the green window: women poets of Ming-Qing China

January 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

In the howling wind, I often heard noises of killing and plunder;
Smelling the stench of blood, I felt more worried and afraid.
Thousands of words cannot describe what I’ve suffered;
Facing each other, we cried with tears like rain and dew.

–Cai Runshi (1612-1694), from “While I Dwelled in Poverty in the Mountains, My Younger Sister Liansu Came By to Visit Me and Talked About the Difficulties of Wandering as Refugees” (presented in Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China: Transforming the Inner Chambers, Xiaorong Li, 2012)

This excerpt from a longer poem (see below) comes from Xiaorong Li’s Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China: Transforming the Inner Chambers (University of Washington Press, 2012). I was fortunate to work with Xiaorong (we met through the McGill Centre for Teaching and Writing on Women, introduced by Professor Grace Fong), helping to copyedit several chapters of her dissertation when we were both grad students in Montreal, and it’s been a real pleasure to revisit this book, chapter 4 in particular: “Inside Out: The Gui in Times of Chaos.”

Xiaorong studies throughout her book the gui, or “inner chambers”, as both literal space or retreat for women poets of this time, and also trope or imaginative space from which their writing emerged. She traces the various adaptations and new interpretations of the gui that these writers effected: 1. replication of the more standard male literary models (where male poets ventriloquized women of the boudoir); 2. the gui recreated by women poets as a distinct feminine and homosocial textual space, a “de-eroticized place of work, leisure, and companionship with other women” (14); 3. as a site of subversion and resistance (“their poetry articulated their resentment and bitterness about their plight as women cloistered in the gui” p.15); and 4. as a site of witness, where the gui functions as “inconsequential, a ‘small window’ that frames their perspective on broader historical changes, a shrunken space that they examine from a great distance” (p.15). The “green window” or lüchuang (the title of this blog post) is a reference to the most popular term used to identify the gui in an influential anthology of boudoir poems (the tenth century Anthology of Poems Written among the Flowers); the green window was a “green-gauze screen,” synecdoche for the boudoir.

Chapter 4 concentrates on the gui as site of witness, considering poets who encountered in their lives war and chaos, and how this was inscribed in their poetry. Xiaorong writes: “Women in the late Ming [1368-1644] and Qing [1644-1912] were not the first to witness tragic historical changes, but it was the first time that ‘a large number of women poets began to bear witness to war atrocities, apparently through a conscious process of emulation and creation.'” (p.115)

Cai Runshi (1612-1694) was the wife of Huang Daozhou (a Ming loyalist who was executed by Qing troops in 1646). Cai Runshi herself lost not only her husband but also sons and home at ths time. Here is a longer excerpt from Cai Runshi’s poem, “While I Dwelled in Poverty…”:

We learned embroidery from Madam Yao of Chang’an
In our spare time we both studied the art of poetry.
We shared desk and ink at Wuling’s Plum Blossom Pavilion;
Holding hands, we explored all the paths to the Peach Blossom Spring.
How happy our life was, and how miserable it is now!
After the calamity, we’ve suffered more misfortunes as refugees;
I lost two sons on Heyang’s post station road
And collapsed in snow in the valley of Mount Huaimeng.
Running into an old servant, I was able to survive;
Three months in an old shabby temple, I grieved at my homelessness.
In the howling wind, I often heard noises of killing and plunder;
Smelling the stench of blood, I felt more worried and afraid.
Thousands of words cannot describe what I’ve suffered;
Facing each other, we cried with tears like rain and dew.
–pp.120-121, in Women’s Poetry of Late Imperial China

While acknowledging that such women writers were in constant negotiation with historical, canonical, predominantly masculine textual practices, Xiaorong also points out in her introduction to this book that these women’s poems also offer glimpses of their literary agency as they struggled to record subjective, social, and cultural experiences as humans placed by virtue of their gender within the confines of the gui: 

“When she had the opportunity to wield the brush, a woman, consciously or unconsciously, had to make a difficult yet compelling choice: how to present herself to the intended or possible reader (even if she was writing to herself). Due to the belief that ‘poetry expresses one’s intent’ (shi yan zhi), a prevalent cultural assumption about the poetic genre in Chinese literary history, a poem was presumed to be a record of historical experiences and an expression of the author’s intent. It was supposed to be read in relation to the poet. In other words, a woman’s poetry was perceived as a self-representation within her historical context; she was responsible for the meaning of the text that bore her name.” (p.13)

Biała magia

October 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pours silver droplets of speech.

And then like a water pitcher
she fills with light, and soon
she has taken the stars within her
and the pale white dust of the moon.

