Canadian Poetry After Auschwitz

by Michael Greenstein

A.M. Klein's mock-epic poem, The Hitleriad (1944), contravenes Theodor Adorno's famous injunction, "No poetry after Auschwitz."1  It lacks the necessary historical distance for coping with the enormity of the Holocaust: satiric, Augustan rhyming couplets proved inadequate to this unparalleled tragedy, and by the time Klein had grasped the historical perspective, he succumbed to silence, as if in obeisance to Adorno's prophetic caveat. Klein's successors — most notably Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, and Eli Mandel — with their advantage of historical distance have achieved some of the means of expression for arriving at a phenomenology of the Holocaust. A. Alvarez suggests one way out of Adorno's huis clos: "The difficulty is to find language for this world without values. . . . Perhaps the most convincing way is that by which dreams express anguish: by displacement, disguise, and indirection."2   If Alvarez's tentative "formula" seems to provide one way out, then Eli Mandel, in a description of his own poem, has found a similar solution: "It would be a series of displacements. . . . It would be a camp poem by not being a camp poem."3  Mandel's theory of derealization, disorientation, and fragmentation echoes not only Alvarez's suggestion, but also Klein's epigraph to The Second Scroll, "Where shall I find Thee?" This kabbalistic quest becomes more acute during a period of God's eclipse when absence dominates the universe so that the question about God's whereabouts may be displaced by the poet's linguistic question: where shall I find the words to express this absence? Fragmented verse and negatives begin to explore a poetics of absence where memory must somehow fill the historical void created by genocide and deicide. Through Alvarez's oneiric techniques that displace Europe during the forties to Canada at a later period, Canadian Jewish poets find their language for this nightmarish world without values.

     Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher who survived the Holocaust, writes extensively about the absence of God and the need for dialogue or discourse to mediate this absence.4  Where Orthodox Judaism relies on the Torah, secular poets offer writing as their mediation to overcome absence in this I-Thou relationship. To counter this universal void Irving Layton projects in his verse a self-image who participates in adialectic of potential and completion, Klein's "pilpulistic antitheses."5  As Seymour Mayne perceptively notes, "The 'I' or persona is almost invariably involved in the poem itself. It is at the center of the action, and this encounter of the persona and experience, of the personal and the world, suggests that some suspension of disbelief is involved."6  In theology the poet suspends disbelief in an eclipsed God, in poetry he creates metaphor where tenor and vehicle almost meet. "Analogy as dialogue with God" is Derrida's formulation of this I-Thou relationship.7

     Where Klein resorts to medieval parallels and historical allusions for contemporary atrocities, Layton relies on more modern techniques for grasping the horrors of the Second World War. In place of Klein's traditional couplets, the younger poet's free verse in such poems as "Ex-Nazi" attempts to come to terms with the psychological complexities in the aftermath of the War. Drawing on a poetics of absence, Layton dramatizes the hide-and-seek relationship between himself and his neighbour, poet and ex-Nazi, victim and victimizer, in order to comprehend the latter's guilt. In the first stanza the poet plays blind man's buff with "scarred bushes" — the child's game sugesting the blind fate awaiting those hunted, innocent Jews in European woods, and preparing for the "sacrificial smoke" at the end of the poem. In addition to the disguise of the child's game Layton makes extensive use of similes to equate through indirection the poet's experience with anti-semitism and his relationship to the ex-Nazi, for the same reason that he develops contrasts between darkness and light, blindness and revelation:

I come sharp at this unguessed-at pole
Spooky as an overturned ambulance;
Like a sick anti-semite
The morning struggles to reveal itself.

The blind poet's strong visual sense creates a macabre surrealistic atmosphere as he suddenly discovers a pole (possibly a Pole) that conceals hidden meanings and deaths. Who would have guessed that an ordinary neighbour could once have been a Nazi? Evoking Eliot's image of the evening spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table, the second simile prepares for the stanzaic progression from morning to night to noon when revelation of guilt and absence occurs. Layton's verbs heighten the antitheses of potential and completion in this encounter between the poet's persona and his neighbour's artificial mask concealing morning, history, and truth. Just as the poet "comes" at the pole, so his neighbour "comes" toward him, the identical verbs with varying prepositions furthering the poem's dialectic.

