publisher colophon

The enormity of the Shoah often propelled poets in two diametrically opposed directions: on the one hand, toward ellipses, fragmentation, in short poems that exhibit their inadequacy by shutting down with a sort of premature closure; on the other, toward verbosity in long poems that register futility by reiterating an exhausted failure to achieve closure. Composed in what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called “deterritorialized” languages, the laconic stalls of short poems and the repetitive stutters of very long poems illuminate linguistic consternation after Auschwitz. Through translations of Hungarian, Hebrew, German, Yiddish, and Spanish texts, as well as several works composed in English, this essay studies the semantic panic or philological consternation of a range of writers: from such first-generation authors as Miklós Radnóti, Dan Pagis, Paul Celan, and Yitzhak Katzenelson to such contemporaries as Marjorie Agosín, Anna Rabinowitz, Micheal O’Siadhail. Patently mediated in its defiance of sequentiality, verse in this trans-national tradition puts on display the blockage of testimony.

Too much and too little": so Cordelia Edvardson judges a novel based upon her own detailed notes on the deprivations she suffered in a concentration camp.1 Paul Celan's poem about his postwar conversations with Nelly Sachs begins with a similar admission, "Our talk was of Too Much, of / Too Little."2 Either too much or too little, the very long and very short poems in the decidedly transnational canon of poetry after Auschwitz reflect a deep ambivalence about the efficacy of signification in general, artistry in particular. If stirring expressions—in speeches, songs, and slogans, in scholarly and imaginative books—facilitated or failed to derail the Nazis' "final solution"; if language was therefore itself an instrument and casualty of the disaster, then literary artists confronted a confounding perplexity about their own medium, as Adorno knew they would.3 The enormity of the event, coupled with this suspicion about political or aesthetic productions, often propelled poets in two diametrically opposed directions: on the one hand, toward ellipses, fragmentation, in short poems that exhibit their inadequacy by shutting down with a sort of premature closure; on the other, toward verbosity in long poems that register futility by reiterating an exhausted failure to achieve closure.

Whether poets sabotage their exertions through a shortage or superfluity of words, their crippled prayers and babbling blasphemies turn toward creation and creativity with the ambivalence of Celan's recalled dialogue with Nelly Sachs, in which he "spoke against your God" and "let the heart / I had / hope: / for / his highest, death-rattled, his / wrangling word —" (141).4 When John Felstiner describes Celan's verse as "enacting a stifling of lyric testimony," he provides an insight that can illuminate the differences between testimonial witnessing and the blocked witnessing poets put on display.5 Asperity about consolation, stringency about recompense, and rupture of God's "wrangling word" choke the testimonial utterances of the dramatized and undramatized [End Page 443] speakers of Holocaust poems. The vise of "Aryanization" or "compulsory de-judification"—which trapped innumerable subjects and assaulted the very idea of selfhood—baffles the lyricist's investment in voicing subjectivity.6

Holocaust poets, who concede "the impossibility of not writing," confront what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called "the impasse that bars access to writing" within "deterritorialized" languages—the puzzlement of writing in a national tongue that has denied the writer personhood; the bewilderment of writing in an adopted tongue that has been derogated or marginalized as inconsequential.7 According to Deleuze and Guattari, the nomad or immigrant may creatively utilize expression when "[l]anguage stops being representative in order to now move towards its extremities or its limits" (23). Severely limited and extremely elongated Holocaust poems communicate how alienated their authors are from the native idioms they deploy or how estranged their adopted idioms are from the disaster they seek to address. Such idiosyncratic and confounding works are worth foregrounding because of the significant role they play in a tradition that indubitably contains poems of every conceivable length, many of which nevertheless display the laconic stalls of very short poems or the repetitive stutters of very long ones. No matter how linguistic consternation manifested itself (depending on each poet's attitude toward his or her native or adopted idiom), it could be made evident through the self-subversion of under- or overelaborated forms of discourse.

While bearing witness to Celan's dictum, "No one / bears witness for the / witness" (261), both early and later verse responses to the Shoah inevitably engage diverse nationally and linguistically specific conventions, raising the issue for the critic of the liabilities and benefits of attending to verse in translation. Of course, "[t]ranslations unavoidably sacrifice sound (and often rhythm) for sense," Lawrence Langer has warned; of course, German and Hebrew poets "remained embedded in two distinct universes of discourse," Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi has cautioned.8 Yet an exploration of Holocaust poems through their English translations facilitates the teaching of these works in the North American classroom; illuminates one of their fundamental themes, namely, the untranslatability of the Shoah into any normative language; and maps a complex network of influences in a diasporic literary history. Indeed, the editorial and critical work of scholars like Langer and Ezrahi has fostered the emergence of reading communities from many different societies, all attuned to the transnational interconnections between distinctive responses to the Holocaust.

To explain why artists in various media found it difficult to craft adequate reactions to the Shoah, a number of people in these communities [End Page 444] consider the multiple contradictions between representation and genocidal racism as well as the ethical consequences of making the disaster grist for an aesthetic or academic mill.9 But the poets were themselves often mindful of just such issues. My analysis will locate translations of Holocaust poetry within a "minor" tradition that Deleuze and Guattari associated with "the interrupted, the interminable" (26). I group together Hungarian-, Hebrew-, German-, Yiddish-, English-, and Spanish-language authors, all of whom also deserve to be understood in the context of their national and linguistic specificity, to establish verse as an enactment of stymied testimony, first in the short interrupted poem, then in the interminably long, and finally in the formalism that characterizes recent efforts to negotiate between an apophatic breakdown and a cataphatic overflow of literary articulations about Auschwitz.10 The semantic panic inflicted by the Shoah led poets to deploy a dearth or surfeit of words in patently mediated texts that defy sequentiality by dramatizing how dispossessed their authors are of language. Marking an incapacity to achieve closure, torn from explanatory narratives, balked of the resolution or revelation of conventional lyric, very short and very long poems illuminate some of the properties of traumatized speech and of less startlingly curtailed or excessive reactions to calamitous crises in culture.

In the case of a victim, of course, brevity must be attributed to the impossibly deleterious and dangerous scene of composition. Miklós Radnóti's ironically entitled Picture Postcards, probably modeled on Apollinaire's and Cendrars's experiments, were inscribed in his address book or on the back of an advertisement leaflet he found on the ground during a 1944 death march from a camp in Yugoslavia back to his native Hungary, where he and his fellow prisoners were forced to dig the ditch that would be their common grave.11 Affixed with the name of the town where the poems were composed and with the date of their composition, they were found in his coat pocket after his body was exhumed:

The oxen drool saliva mixed with blood. Each one of us is urinating blood. The squad stands about in knots, stinking, mad. Death, hideous, is blowing overhead.

Mohács October 24, 194412

Observing oxen saliva as red as men's urine, members of the reeking company submit to death's dominion over decomposing animals and human beings. In such a stained Picture Postcard, the anonymous squad that "stands around" seems posed, poised like damned tourists with no prospect beyond the crimson tide flowing through their bodies and [End Page 445] gusting overhead. Their exile in the wilderness is punctuated not by the Lord blowing a strong wind to part the waters, to enable the captives' escape, and then ceasing so as to drown the army of pursuing horses and riders in the Red Sea, but by Death personified as the pestilent winds and bloody waters in which the enslaved drown.

