Tuesday, February 10, 2015

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

The Red Diary

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

Part two of four

To the memory of Anne Frank

                                                         THE BOOK OF PAGES
 Your hand

I open the book of pages
for the first time in thirty-five years,
and there it is, completely unexpected:
your handwriting.
Small and neat and precise,
yet vigorous and sure;
not the hand of a fragile girl.
The words are unfamiliar to me,
written in Dutch,
yet the sense of concentration, of focus
is palpable, complete.
These are words of absolute commitment,
of clear and open eyes, a steady hand –
the purest account.


It opens with a jolly eager telling
of presents, “a darling brooch”
and “a terrific book”, Daisy Goes to the Mountains.
Your schoolmates dance around you in
a circle, and sing.
A line jumps out at me:  “I’ve never had
a real friend.”
Yet you talk about your friends
in a way that would have made them squirm:
J. R. “a detestable, sneaky, stuck-up, two-faced gossip”,
Jacque “a terrible show-off”,
(“She thinks she’s gorgeous, but she’s not”).
Hanneli, your best friend:  “she blabs whatever you tell her to her mother.”
G. Z.:  “She has a nice face, but is kind of dumb.”
Did they know they were under this microscope,
this steady dark gaze
that penetrated the vulnerable
without mercy?
You laughed, skipped and sang,
but your perception was deadly.
Oh, little girl –
Oh, little girl –
what you will live through!

Put away thoughts of Bergen-Belsen,

of the harrowing end.
Live.  Skip and dance;
skip and dance.


Suddenly this is different:  these words
were not there when I read you in my girlhood.
“Sallie Springer has a filthy mind,
and rumour has it that he’s gone
all the way.”
At thirteen, you knew the boys were
But this:  “Werner Joseph is nice,
too, but all the changes taking place lately
have made him too quiet, so he
seems boring.”
All the changes.
The changes.

I don’t have a friend

You stood apart.
The seeds were there, even as you worried
that no one would want to look at
the scribblings of a teenaged girl.
“I don’t have a friend,” you wrote,
even surrounded by giggling girls,
even though the boys were mad for you
(and I believe you!  It was all that life.
So unquenchable.
Your vibrancy.
Your passionate nature, though surely a virgin,
touching only in your mind,
that vivid, cloistered garden.)


You dress in as many layers as possible:
three sets of underwear, two pairs of stockings,
a dress, a skirt, a jacket. . .
it is not safe to be seen with a suitcase.
Everything is unknown; the family
tries to contain its terror.
With your usual candour, you write,
“I was suffocating, even before we left
the house,
but no one bothered to ask me how I felt.”
The place is called the Secret Annex,
a striking play on words.
Little sentences peep out,
shivering with import:
“We’ve forbidden Margot to
cough at night, even though she has
a bad cold.”
But your spirit buoys you.
It’s almost fun.
At first.
“It’s really not that bad here,” you say.
(Later on, you add this note:
“I’m terrified our hiding place
will be discovered
and that we’ll be shot.”)
You miss your cat, cry for her loss.
Then the Van Daans arrive, and you
speak of Peter, that his company won’t
amount to much. (“What a dope!”)
The secret doorway is a bookcase that swings on a hinge.
It is easy to bump your head.
What I see is the ordinariness.
The boredom and irritation
of forced proximity with dense, dull adults,
the irritation of
a smarter older sister, brilliant in her studies,
well-behaved, unlike you;
“perfection itself”.
Anne feels tired, she feels lazy,
she feels overwhelmed, yet
she is the one to unpack all the furniture
and put the place in order
while her mother and sister
sit in the corner, dazed, in shock.
That night, with her last bit of energy,
she writes.
Always, she writes.
Hiding (2)

Sometimes I hid, but it was different.
So different.
I will not compare.
I would hide in a closet, with an
Indian blanket over the door.
Something was not right; there was a
a smell.
I was afraid to come out, Anne.
It was not the same.

You adored your father;
I feared mine.
There was a crack in my world,
and it split everything,
even my spirit.
The closet was my secret place.
I had my own definition of “safe”.
I did not hear guns in the distance at night,
I was not crammed into an attic, labelled Juden,
stamped, relegated, forced into seclusion.
I went about freely, I looked all right, I passed for normal.
But hear me, Anne:  I was broken.
Blood came in the night.
Fear crept into my world,
and a certain paralysis.

