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Three Poems by Connie Braun




These three poems are from a new manuscript in poetry and notebook form, evoking life and childhood in Poland, Ukraine, and Canada, before, during and in the aftermath of catastrophe. The opening epigraph comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4, the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.

The work’s title, The Stellium in My House is derived from an astrological reading, by a poet friend, of my birth date, and the work is divided in sections according to the stellium—planets, sun, and comet—associated with the time of birth. The sun is in the twelfth house “of sorrow and endings.” Chiron is “the wounded healer,” Mercury is the planet of memory, Jupiter is named after the god of war, Venus, the goddess of love, and Saturn, the planet of time, represents the lessons of history. If the astrological house of the sun at a child’s birth ordains her way of being in the world, it is not happenstance that the day I was born on in January commemorates the victims of the Holocaust. These three poems for The Journal for the Center of Mennonite Writing—“Searching for Tongue-screws”, “After”, and “Rembrandt’s Parable”— are from the section “Mercury.” While the tension is to not burden the lyric with historical facts, these poems are perhaps the most “Mennonite” in their specificity. “After” is a found poem and notes are provided.

Together the poems probe trauma and complicities, and childhood. Written as witness, the past elides with the present and speaks to the plight of families and children fleeing violence as borders are sealed, as overcrowded ships or rafts are turned away from shores, and as children are taken from parents. Such themes are imbedded in local history.

Writers do not find their subject, rather their subject finds them. This project then, was given to me to write, much like Silentium was, only this work has become a deeper meditation. The poems from the “twelfth house” are confrontations with suffering, and are spiritual in their sorrow, seeking connection between mourning, wisdom, and hope, holding hope in the sorrow and sorrow in the hope. The poems of dislocation from The Stellium in My House are at turns poems of belonging.


Searching for Tongue-screws

Among the ecclesiastical artifacts of the devout is a thick book
with the names of saints and martyrs,

stories of faithful tongues
with screws hammered into holy mouths.

It is written
that Maeyken Wens was burned at Antwerp,

her sons searching through the ashes
for the tongue-screw to keep in memory of their mother.

*

From Friesland and Flanders their lineages
were formed by the rivers they were baptized in,

the pious like berms along the Nogat
and Vistula and the sea. Blue

flax and yellow yarrow,
the land was a quilt lined with lindens planted

against prevailing winds.

Storks nested on straw roof-peaks, a good omen.
Luck was a called a blessing, children’s

children, the crowns of the old. Amen.

*

Through green pastures
past housebarns with lace curtains in windows,

gold shutters flung open to garden delphiniums
and ripening strawberries,

the kleinbahn rolled to the Baltic’s shore a short distance
in summer.

In autumn,
the berms could not hold back the fury

of an army with its Aryan
saviour, twisted cross.

*

The fields of former farms grow red
with wild poppies in summer, the remnant

of the small gauge rail cuts a path through the wheatgrass
to Stutthof.

Descendants
of the dispelled return to the werder, lower than the sea,

as if to collect shells
of housebarns and churches,

a date over a lintel,
a foundation, and cornerstone,

storm and windswept names barely visible
on stones among the pines.

In an old cemetery surrounded by fields of sugar beets
and milk cows, two tall markers

serve as goal posts as boys play soccer in the late afternoon
among ghosts.

Along the country roads, rows
of linden trees cast their filigreed shadows.



After

The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations

---Revelation 22:2

The young man asked the Rabbi, who is my neighbor?

*

1933

Your neighbor

lacks what you have. You have two cloaks, your neighbour has none;
you have something to eat, he or she has nothing left to eat;

you have protection, your neighbour has lost all protection;
honour has been robbed from them;

you have a family and friends, she is completely alone;
you still have some money, his is all gone;

you have a roof over your head, your neighbour is homeless,
left to your mercy, left to your greed, and left to your sense of power.

Now just outside this church, our neighbor is waiting for us.

*

1945

We did something here and there.
But we did not scream out as we should have screamed.

*

2018

At The Tree of Life
synagogue one hundred loved ones at a celebration,

slain.

In the Golden Gate city
mourners gather for Shabbat, Mennonites light candles,

keep vigil.

Where I live the snow is falling heavily, the trees bare,

long before the St. Louis set sail for Canada,
long after

it was turned away.

*

Open wide your hands . . .
the leaves of the tree, wide as an open hand.

Notes:

The questionwho is my neighbourasked in Luke 10:29 is answered with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:30-37.

1933: lines in italics, slightly paraphrased, are found from Lutheran Pastor Helmut Gowitzer’s sermon following The Night of Broken Glass. Gowitzer, a professor and theological lecturer in Thiringia was expelled from his position in 1937.

1945: Lines in italics is from Pastor Wilhelm Busch, Essen in response to the failure of the German Confessing Church during the Third Reich.

Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich. Dean G. Stroud, ed. pgs124-125.

2018: Oct 27 11 people were killed and 6 wounded at the Synagogue in Pittsburg, the target of a hate crime. In response, Mennonites sharing a space of worship with Jews keep vigil at Sha Har Azav Synagogue in San Francisco.

3rd section, line in italics is from an apology issued by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a few weeks after the killing, on the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, for turning away Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany acknowledging that “the government of Canada was indifferent to the Jews . . .”

Last section, line in italics is from Deuteronomy 15:11.

Rembrandt’s Parable

---after “The Landscape with the Good Samaritan,” Rembrandt (1638), Czartyorski Gallery, Kraków

“But he, willing to justify himself, asked Jesus, who is my neighbor?”—Luke 10:29-36

In Amsterdam, a Sephardic Jew from his neighbourhood
as his model, he painted the Faces of Jesus.

He painted The Raising of the Cross.
The Stoning of Saint Stephen.

The Mennonite Preacher Anslo and his Wife
in black clothes, with white collars

of Flemish lace. So intricate are the threads.
A thick book,

The Martyr’s Mirror begins with the crucifixion of Christ,
and the stoning of Stephen,

page after page drawing a lineage
of the drowned or burned who would not renounce

the spirit’s water and fire.

*

I trace the wagon ruts through the chiaroscuro landscape
to the river’s delta, onward to the rolling steppes,

land promised until famine and exile of biblical proportion.
They named their dead among the martyrs, while history

called millions more, simply, victims of Stalin.

*

Rembrandt’s oil on panel hangs again in Kraków’s gallery.
Once looted by the Nazis, then reclaimed,

The Landscape with the Good Samaritan, windmill on a distant plain.
Swirling sky, twisted limbs of trees,

from Jerusalem to Jericho the dark and crooked path.

About the Author

Connie T. Braun

Connie T. Braun instructs creative writing, and mentors undergraduate writers and editors, and has published two books of non-fiction and two poetry chapbooks along with journal articles andessays. Much of her writing is grounded in the war-refugee and immigrant experience of World War II, resonant today in her explorations of memory and witness, the silences and language of trauma,the sites of geographical and spiritual displacement and belonging, and the pervasive paradoxes inherent in being human. Her academic and personal essays, poetry, and reviews, appear in various journals and anthologies, and her poetry has been set to musical compositions. She is a full member of the League of Canadian Poets, among other writing associations, and lives in Vancouver.