–from “Biała magia,” Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński

A film was recently made of the life of the Polish poet Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, who died during the Warsaw uprising in August 1944. He isn’t as well known in English translation as other Polish poets such as Czesław Miłosz or Wisława Szymborska. I only know of one book of his poems in English, a selection called White Magic and Other Poems, translated by Bill Johnston (Green Integer 138). This is a dual-language edition. The trailer to the film (with English subtitles) can be found here. I haven’t been able to find a complete version of the film with English subtitles, although I’ve watched the full version in Polish (admittedly, my one night course in Polish many years ago and the Polish grandfather I never had the luck to know didn’t help me much to understand what was going on, beyond the simplest of words — proszę, dziękuję, but all very polite of course).

Baczyński was born in Warsaw in 1921. He wrote love poems, as in the one above, “White Magic”, dedicated to his wife Basia (pronounced “Basha”) and he wrote poems about his experiences in the Polish Resistance, which he joined in 1943 at the age of 21.

Clare Cavanagh has argued, in Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics that Miłosz’s poem “Dedication” (“You whom I could not save/Listen to me…What strengthened me, for you was lethal./You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,/Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,/Blind force with accomplished shape.”) is in fact addressed to a single person, “who perished in the Uprising, a person with whom the speaker is on familiar terms” — the single person being possibly Baczyński:

“The ‘good poetry’ whose ‘salutary aim’ he discovers late has been his salvation…while the poetry of this dead friend, driven by social passions and national mythologies alone, proved to be his, and not only his, ruin. Both Forche and Des Pres celebrate a ‘poetry of extremity’ ‘rooted in direct response to political pressure, which is to say in despair and resistance, in ruin and recovery’; it sounds perilously close, at least potentially, to the ‘lethal’ poetry that Miłosz describes in ‘Dedication.'” p.253

The full-length movie is perhaps tapping in to this nationalistic vein. It includes dramatised, somewhat romanticized segments from Baczyński’s life in the resistance, intercut with interviews from people who knew and fought side by side with him in his last days, and a modern day poetry slam which (I’m guessing, not speaking Polish) offers interpretations or versions of Baczyński’s poems.

The Warsaw uprising began at the beginning of August 1944. Baczyński took part, and died a few days later on 4 August. His wife, Barbara Stanisława Drapczyńska, (Basia,) had not yet learned of his death when she also died, 1 September 1944, from a head wound caused by a splinter of glass.* She was pregnant at the time.

 

* I take this detail from the wikipedia entry for Barbara Stanisława Drapczyńska.

 

 

‘documentary adequacy’ & poetic form

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

I was up late last night reading Seamus Heaney’s Crediting Poetry. I picked it up off the shelf wanting his words as much as the feel of this hardcover in the small of my hand with its gold-illuminated dust jacket of honey bees entering blue, green, and red hives — an image from the Ashmole Bestiary, c. 1210.  My copy is a discard from the Bethlehem Area Public Library, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:

“When the bard Demodocus sings of the fall of Troy and of the slaughter that accompanied it, Odysseus weeps, and Homer says that his tears were like the tears of a wife on a battlefield weeping for the death of a fallen husband. His epic simile continues:

At the sight of the man panting and dying there,
she slips down to enfold him, crying out;
then feels the spears, prodding her back and shoulders,
and goes bound into slavery and grief.
Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks:
but no more piteous than Odysseus’ tears,
cloaked as they were, now, from the company.

Even today, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer’s image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman’s back and shoulders survives times and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable.

But there is another kind of adequacy which is specific to lyric poetry. This has to do with the ‘temple inside our hearing’ which the passage of the poem calls into being. it is an adequacy deriving from what Mandelstam called ‘the steadfastness of speech articulation,’ from the resolution and independence which the entirely realized poem sponsors. It has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem’s concerns or the poet’s truthfulness. In fact, in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself. And it is the unappeasable pursuit of this note, a note tuned to its most extreme in Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan and orchestrated to its most opulent in John Keats — it is this which keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice behind all the other informing voices.”

— pp.48-51 Crediting Poetry

I’m in sympathy with what Heaney says here about “documentary adequacy,” with the poem as documentary trace; poetry not as game but as moral urgency. I’m not sure about the tenor of the epic simile he praises and the disturbing link made between tenor and vehicle here puts into question his assertion about the moral value of poetry.

