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Free Scary Stories for Halloween (1-7 October)

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Traditional Publishers vs Hybrid & Vanity Publishers

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Portrait of the Poet as a Woman: The Creative Process

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If you don’t count the short stories about vampires, shrinking girls, and monsters that I wrote — and tried to sell as little books — when I was twelve, then my writing career technically began with poetry. If you’ve never written poetry, you might wonder where the poet gets his ideas. If you have written anything creative, you know that the ideas are always out there. It’s the getting them down on paper so they make sense to other people that’s difficult. Though my poems eventually became so long and contained so much narrative that I eventually switched to fiction, even the reviewers of my first novel said that I wrote like a poet.

Originally, my two poetry collections were much smaller and were part of my Creative Writing dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives. Eventually, while trying the get the book accepted for publication, the dissertation grew into two books because I continued writing poems. Love in the Time of Dinosaurs included any of my poems that were not on The Holocaust, and Where Lightning Strikes contained all my Holocaust poems.

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My earliest successful poems, both in terms of positive reactions from readers and in getting published in university or literary  journals, were those that dealt with family and relationships. They eventually ended up in Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, in the section called “Portrait of the Poet as a Woman” — named after one of the poems. In those poems, though they contained some aspects of my private life, I adopted a persona of an unnamed woman who was struggling  to make sense of relationships, family, marriage, divorce, and children that were not her own.

I was in a relationship when I wrote these poems, and the man had children from a previous marriage, but we weren’t living together. When I wrote it, while living in my one-room apartment, and it won a prize. The judge who awarded the prize thought it was memoir. At the Awards ceremony, he asked exactly how many children I had. I told him I had none.

He asked how long I’d been married.

I told him I was single.

“But you live in a big house, at least, right?” he said.

I told him I lived in a tiny apartment.

With obvious surprise on his face, he told me he would’ve given me an even “bigger prize than the Grand Prize” if he’d known I wasn’t married nor had any children and lived in a tiny apartment when I’d written it, just for “writing a relationship poem that made [him] think it was memoir, albeit a very well-done memoir.”

Later, one of my friends was so moved by the relationship poems in general, and by “Portrait of the Poet as a Woman” in particular, that she painted The Yellow Teapot in its honor and gave me the painting as a gift.

Barbara Walker's artwork of the "yellow teapot", inspired by my poem "Portrait of the Poet as A Woman," from LOVE IN THE TIME OF DINOSAURS_1024

Portrait of the Poet as a Woman

Your second wife calls to say that the children get
ill after you bring them home Sunday night it must

be something they eat what do I feed them something
dreadful? She calls collect when she’s away. If I

ask who’s calling she says, This is his wife. If I
don’t ask, she says, This is his wife. Sometimes she cries.

I want to feel for her pain, but loving a man
is penance enough. In the yellow tea kettle,

the water steams. Holding the phone to my ear, I
sit at the table with this morning’s dishes. At

breakfast, your youngest son decided to hate the
toast, the jam, the world, me. I wanted to hold him —

the hands covering his face seemed so small, but his
older brother’s stare fixed me, as if in a bad

photograph: off-center, one hand reaching out, the
other almost tipping my teacup, mouth open,

staring straight into the camera. Lot’s wife stilled in
faltering. Pinned without wriggling to the wall. One

of the children slams the bathroom door. The water
steams, without whistling, in the yellow tea kettle.

Last night, one of your children cried out in sleep. The
wood of the hall was cool on my bare feet, and

my nightgown brushed my legs. You were already there
in his room. I stood near the open window and

listened to the hum of your deep voice, woven with
your child’s answering sobs. The white lace curtains brushed

against my flattened belly, aching to be child-
swollen, to share you with something of me instead.

