Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From the Stacks: Elliot Richman's "Franz Kafka's Daughter Meets the Evil Nazi Empire!!!"

It wasn't difficult to find Elliot Richman's "Holocaust-tainted" poetry collection "Franz Kafka's Daughter Meets the Evil Nazi Empire!!!" (Asylum Arts, 1999) in the stacks on a recent trip to the Kalamazoo Public Library. For one, it was the only spine with three exclamation marks in the title, and also it sounded like something from a 1950s sci-fi flick. In short, it was impossible not to pick it up.

While I can't say necessarily say the same about putting it down, that doesn't mean the collection isn't worth your time. At times it can be outright disgusting, sometime gratuitously so -- "I come on your breasts and press / my palm into my semen," for instance, from "The Orgasm of Blood" -- but these moments are for the most part few and far between, and taking the collection as a whole, such disgust seems almost necessary to further the emotions one would expect to come away with by reading a collection subtitled "The Heroism of Roaches: Holocaust-tainted Poems."

While the collection opens with the 10-page epic title poem -- in which Franz Kafka's daughter is imagined transforming into a giant black beetle while imprisoned in German concentration camp, and like a "Jewish cockroach Godzilla" goes "tramblin' o'er guard towers, / chompin' on Jerries like they was spareribs" -- the collection's strongest points are its shorter works and those where the speaker is imagining himself trapped in the days of the Holocaust, as in "The Scream":

"Brooklyn instead of Poland, / but I could have been there, / a matter of genes and geography, / that's all, the double helix of DNA / bent into a twisted cross / on the ramp in Birkenau."

Or as in "I Dream Again of My Daughter in a Cattle Car" (especially poignant to me, as my wife and I recently had our first baby):

"The train lurches forward, / the sound of a mounstrous Big Wheel, / Zuzu snared in a trap of strangers, / she who even now is afraid of elevators. / Too terrified to call out for her mother, / in the cattle car on the way to Birkenau."

The collection is best taken as a whole -- it bites harder and penetrates further into the psyche that way. I studied the Holocaust nearly every year of my elementary and secondary education, and barring a Holocaust-centered episode of HBO's "Band of Brothers" I have never felt the ache of the events of those years as sorely as I did -- and still do -- after reading Richman's collection. It's a feeling not even of loss, but of loss you know is yet to come, which may be worse.

The collection seems to be summed up nicely in the second to last poem, "The Old Horse," where the speaker appears to be attending a poetry reading by what is assumably a Jewish poet reading assumably Holocaust poetry. The speaker feels slightly guilty about being Jewish and yet not being moved by the reading, imagining himself "an old gelding / in Poland" who is passed by "Belorussian volunteers, too old for combat" who "stroll alongside a file of Jews."

"It seems like nothing is happening," Richman writes. "I'm pretty thirsty. I dip my head in the trough. / The water's terrific. It is right there.

"When I look up, the Jews are gone."

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