Monday, December 5, 2016

TATTOOED by Carine Topal

Carine Topal's recent book Tattooed about her family's experiences during the Holocaust has earned praise from such fine writers as Kelly Cherry, Cyrus Cassells, Dorothy Barresi, and Robert Garcia.

Here for example is a  statement by my friend Kelly Cherry, former Poet Laureate of Virginia:

 "Many, many histories have been written about the Nazis and their victims, but because horror tends to overwhelm attempts at lyricism, the successful Holocaust poem is rare and distinguished. This collection has managed to do the nearly impossible: the poems here are deeply moving, make effective use of metaphor and narrative, retain their integrity by steering clear of sentiment, lay bare the truth, and enlighten. With splendid economy, the poem has placed the reader on death’s porch. “Faith is impossible,” says a girl or young woman in Auschwitz. The marvelous thing, the unexpected thing, is that the poet puts us in touch with those irreplaceable human beings. There is no false hope. What there is, is life. We see it slaughtered, burned, torn, poisoned, but still it is life because the poet has made it so. This brave book is crucial."

Carine Topal has kindly agreed to let us publish several of the poems from Tattooed, and she has also provided a brief piece on the writing of the book:

The Writing of “Tattooed”

I started writing “Tattooed,” in 2012, while in Poland, after visiting Auschwitz. I started writing “Tattooed,” 25 years ago when I wrote my first poem related to the Holocaust. Both statements are true. My first attempt was heartfelt but factually incorrect. I wanted to get it right and get it written. My mother escaped Hitler’s Germany while public schools were closed to Jews, while Jewish owned stores were looted,  and just before the yellow stars were sewn onto coats. My grandfather knew what was happening. They were lucky and bought their freedom with all the money they had. My grandfather’s relatives all died in Auschwitz, except for one cousin whom I call my Aunt Lola, who was 15 when sent to Auschwitz. She was alone. She survived after 4 years in Auschwitz. Her parents, brothers, and a younger sister all died, in the camps and by the hands of the Nazi’s.                                                                                                                           

For years my mother would tell me bits of pieces of her life in Germany, but she hardly spoke about her suffering in Germany. My Aunt Lola never again spoke Polish nor spoke about her life in Poland until several years before she died. She consented to be interviewed by the Shoah Foundation. Before the long interview was complete, she was rushed to the hospital with shortness of breath. She had the courage to relive the unimaginable and I decided never to be silent about the 11 million. I do not want the world to forget the victims, the survivors, the perpetrators, and the heroes, no matter how ugly the reality. What happened to the 11 million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, priests, Jehovah Witnesses, nuns, the handicapped, and the political prisoners. Not just the Jews. All of them. I wanted to bear witness for those who can no longer speak out, and stand up for those who were and are marginalized and disenfranchised. My book may be small, but I perform the poems (accompanied by the stark photographs I took at Auschwitz) and it feels very  large.


A Survivor Remembers the Arrival

Small fortunes neatly placed in rows. From where I stood they looked like tender headstones. Then, later, ribbons tied to a pair of small shoes. Small red shoes. Each of us brought a bundle, valise or satchel marked with name, street, and city: Goldstein Sara, Nadelmann Clara. While waiting in line we asked one another should we hold the bundle or let it go, travel lighter? There comes a time when mercy is not called for, this being the time to run, to pick up stones. Something to wield, to hold on to, to wonder, have we not come to the wrong town, taken the wrong train?

ii {The Dissecting Room}

You must imagine a room bathed in light.
          Whitewashed. Well lit. Sterile.

One large window overlooks a birch grove.

The concrete floor is red—
the color of a heart.

In the center of the room      a table of polished marble.
Along its edges    several drains for the bleeding.

Against the wall, three porcelain sinks, and the second window, above the table
covered with a screen to keep out the flies.

The doctor holds a small head in one hand, documents the darkness
of the hair in the other.  The distance between the brows. The circumference of the head.

And staring up at Mengele with dead gimlet eyes, the very blossom of mercy.
This gypsy boy.

Like a temple this child.

This child like a temple.


            Cork-soled, peep-toe, half-boots, heavy flannel.
            First shoes—nested where the train stopped, after
            it pulled thousands through, the scale of it cruel,
            ash grey, brick red, russet, black, bone, amber.
            But the tiny shoes, from the smallest limbs,
            at the last stop— dare take your little one,
  have her try them on—walk where they were taken,   
  pocket-sized ankle straps, buckles undone,

            mounds of leather booties, blue marguerite.
 Such shoes, once stripped by winter, stripped of grace                              
 long since buried in fields planted by grief.                             
 Now turn away from them, the shoes, their fate.
            Exactly like that.
            Exactly like that.

Dedicated to Doris Mathes
Born June 14, 1942
Gassed January 17, 1944


Tattooed is available from Amazon.  Click here.

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