The water steams and she reminds me again that
I have moved into her house. I crumple some burnt

toast with my fingers. Outside, two brown sparrows hop
together in the dried leaves, talking bird-somethings.

~~~

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Sometimes my Poet-persona had two step-children, sometimes three, but she always felt isolated from them, excluded from their world and their love, no matter how much she loved them. Much of that may have been because I never felt loved as a child myself, but it also may have been due to the fact that, since I wasn’t married to the man with whom I was in a relationship, my status was legally undefined.

Is the girlfriend allowed to tell the children what to do? Is she allowed to discipline the children who aren’t hers? Even married couples with children from previous relationships have to consider these things.

I created other poems narrated by this woman Poet, in which she attempted to emotionally connect with the children who were not hers, as well as with the husband who, technically, was hers. “Holiday” was one of the poems that came from my own experiences but which was transmuted into the Poet’s life.

The dream she has was, in fact, a real dream of mine: it was that very same dream that inspired this poem. Even though, at the time, I didn’t consciously realize what the dream was trying to tell me about my own relationship, I was still able to create poetry from the dream. By the time I was finished with the poem, I understood enough about the dream — and my relationship — to find exactly the right epigraph for it.

hands-1432278

Holiday

 Day followed day, and this and that
Seemed to be happening
As always, but through it all
Already loneliness was seeping.

Anna Ahkmatova

 

I pour myself another glass of wine, then lounge
on the wicker couch of the sun-porch, my bare feet

propped on an old milking stool, surrounded by texts
on the psychology of dreams. Late this morning

your first wife phoned, from where it is not raining: your
three children huddled around, chirping, while the cat

lapped milk from their cereal bowls. Outside the grey
rain shimmers, chanting the glossary of terms I

have yet to memorize. Thirteen-year-old Laura
eases into the Bentwood across from me, rocks

slowly. Her brothers pirouette onto the porch,
warbling ninth-day-of-rain-it-never-rains-when-we’re-

in-school songs. I reward them with cookies, so they
dance away to the kitchen, crooning rain-songs for

each other. Last night the youngest stole two-thirds of
your gin-and-tonic, inquired of your mother:

Barbara, when you get drunk, do things look all different?
Beethoven drifts out from behind the door of the

room she’s sharing with your daughter. Your typewriter
clacks as Laura strokes the cover of one of my

books. Last night I dreamed I was swimming and couldn’t
see land anywhere at all.
When her brothers

bounce onto the porch and propose rain-dancing, I
send them to you. Two minutes later, the back door

thuds, and muted squeals float back to us. Your clacking
chorus resumes. I got real tired and called and

called to some man to save me but he was talking
to this mermaid. He didn’t hear me so I guess

I drowned. I present her one of the dream books; she
snuggles with it in a distant room. I wander

the summer cottage, open a second bottle
of wine, memorize your sons in glittering pools.

Last night I, too, dreamt: I was unrolling faded
oriental carpets onto scuffed wood floors. Three

sparrows fluttered down, whispering among themselves.
Their words swelled, joined hands, became the cars of a train

yanking away from an abandoned platform. My
legs lumbered after. The sparrows darted down,

snared the ticket from my extended hand, raced each
other to giggling clouds. The ticket escaped, spun

itself into a whirling dervish, scattering
the clouds and birds. Then I roamed through some crumbling old

house, breaking open all the curtains, unlatching
windows. You followed around behind, closing them.

~~~on-your-own-1435956

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I don’t recall exactly when I wrote “The Toast,” but I’m sure I was beginning to suspect that the man in my life was being unfaithful, despite his denials. Later, after I discovered that, for the final year of our eight-year relationship, he’d been having an affair with my best friend, who was married with two young children, I left him, changed my phone number, moved, and never answered his letters begging me to forgive him and to just talk to him and listen to his side of what happened.

His side?

I didn’t need to listen to anyone else’s side.

The pain and the grief had been too much for me to bear: the woman he had been involved with had, metaphorically and emotionally, died.

I was the survivor, and I wanted nothing to do with a man who defined “love” like that.

The Poet persona, however bitter, stayed with her unfaithful husband, and I got a series of good poems out of exploring the betrayal and pain of infidelity. One of the poems dealing with those issues, “The Toast,” later won a prize.

