by Leila Rosner and Cassandra Callaghan
Leila Rosner: Thank you so much, Burt, for allowing us to interview you on your new book. Your poems really serve to transport the reader outside of herself, which I feel is the mark of a great work.
In Abandoned Angel, you implement a minimalist style very similar to the way Hemingway used his “Iceberg Method” which is to show only 10% of the “iceberg” and leave the remaining 90% for the reader to envision on her own. Do you feel this literary style helps the reader become more immersed in your poetry? If so, how?
Burt Kimmelman: I don’t really know if the style particularly spurs immersion. I also wonder how ultimately useful it is to compare poetry, when the issue involves a story-telling style, which is used in a different literary genre like fiction. Sure, up to a point, the comparison can be fruitful; but poetry, at least my poetry, really isn’t comparable.
I love Hemingway, and I get the whole iceberg thing. He wants to make imaginative room for his reader. Is that the same as the reader being immersed in his prose? What about an immediate predecessor to Hemingway such as Henry James? As a “modern” reader, let’s say, I enjoy how Hemingway’s “iceberg” writing isn’t suffocating me with detail. Hemingway works within point of view that is unadorned in its presentation, much of that a physical point of view. (I don’t mean to suggest that James was not a great writer.)
While at times my poems end up with a more or less obvious narrative, they’re not really “about” anything—or this is what I hope for them. I’ve thought at times that the best I can do is to avoid narrative in my poetry. Actually, that’s not a very easy thing to accomplish.
There may be a hint of a story in William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
I suppose we see only about five percent of the iceberg here. But the poem may be suggesting that we need not look for the iceberg in its entirety. On the other hand, there’s a vividness in both Hemingway and Williams. I also want to make something vivid. I’m hoping my reader’s attention comes to rest on the words in and for themselves—their sonic and visual textures, as well as other attributes.
Notice that Williams has arranged his poem so that a preposition sits on a line all by itself—unusual in his day. Like Williams, I adhere to a prosody I develop in the writing of the poem. Count the syllables in Williams’ poem, and in the poems of Abandoned Angel. Notice his symmetry—in some of his later work a calculated departure from that symmetry.
How about the look on the page? Does poetry like mine compare more with visual art than fiction, just as Williams’ might have? Both Williams and Hemingway were caught up in literary Modernism, and Williams was quite enamored with visual art. The 1913 Armory Show in New York City, which exhibited a great deal of avant-garde art of the time (Cubism etc.), never before seen in America, profoundly affected him.
Rosner: The comparison between your poetry and visual art is a very intriguing one. A very existential way of looking at any art and the power of vividness to provoke reactions.
I think this is a good segue to talk about your poem “Taking Off from Orly Airport,” where I see you begin with a quote from William Bronk, who evidently liked to question the way we look at time and space and our relationship to it. The following sentence, which comes after your airplane has ascended above Paris’ Orly Airport, seems to raise an existential question about the relationship with “foreign” places:
The city below,
the houses among
the mists of morning,
the stands of trees and,
as we ascend, the
wheat fields beyond them
all, the eye seeing
farther—we are just
as much there as here,
alien and true.
Do you feel that we can exist in two places at once based on what we leave behind when we depart a place? What would make us so “alien” when we depart?
Also, as you have written a book on William Bronk, do you think he has influenced your new poetry in this book? If so, how?
Kimmelman: Let me try to weave together at least two strands you’ve mentioned here, the one having to do with my poetry and visual art, the other with my poetry as it has been influenced by Bronk who, while at times he wrote about art, was not especially interested in how his poetry looked on the page. Another poet whose work informs this poem, Paul Blackburn, was being especially visual—while Bronk’s poetry often involved philosophical issues concerned with what can be known and how might it come to be known (or provisionally known).
I became friends with Bronk when I was still an adolescent, in the mid sixties, when I was in college, after he gave a reading. His work has had an enormous effect on me. Not long after meeting him, I met Blackburn; his work, too—particularly the book he was writing when he died, The Journals (published posthumously in 1975)—has also deeply affected me. Both of these poets were mentors of mine; both have their respective influences on my writing.
