THE TROUBLE AT THE HEART OF IRIT AMIEL’S POETRY / PIOTR SLIWIŃSKI
Irit Amiel’s Polish poems have thus far only appeared in several slim volumes, finding a small, if faithful, group of readers in their native tongue. And yet they employ a great oratory power, being part of the rich legacy of literature concerned with (or rather contemplating) the Holocaust. Instantly, however, questions abound. Whose history is this? Specifically Jewish or Polish also? Irit Amiel’s family lived in Poland since the 16th Century. She herself lived – suffered, survived – her childhood and early teens there, before moving to Palestine at the end of the War. When she did eventually begin to write, she chose to do so in Polish, the language of her lost motherland.
The centuries-old history of Jewish-Polish relations is one of the greatest treasures of Polish culture, and attempts to reach across the chasm of evil and forgetting are the most important gestures we can make as a people. Yet, beneath this flood of powerful feelings and mutual interest, we must not ignore the dramatic difference in the fates of the two nations. It was the Jews who were selected for extermination, regardless of whether they spoke fluent Polish or not. Dealing with their testimonies demands extreme empathy, while simultaneously forcing us to admit that there is a limit to understanding that which happened not so long ago on our Continent.
After so many years, I returned to the land
I was once born to,
the country which had been my first
sorrowful, solitary, unrequited love.
I loved it, but it did not return the feeling.
These simple, direct lines present the reader with a particularly difficult task. This isn’t an aesthetic problem, related to form, but something more metaphysical. There is too much pain in Amiel’s poetry for us to treat them with critical precision, too much undisguised truth for us to take as simple literature; they are too intimate for any critic to dare reach for their usual taxonomies and scalpels. This poetry, stripped of any artifice which might bar access, free from stylistic showiness, from any kind of dark dandyism or hysteria, turns out to be impossible to fathom. It is like a steep rock face in which we can see the odd chink or hold. Trying to climb it, however, proves fruitless: all we can do is maim ourselves, though what are such injuries compared to the wound which opened the verses up in the first place? We stand before them as if before an insurmountable wailing wall.
But what is this “wailing wall”? The original stands in Jerusalem, pious Jews gathering before it every August to honour the anniversary of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. They weep over the fate of their nation: exile, homelessness, wandering, suffering, destruction, the intangibility of salvation. But is this wailing wall tall or low? How long is it? What is it made of? Is it smooth or rough to the touch? Does it impose upon the gathered with monumental might, or does it rather speak with eternal silence? Whatever the answers, they are irrelevant to the experience of the person who has found themselves before this mysterious construction. Nothing in its deepest meaning can alter or diminish its power. Can that place, however, speak to those whose grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, neighbours and playground friends were not slaughtered?
Irit Amiel’s poetry leads the reader into awareness of two vital things: firstly, that there is no such things as a “language of art” which could satisfy with its representation of the Holocaust, and, secondly, that there are no feelings with which the notion of the Holocaust could be tamed. Art created on the subject of the Holocaust becomes in a sense “a-art” (see the work of Rozewicz or Kantor), seeing as it feels forced to pose radical questions of its own authenticity or else “pre-art”, by which we mean a document, a raw, autobiographical record, a trail leading to – as Henryk Grynberg reminds us – an unartistic truth. In both cases what we want to avoid is conventional gestures, the turning of experiences which cannot be encapsulated or measured by previous standards into sentimental artefacts. This absolutely incomprehensible tragedy denies the reader the language of feelings; sympathy, reminiscent of commonplace pity, arouses a sense of disturbance; empathy, needing some point-of-reference experiences to help imagine what the shock must have been like, is in fact impossible. When confronted with this vast expanse of murder, agony, longing and evil we are – whether we like it or not – struck dumb.
And so these verses at first engage us in a limited context – at the outset, it is enough to be certain we are dealing with carefully considered literature. Trying to tackle “subject matter” or “lyrical timespace” seems here rather inappropriate. It would be the same as trying to dissect the child narrator in some of Grynberg’ novels, suggesting our intention was to equate agony with some specific literary codes. The subject in the work of – I am picking names at random here – Grynberg or Wilhelm Dichter, as well as Leo Lipski, Paul Celan or Nelly Sachs, is pain. It is pain doing the writing, ripping words from our mouths, or else gagging us.
And yet, in writing directly from memory, which here turns out to be a permanently raw wound, is it possible to attain literary greatness? Czeslaw Milosz, in his remarkable essay “The Immorality of Art”, referring to the story by Thomas Mann “Tonio Kröger”, stresses the contemporary age of paradox, based on not assigning to the self the “most gracious human reactions” or creations which arose out of them. The guarantee, or even the germ, of quality verse, and great art full-stop, is not in fact profound experience or feeling, but rather a “cool, studied attitude” which accompanies the writing of even the most horrific events or the reproaching of the most heinous crimes. Milosz describes this as “the original sin of art”, which even though it cannot be avoided, does cast a permanent shadow over itself:
“The incredible amount of poetry which was written in Poland during the last War, including that penned in ghettoes and camps, makes relevant Mann’s observation that an artist should be inhuman or even hyperhuman, while the authors of said poems were usually simply human. And in being so, they failed as artists, making their verse part of a vast and fascinating record of events, nothing more.”