Though I don’t know if I ever would have gained the ironic tone of the poet had I stayed in my own relationship, I know that leaving that unfaithful man after eight years certainly improved my writing.

fear-1438544

The Toast

To God,
Who did not save us.

(after a poem by
Anna Ahkmatova)

Let’s drink a toast to this dreadful old house, filled with
lost ghosts who come every night to roam around the

downstairs rooms, their limp ghost-hair straying across their
gloomy ghost-eyes. Let’s drink to all the empty rooms

upstairs, meant for an absolute infestation
of tousle-haired, rosy-cheeked children, but housing

instead only walls of books, empty as our eyes
at the breakfast table when the drinks of the night

before have deserted us, leaving us only
each other. Let’s toast the sons your scorned first wife hid

in Italy: your just and deserved punishment
for requiring someone younger, but for which you

never pardoned the new wife. Or let’s toast that faint
stirring in my flattened belly — only once, long

before you were free to claim it. Let’s raise our glass
to the clacking and clanking of your manual

typewriter in the middle of the night, and to
mine, which has been holding its electric tongue for

weeks, except to murmur the names in your frieze of
discarded women whenever I try to write

about something other than the space in the bed
between us, something other than our excuses

for not touching. And let’s not forget to drink to
nineteen-year-old Seraphina in your fiction

writing class who called the house Saturday morning
and asked for you by first name. Let’s drink to the God

who plucked us from our separate lives that last summer
your second wife visited her family in France,

