How to Make a Toilet-Paper-Roll Blowgun: Alternatives to Akhmatova in Mahmoud Darwish, Jean Genet, and Tomas Tranströmer
Akhmatova’s “Requiem” begins with an anecdote about the poet standing in line before the Kresty Prison. A stone building on the banks of the Neva, I visited it as a tourist several years ago—yes, as a tourist, you can pay several rubles and get a tour of the prison—and the prisoners: for Kresty is still a working prison. After the guide takes your ticket, you walk into a tall, narrow chamber with catwalks above you that lead to cell doors. When I visited, light through the clerestory in the onion dome overhead lit the stone walls, and birds trapped up in the dome whirled and fluttered and rustled their wings. Prisoners lounging against the catwalk railings looked down on us: the reverse of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, it was the prisoners who kept surreptitious watch over the tourists. But when the prison was first built, it consisted of two five-story buildings in the shapes of crosses—to encourage repentance—but which also allowed the corridors to be watched by guards from a single convergent point.
Vladimir Putin decreed in 2006 that a new Kresty Prison be built on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, while the present Kresty would be sold at auction and redeveloped—inevitably, as it seems—into a hotel/entertainment complex. But for now, the entertainment consists of the prisoners themselves and the prison’s “Who’s Who” list of famous political and artistic detainees: Akhmatova’s son, for one, the historian Lev Gumilyov, sentenced to Siberia for ten years; her first husband, the poet Nikolay Gumilyov, executed by a firing squad; Leon Trotsky, brained in Mexico City by an ice-axe wielding NKVD agent; and almost every other historical name associated with the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Great Purges and show trials of 1937–38.
I stared at the prisoners dressed in black caps and black uniforms, and they stared right back. I couldn’t see any guards, and we certainly weren’t escorted by anyone but our guide. On hands and knees, the men scrubbed the stone floor with worn-down bristle brushes. I saw a mouse, apparently fleeing from the slopping, soapy water, scurry down the corridor and slip into a crevice in the stone. No doubt this mouse came from the same genetic stock as the ones that must have scurried during Lev Gumilyov’s term of imprisonment, when he was locked up during the Yezhov terror that resulted in the execution of over a million people. Such is the background of Akhmatova’s poem—but one day soon, perhaps you’ll be able to stay in the Trotsky Suite, drink your champagne, and turn up the air-conditioning.
In Kresty Prison’s heyday, women lined up to give packages to the prisoners, standing in line, as Akhmatova says in “Requiem,” “for three hundred hours, / and where they never unbolted the door for me.” In the prison museum—yes, there’s a museum—I saw icons painted on Coke cans, historical photographs, contraband—such as a hollowed-out book to hold a knife—and what you might call crafts—a chess set, for example, made out of masticated bread beautifully sculpted into the warring armies. And then an example of the object that I found most moving of all, and still very much in use when I visited: a blowgun made of the little cardboard cylinders at the center of a toilet paper roll. Taped and glued together, the gun on display was over six feet long, the tube bent at a soft right angle at about the fourth foot: the prisoners wrote messages on scraps of paper, folded them up, inserted them in the gun, and blew them through the window bars. The right angle was for reaching windows around corners. It must take two men to handle a gun of this size, just to keep it from sagging or breaking apart. Whatever official policy the guards may have had toward these pipe-blown messages went unenforced: the parking lot was littered with them. I never learned if the men wrote their names and addresses on them so that the messages could be delivered, but something like that must have happened, for out in the parking lot, I saw several women—wives, girlfriends, mothers?—picking through hundreds of folded messages and putting a few of them in their purses.
My visit was almost a decade ago, but over the years, I’ve thought in a desultory way about why the image of those blowguns stays so fresh in my mind. Is it because, when I taught in a maximum security prison, Patuxent Institution, the prison guards would never have turned a blind eye to such activities? That kind of laxness would never have been tolerated. And on the prisoners’ side of the bars, I’d also spent a few days in jail myself, once for hitchhiking in Nebraska, the second time for stealing food in a grocery store. So I had some slight basis for fellow feeling with the prisoners, both as a teacher and an inmate. For a prisoner, the shutting of iron doors behind you, the clanging of metal on metal, felt a little like you'd been erased: all ties beyond the prison walls were cut off, felt far away, rendered weirdly irrelevant—which, of course, made you long for them that much more. The loneliness and desperation, as well as the fear of the other inmates that besets you, is one of the worst feelings I know. And so those toilet-paper blowguns were, for me, an emblem of our overwhelming need for communication—human breath blowing a message to the world. And the fact that they were made of such flimsy materials, materials whose purpose was connected to our most basic bodily functions, made me admire all the more the ingenuity that conceived and constructed them. It was an expression of common humanity, however absurd or desperate the feelings behind it, or however brutal the actions of the men who made them. For me, they represented an affirmative gesture and, out of a poverty of means, an instrument that expresses more about our essential nature, its animal and spiritual side, than that other, loftier instrument that the blowgun somewhat resembles: an object designed no less for communication, though of an artistic kind—a pipe or a flute.
