Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

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The magnitude of Hirsch’s theme emerges in the numbers. Salisbury gives for Hiroshima a death count of 78,150, with 13,983 missing and 37,426 wounded. Although all figures have to be estimates, Salisbury says that in the blockade of Leningrad more than ten times as many died than at Hiroshima. Excepting the millions who died in the Holocaust, no larger group has ever been elegized.

Images of human misery dominate Hirsch’s narrative, relieved only by reminders of the people’s courage. The conflagration at the Badeyev food warehouses was a catastrophe, as all realized at the time, yet only a few hungry children “cried out or screamed in pain.” In Peter the Great’s “white showcase,” the sufferers dream at night of “the sweetness of surrender,” yearning for the days of “women with bright parasols/ Strolling down the wide Parisian boulevards.” Memories of “men cruising in black limousines” ward off the words “typhoid” and “cholera” and dampen the sirens’ “wailing” throughout nights of uneasy sleep. During these hard days when resignation and death beckon seductively, rest is forbidden, for “you must spend your life digging/ Out trenches with a shovel, staying awake.”

Everyone’s endurance is challenged by the need to work to eat and fight to survive, even as the corpses accumulate in the hospital corridors. A “dazed girl” embodies the spirit of the survivors as she keeps shouting, “‘But I can/ Fight the Nazis!’” Honor still prevails among those who try to “relinquish judgment” of those whose desperation drives them to measures that would ordinarily shame them. Even the severest hardships can be borne with patience, for “we got used to icicles in our chests” and to “the fires falling from the sky/ At dusk.” Worst of all, with “the staircases jammed with corpses” and the turpentine smell everywhere, “We got used to leaving our dead unburied.” Yet iron will triumphed over “empty stomachs” and “ankles in chains,” even over “a heavy iron collar wrapped tightly/ Around our necks.” Hirsch’s poem is a saga of courage under duress.

Such powerful human sympathy is not unique in Hirsch’s work. His “Three Journeys” testifies eloquently to the goodness of the poor and humble as he observes a bag lady on a “terrible journey” past the overflowing supermarket and the record store. She reminds Hirsch of the destitute Romantic poet John Clare, walking eighty miles over bad roads, “hungry, shy of strangers.” The bag lady “sprawled out on a steaming vent” brings to mind Clare “lying down in an open dike bottom.” Hirsch’s moving declaration of love for the mad Clare is perhaps a fitting memorial for the starving millions in Leningrad, those who survived on grass, bark, and jelly made from meat straps:

Tonight when I lie down in the darkin my own bed, I want to rememberthat John Clare was so desperately hungryafter three days and nights without foodthat he finally knelt down, as if in prayer,and ate the soft grass of the earth,and thought it tasted like fresh bread,and judged no one, not even himself,and slept peacefully again, like a child.