• Review
By – October 17, 2023

Arne Weingart’s new book of poet­ry is a first-per­son nar­ra­tive, told from the point of view of some­one who is try­ing to sur­vive a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp. Writ­ten in forty-eight eleven-line vers­es, Weingart’s poems are tight and dra­mat­ic. The nar­ra­tor being held pris­on­er reflects on God, his fam­i­ly, life in the camp, mem­o­ry, and many oth­er rel­e­vant top­ics. It reads like a stream of con­scious­ness, with images that are often sur­pris­ing and striking.

In Verse XXV, the pris­on­er writes about being in the camp band. He starts off by explain­ing that some of the mem­bers used to play an instru­ment when music was as nat­ur­al and unpre­ten­tious as breath­ing.” And then he continues:

We rehearse in the short interval 

between sup­per which is not supper 

and sleep which is not sleep. We play what we

can still remem­ber with­out look­ing at 

a score. Sheet music is as scarce 

as the light from incar­cer­at­ed stars.

Most of the vers­es — this one includ­ed — are about dif­fer­ent aspects of sur­vival. In this one, music is a sav­ior, and a metaphor for the impor­tance of memory.

Many peo­ple ques­tion whether or not some­one who did not direct­ly expe­ri­ence the Holo­caust, or any form of geno­cide, can write about it from a first-per­son per­spec­tive. Are these sto­ries in fact appro­pri­at­ed? That ques­tion might linger in read­ers’ minds as they read through Weingart’s col­lec­tion. Even though the poems are com­pelling, one might won­der, for exam­ple, how many pris­on­ers played music, or even if they had the lux­u­ry of thinking.

That said, the thoughts and imagery are fresh, with many pro­vid­ing a new per­spec­tive. In Verse XXXI, the pris­on­er writes about the birds that still come to the camp:

You’d think that birds would be for­bid­den here.

That some­how they would know not to appear

as usu­al and sing and fight and fly

and squat on branch­es. Bal­ance on barbed wire.

The pris­on­er expe­ri­ences the birds as wit­ness­es — all the more star­tling because they can’t react, and their lives haven’t changed. They are still birds bal­anc­ing on wire; they’ve sim­ply adapt­ed to the barbs. Wein­gart might also be sug­gest­ing a kind of per­son­i­fi­ca­tion here. How much are the birds like — and unlike — the gen­er­al Aryan population?

In Verse XXIX, the pris­on­er ques­tions the use of poet­ry to talk about what hap­pens when the world is at its worst.” He comes down on the side of poet­ry and art, and their poten­tial to express what can­not be said in any oth­er form.

Con­cen­tra­tion is an ambi­tious book. It helps us reflect not only on the hor­rors of the Holo­caust, but also on the poten­tial threat of any total­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ment. When peo­ple lose their free will, they become pris­on­ers; at totalitarianism’s worst, they become vic­tims of genocide.

Stew­art Flor­sheim’s poet­ry has been wide­ly pub­lished in mag­a­zines and antholo­gies. He was the edi­tor of Ghosts of the Holo­caust, an anthol­o­gy of poet­ry by chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors (Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1989). He wrote the poet­ry chap­book, The Girl Eat­ing Oys­ters (2River, 2004). In 2005, Stew­art won the Blue Light Book Award for The Short Fall From Grace (Blue Light Press, 2006). His col­lec­tion, A Split Sec­ond of Light, was pub­lished by Blue Light Press in 2011 and received an Hon­or­able Men­tion in the San Fran­cis­co Book Fes­ti­val, hon­or­ing the best books pub­lished in the Spring of 2011. Stew­art’s new col­lec­tion, Amus­ing the Angels, won the Blue Light Book Award in 2022.

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