On Saturday, September 23, I participated in a panel discussing witness poetry at the New Hampshire Poetry Festival. The panel was convened by my good friend Eileen Cleary, and also included Robbie Gamble and Richard Waring. Below you'll find a lightly-edited version of my remarks from that day:
I don’t think of myself as a witness poet, necessarily, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have interacted with people for whom the act of witness shaped their entire lives, and through those interactions I suppose the idea of witness has crept into my own work in some small ways.
My first interaction with such a figure, and the one that had perhaps the most profound effect on me, was during my senior year at Providence College, when I met Father Edward P. Doyle, O.P. Father Doyle was one of the retired Dominican Friars who lived on campus in the Priory. He had lived much of his life on the campus, actually, having studied at PC as an undergrad and subsequently joining the faculty following his ordination in 1939. When the United States entered the Second World War, Father Doyle enlisted as a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Army, where he would serve with the 109th Infantry Division, nicknamed the Timberwolves. In 1945 the Timberwolves liberated the concentration camp at Nordhausen, part of the larger Buchenwald complex.
Father Doyle’s active involvement in the liberation process, his recognition of the horrors enacted by the Nazi regime, and his careful and thorough documentation of that moment in time profoundly reshaped his life, and it became of paramount importance to Father Doyle that the world know what he witnessed during his service. He, along with other Army chaplains, had been provided with Brownie cameras, and in addition to ministering to those who were still alive in the camp, Father Doyle preserved the conditions found during the liberation to ensure that the world would know. Upon his death in 1997, Father Doyle entrusted his archives to Providence College, so that all who entered might know that the Holocaust was real. The collection has been digitized and is available on the Providence College website, as is a short documentary on his life, and the video of a commemoration held in April as part of the College’s Centennial celebration.
Father Doyle’s witness shaped the development of a course called Gender and Genocide: Perspectives in Holocaust Literature that I took as a senior. It was envisioned and taught by one of PC’s Jewish faculty members, the poet Jane Lunin Perel, and in that class we were introduced to a number of writers, including Nelly Sachs, Gerda Weissman Klein, Primo Levi, and Charlotte Delbo, to name just a few. For me, the work of the poet Paul Celan was a particular revelation, and Celan’s poems and Father Doyle’s photographs and spoken witness are bound for me in that associative way we poets do without thinking.
For those who aren’t familiar with Celan, or perhaps know only a few details about his life, or have only read his best-know work “Deathfugue”, I’ll give just a brief overview:
Paul Celan was born to a Jewish family as Paul Antschel in Bukovina, in what was then the Kingdom of Romania, in 1920. Throughout his lifetime it would change borders frequently; it is currently part of the Ukraine.
Celan was multilingual. During his early years he learned German from his family and Hebrew at the insistence of his father, and he would later learn Romanian, French, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and English, and would translate from all of these languages into German.
When the Nazis came, Celan and his family were first forced into a ghetto, and then subsequently deported. Celan would lose both of his parents to the camps; his father succumbed to typhus, and his mother was shot after being exhausted by forced labor. Celan himself would survive the war in a labor camp, liberated by the Soviet Army in 1944, and after the war would live in Paris. Celan wrote in German as an act of defiance against those who oppressed him and murdered his family.
In a speech entitled “The Meridian”, given on the occasion of receiving the Georg Büchner Prize in October of 1960, Celan mused on the nature of poetry. The following is a quote from that speech, translated by Rosemarie Waldrop in Collected Prose:
The poem becomes conversation --- often desperate conversation. Only the space of this conversation can establish what is addressed, can gather it into a ‘you’ around the naming and speaking I. But this ‘you’, come about by dint of being named and addressed, brings its otherness into the present. Even in the here and now of the poem --- and the poem has only this one, unique, momentary present --- even in this immediacy and nearness, the otherness gives voice to what is most its own: its time.
With logic typical of Celan, the poem’s transformation into conversation undoes the writer/reader dynamic we’ve all come to expect, and invites the reader – the “you” – to enter the experience of the I who wrote the poem by recognizing the moment of the poem itself. It is a call to deep witness, to claim and re-claim, I believe, a humanity that had been denied to Celan and to those who suffered through the Holocaust, and those who did not survive it.
I’d like, now, to read Scott Horton’s translation of Celan’s poem “Tenebrae”. This translation appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 2008:
We are close, Lord
Close and within reach.
Seized already, Lord,
clawed into our selves as though
the body of each of us were
your body, Lord.
pray to us,
who are close by.
Against the wind we went there,
went there to bend
over hollow and ditch.
To drink we went there, Lord.
It was blood, it was
That which you shed, Lord.
It cast your image into our eyes, Lord.
Our eyes and mouths stand open and empty, Lord.
We have drunk, Lord.
The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.
We are near.
I chose this version over two older, better-known translations for the simple fact that Horton was better able to uncover – or discover – imagery in Celan’s original German that echoes both the symbolism of the Passover story and the imagery of the Eucharist, that remembrance of the Last Supper that took place during Passover at the end of the life of Jesus.
Among these many layers, in conversation with all of them, are the voices of the Jewish people who suffered in the camps, who were dehumanized by the Nazi regime, who were treated as slave labor, so many of whom died before liberation came.
It is those voices we can hear as a “collective Jesus”, “as though/the body of each of us were/your body, Lord”, who implore the Lord to “pray to us,/who are close by.” Unlike the Resurrection of Christ, however, those who are “clawed into [them]selves as though/the body of each of [them] were” the Lord’s body are not promised life everlasting, and instead find that their “eyes and mouths stand open and empty” despite having drunk “[t]he blood and the image that was in the blood”.
It is not difficult to hear survivor’s guilt and anger in this poem, but I hear a deep longing, too. One of the marvelous complexities with which I wrestle in this poem some twenty years after first reading it in Jane Lunin Perel’s Holocaust class is that the collective voice here that has been abandoned by the Lord is still talking to the Lord. This isn’t to suggest that there’s hope in that, necessarily. Just that not-silence is worth noticing here.