Of course the archetypal flute was the one fashioned by Hermes and traded to Apollo in exchange for the caduceus. Apollo, the god of poetry, consummate musician of both the flute and the lyre, never had to take a shit—at least not in any of the myths I’ve read. Nor does he have to die, nor can any prison hold him. Which is perhaps why the toilet-paper-roll blowgun has such a strong hold on my imagination: I love its handmade nature, its aura of improvisation and bricolage, its embrace of recycled materials, its resolutely low-tech commitments in a world hurtling toward global corporate fascism. It suggests a kind of poetics based on these qualities, an oppositional poetics that isn’t simply a replication of the forces it’s opposing. Like Robinson Crusoe’s flute in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England,” it stresses the virtues of the homely, the homemade, but without being blind to the larger world. I doubt that Apollo would think much of such an instrument—tape and glue, the industrial processes that make toilet paper—it all seems a little too humanly involved to be of much interest on Mt. Olympus. In fact, the flute that Marsyas the satyr played in his famous contest with Apollo had belonged to Athena—that is, until she caught sight of her reflection in the water and hated the way the flute made her cheeks puff out. And so she threw it away, which is when Marsyas picked it up—man to the waist, goat below, no wonder puffed-out cheeks didn’t bother him. By the same token, animal-human humanity has clear affinities with the toilet-paper-roll blowgun.
This fancy is obviously not what the prisoners see in it, but the fact that a blowgun ended up in a museum that includes photographs of historic figures, as well as that exquisitely sculpted chess set made out of bread, suggests a surplus aura that goes beyond the obvious utilitarian purposes. The museum curator thought it was worth collecting and showing to tourists. And so the blowgun has about it a kind of artifactual antiquity, as if its presence in a museum gave it a shared pedigree with classical statues and great art. At the same time, it represents a counter-impulse to Apollo’s sacred music, a kind of punked-out vitality that has its own unique, and historically inflected, charge. If one of poetry’s traditional purposes is to bring humanity to the transcendent, another is to reach out to ordinary human beings and do what E. M. Forster said was the purpose of all art: “Only connect.”
Of course these purposes are complicated by darker cross-currents. One of them is the way Apollo takes his music making so seriously—so seriously, in fact, that when Marsyas challenges Apollo (now playing an even tonier instrument, the lyre) to a music contest and loses, the real concert turns out to be Marsyas’s screams as Apollo skins him alive. These screams turn Forster’s dictum inside out: Marsyas’s cries do indeed connect, but with ears sublimely indifferent to human suffering. The mythic vision of engaging Apollo in a divine music-making contest devolves into notes that would seem more appropriate for a toilet-paper-roll blowgun.
But it’s the dual nature of Akhmatova’s vision in”Requiem” that interests me. The poet casts herself as both Apollo and Marsyas—Apollo because of the transcendent poetic privilege she invokes to speak about collective suffering, Marsyas because she herself is the object lesson in what being skinned alive feels like. The implication that she is both torturer and tortured is heretical, and certainly repellent, but, I would argue, the main source of the poem’s power. It’s as if in the poem she overcomes her helplessness by wresting the initiative from Stalin, and refigures memory as the skinning knife that Apollo so effectively wields. In Part III, she writes, “No, it is not I, it is somebody else who is suffering. / I would not have been able to bear what happened . . . ” This radical dissociation intensifies in the next section in which she writes of her pre-Yezhov-terror self:
You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,
What would happen in your life—
How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison,
Your fiery tears
Burning through the New Year’s ice.,
And in these lines from Part IX, the apex of this split between torturing Apollo and suffering Marsyas reaches a climax, but also a kind of understanding:
And I’ve finally realized
That I must give in,
Raving as if it were somebody else.
In Epilogue II, she states explicitly this split between Apollo and Marsyas, but overcomes the split:
I will remember them always and everywhere,
I will never forget them no matter what comes.
And if they gag my exhausted mouth
Through which a hundred million scream,
Then may the people remember me
On the eve of my remembrance day.
And if ever in this country
They decide to erect a monument to me,
I consent to that honor
Under these conditions—that it stand
Neither by the sea, where I was born:
My last tie with the sea is broken,
Nor in the tsar’s garden near the cherished pine stump,
Where an inconsolable shade looks for me,
But here, where I stood for three hundred hours,
And where they never unbolted the doors for me.
