By Charles Fishman
This second part of my interview with Louis Daniel Brodsky continues with our discussion of his Holocaust poetry and explores our differing views regarding the writing of poetry on the Shoah. (To view the first part click here.)
CF: Please comment on your collaboration with William Heyen on the breakthrough book, Falling from Heaven. Did you or Bill initiate that project?
LDB: In 1990, feeling extraordinary respect for Bill Heyen's Holocaust poetry, I invited him to join me in blending our different heritages, religions, and voices in what I believed could be a very evocative and resonant book. In June 1991, Time Being Books published Falling from Heaven: Holocaust Poems of a Jew and a Gentile. Both of us contributed twenty-five of our strongest Holocaust poems, which we chose to alternate in five parts. Many of Bill's poems came from his book Erika: Poems of the Holocaust. All of mine were new, written after The Thorough Earth. As awful as the subject matter is, the book was very satisfying, and, in December 1992, Time Being Books released my book Gestapo Crows: Holocaust Poems. Then in May 1998, The Eleventh Lost Tribe: Poems of the Holocaust was also published by Time Being Books.
By that time, I'd been writing Holocaust poems with dizzying frequency. They simply wouldn't release me from their throes, give me any kind of peace at all, rather kept assaulting my sensibility, as though fearing that were they to stop, I might stop paying attention to them, composing them into life, out of death, nothingness. So, I persevered, shaping two new books, which I hoped would appear, in 2000 and 2001, respectively: Rabbi Auschwitz: Poems of the Shoah and The Swastika Clock: Holocaust Poems.
But a major event no one could have anticipated sidetracked my publication schedule. 9/11 threw everything I'd intended to do into disarray. It distracted my focus, compelled me to write five volumes of a book called Shadow War: A Poetic Chronicle of September 11 and Beyond, and it kept my focus distracted during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, writing satirical and venomous political poems.
Despite this detour, in 2008, I completed my seventh Holocaust book, The Location of the Unknown: Shoah Poems, and, in 2009, Kampf: Poems of the Holocaust, both of which will likely remain unpublished for the next five or six years.
CF: So nearly a decade after the trauma of 9/11 and with “W” fading into the blur of memory, you decided to bring out the two collections on the Shoah you had expected to issue in 2000 and 2001: Rabbi Auschwitz, which came out last month, and The Swastika Clock, which Time Being Books will publish in 2011. What do you hope to accomplish by releasing such similar books so closely together?
LDB: Why will these two books come out so close together? Because they need to breathe, need their release, their freedom, from me, so that they can have their vehemently uncompromising, unforgetting, unforgiving voices made manifest. It makes no difference how close together they appear, since no matter when they're published — one, five, ten, twenty years apart — they'd still be close together, kin, brethren, tribe, in spirit, because they're part of the family of six million that, in perishing, will always live close, inextricably close. All that matters is that they achieve existence, be, and, in being, exterminate, eradicate, silence silence — the sooner the better. Too soon is decidedly not nearly soon enough, since silence is the ally of apathy, and apathy, smugness, indifference are the Satanic trinity of manifest evil, and evil is the be-all-and-end-all enemy of whatever's left after death abandons mankind to its own signature murderous rapaciousness.
CF: Falling from Heaven showed how much you admire William Heyen's poems on the Shoah. To what extent do you feel his 1977 book The Swastika Poems, and his subsequent books on this subject, Erika: Poems of the Holocaust (Vanguard, 1984 and later editions) and Shoah Train (Etruscan Press, 2003), have influenced your own work and the work of other poets? Is the title of one of your forthcoming booklength collections, The Swastika Clock, meant to acknowledge your debt to Heyen's work in The Swastika Poems?
