When It Happened

I was playing, I suppose,
when it happened.
No sound reached me.
The skies did not darken,
or if they did, one flicked
away the impression:
a cloud no doubt, a shadow perhaps
from those interminable aeroplanes
crossing and recrossing
our sunbleached beaches, Carbis Bay
or the Battery Rocks, where
all summer long we had dived
and cavorted in and out of
the tossing waters, while
the attention of the adults,
perpetually talking,
seemed focused,
unaccountably,
elsewhere.

No sound reached me
when it happened
over there on that
complicated frontier
near Geneva. (Was the sun
shining there too?)
I did not hear you cry out,
nor feel your heart thump wildly
in shock and terror. ‘Go back,’
they shouted, those black-clad figures.
‘Go back. You are not permitted to cross.’
Did the colour drain from your face?
Did your legs weaken?
‘You are under arrest,’ they barked.
‘Go back and wait.’ Back to the
crowd waiting for the train, the train. . .East?
Did you know what it meant?
Did you believe the rumours?
Were you silent? Stunned? Angry?

Did you signal to them then,
When it happened?
To the welcoming committee
one might say, on the other
side of the border.
To your husband and his friends
just a few yards away,
there, beyond the barbed wire,
beyond the notices saying,
‘Illegal refugees will be shot.’
They called across, they said,
‘Run, jump, take the risk,’
the frontier is such a thin line,
the distance so short between you and us,
between life and death,
(they said afterwards).
How was it you lacked
the courage (they said
afterwards, drinking tea).

No sound whatsoever disturbed me
when it happened.
I slept well. School
was the same as usual.
As usual I went swimming,
or raced down the hill
on my scooter or on foot
laughing with friends.
Often at night
in the dark of my bed,
I would hear the trains being
shunted down at the station,
their anguished whistling
stirring my imagination
drawing me towards oblivion.
At last, no more embarrassing letters
arrived in a foreign language
witnessing my alienation
from the cricketing scene.

Distracted and displaced
when it happened
I did not hear you ask
which cattle truck to mount,
nor, parched in the darkened
wagon, notice you beg for
a sip of water. On the third day,
perceiving the sound of Polish voices,
I did not catch you whisper to your neighbour,
‘It is the East. We have arrived.’
Nor, naked and packed tight
with a hundred others
did I hear you choking
on the contents of those well-known
canisters marked ‘Zyklon B Gas’
(It took twelve minutes, they say.)
I was not listening
when it happened.

Now I hear nothing else.

— Hilda Schiff

Hilda Schiff arrived in the United Kingdom as a seven year old school girl, sent from Germany with her sister Gitti (Gisela) on a Kindertransport in February 1939. In London, she was separated from her sister and was eventually evacuated to Penzance. Schiff’s father escaped Germany to Switzerland and survived the war. Hilda Schiff’s book, Holocaust Poetry, grew from her efforts to learn the exact circumstances of her mother’s death during the war. Schiff died before she could publish the book she was writing about her mother and the Holocaust.

[Research note: Hilda Schiff, Ed., Holocaust Poetry (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995)]

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How We See

After Treblinka
And the spezialkommando
Who tore a child with bare hands
Before its mother in Warsaw
We see differently.

Men taken from workshops and farms to fight for kaiser and king
Lived in a world asleep in mist
The spezialkommando lived in a world of electric lights cinemas planes and radios
We see racist slogans chalked on walls differently
We see walls differently.

— Edward Bond

Polish Jews captured by Germans during the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Photo from Jürgen Stroop Report to Heinrich Himmler, May 1943.

Edward Bond is best known as a playwright. His experimental plays, which often featured scenes of violence linked to themes of social injustice, imperialism, war, and apartheid, tested the limits of censorship and morals laws in the U.K. in the 1960s and 1970s.

LINES,

ADDRESSED TO MY WIFE FROM THE KING’S BENCH
PRISON, MAY 15, 1820.

I NEVER will forget thee, love!
Though in a prison far I be;
I never will forget thee, love!
And thou wilt still remember me!

I never will forget thee, love!
When wakes on me the morning light;
And thou shalt ever present be,
When cometh down the cloud of night!

I never will forget thee, love!
When summer sheds her golden ray;
And thou shall be my comforter
Amid the winter’s cheerless day!

Oh! they may bind but cannot break,
This heart, so full of thine and thee;
Which liveth only for YOUR sake,
And the high cause of LIBERTY!

— Samuel Bamford

Poet and labor activist Samuel Bamford campaigned for parliamentary reform and universal suffrage. In August 1819, after the Peterloo Massacre, where the English military ran the cavalry into a crowd of 60,000 gathered to demand a repeal of the Corn Laws, he was charged for “assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of inciting discontent.” He was sentenced to a year in Lincoln jail.

They’ll Say: “She Must Be From Another Country”

When I can’t comprehend
why they’re burning books
or slashing paintings,
when they can’t bear to look
at god’s own nakedness,
when they ban the film
and gut the seats to stop the play
and I ask why
they just smile and say,
“She must be
from another country.”

When I speak on the phone
and the vowel sounds are off
when the consonants are hard
and they should be soft,
they’ll catch on at once
they’ll pin it down
they’ll explain it right away
to their own satisfaction,
they’ll cluck their tongues
and say,
“She must be
from another country.”

When my mouth goes up
instead of down,
when I wear a tablecloth
to go to town,
when they suspect I’m black
or hear I’m gay
they won’t be surprised,
they’ll purse their lips
and say,
“She must be
from another country.”

When I eat up the olives
and spit out the pits
when I yawn at the opera
in the tragic bits
when I pee in the vineyard
as if it were Bombay,
flaunting my bare ass
covering my face
laughing through my hands
they’ll turn away,
shake their heads quite sadly,
“She doesn’t know any better,”
they’ll say,
“She must be
from another country.”

Maybe there is a country
where all of us live,
all of us freaks
who aren’t able to give
our loyalty to fat old fools,
the crooks and thugs
who wear the uniform
that gives them the right
to wave a flag,
puff out their chests,
put their feet on our necks,
and break their own rules.

But from where we are
it doesn’t look like a country,
it’s more like the cracks
that grow between borders
behind their backs.
That’s where I live.
And I’ll be happy to say,
“I never learned your customs.
I don’t remember your language
or know your ways.
I must be
from another country.”

— Imtiaz Dharker

Poet, artist, and filmmaker Imtiaz Dharker was born in Lahore, Pakistan and raised in Glasgow, Scotland.

Granite as Heirloom: A Portrait

— Caleb Femi

British-Nigerian poet Caleb Femi is the first Young People’s Laureate for London.

[Research note: Caleb Femi’s website; Alison Flood, “Poet Caleb Femi named first young people’s laureate for London,” Guardian (October 3, 2016); Alyssa Klein, “Nigerian Poet Caleb Fermi’s Spoken Word on London’s ‘Children of the ‘Narm’,” OkayAfrica (April 9, 2015)]