Juan Gelman: Open Letter, XIII


have you come and I don’t see you? / where
are you hidden? / will nothing ever distract me
from you at last? / I groan in the night /
I hold the groan inside myself it is

my refusal to be comforted / wounded absence /
withering / missing you / how many diapers ago /
did you visit me / I come outside of all things
to see you / hating

my own pretending / the having been / the do-you-remember /
the touch that pulls me inside out / my son /
can you fly through these staves ? / can it be that
giving myself up frm myself / i may hold you

though the city outskirts / the plazas where I look for you ? /
not finding you do I go on thinking? /
do I win the loss of you to lose myself? /
by unsouling myself can I at last soul your little soul?

Juan Gelman

Translation by Joan Lindgren
Image: detail from Madre by blmurch

J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger, 1951

“There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I love to write, but I write for myself and my own pleasure.”

Awful Remembrance

Emptied barracks at Birkenau (Brzezinka)

Image: Birkenau by Turbo Mi

Yesterday was the fifth annual observance of the United Nation’s International Holocaust Day of Remembrance. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly
selected 27 January as the date of “universal commemoration” in memory of the victims of the holocaust as it was on that date, 60 years earlier, that Soviet troops liberated the largest of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The International Holocaust Day of Remembrance is distinct from Yom HaShoah, a day of Jewish commemoration that is fixed on the Jewish calendar (April or May).

My friend Jay reminded me of the U.N. international day, sending along an MSN link of popular sites relevant to the day.  The United Nations has a moving program of remembrance you can access here.  Additionally, yesterday was the 65th anniversary of the arrival of Soviet troops at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Russian Times ran a  moving video feature–just over 6 minutes, in English, worth waiting for the remarkable personal remembrance of a Russian-Jewish man who survived Auschwitz twice!–you can access the video here.

Some personal notes, in passing:  my mother (now 93) was 28 years old when she faced selektion at Auschwitz; evidently, she was regarded as robust enough to be selekted for a work detail in northwestern Germany.  It wasn’t until my conversations with her in the late 1980’s that I began to understand how the grammar and diction of her remembrance differed from ours.  At the time, she didn’t show any signs of recognizing the name “Auschwitz” telling me instead that she’d been at a camp called Oświęcim (pronounced osh-veeyen-chim) which, I later “discovered” was the name of the Polish village that had been Germanized into Auschwitz.  Like many others of her background whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing over the years, my mother tended to not use the same terms we use for remembrance.  For example, where we might say “victim” they’ll tend to say prisoner or inmate.  Where we will say “survivor” they’ll tend to prefer the term “remnant.”  And, when we might ascribe to them the characterisitcs of personal “heroism” or “fortitude” they’ll correct us with something like “dumb luck.”

Constantine P. Cavafy: “In the Evening”

It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway—
the experience of years makes that clear.
Even so, Fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
It was soon over, that wonderful life.
Yet how strong the scents were,
what a magnificent bed we lay in,
what pleasure we gave our bodies.

An echo from my days given to sensuality,
an echo from those days came back to me,
something of the fire of the young life we shared:
I picked up a letter again,
and I read it over and over till the light faded away.

Then, sad, I went out on to the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the street and the shops.
C. P. Cavafy

Translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Image: Evening view from my balcony by Stig Nygaard

Thom Gunn: “The Reassurance”

...לזכר יהודה קעץˎ חבר שמכבר. בן אדם שנקטף בדמי ימיו


About ten days or so
After we saw you dead
You came back in a dream.
I’m all right now you said.

And it was you, although
You were fleshed out again:
You hugged us all round then,
And gave your welcoming beam.

How like you to be kind,
Seeking to reassure.
And, yes, how like my mind
To make itself secure.

