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Art After Atrocity

A noted feminist theorist on the power and impotence of Holocaust art

Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew (Indiana University Press, $24.95) is something of a departure for Susan Gubar, best known as a pioneering feminist critic whose notable works include The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th-Century Literary Imagination (co-written with Sandra M. Gilbert, 1979). In her remarkable new study, Gubar reveals the aesthetic and ethical implications of creating literature “at some remove from the calamity.”

Focusing primarily on English-language poetry but also considering the visual arts and photography, Gubar explores how language is simultaneously powerful and impotent in addressing the most unspeakable events. In this way, she engages head-on with philosopher Theodor Adorno’s oft-quoted warning about the barbarism of writing poetry (or, in effect, creating anything) after the Shoah. The result is a gripping, densely woven book that also speaks parent and child, reading works by Irena Klepfisz, Cynthia Ozick, Jorie Graham, and Marilyn Hacker as commentaries on the loss of both mother and mame-loshn (mother tongue). In her lyrical closing chapter, “Poetry and Survival,” Gubar uses Anne Michaels’ 1998 novel Fugitive Pieces to consider more general questions about how gender dynamics operate in post-Shoah creative activity. She shows how “empathic imagination” enables a contemporary Canadian woman writer like Michaels to populate her novel with male subjects whose suffering she herself has never known.

As she attempts to circumscribe a necessarily difficult field, Gubar identifies the poetics of Holocaust verse with an arsenal of formal terms. Chief among these is “proxy-witnessing,” the act of speaking in the place of one who is unable to testify for herself. A related concept is “anamnesis,” recalling what others knew. This is an apt term for poets who turn to archival material and create documentary verse in the model of Charles Reznikoff’s 1975 Holocaust, which stitches quotations from official government records of Nazi trials into poems that let the readers serve as the jury. To describe contemporary poetry’s engagement with Holocaust images — a crucial aspect of commemoration — Gubar utilizes “ecphrasis,” or the verbal description of visual art. This technique applies to the ways in which poets Kirtland Snyder and Jason Sommer engage with the photographs in Roman Vishniac’s A Vanished World. These various terms bring English-language Holocaust poetry into dialogue with classical poetic genres while also displaying the drastic divergences of Holocaust verse. Gubar thus supplies a working vocabulary for poems whose complex negotiations of consciousness, memory, and voice often defy easy categorization or immediate comprehension.

A notable internality haunts Gubar’s analysis. In the chapter “Masters of Disaster,” Gubar reveals the family history that has in large part propelled her foray into this project. Her personal motivation to understand the aftershocks of trauma and question the notion of survival both informs and enriches her scholarly investigation of what it means to create (and consume) poetry after the catastrophe. Through the many “empathic imaginative acts” vigorously examined in this book, some kind of poetic justice is achieved: “Without alleviating either grief or guilt, poets of the Holocaust can teach us how to inhabit, at least momentarily, events in history that we can neither escape nor transcend.” In other words, to cite Gubar’s quotation of the late writer and scholar Terrence Des Pres: “We cannot not imagine.”

Hannah S. Pressman is a doctoral candidate in modern Hebrew literature at New York University. She is serving as the 2007 – 2008 Hazel D. Cole Fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Washington.