LDB: I can't really speak for other poets, but I do know that he's had a strong presence in my mind. I don't feel I've borrowed anything specifically from Bill's work. His rhythms, meters, phraseology, his syntax and voice are altogether different from mine. Most significantly, he writes from what he reads, almost exclusively, it seems to me, not so much from his guts, blood, raw emotion, but from his exceedingly brilliant and highly honed intellect. Imagination isn't his starting point, though he has a splendid imagination; rather, he chooses to exercise restraint, so careful is he to keep his distance while going as close as he dares to what he sees as the sacredness of their bones, souls. My poetry is more of a lyrical and narrative variety, lyrical in the sense that I rely heavily on assonance, internal rhyming; narrative in the sense that I prefer to weave stories, shy away from purely imagistic and metaphorical evocations and distillations. Having said this, I believe that Bill's achievements, his creations, have had a strong effect on my desire to write Holocaust poems as honestly and powerfully and poignantly and plaintively as I possibly can. When I first read Erika, back in 1989, I had just finished working on The Thorough Earth, and I was so very exhilarated to find a fellow poet working so strenuously, so passionately, so compassionately in this vein. I remember writing a very effusive letter to Bill, telling him how moved I was by his book, how much I wanted to meet him.
As for the title of my 2011 book, The Swastika Clock, it in no way reflects any artistic indebtedness to Bill's precursor to Erika — The Swastika Poems. As I've said, Bill's influence on me has everything to do with pure admiration, respect, awe, nothing at all to do with stylistic matters. Though kindred, our sensibilities are aesthetically and artistically far apart. To take this further, though I've read a reasonable amount of Holocaust literature, I can honestly say that there are no sources from which I've borrowed other than from my own reservoir of intuition and imagination.
CF: Which other writers have had an impact on the writing you have done in response to the Shoah?
LDB: I like the word "impact," as you use it. It seems much more effective to me than "influence," since my mind is open to being moved by something without being moved to emulate it stylistically.
There are specific books that have had an inexpressible but overarching impact on my emotions, so powerfully that they've moved me to the kind of tears that are located so deep in my psyche and the cells of my body that I've felt compelled to find my own words, to portray my agony.
I've already mentioned Jean-François Steiner's Treblinka and Thomas Kenneally's Schindler's Ark (published in this country as Schindler's List). Certainly, Elie Wiesel's little big book, Night, dismantled me, brought my heart to its knees. William Styron's Sophie's Choice is a book no one should overlook. Badenheim: 1939, by Ahron Appelfeld, bespelled me, with its mystical language and misty aura. Art Spiegelman's Maus I and II still turn me upside down every time I return to them. They're brilliant. Strangely, a rather sentimental book by Gerald Green, titled Holocaust, has called me back to its pages almost every other year, for the past two decades. Most recently, Bernhard Schlink's The Reader has reminded me, all over, how terribly beautiful the horrible things that happened in the Holocaust can be, if they're portrayed by a highly sensitive, intelligent, and compassionate writer. This book reinstills in me that original desire that drove me when I began to write Holocaust poems that can move the human heart to believe that its host just might transcend whatever is base in us.
Naturally, I've read myriad histories and memoirs about the Holocaust. Among those which stand out are Moments of Reprieve, The Drowned and the Saved, Survival in Auschwitz, and The Reawakening, all by Primo Levi; Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl; The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, by Martin Gilbert; Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, by John Cornwell; IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation, by Edwin Black; My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin, by Peter Gay; The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, by William L. Shirer; The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945, by David S. Wyman; and Łódź Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege, edited by Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides.
Interestingly, the great Holocaust poets have had far less of an impact on my writing, and I've certainly read the best of them — Radnóti, Sutzkever, Celan, Borowski, Sachs, Glatstein, and Klepfisz, among them. Possibly, this is because I wouldn't want to ever echo any other poet. Possibly, my own poetic voice is so strong that it doesn't allow me to be as receptive as I might otherwise be. Also, with regard to the foreign poets I just mentioned, it's because translations, no matter how excellent they are, always remind me that the real poetry remains in the mother tongue and necessarily must be read in that tongue. Of this, I speak with a degree of authority. Two of my Holocaust books, The Thorough Earth, translated by Jean Lambert as Le Terre Avide, and Falling from Heaven: Holocaust Poems of a Jew and a Gentile, translated by Rachel Ertel as Chassés du Paradis: Poèmes de l'Holocauste à Deux Voix, both published by Éditions Gallimard, in 1992 and 1997, respectively, seem, to me, to have lost much of their mellifluity, music, and assonance, in translation.
