L. D. Brodsky confronts Holocaust in poetry collection

Louis Daniel Brodsky, a prolific and acclaimed poet and essayist, once again tackles the complex and conflicting issues of the Holocaust in his latest collection: “Rabbi Auschwitz: Poems of the Shoah” (Time Being Books, $15.95). In his unique style, which combines rigorous intellect and knowledge with sensitivity and compassion, Brodsky grapples with his own rage and confusion as a member of the Jewish people, realizing that all of us are “survivors” of Adolf Hitler’s demented and demonic dream not just to eradicate the Jews of Europe, but to kill every Jew on the face of the earth.

Brodsky is a native of St. Louis and a graduate of Yale University, Washington University and San Francisco State University with degrees in English and creative writing. He has a rich and textured literary background, which includes expertise in the life and works of William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize winning laureate of the American South.

Brodsky is the author of “William Faulkner: Life Glimpses,” and he donated his extensive collection of works by and about Faulkner to Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.

In some of Brodsky’s previous collections, especially “The Capital Caf é” (1994), he vividly describes the roadside diners of rural Baptist America, with the kind of mimetic vividness that was the hallmark of Faulkner’s writing. As a Jewish writer, Brodsky, like filmmaker Steven Spielberg or artist Judy Chicago, has felt the strong need to use his own poetic skills to attempt to get his arms around the central tragedy of Jewish history.

“Rabbi Auschwitz” is Brodsky’s latest in a series of collections and individual poems about the Holocaust, many of which have been published in prestigious national journals and periodicals. By 1994, Brodksy had already published over 100 Shoah-themed poems, which by then had taken up three volumes: “The Thorough Earth, Falling From Heaven: Holocaust Poems of a Jew and a Gentile” (with co-author William Heyen, a finalist for the National Book Award), and the memorable “Gestapo Crows: Holocaust Poems,” whose very title sends a chill up the spine of the reader.

Brodsky also teamed up with the late, great Harry James Cargas, Professor at Webster University, a leading Catholic scholar on the Holocaust, in publishing “Telling the Tale: A Tribute to Elie Wiesel.” Brodsky’s contribution to the project consisted of a selection of 12 Holocaust-related poems dedicated to Wiesel, who with Cargas was the founding co-chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Museum Commission.

By working with Heyen and Cargas, Brodsky underscores his awareness that the Shoah is not an exclusively “Jewish” dilemma or a “Christian problem,” but a moral crisis for all of humanity. Cargas once said in a local speech that he heard Jewish friends ask, “Where was God at Auschwitz?” adding, “As a Christian, I must ask, “Where was Christ at Auschwitz?”

Each week, hundreds of the survivors of the Shoah, the last living eyewitnesses to the horrors of the death camps, die. Brodsky takes up their cause to use his considerable poetic skills to give voice to those who have passed away.

It has been said that such horrors occurred at Auschwitz, that there are no longer any songbirds on the blood-soaked ground where the death camp once stood. The image of the black crow, a sleek, highly intelligent and menacing bird still haunts Brodsky’s pysche, just as it did in his earlier collection, “Gestapo Crows,” as illustrated by his prefatory poem:

Bestial Desire

Instinct may hold the only clue

As to how crows, darting toward a flattened possum, Then back to road’s shoulder, With beakfuls of bloody eye, entrails or tail, Avoid obliteration by cars racing along the pavement, But I’m not sure I trust my instincts To extrapolate a facile answer From my observation of the commonplace.

Doubtless, theirs is a practiced act of savagery, A necessary balancing of symbiotic opposites-

Life rising out of life giving up.

It’s nature insulating itself against decay, The most common denominator in death’s equation.

But perhaps these easy explanations

Fail to give the fanatical will to ravage its due.

Maybe it has as much to do with bestial desire.

The above breathtaking sample illustrates how Brodsky has drawn upon his various literary influences and personal observations driving the blue highways of rural Missouri, along with his conflicting emotions regarding the mysteries of the Holocaust. Was the Shoah a random act of violence, the latest in a series of genocides that continue to unfold in places like Rwanda and Darfur even in our own times? Does the slogan “Never Again” make any sense in view of the “bestial desire” that brought about the genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia and Kosovo go on and on and on?

In the solid Jewish tradition of intellectual and spiritual wrestling matches, Brodsky does not come up with “facile answers,” but he certainly knows how to brilliantly and movingly frame the questions that must be asked.

“Rabbi Auschwitz: Poems of the Shoah” will become an important and enduring part of the literature of the Holocaust, and a copy should be on the shelves of readers of all backgrounds. It is an important and powerful statement by a gifted writer in our midst.