Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust
Edited by Charles Adés Fishman
Published by Time Being Books
Reviewed by Michael R. Burch

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The second edition of Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, edited by Charles Adés Fishman, is an important book. Important because of its subject. But also important because of the voices it contains, the testimonies it raises, the memories it enshrines, the issues it forces us to confront, and the "laying bare" for public display, as it were, of the most sordid, soiled dirty laundry of man's recent past.

What is evil, but to cause unnecessary suffering? Here we see a laundry list of unimaginable evil, and at times it seems our noses are being rubbed in the vilest filth. Indeed, at times they are, and the stench becomes overwhelming. But here also at times we see the redemption of man: the cleansings and transformations of seemingly threadbare human cloth into the white robes of righteousness, through the ameliorations of human tenderness, compassion and love. The poets of Blood to Remember are unstinting in their desire and efforts to confront the horrors of unmitigated evil, the wonders of love, and every shade and shading of human thought, emotion and action in between. 

In Blood to Remember the living speak for the dead, and therefore the dead are not forgotten, cannot be forgotten, will not be forgotten. One day all its living voices will themselves become memories, as a few already have. But they will be immortal memories now, thanks in large part to Fishman, who must be applauded for the many grueling hours he undoubtedly invested in a book of this size (637 pages), intensity and scope. And readers should also applaud his courage, because this must have been an incredibly difficult book to spend so much time with. Could there be a harder book to edit? I don't see how.

The list of poets included is an impressive one, including such well-known names as John Ciardi, Anthony Hecht, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Louis Simpson and Derek Walcott. But in a book like Blood to Remember the names of the poets are meaningless, except perhaps as they help sales. It's the voices that matter -- their testimonies, the lives and memories they eternalize, and the issues they raise, confront, and refuse to stow away in handy cubbyholes. A government agent or a librarian might file all Holocaust victims under a single generic heading: "Victim, Deceased, Increasingly Forgotten, Soon To Be Unknown." But not the poets of Blood to Remember. Their method is to keep the living alive with words that refuse to die.

I believe Fishman took his title from Hart Crane's lines: "It is blood to remember; it is fire / to stammer back." This seems to be the method of Fishman's poets: they remember the blood, and they "return fire" by stammering back words that can seemingly never be sufficient to their task. And yet their well-aimed words often do achieve their aim: to pierce the reader's heart while resuscitating his soul, her conscience. 

A reviewer for Hadassah Magazine said: "Fishman deserves praise and gratitude for ferreting out these talented soloists and creating a mighty chorus to serve as a worthy memorial to the victims of the Holocaust." It is indeed the mighty chorus of talented soloists that makes Blood to Remember a book to remember.

One of the soloists whose work I especially admired is Louis Simpson. In "A Story about Chicken Soup," he captures the evil and absurdity of war, and yet refuses to let the reader leave the poem with easy stereotypes and conclusions:

... But the Germans killed them.
I know it's in bad taste to say it,
But it's true. The Germans killed them all.


In the ruins of Berchtesgaden
A child with yellow hair
Ran out of a doorway.

A German girl-child--
Cuckoo, all skin and bones--
Not even enough to make chicken soup.
She sat by the stream and smiled.

Then as we splashed in the sun
She laughed at us.
We had killed her mechanical brothers,
So we forgave her ...

Simpson had begun his poem by saying that even in the poverty of his youth, there was always chicken soup at his grandmother's house. Then in the ruins of Berchtesgaden, an erstwhile resort and the site of Hitler's "eagle's nest," he shows us a German girl-child so skinny there was not enough of her to make chicken soup. She laughed at the soldiers who had killed her "mechanical brothers" and of course the soldiers forgave her. What else could they do, still being human, even after so much mayhem? If we sat down with our children and read them such poems, and discussed them together, the world might yet change for the better. So please consider doing just that, if you have children, or know any.

Some of the poets bid us to learn from the victims of the Holocaust, or even for them to return and teach us, as Cyrus Cassells does in "Auschwitz, All Hallows":

you of the confiscated shoes
and swift-shorn hair,

you, who left,
as sobering testament, the scuffed

luggage of utter hope
and harrowing deception.

