Carol Rubenstein: Four new poems from 'Vanished Number'

AUTHOR'S NOTE.  With a small Saltonstall poetry grant, I visited Auschwitz in 2004-05 during all the seasons.  I had to get the sense of the place on my skin and know at least that reality as it was felt by the inmates.  It was hard to find a way into the overwhelming “pity and terror” of the Auschwitz tragedy, and many poems took on a surreal cast.  I welcomed the variety of approaches that presented themselves.  Some poems, like “Birken, Place of Birches” and “The Carp Feeders,” are based on where and when events occurred.  The exhibits of hair, clothes, shoes—in relation to the human body—required poems that compressed artifacts into a black-humor reality of their own, as in “Possession.”  Extremes of weather in such a place called for poems like “Wind Tongue (2).”  The voices of persecutor and persecuted alike echoed through my stay at Auschwitz.  All the poems represent a slant on reality imagined but not imaginary.  At present I am developing a manuscript of the many poems—working title, “Vanished Number.”


BIRKEN, PLACE OF BIRCHES                        


So many birch trees neighbored here, etched heights murmuring,

that this place was called the place of birches—Birkenau.

A shadow cleaved to each contoured slenderness,

the white bark of each was touched with messages.


One graced near another, they rose together—

comforting the blind who felt their way through this light, the deaf

imprinting rapid momentary air, the mute whose praises, unscrolling,

are chorused by the angel of the day arising whole. 


In forest legend the lost, the homesick, needed only

tap a birch tree and at once the missing village—

winter-trimmed white-and-black or fringed with summer fairness—rolled

guttural, inflected, retold by generations, returned about us.  That it may.  


The women—the unripened young, and those big with tomorrow’s own,

and of dignity in full, and the withering, stooped—were herded here,

faint amid the rear birken groves.  The men, guarded elsewhere.  All 

made to wait their turn near units 4 and 5:  Which, worked day and night,


backed up.  Schedules haywire, war ending.  “Here come more loads.

Boxcars out of Hungary—retching, shitting, pissing, half-dead.”

“Heard it from the top.  Schnell!   Turnover FASTER.  Sent straight here,

no sorting, no numbers.”  “Units 4 and 5 again!  What’s with the furnaces?”


“... Then shovel out the ash!  Hose this sloppy floor!  Skip hair, just

rings, knock out gold.  Get what they got hid.  Thought they were smart.”

“... Then GET a shovel man dammit.  You!”  Almost all was done when,

army near, guards threw down shovels, fled.  “Schnell!”  Smoke still rising.


Shadow-bearing, proof of light-lit substance—they, tree and human,

still entwine within the whispering freshness of their dance.  Their limbs 

sway and turn—until tranced unmoving by first light.  Now their new weight

holds in place another dawn.  All:  Every each one unlike any other ever.



Auctioneer, let the bidding begin!  All this is up for grabs—get some,

even as the sweet stuff dizzies and falls gorgeously away.                                                                                                                                                    

Bone fragments, splintered bits?  We toothpick them, twice incised,

for dislodging choice morsels and for twirling gums to panting health.


Knuckled knobs of bone ends?  Crack, suck out the sumptuous

marrow lode, next whistle it dry to summon up the double-headed dogs.


This stretch of skin?  Melting lids and lips?  Buyer, what’s to beware?

Crackle-roast it:  Rake.  A savor to the nostrils


rises, a rendering of fat as famished flames leap to lick and catch

each offering.  Sing the high-pitched song of the spitted turning swan.


The Three Ravens ask, with-a-down: “Where shall we our breakfast take?” 

Then beak their punctual eyeball prizes.  And refrain goes down-a-down.


Flung, the marbled brains clack broken into shards of silence:  Such  

taken by law as assent.  To any queries as to reasons, answer you none.  


The jewels of vital organs spill lustrous through fingers—slip, soon

festooning the nude bowl of belly:  All let drip within the feathered pubes.


