“Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?”

August 18, 2013 § 5 Comments

Lot’s Wife

 And the just man trailed God’s messenger,
His huge, light shape devoured the black hill.
But uneasiness shadowed his wife and spoke to her:
‘It’s not too late, you can look back still

 At the red towers of Sodom, the place that bore you,
The square in which you sang, the spinning-shed,
At the empty windows of that upper storey
Where children blessed your happy marriage-bed.’

Her eyes that were still turning when a bolt
Of pain shot through them, were instantly blind;
Her body turned into transparent salt,
And her swift legs were rooted to the ground.

Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?
Surely her death has no significance?
Yet in my heart she never will be lost,
She who gave up her life to steal one glance.


Translated by D. M. Thomas

In Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill, David-Antoine Williams explores, in his chapter on Geoffrey Hill, Hill’s abiding interest in the memorializing function of lyric poetry, as it relates to its ethical function. Inevitably concerns of exploitation arise over taking a devastating historical event such as the Shoah as “subject matter” for a poem; the lyric poem negotiates the difficult balance between the urgent need to remember, and the instinct that drives us towards silence out of respect for the dead.

Hill embodies these tensions in early poems such as “September Song” and in the concept of the belated witness: the witness who comes after the event, who was not there him or herself, but who feels compelled nonetheless to function as witness, as marked in a lyric poem. Susan Gubar, in her Poetry After Auschwitz, considers a similar concept that has arisen out of Holocaust studies, the concept of the proxy witness: the witness who may be a child or grandchild of survivors, or who experienced events indirectly, or who is a belated witness as Hill uses the term. I would suggest we also now have, with the advent of social media and instantaneous transmission of events via Twitter, smart phones, and the world wide web, the experience of the virtual witness: the individual who witnesses for example the events of the Arab spring, or its aftermath, as we are seeing now in Egypt and Syria, albeit mediated always by screens, events brought to us on a digital flood tide.

Geoffrey Hill has written:

“‘I would seriously propose a theology of language; and a primary exercise which might be undertaken towards its establishment. This would comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming (a) that the shock of semantic recognition must also be a shock of ethical recognition; and that this is the action of grace in one of its minor, but far from trivial, types; (b) that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead.'” (from “Language, Suffering, and Silence” 1999, collected in CCW 405, qtd in Williams p.159)

Williams notes that Hill’s poems tend towards silence, particularly in the elegiac mode. He observes that

“Writing poetry, for Hill, means working in a medium which is ethically marked at its origin. The ethical is built into the very structure and process of language. The menace of language is against our moral being: the abounding opportunities for inattention to language and through language, and for deception and confusion by language, threaten the precision and reliability of our judgements. Poetry is a way of atoning for one’s linguistic trespasses, a way of ‘at-one-ing’ with that from which language separates us….” p. 179


“Words exist in the ‘real world’; words represent and refer to things in the ‘real world.’ When Hill writes, in his note towards establishing a ‘theology of language’, that ‘the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead’, he is directing diligence, endurance, and attention—the ethical attributes of attitude and process—towards an ethical end. By ‘late twentieth century’ we understand the post-Holocaust world; by ‘the dead’ we understand in particular the victims of the Jewish Shoah. But Hill also has a more general, comprehensive and methodical memorializing in mind, a memorializing mode for or approach to the writing of poetry.” p.183

According to Clare Cavanagh in her Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska in her mature poems approached this idea of attention and memorializing of the dead as a series of footnotes or marginalia in the great Soviet Book (see also my earlier post, “death of the book à la russe“), lyric poems which function as “self-consciously inadequate witness” (p.195).

Cavanagh traces this idea of the inadequate witness by considering the poems both Anna Akhmatova and Szymborska wrote on the fate of Lot’s wife. I’ve included Akhmatova’s version of the story above, as translated by D.M. Thomas, whose translation of Akhmatova’s Requiem I most prefer.[1]

I like Akhmatova’s insistence in “Lot’s Wife” on the small details of everyday life that constitute its very fabric: the spinning-shed with its association with the making of cloth; the marriage bed, a private space associated with warmth and shelter, and the conceiving of children. Akhmatova then asks, “Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?/Surely her death has no significance?” In Requiem, Akhmatova writes of her own personal experience of loss: her fears for her son in the Gulag, her lover’s arrest and imprisonment, her existence utterly limited and threatened by the Soviet state. By documenting her own situation, she illuminates the lives of the many others who also stood in line with her at the prison queues in Leningrad with parcels to send to loved ones, hoping to hear news.