Some part of me did not come out.
Would not.
Dared not.
I could not show myself.
What I was, a girl, made me vulnerable.
It was not the same.
But still I had to hide myself.

Meditation (an interlude)

Is this presumptuous?
Dare I say this?  I feel that I know you.
Is it the candour of your voice,
the trivia, the games,
the petty arguments, squabbles with your mother,
the tales of cats
kept not for pets, but to keep down the mice and rats,
of clothing:  knitting a new white sweater
and having to ask your father permission
for even this tiny luxury,
all this, all this stuff of
sheer dailiness, the daily tread,
that makes this a living account,
fresh as the day it was born?
The thing is, you knew.
You were not a total innocent:  you knew
such a work had value,
the radio told you
that these were momentous times,
that a record must be kept.
In between the dailiness
you quote Churchill, that this is not the beginning of the end,
but perhaps the end of the beginning.
It is 1942
and you are thirteen years old.
I smile at your eagerness to be famous.
It is so unguarded,
so girlish,
and  became so powerfully true,
beyond what you could have imagined.
That hope kept you writing
when your heart was leaden with fatigue
and boredom
and confinement, when you had another headache,
when the time seemed endless,
when you were sick of all those people,
the Van Daans and their pointless squabbling,
dull old Dussel, hoarding food and luxuries,
Peter, sweet and steadfast
but unequal to your mind,
the same, always the same,
the black-papered windows
and guns in the night,
and perpetual fear.
I try to see you now:
you would have been seventy-five,
perhaps a grandmother;
Anne, I am a grandmother, I have been blessed,
I lift my grandbaby high in the air
and she squeals in delight, the future.
Yet I complain about outrageous things,
the petty complaints of a full belly
and a good husband
and grown children
and a secure bed.

Quicksilver Anne

How funny you are.
I laugh out loud at this:
“I have a terrible pain in my index finger
(on my left hand),
so I can’t do any ironing.
What luck!”
And this:  the “prospectus” for the
Secret Annex:
“A Unique Facility for the Temporary Accommodation of Jews
and Other Dispossessed Persons
Open all year round:  Located in
beautiful, quiet, wooded surroundings
in the heart of Amsterdam.”
(And this:  “Only the language of civilized
people may be spoken, thus no German.”)
How could one laugh
when the pressures of history were bearing down
like a glacier
with annihilating force.
But all this tells me
that Hitler was not winning,
that his hideous scheme
would fail.  Even so.
Six million.
At the least.
And all the others:  the souls that have no name.

The fear

How different this diary
from the one I read as a girl,
forbidden passages
how much you adored your father,
how you called him Pim,
how bitterly you clashed with your mother,
disdained your perfect sister,
spoke of the unspeakable,
the stirrings of early womanhood
strong in you,
the attraction,
the curiosity about forbidden things,
your boredom and exasperation
at the pettiness of the Van Daans,
and why must we stay with people
we don’t even like,
their endless complaining
and criticism,
bickering over a spoonful of butter, an extra slice of bread –
and your need to be better,
to master yourself,
be calmer, quieter, more mature,
but how could you be better than this,
bearing witness to the daily round,
filled with shock
at the fate of those who were not so fortunate.
This is an Anne who is angry.
This is an Anne who will not keep silent.
She will speak; she will speak.
Margot kept a diary too,
likely a milder, safer record,
or did she keep it at all,
under these impossible pressures.
I know how you needed to write.
It was your way of containing the fear,
of managing the unmanageable.
How do I say this?  Anne: I wrote.
The fears were different.
I was not safe in my home.
I did not adore my father.
I could not thrive.
It was different.  Yes.  Different,
another set of atrocities,
on an intimate scale.
I was not whole.  But I wrote,
pressing the pieces together
into the semblance of human,
when I feared I was something less,
a mere receptacle for poisons,
accumulated grief
passed down the generations
forever and ever,
into this dead end of a person, myself.
Stop the train, oh, stop the train
with your body,
try to stop the generational damage
before it annihilates your children;
stop it, stop it now,
before it is too late.
Anne, I wrote too, as a way of hanging on,
holding on to myself
in a place of silences
and secrets
and terror
and despair.