Similarly evocative of the Hebrew Bible but published many years after its author's internment in Transnistria, Dan Pagis's "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car" compresses the horror of genocide into a fragmentary parable not because of the constraints Radnóti faced, but so as to specify a mythic life interrupted in midsentence. Although Pagis may have taken Radnóti's Postcards as paradigmatic in their minimalism, it is "Written in Pencil" that more frequently functions in the classroom and in criticism as a touchstone text, as it will in this essay. When we read instructions composed by Pagis's Eve to those who might relay her words to her absent son Cain, the biblical names combine with the unfinished message to protest a crime against humanity of such magnitude that, as later thinkers like Dori Laub have observed, it obliterated the very possibility of witnessing.13 So as to conflate humanity's genesis with its imminent demise in the middle of the twentieth century, Pagis imagines Eve accompanied by Abel, whereas the son to whom she hopes to send her words is called "cain son of man":

here in this carload i am eve with abel my son if you see my other son cain son of man tell him that i 14

Opacity, the effect of condensation, sustains multiple interpretations of what purports to be a found fragment. Does Pagis's Cain miserably reside in an adjoining cattle car, maybe with Adam, as some readers of the poem assume? Then, of course, he too is doomed and the "you" Eve addresses takes on added poignancy, for her message—about as efficacious as a note sealed in a bottle tossed in the ocean—can be read only by other victims who may never lay eyes on her absent son or his condemned father and who would not have the power to save them in any case.15 Cain, banished and visibly branded, wanders outside Pagis's text, evocative after many centuries of race prejudice. In 1773, after all, Phillis Wheatley, the first poet-slave of the New World, castigated scornful eyes that conflated color with "a diabolic dye": "Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain / May be refined and join the angelic strain."16 In 1935, Julius Streicher asked Hitler Youth to take courage [End Page 446] from the belief that "the human race might be free again from this people which has wandered about the world for centuries and millennia, marked with the sign of Cain."17 Although the mark placed on the exiled biblical Cain constitutes not a stigma but a Divine sign of God's protection in the wilderness, a Cain tattooed for extermination can never father Enoch, just as Pagis's Eve can never bear Abel's replacement, Seth.

If not stigmatized for his racial alterity, the absent Cain might live somehow (in hiding? passing as a non-Jew? an immigrant?) elsewhere—not casualty, but survivor, or so other readers have conjectured. When my students are asked to fill in the blank at the end of the poem, these assumptions about Cain's innocence—as a Jewish casualty or a Jewish escapee—often guide interpretations buttressed by the phrase "son of man" (ben Adam), which denotes a human being. They therefore imagine Eve about to declare, on the one hand, "tell him that i [will be avenged]; [cannot go on]; [will go on]; [cling to Abel];" or, on the other hand, "tell him that i [love him]; [pray for him]; [hate him]; [need him to tell Adam.]" Yet, as these last two surmises intimate, maybe Cain, neither imprisoned in an adjoining freightcar nor hiding elsewhere, has played the part not of victim, not of survivor, but of perpetrator. Has Pagis personified the victims as Eve and second-born Abel, the victimizers as Adam and first-born Cain, and did he do so to pose the question Simon Wiesenthal asked: "Were we truly all made of the same stuff?"18

Should Pagis's Abel represent the matrilineage of the Jews, Cain the father-bonding Germans, genocide takes on more than the mystery of a fratricidal dynamic under the aegis of paternal law in the "Fatherland."19 The puzzle in Genesis of why God refused Cain's offering of the fruits of the soil while accepting Abel's portion of his firstborn flock, results in the enigma of God's responsibility for Cain's rage and thus for the murder of an innocent brother as well as the expulsion of his killer: these raise suspicion not only about the goodness of God but also about the goodness of biblical accounts of God. Whether or not Abel's offering appeared somehow more choice, more seemly than Cain's, divine acceptance and rejection remain inscrutable. Pagis's text implicitly raises the issues Regina Schwartz has pondered in the Genesis narrative, about the "tragic principle of scarcity" as well as a political economy dictating that "[o]ne can prosper only at the other's expense."20 If Pagis's poem envisions Jews and Germans as siblings doomed respectively to death and expiation, it also indicts the injustice of a deity whose capricious withholding and bestowing of love trigger an ire that instigates violence and suffering. In the Bible, the withholding and bestowing of love depend upon God's fickle response to sacrificial offerings: in Pagis's work, this dynamic brackets the Holocaust—literally, the Greek [End Page 447] word means "burnt whole"—within the indecency of divinely sanctioned propitiation. Axiomatic and foundational, the chain-of-being principle governing ancient conciliatory rituals of worship—of agricultural produce rejected in favor of animal offerings—intimates that a grotesquely reckless God could eventually rebuff animal offerings in preference for escalated (human) sacrifices, whose blood will cry, as in Genesis (4:10), from the ground, or, as in Auschwitz, from the air.

Regardless of Cain and Abel's indeterminate roles, Eve in her cryptic first-person message is compelled to break off in midphrase, an interruption that testifies to some inexplicably horrific calamity that effectively slices off words and ruptures lives. Unstuck from her tongue, the final "I," a grammatical subject divorced from the agency of any verb, can never make its meaning known. If, as some critics do, one loops Eve's conclusion back to its beginning in order to read the refrain "tell him that i / [am] here in this carload," the word put under erasure or bracketed attests to the bleak lesson poststructuralists garnered from the Holocaust, namely its abrogation of humanism's faith in autonomous subjectivity.21 Whereas Radnóti's postcard broods over the pollution of wind or spirit, the meaning of Abel's name— "(transitory) breath"—underscores the stoppage of its human analogue as well as the absence of voice in Pagis's text.22 Like Jacques Derrida, Pagis focuses on the written, over and against the oral, because it so pointedly illustrates the lack of an authoritative presence, the human subject here only an effect of signifiers whose meaning must be deferred.

That the hauntingly interrupted last will and testament of Pagis's Eve is penciled signals its soon-to-fade ephemeral erasability. That it is penciled, perhaps on the inside of a sealed train, speaks of a living entombment, but also of some dire occurrence that has gone and will continue to go unwitnessed. If composed within the cattle car, Eve's postcard—especially in the context of the Briefaktion Adolf Eichmann instigated to sustain the illusion that the murdered were still alive23 —makes faith in language anachronistic after Auschwitz, for the living could not send their missives, but the dead were made to seem to do so. Finally, "Written in Pencil" deserves the status of a touchstone because its Cain functions as the prototypical reader imagined by the authors of Holocaust verse, an inaccessible audience hopelessly addressed. What Adorno claims about Celan's efforts "to speak of the most extreme horror through silence"—"His poetry is permeated by the shame of art in the face of suffering that escapes both experience and sublimation"—is pertinent for Pagis's text as well.24

Less the soul of wit than the seal of revulsion with what highly civilized languages had wrought, brevity also characterizes the nine lines of Paul Celan's "From Things Lost" and the six lines of his "Sound-Dead Sister-Shell."25 [End Page 448] With his repudiation of poeticizing in "No More Sand Art," Celan pared down his words by lopping off consonants so that at the end of the poem the neologism "Deepinsnow" becomes "Eeepinow" and finally "E - i - o" (251). Anne Carson observes, "[I]f this poem were translated into Hebrew, a language in which vowels are not usually printed, it would vanish even before its appointed end. As did many a Hebrew."26 In the longer poems, too, Paul Celan submits himself to what he terms "the ensilenced Word" (79). "Deathfugue," for instance, consists of 36 lines; however, its lexicon—compulsively repeated throughout—is quite sparse. All the speaking prisoners do in the poem is "drink and drink" the "black milk" as they "shovel a grave in the air" (31).

The only other character, a blue-eyed man who plays with his vipers and writes to Deutschland, serves as maestro of death, urging the victims to ply their instruments (shovels and strings) as an accompaniment to his lieder about death and the maidens, Margarete and Shulamith. If one were to count only those lines that contain new phrases, "Deathfugue" could be said to consist of a mere dozen lines. Through incantation, Celan's slaves attest to the sickening nausea of having to drain dirt, ashes, excrement to the lees not at one time but for all of time, the exhaustion of senseless labor inflicted for no other purpose than humiliation and inflicted perpetually, even as they affix blame on the sinister "master" of Germany whose passion for music and writing brings to mind the devotion to musical writing so characteristic of poets.27 Celan, a subsequent translator of Emily Dickinson, attributes the crematoria's "graves in the air" to the daemonic imaginings of a poetic fancy sated with creating something from nothing, dedicated therefore instead to authoring somebodies into nobodies. In the process, he damns his own writing, associating it with that of his ghastly double in the poem: the concentration camp's commander.

