blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1


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Jehanne Dubrow  |  Notes Toward a Nonexistent Poet

Begin by writing sonnets, dozens of sonnets. Call yourself a Formalist. Write until you are fed up with this thing called iambic pentameter, sick to death of the usual Elizabethan rhyme scheme, a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-g.

Write about your childhood overseas. Italy, Yugoslavia, Zaire, Poland, Belgium, Austria.  Write about the intersection of Jewish identity and the Shoah, such an important, sticky problem in your upbringing. Write your coming-of-age in tercets and quatrains. Stitch a few white lies into the poems but not too many nor too severe—perhaps, the color of your winter coat or the menu of a dinner eaten in Brussels. Let this be your first, completed manuscript. Bind those fifty-something pages with a clip, slide them into a manila envelope, and mail them off to a hundred thousand presses. Wait.

Sigh with relief to have told those mostly-true stories. You have coughed them out of your chest. They are gone. They are done.

It is time to make something up of whole cloth. Ida Lewin is a poet too, but she works in Yiddish, a language you have never learned. She lives and dies many decades before you were born, in the Polish town of AlwaysWinter, a place that only exists on a map you draw from imagination. Ida is Orthodox where you are Reform, a mother where you are not. She believes in the magic of white cranes and mermaids, the Evil eye, the power of prayer to reshape the body. 

Out of habit (or maybe it is fear of adventure) you begin many of Ida’s poems as sonnets.  You pick at and pull apart the fourteen lines until each text becomes a shredded, moth-eaten fragment, some lines stretched thin as threads across the page, some sentences punctured or creased with age. As Janusz Wróblewski, your nonexistent literary scholar explains, Ida’s writings are discovered by two schoolchildren in 1986, buried in an alleyway behind the former site of the Great Synagogue in AlwaysWinter. Because your invention requires that the poems survive in tatters, you are able to let go of the sonnets, the villanelles, the sestinas (at least for a little while). You begin poems without knowing their final lines. Ida will show you how each fragment ends, for instance, “the vellum of my skin” or else “I gleam as hemorrhage / inside your hunger-dreams.”

So, now you are writing fragments which once were whole poems. You translate from Yiddish to English, attempting to preserve Ida’s vernacular, the Biblical rhetoric of her verse, anaphora and alliteration. You picture her husband. Theirs is an arranged marriage, and often Ida feels that she lives with a stranger, a man she doesn’t love or even like.  You give her daughter the name Rivka. You envision Ida’s face framed by a black scarf decorated in pink cabbage roses. Consider the meals she cooks. Consider her secrets, her menstrual cycle, her fantasies about forbidden foods, forbidden men she watches in the market or on the streets of AlwaysWinter.

You research everything that seems relevant: Yiddish poets of the first half of the twentieth century, the culture of Galicia, yizkor books, traditional recipes, old postcards and photographs. The fragments are theater. Writing in Ida’s voice is like acting. Each new piece of information adds texture to the work, giving the impression of a flesh-and-blood woman.                    

All this time, you serve as a Sosland Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies in Washington, DC. In fact, the libraries and archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are invaluable resources, allowing you to research every quotidian element of Ida Lewin’s days. You know what Ida wears, what she eats, where she shops, all because of your research at the USHMM.

Your colleagues—mostly historians, sociologists, psychologists—answer your strange questions about the Shoah and about prewar Jewish life, but they find your adventures in make-believe rather discomfiting. She’s a bit nuts, they think. When it comes to the Holocaust, a writer’s work raises questions that prick and poke the mind. What are the ramifications of inventing a Jewish poet who died in 1938? What are the dangers of concocting a town in southern Poland?  How can you write Yiddish poems if you don’t speak or read the language? What are the consequences of such playfulness?  Does fiction have a place here? Does poetry?

You kill Ida in 1938. She dies of influenza not of Auschwitz.  Rivka dies too, and many of Ida’s final poems are a private Kaddish for her dead daughter. You have never been a mother or seen a child die of fever, but these poems are a form of grieving. For what?  Ida is not a Holocaust poet, although she writes in an exterminated mothertongue. Her body is absence solidified, imagination made concrete. Her voice is real. You hear her laughter in the dark. 

Adorno said something about writing poetry after Auschwitz. It is barbaric, he said. Ida died before there ever was an Auschwitz. For her, there were no death camps or gas chambers. To write as Ida Lewin is to speak without postmodern irony about Poland and the Jews. Her poems contain no foreshadowing or backshadowing or sideshadowing (or maybe they do). The oven where challah bakes is only an oven. The candles lit on Friday night are only candles. 

After you finish Ida’s manuscript—fifty poems, plus a scholarly introduction and a translator’s note—you light a yahrzeit candle in her memory. She is dead. She never lived.

There are other poems waiting now. Lately, you’ve been thinking about the Supreme Fiction of autobiography. Perhaps, not every poem needs to be made up of whole cloth.  You have been hearing rhymed couplets. Perhaps they’re not so boring after all. You have been thinking about sonnets and iambs again.  Perhaps, perhaps.  end of text

   Contributor’s notes   
  Tracking the Muse

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