CF: Time Being Books has published other Holocaust-related collections, perhaps most notably the revised, second edition of my anthology, Blood To Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (2007), but also William Heyen's Erika: Poems of the Holocaust; Harry James Cargas's Telling the Tale: A Tribute to Elie Wiesel on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday – Essays, Reflections, and Poems; Norbert Krapf's Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany; Judith Chalmers's Out of History's Junk Jar: Poems of a Mixed Inheritance; Micheal O'Siadhail's The Gossamer Wall: Poems in Witness to the Holocaust; and my own collection, Chopin's Piano. Do you consider your responsibility, as a publisher, to include publishing books about the Holocaust? And are you currently thinking of publishing any new collections or anthologies of poetry that focus on the Holocaust?
LDB: I'll always be receptive to new books of Holocaust poetry. They're too important a contribution to humanity to dismiss. It's unlikely that Time Being Books will do another anthology. The splendid one you edited, Blood to Remember, was an undertaking of immense complexity and difficulty, for our small press. Our mission would be best served by our continuing to focus on individual volumes of poetry.
CF: Aside from Micheal O'Siadhail's collection, are you familiar with poetry on the Shoah that has been written by poets who are not Americans? If so, which poets' work would you most encourage followers of this blog to read?
LDB: Only those I've already mentioned.
CF: Among those poets whose work you follow, and who are still writing about the Shoah, what in their work do you find most powerful and significant?
LDB: I really can't answer this, since I don't follow any contemporary Holocaust writers.
CF: There are many as yet untranslated poems by Holocaust survivors. Would you commission work on a book of translations of these almost-lost poems?
LDB: I think the idea of bringing such work into public recognition is, per se, a noble idea. But personally, as I've said, I don't really trust translations to accurately convey authorial intention. I'd be very leery of having Time Being Books publish such a work.
CF: Do you believe the time will come when writing poems about the Holocaust will no longer be necessary?
LDB: Inherent in your question, as I see it, is a hypothetical scenario in which mankind has recreated the prelapsarian Garden of Eden. Even if this were to come about, I believe we'd still find the writing of poems about the Holocaust necessary, indispensable, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves to be alert for the viper, crawling on his belly, poised to beguile us with visions of power, superiority, annihilation.
CF: You have recently written poems in which you speak from the point of view of a Holocaust survivor, but you are not a survivor of the ghettoes and camps. How do you justify taking this approach in some of your recent poems when actual camp survivors are still living among us?
LDB: Just to qualify your question, let me say that I've not just recently written Holocaust poems using characters I invent, imagine, transfigure. I've been employing this approach, with all of my poems, from the very outset, back in the late sixties.
Debate has long raged about who is qualified to tackle the delicate topic of the Holocaust. Is it only the victims, survivors, and their families? Is it historians and documentary-makers? Or should the net be cast wider, to include those poets, painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians who have no familial connection with the Holocaust or are too young to have any firsthand knowledge of it, and if so, is there a place for fictional works?
When I first began my collaborative efforts with Bill Heyen, for the 1991 volume Falling from Heaven, I started to understand the scope of this issue, when he sent this response to my draft-work typescript for the poem "Under the Circumstances," which I'd intended to include in that book but decided not to, for needing to mull over his reservations about the poem, especially the lines "Who would ever have believed / We'd condone, let alone encourage, / Our own issue soliciting on street corners / Where our elite once converged, / Become History's pimps, / Forcing our daughters and wives / To go down on their backs, hoist knees, / And make their fleshy temples / Accessible to anyone with pfennigs for bread?" Bill said, "Strong, strong, but worries me: this is one of those poems where we have to be careful, careful how we speak for the dead. I'm not sure about the 'resignation' here. If this were taken from some definite testimony, that would be one thing. But to invent a Jew who speaks in these terms?"