At least on first impression Radnóti's Picture Postcards, Pagis's "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car," and Celan's "Deathfugue" might seem to conflate poetry with testimony. We are given a verbal snapshot of the bloody oxen and squad in Radnóti's poem; we are reading a communication left by the doomed in Pagis's, overhearing a chorus of the voices of the condemned in Celan's. Here, surely, are instances of first-person recounting—and with a vengeance. But, the authors of these powerful texts make abundantly clear, these are fabricated words, not factual testimonies or even mimetic representations of testimonies, and they emphasize their constructedness by drawing our attention to the disparity between testimonial utterance and poetic forms that are always mediated, always consciously constructed. The first of these mechanisms is the present tense, an immediate tip-off to the implausibility of their speakers' discourse: we are seeing what could not have been [End Page 449] seen then, reading what could not have been read then, hearing what we could not have heard then. Alongside the tactical deployment of line breaks, the present tense marks a divergence from the language of testimony. Whereas witnesses often speak or write in the past tense, Radnóti's urinating squad, Pagis's authorial Eve, and Celan's ceaselessly drinking and digging automatons transport themselves from the past into the present, especially when we recite their lines viva voce. This is, we realize as we read silently or aloud, an impossibility—we are only hearing our own voices—so the dead become neither lost nor found specters circulating within the economy of what Anne Carson calls "the Unlost."

Beyond the uncanny present of "Each one of us is urinating blood" and "I am Eve" and "we drink it," consider the constructedness or high artifice of these speech acts in terms of Radnóti's sardonic title and surrealistic imagism, Celan's fugue form and allusions to Bach as well as Goethe, and Pagis's biblical characters. With their allusions to the Hebrew Bible and their deployment of the present tense, first-generation Holocaust poets defy sequentiality, collapsing time into an eternal present so as to intimate, as Maurice Blanchot once did, that one can never reach a period "after Auschwitz."28 What Amir Eshel calls the "rhetoric" of "poetic presence" manages to release "the recent traumatic past from the bounds of historical reference and thus from the realm of 'the past.'"29 Witnesses at trials and in filmed archives often found themselves at a loss for words—weeping, stuttering, reduced to silence, fainting; minimalist Holocaust poets set out to foreground the thwarting of language. Verse is the most unrealistic of languages, given its ironies, allusions, musicality, improbable speakers, elaborated imagery, intricate line breaks, and thus it produces a posthumous facsimile of a living voice (in the case of Radnóti), a patently inauthentic affidavit (in the case of Pagis), an unabashedly illusory chorus of the engorged (in the case of Celan). The compression seems brutal and bitter, as the poets disparage, or their speakers suffocate on, their own wasted breath over stilled voices.

Perhaps this bleak attitude toward language explains Celan's interest in the lips of jars, the mouths of mugs, which of course cannot speak, but which exercise a fearful agency in "The Tankards," a text in eight lines that returns to the beer hall refrain ("we drink and drink") of the prisoners' forced feeding in "Deathfugue," but through a disturbing image of the incessant imbibing of God's carousing beer steins:

God's tankards are tippling. They drink till they empty the eyes of the seeing and eyes of the   blind, [End Page 450] the hearts of the governing shadows, the hollow cheek of evening. It's they are the mightiest tipplers: they drink deep of emptiness just as of fullness and never brim over like you or like me. (41)

Despite the affectionate "du" (translated here as "you") in the last line, loving toasts of earlier times—Ben Jonson's "Drink to me only with thine eyes, / And I will pledge with mine," for instance—do not accompany Celan's jugs emptying human blindness and insight of their differentiation. At God's "tables of time," which recall the two stone tablets of the law, drunken mugs down meaning and meaninglessness through a joyless revelry related not to thirst but to an insatiable compulsion toward toxic intoxication. In a universe ruled by an obscene principle of inebriation not unrelated to the "Rausch" Saul Friedlander has attributed to the frenzied escalation of violence against Jews during the "final solution," swigging inexorably results in delirium tremens and blackout.30

Enacting a farcical rendition of traditional Jewish prayers over the wine, God's "cups of wrath" (Isaiah 51:17, 51:22, Jeremiah 25:15) swallow the promise of sustenance or deliverance, for steins (not chalices) that "never brim over" challenge faith in the Lord as a shepherd restoring the soul:

Thou preparest a table before me           In the presence of my enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil,           My cup overflows.

(Psalm 23)

Neither goodness nor mercy will follow the days of the parodic psalmist's life, nor shall he dwell in the house of the Lord forever since host and guests are gone from the banquet, and what neither breathes nor speaks consumes with a limitless and indiscriminate appetite, exacting an entropic draining of the fullness of creation. In the valley of the "governing shadows," the unquenchable tankards ratify a sort of anti-Eucharistic consumption of body (eyes, hearts, cheek), a vampiric bloodlust in which fleshly bodies are ultimately transubstantiated into desiccated remnants like wafers. Given the guzzling tankards, what matter who is speaking as "me" and to which "you"?31

With their strikingly evident artifice, Radnóti's, Pagis's, and Celan's various stagings of self-imposed censorship over the abrogation of individual agency and voice implicitly subscribe to Shoshana Felman's [End Page 451] proposition that "For the purpose of transmission of the Holocaust, literature and art do not suffice."32 Like Walter Benjamin's Kafka, the poets count themselves "among those who were bound to fail."33 They use verse—a form associated since the nineteenth century with the articulation of a personal subjectivity—to mock Divine breath that had been fouled or fooled in human mouths stymied from speaking truth back to power. In the process, they question the adequacy of testimony not only because the calamity of the Shoah imposed silence on the manifold dead and on most of those casualties who survived, but also because the Jewish voice was characterized by Nazi propaganda as distinctly inferior to the Aryan. In the so-called Jew Farces, German theatricals comparable to American minstrelsy, lexical, syntactic, and phonological features deemed Jewish included the use of Yiddish or Hebrew words, an intonation associated with Yiddish or Hebrew linguistic origins, and a tendency to move verbs from the end of a sentence toward the front.34 To Richard Wagner, "the hissing, shrill, buzzing, and gurgling sound of the Jewish manner of speech appear[ed] quite foreign and unpleasant," a fact he explained "solely on physiological grounds."35

The racial linguistics of Julius Streicher and Adolf Hitler added to this inchoate pronunciation and elevated pitch a "singing manner," along with hand gestures, nasality, and voice breaks, which was said to characterize the "Mauscheln" of Jewish language use.36 Mauscheln: the mocking designation was employed to denote a Yiddish-inflected German, but the word suggests running off at the mouth, slurring; from the name Moses (Moische in Yiddish), it is associated with devious or second-hand business, just as Jewish discourse is allied not with expression, but with concealment.37 "When he speaks French, he thinks Jewish," Hitler proclaimed, for "the Jew . . . can speak a thousand languages and nevertheless remains a Jew"; incapable of creative genius, "he is only a 'juggler,' or rather an ape."38 Oddly, as Sander Gilman has shown, Streicher and Hitler derived this derogation from a Zionist supporter of a Hebrew-language Palestine, Abraham Schwadron, who wrote in 1916 to protest proposals for the establishment of a multilingual homeland: "You mauschel in all languages; you are bereft of language."39 Albeit a transparent form of racist stereotyping, such an aspersion reflected and reinforced precisely the "deterritorialization" of language that Deleuze and Guattari perceived in the fiction of Benjamin's Kafka.40

When first the citizenship, then the personhood of Jews was cancelled, the breaches between the languages one spoke and the lands one inhabited caused a literary minority to undergo linguistic alienation; those writing in a national idiom experienced related, though not [End Page 452] identical, estrangements to those using a nomadic vernacular or local dialect. Thus, as many have noted, the events and the aftermath of the Shoah underscored a complex web of jostling factors: familial tongues did not necessarily accord with national tongues or, for that matter, holy tongues; official terms contrasted with regional lexicons; geographical origins usually did not correspond with places of composition; a racialized ethnicity, which abrogated citizenship, further complicated authorial language decisions about using a native or adopted speech.41 Such dilemmas divided poets from their chosen idiom's imperial designs (as in a disempowering German) or its stigmatized status (as in a disempowered Hungarian, Hebrew, or Yiddish) or simply its remoteness from the disaster (as in the incongruous English or Spanish of recent authors). Faced with a wholesale disparagement of the Jewish voice and with the colliding claims of geographical origins, family and native or adopted state tongues, ethnicity, religion, and citizenship, how could poets not encounter philological consternation?

