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Letter to Westerbork (For Etty Hillesum)

ISSUE:  Winter 1999

“Melodious rolls the world from
God’s right hand”—Verwey

The tracks to camp have been
turned up and twisted, formed
after the human gesture
of arms thrown open in despair.
A raw wind scours the starving air.
With the barracks torn down,
nothing comes between
the doubled void of field and sky.
The earth bears no grudge
or scar—all the stagnant,
stinking ditches have been filled.
The earth is blank and smoothed.

The camp needed a bard,
you wrote, someone to sing
the songs of an unknown
destination, to record the grammar
that resists translation:
Transitcase. Trapshelter.
Other sounds
made sleep a weedy and forbidden
place, rent with rasping coughs
that moved through the ranks
of iron bunks, the scrape
of spoons in bowls. The weeping.
You tried to keep the camp alive,
consigned to scraps of paper
until the storm’s force overtook
anything you could carry
or copy down.

            You asked
to bear the truth, and did.
Shed of wishes and desires,
stripped of all you ever had,
stripped of who you were.
Hands folded, you fell to your knees,
the only gesture that would do
when taking leave of a world
that would not be consoled.
You hurled one last letter
from the train moving east:
“we left camp singing”
it read, as if, resigned
to terror, you would lift your voice
and have it lead you
toward some lasting, unknown peace.


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