I can’t say that I’ve been reading Charles Fishman as long as he’s been writing, but I can say that I’ve been reading him almost as long as he’s been publishing. I missed his first book Mortal Companions when it came out in 1977, but I was there when the second book, The Death Mazurka, came out in 1987. It hooked me with his deeply felt and beautifully written poems about the Holocaust, and I’ve stayed hooked through The Country of Memory and Chopin’s Piano and most recently In the Language of Women.
In the Path of Lightning: Selected Poems, his most recent book, gathers together the best of the poems from the books that came before it, and in doing so it presents the reader with an almost overwhelming reading experience. Charles Fishman has lived a life shaped by a world shaped by war, Holocaust, injustice, and death, and he isn’t the poet who turns away.
You see this in the last three stanzas of “Ghosts Cry Out,” an early poem from Mortal Companions:
Each day we are brutalized: the ice hastens.
We live among strangers who slaughter their infants.
The rulers survive—our heroes are slain or broken.
We see only death, the earth ripped open
like the soft furred belly of a cornered fox.
The wars come in waves: everything we love is pulled
beyond our holding.
Our parents go down beneath cold blindfolds of water.
Our children drown under crashing blackjacks of surf.
Ghosts cry out for the green blood of the earth.
Fishman is not afraid to tell us about the floods that drown us, the fires that burn us. His poetry is the poetry of witness. The first poems of his I read were those about the Holocaust in The Death Mazurka. He wrote like a man who had stared into the fire of the ovens for a long time. In the title poem, after describing a Jewish woman dancing at the end of her life, he writes how he wants to reach back through time and join with her in her dance. In some square where Jews had died, he finds he can’t “take his fill” of images of desolation and death, of bones and “scorched teeth.” And through this contemplation, he somehow does the thing he imagines, joins with her in dancing her “death mazurka.”
But he’s not just a poet of the Holocaust. He writes too about Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor, the Black Death and the fall of the Twin Towers, and the small killings and pains we read about in the paper and then turn the page to something else, a schoolgirl killed on the night of her prom in New Jersey, a young man in New York shot 19 times by the police because he couldn’t speak fast enough to stop the shootings. Fishman’s muse has given him the task of writing about the slaughters we visit on each other and the slaughters God, bored with peace and loving strife and grief, visits upon us.
Fishman’s world is a cemetery. “The soil of Europe,” he says in “A Legacy,” “is laced with bones.”
But he is not simply a journalist of pain, desolation, and death, scribbling down and conveying the facts. He’s an artist, a poet, whose primary concern is to tell us who the bones belonged to and what their dying meant. The bones, Fishman wants us to understand, are not simply another kind of cheap asphalt substitute. The bones are what’s left of people who laughed and dreamt, bled and suffered.
We feel that first concern in so many of the poems. He wants to make sure that we know that these bones belonged to someone and that that someone mattered. I think that the poem “A Dance on the Poems of Rilke” in Chopin’s Piano (2006) most clearly announces this primary concern:
A Dance on the Poems of Rilke
I remember a Czech dancer who danced on the poems of Rilke.
In the particular hell of Ravensbrück
where Gypsy girls were sterilized and babies
were drowned at birth where dysentery torture
and typhus took life after life and grotesque
experiments in the inducement of infection and pain
were cultivated as a fine art where women
of every European nation slaved for Siemens
through endless moonless nights and cut trees
dug pits loaded and unloaded railway cars and barges
where abortion was inevitable and sexual cruelty the rule
and where a woman could be martyred for using rags
as tampons or merely for adjusting her dress
a certain Czech woman who knew every word danced
to the poems of Rilke moving sinuously to each
of his Orphean sonnets bowing gracefully with the first notes
of each Elegie: she felt the dark music of Rilke’s heart
each soaring leap of the spirit each lunge toward grief
Though she is gone and we no longer know her name she
is the one who showed even a halting step could be a triumph
and a dance on the poems of a dead poet might redeem.
The ending of this poem signals Charles Fishman’s other primary concern as a writer. Like all great writers, he asks, “What keeps us alive, keeps us living, keeps us wanting to live?” What redeems us from the fires that burn, the floods that drown us?
In the poem “At the Edge” from Country of Memory, Fishman asks himself and us this very question.
What are we here for
if not to know beauty,
to taste the last sweetness
of being, to find the last
scatter of bones?
He asks this question, suggests this question, and tries to answer it throughout In the Path of Lightning. From the first poem in the collection, “Naomi Ades (Age 3) Falls out a Window and Sees an Angel,” to the last, “Snow is the Poem without Flags,” Charles Fishman “wrestle[s]with the wind” to uncover the beauty, sweetness, longing, dreams, love, faith, desire, and joy that somehow outlive the plagues and slaughters that haunt our bones. He’s not always prepared to tell us where it comes from or what it finally means, but he knows that this thing is there and that finally, as he suggests in “A Dance on the Poems of Rilke” it might redeem us.
Charles Fishman listens to the world with a stillness and intensity most of us can’t imagine. He knows there are voices in the wind, and he hears them and listens to them, and then he tells us what they are saying in a voice so direct and selfless and loving that we feel that we ourselves are hearing these voices, and they are telling us truths that we can’t ignore.
John Guzlowski is published in The Ontario Review, Atlanta Review, North American Review, and other journals. His poems about his Polish parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. Regarding the Polish edition of these poems, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said the poems are “astonishing.” Guzlowski has recently published his first novel Suitcase Charlie, a noir crime novel set in a Chicago neighborhood of Holocaust survivors in the mid 1950s.