molded us together in His callused palm, clamped
His heavy fingers like bars around us, and laughed.

~~~so-bored-1560539

I hope you’ve you enjoyed the poems as well as some of the background information on how I got inspired to write them.

Dinosaurs Trade paper 1_1024

Additional Poems

Field Trip to the Serpent Mound

Auggie Vernon and the Eclipse

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Please don’t support piracy of Intellectual Property Rights: remember that these poems can’t be distributed without the express written permission of the author and the publisher, nor can they be printed or downloaded without all accompanying copyright info and all that jazz.

All poems from Love in the Time of Dinosaurs © 1980-2010, 2012, 2013, by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. Yellow Teapot © 1987 by Barbara Walker; private collection of Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.

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Mid-July Madness: FREE Books

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Free Books
Monday 13 – Friday 17

shutterstock_198912791I’m crazy about reading, and so are a lot of you out there.

Right now, here on Big Rock Candy Mountain, we’re stuck between unbearable heat and daily monsoons and thunderstorms. It’s making me really cray-cray. And there’s only one thing to do when you’re cray-cray: give away free books.

From Monday 13 July through Friday 17 July,
beginning and ending at Midnight PST,
my three novels and my collection of short stories
will be available free as e-books.

Yes, you read that right.

Absolutely free! *

Don’t have a Kindle? No problem. Amazon has a free Kindle.app for every device except your toaster. Download it from their site, then head for the free books.

You can have one; you can have all four.

Read what the book’s about, read an excerpt, read reviews, and get the book for free.

If you want it,  it’s yours to keep.

I’m not a librarian. I’m an author.

And this is a Summer Madness GiveAway!

Read an excerpt from The Kommandant’s Mistress
Buy The Kommandant’s Mistress on Amazon

The Kommandant's Mistress

Read an excerpt from Only With the Heart
Buy Only With the Heart on Amazon

Only with the Heart

Read an excerpt from Love is a Many Zombied Thing
Buy Love is a Many Zombied Thing on AmazonZombied Trilogy Book 1 ebook Cover blog

Read an excerpt from Naked, with Glasses
Buy Naked, with Glasses on Amazon

Naked, with Glasses

Trade Paper versions of all books also available
(unfortunately, I can’t give those away free)

rds092086

Before you go cray-cray with the dog days of summer, just leave the dirty dishes in the sink, don’t make the bed or do the laundry, send the kids to their friends for a sleep-over,  get some free books, and head to a cool place to chill and read.

Enjoy, my Lovelies!

* Though I’ve only listed the US sites for the free e-books in this post, they’re free world-wide. Just type in my name on the Amazon site in your country, and all my books will come up. Make sure the free ones have a list price of $0.00 before downloading.

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Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) 2015

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About Holocaust Memorial Day
About Where Lightning Strikes
Excerpt from Where Lightning Strikes

Where Lightning Strikes
Free
Monday 13 April-Friday 17 April

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Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (“Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”), known colloquially in Israel and abroad as Yom HaShoah (“The Catastrophe,” or “Utter Destruction”) and in English as Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Holocaust Day, is observed as Israel’s day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews and five million others who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany with its systematic genocide of the European Jews, and for the Jewish resistance in that period, including the resistance of partisans, the members of the Underground, and the Ghetto occupants. It is held on the 27th of Nisan (April/May).

In 2015, Yom HaShoah begins at sundown on Wednesday 15 April and continues through sunset Thursday 16 April. On Thursday, in Israel, a siren stops all traffic and pedestrians for two minutes of silent meditation, reflection, and devotion at 10:00 a.m.

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We must never forget what happened during the Holocaust, not only because of the large-scale persecution and execution of the European Jews, but because such hatred, intolerance, and genocide still exist today, against Jews as well as against many other groups of people. Soon, there will be no Holocaust survivors remaining to tell their own stories, so we must prevent this horrific event from becoming “distant history” by telling their stories for them, and by creating, reading, and viewing art which reminds us that “the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke).

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In honor of Yom HaShoah, in memory of my great-grandparents’ family members and all the other Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, in honor of my friend who survived Auschwitz at age 16 – Anna Brunn Ornstein – her husband, Paul Ornstein, and all the other survivors of the camps, I will, as always be observing the official two minutes of silence and reflection, as well as spending the day in meditation.

Where Lightning Strikes
Free
Monday 13 April-Friday 17 April

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About
Where Lightning Strikes

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

Where Lightning Strikes includes all Szeman’s Holocaust poetry, from the poems featured in her Ph.D. dissertation Survivor: One Who Survives, to the original versions of “Rachel’s poems” appearing or mentioned in Szeman’s award-winning, critically acclaimed first novel The Kommandant’s Mistress.

The poems in this collection revisit the classic themes that have inspired poets for generations: love, passion, betrayal, doubt, loyalty, despair, faith, and survival — this time in the context of the period before, during, and after the Holocaust with its systematic persecution and extermination of the majority of European Jewry by the Nazi regime.

