Theodor Adorno warned against poetry after Auschwitz. To write it, he said, is “barbaric” because “critical intelligence … confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.” As Brian Oard observes, Adorno later retreated, confessing that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to a scream.” But Adorno’s earlier statement is the one that sticks, and it sticks because, in its exaggeration, it is closer to the truth.
There is something brave and wreckless, then, in a poem which explores politically-induced agonies never experienced by the poet. There is even something distasteful: one person dies hideously and the other, sitting in “a room of one’s own,” writes. So, we say yes to Celan, yes to Anne Frank and yes to Primo Levi, but no to the thousands of imaginators who set their dramas in a ninth level of hell they have never visited. We recoil from creative work like that, which seems akin to 19thcentury grave-robbing, an act which brings the stolen corpse to a bleak surgical amphitheater undoing the skin with neat linguistic tricks, the dead unable to say refuse, unable even to enunciate, as is the right of Adorno’s tortured man, a final scream.
Rule 1 of late 20thand early 21stcentury poetry: you may write about your own pain, but stay clear from the pain of others. From campus condemnation of cultural appropriation to bumperstrip slogans (it’s a ____ thing – you wouldn’t understand), we are taught to scream only on our own account or for our own lost kin. This delicacy of feeling precedes Auschwitz – I would date it to the First World War. In history and literature classrooms, who do we trust to speak for the dead but those who lived in the trenches – Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Erich Maria Remarque? Since then, those who have produced art on behalf of the dead without actually visiting their country have gone into eclipse. JS Mill’s feminism is no longer near as persuasive as Mary Wollstonecraft’s or Susan Anthony’s. We return to James Baldwin again and again so we can think and feel more deeply about racism – we have entirely forgotten about John Griffin, the white man who reported from the front lines of American segregation to a white audience in Black Like Me.
There is good reason for this. A second-hand rendering of oppression risks condescension, sentimentalism, misunderstanding, and worse. We therefore trust Achebe over Conrad (though not without a struggle) and Amy Tan to Pearl Buck.
However, there’s a cost to our demand for authenticity. We become by squeamish around politically-induced horror, unwilling to talk about it directly, reluctant to stand in for the dead and voice the scream that died in their chests. We leave that to survivors. There’s a fear common to the children of 20thcentury genocides that, once the grandparents die, the fleshly reality of murder will vanish from memory. Hence the feverish effort to collect testimonies for archives, memorial museums, and university libraries that close at 5pm.
That’s a vain hope. Eventually, the witnesses dodie. Or, murdered in the event itself (as most victims are), they can never testify at all. Or, as the years pass, their language and clothing become outlandish even to their descendants. Given enough generations, the dead all become strangers to their descendants.
For these reasons, poetry is absolutely essential after every Auschwitz, not just from survivors but from everyone with a commitment to the dead. But Adorno’s right: it’s hard to do this well, hard to avoid that “self-satisfied contemplation.” Hard, even, to resist willful misunderstanding.
In an interview with Omnidawn’s Rusty Morrison, Ewa Chrusciel acknowledges the risk of writing in the voice of the manslaughtered refugees who have crossed or drowned in the Mediterranean these past ten years:
How not to domesticate these voices; how to keep them wild? How to be of witness without exploiting somebody’s suffering by writing poetry about it; without having an agenda? How can language become a source of renewal without sentimentalizing somebody’s experience or falling into stereotypes and clichés?
Chrusciel, like Forché, is an outsider to the pain of others. She has no blood relationship to the those whose trauma she inhabits. She is a self-described “nomad,” moving back and forth across the Atlantic, writing in English as well as in her natal Polish, an experience which informed her 2014 work Contraband of Hoopoe. Though she flies between countries and cultures, she is no refugee: her travels are those of the global cosmopolite.
And yet, in Of Annunciations, she speaks for the dead with a voice both clearer and more intimate than any I’ve read since Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us. Like Forché, Chrusciel does not turn the pain of others into a metaphor for her own pain. The language is direct and demanding:
They pay $13,000 to die.
Some, afraid they’ll die, put a necklace cross in their mouth.
The day before the shipwreck, she was singing Palestinian songs:
“Lina Builds Her Tomorrows.”
Pray to the crosses in their mouths.
Annunciations is not reportage, and is indeed much further from reportage than, say, Claudia Rankine’s celebrated Citizen, whose outrage it shares. These are “annunciations” – of death and suffering, yes, and of our own duty. “Let yourself explore my wound,” says the Dybbuk of Annunciations. (Chrusciel’s dead are ghosts – dybbuks, a word rich with associations in Jewish folklore, a word at least some Syrian refugees might, were they to read it, resist). Later, that same voice: “I stare at houses that stare right through me.”
The metaphorical landscape could easily sink this project: if there’s anything worse than self-indulgent misery-slumming, it’s aesthetic appropriation. It is a testament to Chrusciel’s capacity for inscribing genuine empathy into her work that that, although she foregrounds a metaphysical apparatus, she does so without stumbling.
And yet I do have one reservation about her work. It is her apotheosis – this is surely the right word – of children and, toward the end of the collection, of a boy lost to the sea, resurfacing (in the arms of the Virgin of Guadalupe) as the Dybbuk of Annunciation. The problem isn’t the contrivance: Chrusciel has far too sure a hand for that to matter. It’s the boy himself.
When we listen for the voices of the century’s dead, we trust children’s voices more than the others. We listen for the four black girls blown up in Birmingham, watch for the child’s shoe washed up on an Aegean beach, and declare our solidarity with girls kidnapped and raped in northeast Nigeria.
Children’s pain is uncomplicated. It’s far safer to assign even older schoolchildren Anne Frank than examine the adults whose survival may have depended upon hideous compromises (read Tadeusz Borowski for this). Most Syrian refugees are adults, but their beached bodies don’t get as much attention. These may be the bodies of Islamic radicals or Marxists, or liberals, or adulterers, or petty thieves, or bankers, or tax collectors, or even of ordinary people who, while guilty of no crime, are long past the age of innocence. Anyone wishing to galvanize public opinion will focus, laser-like, upon children. One current manifestation of this inconsistent political morality may be found in the DACA debate. Dreamers? Yes. Their parents? No.
This focus on children does not strengthen the case for empathy. To the contrary: it hardens hearts against the majority of the afflicted. It asks that we shrink from the logical consequence of our putative commitment to humanitarianism.
Crucified to Jesus’s left and right, were two thieves, both adult men. I’m no believer, but I find more pathos and principle in Jesus’s forgiveness of those men than in all our pity for dead children.
Even so. In a world bereft of places to begin, love begins with children. Chrusciel’s Of Annunciation knows how to love.