While Radnóti, Pagis, and Celan excised personal responses from their severely pruned verse as if to dramatize how dispossessed they were of language, such writers as Yitzhak Katzenelson, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and Aaron Zeitlin yammered in phrases they knew to be dubious, imprecise, ineffective. If the rupturing of God's wrangling word mutes or muzzles the voices expressed in the short Holocaust poem, it instigates hyperloquacity in the long Holocaust poem—in both cases, to demonstrate the incommensurability of words with what they seek to record. With the diction at their disposal disparaged and impotent, Holocaust poets attend to the immediacy but also the inadequacy of language so as to grapple with their perplexed sense of unknowing: of the Shoah, of how to represent it. Casualties of or refugees from a murderous nationalism engage a pronouncement of Adorno's—"For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live"—without entertaining Czeslaw Milosz's supposition "that language only is your home."42 Apophatic speech, which falls short of its mark, and cataphaticism, with its profusion of verbalization, enact self-subverting expressions that wrestle with the need to utter contaminated idioms about the imposition of silence on a people.

No text better glosses Celan's "The Tankards" than canto 4, "The deportations," of Katzenelson's poem The Song of the Murdered Jewish People, a Yiddish book composed in Vittel two months before its author was deported to Drancy and then Auschwitz. For in its fourth canto, again and again the horrified poet looks at insatiable receptacles, in this case the "gaping mouths" of wagons: "They are hungry—as if they never tasted a Jew"; "They want more, they stand waiting, as if for a feast, / Ready to devour—Jews! Bring us as many as you can!"; "We want more, [End Page 453] many more Jews . . . The train-cars scream / Like cold and hardened criminals: More! They are never enough!"; "Empty train cars! You were just full, and now you are empty again. / What did you do with the Jews?"; "They send you out full and drive you back empty."43 Full and empty are also the words used to describe what transpired on Warsaw's Mila Street in canto 13:

O don't ask. Never remind me of Mila Street. It was full and soon became       empty. A hundred thousand Jews were there with bundles, satchels on their backs, in       their hands. In the bundles, shirts, towels, pieces of bread, and infants, Pale as the linen, dry as the bread and silent as the walls.


Like so many of Celan's works, The Song of the Murdered Jewish People laments, "nobody is left. . . . There was a people and it is . . . Gone . . ." (first ellipsis mine, 85). However, in his effusive expressions of alarm and rage at a Godless heaven, his repetitive railings against the Germans and obsessive listings of autobiographical episodes, Katzenelson's response to the murder of his own family and the extermination of Poland's Jewish population deviates markedly from Celan's truncated diction. Whereas very short Holocaust poems rarely mention the Shoah directly, Katzenelson's volume specifies particular people, locations, and crimes. Hidden in three bottles beneath the roots of pine trees, The Song of the Murdered Jewish People begins and ends with a ululating prophet lamenting the impossibility of prophecy. Canto 1 responds to the compulsively reiterated injunction "'Sing!'" with the compulsively reiterated phrase "—How can I sing?" And canto 15 reacts to the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto by counterpointing the refrain "don't ask why" with the word "Why?" As Alvin Rosenfeld has noted, Katzenelson's text "manifests a helplessness of poetic means" through bewailing "language in a state of breathless exhaustion."44

Even readers of the English translation of The Song of the Murdered Jewish People could not but be impressed by the tonal modulations of the poet-witness whose wheedlings, rantings, groans, and curses register affecting, though futile, outrage and incomprehension at the Shoah. Katzenelson can be hieratic in his bardic invocation of the dead—"Come from Belzec, Ponari, from all the other camps, / With wide open eyes, frozen cries and soundless screams" (15)—as well as incredulous: "Go, touch them . . . There's nothing left to touch—hollow. / I invented a Jewish people. I made believe in my heart" (18). He can be abject at the sight of the brutal Jewish police—"I wrung my hands in shame. O what disgrace and shame. / Jews were being used, ah, to destroy my [End Page 454] Jews!" (23)—and scathing about the suicide of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Warsaw Judenrat: "You are not much of a Jew, Adamie. You take poison? Commit suicide? / A Jew is killed . . . O to get killed takes greater courage . . ." (34). He can be sentimental about a five-year-old girl nurturing her younger brother in an orphanage—"She dipped hard bread crumbs in watery marmalade / And got them cleverly into his mouth . . . I was lucky // To see it, to see the five-year-old mother feeding him" (39)—as well as grimly factual: "And the German spat into the rabbi's mouth: 'Swallow it!' / The rabbi did" (49). He can bellow his invectives, comparing them to those of the prophets, of Zion in The Book of Lamentations, and of Job—"There is no God in you! Open your gates, O heavens, open them wide" (55)—and then mourn "Yom darling, my child!" (59) as well as his wife: "I love calling your name, I love to say it: Hannahle!" (62).

Given this confessional thread, can it be argued that Katzenelson's fifteen cantos enact a blocking of testimony, that they put on display the throttling of testimonial utterance? Much of the pain of the poem's dashes and ellipses derives from its author's awareness that he cannot attest to the fates of so many. Even the daemonic engines of destruction that swallow his people know more than he does: "O tell me you empty train cars," Katzenelson pleads to no avail, "tell me where you have been!" (29). He also speaks his distress aware that it will and maybe should fall on deaf ears: "Plug your ears. Don't listen—be deaf! I'm—going to tell about Mila Street" (67). At the work's conclusion, the Jews, who arrived in pillars of cloud and fire, depart the same way, leaving no trace:

They are no more! Don't ask overseas about Kasrilevke, Yehupetz. Don't. Don't look for Menachem Mendels, Tevye the dairymen, Nogids, Motke     thieves. Don't look— They will, like the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Amos from     the Bible, Cry to you from Bialik, speak to you from Sholem Aleichem and Sholem     Asch's books.


The long lines with their listings and their injunctions not to ask, not to look intimate that the corpses, as inaccessible as the prophets, cry and speak only in the corpus of, say, the Bible or of Bialik, whose "In the City of Slaughter" mourned the 1903 pogrom in the Bessarabian city of Kishinev.45 Since Kasrilevke and Yehupetz are fictional places in Sholem Aleichem's works, since Menachem Mendel and Tevye the dairyman are invented characters within these imagined settings, since Motke Thief is one of Sholem Asch's novels, Katzenelson, who believed himself to be [End Page 455] composing "The last elegy of the very last, last Jew—" (20), hints that a fictionalized Yiddish culture is now all that is left of real Yiddish worlds, and he thereby agrees with Celan that "No one / bears witness for the / witness" (261). Shackled, like a fool or a felon, to a Song that cannot be sung to a Murdered Jewish People, the poet who had translated Heinrich Heine into Hebrew chose Yiddish to portray himself as infested with agonies that "dig into me and gnaw blindly with closed eyes, / With open mouths like worms in a grave" (22).