     The second stanza begins prosaically with his neighbour's approach, his namelessness suggesting the universality of his guilt and banality of evil. Can an ex-Nazi disavow his past affiliation? Once a Nazi, always a Nazi, for his veins stagnate with pus and his demented brain transforms nature into "a March landscape / That's ravaged like the face of Dostoievski." In contrast to the poet's transformations in similes and metaphors, the neighbour's "turns" are untrue. Like the autumnal bushes, this wintry vision is "scarred" by the grotesque face of an earlier anti-semite. Yet another simile adds to the dislocating, surrealistic effect: "At night the whitened streets / Lean into his dreams like a child's coffin." Internal rhymes and similes create a Munch-like canvas as the frozen scene melts into summer heat with a crescendo from innocence to guilt:

But now at noon he meets himself
In the summer craze of the sun,
Boy eager, as springy as grass,
Innocenter than his bounding mastiff
Whose tail flicks from conscience
The yammering guilt.

Whereas in the first stanza the poet meets the pole and in the second stanza he meets his neighbour, now the neighbour confronts himself in a dialectic leading to the final relationship — a convergence of absence. The reflexive pronoun links Nazi to the anti-semitic morning's concealment of identity as man and nature intertwine in an atmosphere of masked, sinister guilt. Layton heightens this "innocentric" universe by comparing the Nazi with his dog, while the rhythm and movement contrast dramatically with the closing, suspended frame of the relationship between hunter and hunted:

The hot sun desiccates his guilt.
Between us the pale dust hangs
Like particles
Of sacrificial smoke.

Suspension of disbelief, history, and landscape informs Layton's poetics and unresolved masquerades. Through displacement, disguise, and indirection "Ex-Nazi" examines an almost meeting between neighbours separated by the ashes of the Holocaust in an absent gulf which time fails to diminish.

     Similar sentiments between the poet ("I") and an ex-Nazi ("Ich") constitute the subject of "Das Wahre Ich," a banal statement of what kind of woman the German woman was twenty years ago. "Ex-Nazi" achieves a claustral atmosphere through dramatic confrontation and nature outside, while the interior setting of this poem closes in on the poet and his hostess. The opening confession is prosaic, matter of fact, and the distance between the present, hospitable proximity and a violent past, which would have cast hostess and guest in much different roles of murderer and victim, creates the tension in the poem:

She tells me she was a Nazi; her father also.
Her brother lies buried under the defeat
       and rubble of Stalingrad.
She tells me this, her mortal enemy, a Jew.

In contrast to the buried past, the present is imaged and mediated by floating mobiles that she makes for this salon setting reminiscent of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":

We are twenty years removed from the war.
She urges on me candied biscuits and tea,
and her face is touched by a brief happiness
when I praise her for them and for the mobiles
     she has herself fashioned
in the comfortless burdensome evenings.

This domestic innocence continues in the third stanza while the mobiles hover symbolically over the historical gap and absence between Nazi and Jewish persona:

Her face is sad and thin as those mobiles
moving round and round in the wind
my voice makes when I thank her
and she bows her frail proud head into her hands.

The oxymoronic "frail proud" underlines the disparity between her failure and her once powerful illusion. These disguising and dislocating mobiles and the final stanza resemble the pale dust and particles of sacrificial smoke at the end of "Ex-Nazi":

The terrible stillness holds us both and stops our breath
while I wonder, a thrill stabbing into my mind:
"At this moment, does she see my crumpled form
      against the wall,
blood on my still compassionate eyes and mouth?"

Thus, through dramatic irony and "near" encounters with one-time Nazis, Layton as would-be victim freezes time and faces the post-Holocaust world; through the impossibilities of these I-Ich confrontations, he strives for a transcending I-Thou relationship.

     The memory of the slaughtered six million pervades "Rhine Boat Trip" where beauty is marred through the perspective of recent history. The aesthetics of leisure and scenery in the first half of each stanza is undercut by the lingering tragedy of past frenzy in the second half culminating in the noise of the cattle-cars opposed to the serenity of the boat on the river. In these juxtapositions of guilt-ridden past and a disguising present, Layton controls his passionate lyricism between outright silence and an outraged scream. The absence of punctuation imitates the smooth gliding of the boat on the river and allows the past to flow into the present as spectres of absence witness what the poet sees:

The castles on the Rhine are all haunted
by the ghosts of Jewish mothers
looking for their ghostly children
And the clusters of grapes
in the sloping vineyards
are myriads of blinded eyes
staring at the blind sun

The tireless Lorelei
can never comb from their hair
the crimson beards of murdered rabbis

However sweetly they sing
one hears only
the low wailing of cattle-cars
moving invisibly across the land

An impersonal persona, "one," intrudes at the end of the poem to contrast with history's myriads who forbid failure of memory and metaphor. Man's violence can become so extreme that even the landscape is permanently tainted: invisibility and silence, two forms of absence, cling to Germany's void in time and place. Beneath Layton's sharply etched images lies the blurring palimpsest of history, an abysmal impress simultaneously distancing and involving poet and reader.