Subsequently, in my 1992 book Gestapo Crows: Holocaust Poems, I chose to include the poem as I'd originally written it.
Under the Circumstances, Warsaw Ghetto, 1942
Surviving in the ghetto
Has its occasional consolations,
Its brief reprieves,
But they're not always easy to detect
When the cock crows with a loon's hysteria,
The stork refuses to transport cargo,
And the cuckoo ululates its idiotic ritual
Every hour, dark and light,
Intimating the Gestapo's imminent knock at the door.
Although the insomnious waiting is torture,
Horror does exempt us
From tending to chores, maintaining decorum.
No one expends much energy anymore
Lamenting each recent surrender to death.
We've even suspended teaching, praying,
Meeting collectively to discuss events
We've absolutely no say-so in swaying.
Resignation is easier to sustain than faith.
More to the point, who would have ever believed
We'd condone, let alone encourage,
Our own women's soliciting on street corners
Where our patricians once convened
Or that we would become history's pimps,
Forcing our wives and daughters
To lie down on their backs, spread their legs,
And make the gates of their temples
Accessible to anyone with pfennigs for bread?
CF: I understand that you felt compelled to disregard Bill’s caution flag, but why? Do you have evidence that any Jewish men trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto encouraged their “wives and daughters” to prostitute themselves?
LDB: It's all a matter of drama, poetic drama. For me, the facts are always subservient to the verities of the heart, truths derived from the long procession of civilization's degrading travails and noble accomplishments. Given sufficient desperation, I know, intuitively, as well as from personal experience, that people can bring themselves to commit any kind of inappropriate act that may seem appropriate, at the time, to alleviate their distress. I have not relied on oral testimonies or memoirs, as "evidence," to tell me how people can, should, must, do act. I rely on my own gut instincts, in any given situation I create, any dramatic scene I set for the characters I place in the vast panoply of my Holocaust dramas. Given the looming presence of devastating starvation and horrific fear, a person can be driven to anything, even something as unsacred, profane, heinous, monstrous as offering up a beloved wife to prostitution, a helpless, innocent child to its own death, if, somehow, doing so might allow that person to perpetuate his/her own life. Desperation does terrible things to the psyche, puts demands on moral rectitude and physical propriety that one could, would never, in his/her right mind, consider. And this is why I could not, finally, accept Bill Heyen's reservation. The only "definite testimony," as Bill referred to a proper source for my dramatization, in "Under the Circumstances," was, is, that which I derived from my own heart, my guts, my pounding blood, my trembling soul, as I wrote that poem through, to its profoundly painful closure. I had no choice but to accede to the poem's requirements.
And during correspondence with you, Charles, over the last few years, I've again faced the critical relevance of my fictional works, when discussing your perspectives, documented in the essay "Some Cautions on Writing Holocaust Poetry," in which you note that "the tendency for writers to place themselves at Auschwitz; to take on the mantle of victimhood or martyrdom — the special aura of the survivor — has become more noticeable, and more disturbing" and you deride the "hubris of those who would masquerade as survivors or invent dialogue for actual people who lived and died."
Speaking of fictional first-person Holocaust poems, you write, "Does it honor the dead or present us with a rich new vision of historical truth? Is this merely another entertainment? Or is it something more problematic and unsettling? Can we escape the conclusion that what this poet [W. D. Snodgrass] offers us, out of the entire colossal record of the Shoah, is a rather strange and unsettling orchestration of unreal voices and a text marked by dubious sympathies?"
Such poems, you say, "occupy a space in which truth is virtually indistinguishable from fantasy, so that the real and the verifiable is trivialized and devalued. . . . I read this as a kind of literary charade, in which the writer seeks to create the illusion of proximity to, and intimacy with, the Holocaust — to generate what might pass for a sense of permission to write these things . . . permission and authority."
