Eastern War Time

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Poem by Adrienne Rich, 1989-90

The difficulty of comprehending something that is impossible to understand and yet must be understood is at the heart of Adrienne Rich's poem "Eastern War Time." Through the fog of memory's "smoky mirror," the poem juxtaposes the innocence of a young Jewish schoolgirl in America in 1943, her parents' desire to protect her from the terror that is happening in Europe, and the blaring wires and telegrams that are reporting the destruction of millions of human beings:

how do you teach a child what you won't believe?
how do you say unfold, my flower, shine, my star
and we are hated, being what we are?

How does an American child, studying Latin and Jude the Obscure in 1943, understand the Holocaust? How does one understand it today—the camps? the six million? the incalculable individual acts that created, allowed, and acted out that great horror we call the Holocaust? Like the cryptic telegrams and messages sent or smuggled out of Europe, how does one even begin to name the horror?

SITUATION DIFFICULT ether of messages
in capital letters silence

What can one do but bear witness, even if that is only to one's experience, and then, as Stanley Kunitz puts it, "report out." This poem is an example of that kind of reporting out: of re-creating and thus sharing the experience of a young Jewish schoolgirl in America, studying the history of the ancient world and, with "permed friz of hair/her glasses for school and movies/… trying to grasp the world/through books." What child could ever be prepared to understand the telegrams? Or say, Rich suggests in the sixth section of the poem, you are not in America but in Poland, in Vilna, and you are young and walking with your boyfriend into the woods to support the resistance. Even then, knowing what you know, how could you possibly understand what is soon to happen to your village, your family, your neighbors, your friends, you?

Memory, with its imperfect voice and vision, calls on us. It reaches into the past to the known and the unknown, to the avoided and the ignored. It is a "roll of film," a "mirror," an intrusive "bitter flashing." "Unkillable though killed," it confronts us with questions: What now? What is right? What does one do?

The theme, central to Rich's poetry, points over and over to our dangerous obsession with the self—with our forgetting how to say "we," with thinking, even, that there is a separation between the "I" and the "we." Whether we think we are trying to save ourselves and our family during a war or are simply "trying to live a personal life," we soon find ourselves losing the meaning of "we"—a concept explored more fully in Rich's poem "In Those Years."

The tenth and final section of "Eastern War Time" is a long recollection of memory that speaks in the inclusive first person:

I'm a canal in Europe where bodies are floating
I'm a mass grave …

I'm a woman bargaining for a chicken

I have dreamed of Zion …

I am a woman standing in line for gasmasks

I am standing here in your poem …

Here the "I" becomes the "we," inviting others to become selves included in the community. We need to see ourselves, the poem argues, as interconnected, as brothers and sisters living in community because memory, offering us its own eyes from which we might see and learn, is "standing here in your poem unsatisfied/lifting [its] smoky mirror."

With every word Rich reminds us what it means to be fully awake and aware. Her poetry is an engagement with the question of how one lives faithfully and honestly with the hard questions and realities with which the Holocaust—and, indeed, any injustice—confronts us. Her poetry bears witness to the horror and consequences that come from not knowing how to say "we."

—Michael S. Glaser

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Eastern War Time

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Eastern War Time