Quick Personal Note: Hello to my new subscribers, all 450+ of you! It’s been an absolutely crazy week for me, both in terms of blog follows, and professionally. Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, whose work I wrote about here last year, reached out to me recently and has had a few poems of mine translated into Arabic and published in his newspaper. If you can read Arabic, you can check that out here. If you can’t, well, join the club.
It is a surreal experience to see my words in another language, in a language ostensibly my own, no less. I can speak a little bit of Arabic, but my ancestral tongue is otherwise lost to me. I’m taking lessons now to rectify this, to – as Najwan said to me – chase my poems into Arabic. I’m also incredibly happy to announce that my poem America, You Sexy Fuck has been shortlisted for the prestigious Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets! I wrote that poem while I was traveling across America last year, and I knew then and there that it was different to anything I’d written before, that it marked a new beginning for me as a poet, and I’m just so thrilled to see that belief validated by others, to have it get this kind of recognition.
But that’s enough babbling about me, let’s get to the good stuff, the excellent poem ‘Museum of Tolerance’ by Michael Miller. I love everything about this poem, from the start to the finish, to the subtle movement of the lines themselves. Movement is important here, not just because of the rhythm and musicality which propels the piece, but because the poem begins almost at a run:
The shirtless man by the ticket counter
has already broken the gloom here, his crowd
of two boys and the cashier with the Star of David
gathered around and mouthing astonishment
There is a sense that we’ve come in mid-way, the scene is already unfolding. This opening stanza does a heroic amount of work in such a short space; we know where we are, who we’re dealing with, and have a sense of both atmosphere ‘broken the gloom here’ and subject matter. It sounds dull, breaking it down into its composite bits there, but read those four lines again, and nothing changes; it’s still interesting, still propels you onward into this story about stories. The kind we tell after major events, the kind we tell each other, the morbid fascination we have with survivors, the way we flock to them both personally and as a media collective.
It is this which Miller dissects so brilliantly in this poem, this man who survived the Holocaust, recounting the stories behind his scars. Is he embellishing, when he says he split a real Nazi’s lip? It doesn’t matter. It’s the treatment of him that matters, as an object equal parts sacred and spectacle. Not for nothing does Miller mention the packed tightness of churches and carnivals.
all survivors here, dazed and exhilarated
by the fate that dropped them so far from blight?
A father heads the line, shirt fat with muscles
That last line is perhaps my favourite in the piece, such a simple description, so expertly rendered. The contrast is so fucking juicy, so delightful ‘shirt fat with muscles.’ Ah! There are plenty of reasons to admire a poem, and this one in particular has a dozen different angles from which its light can be seen and appreciated, but for me, a surprising description of the otherwise ordinary will always standout the most. The unexpected is always delightful in poetry.
If that was all Miller accomplished, I’d probably still have chosen this poem, honestly, but that he manages to go beyond that and deliver an important message about survival and tolerance in its own right, elevates this piece to another level. I don’t want to dilute the power of that message any more by talking about it; as ever, I want you to read it yourself.