The Embodied Poem: On Writing “Palace” by Hadara Bar-Nadav

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Hadara Bar-Nadav‘s poem, “Palace,” appears in our Spring 2012 issue, guest edited by Nick Flynn. “Palace” opens with these lines:

When they run out of meat

men disappear. I chew
my hair, a kind of fullness

that is kind, a thread

soup. A nest gathers
its strands inside me.

Here, Bar-Nadav describes her process:

I’ve been struggling to find language and imagery for writing about the Holocaust for several years, which is ironic because I had been running from this same recurring language and imagery since I was a child. When I was very young, my mother showed me films on the Holocaust, which continue to haunt me. Black and white images of naked, skeletal bodies unearthed in mass graves, of ovens, gas chambers, and electrical fences, of medical experiments, starvation, and disease. “This is what it means to be a Jew,” my mother told me. “This is your family.”

I wrote “Palace” after receiving a phone call from my sister, who had traveled to Czechoslovakia, where our family is from. Through extensive research, my sister confirmed that more than 60 of our family members were killed in the Holocaust, many in the concentration camp Terezin.

The poem “Palace” is a way for me to embody a story, to give it flesh. I have no real idea of the personal experiences of my family members in the Holocaust. How could I ever really know what they saw and felt? What their hair smelled like or felt like before it was shaved off? How can I tell their stories, and how can I not? My sister’s research has encouraged me to creatively engage with our difficult family history.

I am also heartened to continue writing poems such as “Palace” by the stories of Terezin itself. This particular concentration camp has become known for its enclave of Jewish artists who managed to write and perform operas and plays during the war. Art classes were held for children. The adults in the camp assumed they would not survive, but they hoped the children would. And indeed the children’s opera Brundibar and the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly—a collection of children’s drawings created in Terezin—attest to the immensity of the creative spirit, even in times of great horror and destruction.

“Palace” is my attempt to give a body to a story, or to give a story to a body, an individual life lived. It is the antidote to stories that were erased, to family members who were erased. Their lives have been reduced to names, birth dates, passports, and a few letters from the Red Cross in which individual family members were assumed to have perished in Terezin, Auschwitz, or other concentration camps.

Creativity is a necessary counterbalance to destruction. This is also what it means to be a Jew—an absolute belief in the power of art, literature, and scholarship. Along with the dates and the names my sister has collected, the telling of individual stories, of individual lives lived, even if imagined, must be done. It must be done.