   took life after life  
and grotesque experiments in the inducement
of infection and pain were cultivated as a fine art  

where women of every European nation slaved
for Siemens   through endless moonless nights  
and cut trees   dug pits   loaded and unloaded
railway cars and barges   where abortion was
inevitable   and sexual cruelty the rule   and where

a woman could be duly tortured for using rags
as tampons   or merely for adjusting her dress  
a certain Czech woman who knew every word
danced to the poems of Rilke   moving sinuously
to each of his Orphean sonnets   bowing gracefully
with the first notes of each Elegie: she felt the dark music

of Rilke's heart   each soaring leap of the spirit   each lunge
toward grief     Though she is long gone   and we
no longer know her name   she is the one who showed
even a halting step could be a triumph   and a dance
on the poems of a dead poet   might redeem.

Published by The Scream Online.
From Chopin's Piano, by Charles Adés Fishman. Copyright © 2005 by Time Being Press.