To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Burning Babe – Now accessible in full

Art & design by Susan Bee, poems by Jerome Rothenberg

In 2005 Granary Books published – in a very limited edition – Susan Bee’s illumination of The Burning Babe, a series of poems that I had written over the preceding several years. While the poems reappear in Triptych, which New Directions brought out in 2007, the illuminated work has been largely inaccesible till now. That work, in which Susan Bee appears at the height of her artistic powers, can now be viewed in full, courtesy of PennSound & the University of Pennsylvania, at Of the poems themselves, which follow Poland/1931 & Khurbn as the coda to Triptych, I wrote the following in that book’s postface: “Moving into the new century, I haven’t lost sight of diaspora & holocaust but come to feel them now as exile & suffering on an almost universal scale. In no sense religious I had drawn freely in Poland/1931 on the figure of God’s exiled female aspect – Shekinah – while in Khurbn the overwhelming imagery for me was that of emptiness & silence. With Poland, looking back, I could indulge a high degree of play in a way I couldn’t or wouldn’t in the case of Khurbn. The years after Khurbn brought that back to me, but the central image this time was the Babe – the infant, like Christ, as god & victim. I began to feel this too – to feel the poems in which it issued – as the climax to what had come to me with Poland & again with Khurbn – the absurdity & horror of the god-child as that figure entered my imaginings. The weirdness came first & drew me to a history of images whose power & sometime sensuality were still present at both the margins & center of the Christian world. These I found in wanderings through churches & museums & monasteries – babes in marvelous configurations: crowned & armored, swollen, bleeding. blind, bejewelled, feathered & recumbent, wedded often to a saint, in one uncanny instance to a serpent. But stranger (stronger) still – for me, for others – was the deformation of the Babe when set into a Jewish focus or pictured through the fearsome words of certain Christian poets – Blake in The Mental Traveller, Southwell in The Burning Babe, others like Levertov & Duncan from then to now. That much was literature, but the other, more awful reality was in the world outside the poem. Here, as with Khurbn, my impulse to play came up against what denies & murders play – the burnt & mutilated babe(s) not only as the Jewish horror but in the wreck of the divine when brought low anywhere by murder & by ‘holocaust’ (itself a death by burning) that has haunted us down to the very present. For the depiction of these the Babe is a spent image & a companion as such to the spent images that life & the life of poetry must constantly absorb. The terminal point for me was the 2001 devastation in New York, to which I was a nearby witness, but fused here with a memory of Kurt Schwitters’ sculptural Merzbau, destroyed (also by fire) in World War Two. The column at its center, on top of which a babe’s head was implanted, serves me for a reprise & a coda.”

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