According to Cavanagh, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn first encountered Requiem in the 1960s, he criticized it for its “inappropriate lyric self-absorption” (which, Cavanagh notes, sounds an awful lot like the same criticism made by Soviet critics who preferred socialist realist prose). Solzhenitsyn said, “‘But really, the nation suffered tens of millions, and here are poems about one single case, about one single mother and son … I told her that it is the duty of a Russian poet to write about the suffering of Russia, to rise above personal grief and tell about the suffering of the nation.'” p.122-123.

Akhmatova had already answered this criticism through her rhetorical questions in “Lot’s Wife.” The lyric poet’s function, she implies, is at times simply to mourn one woman in a holocaust, because each single death is significant. Cavanagh argues that Akhmatova thereby “performs what Szymborska sees as a key function of the lyric poet in an age of Great History: ‘One single human being laments the woeful fate of another single human being'” p.195.

[1] For example, consider Thomas’s translation of the last lines of the second part of Requiem: “Son in irons and husband clay./Pray. Pray.”

the poem as trace of an event 1

February 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Many of the poems I currently gravitate towards are those which have a documentary aspect: poems that transcribe an event, a thought, an experience, however fleeting. I confess to a belief in, or desire for, sincerity as a moral constraint on poetry; I’m less moved by poetry that dissembles, ventriloquizes, makes up. I want to insist upon a connection between lyric I and poet, however mediated it may be; this is perhaps against the current of a 20th/21st century poststructural critical imperative to cleave the two, which often severs agency and intention from poet. The poem then that I find most compelling can be read, at least on one level, as linguistic trace of an event that has been observed and experienced by the poet.

An example of this is Ted Hughes’ wonderful Moortown Diary, consisting of a series of “notes”/poems which record his experiences working on his farm in Dartmoor in the early 1970s. He tells us in the preface that he used verse as a form because

“In making a note about anything, if I wish to look closely I find I can move closer, and stay closer, if I phrase my observations about it in rough lines. So these improvised verses are nothing more than this: my own way of getting reasonably close to what is going on, and staying close, and of excluding everything else that might be pressing to interfere with the watching eye. In a sense, the method excludes the poetic process as well” (x).

He then describes being asked once to provide an editor of a magazine with one of these poems, or “notes,” and realizing that although it was raw, he couldn’t rework it without having to “translate” it, thus destroying the original in the process. The original he now saw as “the video and surviving voice-track of one of my own days, a moment of my life that I did not want to lose […] Altering any word felt like retouching an old home movie with new bits of fake-original voice and fake-original actions” (xi). He describes the process of poetic revision as if the introduction of corruption, (“fake-original voice,”) a dubbing over of the raw event, or rather, the trace of this raw event. As if the original note were a snapshot or rubbing, still bearing molecular traces of the experience. I think this is a true description of the experience of writing the first draft of a poem, when the words are still freshly inked.

Here is an excerpt from “Ravens,” on a still-born lamb. Hughes describes how the ravens are eating the lamb’s corpse; this note is framed by the interest of a young child accompanying him in the field. We are asked to see through the child’s eyes.

Now over here, where the raven was,
Is what interests you next. Born dead,
Twisted like a scarf, a lamb of an hour or two,
Its insides, the various jellies and crimsons and transparencies
And threads and tissues pulled out
In straight lines, like tent ropes
From its upward belly opened like a lamb-wool slipper,
The fine anatomy of silvery ribs on display and the cavity,
The head also emptied through the eye-sockets…

The note-like quality doesn’t exclude technique: the use of simile (“like a scarf,” “like a lamb-wool slipper”); the very fine use of metaphor to describe the multiplicity of texture of the drawn-out lamb’s “insides” (jellies, crimsons, transparencies, threads, tissues, tent ropes); the use of polysyndeton, that is, consecutive conjunctions (“jellies and crimsons and transparencies”) so that the cumulative list sounds like a child’s chanted enumeration.

I like his description of these “notes” as being about moving close and staying close: his insistence on paying attention. It suggests a moral dimension to the raw or transcript poem: a paying attention to the world as it is, as it is perceived; to perceive and then document what is seen as closely as possible then becomes a way of sharing that knowledge with others through the lens of the poem.