But wait, there’s an offal lot more—”offal,” get it?  Ya gotta love it!  This portrait,

more warty than most, is matchless, of provenance unthinkable.  The agent


deaf-and-dumb signals to snap up these bargains!  Prick, pop, shrivel, shred,

pouch to ash, sucked under the grate:  Just forget these assets?  Not on your life!


Note the going rate, all items tagged, look you take not one bite less.  Sold

for a song!  Lifetime guarantee.  Nothing known that cannot be possessed!


And repossessed—sold again, a whinny, a cackle!  Buyer, peering closer, reels

at the issuing reek.  Now see in the beholder eye such beauty hollowing, pitted.



A good job to get!  Some few are daily marched

to tend the pond for farming fish.  At the pond  

they scoop the fish food from their pails—

send it dimpling in.  The ash


drifts downward:  Down go the cousins.


Carp snatch and nibble—

rare and rich and passing strange

such banquet.  And they grow great,

sheathed in sheen of rosy gold.  They do thrive!


How many?  How keep count?  Of the brilliance,

one chosen lot is daily netted, thrashing.  Only officers

are offered them,

the serving platters heaped along the length of dining tables.


For their one or two seasons the feeders 

are beaten to go faster.  Their striped garment

angles sharper about their frame:  Until the cloth is shed,

each scarce tenancy             


vacated ashen.  Or they trip or slide:  One unstoppable slow-

motion instant of falling—dropping into a skeletal sketch

in the road.  Their tattooed numbers, stripped from roll call,

slant in ashen tidbits back into their pond.  


Replacements never can march fast enough.

Rutted, pitted, dust-dry, mud-laden, ice-layered:   

Road that a former crew,

their broken forms dragged back, made


to fetch there the ash, fetch back the fish.


WIND TONGUE (2)                                                                   


How did they get it to be so lifelike?   

                        No sculpture before nor since

so well catches every rippled instance of flesh and muscle.

Is wind-hand slanting cheek and chin?  Wind-thumb and wind-     

squint aligning best profile?  Now wind-wrist balances


on nose-bridge fulcrum:  Where it wrests control, gets to choose—

from the inside out—which expression will stare down time.      


What occult air

channels passageways, explores hollows?

Wind-harp looms the rare tissue that ensheaths the bones.

                        Look—the form-fit figure quivers—


must be reaching for its make!  Wind-tongue

has grooved divinity’s image to the life.




Is our character playing dumb?  Acting bored, a diplomat’s trick? 

Holding rhetorical pause?

                        What illusion flickers through its aperture,

while the tidal hours crest and trough?  The new moon slivers 

centuries of query:  Who now plays the part of armature? 

                        When did the skeletal captive

                        know it was a trap?




An elemental switch:  The form is sent into a blaze of bronze.  

Now absence, now solid.  Now the molten good pours in—

wholly fits.  What mad protocol next?  Rising into view:  This, 

the molded issue.  When to break open the cast?  And now 

                        to puzzle the entrails for portending signs. 

                        See wrought our marked fate, 

the telling of it even as the lips and tongue of language melt.



[NOTE. Carol Rubenstein, who had been an active participant in the New York poetry scene during the formative years of ethnopoetics & related projects, began a series of travels in the 1970s, that brought her first to Borneo, where for five years she collected & translated oral poetry from the Dayak people of that island.  Her important book, The  Honey Tree Song: Poems and Chants of the Sarawak Dayaks, was published by Ohio State University Press in 1985, after which she settled in Ithaca, New York, where she continues today to write & work.  Her Auschwitz project began in 2004, for which she made three separate trips to Poland during 2004-05, to see for herself (in so far as that was feasible) the place of holocaust “during all the seasons.”  The work presented here marks the first publication from the many poems that resulted (“imagined but not imaginary”) & otherwise speaks for itself(J.R.)]