Apr. 11, 2006

For Bartleby

by Malena Morling

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Poem: "For Bartleby" by Malena Mörling from Ocean Avenue. © New Issues Press. Reprinted with permission.

For Bartleby

Tonight I wonder where the man is
    who used to stand just inside the doors
of the Lexington Avenue entrance to Grand Central Station.

The full moon is rising. Around the earth, meteors move
    through space. Every day for over a year
I walked by him early in the morning

    and at the end of the day he still
stood in the same position, arms down
    his sides, looking straight ahead

at thousands of people walking
    without colliding in all directions at once,
everybody trying to get to a different place.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1945 that American troops entered the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, a camp that was judged second only to Auschwitz in the horrors it imposed on its prisoners. It had been established in 1937, and about 56,000 prisoners died there. There had been reports of concentration camps from the field, but no American soldiers had seen the camps. Many people assumed that the reports had been anti-Nazi propaganda. But then, on this day, the American soldiers saw a concentration camp for themselves, and they became the first Allied observers of one of the worst atrocities in human history.

The American troops weren't actually liberators. Most of the Nazis had fled the camp before the approach of the Allied army, and the prisoners themselves had risen up and taken control of the camp from the few SS guards who remained. But most of those prisoners would have died from malnutrition or disease in the next few days if Allied troops hadn't arrived with food, water, and medical supplies.

Many of the soldiers who entered Buchenwald on this day had been fighting in World War II since D-Day. They had participated some of the bloodiest battles in history. But nothing they'd seen prepared them for what they saw at Buchenwald. Several of the soldiers carried Kodak cameras, and so they took photographs of the surviving prisoners and the dead, so that people would believe what they had seen. Their photographs showed human beings so emaciated that they could barely walk, and victims' bodies were stacked around the camp like piles of wood.

Sergeant Fred Friendly, who would go on to work as a CBS producer, wrote to his mother, "I want you to never forget or let our disbelieving friends forget, that your flesh and blood saw this."

One of the reporters who covered the liberation of Buchenwald was Edward R. Murrow. He was so disturbed by what he saw that he couldn't write about it for days, and let a subordinate break the story.

One of the children liberated at the camp that day was a teenager named Elie Wiesel, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He had been forced to march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald a few weeks earlier, and his father had recently died in the camp. He saw American jeeps rolling into the camps, and he later wrote, "I will never forget the American soldiers and the horror that could be read in their faces. I will especially remember one black sergeant, a muscled giant, who wept tears of impotent rage and shame. ... We tried to lift him onto our shoulders to show our gratitude, but we didn't have the strength. We were too weak to even applaud him."

It's the birthday of the poet Christopher Smart, born in Shipbourne, Kent, England (1722). He's the author of the epic poem Jubilate Agno, written around 1763, which went on for hundreds of pages, in which Smart attempted to praise God for every single aspect of his life, including his cat Jeoffry.

It's the birthday of poet Mark Strand, born in Summerside, Canada (1934). He said, "Poetry is about slowing down. You sit and you read something, you read it again, and it reveals a little bit more, and things come to light you never could have predicted."

It's the birthday of Glenway Wescott, born in Kewaskum, Wisconsin (1901). He wrote the short story collection Good-Bye Wisconsin (1928). He also wrote The Pilgrim Hawk (1940), a short novel about expatriates that takes place on a single afternoon.

It's the birthday of humorist Leo Rosten, born in Lodz, Poland (1908). He wrote many books, including The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937) and his masterpiece, The Joys of Yiddish (1968), an unofficial lexicon of Yiddish words, phrases, and rhetorical devices, illustrated with proverbs, quotes, and jokes. It was Rosten who first set down in print the famous definition of chutzpa as, "that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan."

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