You go on to suggest that "the desire to speak in the voices of real or imagined victims, survivors (often quite capable of speaking for themselves, once they choose to address their personal histories), or perpetrators (most of whom have remained silent, in the aftermath of their crimes) too often leads to misguided projects that delegitimize the voices of the living and rebury the voices of the dead . . . For too many American poets, this murky picture of the actual presents them with no incontestable reason to hold back from imagining the 'unimaginable,' to resist speaking as Hitler or revealing a possible, yet false, death for Anne Frank. In a world in which the Holocaust itself has repeatedly been called into question [and] in which a literary fraud can pass as a stand-in for the real, as if the real wasn't actual, wrenching, haunting, or persuasive enough, it seems essential that we honor the genuine article, authentic voice."
While I concur that inventing a deceptive account of Anne Frank's death seemingly serves no constructive purpose, and although I've rarely attempted to depict the thoughts or words of a real person ("Himmler at Auschwitz, 1942" being a rare exception), I take great umbrage with the notion that creating a composite character of a victim or survivor might somehow "trivialize" the experience of an actual victim or survivor.
In fact, I feel that placing such constraints upon one's own writing (or that of others) is tantamount to stifling the poet's voice altogether — censorship. I agree that survivors' testimonies are essential, whether in prose or verse, yet I know that allowing only those who experienced the camps to write about the experience will eventually shut out the rest of the world, forcing that piece of history to disappear, quietly, with the last survivor.
CF: As publisher of the revised, second edition of Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, you know I agree that poets who are not survivors of the camps must feel free to write in response to the Holocaust. That’s why my anthology foregrounds the work of more than two hundred poets, most of whom were not in Auschwitz or the thousands of other camps the Nazis and their collaborators established as short- or long-term holding pens for their victims. I also understand that there are shades of difference in the way each poet responds to the Holocaust and accept that there is no single path that is the correct one. Still, I regret the lack of a frame in some of the Holocaust poems you write. An epigraph to a poem like “Under the Circumstances” or a brief preface to a booklength volume like Rabbi Auschwitz could easily, and succinctly, make clear that the stories you have been inventing for us are not verifiable slices of history but are passionate attempts to awaken your readers and to enlighten them regarding the fate of Jews before, during, and after, the Shoah.
But please continue. I sense that you have more to say about your unapologetic, even insistent, use of “imaginary” and “composite” characters and about what irks you in the statements of critics.
LDB: What I find particularly disconcerting are the three words I've encountered, time and again, in deliberations over writing first-person verse about the Holocaust: "irreverence," "marginalization," and "exploitation."
Countering the perception of "irreverence," I would argue that a carefully conceived character (whether wholly invented or a subtle composite), speaking within his or her own present-tense realm, might actually strike a more immediate chord with the reader, thus potentially eliciting a deeper response than a third-person narrator ever could. I stand firm in my belief that my fictional Holocaust pieces (first-, second-, and third-person alike), as well as my many nonfictional, non-character-driven pieces, have the same purpose: they're meant to awaken the audience to a wider awareness, promote respect for those who suffered the atrocities, and spark deeper contemplation and thoughtful dialogue on a subject already too far removed from the public at large.
Similarly, "marginalization" implies that opening the topic up, to a substantially broader range of writers, somehow undercuts the authenticity of victims' and survivors' gut-wrenching personal experiences. To me, the reverse applies: the more voices that bring the subject to palpable, visceral life, the longer it will remain in the spirits and souls of the audience. And to silence the pens and tongues of those who did not witness the atrocities face to face, permitting only actual victims and survivors to create the art that will pass to future generations, is to create a hallowed but inaccessible oeuvre that, through circumscription, risks extinction.
In addressing the issue of "exploitation," it is perhaps best to draw a parallel to the realm of Renaissance art. Imagine the legacy, had the Vatican insisted that only men of the cloth — indeed only Adam and Eve or, to inflexibly hew to this notion, only God Himself — not sculptors and painters, be allowed to depict holy scenes from the Bible, in the Sistine Chapel and other houses of worship. It is known that such artists were often fulfilling commissions or obliging patrons, yet their works speak to their passion and dedication and to the selflessness of their labors, and, after so many centuries, still speak to us. When such art is encouraged, not suppressed, it fulfills its purpose, extending beyond often-sterile, -static historical chronicles, to become an emotive force that pushes the reader to think, feel, and learn about the experience, learn about himself, herself, in the deepest recesses of sensibility, psyche, soul.
