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

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Meditation on the Word "Diaspora"

[Originally published as the Postface to Triptych (New Direc tions, 2006), which brought together Poland/1931, Khurbn, & The Burning Babe in a single volume.]

The word diaspora arises in my mind, triggers a series of connections to which I had been late in coming, & colors the range of these poems as I now look back at them. That is what makes a postface, the chance to remember for myself what no one else can think or say for me. I am among the dispersed, the dispossessed – like all of us – not from any particular homeland but feeling the scattering-abroad inside me, the meaning of diaspora coursing through my veins. Along with that – as it did for our friend & brother-poet Edmond Jabès – the word Jew came out of the depths, where it had lain hidden, some three or four decades ago. In 1967, following a curious interlude & meeting with Paul Celan in Paris (I had been the first to translate him into English), I felt a rush of words & images (spent images, I thought) that wove themselves around a distant Poland peopled by Jewish specters that I first imagined & then fleshed out from others’ memories & writings. The opening poem came almost by itself but for the rest I used whatever tactics – experimental/avant-garde & otherwise – that were then at my disposal. I was deeply aware of holocaust but almost never spoke ot it as such, knowing that I had it anyway & that I couldn’t dislodge it as a hidden subtext. Another subtext, coming to surface in my mind, was a running translation into Yiddish – not a real translation but a pretended voicing in which I dreamed of myself as “the last Yiddish poet.” And for what David Meltzer later called my “surrealist Yiddish vaudeville” & what I spoke of on my own as “a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, & madmen,” I took 1931, my birth year – in New York, not Poland – as the imagined time in which to set an equally imagined “Poland.”

Over the next two decades & into the present, that world continued to shadow my work, which simultaneously drove me into other geographies & ethnicities, both real & imagined. I had in that process almost successfully evaded what was, after all, the dark side of diaspora, letting some of its blackness seep through in A Big Jewish Book (a.k.a. Exiled in the Word) & in poems & experiences among & about American Indians & those Dada fathers who foretold a new poetry & art between the ruins of the two world wars. I had as yet no outlet & no voice for holocaust, & I felt that my most radical/experimental means, as I employed them elsewhere, gave me no license here.

It was only in 1987, when I made the first of two trips to Poland, that the horror of the Jewish holocaust, which had been gnawing at me from childhood, sprang up from the Polish ground, or so it seemed, & took hold of me against all inclination to resist it. As the earlier work had issued from the key words “Jews” & “Poland,” what began to speak through me now was incited by the Yiddish/Hebrew word “khurbn” – the familiar/familial word remembered from childhood for what later & more universally came to be called holocaust. This seemed more particular to my own sense of it, & it gave me, more than I had ever known it before, the feeling that I was only a vessel through which a voice or voices other than my own were speaking. What was needed further, once the work had started, was a way to channel – in no mystical sense – other voices that would help to tell the fuller story. As with Poland/1931, I entered on a kind of investigative poetry – the words of the true witnesses mixed with my own – & a turn to collage to put it all in place. It was this attempt at objectification – along with the poems’ common themes – that marked the segue between the two works – the first one in the late 1960s & the other in 1987 & 1988.

By now another two decades have passed, & what was then close to surface has found a deeper place in my mind. Moving into the new century, I haven’t lost sight of diaspora & holocaust but come to feel them now as exile & suffering not only Jewish but 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.

Jerome Rothenberg
Encinitas, California

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