Trying to Understand

by Dean Blehert

“It is not something one can understand.”

Not if we tether understanding on
A leash of quantity and physical
Conditions, putting an abyss between
A child’s smile and a million children’s smiles,
The terror of one man and a nation’s terror,
A pound of flesh and six hundred million
Pounds of flesh, one murder and genocide;
There is a difference, but make of it
A mystery, insist that that which once
Overwhelmed six million humans cannot but
Overwhelm all understanding — then we’re lost
We’re lost, we’re all lost. The killers won.
The bodies won — the mangled heaps of bodies.
No one suffered; there’s nothing to understand:
Finite cubes of suffering, units of pain;
We’ll process them like bodies off the train.
Taut nerves fill up like toy balloons, then pop
They only take so much. How many stubbed toes
Equals a bullet in the brain?

No doubt
The equation’s known. The suffering beyond
Limit is what the understanding suffers,
But only because our understanding, too,
Unlimited, can always understand
Or come to understand what it has suffered.
Terror’s a frozen mask, death a brittle
Shell; the writhing under false showers,
Clutching a stone that will not melt if you
Spoke to them then, they would not understand;
Pain, terror, death, what are all these
But absence of understanding? Eichmann,
Himmler, do you think they understood?
Absence of understanding cannot be
Understood. Conduct a conversation
With a doorknob: Ask it to explain my words;
See if you can understand its answer.
Ask the outraged, rotten flesh, ask either half
Of Eichman’s mismatched face, ask uniforms,
Ask bars of soap, clouds of smoke, statistics
There is no understanding there. And that
Is all that can’t be understood except
As that which can’t be understood. What is
A mystery? A something thought to be
Where nothing is. We stick to it like glue,
Stick to “death” and “pain” and “dread,” try to wrench
Free of what we’ve put there, will not accept
The silence of a skull as simply as
The silence of a doorknob.

You tell me
Something can’t be understood: I see
It’s with us now, for you are overwhelmed
As they were, killers and victims, by the scope:
By numbers, rhetoric and force. I know
What you will say: “You’ve dieted, but have
You ever clawed for a mouldy crust? You’ve hated,
But have you ever…” I’ve heard the litany
So many times — I used to run it on
Myself, the naked women singing as
They walked into the furnace, all the heaps
Of spectacles, gold fillings, wedding rings,
The clerks who sorted these, the burial squads,
The plough blade pushing dirt over a hole
In a place I understand a place and over

Things — I understand things — that were people…
I used to think of it until I wept,
Then think some more until I could not weep,
As if to pay a debt or to persuade
Myself or God that I could do without
Such misery, for I could understand.

Later Black men said that I could never
Understand what they went through because
My skin’s not black, and women said, “You can’t
Know what it’s like to be a woman, because
You’ve got the wrong shaped body,” and perhaps
I’ll never understand just what it’s like
To be my knee, my hand, my face because
I am not these. Perhaps the doorknob’s silence
Accuses me of failing to understand
The mute hysteria of being solid.
When nothing’s left for me to understand,
To be, but me, what am I?

Some could say:
“They are Jews, vermin — not like us” — a refusal
To be them gives the license to kill.
Once killing starts, it’s fatal to be them.
The killer must extinguish understanding
Or feel what he inflicts. So must the victims
Or be the targets of the rage they hoard.
Two hundred poets put a full page ad
In the New York Times to tell us we can’t grasp
The havoc nuclear war would wreak. I wonder
If four billion lives exceed the grasp
Of one man’s thought or if the loss of a planet
Could not be understood by any child
Who’s lost a pet or doll or had to leave
A childhood home? I wonder if the world
Survives on laws different from those that rule
One’s life: A man who sees no future kills
Himself. Are worlds different?

A future must
Be dreamt. But who will dream for us, we who
Cannot understand what happened once
Or what may happen soon, we tiny, shrunken
Things, crushed by numbers, unable to contain
The facts, we who can’t understand, how dare
We dream? How can we say “Let there be light!”
Not knowing what the light may make us see?
(And how is it that we who are unable
To understand it, yet are able to
Keep putting it there to taunt ourselves with our
Inability to grasp it?)

A camp guard
(Not me, but it could have been) stitches from skin
A lampshade (not my mother’s skin, not mine
But we have skin. Not the lamp I write by,
Though it has a shade), and this I cannot
Understand, because I touch at night
My wife’s warm breathing skin, and she, alive,
Suffuses it with a glow much richer than
A light bulb’s; then she turns to mine and turns
IT on, and together we shine on through
The night — our light keeps me awake to wonder
What fool would throw away the light to have
The shade?

Poor spook. I cannot understand
Because there is no understanding in it.
That man, so long in darkness, could no longer
See the light.

Is it Freud’s dark fraud that’s fooled
Us so to think that what’s unknowable
(Because there is no knowing there) is known
By finding meaning in it? The unconscious
Is as deep as any doorknob, as deep as we
Refuse to be it, understood when we
Bring understanding to it, not, like suns
Seeking candles to light our way, confer with symbols,
Praying: “Speak to us, great Unknown, tell us who
We are!” Who speaks? Who listens? It is we
Who dream the only dreams we live. We are
The source of understanding.

Is what life is, what life can understand.
To understand insanity and death
(One death, six million or four billion deaths)
Is but to know there is no understanding
There, and that is all there is to know.
Demand answers of the tar baby, and soon
It answers with your voice, then loses that.
You don’t have to be dead to understand
What death is. Death is that to which is added
Understanding to make life, so life
Is that which is the understanding of death.
Each grass blade avid for dew knows more of death
Than all the dead. The dead are only known.

That picture, the one I stared and stared at
In Pictorial History Of The Jewish
People — and later, in a Bergman film, I saw
The actress who won’t speak stare at it too
A Jewish family marched off at gunpoint,
The smiling soldiers, parents turned to wood,
The girl and boy — especially the boy,
Frail in short pants, face white, mouth tight,
Eyes bright with terror — all this I understand:
He wants to live, but space and time close in;
He wants to act there’s nothing he can do;
He knows it can’t be happening, but it is…
There’s much to understand, but it’s all clear,
And the guards in helmets, why should they not smile?
They’re getting their pictures taken doing their job,
And no one’s holding them at gunpoint. They
Don’t understand the thing they do, nor does
The child. I understand that well: that they
Don’t understand. It isn’t something one

Can understand. Understand?