Sunday, October 19, 2003

Beside Myself

In my dream I was standing beside myself on the edge of a cliff. My other self extended her hand toward me and invited me to jump. The cliff was sheer, and the ground beneath was trash-strewn. No, I replied, frightened, but she insisted. We held hands, my fear dissipated, and we jumped. That's it.

Where did the dream come from ?

Last night DK and I watched a snippet of the Steve Reich video "Hindenberg," his usual minimalist schtick, a chorus chanting "It was not a technological failure," over a film montage of the famous shots of the falling dirigible -- the egg shaped flying machine drifting down, exploding, the terrified crowds fleeing from it toward the camera.

I thought of the horrible, riveting raw film of the World Trade Center collapse, especially of the people jumping. Jumping hand in hand. There's an interesting essay by Tom Junod about one particular photo he calls "The Falling Man," a photo that has been accused of "turning tragedy into leering pornography." Junod considers it the "cenotaph" of this anonymous "Unknown Soldier," a document of honorable witness, not crude invasion.

There's an iconic photo from WWII that's engraved within my consciousness: the picture of a stark field, a woman clutching a child to her breast, and a Nazi pointing a long rifle at the both of them. After I had my son, it was as if a gaping hole opened up in me that I felt compelled to fill with as much knowledge of that grim time as I could. It became an obsession. As if the newly forged mother-son connection opened up a whole new possible world of unimaginable loss and grief about which I had to learn everything, immediately. Why ? To ward it off ? To reassure myself about our own safety ? To convince myself that unspeakable things only happened in black-and-white, long ago, to other people ? There is a sense in which it was like pornography: the vicariousness, and the intensity of emotion with which it filled me. Grief porn, not sex porn. Safe grief. A rehearsal. Or was it mourning for the inutterable sadness of the world ? Or both ?

Last night I wondered about a composer appropriating 9-11 images in a fashion similar to Reich's. I asked DK. "Too soon," he opined. There's a real sense that artists are tomb raiders -- stealing from history, from the tradition. There is transgression. There are boundaries. There are places that seem raw, untouchable, sacred. One must almost ask forgiveness in advance before entering. Or perform some act of ablution, expiation. Maybe there is no way to do it that is not shameless plunder and invasion.

I have put the Holocaust into poems, but not often. I felt my "permission" to write this one was that it was about a Nazi medical "researcher" Dr Rascher, a fellow physician. I wrote it in 1995. I had worked for over ten years as a doctor in state prisons. But, to this date, I am not sure that it is permission enough.


It was a secret
within a secret

It made even
Himmler sick,

the tall box on wheels
behind Block 5
in Dachau

It could simulate
a vertical dive
from 32,000 feet

with or without oxygen

Dr Rashcher
had a deadline to meet

October 25
the great
Luftwaffe Conference
on Freezing

and Nuernberg
is so lovely
in the fall, Fraulein,
we could walk together on the bank
of the River Regnitz
under the tall lindens
and I could give you nylons
and a tin of potted meat perhaps
after the Scientific Sessions
if you would only, if you...

He was worried

They brought him
a 37 year old Jew
in good general condition

They brought him
four Gypsy women
from another camp

He gave them all a ride
in his heavenly chariot

recording his
meticulous observations
in a careful hand

male subject at 12 Km
no supplemental oxygen

subject breathed
for 30 minutes
and myoclonus
appeared at four
tetany at five
tachypnea at six
unconsciousness by ten
and then a gradual
slowing of the breath
to three per minute
with deepening cyanosis
and foam at the lips
until breathing ceased at thirty;

electrocardiographic activity
continued for another twenty
and at autopsy,
the atria still quivered
even after the spine was severed
and the brain pulled
from its heavy, subarachnoid


He was worried about
the warming with body heat experiments
Himmler was insisting

But, damn it, he’d so meticulously documented
the results of cooling !
The excitation, the progressive rigors,
the flexion contractures, the tonic-clonic activity
and how when he chilled them
to 26.5 C rectally
it was the submersive chilling of the occiput
that would invariably result in fatality --
paresis of the thermoregulatory
centers of the brainstem
he’d speculate learnedly


.... then arm in arm, Fraulein,
flush in a lovely season,
the Regnitz flowing
beneath our balcony
thanks to our gracious
it could mean a University
appointment after the war
crimson leaves upturned
spinning downstream
I will run a finger
under the silk
of your gown
at the shoulder
in the shadows

But warming with body heat.

Oh, let’s dial in
a fall from 10 Km,
and then
two hours in the ice pool
at 2C,
yes, yes the helmet
and kapok vest,
and this time keep
the damned occiput up
for heaven’s sake
and the rectal thermistor secured
for my meticulous observations

maybe this one will live
long enough to rewarm...

...O Savior of the noble
Luftwaffe, Dr Sigmund Rascher,
Professor Untersturnfuerher Rascher, in the
shadows above the lovely river,
along the shoulder of the lovely Fraulein
I slowly run my finger
along the supraclavicular hollow
down the costochondral ridge
to xiphoid, rectus, navel, pubes
thanks to our gracious
Reichsfuehrer Himmler
if only he
if only he
will warm
if only he

Prepare the bed !
get the Gypsy whores
from Station RF, bastard,
and drag the shivering bastard from the pool,
that’s it, oh it’ll take two at least,
throw them on, that’s right,
right on top of him,
now warm him, you dogs,
warm him
warm him
warm him !

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