Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Diary of Anne Frank: a cycle of narrative poems (part four of four)

The Red Diary

A cycle of narrative poems inspired by the diary of Anne Frank 
by Margaret Gunning

Part four of four

To the memory of Anne Frank


Tears:  sometimes
it is too much for you,
you fold up and sob,
trying to keep it quiet,
contained:  but your grief will split you
if you don’t give it room,
so you draw up your knees
and convulse silently
in the stale attic room
in the dark.
Yet, you write of being happy;
I believe it.
In the midst of all,
in raw raging hell,
in boredom, in despair, in fury with the adults,
in all this, a shy happiness blooms inside,
delicate as white petals,
held inside your heart
like a sweet secret:
you are happy as only the doomed can be happy,
this day sufficient,
this moment of precious silence,
this sense of God stealing near. . .
warm against your skin,
tender presence, stirring,
life itself,
conquering all
by a single intake of breath:
the act of breathing,

 Not my diary

Then:  a break-in, burglars rattling
suspiciously downstairs, police on the trail,
and a frozen night of terror,
eight hearts pounding. . . all of you
lying on the floor, afraid to move,
a wastepaper basket for a toilet,
and whispers:  hide the radio!
What’s the use?  If they find us,
we’ll have no need for it.
Hide the diary.
No!  burn it –
not my diary!
(“If my diary goes,
I go too!”)
What shall we say to the Gestapo?
Impossible conversations.
Rehearsing for doom.
A raw smell of sweat, of feces.
One night spent crammed together
in a stinking airless room,
bodies churning with fright.
When the threat passes,
suddenly you’re older, years older,
forced through another grinder,
and you write, like one who has lived through
a thousand years of torment,
“We’re Jews in chains,
chained to one spot,
without any rights,
but with a thousand obligations.”
But like the psalmist
who howls in loneliness and anguish,
you still say, “God has never
deserted our people.”
In the midst of all,
you stand; you stand.
“If God lets me live,” you declare
with the faith of a thousand generations,
“I’ll make my voice heard.”


And yet.
In the next breath, the doubt:
you wonder if anyone will ever want
to look at “this drivel”:  your rapt, fascinating
turns to dust before your eyes.
Now I know you are a writer,
twisting, impaled on doubt
that never ends,
pressing on in the face of it,
surely the ultimate task.


They call it knutscherei:
stolen kisses, closeness, body heat
your heart swaying,
Father worrying, yes, worrying
that you could get pregnant,
all that time spent there in the attic, alone together –
and then what would you do;
but fear and shyness
keep you from venturing further
than a chaste kiss, a caress,
yet this glancing touch
makes your legs turn to water,
you want to surrender,
to press for more,
but jump back from the might of it:
forces unknown,
stirred, but never satisfied,
wild forces
mysteries never probed –
Peter, whom you never would have
given the time of day
if your world had been normal,
now becomes your prince,
your heart’s companion,
your only.

Each day (an interlude)

We are given, each day
only enough to get through;
never more.
We may call this
in the wilderness of our own lives,
with nothing left to gather
at the end of the day,
and only trust
to help us open our eyes again,
face the howling uncertainty
once more.
If the world should end today,
if this should be our last, our final day,
we would not know it;
the unknowing
is a blessing of sorts,
the thing that helped me go to school each day,
keep the secret confined
within my small body,
only revealed after decades
of numbness
and oblivion,
a strange, raw flower
blooming like the spread of blood
in water,
a blossom of despair, of damage
swelling purple like a contusion,
a truth,
surging upward like a germinating seed,
inexorable –
but because true, then unstoppable,
even a gift of sorts,
a reanimating of that which had died,
a return to a wholeness I had never known,
a birth into completeness.
I was given back my life;
yours was taken.
The loss is a slap,
or worse, an amputation –
I want you back,
these words are not enough,
this account is not enough,
we need you here –
I know how the story ends
and hate the ending,
hate this waste, this waste
magnified six million times
until it is beyond
what I can even imagine.


“I’m afraid of myself,” you write,
afraid of what wells up inside you:
you speak of your period,
red hope spreading
from your place of secrets;
you know there is a connection
between this bright bloom
and your passion in the attic:
Father looks concerned, he wants to protect you,
knowing your loneliness,
your fear:  you write,
always in hope,
“I feel liberation drawing near.”
You write:  “Why should I despair?”
There are only three months left
until they take you:  but you do not know that,
or you could not live.


