Poems of Cruelty and Compassion

Poem with Too Much Rope in It                     

After the opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice


I’m thinking of humans who cut the testicles off other humans, who string up

their fellow humans and laugh. Of people who set other people alight for the crime of

uppity, for the crime of gay, for the crime of, I refuse. I’m worrying about

my fellow humans, who can hang a pregnant woman upside down, disembowel her,

leave the fetus dangling—


I’m thinking of the many loving humans I know. Sheltering humans. I’m worrying

about how many people after the war still thought Hitler’s big mistake was

not killing all the Jews. Wondering, too, about those who hid entire families in

a few small rooms, risking the murder of their own. How do we reconcile this—

the fervidly brave, the fervidly cruel. Happy informers. The disbelieving informed. Them

and Us. Who did this to you? I want to ask victim and perpetrator—


I want it to be someone’s fault: twisted leaders, bad parents, beatings.

Or maybe it’s a Darwinian experiment. Something coiled in our genes. Here are

the conditions: let’s see who lives, let’s see who fouls their soul. Either way,

I walk down the street with affable people who would do these things—dangle

suffocating humans from branches, drag them behind jouncing pickup trucks and laugh,

roast alive the very humans who maybe—in another life—they dearly love.

Is there a life in which I’m laughing along with them?



Tomorrow, my father gets his foot

cut off—too much pain for too long—

time for another divorce.


For years, he declared

he was too old for this.

Maybe he was too young.


What a shiver—sickness,

wheelchairs, walkers,

canes. There’s been talk


of complications,

of a cut above the knee—

like the hem on a sexy skirt.


But he will insist, he says,

on below the knee. March—

a bit of snow clings


to the ground, but in his garden

he’s planted spinach already.

By my front steps this morning,


the hyacinths just beginning

to bulge out of the ground

remind me of knees—


how green and incipient

we can always be.

Below the knee—


all the things

he has done,

has not done,


could do,

can still do,

on his knees.


Empty Suitcases

Inside Oma’s farmhouse it was as if panicked thieves had found everyday objects instead of treasure: closets, cupboards, the antique sideboard emptied into piles and strewn across the floors. “Kinkerlitzchen just gets broken, or stolen to fill up suitcases,” my grandmother always said about knick-knacks. But when questioned about the suitcases, Oma had refused to elaborate. “Enkelin, be glad that we are here and together,” she’d say to me, using her native tongue for granddaughter.


“Oma, what’s going on?” I asked.


She shook her head and urged me to the attic ladder, which she had managed to pull down, probably by standing on the stepladder she had used to clear off the top pantry shelves.


“You will look for my mutter’s trunk?” Oma said.


I’d never been in Oma’s attic. The dark entrance conjured up images of spiders, bats, and rotten floorboards with rusty nails. “What do you need so badly? Did you ask my dad if he could get it?”


“Your father is a good boy, but tender. You are different, like me but much smarter. We can take in these things and they do not destroy us.”


“Destroy us?”


“Please, Mäuschen, Oma will not always be here, and it sits like a big stone on my chest.” She crossed her hands over her heart.


I took a deep breath, climbed the ladder, flipped the light switch. In the attic: boxes, insulation, cobwebs, and a black steamer trunk. A plank served as a bridge to the trunk. When I lifted a yellowed wedding dress out of the trunk, tiny moths erupted in a flutter. A tin box contained old photographs, letters, and documents, written in German. I recognized Oma’s face in the sepia photo of a curly-blonde girl with her parents and a small boy. Did Oma have a brother?


I carried the box to the entrance and yelled down to see if this was it. Oma was sitting on the stepladder, talking to herself. “Oma!”


“Christina! You frightened me!”


“I found the box. With photos and papers. I’m coming down.”


“No, not the box. I mean, you keep the box. What else?”


“An old wedding dress.”


“We must find it. Go look harder,” she said.


“It would help if you told me what to look for.”


“Ja. That’s right.” Oma scrunched her face in scorn, spit out the words. “A fancy porcelain mantel clock.”



Oma hustled the clock into the kitchen like she held a blanket infected with smallpox.


I washed off my face in the sink, while my grandmother stared at the clock. I picked it up, checked for a maker’s mark. “A Limoges. It’s exquisite.”


Oma started crying, her shoulders rolling like turbulent ocean waves. “You know how my parents, a simple tailor and his wife, came by this clock?”




“Sit, I will tell you.”


“The foolish Nazis thought things could be made right for the German people by compensating them for the losses they incurred during the war. One day, my papa and mutter went to an immense warehouse filled with furniture, dishes, candlesticks, rugs, Kinkerlitzchen. Papa wanted nothing— it would not bring little Frederick back—but Mutter wanted compensation. They’d lost everything—reduced to rubble. Why should they not take what the Jews left behind, Mutter said. The soldiers glared at Papa. He said, ‘Go then, Hedy, take what will make this better for you.’ The clock appeared on our mantel, without discussion, as if by elves. But, your Oma knew it was tainted. When my mutter passed, I packed it away.” Oma placed her hands upon mine. “The Jews did not willingly leave those things behind, Christina.”


“I know.” Oma had always claimed that her family left Germany before the war. Now I was afraid to hear that we were Nazis. Something else troubled me. “Did you go to the warehouse?”


She shook her head without conviction and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.


“But if your parents never talked about it, how do you know all those details?”


“Is this an interrogation?” Oma abruptly rose. “What is it you want from me?”


She rushed to the sink then slammed dirty dishes around, muttering in German. Finally, she inhaled, and her shoulders fell.


“You were there,” I said.


She nodded but stared out the window. “Mutter stayed in bed, always crying. We could not refuse them.”


“The Nazis?”


“The soldiers were laughing, carrying on, undressing me with their eyes. Papa stood there, useless. He had slinked through the war while our neighbors disappeared. ‘Go on,’ he said to me. Past the bedroom sets, the pots and pans, the necklaces, the toys. I thought of little Frederick playing with his train and I became so … angry.” She faced me. “Then I saw it.”


“The clock?”


“Ja. So beautiful. Pink roses. Gold trim. A couple on a picnic, in love. I took a suitcase, from a pile that reached the ceiling, and put the clock inside.” Oma sighed. “I am a bad person.”


Yes. No, I thought. We weren’t who I’d thought we were.


She shuffled over, stroked my hair. “This is my big stone.”


It felt like my stone now, too. “We should sell it.”


“The clock does not belong to us.”


The clock was probably worth one year’s tuition.


Oma said, “We will return it to the family. This is your job, Mäuschen.”


The clock sat there, glinting in the warm light cast by the setting sun outside Oma’s kitchen window. Oma’s breaths were labored in a way I had not noticed before. A squirrel chattered upon the feeder my grandfather had built beneath an ancient maple tree. I wanted thunder and lightning to tear through the sky, a torrential rainfall to pound upon the steel roof, a tornado to whirl in the near-distance. Instead, a gentle wind simply rustled through the leaves of that tree as if the suitcases had never been emptied.