They were different from one another in their poetry, in some key ways. Both were precise in their use of language. Blackburn, however, was more interested in being visual on the page. Also, Blackburn’s poems had an open-ended quality I have tried to emulate. As for Bronk, he understood about closure but didn’t eschew it, although he didn’t want to be heavy handed in ending his poems (that is, in stating some grand concept or conclusion); he did want his poems to arrive at some definitive point (just not in any ponderous, or sentimental, way).
Bronk’s poetry raised questions to do with the human mind. His poems specifically engage epistemological questions (i.e., how we might know what we know or think we know). He was philosophical (though he was a poet, not a philosopher). Blackburn, on the other hand, was trying to avoid pronouncements of philosophical matters entirely (except that he might try to employ them obliquely to create an atmosphere, or in some ironic way). The epigraph to “Taking Off from Orly Airport”—“Out and back the mind”—comes from Bronk’s poem “The Various Sizes of the World.” In that poem we find the persona looking through a telescope; this sets him thinking about how
The mind is shifted outward into space
beyond the sun, where the surface sky explodes
softly forever like an endless wind.
Out and back the mind, the slide of the rule.
Where shall we add the logarithm of what
to find the actual product of any hour?
In “Taking Off from Orly Airport” the poem’s epistemology—it might be better to say something like the poem’s procedure—is in keeping with Blackburn’s poetry, for example his poem “AUG/22 . Berkeley Marina” (notice the spacing on either side of the dot, in this title).
In Bronk’s poem a paradox is made apparent when the speaker peers through the telescope at the night sky: the instrument makes the stars seem nearer as he realizes, more than he did before the looking, how very distant they are. This thought leads him to contemplate how utterly alone in the universe he is. He asks, “What address ever really finds / us in the endless depths the world acquires?” (cf. “The Winter Mind” 155, here). Blackburn never concerns himself with such a question. He chooses to live in the moment, in his poems, fully present. Aside from the ingenious ways he uses words and the page in his poems, presentness is their real charm, achieved through the words.
Both poets are existentialists, but in starkly different ways. Each of the poems in Blackburn’s collections has been worked out just as carefully any poem of Bronk’s. Yet Blackburn’s poems seem as if they were tossed off, like in a diary. Moreover they are, first and foremost, visual. In “AUG/22 . Berkeley Marina” the poem’s speaker observes, from the deck of a moored sailboat on a breezy day, that the pennants on the guy wires of the boat are being held straight, completely unfurled by the wind:
wind holding the flags out
Within a kind of perpetual motion, the boat gently rocking, he watches his wife’s legs, as she exercises, also in motion. In their perfect composure, completely living in the moment, he thinks of “the 3 graces & the 4 dignities” of ancient Chinese philosophy. Blackburn sets them out on the page as two lists, one placed beside the other. Each is framed by a simply drawn rectangle. One contains the lines “grace of word, / of deed, / grace of thought,” and the other, “standing // sitting / walking // & lying down.”
How is the poem to be read? There is no prescribed method. What’s important, in any case, are the two people who are “at peace” with the world. In this poem the language, in and of itself, and the natural phenomena described, the world taken in by the poet, seamlessly merge through the graphics on the page. (See here.)
In a poem like “Taking Off from Orly Airport” I try to be as delicate as possible in the sketching of a quite physical scene, and in my hinting at an immanence within the physicality I describe—in what the twentieth-century philosopher Martin Heidegger might have referred to as its thingly nature.
Cassandra Callaghan: As the reader, I enjoyed how you often clearly name the setting in the title of the poem or directly underneath it. I think you touch on this above, but could you expand on why establishing time and space is important to your work? Does it have anything to do with your interest in the Objectivist poetic tradition?
Kimmelman: Your question makes me wonder about the aesthetics of documenting the self and how much that has played into my practice. I don’t think I’ve wanted to do something as pointed and monumental as, let’s say, what the artist On Karawa achieved in some of his projects. I have in mind his long series of date paintings (as can be viewed here). And there was his daily practice, over years, of sending postcards to friends, always with the same formula, “I got up [at a specific time and date]” (an example of which can be seen here).