Come back, teach us.
From these fearsome barracks

and inglorious fields
flecked with human ash,

in the russet, billowing hours
of All Hallows,

let the pianissimo
of your truest whispering

(vivid as the crunched frost
of a forced march) 

become a slowly blossoming,
ever-voluble hearth —

revealing to us,
the baffled, the irresolute,

the war-torn, the living,
more, more, more

of the fire and attar of what it means
to be human.

Reading Blood to Remember is like dancing in and out of time, with perspectives constantly shifting. Now we are in the past, surrounded by horror and death. Here and there we see glimmers of hope, though most of them are dashed. Now we are in the present, considering the puzzlement  of "life" when so many died so young, so needlessly. Although Fishman's poem "The Death Mazurka" no longer appears in the second revised edition of  Blood to Remember, lines from the poem catch this aspect of dance:

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!

And Now!
the book cries out to us again and again. After the Holocaust, what Now? There are questions as yet unanswered. Some seem unaskable, as John Amen discovers in his poem "Verboten" (Forbidden). At age seven he sees a faded blue tattoo on his great-aunt's arm. What are those numbers? he asks. Some questions, his grandfather says, while "rubbing his own unblemished arm" should not be asked. But poets are not easily dissuaded. When Amen concludes his poem he is still looking for answers: "Still, I asked them; and I'm still asking."

Blood to Remember is not a book that I can "recommend" on some sort of star system. Blood to Remember is not a book to be "recommended," but quite simply a book that must be read. Why? Why would we not read it, except out of fear or apathy? The Holocaust is not over. Today we have the holocaust of the homeless. We have a global holocaust of famine, disease, poverty and ignorance. There are holocausts in Darfur and elsewhere on this imperiled globe. There is the holocaust of the extinction of species upon species, including perhaps our own. Everywhere someone or something suffers or dies needlessly, while someone who could have done something does nothing, there is a holocaust. It is a certainty that the Holocaust is still with us, as Michael Dennis Browne announces ominously in "Mengele":

Don't expect me to get excited
concerning the skull of Mengele,
the skull is alive and well,
the skull is asquirm with schemes this day
and low words are leaving it at this moment
and other skulls are nodding at what they hear,
seated about the world table;
I tell you the skull is alive and well.

The voices of Blood to Remember bid us to remember the past, to consider it, to learn from it, to use it to better our present and future. The poets offer us no easy answers, no hope of a Savior appearing in the clouds. The poets have the courage to question God, even to disdain him, as Olga Cabral does in "At the Jewish Museum", where there is:

A room filled with absence
a room filled with loss
a room with no address ...

... Once and once only
a trembling old man leaning on a cane
passed by but did not dare
look in.

If they have faith, it is often a wavering faith, as in these words taken from the diary of Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum (1914-43):

Surely God will understand my doubts
In a world like this ...

And yet the title of the poem is "Life Indestructible" and the last words of Etty's diary have shaken the poet, again Cyrus Cassells, to his very soul:

We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.

Is such a woman a "victim," or has she risen to near-infinite heights above her persecutors? How can such a woman be a "victim" when, as the poet says, her "ardent story / Refuses to end / In bleakness"? A woman who tosses from a train "an incandescent postcard: / We have left the camp singing"?

This is a book of human compassion for human beings, and of our ultimate responsibility to each other. If the Bible commands you to put God first, Blood to Remember recommends that you put your brother first. Where God is, we cannot know, and at best can only hope. Where our brothers and sisters are, we know full well, and we can reach out to touch them, feed them, educate them, heal them, and make them our friends rather than our enemies. If there is morality here, it is the morality of poets who believe in freedom, compassion, tolerance, and understanding as they "stammer back" fire at the forces of repression, totalitarianism and unthinking dogma. Louis Simpson's mechanical soldier sees a leader, swallows a party line, click his bootheels, then goes off like a robot to kill or die (quite probably both). The poets and voices of Blood to Remember question, doubt, agonize, and try to understand what it means to live in a world suffused with death.