 The bells:  I

“The Westertoren bells stopped chiming,”
you write on a Thursday in 1943,
“and I’d always found them
so comforting.”
Another day, the bread ration
is cancelled.
(No bread.  No bread -)
Machine-gun fire rips open
your sleep.
Rats scurry thick in the night.
Hitler rants, struts on the radio.
You can’t go outside.  You wonder.
You wonder if your optimism is warranted,
if these forces might win.
Sometimes terror turns to laughter,
releasing some of the unbearable tension
until the next threat.
You are so aware, quivering
like a tuning fork,
so sensitive to change,
to the mammoth forces
that press down on the eight of you,
the knowledge
there may be no future.
Your beloved Pim
insists on hope,
but how much of this is for his daughters,
how much raw fear
splits his sleep?
Your mother weeps
because she cannot reach you.
You push her away.
You can be cold.
But this is a bulwark
against the tide of terror,
it’s all you have
to preserve yourself.
The food grows scarce
and poor, beans, a bit of cabbage,
crumbling old bread
not fit for a rat.
All your shoes are too small,
so you go about in stockings,
which is much quieter.
One of your helpers begins to bleed inside:   cancer.
Who will help you now?
Where will the food come from
When will you walk outside again
You cast your imagination into the future
by some immense act of will,
and force yourself to carry on.

The writer

I can’t begin to fathom it:   how I love you.
I love how you reveal yourself,
rant, complain,
then reprimand yourself:  how fortunate we are;
how blessed.
Life and circumstance demand
you discipline yourself
daily, and hour by hour
so that terror will not win.
I see you leaning over your diary,
working at it, making it exact,
your dark head bent in concentration,
the red-covered journal
a focus, a listening ear.
You speak of Churchill, of Gandhi, of Mussolini,
towering figures,
you follow the battles day by day,
coloured pins stuck in a map
right next to the pencil marks
on the wall
marking your growth, and Margot’s growth,
so ordinary,
and all the while
changes are happening in your body,
you are becoming a woman
right there, in captivity,
hormones are coursing through your blood,
forcing the changes,
the blooming,
the desire.
You dream of babies, and of getting married one day,
then change your mind:  No.  I will be a writer.
My name will be known:  Anneliese Marie


A M. Frank
Anne Frank
A  M. Holländer
(no:  not your mother’s name - )
Or perhaps both:  a husband who understands?
I shall be a journalist.
(Novelist?)  But I must be good enough.
I must hone my craft.
Then in the next breath
you write of the antics of cats,
of beans spilling down the stairs,
of a toilet blocked with strawberry recipes,
all that you had for paper.
Yet in these details
comes the life, the veracity, the true
breath of that stifling little place,
we are there,
we share it with you,
you open it for us,
make it bearable,
the unspeakable made real.

I love you

I love you, because you seem to understand
fear that can’t be acknowledged;
and though your terror was not my terror
I could not grow,
I was dwarfed,
struggled between rocks,
curled in on myself
in my own private annex of fear.
I was afraid of my father.
Nightly the door opened,
a flash of light,
then darkness, strangeness, I could not breathe,
something was stopping my breath,
I would never breathe again –
something unspeakable.
Yet it did not happen.
There were no six million – surely it was
all blown out of proportion,
only a few thousand
died (and they probably deserved it),
and who will believe
the unreliable memory
of a little girl?
So she climbed behind the wall of the room
and hid
until the violation was over
and she could fall back asleep again,
only a terrible taste in her mouth
to remind her of the shock,
the loathing,
the stopped lungs and silenced screams
of devastating damage.

 The bells:  II

“The Westertoren bells
have been carted off
to be melted down for the war.”
Then the radio, your precious
conduit to the outside,
the lovely old cabinet radio
is taken away.
No voices; no news; no music
to dance to, to sing to,
and your helpers scramble to find another,
much smaller, to sneak in
along with the day’s supplies.
The world tightens, contracts.
You hum to keep away fear.
There are flea bites on your ankles.
You peel potatoes
and listen to the incessant quarreling
of the grownups,
the Van Daans hissing at each other again
so pointless, so pointless
and pray that your marriage is not like that,
if you live to see it happen.