Thom Gunn

image: The candles 026 by Ravenscar


Barfüsserkirche, Erfurt


Will history note that at noon of the ninth day
of the ninth month, an old man hijacked
a tour bus? The tour guide was just speaking
about the gothic Barefooter Church, “Unused
since,” he was saying when the old man
screamed—My school was there. There,
behind the church! The driver shook his head,
“No, sir. No school there.” But the old man persisted
Keep straight to the end, then left, you’ll see!
and the driver surrendered, moved the bus
past the church, left down an alley, wedged
the ten-wheeled behemoth alongside a plain
square building. Iron fenced. On the fence,
an historical plaque: “Once site of the Barefooter
School.” The old man shouted I remembered!
“Shall we go inside now Mister?” Certainly not.
Now we must eat. So, the behemoth backed away.
And that thinning history of children at play,
their laughter still hissing gothic through
the unseen walls of an unused church.

–M. Salomon

Tamir Lahav-Radlmesser: “Father Visits his Childhood Home”

Year Book by Tamir Lahav-Radlmesser


FATHER: We arrived at the city.
I didn’t give the driver an address,
I directed him
right left right left
until I got to the house.
I moved at age eight,
fifty years I hadn’t been there
and even so I remembered the way.
ME: and then…?
FATHER: I stepped out of the cab,
I stood on the sidewalk across from the house
and stared.
ME: and then…?
FATHER: Nothing.
The house was unchanged.
It remained exactly as I’d remembered it,
maybe a bit smaller.
ME: and then…?
FATHER: Nothing.
ME: What’s nothing?
You didn’t cross the street?
You didn’t enter the stairwell?
You didn’t knock on the door?
For what? I
do not believe
in psychology.

Tamir Lahav Radlmesser, Year Book
Tel-Aviv: Am Oved Press (2003)
Translation, M. Salomon

Tamir Lahav-Radlmesser: “אבא אבא / father father”

Year Book by Tamir Lahav-Radlmesser

אבא אבא מה היה
מה היה שם
מה קרה
מה במחנות
ספר ספר
מה קרה
לי שם

תמיר להב-רדלמסר׃ ״תמונת מחזור״
תל־אביב : עם עובד,2003

father father what was it
what was it there
what happened
in the forests
in the camps
tell it tell it
so I’ll know
what happened
to me there

Tamir Lahav Radlmesser, Year Book
Tel-Aviv: Am Oved Press (2003)
Translation, M. Salomon

Rituals of Return

Great Falls in Passaic, New Jersey

I’m headed up to northern New Jersey next weekend, to attend a reunion of my elementary school class, which graduated in 1970.  Most of us hadn’t seen each other in 40 years, and a chance Facebook search by one of our classmates about a year ago has culminated in next Sunday’s face-to-face with most of the class able to attend.  The school was located in Paterson, New Jersey (has since moved to Paramus) and the bulk of class had been together from grades K through 8–that is, by the time we dispersed in 1970, we’d spent nearly two-thirds of our 14 year-old lives together.

Two moments from those years now seem particularly relevant to my subsequent development as a poet: (1) a class trip to the Great Falls in nearby Passaic; (2) a guest speaker from Paterson who talked to our 6th or 7th grade English class.

I first saw the Falls from the same perspective as shown in the photograph at right.  These were the first waterfalls I’d ever seen–the roar was immense.  These were the same falls that, in 1778, inspired in Alexander Hamilton visions of American industry;  later, Hamilton chose the site for the new nation’s first planned industrial city, a “national manufactory,” which later became Paterson. These are the same waterfalls that William Carlos Williams featured in his description of Paterson, the man:

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river
animate a thousand automations. Who because they
neither know their sources nor the sills of their
disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly
for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires-unroused.

—Say it, no ideas but in things—

One long-ago school outing to the falls, and I can still hear them wherever I may be. Somehow, that class trip recalibrated my bearings decisively, and my subsequent readings of WCW’s epic have always seemed deeply personal in a way that other poetic masterpieces are not. I hope to be there again on Sunday morning, just prior to our class reunion, with WCW and an empty notebook in hand.