      This spatial-temporal projection into the European past recurs in the five paragraph-like stanzas of "The Shadow" when the poet is transformed into a ubiquitous shadow — mankind's absent, displaced conscience — whether in familiar Canadian surroundings or in a Viennese hofbrau, observing the merriment of Austrians whose bowels are reactivated through brauten and schweinerfleisch:

I sit at my table, nein excuse me,
lie flat against the wall and manipulate
my filled glass like an aging acrobat
taking care not to spill a single drop
on their mothballed Nazi uniforms

Ironic contrasts between spilling a single drop of beer on Nazi uniforms and the blood shed by six million Jews, between the ghostlike poet as survivor and the dense substance of the beer-swilling, decadent masses create a grotesque Baudelairean atmosphere with the poet transcending human boundaries when he composes metaphors of mediation:

I release my shadow like a switchblade
or the cavernous grin of a ghost
as it spreads across the polished bannister

Relative absence of punctuation results in flowing free verse accentuating the dialectic of potential and completion in this poetry of process; the reader participates in this flow of past and present drama as Layton's cutting edge stabs the mind. The poet cannot help but be a censorious moralist in the midst of all the camaraderie, for he must come to haunt even as he has been haunted by his massacred kin in this counter-point between shadows of past and present. The shadow — a mask within a mask — shouts to be taken off the wall (as in the conclusion of "Das Wahre Ich") to disturb amnesiac complacency, invisibility, and false innocence:

teach me your indifference to great events
your boisterous pinkfaced affability as you slam
down your cards on the table as if they were fists
on an old Jew's skull.

Once again Layton the prophet declaims against forgetfulness in order to avenge the ghosts of innocent children, while Layton the poet employs metaphoric disguise to imprint images of absence, like tattooed arms, indelibly in his reader's mind. When Layton as preacher ascends the pulpit, exhorting his followers to a kind of muscular Judaism replete with tightrope dancers, one-armed jugglers, and pole-vaulters, he occasionally eclipses his metaphoric impulse. In his own negative dialectics, mobiles, and particles of sacrificial smoke, he suspends reconciliation, forgetful ness, and disbelief.


If Klein belongs to the first generation and Layton to the second, then Leonard Cohen represents the third generation of Holocaust poets; if The Hitleriad is Klein's first attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust, then Flowers for Hitler contains many poems in which Cohen confronts the ultimate evil epitomized by the Nazi regime. Like Layton, Cohen experiments with free verse fragments in a universe identifying victim and victimizer. Just as Klein empathizes with his tortured brothers who enter his bloodstream, so Cohen feels that he is an inmate of a concentration camp twenty years after the War, but while Klein refers specifically to Nazi crimes, Cohen seems to use these as pretexts for a more generalized probing of the evils of modern society. In constructing his own corporal and cerebral Auschwitz, Cohen is both German and Jew. Citing the epigraph to the volume from Primo Levi's Survivor in Auschwitz, critics neglect the poet's note on the title: "A while ago / this book would / have been called / SUNSHINE FOR NAPOLEON, / and earlier still it / would have been / called / WALLS FOR GHENGHIS KHAN." Although most theologians have insisted on the uniqueness of the Holocaust as an extreme instance of malice and atrocity, Cohen implies that evil is relative, part of a historical continuum. Even if Cohen's note is ironic, nevertheless the casual "while ago" and the links with Napoleon and a remote Ghenghis Khan deny the singular, unprecedented nature of Hitler's methods.

     Yet "Lines from my Grandfather's Journal" seems to contradict this relativistic position as Cohen searches for a phenomenology to approach the deaths of six million: "It is painful to recall a past intensity, to estimate your distance from the Belsen heap, to make your peace with numbers." Cohen deliberately indulges in "pain" whenever he recalls the Holocaust:

. . . . I saw my brothers dance in Poland.
Before the final fire I heard them sing. I
could not put away my scholarship or my
experiments with blasphemy.
       (In Prague their Golem slept.)
       Desolation means no ravens, no black
symbols. The carcass of the rotting dog cannot
speak for you. The ovens have no tongue. . . .
       Desolation means no comparisons. . .

