It's become almost a cliché to suggest that, in the aftermath of the Shoah (the Nazi Holocaust), poetry (indeed, language) has been forever changed. That the horrors of the camps have ruptured our collective innocence in such a way that standard narrative forms no longer suffice or serve. That poetry seeking to engage with such phenomenal and unjustifiable evil, suffering, and loss must necessarily do so in a fractured way.
But if the notion of a multilayered, multifaceted, fragmented post-Holocaust verse is a cliché, that may be because shattered structures of language are one way to tell a shattered story. Not the only way, by a long shot, but a very powerful way. And Anna Rabinowitz's book Darkling is a stunning example of how and why this kind of poetry works.
That this book will draw on a wide range of influences is apparent in the epigrams: the book opens with quotes from the Book of Job, Berryman, de Kooning, (Hasidic master) Nachman of Bratslav, Andreyev, and Meno. And that we are not dealing with standard narrative or lyric verse is evident from the first lines on page three: "Inside: a story - / inventories, incidents - / pleading to be flossed / from the teeth of silence -?"
Story and silence, memory and loss, will be our constant companions through Rabinowitz's pages. Over many pages, snippets of narrative accrue: a daughter losing her kid brother who wore a striped hat. A woman sewing. A man working himself to the bone at a corner store. Passage to America. Privations of the ghettos. Correspondence trailing off. The terrors of not-knowing.
We read excerpts of letters, sneak peeks into courtships and food shortages and the long trip in steerage from there to here. Reading Darkling is like sifting through a box of yellowed papers and sepia family photographs, and indeed the book is broken up by periodic documents and photographs: canceled postcards inscribed in curving European script, a bearded man almost-smiling beneath his tall hat, a little boy in cap and tie standing serious with a newspaper in his hand.
The book is further broken up by the visual progression of words across the page: indentations and more indentations, dashes, spaces all serve as visual reminders that these are not whole stories. That we are reconstructing the stories as best we can from the fragments Rabinowitz gives us. That in so doing, we are participating in the act of (re)creation at this collection's heart.
One of my favorite sections of the book is the one entitled "Glossary," comprised of several pages of definitions. Each term gets a tercet of explanation or commentary. Some of the terms seem to relate to poetry or to narrative ("thesis," "hypothesis," "cosmology"). Others are specifically Judaic: "Ein Sof," for instance, a Hebrew phrase meaning "without end," referring to the Kabbalistic notion that part of God is infinite and unknowable (and that creation is a stream of emanations from that transcendent part of God down into the immanent world).
Naming and forgetting, what's knowable (the world?) and unknowable (God?): these uneasy bedfellows are uncomfortably linked here: "Nomen- for a world never to be repeated, only to be archived: / clature trying-to-enter-the-thing, trying-to-name-the-loss words; / survival not as a desire, but as a duty to celebrate"
The Glossary section reads like prayer: the first eight tercets end with variations on "what I cannot know, I must not forget," and the rhythm and sound of that line are repeated throughout the glossary poem.
Darkling also resembles prayer-specifically, the poems called piyyutim codified into the standard Jewish synagogue liturgy during the ninth through eleventh centuries of the Common Era-because it is an acrostic. "Darkling is a book-length sequence which utilizes the 32 lines of 'The Darkling Thrush' by Thomas Hardy as its acrostic armature," explains Rabinowitz in the notes which follow the text. (Conveniently, Hardy's poem is also reprinted in the back of the book.)
There are many ways to read Darkling-arguably as many as there are readers, since each of us will fill the narrative's gaps in our own ways. I found myself reading in different directions at different times: sometimes searching for threads of story, other times scanning the extreme left-hand margin to puzzle out the acrostic and how it might relate to the rest of the jumble of images and words.
The notes at the end of the book are extremely helpful. We learn that quotations and references have been drawn from a range of sources: the allusions are not only Biblical, Ashkenazic/European, and mystical, but also to a 1960 edition ofThe New Yorker. Names a reader may not recognize are likely to be Judaic, but might as easily be pop culture (like the nickname of Fiorello LaGuardia, once mayor of New York City, which appears in one segment).
Perhaps the central quandary for a person of faith faced with the Shoah is the question of God's presence, of how the just God the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition posits could have allowed such atrocities. Although answers are notably missing, Darkling repeatedly refers to the question. ("Here in Ostroleka/ God's been absent/ all winter")
Specific images do a lot of work here. Because we have only snippets and fragments, each piece becomes a synecdoche, a part representing the invisible whole. Again and again, juxtapositions enable lines to do double-duty, as when Rabinowitz pairs descriptions of hunger ("parsnips ONCE a time") with descriptions of food ("Opportunities of orange marbled beef"). The phrases carry more weight by virtue of being near each other on the page.
Portions of the book are horrifying, like the section which begins on page 61 with "Official Announcement." In the precise, objective, jargon-heavy language of beaurocracy or academia, this piece of narrative describes the massacre of a town's Jews in the town square:
Hundreds of Jews were laid face-up in a grid-like pattern.
The details are all the more grisly for the detached tone in which they are described.
Excerpts can give you a flavor of the text(s), but are limited in their usefulness. Darkling derives much of its strength from its interplay; it is much more than the sum of its component parts.
I have limited patience with the question of whether it is possible to write poetry after the Shoah. Clearly it is possible; people do it every day. And the Shoah is not the only genocide the world has known. Obsessing over whether or not Hitler's "Final Solution" calls traditional narrative forms into question seems Eurocentric; I've never heard anyone wonder whether the Rwandan genocide invalidates literature.
The more apt question, to my mind, is whether it is possible to mirror the brokenness of the contemporary world in broken contemporary language, and come out of the experience enriched rather than enfeebled. In Darkling, Rabinowitz proves that it is-and that the poetry which comes out of such a struggle can be rich, profound, and well worth repeated readings.
Most of the poetry I read and re-read for pleasure is (deceptively) simple, narrative, easily-comprehended. Jane Kenyon, Naomi Shihab Nye, Elizabeth Bishop: these are the writers whose pages I most often thumb. I have understood the desire for fragmented verse in fragmented times, in theory, but until recently had never read anything that brought the postmodern theory into practice in a way that I wanted to recommend or return to. Anna Rabinowitz's Darklingbreaks that trend. This book could hardly be less like the traditional verse I tend towards, but its layered/fragmented qualities don't strip meaning from it; instead they add meaning. The brokenness of this book-length poem makes it mean more, not less.
There is a Kabbalistic teaching which holds that when God first attempted creation, the vessels of physical reality were too weak to hold God's Infinity, and they shattered, leaving sparks of divinity buried in the broken world. The work of tikkun olam (repair of the world) involves finding those sparks and returning them back to God; in this way, those who are mindful and righteous are aiding God in the ongoing work of creation. Reading Darkling involves its own kind of tikkun, of healing: buried in this broken narrative are sparks of story, familiarity, humanity. Sparks that we can grasp. Each time I read the book, I bring those pieces together; maybe in so doing, I help make them whole.