Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Language and Loss

My friend the writer Christina Sanantonio and I have been having a conversation about writing about loss. It’s a conversation fueled in part by the recent suicide of the novelist David Foster Wallace. She wrote me a long letter about how we use or don’t use language to talk about loss, and about how hard it is to write about loss.

One of the things in her letter that really resonated with me was something she said about Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and writer who, like Wallace, apparently took his own life. Primo Levi talked about the frustration of trying to write about loss and suffering, especially the loss and suffering so many experienced in the Nazi camps. He felt we needed a new kind of language to talk about what happened there. Christina wrote that we ache for a language that doesn’t exist.

I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to find words to describe what happened to my parents in the concentration and slave labor camps and what those experiences made me feel. I write about this event or that image; and no matter how powerful the original event described by my mother or father I can’t really describe it, explain it, bring it out of the past. I can’t bring it out of memory into this life. I’m left pushing around some words, trying to make myself feel what I felt the first time I heard that story when I was a child. Sometimes I think I almost succeed; most of the time I know I’m not even close.

For me the poems that work best are the ones with my parents’ actual words. Those words are the real thing. My mother says to me, “If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run”; or my dad tells me what he said to the German guards who beat him and tormented him, “Please, sirs, don’t ever tell your children what you’ve done to me today.” There are bits and pieces of their words scattered through my poems, and when I read those words out loud my parents are there with me. My parents’ words are a kind of magic for me.

But how does one convey this magic to other people?

I think sometimes that all I can do is read my poems out loud and show people how the poems effect me. I guess what happens then is that my words become like my parents’ words. I become my father and mother for that moment in the poem.

Sometimes this touches people, conveys the magic to them.

I’ve seen this happen at some of the poetry readings I’ve given. A person stands up at the end of the reading when I invite questions, and he doesn’t say anything. He just stands there. I don’t know if the person even has a question. Maybe he just wants to show how much he feels my parents’ lives; or maybe the loss I talk about somehow reminds him of a loss he experienced and couldn’t talk about and still can’t talk about.

For me one of the central images of the Bible is the image of the Tower of Babel. It represents in my eyes the moment when humanity became trapped in language that would not communicate what we needed to communicate. It was a second fall from grace. Our lives became chained to a language that doesn’t convey what we feel or what we mean. Although we have this deep need to say what we feel, we often can’t explain it to ourselves or to other people. Sometimes our words fail us and some times other people fail us. They can’t bring themselves to listen to our stories of loss. It’s hard to take on that burden.

My father used to tell a story about a friend of his in the camps who made love to a woman and contracted VD. He came to my father and asked him what should he do. My father said, “Go to the river and drown yourself.” His friend thought he was joking, and he went to another friend who told him, “Tell the Germans what you did.” He did and they killed the woman; and then they beat him and castrated him and killed him.

Fifty years later, when my father was telling me this story, he still didn’t know what he could have said to his friend to save him from what happened.

No matter how hard it is to tell someone something, no matter how hard it is to get beyond the Babel we’re caught up in, I think we need to try.

Will it change the world? Make anything different? Better?

We can only hope.


Oma J said...

I have experienced several painful losses in my lifetime, many of those very young. Especially during the past 2 yrs. I also find it hard to identify the words needed to describe the deep emotional feeling one has with such losses. One recent loss was that of my 28 year old niece, a single mother of a 6 yr. old. Sometimes when we search so hard to find the right words, we find them in the words of children. The conversations between my great nephew and I have served to truly identify the sort of person my niece was, which in turn, implies the deep sense of loss we feel. I also find that the clarification of my niece's identity to those closest to her is what helps my healing process.

I guess in a sense, I am fascinated with death and how those remaining cope. That would include identifying and describing it to those living. But again, I often times think of the story of the Lion King, that so simply and eloquently describes the circle of life to children. Sometimes simple is more powerful than we can imagine.

Naval Langa said...

To Mr. John Guzlowsky

I have just read some of your posts, and the profile. I would like to read more.

If you are interested in reading short stories and other writings by an Indian author, do visit my blogs.

Naval Langa

Karen J. Weyant said...

Thanks so much for this posting. When I was diagnosed with cancer, everyone around me told me to write about it. When my mother died, everyone around me told me to write about it. After all, I was a writer and isn't that what writers do? I still can't write about either event -- I admire those who can put into words pain without melodrama, those who can weave verses into hope.

John Guzlowski said...


Stuff you can't write about?

I know what you mean. My mom died three years ago, and her death was long and painful for her. I sat there watching her and talking to her and listening to her, and I kept thinking this means so much to me I have to remember every minute because she'll be gone and there won't be any thing left of her, and I started writing and writing to take down every thing that she did/said/suffered.

She died three years ago, and I still can't look at those notes.

John Guzlowski said...

I received this from Maryann Wojciechowski and thought it was a note that should be posted:

Thank you, John. I know exactly what you mean. As I get older, I review the past more often, with changing perspectives and understanding, but always anchored by my parents' ordeal and survival. How I wish I could reach into my memory and retrieve the little bits and pieces my mother tried to tell me.

