I must warn you, there is danger in entering this book. Step into it, and you cannot leave until the reading is done. It is a catalogue of the conditions of war, not for the faint-hearted, when hate is in the
ascendancy. In Chopin's Piano, his sixth collection, Charles Fishman achieves an intensity of expression that avoids stridency. He bears witness in poem after poem, whether in Spain at the time of the Inquisition, during the Spanish Civil war of the 20th century, or in Fascist Germany, in Japan at the end of the Second World War, or in the present Middle East, often placing himself within the personae of the victims -- who speak to us of their lives. The epigraph he has chosen, taken from the Ninth of the Dueno
Elegies of Rilke, sounds a note of what the reader may expect in Chopin's Piano. "This is the time for what can be said. Here is its country. Speak and testify."
Why raise these issues again? Has enough not already been said? Should we succumb to despair at the "Condition of Man," the repeated ascendancy of hate? No, Fishman says, there is a need to know, and there is always hope in the future. That is his message, so elegantly stated. Indeed, Chopin's Piano is dedicated to his grandchildren. The book is divided into a Prologue (the title poem), then four subdivisions - Toledo, Counting the Holocaust, A Child's Tale, At the Place of Burning - a
travelogue of sorts, and an Epilogue.
First, we are taken to Toledo,
Nowhere in Espana have I seen the Expulsion
honored or even remembered, though a shadow, at times, passes
above the great cathedrals
Where are the Jews of Spain who catalogued the stars
and catered to cardinals and caliphs
Then, a complex valedictory poem for Federico Lorca, which encompasses four cities -- Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, and Grenada.
I address this to you, in this country of your birth,
while your beloved nation prepares to remember
her murdered poet
In Seville, Fishman touches on duende, that Spanish sensibility with which Lorca was so in touch.
[T]he cantores stepped forward to sing - but the tune was black
and blood for the dancer had found its ruined notes abandoned
and he slashed at the throat of the song -
Yes, Lorca, I think he was dancing your words -
And in Granada,
You wouldn't leave Spain, your mother country
Spain, with all her deceits and vanities Spain,
most devout and most cruel --
We know it now, how Spain murdered you: you were killed
at Fuente Grande, called by the Arabs who built it, Ainadamar:
the Fount of Tears
Then, in the second section, "Counting the Holocaust," we are taken on a trip through hell. In "1933," after Chagall's Yellow Crucifixion,
The storm approaches and a green cloud
that is an open torah unfurls in the ash-gold sky
A green-winged angel sounds her clarion
but the roaring of the wind drowns out each note
Already their homes their shuls are scorched
by the flames and the ship of the hopeless future
goes down in fire
He had the charm of a Chinese emperor
and loved to mingle with his victims
those he permitted to linger
in anterooms of death, he could mangle
or heal as desired
In "The Young Germans,"
Already at birth they seek forgiveness
a field of thorns flourishes
beneath their hearts
In a country of ghosts their first words
Who can release them but the Jews Grandfather
killed? Who can heal if not the Jews
only oblivion saved?
In "Five Holocaust Memories," a German witness, a Dutch witness, a Polish survivor, a Czech survivor, and last, an American officer.
It was unbelievable. The bunks and their stench
„Ÿ unbelievable. The quarry and its dead: unbelievable.
And the silence of the nearby town
In "Counting the Holocaust," the title poem of this section, Fishman "lets others immerse themselves in questions of time and intention."
He would leave the Nazis to history
the endless litany of camps to architects
He wanted to know one thing only --
what six million of anything added up to
Then, Fishman provides "Some Numbers":
Survivors will be paid
for the gassing of her father
in Auschwitz, one hundred
and forty bucks and for her mother
murdered in Belsen, the same
"The Silence," a sequence of four poems, the intense pinnacle of this section of Chopin's Piano, is a tour through Treblinka, Camp B1, Birkenau, Chelma, Kulmhof, Grabon. But then, in "A Child's Tale," a change in location - to Japan. The tone shifts with the scene, the words take on new meaning. Who are the victims, who the perpetrators?
"Seven Witnesses" speak to us: Hiroshi Sawachika, an army doctor stationed in Ujina, and Yosaku Mikami, a streetcar passenger in Sendamachi, and Isao Kita, a worker at the Hiroshima District Weather Bureau, and Dr. Ryuso Taneka, a student at Hiroshima University of Education, and Kosuke Shishido, a colonel in the Japanese army, and Yukiharu Nakagama, a sixteen-year-old engineer at the time of the bombing, and, finally, Michiko Yamaoka, a middle school student. This is a different kind of victim, of
our own country's actions.
