The exemplary sentence

Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different.

Several years ago, I started posting favorite passages from prose that I am reading. I stole the title “The exemplary sentence,” from Mark Doty’s blog. It seems apt. This excerpt is from Tadeusz Borowski’s amazing book, This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen, which I first read in a Penguin paperback in the 70s and reread recently. The book is a collection of stories, the first stories that made the concentration camp experience seem real to me, to see how it simply became daily life for the participants, who to stay alive, necessarily became collaborators in their own imprisonment.

Here is one passage, slightly edited:

“Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step toward that world. Do you really think that, without hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity…It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world but simply for life, a life of peace and rest…We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers…

But still we continue to long for a world in which there is love between men, peace, and serene deliverance from our baser instincts…And yet, first of all, I should like to slaughter one or two men, just to throw off the concentration camp mentality, the effects of continual subservience, the effects of helplessly watching other being beaten and murdered, the effects of all this horror. I suspect though, that I will be marked for life. I do not know whether we shall survive, but I like to think that one day we shall have the courage to tell the world the whole truth and call it by its proper name.”

Borowski did survive, and the power of his work led Larry and I to find and translate his poetry years later, still the only selected poems of his in English. His survival was brief however, as like many survivors, he couldn’t stand that the world had not changed, that telling the truth made little difference. His life ended in suicide in 1951. Nonetheless, the work remains for those who care to read it.

Poetry and Science

This poem reminds me how poems can arise from any experience.  I especially love the references to Keats and how the poem contains so much.

Anatomy Exam

Today at the college library the students check out arms
and legs—towering models of muscles and veins
perched on a stand like a hat rack. The exam
just two weeks before Cadaver Day, when they will arrive
pale-faced and woozy in my lit class. I will read them
Keats and they will think of the vastus medialis
and the rectus femoris, and how they looked not strong
and red as on the model but brown and shriveled,
spoiled like old meat. They will think of the sound of their
blade slicing into a corpse’s leg, of the tibial nerve running
long and taut like a highway straight down to the ankle,
of the precarity of their bodies made only of body.
I will tell them that Keats trained as a surgeon before
donating his body to poetry, how he died just a few years
older than them. But their mind will stay lost in the length
of the leg on the table: how the toes wriggled with a tug
on the ribboned tendons, how the toes had nails, how
the nails once grew, how an old woman with a name
once bent to trim them over a toilet bowl. And now
after all to feel so temporary, to hear finally the words
within the words uttered sacred by the preacher,
the teacher, the nurse. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty,
but a body on a table is made of parts with names
that must be known as certainly as Adam knew the names
of the animals, or at least as I know my own—name of
the body I live in, a body I’ve long thought of offering,
so I can teach again in death. But that is not for today.
Today is for hopeful plastic models that snap together
like toys. Today they color the arteries red and the veins blue,
dreaming of their scrubs and their stethoscopes,
strangers to Keats and the plague they’ll soon grapple.
Today the answer is not: Someone once kissed this spot, so tender
behind the knee, but, Gracilis, plantaris, extensor hallucis longus.

Alyse Knorr
first published in The Southern Review

A Celebration

I love the mysteriousness of this poem, the juxtapositions, the quiet ominousness, and the way it moves the way the mind moves. So lucky that translation brings this poem to us.

A Celebration

The thread of the story fell to the ground, so I went down on my hands and knees to hunt for it. This was at one of those patriotic celebrations, and all I saw were imported shoes and jackboots.
.        Once, on the train, an Afghan woman who had never seen Afghanistan said to me, “Triumph is possible.” Is that a prophecy? I wanted to ask. But my Persian was straight from a beginner’s textbook and she looked, while listening to me, as though she were picking through a wardrobe whose owner had died in a fire.
.        Let’s assume the people arrived en masse at the square. Let’s assume the people is not a dirty word and that we know the meaning of the phrase en masse. Then how did all these police dogs get here? Who fitted them with parti-colored masks? More important, where is the line between flags and lingerie, anthems and anathemas, God and his creations—the ones who pay taxes and walk on earth?
.        Celebration. As if I’d never said the word before. As if it came from a Greek lexicon in which the victorious Spartans march home with Persian blood still wet on their spears and shields.
.        Perhaps there was no train, no prophecy, no Afghan woman sitting across from me for two hours. At times, for his own amusement, God leads our memories astray. What I can say is that from down here, among the shoes and jackboots, I’ll never know for certain who triumphed over whom.

by Iman Mersal, translated by Robyn Creswell
First published in The Paris Review, issue 197, Summer 2011

For Juneteenth

I heard Danez Smith read before the Pandemic. His energy from the slam tradition is ebullient, and his poems are powerful. Here is one for this holiday. As usual, I especially like the ending.