First he makes a connection between documentary adequacy and poetic form — an adequacy of form, the “rightness” of a poem in its sounding. The need for documentary adequacy — poetry’s ability to document the savagery of the world — is aligned with the form of expression; the right form has to be found, that is where the authority of poetry is found. Other writers thinking about poetry have said similar things. Terrence Des Pres (“the power base of poetry is poetry itself”), Helen Vendler (“Form is the necessary and skilled embodiment of the poet’s moral urgency, the poet’s method of self-revelation.” p.xiv from Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form). She also says a poem is not an essay, not a position paper, not an argument, not a speech, not a sermon. Mutlu Konuk Blasing in The Pain and the Pleasure of Words also emphasizes with Vendler the skilled embodiment as being the basis of a poet’s moral authority.

Regarding the adequacy of sound, Heaney gives the example of Yeats’ refrain “Come build in the empty house of the stare” from his “Meditations in Time of Civil War” as well as the “sheer in-placeness of the whole poem as a given form within the language.” (p.52):

“The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it….” p.53

He seems to use form as synonym for sound, the poem’s music — that when something sounds right there is a greater inclination to believe it is true: beauty is truth, truth beauty. So much for those of us who are ugly.

So back to the epic simile — the simile is beautiful, and Homer in other places in The Iliad uses domestic feminine vehicles — a child reaching for its mother, wanting to be held; the mother’s body as ground. And in this particular simile, the captive woman feels the male soldier’s weapon in the small of her back: powerless/powerful, raped/rapist, one who is taken/one who takes. Her tears (of grief? how about of rage, that she is cast in such an abject role) are then compared to those of Odysseus (his tears for the slaughter all around him are as great as this anonymous woman’s for the loss of her husband).

I can understand Heaney’s praise for the ‘documentary adequacy’ of the vehicle — it feels right, this scene which has been enacted so many times. But it is being used to elaborate the tenor of Odysseus, a cold-blooded killer.  Something can sound right, can have documentary adequacy, and yet the right sounding can be morally bankrupt.

 

Tadeusz Różewicz, 1921-2014

April 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Tadeusz Różewicz died yesterday. There has been very little news of his death in the western press — I learned of it this morning in a blog post by George Szirtes in The Guardian Online, where he places Różewicz’s work within a historical context (post-world war 2 poetry of witness; the marvelous Penguin Modern European Poetry series of the 1970s; the Objectivists — I’ve also written a little about this last connection in an earlier post, “Poems and Things” May 10, 2013). I don’t have access to my books at the moment — I have several collections in translation by Różewicz, including a tattered blue softcover Pengiun Modern European Poetry edition of his selected poems from 1976 (translated by Adam Czerniaski) and the very fine, much more recent 2011 Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems, translated by Joanna Trzeciak, which was nominated for a Griffin Prize in 2012 and has thoughtful annotations for every poem. So I went to the VPL this afternoon and sat down with a volume of his poems translated by Bill Johnston (New Poems, Archipelago Books, 2007). I opened it at random — another small, blue softcover, but this one pristine, unthumbed — and found this poem, which I reproduce in full. It captures the wry but gentle tone of many of his poems.

rain in Kraków

rain in Kraków
rain
falling on the Wawel dragon
on the bones of giants
on Kościuszko Mound
on the Mickiewicz Monument
on Podkowiński’s Frenzy
on Mr. Dulski
on the trumpeter from St. Mary’s tower

rain
rain in Kraków
dripping on the white Skałka church
on the green commons
on the Marshal’s coffin
beneath silver bells
on the gray foot soldiers

the clouds hunker down
settle in over Kraków
rain
rain falling
on Wyspiański’s eyes
on the unseeing stained glass

the mild eye of blue
a thunderbolt from a clear sky
long-legged maidens in high heels
fold colourful umbrellas
it’s growing brighter
the sun
emerges
I walk from one monastery to another
seeking the dance of death

in my hotel room
I attempt to hold on
to a poem that’s drifting away

on a sheet of paper
I have pinned a purple copper
butterfly
a patch of blue

rain rain rain
in Kraków
I read Norwid
it’s sweet to sleep
sweeter to be of stone

goodnight dear friends
goodnight
living and dead poets
goodnight poetry

‘Every existence speaks a language of its own’: on the ghazal pt. 4

February 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

8/4/68 for Aijaz Ahmad

If these are letters, they will have to be misread.
If scribblings on a wall, they must tangle with all the others.

Fuck reds    Black power    Angel loves Rosita
–and a transistor radio answers in Spanish: Night must fall.

Prisoners, soldiers, crouching as always, writing,
explaining the unforgivable to a wife, a mother, a lover.

Those faces are blurred and some have turned away
to which I used to address myself so hotly.

How is it, Ghalib, that your grief, resurrected in pieces,
has found its way to this room from your dark home in Delhi?

When they read this poem of mine, they are translators.
Every existence speaks a language of its own.