In this collection, victims are given voices. In “First Day of German Class” a young, teenaged girl unfamiliar with the Nazis and their atrocities in Germany and other Nazi-occupied territory develops a crush on the handsome and enigmatic SS Officer who passes out the yellow Stars of David they must now wear, like a brand, to identify and isolate them from the rest of the population.

In the author’s first Holocaust poem, “Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays for Himself” — excerpted in The Kommandant’s Mistress — a female inmate forced into sexual servitude by the Kommandant of the camp considers suicide as an escape from her personal bondage and from the camp, even as she alternately pities or condemns those “weak enough” to “go to the wire” (grab the electric fence), offering her own suggestions for suicide to “escape” the intolerable situation.

“Survivor: One Who Survives,” the title poem of Szeman’s dissertation, also mentioned in her first novel as one of Rachel’s poems/books, explores the life of a woman who “survived” her experiences in the camps but is having difficulty “living.”

Other disturbing yet lyrical poems trace the Holocaust from the perpetrators’ perspective. We hear Albert Speer’s musings about which “path” to take in the dramatic monologue “Learning the New Language,” in which he initially claims not to understand the “new language” that everyone in the Nazi-regime is speaking, but then begins to practice some of the words himself.

A Warsaw Ghetto guard in “The Dead Bodies That Line The Streets” bitterly complains about all the dead bodies who watch his every movement, whisper behind his back, and generally prevent him from doing his job effectively and from sleeping well.

Early, unnamed versions of Max, of The Kommandant’s Mistress, appear, isolated and morally confused in “Dead: Out of Play Though Not Necessarily Out of the Game,” where he momentarily sees an inmate as a fellow human being.

A younger SS officer finds himself disconcerted and alarmed after he is unexpectedly attracted to one of the female inmates when he sees her dancing ballet to the music floating from his office window in “White on White.”

In the camp itself, one of the Sonderkommando, who were in charge of guiding the Jews to be exterminated into the gas chambers, gives “instructions” to a new member of this chosen group on how to survive the camp, in the grim yet spiritually philosophical “On the Other Hand.” Nursery rhymes and children’s songs take on a deadly, mesmerizing meaning in the stunning, award-winning “Lager-Lieder (Camp Songs).”

The true story of Auschwitz-survivor Anna Brunn Ornstein, who was in the camp as a young girl with her mother, is transformed from Anna’s own stories and related in the disturbing yet moving poem “Sofie and Anna.”

Haunting depictions of abusers’ and survivors’ lives after the war appear in works like “Those Who Claim We Hated Them,” where the narrator insists — not always convincingly — that he, his family, and his colleagues held no contempt whatsoever for the Jews, and only did what was politically and morally required of them so that they themselves might survive the Nazi regime and the War.

In the collection’s title work, “Where Lightning Strikes,” a survivor of the camps who now holds a Professorship likens his encounter with contemporary anti-Semitism to a tree’s being struck by lightning: swift, unexpected, brutal, devastating, but terrifyingly and sadly illuminating.

Szeman’s work speaks to us with clarity and resonance. Her themes, though set, in this collection, around the Holocaust, are universal, encompassing the perpetrators’, victims’, and survivors’ perspectives equally insightfully. Though the line-breaks are syllabic — imitating the arbitrary rigidity of the Nazi persecutions as well as of the concentration camps’ operations — the language flows passionately over the artificially imposed line-breaks and formal stanzas. The poems’ many fans often state that, despite the fact that they may have been initially wary of the subject matter, they were enthralled and shaken by poetry which so clearly, simply, and memorably portrays such complex and harrowing events in human history.

Several poems were part of her dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives (University of Cincinnati, 1986). Along with her non-Holocaust poetry collection, Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, this volume, Where Lightning Strikes, was unanimously accepted for publication by all outside readers of UKA Press in 2004.

As powerful, unsettling, and lyrical as her first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, these poems will take you on a compelling, chilling, and unforgettable journey into the lives, hearts, and minds of all those who were victims, perpetrators, and survivors of the Holocaust.

1st Prize (1985), 2nd Prize (1984), Grand Prize (1983) University of Cincinnati’s Elliston Prize (anonymous competition), and awarded The Isabel & Mary Neff Fellowship for Creative Writing (1984-85).

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

United States
United Kingdom
Canada
India

The book is free world-wide;
if your country is not listed here,
simply go to you local Amazon site,
type in the title and my name to pull up the book.

• Don’t have a Kindle?
You can still read the ebooks with the free Kindle.app for any device you have.

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Excerpt from
Where Lightning Strikes

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

Where Lightning Strikes
Free
Monday 13 April-Friday 17 April

Here is an excerpt from my Holocaust poetry collection. The line-breaks are syllabic. I started that with my first Holocaust poem, “Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays For Himself,” to imitate the arbitrary and rigid nature of the Nazi regime, the concentration camps, etc., and then, when I was writing other poems, it still seemed like a natural “challenge” to compose the poems so that, though the lines broke rigidly according to syllable-count, the language flowed over those breaks.

The Dead Bodies that Line the Streets
On the Other Hand,
The Day the Snakes Came


These are two of my favorites. The first is from the perspective of a young SS-guard at the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews died so fast — from starvation, disease, shootings — with no place to bury them, that the bodies were piled up in the streets.

