“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.

 1922-24

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

and

“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.”

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§ 5 Responses to “Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?”

  • D-AW says:

    “(I have made | a tweet for myself it | is true)” (?). GH has made some (poorly reported, but available in the original Oxford podcast) remarks on txting which might inform the analogy of real-time media as (virtual) witness.

  • D-AW says:

    Thanks – I’m glad you’re able to use it in productive ways. I haven’t done a whole lot of work in the area since then myself, but I did go back to it at an MSA talk a few weeks ago, a version of which is up here: http://poetry-contingency.uwaterloo.ca/msa15-brighton/ .
    My guess is that the position I took there may not be congenial to your focus on witness, but I could be wrong. And then again, congeniality isn’t always the most productive thing…

    • kim trainor says:

      Hi David-Antoine — My thanks again. I will read it with interest. I don’t have a strong position on witness/poetry as I am really at the moment exploring different perspectives on the subject. Not much time just now as I am teaching 6 courses this term. Mostly I just write poetry anyways. (I am wondering if your dad is the David Williams who teaches at McGill– I took a brilliant Chaucer seminar with him when doing my phd there.) Kim ________________________________________

  • D-AW says:

    Yep, that’s right. He’s been retired from McGill for some years now – lucky to have had him when you did.

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