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The Album

by nickb 

Posted: 20 June 2015
Word Count: 361

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We open the bottom drawer.  It rasps in its weight,
new wounds stretch across this sharpness,
its screech is shrapnel past our ears.
The contents rattle our excitement though we should be grieving.
We are kneeling at an alter to her life.  In its depths
our sighs swerve like swallows.  This is a guilty pleasure
as we pluck at the filigree of her life; childrens' drawings,
pasta necklaces brittle with age, holiday tea towels never used,
their folds set in years of darkness.
We have differing shades of association
as we pass these parcels.  “Oh look” you say at each turn
as the sarcophagus, laid bare, exhales its contents.
At the bottom of this bottom drawer,
the depths kept for winter showers in the armchair,
we find an album.
She had been to Germany after the war.
There had been silk pictures from the Black Forest,
a wooden plaque with its teutonic inscription
“Gib uns heute unser tägliches brot”.
She had taught us to count to ten
as she gave us our daily bread.
Now huddled quiet on the bedroom floor
we see the ghost of her at twenty four,
hiking with friends in unknown hills,
lounging at a café flaunting the smile of youth
with the sun in its face. Faded notes in white ink
confirm names and places, as though left for us.
We stop short at one.  She is holding flowers,
in front of a sign which catches our breath:
“This is the site of the infamous Belsen concentration camp”.
Behind it, desolation.  A tall wooden cross stands stark
at the world’s end.  It punches a hole in the sky.
Her silence on this is suddenly resounding.
All those years, not mentioned once.
Was it unimportant? After children did this life
seem archaic, the perspective of it
lengthening its shadow to a rock in a distant sea?
Was it our selfishness that never thought to ask more
about the dreams of this woman, younger now than us?
Outside the deep blue sky slowly darkens.
She has crossed a bridge between her life, and ours,
and we wonder, in a new found loss, where she laid her flowers.

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 19:49 on 22 June 2015  Report this post
Hi Nick – To sum up my response to this poem, I will use a Greek word: oikeion. In case you haven’t come across it, it means ‘homely’, hence congenial, in tune with one’s own thoughts, feelings and outlook. I’m very much in tune with this.
It’s not only the experience it relates, which reminds me of a similar process of going through the personal effects, including photographs, of a deceased relative. Your judgement has been good on several aspects of the writing too. First, present tense: the poem reads like a commentary on what is happening during that short time, and on the couple’s responses to what they find. It has immediacy.
Then your style: not informal in the sense of being chatty or lightweight, but an informality combined with a serious tone. There’s always a sense that a speaker is telling us this story, one that means a great deal to him. At the same time the poem is full of strong poetic lines, but your images and word choices are not ‘literary’ – by which I mean they are the kind of imaginative words, phrases and comparisons that an intelligent person would think of while talking about something important to them. For example, comparing the drawer with an altar and a sarcophagus, and expressions like:
we pluck at the filigree of her life
their folds set in years of darkness
we see the ghost of her at twenty four
A tall wooden cross stands stark
at the world’s end.  It punches a hole in the sky
...and more.
So the natural way in which everything is narrated brings it all to life. The life of the deceased woman comes across well, especially her silence on the subject of Belsen. The couple with their ‘different shades of association’ come across well too.
A passage I especially like is ‘a wooden plaque...daily bread’ which is like the kind of humorous anecdote we tell at funerals, amusing but tinged with sadness.
Now, I had a thought about the story of the deceased woman’s life. I take it she was a real person. Was she in fact a former inmate and survivor of Belsen, or did she simply visit the place as a tourist? Was the photo of her with flowers taken on a return visit, a visit made to pay homage to those who died there? Many former prisoners would be unable to do such a thing, but someone of strong character might be able to do it. An alteration to one line would strengthen this impression:
She returned to Germany after the war
rather than
She had been to Germany after the war
I must stress that this is only a thought and I don’t think the poem needs to be changed in this way. If she only visited Belsen during her travels in Germany, she would have been very disturbed by the experience and wouldn’t want to talk about it. The poem works well on this premise.  But to have it that she had been a prisoner in Belsen would probably work too – though I may not have thought it through sufficiently.
There’s one line that I can’t quite get my head round:
new wounds stretch across this sharpness
The purpose of your imagery of wounds and shrapnel seems to be to introduce a note of foreboding, which is the right note and is confirmed in the rest of the poem. It’s just the idea of wounds ‘stretching’ that seems odd. I suppose you mean a sharp edge of anxiety causes emotional wounds that grow longer or increase somehow. But wouldn’t it be more straightforward just to say that new wounds ‘are opened by this sharpness’? The opening lines would have a more direct impact that way.
Finally, the ex-English teacher corrects your spelling. ‘Altar’. And Germans seem to need to capitalise all nouns, e.g.  Brot.
I like this poem very much. The details of what is happening are interesting from beginning to end, and your style and language perfectly suit the subject. I'm in tune with it.