Nonfictional Holocaust poems are frequently a mere regurgitation of the poet's own reading — delineating the war's progression or reciting various statistics about the victims. Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust, for example, which many regard as a sort of Holy Grail of Shoah poetry, seems to miss the point entirely. I can't help but question whether this book is really art at all, when Reznikoff is nothing more than a skillful editor, who brings a journalist's and lawyer's trained mind to the task of dramatizing dry testimony. His material is derived, entirely, from two major sources: Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals Under Control Council Law No. 10 and Verbatim Record of the Trial and Appeal of Adolf Eichmann: In the District Court of Jerusalem, Criminal Case No. 40/61: The Attorney-General of the Government of Israel v. Adolf, the son of Adolf Karl Eichmann. Minutes of Session No. 1-121; In the Supreme Court of Israel, Criminal Appeal No. 336/61. Minutes of Session No. 1-7 and Judgment. His "art" is one of appropriation, appropriation that's been rigorously edited. In doing this, Reznikoff makes a point of actually removing figurative language, finally excising whatever life there might be in the material presented by witnesses for the prosecution and the defense.
My Holocaust poetry requires, demands emotion, imaginary connection with existence at the edge of the precipice. My art asks, of me, full creative immersion. What I hope to accomplish when an idea for a new Holocaust poem overtakes me is nothing short of shaping, fleshing out, a dominant character who will, in all respects, be believable, one who achieves verisimilitude and radiates a sense that he is three dimensional, exists in time and space, is real. What I mean by "real" is that he casts a shadow, persuades the reader that his hopes and sorrows, his actions and words, are genuine, palpable, that they lift off of the page and enter the here and now.
To do this, I have to enter into the character's psyche, move with him, become one with his troubles, fears, that which he suffers at the hands of whatever it is that fate has in mind, for him — death, escape, assimilation, suicide, death in life. And I always know when I'm succeeding at portraying my characters authentically, because they communicate with me, tell me so. Almost always, I so identify with these people who populate my Holocaust poems, be they in ghettoes, shtetls, concentration or death camps, that I actually find myself weeping, suffering their suffering. They become part of who I'm becoming. It's when I feel this way that I know I've succeeded.
I still remember that first day of June 1990, when I wrote a poem called "Grodsky the Cobbler."
I was driving through a section of St. Louis known as the Delmar Loop, an area that, during the twenties through the sixties, was predominantly Jewish. I imagined an old man in a decrepit shoe-repair shop, in that neighborhood. I was so taken by this ghost, that I parked on a side street and began scribbling ideas and images of the man, for the walls of a poem into which I could insert him, as though my poem were his shop. And I borrowed, from myself, this man's name, simply changing the first letter of my surname. The poem ended up in Gestapo Crows.
Grodsky the Cobbler
Near the Delmar Loop in St. Louis
(No one knows for sure
In which tenement he dwells),
There lives and dies daily
A Jewish cobbler,
Who bears just above his bony wrist
Greenish-blue Auschwitz numerals
Obscenely tattooed to his skin
Like an oozing cicatrix,
Shapes crazily misaligned
Like figures floating in alphabet soup.
By trade a shoe repairer,
He still waits — sometimes all day
Without one person in need of his services —
To ply his skills despite near blindness,
Enfeeblement. An octogenarian
Who has no business doing business,
He yet paces sidewalks and crosses streets
As if back in Bremerhaven
Instead of persisting in this American ghetto
Inhabited by blacks, college students, and the elderly,
Where thirty years earlier
The city's most esteemed "kikes" resided —
University professors, symphony musicians,
Bankers, merchants, attorneys, surgeons,
The cream of Midwestern Jewry,
Who, not to their collective face
But always behind their back, were reviled,
Their display windows cracked, cemeteries desecrated —
Spurned because of their learning,
Fenced off by their affluence,
And, finally, betrayed by their success.
