If you want to know what it feels like to be a child of survivors, read this slim and vital poetry collection. Holocaust literature rarely features the trauma reverberating in the second generation. Rich with images illuminating themes of identity, exile and belonging, Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann’s Death of the King and Other Poems explores this transitional ethos.
The Holocaust hovers, a fact of life: not only in the overt reference to the “muselmann”, or Neiger-Fleischmann’s assertion: “Mutation in my genes / began in the gas chambers”. As a visual artist, an Israeli displaced from Hungary, the poet uses a varied palette of words and verse forms to map imperiled landscapes. In “Route”, the speaker describes a view from a train window. The word “train” resonates with historical menace; observing “a dry bush that survived the summer”, she worries, “alas” for its “safe journey!” fearing its head “will be chopped off in the gallop of the wagons”.
In “Eating”, “I convey my family tree in railway carriages. / . . . “chew, chew, chew”. Presumably this repetition is a translation choice by the poet and her co-translator Anthony Rudolf – working in collaboration from the Hebrew – but like so many phrases (“our revels now are ended,” “flowers of evil”), it echoes well-known predecessor works. The line hints at one from Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”, and her harsh “second generation” identification with the perpetrator: “An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew”. In “Green Memory,” Neiger-Fleischmann asserts, with Plath-like composure, steeling herself in the act of peeling an avocado, “Each act is a poetry / lacking all pity”.
Claiming emotional distance allows for a disconcerting psychological pose. As in Anne Sexton’s “Transformations”, the poet invokes fairy tales, emphasising violence in her spin: a sexual “Alice” is turned on by “stories about wonderland and the huge cock of a pervert who desires little girls”. The forest, like those of World War II-era Europe, is not neutral. In “Even in a Fairy Tale”: “the wolf got there first,” and by “grace of his teeth / I am studying psychoanalysis”.
“Eating yoghurt with great longing / pouring the white stuff into my guts . . . / If I can make this public / keep in line with the surface of the landscape, / belong to its colours, / I shall at last/ integrate my life and relax” (“Belong”). Wise to the temporary respite of making visual art, she sees in the clay of Aztecs, “the bloody paintings on the jars” (“Mexico Jerusalem”). “I trembled in the terrible/ euphoria of power, / the ecstasy of guilt, / the pleasure of giving pleasure / in the shrine of Tenochtitlan / facing cruel idols”.
Cynicism suffuses “The Bench of Holman Hunt”, also the subject of one of her most vivid landscape paintings. The poem is populated by well-meaning tourists from the United Nations taking pictures of “a little Philistine / a boy who has not yet learned how to throw stones”.
Note the shifting perspectives; image-making painter to tourist to poet’s portrait of her granddaughter making a portrait of her: “This beloved child, staring straight at me, / draws and does not know / my portrait is already drawn within her”. How does the interior image look? “Second Generation Artist” provides an unsettling clue:
My dear ones fated to be murdered
Thoughts drill holes in my body
to store gun powder.
What explosion lurks? If you are a painter–poet, you don’t throw stones. Your power lies in vibrant oil paints or well-oiled words, “my poems atonement.” If you want to know what it means to carry this DNA, to pass it on in pictures, read these poems.