It’s not often you open a poetry chapbook and in the “Foreword” are greeted with such a chilling anecdote:
“In the summer of 2015, Grzegorz Kwiatkowski and his friend Rafal Wojczal made a gruesome discovery. Walking through the forest outside the Stutthof Concentration Camp where Kwiatkowski’s grandfather had been interned during the Second World War, the two young men came upon several thousand old shoes. These shoes once belonged to those the Nazis brought here and then brutally murdered.”
Such is the presence of history in these poems—it’s right there, refusing to stay buried. “Where are Isaak Moshe Wefa?” the first line of the first poem asks us. “Where are Rachela Stefan Aleksander?” The voices calling for the lost resonate quite clearly, still.
The poem “burning,” from which these lines come, then shifts to testimonials, undocumented, but so credible no citations are needed. Here’s one of those: “’he had butchered eighteen Jews / he told me this in my apartment / as he installed my stove.’” This chatty laborer could be talking about the weather, or about how he had butchered eighteen hogs. His casualness only heightens the horror of his deeds.
“burning” ends with a biting revision of lines in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” where Eliot uses the words of St. Augustine:
“O Lord Thou pluckest me out”:
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
In Kwiatkowski’s version, the reader learns more about this “burning”:
Thou pluckest us from their hands
burning in the barn
The specificity of the burning makes the act of “plucking” much more questionable, as the sense of salvation that St. Augustine and Eliot convey collides with the act of burning human beings in a barn. What if that was the “plucking,” their selection for the burning?
This is the power of crops. The poems offer no false hope, no sentimentality, only a directness, a desire to confront the horror of the Holocaust and the way we have used language as padding, to protect us from the horror. In “Ranger Danz,” for example, in just three lines, the poem forces us to look at this power of language to distance and insulate:
during the war we laid out bodies like wood
but after the war we laid out wood in the forest
like bodies freshly felled
Ranger Danz, in offering us this simple comparison of bodies to felled trees, shows us how he lives with this memory of placing bodies in the forest. In fact, he’s so casual and comfortable with this memory, we wonder if he understands what he did. By offering no further context, by not telling us whether Danz was forced by Nazis to take human bodies into the forest, or if this was a way to hide a crime he was willingly part of, the poem makes us confront the language, the comparison, and see the act anew.
The title poem, “crops,” helps explain a technique employed in these poems. While “crops” refers to agricultural labor—“our real work is farm work / not killing,” states an anonymous captive—the term “crop” brings to mind the photographic technique of “cutting,” where the photographer cuts away the unnecessary portions in the frame. Kwiatkowski does just that in poem after poem, leaving us with only the bare essentials, as in “Karl-Heinz M,” all of four lines long:
I was 14 years old
I was sterilized
because I couldn’t tell the difference between a brook and a stream
between steps and stairs
Note the lack of punctuation, the absence of a closing period. This memory, this poem promises, will not cease.
The title of the chapbook also brings another comparison—of the murder of humans to harvesting crops. The title poem tells us that “the massacres in the swamps have the rhythm of our seasonal labor.” And in “Richard Glazar,” the speaker tells us of Treblinka: “I was delighted / the place reminded me of a farm,” once again comparing the mechanical harvesting of crops to harvesting humans.
crops is an “awful” book, in the Medieval sense of the term, that is, it induces “terror, dread, extreme reverence,” to quote the Merriam-Webster. This chapbook comes at a time when laws in Poland make it a crime to suggest anyone but Nazis took part in the murder of Jews in Poland during WWII. And in Texas, a school board has ruled that the teaching of the Holocaust must present the “opposing” side.
The translations by Peter Constantine maintain a casual style—with the use of lower case and lack of punctuation—in tone and word choice that helps make these poems so effective.
To say we need crops—to hold in our hands, to read, to share with others—is not to say these poems will end Holocaust denial or even make a dent in it. But it’s saying that anyone who dares read this book will feel a chill settle deep in the bones.