Book Review: Darkling
8 In his 1949 essay "Cultural Criticism and Society," Theodore Adorno wrote: "Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely." Forty years earlier, Rainer Maria Rilke had observed that, "[t]he wonderment with which art flings itself on things (all things without exception), must be so impetuous, so strong, so radiant, that the thing has not time to remember its own ugliness or depravity. In the sphere of the terrible there can be nothing so canceling or negative that the effect on it of artistic accomplishment would not leave it with a great positive excess." Though Rilke later adjusted his view—as did Adorno, partially in response to the poems of Paul Celan—he here states the case which lies somewhere beneath all art, all art which requires the maintenance of a dual consciousness: of the depravity, and of the radiance—the exuberant excess—made available to us by the world.
Adorno's implication, and Rilke's as well, was certainly that poetry had to be written in new ways: Rilke in response to his wish to embrace "the world" without reservation, even though this world included evil; Adorno in his nostalgia (I use the word in its derivative sense, of disease) for a lovable world. Both wanted poetry to have a place in the world, but knew poetry could not be content to restate, reexamine, rework and revise. Poetry could never again be merely "about" and could not be judged on the basis of content. The conditions of the language, of all language, gradually allow a culture to produce and to live with both the depravity and the radiance. Poetry must continually find a way to reject, or at least reduce, the acceptance of the depravity. It is not a matter of "saying what needs to be said," but finding methods and materials and new anxieties which might well sound like the old words, but which bring neither despair nor consolation, but "mere" reality, back into consciousness.
Anna Rabinowitz has taken on this forbidding task in her new book of poetry—not a book of poems, nor even a single long poem, but a single poetic gesture, a linguistic act which may or may not be a poem itself but is a result of poetry. The poetic work begins with the volume's title, Darkling. What follows is an extraordinarily intense experiment in language and the emotional freighting of a few lives and an entire generation or two, and is described by the poet as "a book-length sequence which utilizes the 32 lines of 'The Darkling Thrush' by Thomas Hardy as its acrostic armature." Acrostics—verse compositions in which certain letters in the text, usually the initial letters of each line, form words or phrases—have at times been written as puzzles, sometimes hiding the "answer." The suggestion, then, of hiddenness, even of dangerous matter that must be puzzled out discreetly, is part of the weight of this form. Its moral armature is provided by the "inheritance of truncated histories, sketchy memories, bits of narrative, and the contents of a shoebox containing old photos and letters that had been translated for me from Yiddish into English."
Strung along the left hand margin of this book, the Thomas Hardy poem asserts, subconsciously, subcutaneously, its influence. Hardy's poem is dated January 1, 1900—one need not search long for parallels to current conditions. "The land's sharp features seemed to be / The Century's corpse outleant." One need not compare the horrors across centuries—certainly the nineteenth was as full of rage and terror and ghastly behavior as the twentieth, but still, Hardy might have mourned even more fervently had he been able to see what lay, what corpses lay, ahead. And yet Rabinowitz's use of Hardy's poem reminds us that Hardy himself did not offer solace, nor did he suggest despair—his speaker heard the song of the thrush who "Had chosen thus to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom" and from that act extrapolated, not necessarily feeling or understanding or even believing "Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware."
When Rabinowitz hangs flashing insights about her family and her own perceptive life along the continually attenuating thread of Hardy's poem, she provides herself not only a powerful and poignant poetic device (that others will envy and imitate), but also sets up a resonance between her poem and Hardy's. Certainly this is how Rabinowitz allows Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush" to thrust itself into contemporary consciousness—and it turns out to be capable of responding to conditions Hardy could not have possibly foreseen. Poems are clearings in the woods, are spaces, sites, where clashes and congruences occur which the poet neither controls nor contains. We all, of course, inhabit the gaps, the spaces between; neither angel nor animal, we want only what we cannot have, we want to be only what we cannot be: this is essentially the erotic, the desire and pursuit of the whole, as Diotima says. But, as Rabinowitz knows, wholeness is also deadly; only in fragment, only partially can we exist:
Letters: the shoebox is one-third full of letters;
It is difficult to find passages to quote from this book, passages that in small sections suggest anything useful about the whole. In some sense the point of the whole is that segments cannot be separated out—lives interact, and the past is no protector of the present; one cannot escape. In an odd way this book that is so determinately ordered is also about the failure of planned ordering. In spite of reproducing the Hardy poem once completely along the left hand margin (then repeating the last two lines, to make thirty-four sections in all), there is no sense of determined order, of imposed sequencing, about the poem as an act of reading. As we learn again generation by generation, the structure of poetic form is only liberating when it is actually incorporated, made into the body of the poem, not used as crutch or as clothing. One reads with the Hardy in the periphery, as if some thing dark and dangerous were always out there.
Something dark and dangerous may well be the barbarism Adorno had in mind when he said that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Too often worn down by sloganeering or lost in misquotation, the truths of this statement are delicate, and seldom receive the careful consideration they demand. (It is unfortunate, too, that few people seem to recall the passage in Adorno's Negative Dialectics that qualifies his earlier remark: "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.") The irresponsible quotation of Adorno is an object lesson which provides a necessary counterpoint to Darkling. Darkling is about how to quote responsibly, how to remake language into new language, newly lived and consecrated stories and/or tropes. The section which corresponds to Hardy's lines, "An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume" includes such gaunt lines and blast-beruffled phrases as:
And I am afflicted with this spectacular need
Particles of data are indeed unable to testify, orphaned nouns do evoke a kind of madness, and neither testimony nor sanity is to be gained merely by remembering (re-membering, reconnecting the segments). But by tearing apart a one-hundred-year-old poem by Thomas Hardy and engulfing, incorporating that poem into a sometimes-ranting, mumbling, articulating enactment of lyrical and linguistic excess, something like testimony, even something like sanity, has been accomplished. Part of the success of this project has to do with its generosity—its recognition of origins, of genesis, and genera. There is a subtle but well-informed questioning of identity—the identity of the speaking voice, for instance—but also a recognition of the possibility of identity, of ego and persistence of self across the ravages, a questioning which is buoyed by this generosity. The barbaric is not merely a synonym for evil, and the notion of culture is questioned in this book with considerable courage. There is in all this work a concern with facing the random, therefore unpredictable in the world as well as in language—facing up to something like survivor-guilt, to the use being made by the living of the accidental accomplishments of the dead. The imbedding of the arbitrary in formal shaping is reflective of many elements of Darkling's "content," if content is what it can be called. Whatever this text may be, or contain, it is an amazing act of generosity and, if I might use the word with due deference to Hardy, optimism. Like the thrush which "Had chosen thus to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom," Anna Rabinowitz has performed a similar feat, and has done so at an appallingly appropriate moment. If part of the genius of this book is the embedding of the arbitrary in the necessary, then the timing of its appearance—after our recent American experience of ugliness and depravity—was a genius of accident. We now need such radiance as much as ever anyone did.
Who, even twenty years ago, would have thought that someone would have the nerve to take such particles of data and orphaned verbs of Jewish history—not merely Jewish, of course, in that all are implicated—and approach something like the naïve but necessary claim of Rilke, that "In the sphere of the terrible there can be nothing so canceling or negative that the effect on it of artistic accomplishment would not leave it with a great positive excess." <
Bin Ramke's seven books of poems include Massacre of the Innocents, Wake, and Airs, Waters, Places. He edits Denver Quarterly and teaches writing at the University of Denver.