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Review: Text offers hope in face of the unbearable

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Filed under: Reviews

By: Tom Sandborn

“How can I bury my dead
Even their hair and ashes are gone
How can I bury my dead
Every stone of my village gone
How can I bury my dead
If they live in me”

Thus, in the final lines of his searing meditation in verse on the Holocaust and its legacy of emotional numbness and horrifying images, Saltspring Island poet Murray Reiss on the problem of poetry after the Shoah has amply demonstrated the victory of chaos over form, hatred over love, cold technocratic efficiency over human grief. Unlike Theodore Adorno, who famously decreed that after Auschwitz, poetry was barbaric, if not impossible, or Anne Sexton, whose response to the unspeakable events in Nazi death camps was to write:

“I say aloud.
Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.”

Reiss has found a way in this remarkable new book of verse to meet the challenge of finding words for the unspeakable. The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild is a tough book to read, full of the paradoxical horrors of feeling too much and feeling nothing at all, rich with tightly disciplined lines that come as close as language can to addressing what may be humankind’s most appalling demonstration of just how far we can go into the darkness, and does it all without rhetoric or sentiment.

At the same time the author grapples with a drama played out on the scale of continents and decades, he renders in exquisite and minute detail the impact of that world historical tragedy on one family, and on one painful father-son relationship. This is a book that shapes and masters painful material into well-crafted lines and stanzas. The poems give the impression, often, of an effortless, unmediated stream of consciousness, but no reader will long imagine that this was easy to write, or that the effects are achieved without endless revision and polish.

The poems are presented mainly from the point of view of a child of Holocaust survivors growing up in Sarnia, the only child in a household haunted by poverty, lack and silence.

“My mother had no
milk nor my father
words. That’s how it was
in the century’s middle
when history’s branding
iron cauterized
his tongue.”

Reiss writes in the book’s second poem, Starved for Words. The issue of the narrator’s father and his silence continues to dominate the book’s emotional structure, as does the son’s survivor’s guilt by proxy, his recurrent sense that the father resents the child’s existence.

Against the chill black and white of the Polish horrors, Reiss juxtaposes the warmth, colour and vitality of a Costa Rican butterfly “farm” in the section that gives the book its name. In what may well be the most deft and successful pages, he blends his father’s depressive grief, his own anguished responses, the structure of a standup comic’s routine (“A Pole, a Jew and a butterfly sidle into a bar …”)and the sardonic note that even with a survival rate of only two per cent in the wild, butterflies are doing better than Jewish children in Hitler’s Poland. Of these, less than half of one per cent survived. The poet’s narrative voice, imagining himself a butterfly, and invoking again the father-son pain that dominates the entire work, says:

“Every pupa has its specialty.
Mine was blending in with my father’s dead.”

The next lines operate to braid the imagery from the butterfly farm with the imagined Jewish dead who haunt the entire cycle of poems.

“Extinct, my father’s family crowded around my crib, their
faces fog, their bodies smoke, their voices soft and insistent
as the flutter of butterfly wings.”

The effect, at least for this reader, is both sorrowful, horrifying and lovely, adjectives that capture much of this odd but powerful text’s cumulative impact.

Reiss, who has lived on Saltspring since 1979, was born in Sarnia, and it is tempting to speculate about how much of this book’s power is rooted in imagined experience, how much in autobiography. Although, (full disclosure) I knew Reiss a bit during his earlier years in Vancouver, our brief encounters then did not extend to sharing life stories. In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter how much of the content comes from family experience and how much comes from the catalytic power of the writer’s imagination. The Holocaust (and all the other genocides that preceded and followed it) are, taken together, the nightmares that haunt the modern age, and none of us can plausibly pretend that we are at a safe distance from them. It belongs to us all, and it is far too easy to imagine being on one or both sides of the barbed wire. No one is, or should be, immune to their attendant guilt or grief, and artists who defy Adorno’s dictum to try to give the Shoah and all its demonic echoes a human face and bearable narrative serve us well. Sexton, after all, closes her meditation on the impossibility of making art out of Auschwitz with these final lines.

“Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say those things aloud.
I beg the Lord not to hear.”

In the face of the raw, brutal facts of history, especially the history of the past century-and-a-half, silence and despair are tempting, and one of this book’s many virtues is that it makes that temptation so clearly present to the reader, and then finds artful expression of an alternate human response, one that can turn even the fog and smoke of the Polish killing fields into shapely human beauty. It is not enough to make beauty, of course. We must also find ways to make peace with the demonic within us all and create social orders that preclude any further lessons in ultimate cruelty.

Poetry is not an adequate response to Holocaust horrors, but it is better than silence, and may give us heart for the struggle to find the adequate responses we so desperately need. Readers who are willing to brave the tough terrain that Murray Reiss has mapped out will be rewarded, not with facile prettiness or empty hope, but with something far more rare and valuable — seasoned, mature hope in the face of nearly unbearable knowledge.

Reiss has done us all a great favour with this courageous text.


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