nickb at 22:01 on 24 June 2015  Report this post
Hi Graham,

many thanks for your thoughts on this.  First of all I agree with you about wound stretching bit.  It was one of those phrases that seemed to sound good but on closer examination misses the mark somewhat in terms of meaning.  I find it quite easy to slip into this sort of thing and have to pull myself up on it!

The woman in question was actually my Mother.  She hadn't been in Belsen, she worked in a munitions factory during the war, and then went to work for the allied administration in Germany after it.  She was always a quiet, quite shy person, and it always seemed surprising that she did something as adventurous as that.  Also she always hated having her photograph taken and there are very few of her as ayoung woman.  So it was a bit of a shock when my sisters and I found the album whilst clearing the house after she died.  It was a side of her we had never seen, and one she rarely talked about.  The fact that she had been to Belsen left so many questions that will not now be answered.

As a poem it was a struggle to find a way to tell the story as a story but without it sounding too prosaic.  I think the informal, conversational tone you highlighted came naturally once I put it in the present tense.  I started this in the past tense and it came out as just a progression of facts.  It intrigues me how changes of this ort can put an entirely different slant on a piece.

I will alter my altar.

Thanks again.


James Graham at 20:19 on 25 June 2015  Report this post
Thanks for the background to this poem, which is interesting of course, but the poem speaks for itself. I had a shadow of a doubt about your discovery that your Mother had visited Belsen – as to why she never talked about it. Former prisoners, even those who were sent there in the last weeks before the Nazi defeat, would not want to talk about it, but someone who had visited the site some years after liberation would still be horrified but perhaps not to the extent of never being able to mention it at all.
However, it’s always a good idea to read a poem one more time, to confirm or dispel any such doubt. My doubt was dispelled, because it became clear from all you say in the poem that some visitors to Belsen might talk about it but it wasn’t in your Mother’s nature to do so. I imagine she was a person of great sensitivity and deep feelings, and whatever she learned about Belsen during her visit would be more than enough to make her decide to stow it away in the deepest recesses of her memory. The answer to your question ‘Was it unimportant?’ is ‘No, it was too important’.
What follows this,
After children did this life
seem archaic
rings very true. ‘After children’ the memory would recede a little more.
So I’ve now read this poem several times, and it’s the real deal. Send it to The Linnet's Wings.


nickb at 20:58 on 29 June 2015  Report this post
Thanks James, I'll give it a go.


Bazz at 19:40 on 10 July 2015  Report this post
Just wanted to say I love the voice in this, and there are some incredibly striking lines towards the end. The cross that "punches a hole in the sky", the woman "younger now than us" and a lovely final line. This is a very reflective piece, which touches on themes I think would strike a chord everywhere. Old photographs contain great mysteries, don't they? Small hints and insights, smiles and locations we can never unravel, this piece really captures that sensation, the mystery put outside of all solving...

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