The Red Diary
A cycle of narrative poems inspired by the diary of Anne Frank
by Margaret Gunning
Part three of four
To the memory of Anne Frank
Another turn of the seasons: it can’t be,
but the ordeal is not yet over,
not even half. You write
that you take ten drops of valerian
to fight the anxiety and depression,
the sense of no hope
that oppresses your soul.
“The atmosphere is stifling, sluggish,
leaden.” You feel weighed down.
“Sometimes I think God is trying to test me,”
you write, and who could blame you;
you move towards darkness,
and we know the end of the story,
though you are oblivious:
and want to weep.
I know nothing of this level of pain.
Just opening your diary
is an effort, to bring myself
to the pages,
their import immense,
too crushing for a girl,
Had you made it to
we never would have heard of you,
and you might be alive today,
a grandmother, perhaps:
known for something else,
some other work,
or maybe not,
your life longer, but so much more ordinary.
I see a film about a Nazi doctor
who cut off the heads of children,
put brains in jars,
won a medal for his work,
then retired in comfort,
never paying for his crime,
they looked away – all, all,
all looked away;
my mother didn’t come, she didn’t come
when I was ripped,
I know how this can happen,
I bear the scars,
there is a tear, I carry it still
in my body’s darkest place,
a place where flesh split:
but I dared not cry out.
The oblivion is like a drug,
it seeps down the generations,
and children are attacked;
in the film, the survivors
made me weep,
trembling with rage
that this doctor, this doctor –
should win a medal,
should carry on his “work”, should lie
that he remembered nothing;
my mother’s face, blank and null,
it mocks me,
she was supposed to love me,
I was split,
I was split,
I could not help myself
or get away: but it did not happen.
There are two stories always,
smiling and null,
the government hanging a medal
around the Nazi doctor’s neck
while everyone is smiling, smiling:
brains in jars,
to the guilty,
suffering to the innocent: Anne!
In some ways,
you were fortunate to die.
“I have an intense need to be alone.”
And you are.
But not in the way you need.
You live inside yourself. Like all outsiders,
Your insight is devastating: “Father’s not in love.”
You see the lack of love
in your mother’s coldness to you,
and it’s deadly, the way you cut to the truth.
You scare me. Your writings are disturbing,
they are far more than an account of the war,
they are a merciless assessment,
in which everyone is found wanting.
Then you go to your little corner
and bend your dark head
over movie magazines
smuggled in by Miep,
and daydream about Peter,
and new clothes
and the future. . .
an ordinary, brown-eyed girl.
I am sinking
in this material: every day
I am swallowed,
I am swallowed,
I must go in.
I breathe the air of the Annex, thick with anxiety
and the smell of cats.
How much food is left?
How many cans of milk; how many pounds of rice?
Will the Germans blow up the dikes?
Will we drown?
Don’t go in there. I hear my mother’s voice.
I hear it, urgent.
I hear it in my mind.
I always went in. I could not help myself.
I entered a hell of my own making.
Scenes were scalded into memory.
Horror is a kind of flashbulb,
ensuring a permanent image,
on the flesh.
I stand in the Annex; I cannot breathe.
The air is absolutely still,
packed with hostility, with
vibrating with arrested sexual energy,
like a distant roll
of what might be thunder,
unless organized into gunfire,
Listen: I will attest to the fact
that a little girl suffered,
she could not breathe,
her breath was stopped
by an unspeakable act:
no one would believe the things that were done,
and so it did not happen.
Truth can be undone.
Do you think I do not know this?
Hate, and its first cousin, fear
rip the skeins, unweave
the fabric of what is real: my flesh
is not enough,
a healed tear
in my body,
a memory is not enough,
it’s false, it’s implanted:
Listen to the girl.
She knows what she is talking about.
The diary is forged, a fabrication,
the whole thing was exaggerated,
not that many Jews died,
we all know what they’re like,
they blow things out of proportion:
when I was small,
my breath was stopped
by an unspeakable act.
It went so far down my throat
that I was silenced
for fifty years.
The truth twists my head around
and I fervently wish these memories were false;
I wish those times of dissolution
the shock wards,
the grinding hell of therapy –
but for some,
truth will never come out,
too impacted by fear,
too heinous to be real,
and so it isn’t,
truth is booted in the face
and shoved in a back ward
brain circuits cut
to stop the telling.
Tell the story, in your own words
again and again;
tell your most ordinary day,
smiling under the heel of oppression.
I need every word,
I grasp at it, desperate
I grasp at it, desperate
for such skeins of truth, woven
into the clothing
Don’t think I’m in love
Tears leave dark spots
on the red of your apron.
You wonder if Peter even likes you,
for what, you do not know.
You wonder if anyone loves you,
or if anyone can see you
Yet you pray, and thank God
for the small irreplaceable gift
of each day,
the immutable fact of Creation,
and all that you
hold in your heart.
In this, you are happy.