The magnificence of these lines is made more magnificent by the poet’s wish for a monument to be built, not by the sea or the tsar’s garden, both sites of bourgeois or aristocratic privilege, but outside Kresty Prison, in solidarity with the hundred million who scream through her mouth. At the same time, I can’t help but feel the ferocity of Akhmatova’s egotism—the torturing Apollo who makes music out of Marsyas’s screams has had enough—and is now demanding her due from the transcendental State. In a sense, Akhmatova’s desire for a monument reveals underneath the Apollo/Marsyas split her own sense of her self-importance, as if she and history, or she and Stalin, were not only equals, but the force of Good ranged against the force of Evil.
This kind of confidence borders on self-parody: why would the officials at Kresty Prison unbolt the doors to an “old woman” (and by extension, to Akhmatova herself), who “howled like a wounded animal”? And isn’t there something faintly absurd in asking for a monument, as if she were angling for the honor? Beware of what you wish for: a statue of Akhmatova was recently erected there—a statue that, in its distortions of line suggestive of heroic suffering, borders on kitsch: no doubt it will add a touch of scenic melancholy to the hotel/entertainment complex.
But again, this courting of absurdity is one of the poem’s triumphs and provides the key to Akhmatova’s own sense of her persona—at times ironized, as in her wish for a monument, but overwhelmingly direct, grave, sincere. You can see this clearly in how the poem begins with an oft-quoted anecdote, entitled “Instead of a Preface,” in which she casts her persona as tragic rather than ironic or absurd. She insists on her own singularity, her superiority even, granted to her by her poetic gift. In that sense, she writes as if she herself, and her experience, were representative of history. Or to use Yeats’s phrase, her poems provide an example of poetry’s ability to hold reality and justice in a single thought.
Instead of a Preface
Once someone “recognized” me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
Can you describe this?”
And I answered: “Yes, I can.”
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.
This story has been repeated hundreds of times by American writers, most often as an example of what used to be called “the poetry of witness”—and as far as I know, always in a heroic context, such that the poet is presented as an exemplary figure, almost a kind of knight or Joan of Arc doing battle with an evil villain. But what interests me here isn’t so much the poet, but how she characterizes the woman with bluish lips: in keeping with the anti-Romantic nature of toilet-paper-roll blowguns, what would have been the woman’s reaction if the poet had refused the challenge and said, “No, I can’t.” Or if the poet had described the woman’s face, instead of saying that the woman had no face until the poet’s affirmation of the power of art, and its ability to confer identity, seem to have brought back the woman’s smile out of limbo? And what if the poet’s focus had been on finding out the woman’s name, as opposed to the poet’s assertion of her own name? In other words, what if Akhmatova abandoned the heroic pose and picked up a blowgun to blow a message not to the “hundred million” who scream through her mouth but to one person?
Poetry and poets can’t be expected to do everything—record atrocity as well as dignify each person in the photograph with a living name. At first, the tacit egotism of the poet, her assertion of her own power against the massive power of the state, may seem oddly pitched—but if you’re being crushed, isn’t the flaring of the ego a survival instinct? And couldn’t the woman’s face becoming a face again be emblematic of the egos of both the poet and her questioner? So, poetry summons up faces when they’ve been lost.
Yet, doesn’t the story also hint at how the role of the witness might equally well result in the faces of others being erased? In its self-seriousness, its almost stagy conviction that a hundred million can indeed scream through one mouth, Akhmatova’s limited subjectivity becomes the subjectivity of an entire people. The poem asserts poetic privilege as being unlimited, almost divine, in which the poet’s identity overbears history through what Osip Mandelstam once called “the steadfastness of speech articulation.” But when Marsyas is screaming, he isn’t being ironic or prophetic or displaying virtues like steadfastness: he’s simply screaming the way an animal in pain screams. And while the choice to scream or not to scream is, according to Nadezhda Mandelstam, the last assertion of our individual humanity, no poetic gesture can fully compensate or restore the symmetry of a face contorted into a scream. Screaming, after all, is pre-historical, pre-cultural, pre-dialectical.
This is perhaps why Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of the Other as being prior to history, psychology, discourse itself, becomes so important in a contemporary understanding of the word “witness,” in which a media-saturated age makes everyone an inadvertent voyeur, if not a witness, to global suffering. Through the revelation of what Levinas, in Totality and Infinity, calls “the primordial phenomenon of gentlessness,” the transcendent fact of the Other’s face gives the appetitive ego ethical coherence as a self—a coherence around the need to preserve the Other: it makes the absolute demand on the self, “Do not kill me.” A voyeur, on the other hand, lacks any ethical commitment: if someone is killed or not becomes secondary to the watching.
