Commentaries - October 2008

What did it mean for survivors of the concentration camps to fast during the first Yom Kippur after the war — September ’45? Some reporter for the Jerusalem Post in 2006 went around to survivors to interview them about that first post-genocide fast. “Edith Cohen recalls her hunger pangs in a sealed cattle car on the way to Auschwitz from her home in Hungary. When her food ran out she chewed on one piece of chicken skin for four days just to keep something in her mouth.” So fasting a few months after liberation was easy. The article that resulted from this investigation is no great shakes (and indeed full of stupid puns — one survivor faster found fasting “easy as pie”) but I find it fascinating nonetheless. If going without food was still the norm, what did fasting seem to mean to them? Did they momentarily thrive on the company of sufferers? Otherwise — as nearly every account and testimony suggests — these people felt extraordinarily alone.

New at PennSound: Rae Armantrout’s January 1983 talk on silence. The downloadable mp3 recording is divided into two parts. Have a listen.

In 1999 Marjorie Perloff came to Philadelphia to talk about — among other things — Gertrude Stein. We recorded her part of a conversation with me and Bob Perelman about Stein and recently I pulled this excerpt — which is about Stein’s idea of verbal portraiture.

The newest episode of PoemTalk is being released today. Elizabeth Willis, Julia Bloch, Jessica Lowenthal and I talk for about twenty-give minutes about Erica Hunt’s marvelous poem, “The Voice of No,” from her mid-90s book Arcade.

Erica is the executive director of the 21st Century Foundation. “In recent years, 21CF has taken a leadership role in promoting new models of Black philanthropy that support donors who want to develop the skills, commitment and imagination to address pressing issues impacting Black communities.”

The poem ends with a horrible flood, to which the response from “us” (all of us, including the poem’s speaker) is insufficient. The drowner is handed a ladder to paddle. The poem was written a decade before Katrina, but since Erica and her foundation have been very involved in that and similar recoveries, we couldn’t help but talk about the politics of nature during our PoemTalk session.

Go here for more on this PoemTalk. There you’ll see a link to the text of the poem, to a recording of Hunt reading the poem, and to the PoemTalk discussion, of course.

When a poet asserts she has the voice of no, does that mean she has it - has got that voice down, can do that voice - and wants to know it from the inside in order to get past it, or wants to doubt it, so that she and we can get on to the positive change we seek? Or is, finally, that voice her voice? A withering critique of present conditions (21st-century-style hyper-mediation; disorientation and alienation; natural disasters in response to which there are human-made failures): is that what this voice of no voices?

Well, you can imagine that our PoemTalkers, talking Erica Hunt's poem "the voice of no" from her magnificant illustrated book of poems Arcade, came to no simple conclusion to the above-posed questions. One reason is that the poem starts in a comically self-aware yet censorious maternal voice and then gives way, from a longer view and somewhat more omniscient p.o.v., to geopolitical social ills that indirectly but devastatingly follow (the personal is political for Hunt, for damned sure).

Elizabeth Willis joined us this time, as did Julia Bloch - for both, first appearances on PoemTalk. And an insightful regular, Jessica Lowenthal, formed up our foursome.

Here is the text of the poem. And here a link to Arcade, with illustrations by Alison Saar. Here is Erica Hunt's PennSound page and here is a link to the recording of our poem, "The Voice of No" (1:01).

Our engineers for this episode were Steve McLaughlin and James LaMarre, and our editor was Steve McLaughlin, now productively HQ'd in Rotterdam. The recording of Hunt's poem was made during a conversation with Charles Bernstein as part of his "Close Listening" series, June 20, 2005.