In its desperate cataloguing, Katzenelson's text represents not the unrepresentable but the staggering consequences of its unrepresentability, as do the "some four hundred" pages of "narrative, dramatic, lyric, balladic, ecstatic, hortatory" Hebrew verse that the Polish-born Uri Zvi Greenberg published in his 1951 book Streets of the River.46 The Yiddish poet Aaron Zeitlin also "turned to Hebrew in order to compose his magnum opus," Between Fire and Salvation, "a tour-de-force encompassing a variety of poetic forms and rhyme schemes" that was nevertheless criticized for metaphysical dialogues that overpowered its lyricism.47 Too many or too few words, or voice without words: Nelly Sachs's apostrophes—"O the chimneys," "O the night of the weeping children!"—sound as if involuntarily wrung from the poet's throat.48 Or lines composed out of one orphaned word: a single word huddled on the left-hand margin of a mostly blank page in Lily Brett's works signals the fragility of what it meant to be selected "To the Left" and singled out for life-in-death.49 Or a lone stanza pried into a traditional prayer: Primo Levi's "Shemá" commends its readers to engrave on their hearts not the holiness of the "Lord thy God, the Lord is One," but instead a man "Who dies at a yes or a no" as well as a woman with "Eyes empty and womb cold / As a frog in winter."50 Regardless of the length of their texts, authors of Holocaust poems clearly suffered from what one of Celan's titles calls "Syllable Pain" (201); their words stress the alien registers of a literary language they nevertheless had to adapt to purposes for which it necessarily falters. "After Auschwitz we must write poetry," Edmond Jabès once declared, "but with wounded words."51 Biographers of Paul Celan, who anguished over the "unbearable intimacy" of his mother tongue with the tongue of his mother's murderers, often quote his phrase "in a foreign language the poet lies" in order to justify his adherence to German.52 But Celan's elliptical remark may be read to suggest that all poets of the Shoah, regardless of their national idioms, necessarily tell untruths, remain positioned in languages felt to be outlandish, inhospitable, or treacherous. This view revisits, on the one hand, the 1933 Nazi proclamation that "Jewish works" appearing in German "are to be labeled as translations" and, on the other hand, Adorno's postwar belief that "German words of foreign [End Page 456] derivation are the Jews of language."53 If not deemed foreign, then, diseased: "For," as Abraham Sutzkever mourns, "the land of believing words / Is covered with plague."54 Or simply defunct: since Jews "were not likened to dogs," who were pitied and pampered by Gentiles, Greenberg believes, since even sheep led to the slaughter were not pushed into fires to make ash, "There are no other analogies (all words are shades of shadow) — / Therein lies the horrifying phrase: No other analogies!"55 The broken omissions, stuttering repetitions, eccentric personifications, untranslatable foreignisms, recycled quotations, and inane rhymes scattered throughout the short, the long, and the midlength texts of first-generation poets and their successors accord with Gilman's proposition that "The language damaged in the Holocaust was the universal language of humanity, not merely the language of the Jews," though the damage inflicted on biblical and poetic languages most commands attention.56

Like the precursors they read or translated, second-generation poets composing in lexicons that mark their remoteness from the calamity often found themselves drawn to very short and very long forms. From the 1960s on, English-language writers published curiously impeded verse like that produced by, for example, Geoffrey Hill, whose eight-line "Ovid in the Third Reich" epitomizes the brevity of his three other elegies about the Holocaust as well as the minimalist works of Anne Sexton, Harvey Shapiro, Ruth Fainlight, and Charles Simic. Yet throughout the seventies and eighties, books by Charles Reznikoff (Holocaust [1975]), W. D. Snodgrass (The Fuhrer Notebooks [1977]), Ruth Whitman (The Testing of Hanna Senesh [1986]), and Jerome Rothenberg (Khurbn [1989]) extended the prolix practices established by Katzenelson, as did elongated poetic sequences by William Heyen, Irena Klepfisz, Adrienne Rich, C. K. Williams, Myra Sklarew, Jorie Graham, and Jacqueline Osherow. A number of these authors produced lengthy and sustained narratives; however, some strung together fractured scenes spliced with verse meditations on them. Nor does this tradition—often of short poems combined to create long sequences—wane at the turn of the twentieth century, given the recent publication of Marjorie Agosín's Dear Anne Frank (1994, 1998), Anna Rabinowitz's Darkling (2001), and Micheal O'Siadhail's The Gossamer Wall (2002).

Hardly an exhaustive catalog, this last cluster of texts nevertheless does represent three characteristics of Holocaust verse as it evolves at the present time: one related to gender and nation, the second a consequence of the ever-growing number of decades distancing writers from the Holocaust, and the third connected to form. First, this sample illustrates a shift in the lineage of poetic responses to the Shoah: whereas, with the notable exceptions of Nelly Sachs and Gertrud [End Page 457] Kolmar, European-born male poets predominate in the period immediately following the Second World War, women poets have begun to play a major role in contemporary responses composed by authors from regions far removed from the Continent. Second, to deal with their belated reliance on earlier utterances, their proxy-witnessing, the South American, North American, and Irish authors of these books add prefaces or end pages acknowledging indebtedness to first-generation poets and memoirists (Celan, Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Etty Hillesum, for instance) as well as to literary critics, translators, and historians (Terrence Des Pres, David G. Roskies, Christopher R. Browning, for example). And, finally, Agosín, Rabinowitz, and O'Siadhail employ highly formalized techniques to negotiate the curious counterpull of reticence and logorrhea in poetic testimonies about the impossibility of witnessing, but also about the impossibility of not witnessing the witnesses.

The internal complexity of each of these texts cannot here receive the attention it deserves; however, what can be broached is their authors' use of formal devices to craft a mosaic out of bits and pieces of fragmentary shards of alien, often incomprehensible testimony. Voices without speakers, faces without names, activities without agents proliferate throughout all these texts, much as they do in Rabinowitz's Darkling, which quotes literal postcards and reprints extant photographs of Polish relatives exterminated in the Shoah as well as the foreign words for these documents: "Fotographja / Rafael, Lomza - Foto Bekker, Brok - / Cartolina Postale - Postkarte - / Briefkart - Tarjeta Postal - / Carte Postale - Pocztówka."57 Snippets of letters composed by Rabinowitz's parents and their destroyed families jostle against glossaries of words, excerpts from Heinrich Himmler's infamous praise of the "never to be written page of honor in our history" (61), and reinvented Seder songs ("if they had hammered nails to our gums / and not cut off our hands // Dayenu" [63]). Could it be argued that formalism is a way not only of respecting disjointed, clipped testimonial utterance, but also of extending and organizing it? As hopeless about the bankrupting of signification as their predecessors, have recent poets turned away from the referentiality of words, the polluted content society assigns, and toward the aesthetic deployment of them?

In an afterword to Darkling, Rabinowitz explains that her book "utilizes the 32 lines of 'The Darkling Thrush' by Thomas Hardy as its acrostic armature" (83), a poem that also appears in its entirety at the close of the volume. What does it mean to read down the extreme left-hand margin of each of Rabinowitz's segments so as to spell out every line (in consecutive order) of Hardy's elegy on the "corpse" of the nineteenth century (82)? When Hardy's last word in the lines "An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume" finds itself transformed into [End Page 458]

Particles of data unable to testify                               how can we tell of our sufferings, our wanderings Laconic forests galloping words                               do not abandon us, hear our pleas Unrobed for the shadows                               naked where lost days roil Mossy maneuvers—half-taught, half-lived lives                               worms fuss with our bones, crows yearn for our eyes Embers now thirsting for flame                               there are no Jews left in Brok . . .


each of the letters in the word "plume" generates a call and response almost liturgical in its leavening the poet's voice with phrases rescued from the Shoah. If Hardy mourns his bedraggled version of Shelley's skylark and Keats's nightingale to indicate how unmoved he is by an "ecstatic sound" without either rationale or affinity in the desolate winter of his discontent, Rabinowitz's two columns address a "growing gloom" over the insurmountable divide between what was apprehended then, what is comprehended now. In the last two poems of Darkling, Hardy's final line—"And I was unaware"—takes on the desolation of the contemporary poet's not understanding even those documents she has quoted from her family's archive.

