Poem of the Week / A whole world in a forbidden fruit
Marcela Sulak imagines a raspberry in Auschwitz.
Imagine a world:
your entire possession
a single raspberry
and you give it to
your friend. On Guerda’s birthday
in Auschwitz, Ilse
found the raspberry
on the way to the fields,
swaddled it in a leaf,
slipped it in her pocket.
Then she plucked potatoes
all day from the artless
earth, all her movements
restricted by that
It was, of course, an offense
punishable by death.
The fragrance that filled
the field, moved the air.
Its juice reddened as
the day bit its lip,
paced on, it became
the sun, became another
kind of calendar.
Previously published in Recours au poème, with a French translation by Sabine Huynh. Reprinted by permission of the poet.
“Raspberry” confirms that literature is, among other things, a conversation among writers from diverse times and places. Marcela Sulak directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, where she teaches American literature. Her poetry includes the forthcoming Decency (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), Immigrant (2010), and Of All the Things That Don’t Exist, I Love You Best (2008). She translates from Czech, French, Spanish, German, Hebrew and Yiddish, and her essays appear in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Rattle, and Poet Lore, among others. She is currently editing an anthology of hybrid literature – writing in which genre distinctions are a question of degree, rather than category – and hosts the TLV1 radio show "Israel in Translation."
The first sentence of this poem – the part in italics – is by Polish-born writer and Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein. “I studied Yiddish in Vilnius one summer and was honored to be a simultaneous interpreter from Yiddish into English for remarkable literary figures who fought with the partisans or resisted death in the ghettos," Sulak told Haaretz. "I was struck by the texture and quality of their experience of time. It seemed, as they recounted their stories, that seconds and minutes became expandable, like accordion folders, in which many realities, each with their own sense of time, existed simultaneously.
"One story stood out to me. … It was the story of Gerda and Ilse. How must your experience of time and space alter, to allow you to live in a world in which a tiny raspberry became the most salient feature of that world.”
Weissmann Klein has related that Ilse, her best friend from childhood, died in her arms during the death march from the concentration camps towards the end of World War II. Sulak adopts the raspberry story and observes the imagined Ilse accompanying her through the day. The “artless earth” is shorthand for the indifference of the material universe both to human suffering and to aesthetics, yet the “unexpected miracle” of the raspberry remains wondrous even though it adds another level of anxiety to Ilse’s life, restricting her movements lest it be crushed or discovered.
And a word about the European raspberry: The shrub is what scientists call an “opportunistic” plant, with a great ability to thrive in areas devastated by fire. What better botanical metaphor could there be for hope, tenacity and friendship?
How does the day bite its lip? Why?
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