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176Philosophy and Literature AgainstForgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry ofWitness, edited by Carolyn Forche; 812 pp. NewYork: W. W. Norton & Co., 1993, $19.95 paper. Carolyn Forche's new volume, her fifth to date, is part ofan effort to change the way we think about extremity. She may succeed. The new book is massive. One hundred and forty-five poets are represented (the oldest bom in 1878, the youngest in 1952). Spanning the major upheavals and repressions of the last one hundred years—from the Armenian genocide to the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and violent struggles in the Soviet Union, Latin America, Spain, Eastern and Central Europe, the Mediterranean, India and Pakistan, the Middle East, the United States, Korea, Viet Nam, Africa, South Africa, and China—the book collects poetry that bears the trace of the extremity from which it comes, which witnesses those events less by explicitly invoking them than by continuing the internal struggles from which these texts were retrieved , which is to say, by the ability of these texts to bear the witness we may now observe. Thus, for example, Dan Pagis's "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car": here in this carload i am eve with abel my son if you see my other son cain son of man tell him diat i (p. 387) The power of this language derives less from its imagery or symbols (which are among the oldest in the book), or its formal constraints—the fragment, Forche notes, has a long and venerable history—than from its repetition of the experience it describes, its capacity to "remind" and dumbfound us, to find this most personal and plaintive of requests continuous at once with the most ancient of Hebrew texts, and with an experience which exceeds the possible and the sayable, even as living through the Holocaust (as Pagis did) was already an experience of such doubleness and monstrosity, of such "reminding" and incommensurability. Alerting us to its standing as trace or remnant, as absent and present, as bygone and before us, this language becomes a kind of ghostly postcard from the past. Witness in this sense is not observation or consciousness but their conditions, what remains as an extension or extremity of what was experienced (like a severed arm or leg that will not let go), and thus metonymically continuous with it rather than metaphorically analogous to it. Such texts have consequences. In amassing these poems, Carolyn Forche has upset the difference between the personal and the political. On the one hand, she has preserved within the political what is personal and individual. Thus, Reviews177 these lines from Günter Eich's "Old Postcards," which read eerily like the fragments of an interrupted intimate conversation: Fine, fine. But when die war is over we'll go to Minsk and pick up Grandmother, (p. 256) On the other, she has preserved widiin the personal what is political and power-laden. Robert Desnos's poetry (in Forché's translation) echoes the famous words of the philosopher Adorno on its impossibility: I am the verse witness of my master's breath— Left-over, cast off, garbage Like the diamond, the flame, and the blue of the sky (p. 231) The jewelry looted from the Jews upon their arrival in the deathcamps, the flames from the ovens, the blue, ironically, of both the sky and the stain on the walls of the crematoria left by Zyklon B, all remain. They are present in and as the words themselves, the witness in breath ofboth the poet and the Nazis. The two forms of diis witness are inextricably bound, and thus are the monstrosity of our age and the difficulty of describing it. What this book is after is nothing less than a redefinition of the social, its relation to the violence of the sacred and the political on the one hand, and the violation of the personal and the intimate on the other. If we are careful and lucky, we will learn nothing from uiis book about the past or about others, only about the impossibility of such displacements in our present circumstances , and thus only about what remains urgently before us and will continue to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 176-177
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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