Sharon Dornberg-Lee: A poet who bears witness

January 21, 2012

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A friend of mine, a reporter, told me recently that she'd begun talking about her stories in therapy. She was working on a series about homeless youth and the stories she uncovered were chilling: the woman whose father, a cop, had raped her little brother; the mother who spent a rainy night outside a shelter because there were no beds left inside; the boy who returned home one day to find his adopted family gone. They had up and left without telling him.

My friend was talking about these stories at the insistence of her therapist, who argued that when we bear witness to stories of trauma or tragedy, we can sometimes take on some of the same symptoms as the survivors of these horrors. We can sometimes absorb them through the empathy and compassion inherent in the acts of listening and retelling.

A similar set of themes is explored in the poems of Sharon Dornberg-Lee, a member of Chicago’s Egg Money Poets collective. The group of women poets supports one another in the creation of their work, and takes its name from the pocket money that women of earlier times earned with a little extra labor.

Professionally, Dornberg-Lee is a social worker at CJE SeniorLife, where she counsels older adults from all faiths, many of whom are Jewish and some of whom are Holocaust survivors. They sometimes tell her stories they have never shared with anyone else – like the story she heard from a man in his ‘90s who saw a baby killed in a concentration camp.

“I struggle with whether I should ever talk about the atrocities I've been told about,” she said in an email. “Part of it is not wanting to burden others--even my colleagues--with the haunting effect these stories can have.”  

And part of it, she says, is her fear that sharing these stories might somehow allow the world to “misuse what has been entrusted to me.”

In her poem “The Survivor’s Therapist,” she explores what it means to bear witness to her clients’ suffering:
 

What if I told you

that to do this work

is to hear stories you asked

and never asked to hear?

 

What if I told you of the urge

to release them like fireflies

into the cooling night air—

 

What if I told you that to do this work

you must open yourself as if to water,

steel yourself as if to G-d?

 

Dornberg-Lee recited her poem, originally published in the Fall 2011 edition of Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, at a reading at Woman Made Gallery in November. The audio is above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Sharon Dornberg-Lee read at an event presented by Woman Made Gallery in November, 2011. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.