Maybe Levinas’s formulation is a luxury, though, for someone in Akhmatova’s psychic extremity, in which her obsession with her own self-image so as to overcome the split in her self-image and thereby make it an emblem for other sufferers’ self-images, is not only a canny means of survival but a primal expression of her desire that she and others survive with dignity. Isaiah Berlin, in his visit to the poet in 1945—a visit that may have set off a chain of disasters in bringing Akhmatova to Stalin’s attention so that he had a bug placed in her ceiling, had her work banned, ordered the ongoing imprisonment of her son, and oversaw the public and private humiliations she suffered later in life—recounts a conversation with Akhmatova in which he comments on her own sense of self-importance and how she deeply believed in the larger historical importance of her fate:
We—that is, she and I—inadvertently, by the mere fact of our meeting, had started the Cold War and thereby changed the history of mankind. She meant this quite literally; and . . . saw herself and me as world-historical personages chosen by destiny to begin a cosmic conflict . . . I could not protest . . . since she would have felt this as an insult to her tragic image of herself as Cassandra—indeed, to the historico-metaphysical vision which informed so much of her poetry. I remained silent.
What Berlin calls her “historico-metaphysical vision” and his tactful silence seem partially attributable to what Berlin’s own modesty and self-skepticism might call a paranoid delusion. In his account of her poetics, she chooses to be Cassandra, the prophetess doomed never to be believed—but this is hardly how Akhmatova casts herself in life or in “Requiem.” Cassandra is helpless, her gift ignored. But in “Requiem,” Akhmatova seems almost to connive with fate to be both Apollo and Marsyas, to be both the singing sufferer and the god who plays—or flays—Marsyas like an instrument. But a sense of destiny that Berlin regards as out of scale for himself—after all, he is protected from Stalin by working for the British Embassy—may have been Akhmatova’s way of holding onto her own identity, poetic and personal. Perhaps the pressure of Stalin’s day-to-day murderousness made her cast herself as his equal on the stage of world events so that she could see herself and Berlin as titans, too—titans of the spirit, if not titans of power like Stalin. But the point here isn’t whether Akhmatova was deluded or had lost perspective: the point is her faith in the power of art as embodied in the actual events of her life. Whether or not Stalin understands it, whether or not her self-dramatizing insistence on her own life as ushering in a whole epoch of political and historical conflict is accurate, Stalin’s nightmare, at least in Akhmatova’s mind, is to look in the mirror and see his condemnation staring back at him in the lineaments of her poetry. And why shouldn’t Akhmatova’s and Berlin’s meeting be the catalyst for the Cold War? As a metaphor for Stalin’s own paranoia, what cause could be more apt?
In thinking over what I learned about the lives of the Palestinians I talked to during a trip I took to Lebanon and Syria a year after the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel, I want to focus on feeling: not so much my feelings—my position as privileged outsider was more like Berlin’s than Akhmatova’s—but on the feelings that the people I talked to seemed to be experiencing as they told their stories; there were none of Apollo’s sacred notes here, only blowguns blowing out messages that went unread just as most of the messages lying in the parking lot of Kresty Prison would remain unread. The two dominant emotions that came through as the refugees talked about how they’d been forced out of their homes during the 1948 Nakba—the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes by the newly established state of Israel—were grief and grievance. Of course, as soon as you use the phrase “forced removal,” or the term, “Nakba,” you are entering a vast and contentious web of claims and counterclaims: Nakba in Arabic means catastrophe. The Israelis call the same war The War of Independence. Atrocities were committed on both sides: and so the terms of argument are far more vexed and complex than most versions of Stalin’s state terror that have come down to us. In one case, an old man told the story of watching how, as a small boy, Israeli soldiers murdered his mother, father, and brothers. The old man, tightly controlled, told the story with a muted intensity: he looked calm at first, but under that were grief and anger—and not a stupid or unreflective anger, but articulate, historical as well as personal. And yet, as I listened, I confess that it was easier to take in his grief than his grievance.
At times, in fact, I found it hard to listen to that sharpness in the voice, full of blame and anger, that was directed at the Jews, the West, the United States, and the other Arab countries. But the more I listened, and the more I’ve reflected on my reaction since I’ve been back in New York, the more convinced I am that grief and grievance cannot be separated. And that one of the main reasons why there is no real “peace process,” and why Western and Jewish and Palestinian and Arab policy makers keep making the situation ever more desperate, is their absolute insistence on keeping grief and grievance separate from one another, as if the emotional immediacy of grief would verify the justice of the grievance, or the grievance would be weakened by having to feel the other person’s grief. In a sense, what I’m talking about is the difference in feeling between a political conviction and what you might call a political emotion—and part of the greatness of Akhmatova’s “Requiem” lies in having transmuted the former into the latter. While Right and Wrong, or Good and Evil, are stable terms in “Requiem,” the poet’s self-division engendered by her suffering is anything but: the fluctuations between pronouns in which she addresses herself in second and third person, the ferocity with which she ironizes her pre-Yezhov-terror self, and even her absurd demand for a commemorative statue are all examples of how unruly her emotions are, despite her conviction that she is on the right side of history and that history will justify her as having shown what Auden called “an affirming flame.”