But I took that notion of being-in-the-moment, let’s say, in my words on the page, along with the specifying of date and place for a poem, from Blackburn’s The Journals. He didn’t invent that either, though the diaristic sense in his language and outlook, and in that book especially (you can see him doing this in potentia in earlier early poems), is original with him. (Then again, there’s his contemporary, Frank O’Hara, whose Lunch Poems have also been an influence on my writing). This documentizing, so to speak, was not exactly practiced by the Objectivist poets or their fellow travelers. However, I do feel like the direction in which they took literary Modernism can be seen to have sponsored what Blackburn did And, just as in his writing, let’s consider again Karawa’s date paintings (another several are here). There’s a clarity in them, perhaps an iconicity, in their numbering per se. Also, there’s their specificity. Do we see Blackburn’s words, at times his figurations, on the page, as possessing an in-itself demeanor? (These projects of Karawa’s are more or less contemporaneous.)
Blackburn’s early work gets written while he’s in close communication with Ezra Pound. Their letters to one another are increasingly inventive and brilliant—the correspondence, in all, is extraordinary in both what they are discussing and how they’re discussing it. Like other poets such as Charles Olson, Blackburn visited Pound when he was being held at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in DC. Olson, Blackburn, and some of the Objectivists, maintained correspondences with Pound.
I wonder if the way to most effectively evoke time in a poem is not to try for something that might best be handled by music, for instance, which is unburdened by words, but, rather, to use space to create a there, such as in Blackburn’s work. The time of a life is rescued from the continuum and can be experienced in a way unique to the poem. The Objectivists, more so than the Imagists or Vorticists (emerging out of the Modernist core), were especially sensitive to the writtenness of language, the word objectified, so to speak, on the page—the page a part of the material experience of the poem’s language. This is a tradition in poetry I have increasingly embraced. To get back to what you asked, yes, along with poets like Blackburn, my reading has involved the Objectivists for a long time now.
Callaghan: Abandoned Angel is divided into two parts, “Weather” and “Cities,” yet in many of the poems it seems like these themes cross over. In “From Shore” and “Quarrel of Gulls” you establish the setting to be Miami Beach. “The Luxury of Time” is set at an exhibition at the Met, and I think the title of “First Warm Day in April on West Twenty-Third Street” speaks for itself. Despite the division, it seems inevitable for the natural world to interact with the man-made. Leaving one out of the other would only tell half of the story. How do you hope to portray the relationship between the natural and the manmade worlds, or in other words, “weather” and “cities”?
Kimmelman: Nice question! I think I can give a useful answer to it. The question is quite pertinent, if we are thinking that the poems in this book have a lot to do with, and arguably create, a specificity brought to bear through evocations of space or place. (To some extent we’re hearkening back to our earlier questions and answers; so here’s an opportunity to be more explorative about a matter we’ve already entered into.)
The human-built, or human-designed, place is as much a space as any in the simply natural world; possibly either can be sensed as place. Maybe it would be helpful for me to say that I seek to evoke places in my poems.
I should also state that Abandoned Angel ended up as it did, divided into “weather” and the obliquely tangential “cities,” although I didn’t consciously write the poems in this collection according to some preconceived notion of them as organized in any special way, category or label, etc. The book’s editor suggested a few changes; these turned out to have been instrumental—they had to do with groupings. He felt that certain poems belonged within proximity of others, overall that the poems needed to be arranged in larger groupings—so a reader could more easily notice certain concerns or tendencies, a particular focus, that kind of thing.
These poems emerged out of the dailiness of my living, organically—but once something I’d scribbled seemed to have potential as an actual poem, my drafting, the writing and rewriting, would begin (sometimes the end result had little or nothing to do with the instigation). Yet I can say that the conceiving of these poems had more to do with just living my life and doing my usual poet thing.
Is there an essential interrelationship between space and place, in a civilized world—”civilized” since cities are both products and shapers of modern civilizations, weather existing without cities but affecting them? We conceive of a city as, in its built nature, technological, yet we might mindfully resist the completely unnatural environment, completely controlled. Would not the completely technologized city—imagine a city without a tree, without a bird—be our ultimate nightmare, by design the eradication of organic nature?