He lists painful images of destruction and absence, continues his secular revisions since the Golem fails to take revenge, and concludes that because of its absolute horror, the Holocaust brooks no metaphors — a conclusion Un Zvi Greenberg arrives at in his poetry of the Holocaust: "There are no other analogies (all words are shades of shadow) — / Therein lies the horrifying phrase: No other analogies!"8  If desolation means no compari sons, no black metaphors, we seem to fall back into Adorno's trap, "No poetry after Auschwitz," and all we may expect are fragments of blindness, silence, and mutilation — those ghosts and shadows that Layton and Cohen resurrect.

     Cohen differentiates between private art and public politics, between German culture and Nazi barbarism in "Goebbels Abandons His Novel and Joins the Party." The disjunction between the two activities in the title is recapitulated in the key verb in the poem, "broke." "His last love poem / broke in the harbour / where swearing blondes / loaded scrap / into rusted submarines." Like a wave, the poem "breaks" in the harbour, but the verb also signifies a breaking away from truth — the man "broke" or bankrupt in values. The "blondes" of the Aryan race prepare for the "favourite hair" later in the poem while the rust and scrap are a favourite focus of truth for Cohen, an ironic inversion of the Nazi's ordurous language of derision for the Jews. The mechanical destroys any vestiges of humanity: "the pieces of iron / broke whatever thous / his pain had left / like a whistle breaks / a gang of sweating men." "Thou"s rather than vows are broken in a world devoid of humane dialogue; the pronouns are instructive, for after repeating the third person throughout the poem, the poet shifts to the first and second when he addresses his pupils. The authoritative whistle can "break down" the slaves or it can restore them through a temporary "breaking off" from labour.

     In contrast to this "breaking" is the joining of the party: "Ready to join the world," to become the public figure of power. As if to mock the idea of a moral to his account of the Doctor of Reason, Cohen poses a concluding rhetorical question:

Ah my darling pupils
do you think there exists a hand
so bestial in beauty so ruthless
that can switch off
his religious electric Exiax light?

Ambiguity arises from the oxymoronic bestial beauty pf black romanticism and from the shifting pronominal referents: the hand may belong to Goebbels or the poet or Everyman. Yet to envision Hitler and Goebbels as Everyman seems an inadequate, reductive response. George Woodcock aptly summarizes Cohen's unstable phenomenology if not his failure of nerve: "when he faces the phenomenon of the Hitler terror, he withdraws from partisan involvement, and either adopts the style of Gothic macabre which is one literary way of dealing with fundamentally indescribable human aberrations, or he extends through satire the argument, not that all Germans are responsible, but all men are responsible for what happened in the concentration camps."9

      Both strains are visible in "It Uses Us!" as the poet and his lover practice their erotic art on a cadaverous mound. Voyeurism and gothicism coalesce in the opening stanza with the simple rhyme heightening the surrealistic effect:

Come upon this heap
exposed to camera leer:
would you snatch a skull
for midnight wine, my dear?

Cohen projects himself as Nazi and Jew, victimizer and victim in l'univers concentrationnaire, for his sexual and morbid explorations allow him to approximate the pornographic mentality of his prosecutors. Not only does the camera "use" the lovers in demonic photography, but the dead bodies also reverse utilitarian order since the living cannot use the remains of the dead: death uses the living, the living abuse death, and the survivors merge with the slaughtered in a grotesquely tragic almost meeting:

Can you wear a cape
claim these burned for you
or is this death unusable
alien and new?

Deploring the past and erasing memory, the leaders celebrate the victory of Freedom, but for the poet who identifies with the powerful and the oppressed, freedom can only be an illusion:

In my own mirror
their eyes beam at me:
my face is theirs, my eyes
burnt and free.

Cohen chooses martyrdom in his poetics of absence and indirection. Atop this phantasmagoric charnel heap distinctions dissolve between eros and thanatos: "from this height we thrill / as boundaries disappear." Nihilism and chaos are infernal extensions of Freedom, in the poet's vision, because combat combines in twentieth century post-gothicism:

All things can be done
whisper museum ovens of
a war that Freedom won.

