The Soup of My Ancestors, Tracey S. Rosenberg
Stewed Rhubarb Press, 2022 £5.99
We humans need to name things in order to record and share the tales that shape how we live, and the ways in which we might have, could have, perhaps should have, but in the end, did not.
Therefore, I find it both pertinent and poignant that the narrator in ‘To the women of Majdanek’ says, in a sequence of apologies:
I’m sorry I don’t know your names.
[ ... ]
I’m sorry that even though you had so many identities —
seamstress and second wife and doctor and youngest daughter
of a Rebbe and Zionist and rebel — the only identity they
allowed you is ‘Jew’.
The poet, however, sometimes does give names. For example, in ‘America’ there is Miriam who is in Montreal now, and cousin Ruth who married Yosef.
But in ‘Little Tiger’, while the characters are brought to life on the page, no names are revealed:
My mother was only twenty-three,
an only child with no wise aunts to make
predictions over an empty cradle.
Of course she believed the women at the deli:
‘So young, and this your first? Oy,
you’re carrying high — that’s a boisterous little boy!’
Of course she believed the doctors, who reassured
with avuncular authority:
‘No need to be worried.’
There’s the same absence of names in ‘The Naming of Cancer’, a powerful discourse surrounding the importance of using correct names and about naming in general. Here, the reader is shown the boy named for his grandfather who
along his arm but never spoke
about the camps. He only shrugged and said,
the evil of men cannot touch the soul.
All his life, he refused to visit doctors.
When he died, we had nothing
to tell others, when they asked
the name of why he died.
But while this is a poem about witness and identification, the reader isn’t told the name both grandfather and boy shared. And this leaves me standing hand-in-hand with the narrator in ‘To the women of Majdanek’. So to the folk in ‘Little Tiger’, and to the boy and his grandfather, I say, ‘I’m sorry I don’t know your names’.
And I’m still thinking about those absences. What’s not said sometimes resounds long after what is said has faded.