That a formal device like a puzzle sustains the extension of the fragmented sequence oddly attests to its vacuity, even though Rabinowitz herself feels that "the ancients were on to something in their belief in the mystical power of the acrostic" (83), a form used in the Book of Lamentations and in some Psalms and Proverbs. The game of finding words whose first letters fill in preordained slots in an earlier text does seem to liberate the lyricist from personal concerns and perhaps furnishes a discipline that distances painful recollections, thereby making them bearable or accessible; however, its rules—hardly exacting, given the practice of indenting lines (whose first letters need not conform to Hardy's pattern)—recall the language rules (of euphemism, but also of euphonious phrase-making and of archival cataloguing) that played an ominous role in the "final solution."58 Equally absurd in the context of the Shoah, the counting of syllables, making of rhymes, placing of caesura, and invoking of poetic precursors dwindle into repugnant, if unavoidable self-indulgence that may make it impossible for their authors to establish any aesthetic or intellectual authority at all. Yet, like Carolyn Forché, Rabinowitz, Agosín, and O'Siadhail "revolt against silence with a bit of speaking," and they do so by relying on stylized forms of address.59 Perhaps the arbitrary artifice of formalism holds out a last refuge for subjective resistance once the meaning-content of words—who constitutes a human being, for instance, and who a rodent or a cancer—has been so horrifically perverted. [End Page 459]

Agosín, in her preface to Dear Anne Frank, claims that a diary, which "can be read aloud," "allows us to feel the power of giving voice," but many of her short poems insistently reiterate questions to the diarist that go unanswered: "Anne Frank, come close, tell me, did you really live in Amsterdam?"; "Anne Frank, when the light in Amsterdam was gentle as embraces, / would your thoughts turn to love?"; "Anne Frank, did you bring in with you the homeland's landscape / or was there a fire raging to frighten away the dead?"; "What went through your mind, Anne Frank, / every time someone knocked on the door?"; "Who told you, Anne, that the trains were headed to sparkling regions?"; "Where am I going to find you / today, Anne Frank?"60 Although the poet repeatedly asks Anne Frank to talk to her, answer her, listen to her, tell her "what you left unsaid" (85), it is the resounding nonresponse of Anne Frank that reverberates throughout the sequence, until the audacious poem "Amsterdam," in which Agosín's original Spanish and her translator's English put the lie to an instance of prosopopoeia: "I am Anne Frank / I am dead" (111).61

Less focused on a single person, the formalism of O'Siadhail's complex The Gossamer Wall cannot be conflated with the sonnet sequence entitled "Figures" at its center; however, just one sample from it, "Ravens," can represent the incongruity of using traditional and highly regulated prosody in the context of the Holocaust:

They untangle, lug, stack and kindle the dead. Chosen on the platform for brawn, broken in Hell for leather, men clubbed and goaded As still among the bodies they recognize kin. Shirkers are shot. Others harden to endure As stokers of hell, well-fed privileged caste High on their pickings. A three-month tour Of duty before they in their turn are gassed. Sonderkommando, Levi's 'crematorium ravens' Fallen beyond his compassion's greyest zone; Soiled by fellow blood, vultures and cravens, Cain sucking his marrow from Abel's bone. Pity these ravens for what driven ravens do; Bitter complicity that Jew should oven Jew.62

From the skylark, nightingale, and darkling thrush to the ravens of Primo Levi, the Romantic symbol of transcendent song has degenerated into an evil omen, a scavenger. The sonnet's three quatrains are set in a hellish landscape of bodies sorted and incinerated by relatives shot if they declined a labor made horrific for the reader by the jolt of the noun "oven" used as a verb (that internally chimes with "raven" and [End Page 460] "craven"). O'Siadhail may have been drawn to the Shakespearean sonnet's "gross imbalance between the twelve-line problem and the two-line solution" because that miniscule rhymed couplet's solution has "something vaguely risible and even straight-faced farcical" about it.63

Levi's morally cloudy "grey zone," where senseless cruelty makes itself known as all-pervasive, returns O'Siadhail to Katzenelson's horror at Jewish people collaborating with Nazi genocide, but also to Pagis's Cain, now a blood-sucker inhabiting the caesura between "Shirkers are shot" and "Others harden to endure." The Irish author does not write "Cain sucking the marrow," but instead "Cain sucking his marrow" because he wants to capture the horror of brother feeding on his own carrion, Jew cannibalizing Jew (emphases mine). The line "Pity these ravens for what driven ravens do" recalls that moment in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a poem used by Levi as an epigraph, when the crime of gratuitously murdering a bird and its punishment of a guilty conscience are mysteriously exonerated by feelings of compassion. O'Siadhail—whose volume's title derives from Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels's Holocaust novel about empathy—lets the compulsive reiterations of Coleridge's narrator inform his own rereadings of Levi's memoirs, even as the "nevermore" of Edgar Allen Poe's raven broods over the Irish poet's "Figures," fourteen lines asking us to consider the relationship between even the most playful, loving figurative language and the "Figuren" (dolls, puppets) to which Jews were debased by Nazi propaganda.

A series of short, elliptical poems in Forché's The Angel of History (1994) circle around the "hope put into question" by the transnational lineage traced here: "Figures dead and alive / whispering not truth but a need for truth when one word is many things" (51). Whether composed by witnesses, aware (by virtue of their very existence) of the impossibility of witnessing for the dead, or proxy-witnesses of those witnesses, also aware of the impossibility of witnessing, poems after Auschwitz are blatantly ersatz testimonies "open to the words cannot remain here" (39). Though the acrostics, verse epistles, and sonnet sequences of contemporary poets run the risk of being dismissed as trivial, their elaborate games of craft highlight their removal from the disaster, their acknowledgment of the impossibility of ventriloquizing the casualties, their reliance on poetic properties also evident in their precursors' texts, but now attuned to highly conventional traditions in the history of verse. Latecomers to the subject of the Shoah bring forward formal practices as tactics to negotiate between the contrary strains of circumcised and rebarbative words. In doing so, they put a decided spin on Jerome Rothenberg's retort to Adorno: "after auschwitz / there is only poetry no hope / no other language left to heal" (14). As the aftermath thickens, their work intimates, even the most rigorous [End Page 461] legalistic, historical, sociological, and theological investigations decline into pointless wordplay; however, verse that knows itself to be pointless wordplay insists on the barbarism of writing poetry as if the Shoah had never happened, as if it had not been experienced and expressed by Anne Frank and Primo Levi, Radnóti and Pagis, Celan and Katzenelson. To sustain these dialogues, "A conversation so rich it knows it never arrives / Or forecloses": this constitutes the basis for the reaction of O'Siadhail's contemporaries to the insinuation, "That any poem after Auschwitz is obscene?" (120).

In this conversation, verse keeps alive baffled rage at the catastrophic monopoly history exercised over individuals ensnared within genocidal regimes. Indeed, such poetry rebels against the idea of progress by making "time . . . come to a stop."64 Its "Words with (to all intents and purposes) / no before and after / hanging in a void of loss" do not and cannot "fill or replicate / the historical air clotted here," writes Rachel Blau DuPlessis; yet they promulgate "this back and forth through time."65 Whereas autobiography and memoir speak to "trauma's belated temporality"—they make clear, in Michael Rothberg's words, "that trauma's conditions of possibility lie in surviving the trauma"—Holocaust poems remain grounded in Walter Benjamin's belief that responsiveness to the past must counter complacency about its having been succeeded by the present; they resist sequentiality, the sort evident in narratives about describable events, by invoking resonant, though stymied and studied, moments of indiscernible being.66 Despite the distinctive conventions governing Hungarian- and Hebrew-, German- and Yiddish-, English- and Spanish-language verse, a transnational approach clarifies common patterns of response among diasporic language communities.

For writers who emphatically do not find in language a homeland, the famed pleasures of the poetic imagination paradoxically spring from a grim refusal to submit to the extermination of Jewish voices coupled with an equally grim confrontation with the irrelevance, the vulgar escapism and obfuscation, but also the inexorability of artistic, albeit futile, responses to the obliquity of the catastrophe. "The three characteristics of minor literature" that Deleuze and Guattari found in Kafka's oeuvre mark the verse discussed here: not only "the deterritorialization of language," but also "the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation."67 These last two phrases signify the cramped sense of each individual concern linked immediately to politics and the impossibility of an individuated articulation outside the author's fragile community. Either through a willful poverty or an intensified swelling, many of the most disturbing Holocaust poems—regardless of the unique issues raised by their particular [End Page 462] linguistic and geographical circumstances—subvert masterful idioms of nation-states, by means of an author who exists as "a sort of stranger within his own language."68 When Holocaust poets use aesthetic contrivance to rebel against the middle ground of utilitarian signification through excesses (of dearth, of surfeit), they remonstrate against normative modes of murderous meaning-making. Taken together, their terse deficiency and their garrulous glut of words constitute "liturgies of shame" attesting to the phenomenon C. K. Williams finds in the Shoah, namely events that "simply won't allow the resolution, the solidity, the sense of being set, that is generally achieved by phenomena imagination has confronted."69 Early and later generations of poets after Auschwitz situate us—if only fleetingly—in the seconds before Auschwitz became a trademark for the unimaginable.