In an oblique contrast to the nightmare city, there’s the garden. A garden—the respite it brings—represents the beauty of human ingenuity even as it betrays something in nature; while doing so, it elevates a semblance of nature before our eyes, for the pleasure of its contemplation. A garden is meant to celebrate nature as if the urban lifestyle were not preferred, perhaps—the city where so much poetry, for one thing, gets written. The garden must be sited within or adjacent to a built-up landscape. Yet a garden is a place of repose—unlike what untouched nature, “red in tooth and claw,” can be at times. So the garden, meant to evoke nature, is also designed nature, the refuge not natural; it’s neither country nor city. It’s not wilderness.
Andrew Marvell wrote in a now famous poem that a garden “[annihilates] all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade” (“The Garden,” 1681). There’s a paradox here: we escape our human-made, technologized world that instills in us the turmoil of thought, by seeking out the garden that is (also) our very creation, in order to let go. I don’t know if the garden is tamed nature or not. In essence we’ve “annihilated” nature in the process of creating the garden (see Gary Snyder’s book The Practice of the Wild). I could not live without New York City, but in the suburb where I reside there is a repose and natural beauty in which I often count myself lucky to be immersed. Once my wife, daughter and I decamped from our lovely apartment in Brooklyn years ago, to live in our present house—a large and lovely red maple tree in our backyard, bushes and birds, squirrels, possums, raccoons, deer all around—I began to write what would glibly be called “nature” poems.
You cite my poem “From Shore.” Yes, lying on the sand, very near the ocean shore (where the poem’s scene unfolds), might allow one to forget the city of Miami. South Beach, that portion of Miami where the situation of that poem was first occurring to me—the very character of South Beach—must include a kind of forgetfulness in which the realization that one is in a large and highly sophisticated urban environment dissolves (that’s part of the charm of South Beach). This is also to say, though, that the experience of this beach could never be that of a wilderness. Not a hundred steps back from where I lay on that Miami beach, looking out at swimmers and birds in the water, was a bar where I could get a coffee and saunter back with it to my beach blanket, and where the conversation I was overhearing, while waiting for my order, was about this or that person’s apartment in Manhattan (Miami is a sort of annex of New York City). Yet to sail far into the ocean might, I suppose, give one the sense of the wild.
My poems—at times they do have a theme involved, for good or ill—are not to be thought of principally as evoking either the country or city. I write poetry to engage language itself. If my experiences have to do at the time with lying on a beach then it’s not unlikely they will make their way into my poem. To be involved in the play of words, in syllables and syntax, a play a poet would set in motion—this can be the pleasure of poetry. Just reading the poem for the sake of that play, just to engage in it, is also the pleasure of poetry.
Yes, I may be sitting under a tree and hearing cicadas, watching squirrels on an upper branch made nervous by a prowling cat, all of which I record (not always faithfully); the moment of being alive there, however—this, through the play of language, I would hope—is what my poem can contain and convey. It’s true that I have tried to train myself to see, to attend to, my physical now and to be receptive to a gestalt that is the sensorium of the moment. Even so, why should a poet not live in the words, the syntax, their sounds, just as the painter lives in the light and texture of a painted image, abstract or representational, even in the individual brush strokes, which color, light texture hold in place?
Callaghan: The title poem, “Abandoned Angel,” corresponds to the cover art, done by your daughter Jane Kimmelman. Did the artwork or the poem come first?
Kimmelman: The artwork came first. It had nothing to do with my poems. But I felt inspired by it. I also felt I could have a lot of artistic say in my new book’s design, given my relationship to its publisher (a writer may not be given much artistic control of book design, book cover, etc.). With my daughter’s permission, I entered into a long back-and-forth with the book’s superb designer, Susan Quasha, who was very knowing and patient with me (I love how she responded to the painting and to the collection of poems overall). I don’t particularly feel that the painting affected the direction I was going in, however, as evinced in the collection. I think the painting comports with the poems in the book.
Rosner: Nice to be back discussing Abandoned Angel with you again, Burt. I am inspired by many things as well. Nietzsche and Walt Whitman being two of many. Nietzsche and his philosophy to become the “ūbermench” is so daunting but fascinating.