But to make grief and grievance more complex terms, I’d like to put them in apposition, and perhaps opposition, with two other terms: poetry and politics. Robert Frost has two little sayings which, in fact, amount to one saying, in which all four of these terms play off each other. In these formulations, Frost means poetry as the kind that’s written by self-conscious poets, but I want to expand the definition of poetry to something more basic. What I mean by poetry is the ability to communicate to others, to impress upon them—whether through words, gestures, or force of personality, whether literate or illiterate—the full-lived value of the your own experience. I think you can see in my expansion of poetry the full resonance of the image of a toilet-paper-roll blowgun. But here is how Frost puts grief, grievance, politics, and poetry in relation: “Politics is an extravagance, an extravagance about grievances. And poetry is an extravagance about grief.”
You can sense in Frost a kind of skepticism about grievance, as if grievance as a source for poetry were too partial of an emotion, too self-limiting, in fact too self-interested to reliably express the full range of a person’s experience. And in our time, we all know that self interest is the core of politics, particularly the kind of self interest that is often pitched against the community’s interest. And while I share Frost’s suspicion, in the hard conditions in the Palestinian camps that I visited—Sabra, Chatila, and Haret Hreik—there’s something a little luxurious about being able to decouple politics and grievance from poetry and grief. And so I want to give you two examples of how politics and grievance and poetry and grief are all on a seamless continuum, and that without the politics and grievance you can’t have the full expression of poetry, at least in the definition that I’ve proposed.
One of the places we visited during our trip was the Golan Heights. We spent part of the day in a ruined Syrian town, Quneitra, which was absolutely destroyed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War between the Syrians and Israelis. Before the Israeli army withdrew after the 1973 ceasefire, the Israelis evacuated the 37,000 Arabs living there and destroyed the town, stripping buildings of windows, doors, anything that could be carted off; these were sold to Israeli contractors, and then bulldozers and tractors moved in and knocked down most of the stripped buildings, now mangled slabs of concrete and rebar. It was odd, disturbingly odd, to see a herd of cows here and there, to hear birdsong everywhere, the remains of the town overgrown, even a garden full of roses run wild in what used to be somebody’s front yard. The village is now kept as a shrine/memorial by the Syrian government, which of course uses it for propaganda purposes as well. The hospital, which is only an empty shell of long cinder block corridors, was pocked all over by what looked like twenty-millimeter shell holes. At the axis of the hospital, an axis like the intersecting corridors at Kresty Prison, you could look down the corridor at the empty concrete window frames and see the green countryside stretching away to neat lines of olive trees planted on the slopes of the Heights. Swallows swooped in and out of the building, and the floor in some of the rooms was deep in powdered concrete.
In a church—the same church where Christ is said to have stopped on a trip to Galilee—there was graffiti written in Arabic on the walls: “Let fever make Sharon sweat.” From the empty frames of the windows, you could see Syrian checkpoints, white-washed buildings where some teenagers were kidding around with the soldier on duty, and, in front of the church, I could see slabs of gray, weathered concrete from the ruined houses cantilevered at crazy angles.
The impression this made—a ghost-town ruins, scenically pastoral, but a monument to still current suffering—put politics, grief and grievance into such complex relation that what I’ve called poetry would have been slighted if you’d settled for the Syrian government’s official version of what happened. The ruins themselves couldn’t be turned into mere fodder for anti-Israeli rhetoric. And the way that Quneitra became a subtly different emblem from what the Syrian government intended it to be was made even clearer by a visit we then made to a Palestinian refugee camp in the so-called Golan Heights, which of course is much more than a mountain—in fact, it’s some of the most fertile land in the region. And so Syria keeps demanding its return.
We were looking for someone to talk to, and went into a carpenter’s shop. People began to gather, and soon we were talking with a man in his sixties, who took us into his home, served us coffee and soft drinks that looked like wine, and talked to us for about two hours. His house was modest, but comfortable, unlike the homes in Lebanon, which are truly miserable and really deserve the word camps. In his living room, we sat on cushions on the concrete floor. A ceiling fan hung down, the floor was carpeted in industrial-style, brown carpet, there was a large hutch with family pictures and crockery neatly stacked, plastic roses in a wall sconce, and even a modest chandelier. He told us he was a retired teacher who had basically been an exile since he was three years old: he went to preparatory school in the village he ended up in after his family was expelled, then went to Damascus for high school and ended up spending thirty-eight years in Saudi Arabia as a teacher. He was dressed in a white gown and wore a red checkerboard headdress, a kefiyyeh. He said there was no sanitary drinking water, no central sewer, and that he thought the lack of these things contributed to the many cases of diarrhea. He told us his views about the Lebanese Palestinian camp near Tripoli where Al-Fatah, an Islamic militia, had taken refuge but now refused to surrender. He said dialogue was the one way to resolve the conflict, but that a political vacuum develops when you resort to indiscriminate shelling, as the Lebanese Army would eventually do, destroying the camp in the process. But he also said that there would never be peace until the European Jews returned to their original homelands.