It is as if the forces of the War
(the masses of grief, the megatons
have compressed you into a gemstone,
made shining amber
from the bleedings of a wounded tree,
the running sap
Fiery as cognac
warm as your eyes,
it reflects your radiance
and holds your heat.
Tuesday, March 14, 1944
“The food is wretched,” you write,
“and so are we.”
You’re down to rotting potatoes,
pickled kale that has spoiled,
no bread, no milk, no oil –
tell me, do you ever get frightened?
Do you ever fear your helpers will get caught
and there will be no food left
Miep gets sick; a hole in the safety net.
Terror crowds in from the outside.
It is constant, unrelenting.
You keep your balance by writing:
a death-defying act.
you and Peter become closer,
you speak of sex, while still not touching:
you wonder if you are in love,
what love feels like
or if he cares for you at all
the two of you thrown together
by random circumstance.
You long for more than conversation
but can barely comprehend the feeling,
where it is coming from,
some ancient instinct,
the secret internal workings of hormones,
one drop, then two
coursing in your blood,
nature’s imperative to mate
set alight in your thin fourteen-year-old body.
Like all of us, you are whole,
you have a clitoris, and a womb,
and blood courses through you,
and you ache to touch him, hold him
smell his secret smells,
be one flesh,
yet you know there is danger,
that such congress is forbidden,
a leap into the overwhelming world of
the oldest response in the world:
a paroxysm of pleasure,
new for each person,
a spasm of amazement
that life can feel this good
that God does not forget,
that there is compensation for the pain
of this endless confinement:
the shining joy, the giddiness
of being lifted off your feet
with desire, pulled out of yourself
and every nerve ending
atingle with pleasure
and readiness, for what you do not know,
yet your body knows: girlish,
and ready or not, these feelings are here,
here in the stuffy attic room
so powerful you forget your growling stomach,
your disgust at the bathroom smells,
the stale perspiration
of constant subdued panic,
the tedium of each day
repeating seven hundred and fifty times
until you believe it will never end.
We know what happens; you don’t,
and this faint hope keeps you alive
when loneliness threatens to devour you,
when the future goes dark,
when your parents become unbearably critical
(and just imagine their anxiety
for your safety): You have this diary,
these words, this process
in a world unmade by fear.
The thing is, Hitler did not win –
we know, because your words survived
the frail vessel
that held your essence
dying of despair, yet your words, your words
for the eyes and minds of the yet unborn
who would draw hope from you
in a million different places.
By then, at fourteen
when I first read you,
I was a veteran
I knew how to elude the danger,
except that it pressed in on me,
and I skipped and smiled like any girl,
and hid my fears,
and absorbed the terror
and by night
and lived on,
amazed at your words:
wondering how anyone
such a war,
such a war.
You write of your inner parts
with surprising frankness:
marvelling that a man could fit inside,
or a baby come out.
There is no one there to tell you anything,
so you work it out for yourself:
this is what I look like,
this is what I see;
this, here, this sensitive place,
this is called a clitoris,
though my mother will not speak of it,
Your body, too, is fair territory
for your limitless curiosity,
your probing intelligence,
your intense need to know.
You realize that every part has a function,
that there is design in your deepest being,
that womanhood, all mysterious,
is nevertheless knowable,
as knowable as God,
that desire is rolling forward
over the barriers
and flooding you,
that your little talks with Peter
are becoming more intimate: how the air
vibrates with promise,
heavy with the unknown,
a tension you can nearly see.
You know much, but not everything:
the voice on the radio
speaks of the value of war diaries,
and everyone looks at you: Oh, Anne,
you’ll be famous some day,
and secretly you are pleased.
With the sheer nerve of youth,
the optimism, the resilience,
you just assume you will live to see it,
to savour it;
you rewrite your passages, refine them,
ever the writer,
so at home with your gift: how I envy you.
You report, with the assurance
of a war correspondent,
has been occupied Hungary
by German troops.
There are still a million Jews
living there; they too are doomed.”
Does it slip through, then, a deeper awareness
that threads through your courage,
your bright red valour,
does a darker thread permeate the fabric,
does a cold old hand grasp your shoulder
in the night: we too are doomed?
How do you live with doom,
how do you hold it away from you
so you can breathe, eat, smile,
and continue to write, and write;
what must it take
just to live another day
of the hundreds, and hundreds
pressed behind the walls
of the factory,
shut into fifty square metres
of stuffy space, blackout curtains
sealing out the day,
around the edges of consciousness
like a subtle earth tremor,
leaving cracks in the foundation,
weakening your resolve.
Daily you rise, and live.
Mr. Van Daan’s birthday
does not go unnoticed: there is always a cake
made with bad flour and no butter,
and a few small presents,
a tin of sardines, a luxury,
a tiny serving of coffee,
a few tulips from outside: oh,
outside. . . the smell of flowers
and you yearn, and yearn,
but keep yourself in hand,
believing you will live,
and knowing you will die.