Great Falls, Passaic, NJ

The guest speaker in our grade school English class was Louis Ginsberg.  He was described to the class as a Paterson journalist, a writer, a poet, and the father of poet Allen Ginsberg.  I had not heard of of Allen Ginsberg, but I remember feeling very special that this man had taken the time out of his busy day to visit our class.  Also, I remember wondering whether Louis Ginsberg’s references to his more famous son were painful to him as a writer.  It was then that I inferred   that, in order to ensure your status as a poet, you’d have to write in such a way that your father could defend you before a group of children.  The idea’s similar to the (fabled?) requirement of Roman engineers, that they had to stand for a time under every bridge they built.  I think there may be a lesson to poets in that, though I’m not exactly sure what it is.  Maybe I will figure it out, Sunday morning when, again, I’ve returned to the falls and, only after regaining my bearings, reunite with the others.

Image 1: Great Falls (Passaic River) in Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: Great Falls HDR 1 by EJP Photo

Frank Bidart: “God’s Catastrophe in Our Time”


when those who decree decree the immemorial

mere habits of the tribe
law established since the foundations of the world

when the brutalities released by
belief engender in you disgust for God

hear the answering baritone sweetness of Mahler’s “Urlicht”

I am from God and shall return
to God for this disfiguring

flesh is not light and
from light I am light

when I had eyes what did I do with sight

Frank Bidart

Image: SNUFFED OUT by sarahnoo

Edwidge Danticat on Haitian Culture

[From Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2010, 5:00 PM ET]

Earthquake in Haiti:
A Reading (and Listening) List by Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and an Oprah’s Book Club author, is one of Haiti’s most acclaimed writers. The Miami-based author of such works of fiction as “Krik? Krak!” and “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” as well as a mini-essay for Speakeasy, has spent the last few days on the phone trying to locate family members in her earthquake-ravaged country.

In this time of tragedy for Haiti, it’s worth noting that the country’s culture is far deeper than the bleak reports currently blanketing the news. Danticat’s writing has long sought to capture the joys and challenges of Haitian life. “Kirk? Krak!” offered up short stories about everyday Haitians, conjuring up the voices of prostitutes, plantation workers and refugees at sea. In her nonfiction book “After the Dance,” Danticat writes of being swept up in carnival festivities in Haiti: “In that brief space and time, the carnival offers all the paradoxical elements I am craving: anonymity, jubilant community, and belonging.”

Danticat took the time today to recommend some books and music that people who are interested in Haitian history and arts should seek out in order to place the current disaster in a broader context.

  • “The Black Jacobins” by C.L.R. James: A groudbreaking account of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 that examines that leadership of the rebel commander Toussaint L’Ouverture. Other slave uprisings in the Americas ended in defeat; James looks into why the slave rebellion in Haiti was victorious.
  • “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier,” by Amy Wilentz: This nonfiction book documents the period between 1986-1989 when Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was forced to flee the country and mass strikes, government-sponsored vigilante groups, and other kinds of chaos swept though the streets. The book, which blends current events with cultural history, seeks to detail the society beyond the headlines.
  • “Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy” by Marie Vieux-Chauvet: This triptych of novellas, recently published in English with an introduction by Danticat, was initially suppressed when it was first released in French in 1968 during François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Haitian reign of terror. The trilogy offers portraits of people struggling to survive dictatorship and oppression. “Hurricanes, earthquakes and drought, nothing spares us,” says the narrator of the first novella, titled “Love.”
  • Boukman Eksperyans: A “mizik rasin” band from Port-au-Prince that combines elements of Haitian Vodou and folk music with rock and roll. First formed in 1987, its albums include “Vodou Adjae.” The group weaves themes of rebellion into its music, and its 1990 song “Kem Pa Sote” was banned on Haitian radio. You can see a video from the band here.
  • Ram: Another mizik rasin group from Port-au-Prince. Formed in 1990, one of the band’s singles, “Fèy” was banned by the military because it was seen as an anthem of support for exiled Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide. You can hear the song here.

(h/t to Lesley Ward)