Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 518 words.)