— from Adrienne Rich, “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib” in Leaflets: Poems, 1965-1968

The most powerful ghazals I’ve read, including those by Ghalib, despite the generally true observation that the couplets in a ghazal tend to be somewhat random or lacking in unity, do hold together in quite powerful ways, creating an emotional or political tenor akin to an electrical field. Thompson is listening to the radio late at night and catalogues his random thoughts; Ghalib describes the sounds of his own grief.

The poem I’ve recorded above is from a sequence by Adrienne Rich called “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib,”  written in July and August of 1968, on the heels of May ’68 and the student uprising at the Sorbonne which inspired the mass worker strike across France; the Prague Spring is on (the Soviet Union will invade Czechoslovakia on the 20th of August with over 200,000 troops to put down the revolution 16 days after this poem was written); there are student sit-ins and protests across North America; the Vietnam war continues.

Rich inscribes the date for each ghazal, indicating how the ghazal functions for her like a transcription of a given day, a given time, as urgent and compelling and as necessary as the news of the day (“what is found there”). The ghazals in her sequence document moments of this revolutionary summer — “the clouds are electric in this university;” the heat; the graffiti, with poetry as analogue, in fact, graffiti as poetry (graffiti in May ’68 at the Sorbonne: “Nous somme tous les juifs allemands,” “Il faut baiser au moins une fois par nuit pour être un bon révolutionnaire,” “Fuck each other or they’lI fuck you”); private moments between lovers.

The power of these ghazals lies in their status as field notes where an urgent political graffito can exist on the same plane as a radio bulletin announcing a war very far away and a private moment transcribed — a single line — in which lovers lie back to back in the heat of a summer night. This is how we live.

The ghazal is ephemeral and points to the essence of lyric poetry as trace: “These words are vapour-trails of a plane that has vanished;/by the time I write them out, they are whispering something else.”

“When you read these lines, think of me/and of what I have not written here.”

 

“a new shape of knowing”: poetry and the virtual witness

September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the winter of 2003, when I was a graduate student at McGill, I participated in the massive peace marches in the freezing streets of Montreal, and later watched the invasion of Iraq begin, from the initial attacks on “targets of opportunity.” Images from street cams set up in Baghdad were broadcast live that first night. There were the shadows of men running through the streets with rifles; and at dawn, the sound of birds singing, picked up by the camera mics. I sat inside my apartment on rue Outremont, on the Ile de Montreal, but I looked out the balcony windows onto the streets of Baghdad.

From that point on I watched the war obsessively, as it was possible to do, live on television and through constant updates on the internet. This experience was therefore always mediated by a screen, heightened by the US military’s use of embedded journalists. In particular, I remember a report by Walter C. Rodgers, embedded with the US Army, in a live broadcast on CNN as he travelled through the desert with the 7th Cavalry of the 3rd Infantry Division as the invasion began: the jagged, granular look of the tanks fanning out before him, the “wave of steel” travelling towards Baghdad.

Photographs appeared on my computer screen: a woman with a tattoo of shrapnel burns on her face; a dead, swaddled infant, lying on its side on the ground, its eyes stitched closed with wet lashes. The war was so closely scrutinized and documented it was possible to track the path of a single missile that fell on a busy market in the heart of Baghdad, and killed many civilians. Later, the reporter Robert Fisk retrieved pieces of the missile and identified the serial numbers on the fuselage — 30003-704ASB 7492 and MFR 96214 09 — confirming their U.S. origins, which had been officially denied.

Fisk’s reports in the Independent became a lifeline for me — if the North American television channels offered a sanitized version of the war, Fisk tore off the bandages to show the rotting flesh, the smell of it, the injuries and waste that lay beneath.

In Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century, published posthumously in 1988, Terrence Des Pres explores poetry’s role amid the suffering of the 20th century; he notes in his prologue that human society has always been violent, there has always been suffering. The difference then — he was writing in the mid-80s — was that this violence had become a transmitted spectacle,  known through new media. Through this transmission of suffering a “new shape of knowing invades the mind” (p.xiv):

“The miracles of modern communications — the instant replay of events on TV, the surfeit of images provided by photojournalists, the detailed accounts of inhumanity given by survivors of all kinds, and then too the documentation from organizations like Amnesty International and Americas Watch, every page of it open to those who would know what can be known — all these sources combine with the cold-war order of things to make a uniquely twentieth-century sense of reality, a consciousness that began in the wake of World War Two with the film footage, miles of it, that gave us our first window on ‘the world.’ That shock of recognition, that climate of atrocity, is now our daily fare.” p.xv

Writing in the 1980s, Des Pres couldn’t have anticipated the evolution of the web, itself the military offspring of the US Department of Defence’s Arpanet, and the advent of new social media in the 21st century, which have the capability to limn the finest details of this shape of knowing. With this “technological expansion of consciousness”, we can know in the most graphic and precise detail — if we wish to look — of the suffering of others, of the injuries and damages inflicted on other flesh by a US drone, or by depleted uranium missiles used in the invasion of Iraq. How easily we can now look into the bodies of others.