On reading your poem “On a Subway Ride to Brooklyn, Evening Rush Hour” I am immediately struck by the following lines that suggest that we are watching people showing love to gain some sense of emotion in a city filled with chaos and instability:
We watch her face – when his fingers
trace her bare chest in light touches.
She lets him and their eyes close – while
he thinks of her breasts, their softness.
Why do you think we would watch this show of emotion between two strangers in a subway? Are you suggesting that love can help us find order within the randomness?
Kimmelman: Well, first of all, I wasn’t necessarily thinking a reader would derive from either this poem as a whole, or specifically the lines of it you’re quoting, the “[suggestion] that we [i.e., the other riders in the subway car] are watching people showing love to gain some sense of emotion”; and I would hope that in the scene there are other possibilities, like that the other riders are maybe a bit uncomfortable in seeing these two people across the subway car from them acting as they do (maybe someone could observe this, as a kind of captive audience, who would like to look away but can’t, because the act of looking away would also draw attention)—let’s face it, riding in a crowded subway car is a complex experience, and it can be quite exhausting. While we may wish to read into a poem an intention, we have to be careful not to get too far ahead of the poem’s construct. A solid assumption might be that the poem’s speaker is riding in that subway car and notices the couple, that perhaps some of the other riders are watching the couple and—based on what the words/lines of the poem signify—that the couple is “showing love,” as you put it (or maybe the couple is merely “exhibiting love”?). Might we impute the viewers’ motivation for watching the couple as having to do with an attempt “to gain some sense of emotion” because New Yorkers contend “with chaos and instability” and I’d add urban anomie?
Like most other poems in this book, this poem is purposely graphic but without much, if any, accompanying commentary. The poem does document, to capture, a moment within the New York experience that is atypical. Maybe documentary, paradoxically, invites speculation. When the guy is “[thinking] of her breasts” (how would the poem’s persona really know that?), when he thinks of “their softness”—have I ascribed not only to this guy but also to the persona of the poem something not really founded in the situation?
Is your interpretation of the poem’s significance—while it goes a bit too far for me—a totally outlandish extrapolation? Does the moment you focus on is one in which the tension between the personal, emotional and sexual on the one hand, and, on the other, the unsympathetic and anonymous, open up the possibility of transcendence?
The scene, the evening rush hour, is also a fact to be taken into account. The poem’s closing lines are: “They spread their legs—waiting for home / on a Monday night, to eat, sleep.” The rest of the week is still ahead of them. While my poem is a practice of stating just the facts, I hope these facts do entice a reader to find in the poem something more than the facts. Let me mention Charles Reznikoff’s poetry as being a guiding spirit in this.
Rosner: Your response really made me think a lot about the variety of emotions, how subtle they can be in their qualities, and how close-knit they are with each other. Along these lines, in observing people, we can make mistaken assumptions sometimes. For example, a kiss that many may see as loving can in actuality be a cry for help or a person losing herself in a state of lust or insanity. So I guess we could say that an ambiguity can be part of our assumptions, whether we welcome that or not. What I or you might see as someone in a particular emotional state could very easily be an interpretation of many possible things (i.e., we think we are viewing endearment but that could just as easily be frustration, longing, etc.).
With this in mind, I have to say that, as a reader of poetry, I find it’s hard for me to leave my biases behind and look at a poem objectively as an object within itself. Am I reading into a poem my own subjectivity, my own desires and recognitions of what’s familiar; am I projecting myself into the poem (just as an observer, for instance in a city public park, might be projecting wishes or conclusions from past personal experiences onto a situation this person is seeing or thinks she’s seeing)?
Turning to another poem in your new book, I loved the sense of freedom of “Subway to Bryant Park in May,” and your tribute to poet Harvey Shapiro. Lines like “we stroll under the trees, / lie on the grass in the sun” (74), coupled with the poem’s epigraph by him, “I am home among my people,” seems to be a commentary on what, unlike technology and failed ideologies, for instance, does not confine us. Do you believe that some of the poetry in Abandoned Angel resists confinement in this way? Is there a possible connection between your poems and the works of Thoreau and Whitman? Does the seeming simplicity of observation and communion of people, which can be tricky, as I’ve said—is that a problem, or is that how we end up with freedom?