Maryann Wojciechowski in Las Vegas

P.S. Dad is 94 and never gives up, despite health problems. He walks every day, and reads the newspaper cover to cover. But he remembers, too, and tells me "I see it before my eyes."

Urkat said...

John, Being a writer, this is a subject that's very close to my heart. I've listened to your readings and been moved by them. I've also stood on stage so moved I couldn't speak because I would have just broken down the minute I tried.

When listening to some tale about how a prisoner was tortured by the Nazis, my inclination is to want to go back in history and drive a stake through the heartless son of a bitch's chest where his heart should be, or else magically redeem him or her with a vision of the cross or some talisman that could rearrange the magnetic fields inside his or her distorted brain. Using language, I can do that, symbolically at least, but it still leaves me unsatisfied knowing that I haven't really changed history or the lives of those affected one bit.

I don't think words are at fault when we fail to convey our full meaning. The fault lies in the illusion that we are using words at all instead of conveying emotion by means of powerful sounds and gestures. When we stop worrying about what words to use and get out of our own way, we'll find our language is more than adequate.

Karen, quit trying to edit out the melodrama and imposing limits on how your pain is allowed to speak.

Urkat said...

"I write with experiences in mind, but I don't write about them, I write out of them."

John Asbery

John Guzlowski said...


Ashbery doesn't write about his experiences?


I wonder if he believes that or if he is just saying it so that people will say, "Well he's really something of a poet!"

What do you think?

Urkat said...

I'm not sure John. We talked before about whether poets need to write about their experiences or whether they can use their experiences and write out of them, the way Ashbery claims he does.

Our discussion was whether one can really express some things or whether they are "beyond the pale" of language, and I was suggesting that writing about painful experiences directly often doesn't allow us to express what we think is deepest or most important in them--because the mind guards those experiences and doesn't allow direct access--and that by writing indirectly using emotion from other painful experiences to fuel a poem, we may find ways to express the "ineffable" by coming at them from a different angle.

I thought Ashbery's quote was a propos for that reason. Or he may just be posing--haha.

John Guzlowski said...


I think the idea of coming at things indirectly makes some sense. Writing about something overwhelming directly may overwhelm the writer.

Christina said...

I think this poet does a fine job of penning down the elusive...relating to death and feelings that we cannot name.

" Upon Hearing About the Suicide of the Daughter of Friends" by Jo McDougall

Something called to her that Sunday afternoon,
that she could not name.
You and I cannot name it, drawn to each other
by this news.
The young cry when they feel it
breathing beside them.
We may know it sometimes through its disguises,
say the sound of a car at 2 a.m.
grinding to a stop in gravel drive.

Urkat said...

"I think the idea of coming at things indirectly makes some sense. Writing about something overwhelming directly may overwhelm the writer."

That was beautifully said.

Thank you Chruistina for that evocative piece you posted.

Princess Haiku said...

I think it is difficult for usual people to discuss loss but the topic has inspired great poets and writers to eloquence.

Athelas said...

I think you're right about this. It is difficult enough for words to capture ideas, but for words to capture emotions is an even greater challenge. Even if another person is moved to tears by a piece of work, you never know if they have experienced the same emotions you have. I've tried learning different languages, hoping that maybe Spanish or Marathi or French might hold the key to conveying emotion. Unfortunately, words in each language are all just as 'loaded' for individual responses as words are in English.

Anonymous said...

This post, which I found by way of Athelas, is most timely in my world. Thank you. You validate here many thoughts (hopes, frustrations) I've had about writing and bring clarity to the purpose of continuing. Depression/sadness, trauma, loss are sometimes such prolonged, isolating features of the human struggle; as such, we want to convey and seek connection or understanding, but learn repeatedly that in the end, it is only ourselves that grasp all of the meaning in all of our words and all of our deep emotion. Maybe one of the great challenges for writers is to come to terms with that solidarity, and to learn to take comfort in those fleeting bits of outward understanding.

Your post here is especially meaningful to me at this particular time because I am in the lowest of lows, feeling the most profound bewilderment... When you're in the process of surviving, you look to other survivors for wisdom. Thank you.

John Guzlowski said...

Don't give up.

Martin Stepek said...

Thanks so much for this John. I guess a lot of my writing about the death of my Polish grandparents, especially my grandmother, fits this subject, though I never consciously tried to write about "their death" or "the sense of loss". I just had a feeling, some words, and let it go its own way... then edited after sufficient mental space.

I tried to explain this in one wee piece
"Stories are caverns
it's easy to get lost
in the vast echoing tombs

but in the end
mother died

father died"

...almost admitting words don't quite cut it, nor do telling the stories.

And yet, your words move me, shock me into some form of reality; and people have written to me saying some of my words have touched their soul about their deepest sense of loss or love for family.

The mystery of creativity, sharing, human empathy.