In Memoriam Primo Levi by Nick Cooke

A sequence inspired by “If This Is A Man” 

1. Campo di Fossoli, 21.2.44

“…e perfino i maestri e i professori della piccola scuola tennero lezione a sera, come ogni giorno. Ma ai bambini quella sera non fu assegnato compito.”

No homework that night. And did the teachers,
Stubbornly cramming their heads full of Dante,
Also pack blackboards, chalk, or even canes?
Quo vadis. Towards what education
And what philosophy lead these wagons –
We ask, and in a sense receive an answer,
Though at this unenlightened point the name
Bears not one fraction of its later fame.
At an idle guess it could almost be
Some Alpine ski-town, where the ice-breathed lips
Of relieved officials and their sturdy dames
Stain the air with laughter. Or do we dream?

Agape at the Brenner Pass in silent awe
One tends to hear the snapping of the chalk.

2. ‘Here is no why’

Let alone wherefore. Amazing
that you even asked, your naïve
courage as sharp and unique as
the icicle you’d sought to grasp

from the window frame of the Block.
Snatching it from your chemist’s hand
he can’t have predicted queries
any more than his own reply.

Yet just as odd, from another view,
was the pithy helpfulness
of his line. The blow he then dealt
may really have been self-aimed

given the secret he’d let slip
into deliberate chaos.
In four short words he saved you all
that metaphysical angst.

After, the rules are learnt so fast
the need to ask recedes. You store
it for later like hidden food
to be chewed on in warmer rooms.

3. Henri

Even before you turn your head
all that you own is inwardly mine
transformed into something other –
a sleight-of-hand that’s native

to these parts. And if you engage,
the inwardness dissolves…
cigarettes to spoon or soup
in the alchemy of the moment.

No market was ever so free
since the advent of coinage.
Exchange rates clench and release
like cranes; inflation rampages

through the world on hooves of fire.
And the entrepreneur, he’s king,
in a land without parliament,
his invoice a ghostly smile.

4. Muselman Manual


Conserving energy,
this is the key:
getting beaten or worked over
beats overworking:
exhaustion kills faster than blows:
that way the chimney lies.

Keep the mind clear
of the number one enemy, thought,
except 1) the form of daydream
the life imposes –
dull, blurred, as if the dreamer
were permanently concussed –

and 2) whatever process aids
resourceful ingenuity.
Useless to list
one’s own examples –
the spark is individual
or not there at all.


On second thoughts, erase the above.
The only working machinery
is oiled by instinct
not the drive to be primed.
Does a fox seek guidance?
Do the sharks pursue instruction?

Train not the mind but the nostrils.
Sniff in each tatter of flesh –
be fox-like, yes, and shark-moulded –
but do not allow gains made
to add up to hope.
Hope pumps the blood too fast

and re-sets the brain to patterning –
its own worst enemy
(see line six for corollary).
The most brutal truth of all:
if you need to ask why,
you’re already gone.

5. The Unthinking Hand

Nothing so bad as his hand on your shoulder.
To this as trifles were the sores and scabs
brought by the girder crashing on your foot
when that fool Nul Achtzehn tripped and dropped his end.
Even the first day, when you all had to stand
naked for hours in two inches of water,
must have hurt less by virtue of its own
clear-eyed malice; but now this Kapo,
a green-triangled professional cretin,
saw fit to wipe his grease-covered hand
on your wretched yet precious jacket.
Doubtless if there’d been a cloth within reach
he would have used that, and you were at pains
to emphasise it wasn’t vindictive –
precisely the point, of course. Small wonder
this was the moment of judgment, more than
anything more graphically hateful.

He wiped first the palm, then the back of the hand,
in a sort of slow-motion double slap.
I’d like to put in a bid for that hand,
chopped off at the wrist as Exhibit X.
As large and hairy as a gorilla’s
it would lie on my pillow each night
while its proud new owner dared himself to sleep.

6. Ladies of the Lab

So much to chat about, so little time –
“This year’s flown by so fast.
Soon another Christmas will be upon us!”
A remote view of the past

in the ears of one who lives
by a clock that stands so still.
A year ago your life was the purest flame;
now there’s room for a certain chill

in the heart of the fortunate few
which certainly includes you
beavering away in the lab with real hope
even if to them just another “stink-Jew”

whose questions can’t be met directly
but must be filtered through a more robust third party
lest their chemical reek
invade the channels of the not-so-hale-and-hearty.

7. Towarowski

Humanity restored like a plant
brushed with rain after long drought
or a shrouded face brought to life

by saintly mopping. Honour that Pole
(that Franco-Polish Jew, I mean) who asked
that the beneficiaries of the search

for a life-saving stove should sacrifice
a slice of bread to each member
of the working team – not least Primo,

its audacious leader. (How you’d grown,
and shaped the enemy within
into one of the sharpest tools.)

The true moment of liberation
came in the hearts of the sick
warming the hands that at first had stuck

to the frozen sides of the stove
but now joined in unwonted sharing
of all that remained, from potatoes

to the presumption of doom.
The long march into the dark,
sweeping away Alberto, could not stamp out

that final, spluttering spark.


Previously published in Sentinal Literary Quarterly, February 2015.

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