Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Poetry that bears witness to horror

If I learned one valuable thing as a college literature major almost a half century ago, it was that I don’t have a clue what makes for great poetry – or for mediocre poetry. Nor for that matter, can I distinguish between great and mediocre literature or even good and bad literary criticism.

The “New Criticism” school of structural analysis that was still popular in my distant undergraduate days was no help at all. The New Criticism methodology seemed akin to explaining the beauty of a tulip by ripping off its leaves and measuring its pistils and stamens.

You ended up with quantifiable but completely unhelpful information, and you pretty much ruined your enjoyment of the tulip.

I find the current “lit crit” wave of “deconstructionism” (or at least it was “current” last I was trying to pay attention) even more useless. Decontructionism speaks in tongues. Its mad prophets pull apart the tulip, chew and swallow its parts and then vomit up an ugly mess of impenetrable babble. Some years ago a deconstructionist literary journal published a send-up of itself after a peer review panel failed to detect that the densely written jargon they approved for publication was a leg-pulling hoax.

So all I am left with is an all-too-familiar “theory” of literary aesthetics. Alas, I could have arrived at it without my struggling father having flushed a considerable fortune (at least for him) down an intellectual toilet on my behalf. Specifically:

I don’t know much about literature but I know what I like.

And furthermore, very occasionally, I even know why I like it.

With that lengthy know-nothing’s caveat in mind, I want to call your attention to a small and in some respects curious volume of poems call “Wall Street Sonnets du 11 Septembre,” by Eugene Schlanger. (Photograph of the book above.)

No, the title is not an act of franglais pretentiousness. It’s the consequence of a curious publishing method at a company called Underbahn that I’ve been told prints its books in French in the United States and then transports the books for sale in Paris. Schlanger writes in English. Each poem in the book appears in both English and its French translation.


Well, for openers, my best guess after reading the poetry inspired by 9/11 is that some of it is pretty good. Let me offer you a few small tastes from the English pages.

From the poem “Porters and Promotors,” comes an observation I will mention again later:

“This death was an egalitarian act,
Uniting porters and promoters, the rich
And the illiterate, cops and fire chiefs
In a wealthy smoldering tangled mass…”

Or from another poem called “Afternoon Interlude at Trinity Church”:

“…I knew a man who was vaporized
And one day I may meet Audrey
His widow, in Brooklyn, and sigh.

“In this Episcopal church, a decade ago,
Desmond Tutu railed against Apartheid
From the lectern; Gallatin is buried in
The North yard; but these obese tourists
Do not remove their FDNY caps, somber,

“Yet peacefully (or painfully) unaware of
American commerce and art and history…”

It’s all sometimes wry, sometimes touching and sometimes irate stuff, as properly it ought to be.

True, it lacks the emotional thrust of a question reportedly asked by a child, as she stood with her mother on a promenade across the East River in Brooklyn about a mile away, watching the 9/11 horror show. According to this story (I haven’t been able to track down its origin) mother and daughter saw several people in the distance, their clothes on fire, leaping to their death from 92nd story windows of one of the towers. And the little girl asked curiously:

“Mommy, why are the birds on fire?”

In the end, it is the naïve soul, not the poets, who unwittingly craft the most powerful lines. Which brings to mind…


I’m currently reading a bitter but nevertheless brilliantly funny novel from the 1960s, “The Dance of Genghis Cohn,” by Romain Gary. It’s narrated by the ghost of an extermined Jewish comedian, now a dybbuk who inhabits and manipulates the mind and the body of the Nazi war criminal who shot him to death.

Yes, it’s an emotional experience that simultaneously makes you feel rage, relish the dybbuk’s revenge, and rail at the futility of both. But nothing that I know in Holocaust literature fuels emotions more than the sweetly-written “Diary of Anne Frank.” And even that pales by comparison with filmed footage of what the Allies found when they liberated the concentration camps.

So now to the question, often implied but rarely stated bluntly in book reviews: Why should you buy this book?

For the answer I have to refer to my own recollections of Schlanger’s obese tourists near the Ground Zero site.

Shortly after 9/11, New York was flooded with tourists who wanted to see Ground Zero. I know this first-hand because I occasionally volunteer as a tour guide for a non-profit organizations that boosts New York City tourism, and I led several visitors to the wreckage. Inevitably, as the visitors pointed their cameras toward the rubble and twisted steel I saw them get stopped by policemen, who would say something like, “Have some respect. They’re pulling body parts out of there.”

The tourists deferred to authority. They had no choice. The people stopping them were armed cops who for justifiable reasons were not in a good mood. All the same, I’m not sure the best way to respect the victims of 9/11 was to avoid recording what the terrorists had done to them.

