PICNIC: On Stalking the Audacious
the youth take an afternoon fieldtrip to the fields
of Auschwitz playing tag bored by the flat flat emerald
“Wie viele?” “Es macht nichts.”
brown bag cola bottles whumping heels
halt at a chaperone’s whistle nitrogen-blown bags for potato
chips the crumbs of which leave oil on denim salt on dirt
I have never been to Auschwitz, or any concentration camp for that matter. Neither do I have family members who are Holocaust survivors. And yet, the Holocaust is all over the manuscript. I begin to reconcile this by considering the nature of American Jews from my generation and also the enigma of poetics. As for the former, I am absolutely an inheritor of Jewish anxiety from my grandparents and parents, which was also manifest in my Hebrew school experiences as a child. For the past two summers, I’ve gone with my mentor, Carolyn Forché, to Thessaloniki and the island, Thassos, in Greece. My mother’s family is Sephardic, and though her family’s diaspora spreads through many countries, the Greco-Turkish region around Thessaloniki is a significant one—I am named for my mother’s father, who I never met, and his father came from this place. Also, that 50,000 Sephardic Jews from Thessaloniki died during the Holocaust is significant and mostly unsung. Spending time in the plaza where the Jews were gathered and at the Jewish Museum in Salonika, I began to understand the pain of history, which I get to experience because I somehow am alive. Writing this poem and other poems that address Jewish identity and culture—especially as an American Jew traveling around Europe, and perhaps also as a writer contemplating how to reconcile the 20th century—has forced me to a place of nostos, to remembering the fear I had as a child when learning about the Holocaust, and the kind of self-mythologizing and story making I participated in to begin measuring myself against the ideas of that portion of history.
Which brings me to the latter, the enigma of poetics. I’m reminded, often, when asked about many of my poems, of a title by Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones: “We are not the Poem.” As a teacher, I use this title often, especially when teaching poets like Plath, whose biographies tend to cloud the task at hand: to let the poems speak for themselves. I have a poem in the voice of Russell McKinney (who murdered Matthew Shepard), for example, to which the workshop’s single response was to discuss whether the sexuality of the writer mattered to the poem. We don’t, however, ask ourselves this too often of fiction writers or filmmakers—does it matter to Inglourious Basterds that Tarantino is not Jewish? Or to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that Jonathan Safran Foer’s father did not die in the World Trade Centers? This is not a question we ask of fiction because it promises only spectacle, only disbelief.
But what of poetry? Reading poetry is a far more intimate endeavor, one that manipulates the reader into assuming the “I.” In writing, too, it seems that the poet must become the “I” of the poem—but the poet is the vehicle for that I, not the I itself. It’s a complicated mode of escapism. A teacher of mine once described selecting a chapbook to win a competition that was full of elegies for a dead mother. At the ceremony to honor the young poet, my teacher was introduced to the poet’s mother. He felt completely betrayed.
I wrote “Picnic” while I was in Greece. I was thinking about how Germany now prides itself on having the best Holocaust education in the world, how students are taken on field trips, etc. And how Auschwitz, despite its location, has come to be the predominant symbol for that part of history--a teaching tool by which we expose this narrative (which will turn to myth the more survivors we lose). Further, in contrast, how there is little to no sign of what happened during that time in Greece, that I had colleagues who taught in Thessaloniki whose students knew nothing of their city’s contemporary Jewish roots (before the Holocaust, Thessaloniki’s population was far more than half Jewish). The 20th century—and all that is irreparable from it—how are we to proceed? It seems the mode I’ve chosen so far is through the fictive spectacle of the 21st century—that if you can’t figure out how to bury the dead physically or metaphysically, perhaps from the fissure of dislocated time, something else can be made. For in the fictive, fantasy can explore audacious terrain, can think critically about our notions of altruism and goodness right next to notions of hatred and violence.
And so in that sense, though Auschwitz can only manifest as an idea having never been there, in another way, the idea of Auschwitz is as true to me as my Jewish identity. The acts of reading and writing are greatly related to practicing empathy. I want to empathize with that which I am not. I want to be brave enough to find new eyes, to be hated, to be forgotten, to have spoken—for myself, my history, my family. It is necessary to write these poems, to find the stones of history and turn them over, to battle solitude. These ideas turn into voices, into poetry, because I hope someday I am joined in this solitude by a reader, one whose own silence is disrupted by these speakers who I’ve needed to explicate both the world and the self.
The book, inevitably, fails. Neither it, nor the speaker, ever arrive in Auschwitz, in the physical clearing. The entire book is as involuntary as the dreams that assault its speaker. The poet—the vehicle for this speaker—begins to build this book because she believes poems are spells, which is to say, part of abiding fantasy, or the voluntary state. What she also finds is that she is as spellbound as her speaker, as destroyed by the involuntary in poetics as well as her human body. She cannot ever bring back the bodies she never knew, but she can be in the body she has—the one that cannot transform, even in metaphor, into something other than what it has been all along. And so The Clearing is not just the field, but the spiritual clearing. And though she begins in Auschwitz, the speaker has to learn to re-enter the 21st century as herself in order to survive.
Bodies have consequences in time in a way that poems do not. It is there in Poetryland, in Art—in the theatre of the mind—that we play in the most dangerous, harrowing, profound of human experiences, where we learn what to measure ourselves against. It is there where we can practice the audacious, where we can control its motives, where we can stalk it until we know who we are—this is why we read and write, this is how we attempt to have all the lives, all the deaths, all the bodies in the face of our very human truth: that we only really get one.
Lisa Hiton holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Arts in Education from Harvard University. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in The Literary Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Linebreak, and The Cortland Review among others. She has received the Esther B. Kahn Scholarship from 24Pearl Street at the Fine Arts Work Center and a nomination for the Pushcart Prize.