My friend the writer Christina Sanantonio and I have been having a conversation about writing about loss. It’s a conversation that started right after the suicide of the novelist David Foster Wallace. I posted two blogs about his death and the deaths of writers in general and what they mean to us, and Christina wrote me a long letter about how we use or don’t use language to talk about loss. She said that, after her brother died unexpectedly, she felt that the language available to her was inadequate to express what she felt about his death. Here’s a part of what she wrote:
I felt such a great expanse of void between the sense of reality that my grief had laid bare and the experiences of others who had not known despair that I felt I was living in a parallel universe -- alone. The weight and loneliness of my small burden was enough to keep me tottering, and often looking longingly into inky voids. I found myself thrust into a universe where few could speak my language, the complex and limited language of loss.
In trying to explain this feeling, she went on to wrote about Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and writer who, like David Foster 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 sometimes, Christina wrote, that we needed a new language, a language of the lager, a language of the concentration camps. Common words for “cold, pain, hunger,” according to Primo Levi, could not convey what the people experienced in the camps. Reflecting on what Primo Levi wrote about the inadequacy of language and what she herself experienced following her brother’s death, Christina wrote that “We ache for a language that doesn’t exist.”
What Christina wrote about her loss and about Levi’s sense of the failure of language touched me. I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to find words to describe what my parents went through in the concentration and slave labor camps in Germany during World War II and what those experiences made me feel. Since I was a child, I had heard the stories my father told about what happened to him and my mother. He told me about how he was picked up during a round-up in his village in Poland, and how he was sent to Germany and spent four years in the concentration camps there. He told me how my mother was captured by the Germans when they came to her house; how they killed her mother, her sister and her sister’s baby; how my mother survived the killing by breaking through a window and hiding in the woods near her home; and how finally the Germans captured her and took her to Germany as a slave. My father told me how, in the years my parents spent under the Nazis, they both saw terrible things. They saw the normal pain and suffering of being prisoners under the Nazis, and they saw floggings, hangings, stonings, shootings, castrations, and rapes. In one of my poems, “Looking for Work in America,” I wrote that my father “knew death the way a blind man/knows his mother’s voice.” The same was true for my mother.
For the last thirty years, I’ve tried to find words to describe my parents’ experiences. In my poems and my lectures about my parents, I write or talk about the things I heard about, but no matter how powerful the original event described by my mother or father I seldom feel that I can really describe it, explain it, bring it out of the past. I can’t bring it out of memory into this life. Despite my best efforts, I’m finally left pushing around some words, trying to find some way to convey what I felt as a child hearing my parents’ story for the first time. Sometimes, I think I have almost succeeded, most of the time I know I’m not even close.
One of the things I’ve tried to do to bring my parents’ experiences out of memory is to use the sort of language they used. People who read my poems or hear me speak remark on the simplicity of my language and the story-like quality of my poems. What I’m trying to do is to capture the way I first heard the stories. My parents had very little education. My father was an orphan and a farm boy in rural Poland; he never went to school. Even as an adult in America, he could barely write his name. If he were asked to write his name on a check or a Christmas card, he would become embarrassed. My mother had a little bit more education. She spent about two years off and on in a rural school in eastern Poland. She could write her name, do sums, read a prayer book or a newspaper. I’ve tried to use the sort of language that my parents’ used. It was a language free of emotions. When my parents told me many of the stories that became my poems, they spoke in plain, straightforward language. They didn’t try to emphasize the emotional aspect of their experience; rather, they told their stories in a matter-of-fact way. This happened, they’d say, and then this happened: The soldier kicked her, and then he shot her, and then he moved on to the next room. I’ve also tried to make the poems story-like, strong in narrative drive to convey the way they were first told to me.
For me the poems that work best are the ones with my parents’ actual language. Those words, for me, are the real thing. In one of my poems, my mother says to me, “If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run”; in another poem, my dad tells me what he said to the German guards who beat him and tormented him, “Please, sirs, never 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 in some of the poetry readings I’ve given. I was recently giving a reading/lecture, and when I got done, I took questions. There were some of the usual questions about where in Poland my parents came from and why I wrote poems rather than memoirs. Then, a person in the back stood up and didn’t say anything. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he just stood there. I don’t know if the person even had a question. Maybe he just wanted to show how much he felt my parents’ lives, or maybe the loss I talked about somehow reminded him of a loss he experienced and couldn’t talk about and still can’t talk about. For me, that was a moment filled with magic. My parents’ experiences had somehow survived my translation of them into the word of my poems, and by another miracle, the poems had spoken to another person and touched him with their loss. A miracle.