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Here are some brief reviews of Blood to Remember:

Enter with caution. Reading Charles Fishman’s Blood to Remember can be a difficult, even wrenching, experience. The poets here face Adorno’s chargethat writing ‘poetry’ after Auschwitz is barbaric, yet these American responses to the Holocaust confirm that poetry can dispel the stupor of historical amnesia. Robert Franciosi

In this compelling work, Charles Fishman draws together an extraordinary and rich chorus of voices that represent the American response to the Holocaust. This arresting collection seems to come from the soul of a single nameless author. The book tracks the Holocaust from the terrifying pogrom known as Kristallnacht, through the horrifying trail across Europe, to the present. Together, these voices form an eloquent and muscular witness. Like so many who have lost relatives they never knew, I as an American Jew am forever touched by the Holocaust and am thankful to Charles for his heroic perseverance in assembling this collection and for the chance to be a part of it. — Mark Nepo

The sacred duty of Holocaust remembrance — commemorating the dead, honoring the living, and posing the pertinent theological, ethical, and political questions generated by the Holocaust — is the substance of Charles Fishman’s compelling collection of American Holocaust poetry. Fishman successfully assembles works that render a historically remote and often painfully resisted subject in a manner that makes the catastrophe real ... One is grateful for the book’s sound critical notes, its exploration of the moral implications of the Holocaust and problematics of writing Holocaust poetry, and its witness to the terrifying truths of human history while asserting the indestructibility of the human spirit. Highly recommended. — Choice

This anthology of American Holocaust poetry will be welcomed by both teachers and students, as well as by those merely curious about the Shoah's resonance in the poetic imagination. Furthermore, its sheer comprehensiveness will make this book a valuable addition to any library. — Holocaust and Genocide Studies

Despite its horrific subject matter, Charles Fishman's collection of Holocaust poems finds its way to beauty through the transforming power of art ... Unrelenting in its refusal to compromise with the facts of history, these poems, through their sheer integrity, lend new credence to Keats' old formula, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." — Virginia Quarterly Review

Blood to Remember is not just another anthology; it is a wrenching, powerful experience. Fishman deserves praise and gratitude for ferreting out these talented soloists and creating a mighty chorus to serve as a worthy memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.— Hadassah Magazine

The following are letters written to Charles Fishman by the poets and readers of Blood to Remember:

Just reading your table of contents has hit me, the names of the poets and the titles of the poems. When the anthology arrives, I am going to bury myself with it — I just now hear what this says, and think of how we do just this when we write of the Holocaust — for days, and read, and read, and then surface again. This has been an enormous and soulful labor for you. I'm very glad to be part of this book that will not be able to be taken away from us . . . or from the dead . . . or from the survivors. Profound thanks, and gratitude. —William Heyen

It will become a classic and will on down the ages. My every warm wish. I'm thrilled to be in it. — Lynn Strongin

The anthology is an amazing achievement — so many truly incredible poets and poems.  I am in awe of what you have accomplished.  Bravo! — Jehanne Dubrow

I am proud to have my poems in Blood to Remember. It is a superb anthology. It should be on the shelves of every library, and read by millions of people. It should be translated into many languages. Especially German and Polish. I am grateful to Charles Fishman for including my name in his acknowledgements. — Yala Korwin

Congratulations on the extraordinary work you have accomplished as the editor of this important anthology. You have truly memorialized the victims of Nazi terror and genocide. Bless you for always. — Yerra Sugarman

The book is magnificent. I am proud to have my poems included. — Menachem Rosensaft

Your job as editor and your achievement with this book is unprecedented. I have not seen another anthology with all the apparatus that you have so diligently constructed and added to the poems. It makes your work unique, and the anthology should become a staple of university courses. Kol ha-kavod. — Leo Haber

The anthology is impressive — and very inclusive. We all owe you a debt of gratitude. — Barbara Goldberg

I am so impressed. What an amazing achievement your book is. I look forward to reading the whole thing. I'm honored to be in such great company, and I can't wait to hold the book in my hands; perhaps with some support underneath, as it looks like it's going to be heavy. — Jan Steckel

It is anthology you should be proud of  — (and I am proud to be part of) — and I hope it gets the attention an wide-readership it deserves! — Louis Phillips

Wow. Seeing it in this form, I am overwhelmed by the amount of work and energy you had to put into this. It feels like the definitive collection and is a terrific mix of poems I can not live without ... Incredible Charles! — Rich Michelson

The anthology looks magnificent! ... I'd like to adopt it for a grad course I'm teaching next Winter. The course I'm teaching is The Fire This Time: 20th Century Poetry of Witness — so your anthology would be perfect for the course. — Maurya Simon, University of California (Riverside)