~~~

The Dead Bodies That Line The Streets

chatter and snipe at me constantly, as if I
were responsible for their being there. But I

ignore all their remonstrative and sarcastic
remarks. Favoritism or fraternization

with the enemies of the State is forbidden,
and I won’t tarnish my reputation or my

family name by giving them special privileges
that might alleviate their misery. Don’t they

deserve what’s happening to them? Didn’t they kill
our Lord and Savoiur? My best friend Kurt, though he wears

the same uniform as I, is not as cautious,
not as circumspect. Why shouldn’t we be paid to

do our job in this God-forsaken Ghetto and
be rewarded for sometimes not doing it as

well? he says before he slips behind the bricked wall
or behind the stack of bodies with his latest

protectee, a beautiful girl who hardly looks
Jewish at all. We’re much closer to the Front than

we are to home, he reminds me, buttoning his
uniform after he returns. Such things are routine

at the Front, he says, and he should know since
his brother was killed there only last spring. Sometimes,

I admit, I’m tempted when I see some lovely
girl who’d do anything for only a bit of

brown bread or a piece of sausage. I even caught
myself wondering what one of them might do for

a bite of chocolate or some cigarettes. But they
heard my innocent musings and have fastened their

rolled-back eyes on me ever since. I get angry,
threaten them, poke them with my bayonet: leave me

be, I shout. But their gaping mouths tsk tsk tsk at
me until I light up a cigarette and toss

the still-burning match onto one of their lolling
tongues. That usually silences them. These bodies

should be carted away and dumped somewhere, but Kurt
claims they’re here as a symbol to the living. As

far as I can determine, these beggars ignore
their dead. Instead they scurry around, stealing food

from each other, trying to bribe me or one of
the other fellows, hurling themselves over the

wall or through the wire. And the dead bodies that line
the streets certainly don’t care about their living

comrades or they wouldn’t lie around spying and
gossiping to annoy me, trying to prevent

me from doing my job. The bodies that line the
streets should be hauled away and incinerated,

their ashes scattered to the heavens. Then I could
perform my duties without interference, eat

meals without tasting dust,
sleep at night without dreams.

~~~

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And this, from the perspective of one of the Extermination Camps (like Auschwitz) Sonderkommando, the Jewish inmates in charge of leading the incoming victims into the gas chambers, putting their bodies into the ovens, then cleaning out the ovens. He’s a very devout man, and often quotes from the Bible, in his Yiddish dialect, as he teaches the newest member chosen by the SS to help with their “work”:

(Note: the mussulmans were what the camp inmates called the Jews who were were so thin & sickly that it was obvious they were going to die any time.)

~~~

On The Other Hand,

death: not everyone’s favorite topic
of conversation, I know, but some things

they have to be talked about, they can’t be
avoided, you’ll get used to it. We get

used to anything. Look at me: as stout
as good challah I used to be, and now:

matzoh. Open the door from this side. But
what a man I was. What arms I had. The

envy of men, desire of girls for
miles. What shoulders I had. From hoisting those

sacks of flour. Stir them around. Don’t look:
just stir. And muscles from kneading. Did I

knead. Day in, day out. In the beginning,
lying down on my pillow at night hurt,

my shoulders were so sore. I learned; you will,
too. But more bread than anyone I made,

better, cheaper. From miles they came to buy
my breads. And my ovens weren’t even so

large as these: I could afford such ovens?
Only toward the end did the fires burn

all night, so no crumbling bricks in mine. Here,
take them out this way. Now the fires will

not go out. The beasts have been sent among
us. They rob us of our children, destroy

our cattle. Cattle they never touched, let
alone destroyed. Drag this to the door: scrape

the ashes into it. Cattle — grazing,
sleeping, as if it were Shabbas. We take

the fat and burn it in the ovens: it
goes faster that way. One set of clothes we

take off, another we put on, and to
another place we carry the ashes.