Susan Gubar
Indiana University
Susan Gubar

Susan Gubar is Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University. Her most recent books are Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (1997), Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century (2000), and Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew (2003).


1. Cordelia Edvardson, Burned Child Seeks the Fire, trans. Joel Agee (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 93.

2. Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, trans. John Felstering (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 141 (hereafter cited in text).

3. I am, of course, referring to Adorno’s famous sentence, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” in “Cultural Criticism and Society,” Prisms, ed. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 34.

4. Two of Celan’s phrases—“circumcise his word” (171) and “book-stalling” (203)—usefully encapsulate the tendency to short-circuit or amplify language about the disaster. On the subject of wrangling with God: while I agree with Alvin Rosenfeld that the “God language” of Holocaust poets exists “within a state of tension and ambiguity, as if it were impossible to understand the Holocaust either within the terms of the received tradition or altogether apart from them,” I take issue with his statement that the poems (whether by casualties or survivors) constitute “authentic voices of testimony”: “The Jewish Writer at the End of Time,” Identität und Gedächtinis in der jüdischen Literatur nach 1945, ed. Dieter Lamping (Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 2003), 26.

5. John Felstiner, “Speaking Back to Scripture: The Biblical Strain in Holocaust Poetry,” in Humanity at the Limit: The Impact of the Holocaust Experience on Jews and Christians, ed. Michael A. Signer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 392.

6. Nazi coinages, the translated terms in quotation marks, appear in biographical accounts like that of Mark Roseman, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany (New York: Picador, 2000), 68, 122.

7. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan, foreword by Réa Bensamïa (Minneapolis: Universitiy of Minnesota Press, 1986), 16 (hereafter cited in text). Although Deleuze and Guattari claim “A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language” (16) but instead from what “a minority constructs within a major language” (16), the massive deterritorialization effected by the Shoah sent many writers to many different languages and destabilized the idea of “major” and “minor” languages.

8. Lawrence L. Langer, ed., Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 553; Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, “Seeking the Meridian: The Reconstitution [End Page 463] of Space and Audience in the Poetry of Paul Celan and Dan Pagis,” in Religion and the Authority of the Past, ed. Tobin Siebers, introduction by Wendy Doniger (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 259.

9. Berel Lang’s Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) can represent a group of critics concerned with the contradiction between genocidal depersonalization and the individuation generally found in artistic representations, whereas Patricia Yaeger best raises suspicions about what she calls “Consuming Trauma” (although she is not dealing directly with the Shoah) in her essay of that name (reprinted in Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community, ed. Nancy K. Miller and Jason Tougaw [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002], 25–51).

10. See Denys Turner’s discussion of “apophaticism” (the breakdown of speech) and the “cataphatic” (verbosity) in a mystical Christian tradition also concerned with unknowability (20) throughout The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

11. See Zsuzsanna Ozsváth’s description of the death march and of the cod-liver oil advertisement upon which the last of the poems was composed in In the Footsteps of Orpheus: The Life and Times of Mikos Radnóti (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 212–20. On the influence of Apollinaire and Cendrars, see C. K. Williams, Poetry and Consciousness (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 47.

12. Translated by Zsuzsuanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner, anthologized in Langer, Art from the Ashes, 634.

13. Dori Laub, “An Event without a Witness,” in Laub and Shoshana Felman, ed., Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992), 80.

14. The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis, trans. Stephen Mitchell, with an introduction by Robert Alter (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 29. On some of the inadequacies of English translation, see John Felstiner, who points out, for instance, that “‘Eve’ lacks the inner resonance of chava, which derives, as the Bible likes to tell us, from chai, ‘living.’ Not only the mother of us all, she bodies life itself” (“The Gilgul of Dan Pagis: Myth, History, Silence,” Translation Review 32/33 [1990]: 8).

15. The “plural addressee of Pagis’s tagidu lo gets lost” in translation, John Felstiner explains, for the original Hebrew conveys “tell [ye] him”; see “Jews Translating Jews” in The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature, ed. Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 1155. See Dan Pagis’s “Autobiography” and “Brothers” for other instances of his treatment of Cain and Abel in Mitchell’s translation (5–8). Celan defined poetry as “a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps” (596).

16. Phillis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from African to America,” reprinted in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 247.

17. Quoted in Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, student ed. (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985), 17.

18. Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, ed. Harry James Cargas and Bonny V. Fetterman, revised and expanded edition (New York: Schocken Books, 1998), 7. Wiesenthal’s question is prompted by his being reminded that “Cain slew Abel in anger, but he never tortured him. Cain had a personal attachment to his brother, but we are strangers to our murderers” (7). In “Testimony,” another of Pagis’s speakers takes up this idea by claiming, “They were created / in the image,” but “A different creator made me” (33). [End Page 464]

19. For background on the literary history of labeling Nazism a mode of masculinism, see my last chapter in Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

20. Regina M. Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), xi and 4.

21. Wendy Zierler, who analyzes the relationship between Pagis’s “Footsteps” and “Written in Pencil,” points out that Eve’s “message operates like a broken record of universal memory,” for we can hear it “pound[ing] out an endless refrain of murder and horror” by returning back at the conclusion to its opening words: see “Footprints, Traces, Remnants: The Operations of Memory in Dan Pagis’s ‘Aqebot,’” Judaism 41, no. 4 (1992): 325. Her reading depends on a discussion about the poem’s “circuity” by Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, “Dan Pagis—Out of Line: A Poetics of Decomposition,” Prooftexts 10, no. 2 (1990): 344. On the absence of the word “am” in Hebrew, see Felstiner “The Gilgul.” To the extent that some Hebrew prayers conclude by circling back to their beginnings, Pagis may be drawing on liturgical traditions.

22. Here, as elsewhere, I am indebted to The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy, and O. Carm (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 13.

23. Eichmann’s so-called “letter action,” which produced some one thousand letters and postcards in one month, is discussed by Gertrude Ezorsky, “Hannah Arendt’s View of Totalitarianism and the Holocaust,” Philosophical Forum 16, nos. 1–2 (1984–5): 71.

24. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 322. A number of Pagis’s other poems about the Holocaust are quite short: “Draft of a Reparations Agreement” (18 lines); “Europe Late” (18 lines); “Instructions for Crossing the Border” (12 lines); and “Testimony” (11 lines). His less known “Footsteps,” however, is longer, consisting of 3 sections and twenty-eight stanzas.

25. Many critics have noted that “As [Celan’s] belief in the word lessened, so the actual length of his lines of verse shortened and splintered. His terrain, which was his verse, was shrinking and becoming increasingly unstable” (Françoise Meltzer, Hot Property: The Stakes and Claims of Literary Originality [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994], 49).

26. Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 116.

27. Two indispensable readings of “Deathfugue” are in John Felstiner’s Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 26–41, and in Shoshana Felman’s “Education and Crisis” in Felman and Laub, Testimony, 26–35.

28. Maurice Blanchot’s gnomic comment—“No matter when it is written, every narrative from now on will be from before Auschwitz” (60)—may overgeneralize; however, I am arguing that verse is capable of performing this temporal stratagem; see Vicious Circles, trans. Paul Auster (New York: Station Hill Press), 1985.

29. Amir Eschel, “Eternal Present: Poetic Figuration and Cultural Memory in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, and Tuvia Rübner,” in Jewish Social Studies 7, no. 1 (2000): 143. Although I agree with Eshel that poets like Pagis “signify a complex aporia of time” by admitting “the reader into a textual realm in which times long gone are still present” (145), I do not attribute this phenomenon to a specifically Jewish attitude toward time.

