I saw the shattered light on broken glass
Reflected in your eyes when we were young,
Though you were still unborn
The night the glass was broken.
I could not name it in those vanished days--
Some of it, yes—but not all of it,
Yet I vowed to keep the flame alive,
To bear witness to what I could not name.
Now, having learned better how to translate
The unspoken knowledge of the heart--
More of it, yes—though never all of it,
Today I renew that vow
Looking north through the plate glass window
of a bakery on Highland Avenue.
It isn’t quiet here, but the background noise
Consoles me with its mundane normalcy:
The loud hum of the air conditioner,
The sound of the passing traffic
fifteen feet from the unbroken window.
At two degrees of separation
I recall the sound of the sledgehammers
Crashing through the plate glass windows,
And the stained glass windows as well.
Afterwards the sidewalks were covered with it:
Broken glass, broken glass,
Blood and broken glass—
As memory turns to foreknowledge
A cold shadow passes over me.
It seems so peaceful here, yet I remain on guard.
Beneath the growing avalanche of hatred,
I hear the staccato crack of breaking glass.
The day draws near when this false peace,
Brittle and fragile as any window
Whether of plate glass or stained glass
will lie shattered on the sidewalks of the world.
“Get over it!” they say.
“How much longer will you Jews
Keep obsessing over your private tragedy?
Do you really think no other people
Has ever suffered genocide?
Time to move on,” they say.
Let them believe I’m picking at old scabs
Or getting paranoid over nothing; I don’t care.
It should be self-evident that the scars remain
After your heart has been pierced by broken glass,
Even at two degrees of separation.
But no matter what they think I’m saying
Or why they think I’m saying it,
The pain itself is beside the point.
And so we bear witness to what matters most:
That the echo of the sound of breaking glass
Spreads through the intricate web of love,
Past the boundaries of space and time,
Relentlessly out to infinity. And as it spreads,
It changes. Yes, I’m talking alchemy here--
Just so we’re clear on that.
This is our secret strength and hidden truth:
That empathy begins as shared grief,
but ends as shared knowledge.
© 2011 by Linda S. Sang
In one very significant way, this poem is very different from the two previous ones I’ve posted on this blog in the past. Both of those poems were written within a few weeks of each other over 25 years ago, in the spring of 1984 shortly after my sister’s death. This poem was started two days ago, in a bakery on Highland Avenue on Wednesday, August 31, 2011. I did the final revisions a few hours ago.
I went to the bakery with the intention of writing, but what I was planning to write was something very different from what I ended up bringing home with me. What I had in mind was prose, for one thing. Until Wednesday, I had not written any poetry for years and pretty much assumed I never would again. I started writing what I originally had in mind, but my heart just wasn’t in it and my mind kept wandering.
I had a folder with me containing some printouts of recent e-mails, and in an attempt to regain my focus I began reading them over. A response to one particular communication began shaping itself in my mind after I read it for the second or third time. To my total astonishment, instead of being a standard prose e-mail reply my response seemed to be trying to take the form of a poem. So I decided to let it go where it wanted. I grabbed a blank sheet of looseleaf paper just like I used to do in the old days, and followed my thoughts and feelings wherever they wanted to take me.
What is so amazing about this experience, once so commonplace in my life, is that I haven’t even tried to write a poem in years. That’s why the only poems posted on my blog are old ones—because there simply haven’t been any new ones. I have often wondered if I’d ever write another poem again in my life. This one didn’t come easily. I wrote three longhand drafts at the bakery over a period of about three hours. Fortunately, the owner of the place likes me and is more than happy to let me hang out there as long as I want to. Even though there are only two tables, I don’t recall that the other one was occupied the whole time I was there.
Although they got successively better, my handwritten drafts were sloppy, imprecise and out of focus--but then first drafts usually are. Fortunately, the notorious inner critic who plagues all writers didn’t get into the act too early in the game with her usual deflating put-downs. I felt that in spite of the amateurishness I had something worth pursuing. So I came home and transferred the poem to the computer.
I also made a point of checking out the Wikipedia entry for Kristallnacht as a precaution against any glaring errors of fact. If I had made any in my first drafts, I wanted to be sure I corrected them fairly early in the revision process. That involved another three drafts yesterday, plus a final one this afternoon. Wednesday night was the first time I’ve ever read a historical account of Kristallnacht, although of course I’ve read references to it in other works on WWII and the Holocaust. I was especially struck by one short paragraph:
The number of emigrating Jews surged as those who were able, left the country. In the ten months following Kristallnacht, more than 115,000 Jews emigrated from the Reich. The majority went to other European countries, theAmong those 115,000 Jews who left
USand Palestine....As part of government policy, the Nazis seized houses, shops, and other property the émigrés left behind.