Kimmelman: First of all, I’m glad we’re making a nice transition from the last poem we’ve been discussing, to another in which the subway plays a role, at least thematically, but I’d say also say atmospherically. To address some of what you’ve just said, when we ride in a subway car we are, consciously or unconsciously, coping with being confined (especially in a dark tunnel—as in the last poem). In “Subway to Bryant Park” there is a purposeful contrast to the above-ground experience after a subway ride (yet it’s a festive situation underground—the two dancers and the music, and so on—but the paradox, which is that it all takes place where it does, maybe doesn’t escape the notice of the poem’s speaker). Hence the poem, by juxtaposition, presents the contrast: “On the train / platform a couple swings / to steel drums. In the park / we stroll under the trees, [etc.]”).
The scenes of both of these “subway” poems are public spaces. One difference may be that the first poem invites conjecture as to the thoughts or psychology of one or another person, whereas the second poem posits some sort of collective feeling, possibly suggesting a shared point of view—one that involves a sense of freedom people revel in and would cherish. Even so, we need not be inside the heads of the people the poem presents. Is freedom more a state of being than an emotion, something larger that allows for the very feelings one has to flourish? In a public space, the persona of the second “subway” poem might give in to the pleasure at the variety of people. Do they all share, in their sense of a spring release, an unofficial holiday spirit? In this poem, is the situation such that there are not just people watching but also people enjoying, at one and the same time, themselves as both watcher and the one being watched? Can all this be read into the mindset of the persona of the poem?
I’m happy that New York City has many outdoor cafés to go along with our public parks. We’ve inherited this urban style of living from Europe. In Paris, people-watching is a big deal; cafés array lines of small tables with chairs, all of the chairs facing the street and the passers-by. In this arrangement there is some kind of tacit assumption about urbanity. Is that merely voyeurism?
Spring in New York is a public ecstasy, though the tables and chairs at cafés, and everyone’s behavior, are somewhat different. I know of late there have been some well founded criticism of how big corporations—banks, drug store chains, real estate sharks looking for maximum profit—have squeezed the life out of the city compared with what it was. I say this as someone enamored of Jane Jacobs’ great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), and I can’t disagree with this assessment. Nevertheless, there is still, especially in spring, an élan that strikes me as very much of New York, indeed a new incarnation of the city.
This poem includes the experience of Bryant Park in the spring. There was a time when this park was foreboding; people didn’t go there. Look at it now! On a beautiful day a grand communion unfolds there—people eating and drinking, talking to other people across from them or on their phones, with hula hoops, or doing yoga, or playing ping pong or bocce, or reading, or listening to someone read to them—on and on. It’s a bacchanal in which people of every stripe, of every race and ethnicity and language, take part. Ah, New York! How can you not love it? Harvey Shapiro loved it! I mentioned Reznikoff. But Harvey wrote a great many poems set in, to and about New York.
His poem, from which I get my epigraph, makes mine possible. I thought of that line once I had ascended from the subway and was walking east on 40th Street toward the park. When Poets House had a memorial gathering for him, the poem the epigraph comes from, “New York Notes,” was projected onto the sidewalk outside the main entrance.
For my money, Whitman was a muse for Harvey. I recall Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose[.]
(ll. 3-4, circa 1855)
After Whitman there was another poet of New York, Reznikoff. Here is the beginning of a marvelous poem by Reznikoff (it’s untitled):
These days the papers in the street
leap into the air or burst across the lawns—
not a scrap but has the breath of life[.]
(ll. 1-3, 1934)
He was a mentor and huge influence on Harvey whose “New York Notes” is an understatedly brilliant, touching and funny, contribution to the New York City ethos:
Caught on a side street
in heavy traffic, I said
to the cabbie, I should
have walked. He replied,
I should have been a doctor.
When can I get on the 11:33
I ask the guy in the information booth
at the Atlantic Avenue Station.
When they open the doors, he says.
I am home among my people.