Perhaps poetry, wanting to achieve artistic merit, must consider this concept of “inhumanity”, but does it also mean it is enslaved to it? I specifically chose authors who are admired and included in the canon of the most distinguished poets of 20th Century Europe (such as the two German writers), to, in advance, weaken a little the paradox described by Milosz. That which is most human sometimes establishes its own, previously unknown criteria of what is great, moving the boundaries of art beyond limits known to us, including – let us recall Celan here – silence which thus takes on shattering meanings. But above all it is pain which is awaiting the reader. In one of her letters to Celan, Nelly Sachs writes a telling phrase, seeing both artists living then in separate parts of the Continent (Stockholm, Paris) as linked by a “meridian of pain”. This is something which the readers of Irit Amiel’s poems should also be following, their artistic merit based upon – objectively speaking – the ability to impose upon the audience the same “”injury” – subjectively – from the susceptibility of said to traumatic persuasions.
In this context, the author’s refusal to agonise over the individual self is also key. The poetess does not occupy herself with the moral or linguistic impossibility of describing the Holocaust, but in the simplest and most accurate ways recounts the contents of her memories and challenges the conscience of existence. After Auschwitz, to refer back to the famous phrase from Theodor W. Adorno, poetry is not only justified, it is absolutely essential, as long as we assume that it will not be born of artistic vanity, standing instead guard over the shadows of those who have been destroyed:
As long as I am still here you are less dead,
but soon enough you will die for the nth and last time.
My end will finally wipe you from the face of the earth.
Led by the sense of obligation and the instinct to stay alive she keeps writing, recording, giving people and places the power to speak again, as if trying to resist the final slipping into nothingness. This series of portraits – funereal? (but those seen dying here did not end up in coffins), mournful? (but there was no mourning over the bodies), morbid? (yet Amiel wants to reanimate her characters, rather than weep over their physiological demise) – make a stunning impression on the reader. Mainly because the poetess depends on much material description, attention to detail and precision in recalling the minutiae of different character’s gestures or words. When faced with immeasurable sadness, one has to be coolly descriptive and lead the way through impossibly vast numbers to a single human being, thus bringing them back to life – even if it is for the fleeting instant of a line of poetry.
It makes death that little bit less anonymous, less despairingly banal. Its dignity is restored. Without dignity assigned to death there is no dignity in life, no passion to it. Hence, Irit Amiel’s poems also feature a degree of guilt about being a survivor. To live does not mean to show solidarity or to break away, to rise above, having earned the right to claim a different, more individual death. To come back to life in memory is to do penance, yet, at the same time, to reward the unfair advantage the living have over the dead,
I did not get to Treblinka on time
arriving some fifty years too late,
the trees standing bare in autumn.
I wanted to escape at once because
the rusting relic of a train carriage
was still there waiting for me,
the forest around it whispering quietly.
In Amiel’s poetry guilt causes us to challenge life any time lack of loyalty or greed appear, when it is threatened – in the name of its undeniable, sensual charm. How much eroticism is here, how much detail. Existence is physical, composed of a stomach, breasts, breath, hair, your own and also slightly recast in those of your children and grandchildren (using “The Laws of Genetics” as an example). Although the author effectively uses irony and self-irony, she also resorts to word games and the sense that existence itself is paradoxical, without getting tied up in certain poetical and philosophical tapestries. Amiel is a guardian of the past, not a commentator on the role she has chosen to play, a self-aware widow to a murdered nation.
Her poetry, being so clear and straightforward (though far from simplistic), puts us in a difficult position. Firstly, because we have to ask ourselves if these poems hurt us too: if so, then challenging their artistic merit is something of a fallacy; if not – then even virtuosity would then be in some way stripped of meaning. It is hard to consider who is experiencing the working of Irit Amiel’s verse – the Jew of the New Testament, fearing being counted as one of the “helpers of death” (from Milosz’s “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto”)? Someone suffering within the borders of their own unbreachable alienness? Someone discovering “Their” destruction for the first time? Who am I then, once done reading? Poetry which challenges the reader to ask such questions, questions so often ridiculed of late, deserves our full respect and attention, for it has broken free of the borders of its own tormented loneliness.
|“70 years after the Holocaust”“To frame experiences ever so hard to express, you have found the only possible form:
a totally raw kind of simplicity. Because of this, you can be sure your poems
will always live on!”
Dark Flashes is the first-ever English language collection of poems by Irit Amiel,
whose work is focused on experiences of the Holocaust, both her own
and those of many others.
Irit Amiel was born in Poland in 1931 as Irena Librowicz.
Author: Irit Amiel
Translator: Marek Kazmierski
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