Can We Believe in Light?

Pittsburgh Poets Contend with the Tree of Life Massacre

We asked regular Bearings contributor Ellen McGrath Smith to gather some poems from Pittsburgh writers for our Tree of Life Special Issue. Alas, an email glitch kept the piece from getting to us before publication of the issue. We share them now as an opportunity for further reflection on the particular tragedy at Tree of Life and on the culture of gun violence that continues to scar the American psyche and spirit. ~Editor.


This week, my fellow Pittsburgh poet Judith Alexander Brice updated a poem she published ten years ago in her first book, Renditions in a Palette (David Robert Books). The poem, “Questions of Betrayal” first appeared in the Paterson Literary Review, where it won an editor’s choice award, and then in the anthology, Before There Is Nowhere to Stand: Palestine/Israel, Poets Respond to the Struggle (Lost Horse Press). It is part of the permanent collection of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, MI. Brice is a psychotherapist and a participant in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic creative writing workshops for women. She wrote this second version shortly after the massacre, which took place less than 10 minutes from her home.

Brice celebrated the Pittsburgh launch of her second collection of poems, Overhead from Longing (David Robert Books), opening her reading with this poem to an audience charged with all of the questions and emotions found in this poem. It is a searching inquiry into the possibility of faith in a treacherous world, deliberating and turning over each leaf of history that tests that faith—and daring to pray for a day when that history of betrayal is no longer kept alive by the hateful anti-semitism that drove last week’s attack.

Questions of Betrayal, Version 2

I.

For a Jew there is a fundamental question:
“How can I believe in God?”

After Kristallnacht and Pogroms,
After the Boxcars,
After the six million slaughtered,
Snuffed out by tasteless gas,
Swallowed forever by fiery furnaces—
Furnaces belching Jew-dust over sparkling German towns:
(Towns at work to expunge each final smudge of Jew),
Jew-dust to breathe, to exhale, to dust off the mantle,
Jew-dust to contaminate the air.

Was it six million?

How to count each separate shtetl
Deleted from the map?
How to know each shivering woman
Forced naked to her grave?
How to count the Jew-dust flakes
Billowing brown into smoke?

Can we ever know
Each faceless soul,
Each desperate life,
Each girl sobbing in the rain?
How can we feel her, touch her?
How can we make her count?

For a Jew there is this essential question:
“Do I still believe in God”?

II.

For a Jew there is yet another question:
“Can I believe in Love”?

Love for my neighbors,
Love for those I hate—
Even James Fields Jr., Robert Bowers,
Now, as in Pittsburgh we bury our dead—
Yitgadal, veyitkadash shmay rabba…*
 
Can I feel the compassion and love I lost
After Kristallnacht
After the Boxcars
After my family was betrayed?
Will I listen now to cries of others?

Can I bear to hear their plight?
Dare I glance through rubble and see a mother in panicked fright?
Shall I bear witness to the nameless boy there crying?
Will I choose to make him count?

For a Jew there is still this question:
Will I practice my belief in Love?

III.

For a Jew there is yet the question:
“Can I believe in Light?”

A light for redemption, a light for forgiveness,
A light to shine on enemies and me alike,
To imbue each of us with hope?
For our sake, our world’s sake,
Is there space enough for each
To have a home, a life, a love?
Or must we all continue to betray,
To kill, and all be killed, and all return to dust?

For a Jew there is but one last question:
“Is there a time for God, for Love, for Light?”

~Judith Alexander Brice

Magnified and Sanctified be Your Name—the beginning Hebrew words of the mourners’ prayer.

My writing group friend Pam Goldman, a Pittsburgh-based fiction writer, belongs to Dor Hadash, a reconstructionist congregation that worships in the Tree of Life Synagogue building; one member of Dor Hadash was murdered, and another is recovering from bullet wounds. Her story, “Partisan,” is forthcoming in Colorado Review. She is working on a novel about Holocaust survivors and Communists in New York during the McCarthy era. When I asked her to recommend a poem in the wake of this atrocity that took place just a few blocks from her home, she offered this short piece that many keep close to their hearts in order to move forward despite great woe.

Goldman writes: “My kindest Hebrew school teacher was a Holocaust survivor. He had blond hair and was one of the Jewish children who went in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto by sewer. Outside, he could pass. I never knew whether he brought in food or took out messages. He was a hero. In our Hebrew school on Long Island, he put up with bratty suburban kids who did not want to be there. Even then, I wished he received more respect but I was a kid, too, and didn’t know how to intervene. I dedicate this poem to Mr. N. whether he is now alive or of blessed memory. He walked the narrow bridge.”

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav
(18th Century Hasidic Rabbi)

All the world before us
Is a very narrow bridge,
And the main thing
Is not to fear at all.

Another of my writing group friends, the poet Barbara Edelman, has made Pittsburgh her home since the early 1990s. A deep lover of the outdoors, Edelman is the author of Dream of the Gone-From City. She’s had a poem by Bob Hicok on her mind this week, one that I’m sure speaks to many looking to get us out of “the loop” of American gun violence.

Edelman writes: “I have no words is what I’ve felt too often in response to events of the last two years. ‘There’s nothing to say,’ wrote Hicok after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech; yet in his poem, he says something. And his shaping of nothing into something brings a kind of solace: something about how we go on together like an empty train and continue to open our doors at each stop, continue to speak to one another even to say nothing, continue to stitch language together in search of meaning.”

In the Loop                                      

I heard from people after the shootings. People
I knew well or barely or not at all. Largely
the same message: how horrible it was, how little
there was to say about how horrible it was.
People wrote, called, mostly e-mailed
because they know I teach at Virginia Tech,
to say, there’s nothing to say. Eventually
I answered these messages: there’s nothing
to say back except of course there’s nothing
to say, thank you for your willingness
to say it. Because this was about nothing.
A boy who felt that he was nothing,
who erased and entered that erasure, and guns
that are good for nothing, and talk of guns
that is good for nothing, and spring
that is good for flowers, and Jesus for some,
and scotch for others, and “and” for me
in this poem, “and” that is good
for sewing the minutes together, which otherwise
go about going away, bereft of us and us
of them. Like a scarf left on a train and nothing
like a scarf left on a train. As if the train,
empty of everything but a scarf, still opens
its doors at every stop, because this
is what a train does, this is what a man does
with his hand on a lever, because otherwise,
why the lever, why the hand, and then it was over,
and then it had just begun.

~Bob Hicok

Ellen McGrath Smith

Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron, and other journals, and in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3magazine, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her second chapbook, Scatter, Feed, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in the fall of 2014, and her book, Nobody’s Jackknife (West End Press, 2015) explores alcoholism and yoga through poetry. She has written on poetry as prayer for Talking Writing.


Cover Photo:  Yeshi Kangrang, “Capture the Light” (June 27, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Body Photo #1: Tim Swaan, “Whangarei Falls footbridge” (November 17, 2015). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Body Photo #2:  Uriel Soberanes, Untitled (October 30, 2017). Via Unsplash. Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.