30. Saul Friedlander, Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 109.

31. In order to suggest that the poets engage in speculations that dovetail with those of poststructuralist thinkers, I am paraphrasing the conclusion of Foucault’s “What Is An Author,” where he repeats a phrase of Beckett’s: “What matter who’s speaking?” See The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 1636. [End Page 465]

32. Shoshana Felman, The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 165.

33. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1977), 129.

34. Katrin Sieg, Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, Sexuality in West Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 40.

35. Quoted in Marc A. Wiener, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 116.

36. Sander Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 312.

37.Mauscheln” is defined by Roland Breitsprecher, Veronika Calderwood-Schnorr, Peter Terrell, and Wendy V. A. Morris in Collins German-English Dictionary (Stuttgart: Harper Collins/Ernst Klett Verlag für Wissen und Bilung, 1991), 766: “(juddische sprechen) to talk Yiddish,” and “(manipulieren) to fiddle.” In Frederich Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, 2nd ed. Elmar Seebol (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1995), it means “‘speaking like a Jew’ (from the stereotype) (after the seventeenth century). From Mausche, the Yiddish form of the Biblical name Moses; also a name for Jewish second-hand (gebraucht) business, likewise since the seventeenth century” (547, translation mine). In Lutz Röhrich, Das grosse Lexikon der sprichwörtliche Redensarten, v. 2 (Frieberg: Herder, 1991), it means “Secretly, a devious manner of making an agreement; rumor started and carried further; cheating at cardplaying; not speaking clearly” (1017, translation mine).

38. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 307, 312, and 313.

39. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred, 312.

40. Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, 16.

41. In Extraterritorial: Papers on Literature and the Language of Revolution (New York: Atheneum, 1976), George Steiner, who uses the term the “unhousing of language,” discusses the bi- or multilingualism induced in writers like Beckett and Nabokov: “It seems proper that those who create art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism which has made so many homeless, which has torn up tongues and peoples by the root, should themselves be poets unhoused and wanderers across language” (11). Steiner was, of course, one of the most influential writers to point out the damage done to German in particular, language in general by the Shoah. More recently, in “The Question of American Jewish Poetry,” (What Is Jewish Literature?, ed. Hana Wirth-Nesher [New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1994]), John Hollander has argued that Jewish-American poets experience a sense of estrangement from an original language, making their exilic position exemplary, for “all poets are in a kind of linguistic galut—they are members of a people dispersed and wandering in a realm of ordinary language, a world of the literal” (43). Additionally, in “Traces of the Past: Multilingual Jewish Americana Writing,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, ed. Michael P. Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher, Wirth-Nesher characterizes Jewish culture as uniquely multilingual (110–28).

42. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jepheon (London: New Left Books, 1974), 87; Czeslaw Milosz, A Treatise on Poetry, trans. Milosz and Robert Hass (New York: Ecco Press, 2001), 15.

43. Yitzhak Katzenelson, The Song of the Murdered Jewish People, trans. Noah H. Rosenbloom (Israel: Ghetto Fighters’ House, 1980), 27, 28, 29, 30 (hereafter cited in text). Compare Katzenelson’s “full” and “empty” trains to lines from Abraham Sutzkever’s sequence Faces in Swamps in A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, trans. Barbara and Benjamin Harsav (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991): “You’re thirsty, earth. We, wailing pumps, will fill / With gold of our young bodies your newly opened pits” (122).

44. Rosenfeld, “The Jewish Writer,” 20. [End Page 466]

45. About “In the City of Slaughter,” Alan Mintz argues in Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984) that this “major poem of some 300 lines, which excoriates the inhabitants of Kishinev for their failure to undertake efforts at self-defense,” is “founded upon a lie. There was self-defense”; however, “the claims of historicity were apparently secondary to the higher imaginative prerogatives Bialik wished to take” (131). He reprints A. M. Klein’s translation of the text in full (132–41).

46. Alan Mintz, Hurban, 172. According to Mintz, who compares Greenberg to Whitman (202), parts of Streets of the River were frequently anthologized in Israel, and some of the book’s poems “filled a need for declamatory materials in the secular liturgies of commemoration that were developed for Yom Hashoah and other occasions” (173); however, its literary status as a sustained work of art was undermined. It has yet to be translated from Hebrew into English. Although Abba Kovner’s Scrolls of Testimony (trans. Eddie Levenston, illustrated by Samuel Bak [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2001]) consists primarily of narratives, notes, source citations, and commentaries, its five megillot (scrolls)—“corresponding to the five megillot in the Bible (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther)” (Eddie Levenston, “Translator’s Preface,” xxvi)—use a talmudic layout and excerpts of poetry in a manner that is meant to serve as liturgy.

47. Emmanuel S. Goldsmith, “The Holocaust Poetry of Aaron Zeitlin in Yiddish and Hebrew,” in Reflections of the Holocaust in Art and Literature, ed. Randolph L. Braham (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 25, 27. Goldsmith considers Beyn Ha-esh Vehayesha (Between Fire and Salvation 1970) as Zeitlin’s “major poetic statement on the Holocaust and as one of the most important works on the subject to appear in any language and in any literary form” (17). However, it has not yet been published in its entirety.

48. Nelly Sachs, “O the Chimneys” and “O the Night of the Weeping Children!” trans. Michael Hamburger, in Holocaust Poetry, ed. Hilda Schiff (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 41, 69.

49. Lily Brett, “To the Left,” in Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust, ed. Marguerite M. Strair (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 121–23.

50. Primo Levi, Holocaust Poetry, ed. Hilda Schiff (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 205.

51. Edmond Jabès, The Book of Margins, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop, with a foreword by Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), x.

52. Michael André Bernstein, Five Portraits: Modernity and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century Germany Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2000), 101.

53. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred, 309; Adorno, Minima Moralia, 116.

54. Abraham Sutzkever, Faces in Swamps, 125. Quoting one of Celan’s statements about language, Felstiner makes this point about the poet’s neologized and truncated German: “At least ten other languages, including Yiddish, also turn up in Celan’s verse, all of this asking whether German or any tongue still holds good after the ‘thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech’”: see Paul Celan (New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1997), 13.

55. Uri Zvi Greenberg, “We Were Not Likened to Dogs among the Gentiles,” Modern Hebrew Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, ed. and trans. Ruth Finer Mintz (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), 126.

56. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred, 322.

57. Anna Rabinowitz, Darkling (Dorset, VT: Tupelo Press, 2001), 40 (hereafter cited in text).

58. Scholars such as Hannah Arendt and Lucy Dawidowicz discuss the officialese, circumlocutions, and lies used by the Nazis to prevent the Jews and the German population at large from understanding their genocidal plans. Needless to say, a number of experimental contemporary poets use highly formalized devices for purposes quite distinct from those of Rabinowitz. [End Page 467]

59. Carolyn Forché, The Angel of History (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), 69 (hereafter cited in text).

60. Marjorie Agosín, Dear Anne Frank, trans. Richard Schaaf, with addition poems trans. Cola Franzen and Mónica Bruno (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England and Brandeis University Press, 1998), xi, 3, 11, 25, 35, 41, 65 (hereafter cited in text).

61. On the “curious paradox” of what she calls the “Corpse Poem,” see Diana Fuss’s article of that name in Critical Inquiry 30, no. 1 (2003): 1–30.

62. Micheal O’Siadhail. The Gossamer Wall: Poems in Witness to the Holocaust (St. Louis, MO: Time Being Books, 2002), 72. Subsequent page references to this edition appear parenthetically in the text.

63. Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, rev. ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), 122.

64. Benjamin, Illuminations, 262.

65. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Draft 17: Unnamed,” in Understanding Literature, ed. Walter Kalaidjian, Judith Roof, and Stephen Watt (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 923–24.

66. Michael Rothberg, “Between the Extreme and the Everyday: Ruth Klüger’s Traumatic Realism,” in Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community, ed. Miller and Tougaw, 64.

67. Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, 18.

68. Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, 26.

69. Williams, Poetry and Consciousness, 44. [End Page 468]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.