We live in an era where denial and revisionist lies are standard operating procedure for propagandists of all stripes. Holocaust denial has grown from a cottage industry to an international enterprise, currently funded and cordially hosted by Iran. All you have to do to retch at the twisting of truth is to examine some holocaust denial websites. (And no, I most definitely will not aid their cause by providing any links) One such website helpfully explains that the gas chambers were not for exterminating people, but rooms where mattresses were disinfected for the benefit of the Jewish guests at Buchenwald.

Fortunately, the WWII Allies captured and in some cases recorded film footage, as well as paper records and grisly artifacts such as human skin lampshades – tangible evidence that belies the holocaust deniers. All you have to do to understand the reality of the Holocaust is watch ten seconds of documentary footage showing bulldozers pushing a mountain of corpses into a ditch for mass burial. (Screen “Judgment at Nuremberg” some time.)


Had it been up to me, there would have been an army of volunteers not only leading tourists with camera to the horrors of Ground Zero, but insisting – insisting! – that they take photographs. I want records! Graphic, irrefutable records. And I want them in every attic trunk, every shoebox, every library, every computer and personal electronic archive on the planet. Just as there are Holocaust deniers today, there will be attempts at 9/11 denial half a century from today. In fact, they have already begun, spawned from the ashes of 9/11 and hatched by hate-filled opportunists.

The denials began only days after the twin towers fell. LeRoi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka, started putting out viciously libelous propaganda in a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America,” virtually claiming – on the basis of self-invented evidence – that Israel was behind the day’s events.

To fire him, the Governor of New Jersey had to eliminate the post Jones/Baraka occupied as the state’s Poet Laureate.

Similarly, Ward Chuchill, a University of Colorado professor, declared the incinerated victims of 9/11 to be “little Eichmanns.” His complaint seems to be that they deserved their awful deaths because their jobs generated profits, which helped support capitalism, which in turn supports the U.S. economy, which in turn generated tax money, which in turn enabled George Bush to fund his war in Iraq.

Never mind the true sequence of events (The Iraq invasion happened after 9/11). Never mind the lengthy and improbable nexus that Churchill creates, or the fact that some of those “little Eichmanns” were there to cook meals, bus tables, or (horror of horrors!) to administer pension funds. Schlanger has put his finger on it. They were truly the “porters and promoters,” and anything but an army of Nazi apparatchiks.

Churchill’s mean-spirited hate speech (an appropriate redundancy if ever there was one) resulted in getting him fired from a state university by the Colorado governor, but he gained the support of 199 of his fellow faculty members. They all ought to be be chained to their chairs and forced to watch, with their eyes taped open, an endless loop of 9/11 nightmares, most especially footage made by a French documentary group which was at the World Trade Center on 9/11 by coincidence. The horrifying sound track of bodies crashing to the concrete from above is all you need in order to infer the responsibilities and limits of academic freedom.

I wish the 9/11 holocaust deniers – Leroy Jones, Ward Churchill and his supporters and perhaps many not yet born – could be confronted at every turn by photographs of the dismembered body parts of the victims who were roasted and smashed to death thanks to Bin Ladin’s scheme from hell. Let the deniers’ progeny demand of those little Ward Churchills and Leroi Joneses, “Daddy, why was this a good thing? Will I some day have to fly out of a building with my dress on fire?”

In the meantime, Eugene Schlanger bears witness in his own way. He gives us an imperfect but still nicely crafted poetic cudgel to reinforce humanity’s defenses against those who would deny 9/11.

So I encourage you to buy his book. Here and there you’ll find little tributes to his politically conservative economic outlook that I do not much care for. I encourage you to buy the book anyway. Save it, preserve it and give it to your children. (There’s a URL below where you can order.)

The future will cry out for the voices of witnesses. Schlanger’s is one of them. Would that we had more.

You might want to check out these URLs. Just copy and paste them into your browser:

To Order “Wall Street Sonnets”-


On Leroi Jones aka Amiri Baraka:


On Ward Churchill and his college faculty supporters:


Churchill on “Little Eichmanns”:



Catherine said...

I did remove your article from my blog. Sorry, but I did not see anything about "not republishing"...you might want to protect your content somehow since people reproduce articles all the time...without linking back to the author. Again, I apologize.

Michael Rudy, CFP®, EA, LMSW said...

I was looking at one of my old volumes of the Time Life photography series that was documenting the appearance and development of photography. I found myself captivated by the sense of awe those 19th century people had for the device that could render reality.
Perhaps you see something that we need in this 21st century when we no longer bow before the evidence of a photographic image and must now add, for the record, a poetry to help us really see and really remember.
Maybe, a return to poetry is the next new pathway to reality.