Reviewed by SHEILA WILENSKY
Jane Yolen is a creative and prolific author of more than 400 books. As a former children’s bookstore owner, I’m familiar with the breadth of her books for children. I didn’t know about her books of poetry for adults, Kaddish being her 13th volume.
One wonders how Yolen encompasses so many writing genres. She has been called the “Hans Christian Anderson of American children’s literature” (Newsweek, Aug. 17, 2010).
“Aimed athletically at both mind and heart,” as one back-cover author’s blurb states, these knockout poems span the origins of the Holocaust from Kristallnacht in the tragedy of “Return to the Reich: On the Ship St. Louis” to “Even Dachau Is Only a Place” to the current tragedy of Donald Trump in the imaginary “On Viewing a Photograph of Donald at the Western Wall.”
The first stanza of “On Viewing” hints at a whisper of wit and terror:
Perched on his head,
a black knish of silence,
the yarmulke looks ready to flee.
Perhaps someone, besides me, will now refer to her as the poetic chronicler of the Holocaust.
In “Return to the Reich” Yolen broaches the plight of the St. Louis:
Strong warnings of what was to come
Had sent us into exile, our homes behind us,
And the horror of the ovens ahead.
If America or Cuba had allowed the ship’s passengers asylum, they all would have survived. Only half did.
These are “Holocaust Stories,” as one poem by that name reflects, pointing to the essence of history:
But story binds the actual
To the true.
It is no coincidence
That history ends this way.
We make it true again, truer,
because story sticks
when memory fails.
As a former U.S. history teacher and a promoter of children’s books, I find it satisfying to see how Yolen’s expansive talent merges the two.
And she knows that history must illuminate the present, as in the poem depicting American-born Nazis, “Silver Shirts”:
Sound familiar? It should.
Take a deep breath.
What you smell is human roast
In an oven, rotting black flesh
hanging from a tree.
These poems are tough. They honor truth. Yolen is a powerhouse writer, which is why six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates for her body of work. Her latest awards have been from the Jewish Book Council and the World Fantasy Association, and include a Massachusetts State Book Award and a nomination by the United States for the International Astrid Lindgren Award.
Sheila Wilensky, a freelance writer and editor, recently moved to Minneapolis. She is the former associate editor of the Arizona Jewish Post, in Tucson, Ariz., and has written for numerous publications. Wilensky blogs at tucsonwritereditor.com.