     That memory of the War cannot be erased may be seen in "The Invisible Trouble" where the poet empathizes with a survivor for whom the indelible tattoo will always distinguish him from the rest of society. If the branded number is the visible trouble, the invisible is not so much his attempt at anatomical concealment as the hidden world of terror beneath physical reality. As in Layton's poetry, invisibility signifies absence, disguise, and indirection — those essentials of Holocaust literature. Covering the numbers of the concentration camp on his wrist, the survivor in the bar wants to forget the past and participate in the bacchanalian illusion around him:

His arm is unburned
his flesh whole:
the numbers he learned
from a movie reel.
He covers his wrist
under the table.
The drunkards have missed
his invisible trouble.

Cohen deliberately distorts illusion and reality: whole flesh replaces fragments, cinema replaces history, and drink replaces truth for those who avoided the tragedy. But the survivor cannot lift his cup to join in the chorus for fear of revealing the reality of the mark; instead, alone, a specimen of absence, he must confront silence and the void. Thus Cohen takes literally the maxim that to understand another person one must get under his skin: he uses the body as a means of entering the world of the other, for only by getting into the skin can he empathize and grasp his own guilt as another kind of survivor, who who almost meets himself at the brink of an abyss.

     "Hitler the Brain-Mole" is a witches' brew of anatomical sections in which the Nazis torture the poet and become part of his body:

Hitler the brain-mole looks out of my eyes
Goering boils ingots of gold in my bowels
My Adam's Apple bulges with the whole head of Goebbels
No use to tell a man he's a Jew
I'm making a lampshade out of your kiss
Confess! confess!
       is what you demand
althouth you believe you're giving me everything

The metamorphoses and torture machines are Kafkaesque while the sexual shift in the latter half connects intercourse with the physical interchanges in the first half, thereby implying the pornography of existence. Similarly the synecdoches of the first half undercut "everything" at the end to suggest the absurd nothingness of being, while the shifting pronouns implicate everyone in hideous, surrealistic cruelty.

     "Hitler" has a much calmer ironic tone with atrocity recollected in tranquillity as Cohen tries to upset apathy without resorting to hysteria, and the emotional control brings a clearer, though no less frightening, portrait of the "führer."

Now let him go to sleep with history,
the real skeleton stinking of gasoline,
the mutt and jeff henchmen beside him:
let them sleep among our precious poppies.

Cadres of SS waken in our minds
where they began before we ransomed them
to that actual empty realm we people
with the shadows that disturb our inward peace.

For a while we resist the silver-black cars
rolling in slow parade through the brain.
We stuff the microphones with old chaotic flowers
from a bed which rapidly exhausts itself.

Never mind. They turn up as poppies
beside the tombs and libraries of the real world.
The leader's vast design, the tilt of his chin
seem excessively familiar to minds at peace.

While history has destroyed some Nazis, their spectres haunt the survivors whether through surrealistic nightmare or documentary — those two opposing modes of indirection and literalness that Cohen exploits in his Holocaust poetry. From a casual imperative opening in hypnotic, monosyllabic iambic pentameter to the repeated "peace" at the end of the second and fourth stanzas, the four symmetric quatrains create a soporific illusion underlying madness as silence stifles a scream in the form of flowers stuffing a microphone. These flowers for Hitler are funereal and perennial, and they smell like the skeleton stinking of gasoline; the "beds" symbolize flowerbeds, the graves of victims and victimizers, and the survivors' bed of nightmares. The "real skeleton" and the "real world" interchange with nightmare and shadow, for the disguise of absence reveals that an "empty realm" may be "actual" in this mock elegy. The ambiguity of "minds at peace" as opposed to peace of mind, completes the prosaic "Never mind" just as the grandiloquent "vast design" fizzles into the familiar, ordinary, banal profile where the nose above that chin sniffs the opium of history.


Like his fellow poets from Montreal, Eli Mandel, an isolated semitic voice of the prairies, gropes for the appropriate forms to express his response to the Holocaust; unlike Layton and Cohen, however, who have written many shorter poems on this topic, Mandel concentrates his efforts in one long poem. "On the 25th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz: Memorial Services, Toronto, January 25, 1970 Y M H A Bloor & Spadina" is an occasional poem in which Mandel casts about for his own reactions to the Holocaust. The complete revision of the original poem a few years later for publication in Stony Plain indicates the problematic nature of the poet's confrontation with his subject, which is not only Auschwitz, but the process of writing about the Holocaust. Thus, the opening line "the name is hard" refers not only to the "German sound made out of! the gut guttural throat / y scream yell ing," but also to the emotional and aesthetic difficulties the poet has in pronouncing the name and writing about it. The onomatopoeic stammering of the split syllables in the third and fourth lines suggests both the primitive barbarism of the Nazis with their cacophonous "growl," and the faltering hesitancy of the victims being led to slaughter. The repeated "out of," which Mandel plays upon in the title of another book Out of Place, carries the twofold meaning of space and transformation, so that the sound of the word is formed phonemically from the throat but the emotional response comes from the "gut" — a reminder of what will be "made out of / the gut" of the victims in the ruthless dissection.