This is a poem that’s beautifully crafted. It’s more in the manner of Reznikoff than Whitman—flatter lines, plainer statement; Shapiro could do this to perfection with his understated beauties. The poem is humane, knowing.
Another train poem! It’s simple and graceful. I aspire to that. His work sets me free, as a condition of life.
Rosner: I agree so much with what you’re saying about freedom being a state of mind rather than just an emotion that is very fleeting and temporary. In my recent visit to Walden Pond, I imagined what Thoreau was feeling in his “deliberate” living in the woods near the pond, and freedom was one of the things that crossed my mind. Freedom to me is definitely something that requires people to become wild and think drastically outside of themselves in order to transcend expectations. Thoreau did that for sure in stripping down emotionally in order to build himself back up again to become legendary.
Turning to a more a somber portion of Abandoned Angel, I wanted to get your thoughts on “Sunday Morning in Krakow,” which brings up a point of retrospection on the events of the Holocaust. As a Jew myself, it made me think about my heritage and the horrors of prejudice. In the poem you use dashes to simulate pauses and make people think about the horrors of Auschwitz and the “walls” that housed such incredible evils. I was immediately moved by the following lines which symbolized a realization of the horrors that we try to forget but fail to forget:
Of course there were
horrors I will
not name – too late.
Morning’s bells are
full of grief I
take with my tea.
The bells were one of the things that became a focal point in the poem. Is your intention to make those bells in Krakow serve as a trope (i.e., the ghosts of those who died), or do you want to maintain the literal impact of the imagery? Is this poem a tool to re-connect readers to the events of the Holocaust or is there another dynamic associated with the poem that you would like to discuss?
Kimmelman: I think all of the possibilities you set out for “Sunday Morning in Krakow” are inherent in the poem. I’m taken by your use of the word “drastically” in relation to Thoreau and the time he spent in the woods (paraphrasing you: freedom requires drastic thinking). His was time for work but also for repose; and he lived freely.
Before I try to answer your questions about my poem directly, allow me dwell for a moment on a word like drastic. It reminds me of, sounds like in English, the word catastrophe, which is the usual translation of the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, Shoah. (I note without irony the Arabic word Nakba, signifying the expulsion of 700,000 people from a place where their ancestors had lived, in Israel’s 1948 war of independence; that word, too, is often translated as catastrophe.)
My wife and I visited Krakow, and toured nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau (Birkenau was the vast death camp), in the spring of 2014, when we were living in Brussels. Just before our departure, we were lucky enough to attend a public interview with the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, which was held at the University of Ghent where I was teaching. That evening, hearing Appelfeld, was one of several recent experiences that led to my writing an autobiographical memoir. In essence, that memoir turned out to be a meditation on Jewish identity.
Your wonderful time in Thoreau’s woods leads me to recall Appelfeld’s childhood before and during the Holocaust. Assimilated, their first language German, his parents referred to Hitler as “a funny little man,” before the war broke out. Of course the Jews in his childhood town were rounded up. This child later escaped from a concentration camp, to spend the rest of the war in a forest.
Diane and I began reading The Story of a Life, his memoir of that early time, before leaving for Krakow where, for centuries, Jews had contributed mightily to the city’s cultural and commercial life. As in all of Europe, the Holocaust remains vivid in Krakow. When a tourist arrives in one or another city, the Jewish cemetery or a particular old synagogue, often a Jewish museum, tell the story of the Jewish diaspora, sometimes of the Holocaust. From Krakow we toured nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau. After our return from that uniquely catastrophic place, I not only wrote the poem; I also began the memoir.
The protagonist in Woody Allen’s film Manhattan hears someone ask: “What did Jew mean when you said that…?” The paranoid nebbish complains to a friend about his auditory hallucination. In Memories of Love and Darkness, a remembrance of growing up in Jerusalem, the novelist Amos Oz implies—thinking of who got out of Europe—that the paranoid survives when the complacent does not. That scene in Allen’s film, from deep in his psyche, runs over and over in a closed loop. His alter ego in Manhattan lives in a Mel Brooks film (High Anxiety, To Be or Not to Be, others of his) whose protagonist mispronounces German. Appelfeld, in describing his time in the forest—a boy being looked after by Ukrainian criminals—tells about being afraid to speak lest his accent give him away.
