“I’m thinking of collapse, of black winds’ plunder”
– Forugh Farrokhzad
On the upper ridge, they were instructed to strip naked,
& then walk slowly over the crest of the mud hill
& then descend into the cold ravine & they were told
to lie still. & it was October, 1942, in the Mizocz Ghetto.
& one of the policemen, armed with a rifle, had sat still
at his breakfast table &, with a butter knife, spread
the jam across the dry toast &, spreading it red
over the crust he paused, heard a shout outside to ‘hurry up,’
& so he gulped his black coffee, quickly ate the toast,
& he pulled his black boots on & also his officer’s cap
& he joined his comrade, both armed, so they could
line the women up & tell them to strip naked in the chilled
October air. & some of the women were pregnant,
& some had babies wrapped in arms, everyone shivering.
Some might have read Ovid, or Rilke, while others
knew the exact way to make a perfect raspberry jam
or a bread that rose in a splendid oval before it baked
in an oven, on an all-day snowfall, for the family’s meal.
& scattered above them, across the ridge, the women’s
simple garments – robes, blankets, slips & autumn coats –
lay in random, hapless heaps while an irritant wind
chilled their naked bodies so that small goose bumps rose.
& the one officer, upon ordering them to strip naked to
nothing, said nothing other than what he could instruct,
which was simple, muted & direct, & it was enforced
occasionally by a quick shove of the barrel of the gun
forward, instructional, into the blunt, miserly October air
where, above, the sun had shrouded itself in an elevation
of high, bleak clouds. & because the culture of men always
appoints one man to be the superior of another, the older
officer grunted to the younger officer – the one who’d eaten
toast & jam & gulped a mug of coffee without cream or sugar –
to make sure the women stood in a straight, orderly line
as they dropped their garments, like pieces of angel wings,
to the dried, angry earth. & then the crueler, older policeman
grunted as he pushed his rifle muzzle forward – toward
the upper slope of the lethargic hill – & then he directed
the younger officer to herd the women up into the
creases of the concave ravine so that they could lay there,
half-wrapped like white flower petals over each other
& not be able to run away unless they ran upward, like
easy targets, or downward, so that, in their panic, they
might trip over other bodies lying subservient there,
obedient & frightened and subjugated with that fear that has
no name to it because it is wordless & it is unsparing, &
the older officer ordered the younger to shoot them all dead.
& this was an October morning slaughter of Jewish women&
their children, by German officers in the Mizocz ghetto.
& I have to tell about it, because violence is continuant.
& it is administrative & it is mechanical & it’s routine, & it
is as alive as the women, laying meditative on that hill.
& when I look again at them, I see they are of all ages.
& in the first picture, they line up hesitantly, but obedient,
while the policemen herd them forward, with rifles.
& it is the first picture where I first notice a woman –
a beautiful, captive woman with shrieking, lovely eyes
& she is standing in line with all the other ghetto women
& it is her that I notice, because she is captive & upset,
& maybe has someone close on her mind, a lover. & I
notice her as one, distinct among the others. & I see, too,
many of the women & what it is they’re doing. & I have
to tell you what it is, on this their last day, they’re doing.
They are snuggling up to one another, as if in a shower line.
& in the other picture, they spoon one another, in death.
Others I see are perhaps twelve or thirteen, & brand new,
having had their first blood. & they are shy, alert,
watchful as girls of that age will be, & maybe an older one
is a mother, with an oldest son in the war, far off
on another ridge-sprawl of injured, bullet-blasted hill,
& he’s trying to recall what he’s been taught: how to kill
or survive for the sake of the next receding of light.
& maybe he is twenty & afraid of what might happen
to his young, Ukrainian fiancé … & maybe he’s felt the tiny
oval picture of her, there in his jacket, before rubbing
the cold off his hands. & maybe I can see the young fiancé
there in this other picture. & she’s dark-eyed & sensual,
& I’ve already found her in the first photograph of women
lining up & readying themselves to be exterminated.