As he talked about his past, at one point he asked if we’d like to see the deed to his family’s holdings in Golan. And when he said that the deed was covered in the blood of his brother, whom the Israeli soldiers had killed back in 1948, I thought he was making a metaphor, since he’d just said that living as a refugee in a tent when he was a child was like “living in a spiderweb in the heart of a well.” And that the life of an exile was a life “in desert places that resembled the life of a slave.” So when he said that watching his mother being killed, his four brothers being killed by the attacking Israelis, was like a “lake of blood, and that the deed was stained with blood,” I assumed his reference to the deed was just a metaphor. But then he asked us again if we’d like to see the deed, and he called his nephew on his cell phone, and the nephew came with the deeds to his family’s property. (I learned later that many Palestinians have the keys to their old homes.) And yes, the deed was literally stained with blood, the legalese obscured by three long, brown, faded stains. He said the deed was found when his uncle and cousin came over to the house after the soldiers dynamited it, which he also said he witnessed . . . as well as seeing one of his brothers, still a baby, sucking at his dead mother’s breast.
As we drove out of the village, we saw a slogan written on the Syrian side of the UN zone: Peace Is Our Target; The Peace Which Retrieves Our Occupied Syrian Golan. When you see how grief is ignored for the primacy of grievance in coupling a word like Peace with a word like Target, it becomes clear how the official diplomatic language tries to split off grief from grievance, even though grief and grievance, politics and poetry, are everywhere in tension with one another in what Quneitra as the background to the old man’s story came to mean. Sure, you can credit a man’s grief—that’s the easy thing, but what do you say to his grievance? How do you ignore the ruined concrete and rebar and the brutal, systematic intention that created it?
But my confusion about the old man’s use of the word deeds has about it a kind of poetic richness which makes grief and grievance inseparable, part of a seamless continuum between private experience and history, between the desire to see your enemies return to their homelands so that you can return to yours: and though nobody, probably not even the old man, really believes that such a solution is remotely possible, it expresses a collective wish that both grief and grievance be redressed.
And what happens if both grief and grievance are denied? Mahmoud Darwish, who, if there was such a thing as a Palestinian homeland, would be the unofficial Palestinian national poet, a man who endured the Nakba, as well as the personal Nakba that every refugee undergoes, has a poem called “Murdered and Unknown”:
Murdered, and unknown. No forgetfulness gathers them
and no remembrance scatters them . . . they’re forgotten in
winter’s grass gone brown along the highway between
two long tales about heroism and suffering.
“I am the victim.” “No. I alone am
the victim . . .”
The voices seem to compete for the honor of victimhood, as if Darwish were satirizing as much as memorializing the collective wound. Or, as a Hezbollah official said to me about the Israelis, quoting an Arabic proverb, “He hit me and then he cried.” Of course, it didn’t seem to occur to this official that this same logic might also apply to Hezbollah.
But Darwish’s poem hints at something darker than mutually blind opponents insisting on their own victimhood. Most of the people I met—the old Palestinian man, the guides at Quneitra—were just trying to lead their lives: if a rhetoric of victimhood was part of that, it was obviously a coping mechanism, a way of maintaining hope in what can seem like a hopeless situation—in much the same way that Akhmatova viewed herself as a world-historical personage. But it must be said that their relatives indeed had been murdered—as had many of Akhmatova’s friends—and were, for all the world cared, virtually unknown. No one would much notice if the survivors thought of themselves as victims or not. And unlike Whitman’s vision of grass in Leaves of Grass as a cosmic principle of intersubjective connection between all created things, the grass in Darwish’s poem possesses the neutrality of something dead but without any elegiac potential. In other words, grief and grievance are irrelevancies. The poem relies on no tragic gestures, no discourse about witness, whether of the variety proposed by Emanuel Levinas or Akhmatova’s version of poet as hero. Apollo’s notes sound ludicrously flat, and even a toilet-paper-roll blowgun can’t blow a message far enough beyond the bars to make the world take notice.