His vocal chords atrophied. After the war he began to talk again—gradually, painfully, the muscles of his vocal cords needing to be revived. In the interview his voice was barely audible. Allen and Brooks became adept at living in disguise. They learned long ago, before they learned much of anything, the fear of the pogrom. Disguise can be true.
Yet they learned through hearsay. Appelfeld got his facts on the ground. I was on the ground in Europe, an American tourist. Visiting the Venice Ghetto, the American philosopher Eric Katz gave thought to the “descendants of survivors of the camps or members of families that fled Europe”—how they “never stood on the precipice.” He realized he had “never looked directly at the face of evil and death” (from his essay “Authenticity and Place”).
In my poem the bells, to get back to your questions about it, are what Ezra Pound (a genius and virulent anti-semite) called the adequate symbol (in his essay “A Retrospect”: “the natural object is always the adequate symbol”). Are bells not, in their very nature, in the sounds they make, a great civilizing force in human affairs? I wasn’t thinking this when I wrote the poem, however—in fact I wasn’t thinking at all. Rather, I had just awakened from sleep and was trying to collect myself, trying to account for my own profound sense of sorrow, if no one else’s, and the bells helped. (The ride back from the camps, accompanied by strangers, other human beings who had toured Auschwitz as well, was a singularly bizarre experience.)
What is it like to live in Krakow now, with some of its most prominent and most frequented tourist destinations being the old Jewish Quarter and not far away Auschwitz? In the Old City within greater Krakow (to enter the city people pass through a fancy mall from your plane, train or bus), you see advertisements everywhere, on billboards and the sides of open electric carts whose drivers, trying to sell Auschwitz tours, troll the crowds of tourists in the streets. What was it like to live in Krakow during the War? There’s a terrific museum in Krakow, established by Steven Spielberg after he made Schindler’s List, which gives some sense of what the German occupation was like.
I suppose the bells hold a collective grief—although the young are eager to seize the world, to make a good life for themselves. Now Poland is drifting toward fascism, keeping company with Hungary, maybe falling into step with Russia. The ironies of life in Krakow aside, its bells not only announce but also create its finest hours.
Your reading of my poem is spot on. Let me just add one thing: I don’t think it’s possible to tour Auschwitz-Birkenau and not come away traumatized—having stood on the very spot, adjacent to a boxcar that brought its victims to this place where people, once descended from their train, exhausted, bewildered after days of crushing travel without water or food, were then lined up for the selection (to determine who would live a little longer, who would become smoke going up a chimney visible in the distance, that very day). As in the poem, I won’t talk about some things I saw which evinced the depravity and sadism of the Nazis and the enormous suffering of their victims. The bells the next morning were a salve. I thought of how people must struggle not to be deadened by the enormity of crime of which people are capable. You ask if the poem is “a tool.” A tool implies intention—to do something with something. But, like those dashes in the poem you read with such acuity, there is no way “to connect” with the sorrow, the grief of the condemned.
All the same, I’m reminded of the title of one of Bronk’s poems, “Not My Loneliness, But Ours.” Bronk felt closest to Thoreau among all writers, and published some brilliant essays on him under the collective title The Brother in Elysium. Bronk’s poem ends, “even as we believe, that another is there.” What I suppose we have to resist is being stripped not only of our clothes but of the beliefs we cherish, of our dignity. Thoreau, I like to think, had an intuition about this.
Rosner: In thinking about the bells again after your response, I agree that there are some things that we ultimately cannot connect with in a tangible way. I guess we have to be resigned to looking at places like Auschwitz, putting them in perspective, and moving on with our lives without fully understanding the depravity and evil associated with it.
I would like to thank you for allowing us to interview you on Abandoned Angel. For me, it has been a wonderful journey into an Objectivist style of poetry that I was not very familiar with and it gave me a lot of perspective on how I view the world and view things that I face in life.
Kimmelman: It is I who thank you both who have taken the trouble to have this conversation with me. And, just to say, none of us fully understands. Maybe Objectivist poetics honors this fact of life. In any case, Bronk addressed our incompleteness head on. That’s not a bad thing.