Review by Stephen A. Allen (email)

by Sabrina Orah Mark

Saturnalia Books, 13 E. Highland Ave., 2 Fl., Philadelphia, PA 19118; ISBN 0975499017; 80pp., $14.00 (pb.)

When an American Jewish author quotes Paul Celan, references Walter Benjamin, and drops German words into her poems, certain historical events inevitably come to mind.  Soon enough, the ghost of Theodor Adorno materializes, declaring that "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."  Adorno himself later retracted that statement, but the question of how to treat the Holocaust as a literary subject still remains; seems too big, too unique, too unrelatable to anything else.  Direct witness seems to be the only thing that can convey the enormity of what happened, and the witnesses, the victims, are dying out.  How can living poets, two or three generations removed from the camps, hope to get things right?

Mark finds one way to do this in The Babies.  Instead of trying to capture things as they actually were, she removes the emotional and psychological reality from its historical context and recasts it as a series of often grim, often haunting, surreal vignettes.  Indirect reference becomes the method of approach: just as it is impossible to look directly at the sun for long without going blind, leading to the development of filters and special projectors, so also the impossibility of contemplating the Holocaust directly for long without falling into despair leads Mark to look elsewhere while still referring back to the matter at hand.  This even allows her to use humor to treat what is ultimately terrifyingly uncomical: "Every human situation strikes me as a terrific joke . . . Ha ha holocaust" ("Hello").

This is not to say that the historical reality is always approached as something symbolic.  Instead, references to the details of the Holocaust emerge in other contexts, allowing Mark to speak what is taboo without trumpeting it and thus diminishing its uncanniness.  Thus, while the spirit of T. S. Eliot may hover over "The Eternal Footmen," the fact that there are six million of them points in a different direction.  "Thank You" can be read as a fantasy of gifts and thank-you letters, but Anne Frank is there too: "In the burnt attic we are all a little dead."  These historical specifics come as surprises, as something unexpected and unexplainable, like the Holocaust itself.  Who expects a poem titled "Amen" to end with a guarded lake and a closed road?  Who expected the nation of Goethe to become the locus of anti-Semitic violence on a genocidal scale?

Perhaps the most difficult taboo to acknowledge about the Holocaust and the Nazis is the attraction they exert not only on those inclined to agree with their aims but on those who decry it.  It is impossible to look away.  In "The Song," the narrator not only witnesses her mother's attraction to a charismatic figure, but also feels jealous.  It is only near the end of the poem that the perversity of this attraction is seen, when the ornithologist reveals that he has a plan to get rid of "the birds" with his "end low song": Endlösung, the final solution.  In "The Mustache," a small, black mustache growing on the shoulder of the narrator's lover at first seems harmless, but eventually tears the couple apart.  A similar (or perhaps the same) mustache is found in a mother's purse and given to a lover in "The Lie."  Given the references elsewhere in the book, there can be no doubt whose mustache this is: that of a charismatic leader who appealed, and still appeals, to millions.

So is poetry possible after the Holocaust?  That depends on whether prose poems are poetry or not.  Prose poems always appear to exist in two worlds, and almost all of the ones in Mark's book take the form of narratives, of short stories.  (The eight pieces that make up "The Walter B. Interviews" break somewhat from this mold, but even there the questions asked elicit tales and memories.)  Often, these are tales of implied survival. Ominous and evil things are mentioned, but they are things of the past or are described so dispassionately that actual harm seems far off.  These are the survivors' stories, the tales of witness, but kept at a distance.

Of course, survival does not always mean escape.  The narrator of the title poem of the collection tries to escape her past, her crowd of babies, and for a time she is successful.  She leaves town and finds an occupation organizing someone else's world, but the babies eventually do find her:

At first, as Mrs. Greenaway remembers, the sound of broken glass.  Then the trumpets.  Then the terrible music of all those babies I once seemed to be suddenly having, marching, like soldiers, in rows.

The babies, like a bad memory, carry her off "into a past I still swear I never had."  The babies also gather around Walter Benjamin, another writer who could not escape history, in "The Interview {II}":

From where I was sitting, if I moved my head two inches to either side, I could see the babies.  Had they just once gathered around  me, as they gathered around Walter B. night after night, like teeth . . .

The narratives, the witnesses, are there and will not go away.  If, as a Jewish writer, Mark cannot avoid the Holocaust, then as western readers of any race, any religion, neither can we.  This, in the end, is the problem of The Babies: no matter how well hidden, no matter how disguised and displaced, the Holocaust always breaks through into consciousness.  Barbaric it may be, but poetry after and about Auschwitz is also necessary. 




Stephen Allen holds an MA in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He currently lives in Michigan, where he works as a free-lance writer, translator, and underpaid hourly help at various fine retail establishments.


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