Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Origins of Crossed-Out Swatiska

We asked Cyrus Cassells to tell us something about the inspiration and composition of Crossed-Out Swastika, his powerful book of poems about the Holocaust which was featured in our most recent blog posting.  Here's what he told us:  

What happened consistently during my 2005-6 sabbatical in Paris, as I say in the poem “Sabine Who Was Hidden in the Mountains,” was that the Holocaust and World War II became “les devoirs”—my urgent, unavoidable homework; I couldn’t seem to escape the phantoms of the war. I lived in Paris at one point on the rue Pont Louis Philippe, about a half a block from the Shoah Memorial; my landlord noticed a copy of my second book, Soul Make a Path Through Shouting, and revealed that she’d been hidden away in the mountains of southern France as a child, and that her mother was interned in Bergen Belsen. One summer I lived on the rue des Rosiers and my writing desk faced the Ecole de Travail—with its plaque dedicated to the deported Jewish schoolchildren of the Marais.
This sort of phenomenon happened time and again in Europe. I would ostensibly go somewhere for a visit, such as Amsterdam, and I’d discover I was staying around the corner from the Anne Frank House. I traveled from the Slovak Republic to Krakow to meet the poet Adam Zagajewski, and on the way, the train stopped at the Auschwitz station. I was jolted out of a nap at dusk; I looked down and discovered we’d arrived at the Auschwitz platform. Later Zagajewski encouraged me to have a little courage and visit the camp memorial; the only day I could go was November 1, the “Day of the Dead”—a daunting prospect. It turned out to be a very powerful and distinctive day to make a pilgrimage—there were deeply moving memorial candles and flowers near the ovens and other key places in the camp. The experience in Auschwitz took hold of my psyche and spurred the creation of The Crossed-Out Swastika, a voice-driven poetic cycle focused on the haunting beauty and integrity of young people caught in the vise of World War II. We’re loathe to look at what children go through in the midst of war: it’s one of the most censored dimensions of conflict. But it’s inspiriting to look at Sophie Scholl, Anne Frank, and other young people who matured in the crucible of the war, to examine the chastening and enduring legacy they left.
In the six years it took to complete the book, silence and concision became important allies in attempting to do justice to the “antimiracle” of that time. Just as I break off the poem “The Toss” in Soul Make a Path Through Shouting, I felt the need to stop the action on the page in the seventh section of the long centerpiece poem, “The Fit,”—to let the silence and blank space signify atrocity. As poets, we’re always trying to locate the most effective way to represent reality in our poems. Silence, line breaks, white space, et cetera, can be major tools in this process of diligent and accurate emotional representation. These poems fragment under the weight of painful testimony—which is often the case in real life. Silence shores the intensity of the frequently painful testimony of the young, war-tapped speakers. Silence in the poems often serves as a healing tool, as an allaying strategy to cope with the conveyance and the absorption of trauma.
I have a powerful sense of history as very human and individual, as a lived, individual experience, not as a master narrative overlaid on people’s lives.  Empathy and witness, a reclamation of the wounds of the past, returning agency to those who have suffered—these were significant aims with this project; another aim was to create a sense of intimacy with individual  stories and voices from the war; I was thrilled and deeply gratified when a reviewer remarked that The Crossed-Out Swastika “reveals the commonality of  pain in such a stark, revelatory way, that it seems idiotic to think that there was ever any distance between a contemporary reader and a Ukrainian child in the 1940s.”


To read more at Writing the Holocaust about Mr. Cassells' Crossed-Out Swastika, just click here: Crossed-Out Swatstika.