Don’t worry. This is your first day: you’ll soon
forget to notice. That which remaineth

of the flesh and of the bread shall we burn
with the fire. Only better to eat the

bread, they would mind? Worse than yours my first day
was. For months I don’t see my in-laws I’m

working so hard. My wife is complaining —
all these strangers and you’re never at home —

she’s worried. My first day here, who do I
see? My wife and her parents. What do I

do? Kiss them? Cry tears of reunion? Of course
not: foolish I’ve never been. Here, work is

all we know: people we don’t recognize.
It is written: ten women shall bake in

one oven — even if they’re mussulmans,
into one oven, don’t put that many.

Otherwise, another catastrophe
like a few months ago: new helpers we

have, but does anyone teach them? Fans they
don’t turn on. Ovens they overheat. Then,

Pow. The wall explodes. Three days we don’t work.
We don’t work, we don’t eat. We don’t eat, we

bake. After, among ourselves, we agree:
Never again. From now on, we teach the

right way. Us they will not swallow up in
their wrath. Us the fire shall not devour.

Us the land of our enemies shall not
eat up. Our ashes they shall not scatter

into the wind, God willing. We are few
in number. And on the other hand, death.

~~~

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Once I’d written poems from the period before the War and the Concentration Camps, and the time during those periods, from the perspectives of both the perpetrators and the victims, I knew I had to write some poems about the permanent repercussions of what the Nazis had done. This is one of them.

~~~

The Day the Snakes Came

Wouldst thou have a
serpent sting thee twice?

William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice 4.1.69

We thought, at first, that we were imagining them:
that sliver of disturbed dust by the sidewalk, that

hint of damp on the kitchen floor. Then we thought they
were an aberration: the one found coiled in young

Markowitz’s bathroom sink, the other around
the apple strudel in Mrs. Polski’s icebox.

The beasts have been sent among us, said Leopold,
to rob us of our children and to destroy our

cattle. Since we knew he drank his meals, we shook our
heads and pitied his daughter Leah who came each

night to drag her father home, his arms waving like
snakes. Then others began to talk. Everywhere, there

was snake talk: It’s been pretty dry the last few years;
they’re just looking for water. Old Farmer Johnson

must have turned up a lot of rocks in his field this
spring. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.

Some people even laughed. Then our neighbors began
slicking back their hair. Our children practiced flicking

their tongues in front of the bathroom mirrors and changed
their names to snake names. By September the snakes were

everywhere. Glistening black bodies swarmed over
the sidewalks, bubbled out of the water pipes, milled

out of morning cereal. Some tried to ignore
the snakes. They were the first to disappear. Others

argued: They don’t have any reason to hurt us.
What have we done to them? If we don’t bother them,

they won’t bother us. They were next to vanish. A
few brave ones tried to learn snake words, to untangle

the slithering black unrest. Their facility
at languages could not save them. But most of us

tried to protect ourselves. The snakes caught us any
time: when we were gathering fruit in the garden,

when we reached into the basket of knitting, when
we crawled into bed at night. Then suddenly, one

spring day, the snakes were gone. A cold wind blew in their
place. We lost most of our village to the snakes. We

heard the same from neighboring towns. The wind chilled us.
We swept the brittle carcasses out of our homes,

replanted our gardens, and tried to rebuild new,
snake-less lives. The years passed. The wind blew cold, hard words

at us: There must have been something to upset the
snakes: they only attack to protect themselves. It

could never happen here. I never saw a snake
in my life. If they were here, they weren’t in my house.

But we have taught our children about the snakes. We
teach them how to wield bats, how to ignore wispy

whispered snake charms, how to crush a snake’s head with their
heels. Because late at night we hear them, late at night

rustling feverishly around the base of the house,
their long fangs clicking, their lidless eyes watching.

~~~

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Hope you enjoyed the poems, and please remember that they can’t be distributed without copyright info and all that jazz (all poems from Where Lightning Strikes © 1980-2010, 2012, 2013, by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman).

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

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