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Read My Book: Murray Reiss on his poetry book, The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Filed under: Read My Book

Months before I was born my father learned that everyone in his family had perished in the Holocaust. From when I was born to when he died, 20 years later, he never spoke a word about them. The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild is my attempt to inhabit that silence with images, metaphors, guesses and dreams — in short, with poems.

My father was what I call a "second-hand survivor" — but "his distance from the chimneys didn't spare him; his distance from those smokestacks was his disease."

His generation had few words for trauma of any kind, let alone one of this magnitude — the irreparable loss of an entire world. They had no way to think, let alone speak, of it. It's fallen to the next generation to inscribe the full dimensions of that loss.

Survival Rate fills my father's silence with his dead, who return as butterflies to instruct me in survival; a clubfoot twin who limps in Poland-before-I-was-born; a blonde-wigged mannequin named Anne who lives in our attic; a lawyer who files a suit for wrongful life on my father’s behalf; and the last two Jews in Poland. Haunted by so much death, the book asks, how can one learn to live? The poems answer through their language. Elliptical and allusive, metaphorical and often surreal, veined with dark humour, proceeding by fits and starts, by feints and misdirections, the language of these poems tries to illumine some of history’s darkest shadows with a searching, redemptive light.

Beyond their specific historical context, these poems speak to universal experiences of grief and loss. They speak especially, I think, to how traumatic personal histories can be transmitted, often unconsciously, from one generation to another and the fearful price of secrecy and silence.

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