Then, a sequence of four poems in which "A Child's Tale" of four days in 1945 illustrates the shared humanity of "The Enemy." A child is taken from Hiroshima, evacuated to Saihoji Temple, five months before the bombing of Hiroshima. Then, the day of the bombing, and afterwards
[S]urvivors were lying on futons
In the cavernous room, a small woman like your mother
was difficult to find and, when you saw her, your heart
Yes, the inhabitants of Hiroshima were victims. Could one call them innocent? What would an American say if a father, an uncle, a brother had been killed at Iwo Jima, Okinawa? In placing himself in the personae of individual people, Fishman shows us their humanity, and we begin to understand the enormity of the myths of war...the creation of "The Other."
In Army Doctor, we are shown another face of Japan ? its cruelty.
...When his prisoner was neatly
dissected, yet would not die, he, Yuasa Ken, watched
the director of the hospital inject air into his heart.
This was the first time he understood the power
that lived in the uniform, in his surgeons tools.
In the last section of Chopin's Piano, titled "At the Place of Burning," the scene moves to the Middle East - Israel, Palestine, Iraq
"An Angel to the Jews" is a transition poem. Fishman takes us from a past war, its European and Pacific Theaters, to the current festering war and asks whether this past has implications for the present. An angel bears witness in the affirmative
He's seen a shadow descend upon the entire world.
Nothing he says will free it, so he rages and screams
Then flies up into the obliterated sky...
Now he howls into his wings, the only heaven
he knows Yes, he capitulates, yes, I am a Jew.
In "The Burning One," Gorelik, the pious Russian Jew
burned to love God to follow his Word
and so he prayed secretly and taught
in forbidden schools under the nose of Stalin
Then, a sequence of seven poems that touch on Jerusalem
Your feet on the old stones of Jerusalem
felt heat rising from the earth
as if the flames of history
licked just beneath the surface
where each stone burns
to tell its story...
We feel the angst of loss in "Instead of a Wedding," and "Kaddish for Maayan Niam," against the background of the smoldering battle between two peoples of one mythic father, Abraham, who both claim a land as holy.
Then, "You Walked in Nineveh"
[I]n the filthy streets of the ancient city
of Jonah you found shattered and sewage-smeared homes
where - for more than a thousand years -
Iraq's Jews had lived the tomb of Daniel
and doorposts engraved with the mighty lion
of Judah You felt our people there:
[Y]ou felt their ghostly presence and you heard them
singing in the narrow streets in the despoiled courtyards
And you walked further into the night in Nineveh
and heard Jewish babes cry ? you could hear
that crying like the long drawn-out shrieking
of the wind
And, "At the Place of Burning," the title poem of the section, Fishman finds an answer.
The sky was deep cobalt and so clear
I could see the snow shimmer on Mt. Hermon.
I walked a dirt road that slowly spiraled upwards,
in a land of draught and fire, and the slowness
of my journey quieted me: even the incessant
chatter of gunfire could not disquiet:
let the world practice peace or warfare,
I would put one foot in front of the other.
Fishman has moved beyond Holocausts, found a kind of peace beyond the anguish.
I felt the light deepen around me then, as if I too
might disappear in a cloud of stars or fire or lift my pen
and bring down a rain that cleansed and healed.
For I stood at the place of burning, knowing
that we wait always at the verge of transformation
and where I was now "this ancient kingdom, Israel "
He is close to bringing us to an end of a personal journey, but not quite. "A Child for the Millennium," the epilogue and final poem of Chopin's Piano provides an answer to hatred and a hope for the future, in his grandson, whose innocence is fostered by personal love, against the background of all that Fishman has presented.
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 bon-
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 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
The future rests with the children of the millennium, innocent of past horrors of the twentieth century, but it also rests in our ability to love these children.
Yet can Fishman ignore, as he has done, the dispossessed who claim this same land that he cleaves to. Have they not also been residents of this land for centuries, if not millennia. There is no acknowledgment of the Palestinians as victims. They remain nameless, except in epigraphs - as the
Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade, Islamic Jihad - and we are not allowed to see them as people, as we did those of Hiroshima, and ask "Why?"
To speak in the personae of the Palestinians would be a challenge for any Jew, but it would be a worthy quest. There can be no hope for peace, unless one sees the victimization of one's enemy. Again, who is the victim and who the perpetrator? Fishman raises this question within his Hiroshima poems. Was the "Bombardier" who pulled the trigger, let the A-bomb fly on that August day in 1945 the perpetrator or the victim? Both? And recently, W.G. Sebald has dared to ask were the Germans victims too, in Dresden, Hamburg after the firestorms? Is acquiescence innocence, or is it guilt?
These are difficult questions that do not take away from the superb craftsmanship of this collection of poems that is Chopin's Piano. Indeed, the poems cry for answers. I would only have liked perhaps an additional epigraph to have been chosen.
After we die,
And the weary heart
Has lowered its final eyelid
On all that we've done,
And on all that we've longed for,
On all that we've dreamt of,
All we've desired
Hate will be the first thing
To putrefy within us.
Taha Mohamed Ali
It is for poets to lead the way.