Carolyn Forche’s anthology of poetry borne of twentieth century atrocities is characterized succinctly by the opening “Motto” from Bertolt Brecht:
“In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.”
The collection includes poems from all over the world (many are therefore translations) arranged in sections according to geography and major events.
The poets included herein strove to record their experiences in something less fragile than the human body; indeed, many of these poets did not survive the tragedies of which they wrote. Their words, however, allow us to see and feel what they endured, by using a medium not subject to the emotional neutralization of factual accounts. (See, for example, Saul Friedlander in Reflections of Nazism, who wrote that [film and] literature can overcome the “normalization,” the blockage, the paralysis, of historical analysis “by giving free rein to the imaginary and to the phantasms; by re-evoking an atmosphere, an aesthetic, a desire; by playing on all the facets of horror.”)
Taking a positive outlook, Carolyn Forche, who wrote the introduction to this anthology, contends “The poetry of witness reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion.” Forche remarks on the many forms each poem in the collection takes: “impassioned or ironic … it will curse and it will bless…”
There is one poem she did not include that does both. Paul Celan is included in the anthology, but not this poem about his “poplar” (his people, the Jews), which I reproduce here in full, because it is so beautiful, and because it belongs here as well:
I heard it said, there be
in the water a stone and a circle,
and over the water a word
that places the circle
around the stone.
I saw my poplar go down to the water.
I saw how her arm grasped down into the deep.
I saw her roots raised heavenward, begging for night.
I did not hasten to follow her.
I only picked up from the ground that breadcrumb
which has your eye’s form and nobility;
I unclasped from your throat the chain of the sayings
and with it bordered the table, where now the crumb lay.
And saw my poplar no more.
Paul Celan’s parents were killed in the Holocaust. He committed suicide in 1970. Some poems in this collection will be more familiar to Westerners than others; all of them are a gift, a last reach heavenward, from many who saw daylight no more.