Des Pres then speaks of the traditional role of the poet, which has been at times to show the stamina of language, to face such suffering and to provide “language to live by”; language “sufficient to hard times.” This has for me the ring of Seamus Heaney to it — Des Pres uses two lines from Heaney’s “The Haw Lantern” as the book’s epigraph; the haw as a small light to guide us by, modest but sufficient. Des Pres also quotes Kenneth Burke, who observed that “‘poetic forms are symbolic structures designed to equip us for confronting given historical or personal situations'” p.xviii.

These are some of the questions that interest me. How much suffering can a poem admit? What happens to it there? How is it spoken to? Transmuted or transformed? How does this suffering alter or transform the shape of the poem? How is the shape of knowing, the new technological consciousness,  expressed through the poem’s form? At a most practical level, the answers to these questions can only ever be worked out through the writing of a given poem.

I tentatively began to frame some of these questions in a poem I wrote several years ago called ‘”In the long hours of darkness, Baghdad shakes to the constant low rumble of B-52s.”‘ I took the title from the headline of a column by Robert Fisk. In this report he described being in his hotel room at night, and of hearing the constant terrifying drone of the B-52s sent in by the Americans to bomb the Iraqi soldiers who had set up positions in the desert, on the outskirts of the city.

I first read this column in Montreal at the height of the invasion, and was touched by the personal detail he included — the book he was reading as he lay in bed listening to the B-52s, the sound of the bombers, the drop in air pressure as they passed over, the way the vibrations travelled through the walls of the building and made even the flowers in a jar on his window sill tremble. He described how terrified he imagined the soldiers must be, many of whom were essentially untrained civilians.

I was also disturbed by the disparity between Fisk’s eye-witness experience of the invasion in a hotel room in a city on the Tigris, bounded by desert, and my own virtual experience of the war in the safety of a sheltered room in snow-bound Montreal. The form for the poem—which I wrote many years later in Vancouver— took two parts, although I think this was a spontaneous, not a consciously made, decision: first, the description of a man in a hotel room in Baghdad, hearing the drone of the B-52s all night, and tracking this noise out into the night where the soldiers are hiding in the dark; and second, my perception of the war mediated through the television screen.

‘In the long hours of darkness, Baghdad shakes to the constant low rumble of B-52s’ *

In a hotel room by the Tigris a man writes.
A jar with a clutch of flowers trembles
on the windowsill as the air pressure drops,
while out in the desert
soldiers hide in furrows of night.
A pale red stain seeps through—
its penumbra blooms
and is extinguished.
The man writes about the war
about the smell of burnt flesh
along the road north of Nasiriyah,
about this dark sound.
The air pressure drops again. A tremor
runs through the water in the jar
the thin stalks, the petals’ flesh.

Membrane of ice on the windows of this room in Montreal.
I cup my hands, peer into the television’s blue cave, and see
pale slivers of tracer fire in the desert
missiles scattered like black seeds
a pale red stain on the horizon that pours back into the dark.
Through a live street cam, somewhere in Baghdad,
the shadows of men. I can hear them—
they call to one another in their language,
and at dawn, the birds sing.

*My thanks to Prairie Fire, where this poem was first published, 33.2 Summer 2012.

Beyond the two-part division of the poem, the lines are relatively free, organized by phrase and syntax and internal rhyme. I realize now, as I read it again, that each part ends with the observation of a detail from the natural world mediated by technology: the vibration from the B-52s travelling through the flower’s stalk and petal flesh, and, as heard through the street-cam in Baghdad, the birds singing at dawn.

All of the details I record in the poem are true — both the details described by Fisk in the first section, and what I saw and heard through the street cams in Baghdad on the first night of the invasion, as they were broadcast live on television by all of the major networks. This was the night of the “targets of opportunity,” when the Americans said they had received information on the location of Saddam Hussein and attempted to assassinate him in the first strike of the war. The newscasters soon found they had little to report on, so would cut away to the live street cams to “listen in.”

And so, at one point in the dark silence of my room, I listened as men rushed past with rifles, shouting to one another as they ran; I listened as the birds began to sing; it was dawn in Baghdad.

“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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