And inevitably with each poet there is a different kind of seeing; each poem also carries a trace of the poet’s mind with its idiosyncratic ways of viewing and interpreting the world.

More recently in the UK, Alice Oswald’s Dart (2002) and Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal (2012) seem to participate in this kind of documentary project, written at the ‘source’ and aiming for an almost anthropoetical or ecopoetical description.

In Dart Alice Oswald made a transcription of the “songlines” of the River Dart, “from the source to the sea.” At one level we can read it as aural history/transcript of the riverflow of voices; we hear echoes of those fishers, poachers, naturalists she met along the river; and beneath this, a deeper folk song that seems to emerge from the waters — “Dart Dart/Every year/Thou claimest a heart.” Here is a brief excerpt:


and here I am coop-felling in the valley, felling small sections to
give the forest some structure. When the chainsaw cuts out the
place starts up again. It’s Spring, you can work in a wood and
feel the earth turning


woodman working on your own
knocking the long shadows down
and all day the river’s eyes
peep and pry among the trees

when the lithe water turns
and its tongue flatters the ferns
do you speak this kind of sound:
whirlpool whisking round?

There is something of witchy Shakespearean song in her poetry, a voice that Woolf also channeled, most notably in Between the Acts. This contrasts strongly with many of the other voices, such as that of the forester above, who speaks of his work in shaping the forest in a more precise, technical register. Many of the voices in fact come from river and forest caretakers, people who watch and listen closely; the poem at one level functions as audiograph of these voices.

If Dart is an audiograph, Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal functions as a bee-keeper’s notebook, charting the progress of a hive. We are told on the volume’s dust jacket that the “poems were written at the hive wearing a veil and gloves, and the journal is an intrinsic part of the kinetic activity of keeping bees.” All of the poems include a date, and sometimes only a date, in the title, in keeping with the journal-like function of the poems. For example, this is from the opening poem, “24th May: Collecting the Bees:”

He just wears a veil, this farmer, no gloves
and lifts open a dribbly wax-clogged
blackwood box.
We in our whites mute with held breath.
Hello bees.
Drops four frames into our silence.

The air is like mica
ancient with thin flecks;
distance viewed through a filter of thousands.
I am observed.

Each box has the pulsar of its source. Porous with eyes
we wait in the spinning sun. The light is Medusa,
sugar of frayed threads; a mesh, a warp-field, all
the skin of our heads.

Here is a similar use, as in Hughes’ Moortown Diary, of the lineation of verse to make notes, and to frame the poet as observing ‘eye’/I. And as also with Hughes, close observation and careful description become paramount: bee-filled air “like mica/ancient with thin flecks” (what a beautiful image, to describe the frames of light-filled, bee-filled air as a slice of flecked stone); the boxes of bees like pulsars, an image which evokes light and sound as pattern, the thrum of energy emitted from each box; the layering of metaphor as if making attempt after attempt at a thick description of the bee-filled light: Medusa; mesh; warp-field.

I imagine all of these poets tracing at least one ancestral line back to the poetry of Edward Thomas, many of whose poems document knowledge of the countryside, such as folk song, herbal and floral lore, place names, and dialectical words, which also carry knowledge. Even the auditory patterns of local voices are consciously recorded in his poems, the “sound of sense” which he and his intimate friend Robert Frost often discussed during Frost’s year in England before the First World War. (See Matthew Hollis’s richly detailed Now All Roads Lead to France for an in-depth discussion of this friendship and its workings on their poetic practices).

I want also to mention Geoffrey Hill’s amazing Mercian Hymns in this context, each hymn, or verset — to use Borodale’s phrase, like “mica/ancient with thin flecks” — requiring a stratigraphical reading of his lines, which document the archaeology and ancient history of Mercia through the 1930s & early 1940s of Hill’s own childhood.

Michael Longley it seems to me also works in this vein, through the minute accumulation of closely-observed detail in Carrigskeewaun. Any individual poem in one of his collections may seem microscopic in its focus, yet the cumulative effect is a moral one, of an intelligence that is paying attention to a small corner of the natural world and sharing it with others. He tells us of his lyric poems on local flowers and birds in Carrigskeewaun as a counter to the Troubles of his native Belfast: “I want the light from Carrigskeewaun to irradiate the northern darkness.”[1]

[1] Interview with Jody Allen RandolphColby Quarterly, 39.3 (2003), p.305.

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