Stop the train:  the end of this
I cannot bear;
stop –

 The Annex

Twenty-five months;
a protected time,
hard:  but nothing to what will come;
the cattle car, the uniform
the shouted orders,
Auschwitz:  but never tell me,
for I cannot bear it –
not my Anne,
not this one, but: yes, they all, all –

 Final passage

Sixty years ago, this week. . .
a weariness,
a sense of being overwhelmed,
yet I must read on,
finish it, my heart split
with the effort,
yet how dare I grieve,
how dare I – so far from this,
so safe –
In the midst of all,
not knowing how close you are
to the end of the story,
you study the classics:  “Orpheus, Jason
and Hercules
all waiting to be untangled,
since their various deeds are running
crisscross through my mind
like multicoloured threads in a dress.”
You clothe yourself with knowledge,
still and focused
in your attic room,
deadly calm,
your studies a form of sanity,
of steering –
You dream of a book of your own,
The Secret Annex,
perhaps a novel
based on your time of hiding.
The chestnut tree
outside your window
bursts into bloom, it is May,
the world insists on continuing,
your father receives
three eggs for his birthday,
and you write,
“unless you’re a Nazi,
you don’t know what’s going to happen to you
from one day to the next.”
You see the abyss between
daily pleasure
and perpetual terror:  “that gap,
that enormous gap,
is always there.”
Sometimes you hope for the end,
no matter how terrible,
just to resolve the grinding anxiety;
you wait,
you wait,
the radio your hope,
D-Day, the invasion,
Churchill’s voice,
and everyone glancing at each other,
wondering how to feel,
what to allow,
heads bent, intent,
everyone sweating
in the airless room:  when, when –
and somewhere, in all this
your girlhood has been lost,
stolen by fear
and crowding,
stolen forever:  my heart pounds,
I feel sick,
I want to run,
I want to put the book away,
but it insists, it insists,
listen to me, it says across the gap
of sixty years,
listen to how it was with us,
to how it was –

 Good at heart

Then comes the statement the world remembers,
“I still believe,
in spite of everything,
that people are truly good at heart.”
And a full stop:
But not the story; not the story.
One day in August, the door bursts open,
and it is over.


Mr. Van Daan:  gassed to death in Auschwitz.
Mrs. Van Daan:  dead; date and place, unknown.
Peter:  died in Mauthausen (Austria), three days before liberation.
Dussel:  died in Neuengamme.
Mother:  died from starvation in Auschwitz-Birkenau,
all her bread hoarded for her girls.
The sisters:  taken to Bergen-Belsen
where they sickened and died,
their young bodies
dumped in a mass grave.

A few weeks later the troops arrived.

 The survivor

Pim lived on,
lived to be immensely old,
lived with his memories,
the diary his legacy, his hope;
he married a woman
who came through Auschwitz,
and perhaps
they did not need to talk,
the number on the forearm
was enough.


An old, old woman is left,
the keeper of the diary,
the one who snatched it from oblivion
in a moment of prescience.
I realize, with shock
that she is still alive,
though nearing a hundred.
Is it difficult to die
when you hold so many secrets?

When Miep speaks,
the world listens.
What she has waited to say
is just as true,
sixty years on.
“Most of humanity
did not even want to know what was happening.”

She speaks simply.
Choosing her words.
No wasting.
An ordinary woman
in an impossible time,
she did what was necessary,
for more than two years.
When she speaks, the connection is completed,
the little girl in the closet,
the woman afraid to admit
she has suffered
because so many millions suffered more;
it all comes clear in a single, simple statement:
“Anne stands for the absolute innocence
of all victims.”

 To come through

Absolute innocence:
my eyes are opened.
Take away the differences; there are none.
This is what it is to be human:  to be held captive
against your will,
to be persecuted,
hunted down,
vulnerable; this is what it is
to endure,
to hold on
to integrity,
to hope,
to stay human
through atrocity,
to remain merciful when punished without mercy,
to “be”, to carry on,
to remarry,
to have another child,
to tell the story
over and over
in simple words, direct and compelling,
leaving out no detail
for it all counts toward glory,
to open our eyes
each day
in an ultimate act of courage
to the same light,
yes, the same light she knew
through the merest crack
in the blackout curtain,
hope spearing through the shade,
and this is the lesson,
pledged beyond reason
to a future that may never be,
for this is all we have,
and all we require:
the need to breathe
in an airless room,
the need to imagine and plan
beyond a suffocating confinement,
the need to see past the day of despair,
to live beyond,
to pick up the bleeding threads
and make a life,
to lift up our hands
in supplication
and praise
and gratitude
for what is left,
for the valour
and the honour
and the stubbornness
and the grace
to come through.



  1. Wonderful! Only had time to read a few, but will come back.

  2. Thank you! This has been largely ignored. Perhaps the subject matter? I wrote it in 2004 and it was put aside. The few attempts I made to publish it fell on sand, and I got fed up, as I largely am with conventional or even self-publishing. Stick it on my blog! Free, free, free. TGC has been my home since 2010.