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Editor's Comments on 'Writer'

 , October 28, 2016

“All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” 

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project

Esther Lee writes with a pen that seems, at times, firmly held by both herself and her subject at once. An uncanny talent. In her poem “Writer,” Lee depicts her encounter with a Holocaust survivor who spoke to her medical school class at a global health seminar. Lee tells me she attempted to capture the medical interview “as is, without adding to the speaker's word or narrative.” While she added few words of her own after a line break at the end, the form of her poem dazzles.

The initial structure of the piece mirrors a clinical interview and its corresponding dictation, with the sterile modifiers such as “Age,” “Occupation,” highlighting the coarse manner in which medical stenography seems to delight in the categorical.  The poem proceeds with open ended questions, from which issue progressively jaw-dropping responses, and thus the door opens to the evocative, dimensional aspect of medicine, which, I suspect, is what really draws those of us who love internal medicine to lean in. The stories. With a nod to Hemon’s epigraph, “That is all that the world is.” 

The interviewee describes himself as a writer. “and when i write/ i forget/ about all the troubles in my head.” I cannot read this poem without imagining Lee in the lecture hall; a poet listening to a writer tell of the book he wrote with all his precious stories that never got published. “A heavy book but/ they didn’t want it.” The lost book itself stands like a metonym for all the people who were not wanted, who we will never know, from whom there will be no descendants, because they were murdered. 

As I read of Lee’s bearing witness to this man, I become aware of a telescoping sort of phenomenon. The words of poet Tomas Tranströmer come to mind, “Each man is a half-open door/leading to a room for everyone.”  Here is this survivor, a man who has for decades found writing to be a sanctuary, now in his eighties, discussing paradox with students: “how can there be two homelands, you say/ a homeland signifies one place to return, one space/ to be safe in/ how can there be two of something so special/ like two of being born?” After which, one very special student goes home, to her space to be safe in, and having looked through yet another half-open door, she grabs her pen.

Rachel Hammer