Half a century later, lapsing from consciousness,
This ash of a man stoops over his bench,
Apron strings cinching his waist
To keep his pants from falling to his shoes,
Shoes he's mended so many times
Their original German leather no longer exists,
Nor do their soles remember the Vaterland's cobblestones,
Which wore them smooth as he fled,
His possessions possessed,
Shoes he maintains, nonetheless,
In case he needs to make another hasty escape.
Not long after this poem was first published, in the St. Louis Jewish Light, in 1991 (before it appeared in Gestapo Crows, a year later), a number of people approached me, saying that they'd read my poem about the shoe repairman whose shop is in the Loop and that they were astonished at how perfectly I'd captured him. They asked me how I knew him. When I told them I had no idea there was a cobbler in the Loop, they were even more amazed.
I've given more than a few poetry readings to audiences made up, almost exclusively, of camp survivors, and with few exceptions, they've greeted me, after my readings, tearfully, thanking me for sharing moving depictions of people they recognized, from their own histories. This kind of validation has encouraged me to continue developing character-driven Holocaust poems that I always hope will connect the reader to a time that's fast receding into the forgetfulness of history.
I hope to reach my audience on a much more direct and personal level, documenting not fact after fact, from some pat rubric or book or oral testimony, but universal truths, leaving the role of historian to Saul Friedlander and Martin Gilbert, and the role of social psychologist to Raul Hilberg and Lawrence L. Langer, while confirming William Faulkner's take, from The Town, that "poets are almost always wrong about facts. That's because they are not really interested in facts: only in truth."
I believe this idea is reflected in May Sarton's endorsement of Falling from Heaven: "Perhaps for the first time we see creation outside actual facts making its way through deep layers of the psyche as the Holocaust has done over the years." Of Gestapo Crows, Karl Shapiro writes, "Almost unbearably graphic — how can it be otherwise? — and yet imaginative, outraged and remarkably personal, these poems exemplify the contagion of the horror which more than any other series of events, mars the name of the Twentieth Century." Elie Wiesel echoes this sentiment when he writes, about Gestapo Crows: "One cannot but respond with deep emotion and affection to the anguish and pain one finds in your poems. Granted, words are often unable to express the ineffable; but isn't poetry the art of transcending words?" I truly believe that Elie wouldn't have said this if he'd sensed there was anything inauthentic or inappropriate about my poems, the slightest trace of exploitation that might shame or defile those who suffered the awful horrors of the Nazi scourge.
The biggest challenge, now, for me, is finding new ways of expressing the ineffable, by imagining the unimaginable. I tremble when I think that I might have to follow anyone's rules regarding what I can write about and how I should go about doing so. I am, in no way, defiling the privacy, the memory, or the sanctity — the humanity — of those who can no longer speak for themselves or those who survived but can't or won't speak for themselves. Without artists who develop the courage to "trespass" on "sacred ground," the history of the Holocaust would become nothing but stacks of shoes, piles of eyeglasses, photos of naked corpses in mass graves, rows of ovens and gas chambers, perimeters of electrified barbwire fences — a litany of clichés devoid of the palpitant heart.
CF: Thank you for this eloquent defense of your “invented” and “composite” characters and the very powerful poems they inhabit. Your arguments are strong ones, and I want to emphasize that, with rare exceptions, I applaud the poems your anger, your pain, your memory, and your potent imagination have driven you to write.
Louis Daniel Brodsky (b. 1941) has written sixty-four volumes of poetry, including the five-volume Shadow War: A Poetic Chronicle of September 11 and Beyond. You Can’t Go Back, Exactly won the Center for Great Lakes Culture's (Michigan State University) 2004 best book of poetry award. He has also authored fourteen volumes of fiction and coauthored eight books on William Faulkner.
The link for Time Being Books is http://www.timebeingbooks.com/. Louis Daniel Brodsky’s website is www.louisdanielbrodsky.com.