& she’s burying half her cheek into the hair of a woman
standing in front of her there. & maybe she’s thinking
of the man who loves her … & how doubt is agnostic but love –
because it’s hallucination – is faithful & holy & it’s eternal.
& because I see her in the first picture, so alive, just before
she is slaughtered, I want now so bad to see her in the other
terrible picture where all the obedient women, stretched out
on their bellies as they are being murdered, lay still. & it is
because I don’t want her to become dead, but, when I look
for her, I can’t find her there because all the women are laying
face down, or rolled over on their unattended sides, & one of them
lays face up, gone, I suppose. It’s not her & it’s not pornographic:
she’s just done. & it isn’t horrible quite yet, because some of the
women are still alive, & they’re watching & waiting & maybe
praying … & it doesn’t become horrible until the duller, robotic
officer starts shooting at their bodies like they’re a pile of white worms.
& when I look at them all laying here, so obedient & silent
& stretched together on their naked, secluded stomachs –
like moon-white angel beings awaiting their annihilation –
they look almost serene, tranquil, just like they are feeling
each other’s purity … & maybe they feel the life in each other’s wombs,
although some tuck & bury themselves in protective heaps
& I can’t tell if they’ve been shot, or if they just demonstrate
an authentic rehearsal of it – while others stretch dormant
on their bellies as if sleeping & still others – young, old –
lay in the cold creases of earth, up-hill, trying to crawl away …
& I’m still looking for the woman with the shrieking eyes
because she’s got to still be alive, prepping for her wedding,
& violence – this gross articulation of it – is mainly created
by men who have no comprehension of the gift death gives to us …
and therefore they cannot hold true to themselves autonomous love,
nor understand death’s honor, and so they dwell in a trance voice …
& it is a nomadic voice, & it is a hard tumescent signaling,
& it is disreputable & it is unrepentant because it never
asks first if it is okay to shoot the whiteness of a body
or any other body-color because the explosive stain of red –
so horrid & spreading like a lunatic’s flower across a naked
back, or on the opened breast or in the crucified naked palm,
or on the vulnerable buttocks or across the backs of smooth
shaven legs or risen, elegant cheeks – is why it exists
& why it is pandemoniacal & with us always … & that is why
it won’t ever leave us … because it is acclaimed, it’s celebrated …
& it’s that fiancé I’m still trying to find in this murderous photo.
& I can’t find her in the slaughter-pile … & I can’t find her,
even when I run my eyes over every woman murdered there –
stretched dispassive & dead over one another like mermaids –
& so I turn the other photograph over in my hand, turn it over
& over again so that maybe I can call out loud to her & try to stop
her from walking in that horrified line … & it is the anguished
shrieking of her lovely, so afraid mouth that makes me know
that I cannot ever stop – even if by love or by a sad, fulsome
dismissal of it – her killing … & there is no end to it, this perfect
way she gently snuggles the woman in front of her, maybe
to offer, or to simply receive a friend’s softness before death,
or maybe to feel, just one more time, the body’s eternal warmth.
& there’s no end to how it is women – no matter – practice an ethics
of care … & I can’t figure out whether the boy, her groom-to-be,
ever finds out how she dies … & so I am telling him right now
that she died caring, caring like daughter of Heaven –
& with a civility, a grace & a bravery, & she is safe now
& she is with whomever wipes away the horrid red stains
from a murdered body in order to cleanse it from all that violence
so that what was once there, so very pure, always is –
& so that if he looks for her he will indeed find her
before all this happened,
& just as she was, with those bright so alive eyes.
Ken Meisel is a poet and psychotherapist, a 2012 Kresge Arts Literary Fellow, a Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of eight books of poetry. His most recent books are: Our Common Souls: New & Selected Poems of Detroit (Blue Horse Press: 2020) and Mortal Lullabies (FutureCycle Press: 2018). He has a new book, Studies Inside the Consent of a Distance forthcoming in 2022 from Kelsay Books. Meisel has recent work in Concho River Review, I-70 Review, San Pedro River Review, Crab Creek Review and Rabid Oak.