In his memoir, Prisoner of Love, about his two years with the Palestinian uprising in Jordan in 1968–70, Jean Genet tells us that when you’re called to testify in a law court in France, your technical status as a witness means that you neither serve nor oppose the judges: you’re sworn to tell the truth, not to tell it to the judges. And so the witness is on his own, surrounded, in Genet’s words, by “a solitude that confers on him a lightness from which he can speak the truth.” But the “witness doesn’t merely answer the implicit question ‘how?’—in order to show the ‘why’ he throws light on the ‘how,’ a light sometimes called ‘artistic.’” And so the coloration of light and shade, as they play across the trial of an idea, as the idea and its trial simultaneously unfold, that's what most interests me now, not only as a poet, but as a person. That coloration, whether light or dark, transparent or muddy, fanciful or real, can be poetry—provided that the play of light refracts the why into the how so that the trial of an idea also serves as the verdict.
If ever there was a poet who could both play Apollo’s notes and blow an artful message through the bars of history, it is the Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer. And he also seems to have understood Genet’s insistence on telling the truth, not to judges and the state authority they represent, but in a place of solitude where the trial of an idea can go on as a process of truth telling, as opposed to forcing the truth to conform to a political conviction, rather than following the ebb and flow of a political emotion. His poem “Codex” devotes itself to memorializing “the men of the footnotes,” rather than the world-historical personages through whose mouths the otherwise inarticulate “hundred million scream.” In that sense, “Codex” is a kind of anti-”Requiem,” more concerned with those who have escaped not only “the morality of power,” but “the black-and-white checkered game where the corpses’ stench is the only thing that never dies”—stench, of course, that hangs heavy over “Requiem,” and would hang heavy over “Murdered and Unknown” if the flesh hadn’t already rotted away and left nothing but bleached bones.
Though Darwish’s poem portrays an impasse between grief and grievance, his treatment of despair shares with Tranströmer a sense of proportion about what Berlin called Akhmatova’s historico-mythic stance toward experience. While Akhmatova is interested in showing how personal history shades into myth—and not only a myth, but the myth that will hold true in the titanic struggle between Good and Evil—both Tranströmer and Darwish show how myth shades into the particulars of history: in their poems, good and evil are written with small letters, and the outcome of the struggle between the two feels provisional, at best a temporary reprieve in which “the men of the footnotes, the unplayed, the half forgotten, the deathless unknowns” are the paradoxical standard bearers for artistic achievement as well as humane behavior. Rather than depending on Akhmatova’s myth of poetic genius, of the poet as representative sufferer elected by history and granted poetic privilege by Apollo’s touch, Darwish’s “murdered and unknown” transform into Tranströmer’s “deathless unknowns” through the act of making themselves even more anonymous, as these lines from “Codex” so beautifully illustrate:
But the ones who really want to be taken off the list . . .
They don’t stay in the territory of the footnotes
they go into a declining career that ends in oblivion and peace.
In these lines, you could accuse Tranströmer of a radical form of quietism, even a complete lack of political engagement. But what is so moving about this oblivion is that it comes across as a choice: I can see the reader who would say, “Some choice—about as much choice as asserting your humanity through screaming.” And while that overtone is strongly present, the agency that Tranströmer gives his oblivion-seekers seems like a subtle repudiation of what, in the first line of the poem, he calls the men “of the headlines,” the ones who revel in “swallowing the morality of power,” and who think they control “the black-and-white checkered game” that results in Stalin’s most quotable remark (possibly a misattribution): “One man’s death is a tragedy, a million dead is a statistic.”
But these murdered unknowns aren’t statistics because the poet, as Genet instructs him, explores the corridor, not for the sake of the judges, but to find that place of “lightness from which he can speak the truth”; a place that at first seems like the realm of myth, but then resolves into the world of history:
. . . I find myself in the
that would be dark
if my right hand weren’t shining like a flashlight.
The light falls on something written on the wall
and I see it
the way the diver sees the name on the sunken hull flickering towards
in the streaming depth:
ADAM ILEBORGH 1448. Who?
The one who got the organ to stretch its clumsy wings and rise—
it kept itself hovering almost a minute.
What a successful experiment!
In this passage, Tranströmer, like a deep-sea diver exploring a mythic wreck, grounds his exploration in the fact that Adam Ileborgh was an early composer of organ music, and that his experiments succeeded in making the organ “stretch its clumsy wings and rise.” It may not seem like much in comparison to Akhmatova, but Tranströmer’s excitement transforms Ileborgh’s successful experiment into a triumph over gravity: that such an unwieldy, cumbersome thing as an organ can hover for almost a minute borders on the magical.
Despite such magic, Tranströmer recognizes that the men of the footnotes, the Adam Ileborghs, may only speak in whispers in comparison to the world-historical personages. But as individual efforts like Ileborgh’s gain momentum, “whisper upon whisper” adds up “to a breaker that rushes along the corridor / without knocking anyone over.” The tactfulness of that wave exemplifies a different kind of artistic and cultural virtue from Akhmatova’s poetic grandeur. However great a poet Akhmatova is—and, given her historical circumstances, her courage, her verbal artistry, and her endurance, she exemplifies one form of poetic integrity that is truly heroic—I suspect she would want her words to be more of a tidal wave sweeping away everything in its path: Kresty Prison, Yezhov, Stalin himself.
