Gabrielle Edgcomb

Three Poems from Moving Violation

Volume 17:1, Winter 2016
Some Of Us Press Issue

Moving ViolationOn The Sidewalks of Berlin

On the sidewalks of Berlin
I never drew chalk designs
for hopscotch
or dug hollows in the dirt around the trees
for marbles.
I came from this side of the tracks
and was taken to the park.

Having left the parks of Berlin
because of racial inferiority
I took the subway to an integrated school
except in the cafeteria.
I was too old for hopscotch and marbles.

I ignored Goethe
and learned Jack Benny
Savoy Ballroom, double features
20¢ in the afternoon, smoking in the balcony
danced in the Tavern-on-the-Green
with affluent boyfriends
and ate so much America so fast
that only later
and after much indigestion and heartburn
assimilation was known from elimination.

By a Child in the Warsaw Ghetto 1942:

I want to steal
I want to rob
I wand to eat
I want to be a German.

There is arithmetic
in these four lines:
the first three
add up
to the fourth,
and in this sum
there lies the prudence
and corruption
of the world.

Female Complaint

I bleed no color tears
a secondary symptom
of this crippling
female complaint
no Midol can relieve.

Bred with and shed husbands
bred and shed children
gave teas
compiled bibliographies.

Here at the threshold
of matron leprosy
I find the crippling nerve:
become vestigial
like an inflamed appendix
it cries for the knife.

I surgeon and anaesthetist
probe through the tissue of
devotions to rotting gods
the crippling nerve exposed
prodded and pierced
like the pithed frog
unbrained throbs on.

There is a strange new silence here
which shrouds me as a mountain fog.
I hear the sound of voices
of telephone and dog
sometimes an unknown infant
cries in the night
but I am not encountered.

That birth scream
freeing the life air in the gullet
is it not swallowed
to rise again?


Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb (1920-1996) published two books of poems, Moving Violations (Some of Us Press, 1973), and Survival in Prehistory (Working Cultures, 1979), as well as the remarkable nonfiction book From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges (Krieger Publishing, 1993), later made into a documentary film. She also edited Man-Made Lakes: A Selected Guide to the Literature (National Academy of Sciences, 1965), and was co-translator of Marx on Suicide (Northwestern University Press, 1999). Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, she was able to escape to the US in 1936 as the Nazis were coming to power. As she wrote in her personal essay, “And If I Haven’t Died, I’m Still Alive”: “I arrived in New York in 1936, like most settlers, on a boat. Unlike most, I crossed the ocean not in chains, not in steerage, but second class on H.M.S. Beregaria…Mother and I were not ‘wretched refuse from the teeming shore,’ but, nevertheless, ‘yearning to breathe free,’ or, as it turned out, to breathe at all. We were refugees, not immigrants, as we learned, a subtle but potent class distinction then.” She studied at the University of Chicago (earning an undergraduate and masters degree), married and divorced twice, and had three children. Edgcomb moved to DC in the early 1950s, and remained here until her death. Among her jobs, she worked as the Washington-Area Executive Director for the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, as a research consultant to the Smithsonian Institution, and a research specialist and bibliographer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She founded a small press, Working Cultures. To read more about this author: Merrill Leffler on Gabrielle Edgcomb, Profiles Issue, Summer 2008