Primo Levi


I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts... 

ONE OF THE urgent commandments of poetry, especially the poetry of history, is to remember. Americans seem to have been initiated (or re initiated) into history in another way on the now infamous day of September 11, 2001, and, as a result, the poetry of historical consciousness-poetry with a long memory-has taken on special collective meaning for us. Our innocence seems to be something that we keep needing to give up in light of current events. We are not entirely self-determining; we, too, are bound to the rest of the world.
Here is Primo Levi's poem "Shemà" which is included in the poet Joan Murray's useful anthology Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times. The poem is based on the principal Jewish prayer, "Hear, [Shemà] O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One!" (Deuteronomy, 6:4-9). 

Levi returned from Auschwitz to his native Italy after World War II, vowing never to forget the horror he had witnessed. The prayer, which he had learned as a twelve-year-old boy studying for his bar mitzvah, echoed in his memory, like a clarion call. He borrowed its solemn liturgical cadence and style for the poem he wrote on January 10, 1946, which he then used as the epigraph to his first book, If This Is a Man (1947). It is addressed to everyone who lives in safety, and it carries a message that has been brought back from the kingdom of death. 


You live secure
In your warm houses,
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces: 

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter. 

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you. 


In this poem, Levi was especially drawing on verses six and seven of Deuteronomy:
And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and thou shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 

"Whether we like it or not," Levi wrote to a friend, "we are witnesses and we carry the weight of that fact." The burden of memory is heavy, but also electrifying. "I had a torrent of urgent things I had to tell the civilized world," he declared. "I felt the tattooed number on my arm burning like a sore."
The prophetic fury behind the particular witnessing, the remembering, at the end of Levi's poem is immense, The poet puts a terrible curse upon anyone who forgets these people, this Adam and Eve, who - have been so dehumanized that we are asked to consider "if this is a man" and "if this is a woman." It is a lasting obligation to remember their suffering. It is a human injunction, a ritual commandment. We must do everything in our powers, Levi suggests, to keep them from becoming anonymous victims; 'Ye must engrave their images on our hearts and pass on their memories to our children.

 Edward Hirsch: Poet's Choice


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