Review: BLOOD MEMORY by Gail Newman

by Britton Gildersleeve

It is, as a short review of this book by Marge Piercy notes, “never easy” to write about the Holocaust—the Shoah—especially now, as disbelievers/deniers multiply, which makes Gail Newman’s book Blood Memory even more of a tour de force.

Newman’s collection weaves the lives of her mother and father, their battered hearts and minds, through the bloodstain of the horrific deaths by the Holocaust. But despite its terrible, tragic subject matter, Blood Memory often shimmers with beauty, gleams with the polish of well-loved family furniture.

Writing of the ways Jewish document workers in Łódź, Poland, changed the official ages of children and the elderly to save them from deportation, Newman describes the printed words that sentenced them to life in concentration camps: “the script/soldiers straight across the page.” And we see the lines of soldiers waiting beside trains, the lines of children and their grandparents waiting for death, all in this single image.

Elsewhere, Newman paints vividly the horrors of the Holocaust—“body bloated or bone thin./Some were children . . ./. . . pushed to the side or into the gutter . . . their bodies cold, blue, finished/with God.” She juggles these nightmare images with more quotidian snapshots, like this one, in which her mother returns to her home before the war: “My mother came to a dead end called Poland./The shops gone, the house no longer home . . ./the city that was not her city.”

When people find out I study—revere, even—the literature of wars, of dispossession, of the evil we do en masseto one another, they ask (almost always) why. I read to honor poets, novelists, graphic artists and the others who—like Newman—detail these evils. But I also read because there is no beauty without loss, and what is more shattering than the loss of remembrance? In one of my favorite poems in this book, “Abandoned Cemeteries,” Newman asks plaintively:

Who is the trustee of the dead?
Headstones fall over, cracked,
covered in lichen, moss, neglect.
No stones or bouquets left in remembrance.
No mourners or words of comfort.
Only the shipwrecked listen,
only the forgotten remember.

But through Newman’s lucid narrative—so many of these poems are perfect stories! —we engage her father, “the family tummler[1]”; her mother, whose “time is reeling in, a line cast/from shore”; a nameless survivor she meets in a march through Auschwitz-Birkenau “clinging to his granddaughter’s arm.” Each has his or her own story, all of which follow Newman around, she complains. “The dead,” she says, “are patient. One century bleeds into another.” They haunt her as she stands at graves, as she walks through a field of flowers. They are often nameless, but she will not forget. Nor do I, her stunned reader, while the “living go on living—washing hands,/peeling apples, stirring soup. . . .” Living their lives. Lives that were ended decades ago but still resonate within the music of Newman’s work.

There is an exquisitely painful beauty in the pages of Newman’s book. Here, time is as fluid as the spilled blood Newman evokes, and more than once she seems to hear voices from the very ground she lies on. That she can share with us her own translation of once ordinary lives and their extraordinary deaths, as well as her own clear-eyed confrontation with each, is a rare gift. It is because, as her last line notes, “I remembered them.” With clarity. With honor. With love. This is a book well worth buying, reading, and reading more than once again.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

Gail Newman is the child of Polish Holocaust survivors and was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany. She later immigrated to the U.S. with her family. Newman is co-founder of Room, A Women’s Literary Journal, and shehe has worked as a museum educator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and as a poet-teacher and San Francisco coordinator for CalPoets. She has another collection of poetry, One World, from Moon Tide Press, as well as two books of children’s poetry.

Blood Memory by Gail Newman. East Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk P, 2020.

[1] Tummler: entertainer, comedian. Yiddish.

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