Of course the historical conditions that have pervaded in the West since the end of World War II are radically different from Akhmatova’s. The Cold War era’s eerie nuclear security among well-defined super powers, as well as the creep in our post–Cold War period of what Christopher Hedges calls corporate fascism—in which democratic values are subordinated to economics—make it difficult to pinpoint just who the Stalins are. Or else there has been such a proliferation of little Stalins all across the globe—the Joseph Konys and Charles Taylors and Slobodan Miloševićs, the Interahamwe of Rwanda, the Devil on Horseback of Sudan, and, in some political circles, Ariel Sharon, Henry Kissinger, and George Bush—that to speak from the vantage of one country, one history, seems somehow inadequate. The image of Stalin as evil incarnate has shattered into our current paranoiac’s dream of terrorist cells everywhere you look—though one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, such that, in Lowell’s words, “small war / follows on the heels of small war.” Perhaps Akhmatova’s heroic stance isn’t flexible enough to capture our relentlessly shifting, kaleidoscopic vision of world conflict in which the world at war isn’t a World War but the sum total of hundreds of smaller conflicts. In our era, the “murdered and unknown,” as well as “the deathless unknowns,” forge an uneasy solidarity with the “unknown soldier.” Imagine a monument to the Unknown Collateral Damage that the unknown soldier both slaughters and defends. Under such conditions, Tranströmer’s celebration of “the almost rubbed-out names of the artists” is just as much a heroic undertaking, but without the heroic stance, as Akhmatova’s “Requiem.”
In contrast to Akhmatova’s insistence that she can describe what she sees in the shadows of Kresty Prison, Tranströmer insists on the work of humane culture as a collective seeing, a non-hierarchical effort. It’s not so much that Tranströmer is hostile to the myth of isolated genius, it’s just that it’s inoperative in the particular corridor of history in which the poet happens to find himself. His role is more Genet’s witness in search of a place that will allow him to describe the way in which the why of the truth gets revealed under the subtle colorations of the how. And as that coloration deepens his understanding, the corridor transforms so that it “isn’t a corridor anymore”:
Neither burial place nor market square but something of both.
It’s also a greenhouse.
Here is plenty of oxygen.
The dead of the footnotes can breathe deeply, they are included in the
ecological system just as before.
While these lines would seem to refer to dead musicians, the murdered and unknown of Darwish’s poem also find their place in the poem’s well-oxygenated spaces in which even the dead “are rehabilitated. / And the ones that can’t receive any more / haven’t stopped giving.”
Tranströmer’s use of the word rehabilitated subtly conjures the post-Stalin thaw of the vindicated dead, in which Akhmatova’s first husband, as well as thousands of others who made up the millions of Stalin’s grim statistics, were cleared of their so-called crimes. Tranströmer’s canny expansion of the term to include all the dead who, even though they are dead, “haven’t stopped giving,” suggests another way out of Akhmatova’s embrace of her own singularity, or the endless wrangling of victims who vie with one another over whose grief is greater, whose grievance more justified. Even after death, whether we die in our sleep or are slaughtered, the work of a humane world goes on among the men and women of the footnotes just as certainly as it does among the world historical personages. Ileborgh may be dead, but six hundred years later his organ can still fly.
Yet as the “light falls on name after name” so that the “walls are covered with scribbles,” the names are slowly being erased:
Some are anonymous, they are my friends
but I don’t recognize them. They are like those stone people
& carved on grave slabs in old churches.
Mild or severe reliefs on walls that we brush against, figures and
& sunk into the stone floor, being rubbed away.
But the ones who really want to be taken off the list . . .
They don’t stay in the territory of the footnotes
they go into a declining career that ends in oblivion and peace.
The total oblivion. It’s a kind of examination
that is taken in silence, to walk across the border and no one
notices . . .
In this form of communal anti-communion, in which everyone equally must suffer the forces wearing away their scribbled names, Tranströmer suggests that even in death our responsibilities—and culpabilities—toward others don’t come to an end. In his subtle way of casting light, this uncanny vision of the afterlife of death means that we are all bound together by our desire for “oblivion and peace”—but an oblivion and peace that each of us must choose by crossing that border between remembrance and absolute anonymity. No matter if our names are historical or not, Tranströmer makes it clear that none of us can exist forever in the leaves of the codex: not the Akhmatovas, not the prisoners of Kresty Prison blowing messages through the bars, not the old Palestinian man, nor the murdered and unknown, nor “the deathless unknowns” hidden away in the “territory of the footnotes.”