Friday, March 27, 2009

The Permeability of Memory -- A Book of Poems by Helen Eisen

Recently, I read a book of poems about the Holocaust and the years in the DP camps by Helen Eisen called The Permeability of Memory. The book drew me in because Helen does something that I find myself unable to do.

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I've written a lot about my father and mother and their experiences in the concentration camps but I've seldom been able to write about my own memories of my experiences in the refugee camps, the DP camps, after the war. Part of this, I'm sure is my inability to remember much about those times. I was born in 1948 and left the camps in 1951 to come to America with my parents. Another part of this, however, I think, is my sense that my story -- as opposed to the story of my parents and the people of their generation -- is nothing. I find it almost impossible to think of my parents' experiences within the context of my experiences. I can't think about that connection. When I write, I write about them. I seldom appear in my poems. Sometimes, I feel that I don't know how to talk about myself in relationship to my parents.

Helen Eisen, however, has somehow found a way of connecting herself to her past and her parents in ways I can't, and I admire her writing and her gift for doing this.

I asked her a couple questions about memory and about the title of her work The Permeability of Memory.

Here's what I wrote to her:

The Permeability of Memory? Can you please explain the title? Memory is something that really interests me. I write a lot about my parents and I know that my memories of their past don't always line up with their memories of their past or my sister's memories of the past. In fact, I wrote a poem about the distance between my mom's memories and mine. It's called "My Mother Reads My Poem 'Cattle Train to Magdeburg.'" In addition, my mother didn't want to share her memories for a long time, while my dad was always interested in doing so.

Here's Helen Eisen's response to my questions:

I also find memory fascinating, what it is, how it works, how it's transmitted. I meant the title to talk to that-- how memories are passed on, the movement of memory over time and distance. I think it is lovely that you use the word "distance" when you say in your email, "I wrote a poem about the distance between my mother's memories and mine." At different times I've been asked, "When did you first learn about the Holocaust?" (By the way, we never used the term. We just called it the war. It's like if a relative were standing in your kitchen dressed in an old bathrobe and you say, "Mr. Buckleboren, what would you like for breakfast today? I do hope we can appropriately accommodate you.") The thing is I don't remember when I learned about the war, it's like I always knew about it, which of course at some level I did. Its effects, if not the actual verbalized memories, were transmitted by my parents and the other survivors that used to visit our apartment, but seemed to live with us. Their visits were never just visits. And with them came all the memories, like butter spread on rye and radishes in the cottage cheese. Everyone disagreed about the wheres and whens, and there was a lot of (to me bizarre) laughter. I'd stay very quiet and listen, trying to make sense of it all. I have memories of hiding under the kitchen table, but I don't believe I really did because it was a small table. But I think I imagined this memory because I knew if they became aware of me in the room they'd shoo me out, so how would I have stayed in the room if I wasn't hiding?

To return to my explanation: I learned about the war through the memories of my parents, which they relayed verbally and non-verbally. (Father much more verbal and very, very confusing). Memories live (and die) in the body. I think the non-verbal transmission was more potent, more constant/consistent, more direct, more exact--even if I can't translate this exactness. All mothers sigh, no mother sighs like my mother. She is holding me as a baby, and when she let them other women in the DP camp held me. What passed through them to the children, in my case, to me? I'm sure the particular tensing of their muscles, their breath, their scent, all their vital, non-verbal, sub-vocal, innate and learned vocabularies left some kind of imprint.

Mostly knowledge of the war--my memories of the war--came through the body of my mother. I think memories live in the body, and die, change, devolve, grow, dependent like anything else on relative conditions and context. Who is listening? What's the temperature when I'm talking? How well do I remember this recipe when I'm starving? When I'm full?

From the body of my mother to my body. I see it as a kind of osmosis--the permeability of the membranes between us, and the membranes between memories within her. What she's closed off, what she's let through. How far through? What's the resistance to letting me see them, letting me in, how much of it because she wants to keep me out, how much because she wants me to see because she is alone there, but doesn't want to want me to be there.

Osmotic passage occurs from the more dense to the less dense. From my mother's milk, I drew my breath, and she filled me.

Here's one of the poems from Helen Eisen's Permeability of Memory:


Was starving
Was starving
After the war
Was another war
My mother my mother
Was starving
After the war
She stuffed food into me
Because she was starving
After the war during
Which she was starving
She stuffed food into me
Because she was starving
I can see her pushing the food into my mouth
I cannot feel I cannot feel the food pushing into the mouth
I can see my mother
For the food she put into me
To feed herself
My mother pushed food into me
To feel herself
While she was starving all of the life pushed
To feed herself
To feel herself
I can't feel the food
Or taste
What my mother fed me
She took
The food away
From herself
I can see her starving
To feed me
Greasy lamb from her fingers
Here taste
Of her saliva
On my tongue
My mother
I loved her
I fed her


Helen Eisen's The Permeabilty of Memory is published by Cherry Pie Press. You can read more about the book by clicking here.


  1. John: having no direct personal connection to the Holocaust, I think I do have some understanding of your feeling that your story is "nothing." My own personal analog is the pre-Civil-Rights-movement South into which I was born and which was shattered in the good sense by the sacrifices of others; not only was I too young to take part in most of the difficult work of the Movement (and too dumb and indoctrinated, so that it took me years to get over it), I was also not in a primary or active way part of the opposition to the Movement. I was in a kind of spiritual limbo, and by the time that began to pass, the "war" was over, and something else was going on. I did take part in that, but. . . . Also, the fact that I was white fed into my sense that my story was basically nothing. After many years of reflection, however, I began to realize that I really did have something worthwhile to contribute to the conversation. My guess is that you do too; part of that is the stories of others, but surely your own story is unique, useful, and powerful. Even the act of trying to pierce the veil of memory would be a powerful story.

    Great blog. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks, Terry.

    Yes, piercing "the veil of memory" would be a story.

    You made me think of my mother. She spent 2 and a half years in the camps in Germany, and she hated to talk about what happened when the Germans came. If I'd ask her as a kid, she'd wave her hand at me and say, "If they give you bread you eat it; if you beat you, you run away."

    That was pretty much it. I stopped asking her to tell me her story.

    Then after my father died, she started talking about what had happened. I guess it took his death to get her to start talking.


    I think probably she relied on him to tell the stories. When he died, the responsibility fell on her. It was her turn to pierce the veil.

    I guess my point is that we have stories, but sometimes we have to wait to tell them.

  3. I think that most of us feel we have too infrequently been on the periphery of great events — or at least momentous ones. We want to have been central at some point in the drift & flow of history, to have registered our presence, even if — or maybe especially if — we were wounded by what happened.

  4. What fine writing and feeling there is here. I keep wanting to quote passages. I love this line: "It's like if a relative were standing in your kitchen dressed in an old bathrobe and you say, "Mr. Buckleboren, what would you like for breakfast today?" This kind of wryness is needed to approach things slant sometimes.

    What Helen says about memory is also marvelous, including: "...memories live in the body, and die, change, devolve, grow, dependent like anything else on relative conditions and context."

    Even the comments here are thoughtful and eloquent.

    The simplicity of the poem with its echoing rhythms are even clearer after reading her theory of memory.

    This is very powerful testimony--both the work itself and the words about the work. I'm glad that she didn't wait longer to tell her story.

    Janet Riehl