I am astounded by the diversity of the poets who have contributed, as well as the excellence of the quality of their work. I am honored to be among the very well known poets, such as Alexie, Levertov, Forché, Piercy, Stern, but am just as humbled to be among those lesser known, but excellent writers, whose words are just as powerful and moving. Blood to Remember is a wonderful addition to your library on Jewish studies, as well as a powerful teaching tool for Jewish history, or Jewish writings. — Sandra Cohen Margulius

The book looks great; I am honored to be among such illustrious company. Many thanks again for including me. — David Moolten

The book as a whole is breath-taking. Kol-haKavod for all the work you put into making this anthology. I hope that it will receive the recognition it deserves. — Yakov Azriel

What an incredible book — the poems, the notes and discussions. This will be an unparalleled work, an event in our poetry history. Very honored to be in this. — Michael Heller

A magnificent volume! Thanks for inviting me to join these pages. — Joan I. Siegel

I have recommended the anthology to many friends and all of my students. It’s a huge labor of love you did there – and an essential one. Thank you! — Laure-Anne Bosselaar

Looking over the collection and the company, everything looked overwhelming and horrifying and amazing all at once. It's a monumental work, and I'm proud that you found me worthy of being part of it. Thank you for what you've achieved. — Theodore Deppe

Congratulations on your wonderful work! I'm proud, and greatly respectful, of you for it. — Michael Blumenthal

You have done a superb job! Congratulations on this extremely important effort. I do hope that this book receives countless awards. — Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda

Thanks again for all your brave work. I take immense pride in being a part of this important collection. With luck and (for once) a little justice, it will outlive all of us and deliver an important testimony both aesthetically and historically, none of which would have been possible without your labors. Thank you. — Michael D. Riley

Oh, Charles, you've outdone yourself. The book is astonishingly good. I started reading some of the new poems.  What a fine, strong book. Thanks so much for wanting "The Three" in it. It makes my cells hum to be among all these other fine voices — and yours.  Double yours, because in a real sense all our voices now are yours, too, as well as your own poems. This birth will have further ranging effects than the first edition. I look forward to the actual book and the waves I know it's going to send out. — Martin Steingesser

This is going to be a fantastic book! I get the chills just skimming through your epigraphs and the TOC! What a lot of work you’ve done! Everything’s perfect. — Wendy Drexler

Thank you for all your work! This is a big book, it must have taken a great deal of your time. Yet the subject is as important as anything I know, and you are to be commended for keeping the memory alive. — Nicholas Rinaldi

It looks good. I’m thrilled to be in such fine company, and I commend you for the gargantuan task so movingly realized. Florence Weinberger

Thank you for the honor of including me in this marvellous anthology. The book is thrilling. I kept wanting to read, to consume it all sitting here, but my husband is very ill and I must tend him and not sit here full of admiration for the exhilarating poems I chanced to read and the awe I feel to be included in this august company of other poets. — Marilynn Talal

I am certain Blood to Remember will be another triumph for you and for all of us who participated in it, and I look forward to receiving it and enjoying all the poems you chose to publish because I trust your good taste and devotion. — Ruth Daigon

What a feast of poets. You are to be commended — I can't even imagine how much time and energy this all took. Comprehensive is an understatement. It's an honor to be included. — Philip Terman

Congratulations on a truly beautiful work, and thank you for including me in such superb company. — Anna Rabinowitz

I'm deeply honored to be in just great company and eagerly look forward to this wonderful volume's appearance in the world. Thank you for all you've done to make it such a luminous book! — Richard Hilles

Thank you very much for this amazing labor of love. I'm honored to be part of it. — Alyssa A. Lappen

What a project! And what a variety of poems!  I am truly honored to be included. I just spent almost two hours reading some of the other poems, and was riveted. I look forward to the publication of this stunning collection. — Sheila Golburgh Johnson

The entire anthology looks absolutely great — thank you for taking on this work. It's an important contribution to our poetic literature. — Kate Daniels

What a difficult and tremendously taxing job you have been doing with your new, revised anthology: Blood to Remember. What a great book you have edited and put together that will be a lasting contribution to the world of literature and poetry. — Emily Borenstein

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Michael R. Burch
November 8, 2007

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