after Morgan Parker, after Wu-Tang

                      in the morning I think about money

           green horned lord of my waking

                      forest in which I stumbled toward no salvation

                                 prison made of emerald & pennies

           in my wallet I keep anxiety & a condom

I used to sell my body but now my blood spoiled

           All my favorite songs tell me to get money

                                              I’d rob a bank but I’m a poet

                                 I’m so broke I’m a genius

           If I was white, I’d take pictures of other pictures & sell them

I come from sharecroppers who come from slaves who do not come from kings

                                              sometimes I pay the weed man before I pay the light bill

                      sometimes is a synonym for often

I just want a grant or a fellowship or a rich white husband & I’ll be straight

           I feel most colored when I’m looking at my bank account

I feel most colored when I scream ball so hard motherfuckas wanna find me

                                 I spent one summer stealing from ragstock

If I went to jail I’d live rent-free but there is no way to avoid making white people richer

                                              A prison is a plantation made of stone & steel

           Being locked up for selling drugs = Being locked up for trying to eat

                                              a bald fade cost 20 bones now a days

                      what’s a blacker tax than blackness?

                                              what cost more than being American and poor?

                                         here is where I say reparations.

here is where I say got 20 bucks I can borrow?

           student loans are like slavery but not but with vacation days but not but police

I don’t know what it says about me when white institutions give me money

                      how much is the power ball this week?

I’mma print my own money and be my own god and live forever in a green frame

                      my grandmamma is great at saving money

           before my grandfather passed he showed me where he hid his money & his gun

                      my aunt can’t hold on to a dollar, a job, her brain

                                 I love how easy it is to be bad with money

                      don’t ask me about my taxes

                                 the b in debt is a silent black boy trapped

Danez Smith

The Exemplary Sentence

It’s been awhile since I published a prose piece.  This snippet is from Wisława Szymborska’s How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) and first appeared in Lit Hub’s Craft of Writing newsletter. It comes from the advice she gave—anonymously—for many years in “Literary Mailbox,” a regular column in the Polish journal Literary Life, and is translated by the indefatigable Clare Cavanagh, who has brought us most of the wonderful Polish poetry and prose that we have in English.

“The same old complaint about ‘youth.’ This time we’re supposed to forgive the author since he still hasn’t been anywhere, experienced anything worth mentioning, or read everything that he should. Such confessions betray the belief (adolescent, hence a bit simplistic) that external circumstances alone make the writer. That his creative quality derives from the quantity of his life adventures. In fact, the writer develops internally, within his own heart and mind: through an innate (we repeat, innate) propensity for thought, acute sensitivity to minor matters, astonishment at what others see as ordinary. Trips abroad? We sincerely hope you’ll take them, they sometimes come in handy. But before you head off to Capri, we suggest a trip to Lesser Wółka. If you come back with nothing to write about, then no azure grottoes will save you.”

When we were in Krakow a few years ago (sadly we missed Lesser Wółka), there was a museum show called Szymborska’s Desk, which had a facsimile of her writing room with many artifacts. I found it truly charming, and was only sorry I never got to meet the writer herself. Here is her yellow typewriter from that show.

The book of these snippets, How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) is published by New Directions. Hurray for them! I’m going to buy a copy myself.

Starting fresh

With hope for a better new year, a poem that seems appropriate–of course, right now no flying to Rome or Greece. Still…

The New Experience

I was ready for a new experience.
All the old ones had burned out.

They lay in little ashy heaps along the roadside
And blew in drifts across the fairgrounds and fields.

From a distance some appeared to be smoldering
But when I approached with my hat in my hands

They let out small puffs of smoke and expired.
Through the windows of houses I saw lives lit up

With the otherworldly glow of TV
And these were smoking a little bit too.

 I flew to Rome. I flew to Greece.
I sat on a rock in the shade of the Acropolis

And conjured dusky columns in the clouds.
I watched waves lap the crumbling coast.

 I heard wind strip the woods.
I saw the last living snow leopard 

Pacing in the dirt. Experience taught me
That nothing worth doing is worth doing

 For the sake of experience alone.
I bit into an apple that tasted sweetly of time.

The sun came out. It was the old sun
With only a few billion years left to shine.

Suzanne Buffam

from The Irrationalist

So many husbands on Monday

It’s always a delight to discover a new poet.  Here is a poem by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I love the whole neighborhood of past loves. Don’t we all have that, even if they are long past? And that last line is killer:


Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?

If by real you mean as real as a shark tooth stuck
in your heel, the wetness of a finished lollipop stick,
the surprise of a thumbtack in your purse—
then Yes, every last page is true, every nuance,
bit, and bite. Wait. I have made them up—all of them—
and when I say I am married, it means I married
all of them, a whole neighborhood of past loves.
Can you imagine the number of bouquets, how many
slices of cake? Even now, my husbands plan a great meal
for us—one chops up some parsley, one stirs a bubbling pot
on the stove. One changes the baby, and one sleeps
in a fat chair. One flips through the newspaper, another
whistles while he shaves in the shower, and every single
one of them wonders what time I am coming home.

New Year’s poem

As a sure sign of January, I saw an exercise bike by the side of the road with a “Free” sign on it. New year, new exercise resolutions, which segues nicely to Lucille Clifton’s poem:

i am running into a new year

i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
about myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me

lucille clifton