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. What happened at Babel 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 sometimes other people fail us. They can’t bring themselves to listen to our stories of loss. It’s hard to take on that burden. To show you this, I want to tell two stories. The first is about my father in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. The second is about my mother and me and a poem I wrote about her experiences.
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 looked him in the eye and 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.
And thirty years after writing my first poems about my parents, I’m still not sure I get their experiences right no matter how much I try. One of the first poems I wrote about my mother is called “Cattle Train to Magdeburg.” When I wrote it in 1978, I was trying to capture what had happened to her when the Nazis first put in the boxcars and sent transported her from her home in eastern Poland to Magdeburg, Germany, a clearing center for slave laborers sent to Germany. My sense of what had happened was based in part on what my parents had told me about that experience and what I imagined the experience was like.
Here’s the poem:
Cattle Train To Magdeburg
She still remembers
The long train to Magdeburg
the box cars
by Baltic winters
The rivers and the cities
she had never seen before
and would never see again:
the sacred Vistula
the smoke haunted ruins of Warsaw
the Warta, where horse flesh
met steel and fell
The leather fists
of pale boys
boys her own age
convinced of their godhood
by the cross they wore
different from the one
she knew in Lvov
The long twilight journey
four days that became six years
six years that became forty
And always a train of box cars
bleached to Baltic gray.
This poem was first published in Charles Fishman’s anthology Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust in the early 1990’s. When I showed it to my father, he couldn’t read it because he couldn’t read English, and when I showed it to my mother, she wouldn’t read it. That was all in the past, she said. She didn’t want to think about the war and what her life was like in the camps.
In 2002, a Polish version of Language of Mules, my first collection of poems about my parents, was published, and I showed a copy to my mother. Since my father had died, she’d become more willing to talk about her experiences in Germany. So she took the book and opened it up; the first poem she saw was “Cattle Train to Magdeburg.” She read it straight through and told me what she thought. She said, “That wasn’t the way it was at all,” and then she started telling me what I got wrong in her story about being taken to the concentration camps in Germany. This was wrong and that wasn’t like that. She wanted me to know all the things I got wrong. Despite my best effort to find language to describe her experience, I had failed her and failed her experience. As I suggested earlier, sometimes our words fail us, and sometimes we fail other people, the ones who want to share their words of loss with us.
My mother’s response to my poem led me to write another poem. It’s called “My Mother Reads ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg.’” It’s the Prologue to my recent collection of poems about my parents, Lightning and Ashes. The language in this poem is pretty much the way my mother gave her reaction to my poem. After she finished speaking, I took up a legal pad and wrote what I remember her saying. Here’s the poem:
My Mother Reads "Cattle Train to Magdeburg"
She reads it through and says
“That’s not how it was.
I couldn’t see anything
except when they stopped
the boxcars and opened the doors
And I didn’t see
any of those rivers,
and if I did, I didn’t know
their names. No one said,
‘Look, look this river
is the Warta, and there
that’s the Vistula.’
What I remember
is the bodies being
women would kick them out
with their feet.
Now it sounds terrible.
You think we were bad women
but we weren’t. We were girls
taken from homes, alone.
Some had seen terrible things
done to their families.
Even though you’re a grown man
and a teacher, we saw things
I don’t want to tell you about.”
If she were still alive and I were to show her this second poem, I’m betting she would say the same thing she said after I showed her the Polish version of the earlier poem, “That wasn’t the way it was at all,” and I know she would be right.
Christina Sanantonio said, “We ache for a language that doesn’t exist.” We all want this language. Christina wants it so she can tell me and other people how much his death means to her. Primo Levi wanted it so that he could tell you what hunger and snow and wind meant to a man standing through a six-hour roll call with other prisoners in Auschwitz. We want others to understand what we have suffered and what we have lost. This is the “ache” that Christina talks about. It is a part of language as sure as the word “the.” We ache for a language that doesn’t exist so that we can tell someone what we need to say. And even when we feel that there is no point in struggling with words to capture what we need to say, we still have to try. No matter how hard it is to tell someone something, no matter how much we misunderstand what someone is telling us, 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.