     The poem also explores the temporal relationships of the survivors to the victims and victimizers twenty-five years after the event, and the writing of the poem some time after the memorial services. Mandel's phenomenological fragmentation breaks down the historical separation between Europe in 1945 and Toronto in 1970. On the platform at the Y Sigmund Sherwood (Sobolewski) — the survivor's name transformed — speaks in the present tense to dissolve the twenty-five-year gap between destruction and survival: "the only way out of Auschwitz / is through the chimneys." The poet comments on the spoken sentence: "that's second hand that's told / again," which is a warning against the use of cliché that can turn tragedy into banality. But Mandel is also telling again, repeating a repetition of the original, and is aware of the moral imperative of telling the tragic story or "bearing witness" as he writes at the beginning of another poem, "For Elie Weisel." Apparently Sobolewski was fortunate to get "out of' Auschwitz and now by way of contrast he is "twisting himself into that sentence" as a means of getting back to the original experience. The poem comes as a response to a response, for the process begins at the Y but the form appears afterwards: "the poem / shaping itself late in the after / noon later that it would be." Dispersing the moment into past and future, Mandel suffers from the double burden of poetic belatedness and guilt-ridden survival.

     For the program they show slides on the screen, Pendericki's "Wrath of God," framed by the name "looking away from / pretending not there / no name no not name no." Mandel applies his interest in naming and un-naming as a means of confronting that which is painful to behold, while his dislocated sounds and forms distance the poet and his audience from the excruciating content. The name "Auschwitz" appears on the screen in gothic lettering while in the poem the word GOTHIC is capitalized to emphasize the gothic nature of the event and its remembrance, as well as the iconoclastic roots of the early Gothic invaders. A poetics of absence, silent spaces between words, fragments, disguise, indirection, dislocation, and almost meetings between event and expression — all of these inform Mandel's lines.

     The YMHA hall becomes "a parody a reminiscence a nasty memory" of similar settings of violence from the poet's own childhood in Saskatchewan with the guns of cowboy killers, as he vacillates between exile and origins. Like the nomadic procession of Polish Legionnaires, the process of "the poem gradual / ly insistent beginning to shape itself / with the others," uniting the poet to his fellow sufferers and uniting the individual poem to the collective oeuvre. Thus the poem, though written later, through its process becomes simultaneous with the anniversary, and both poem and anniversary in turn become contemporaneous with the history of the genocide, for this Wanderers' march at Bloor and Spadina recalls the march at Auschwitz:

thinking apocalypse shame degradation
thinking bones and bodies melting
thickening thinning melting bones and bodies
thinking not mine / must speak clearly
the poet's words / Yevtyshenko at Baba-Yar

"Thinking" dissolves into "thickening" and "thinning" as the poet's mental process reflects the apocalyptic march of 1970 and 1945 while the poet identifies both with the victims and with his fellow Russian poet who has also written about the massacre of Jews. The heat of the crematoria overwhelms the pathetic fallacy of a Canadian January; even identities melt under the extremity of genocide where humanity and individuality are denied.

     Identities are further confused in the hallucinatory verse: the prisoner in the YMHA hall is a prisoner of the past and the present, and with "arms wax stiff body stiff unnatural / coloured face" he resembles the Nazi generals with "their stiff wax bodies their unnatural faces / and their blank eyes and their hands their stiff hands." The slide presentation dissolves identities as reflected in the lines breaking down and the words scattering:

this is mother
this is father
this is
      the one who is
waving her arms like that
is the one who
I mean running with her breasts bound
      with her hands here and there
with her here and

hands             that is

The failed similes and attempts at doubling link the poet's personal background with the larger family of Jews, while synecdoche underscores the catastrophic fragmentation and mutilation. The poet gropes for the language and form just as the woman flails her arms in different directions, and their suffering is united in the poem itself:

the poem becoming the body
becoming the faint hunger
ing body
words the words words the words
opening              mouths ovens

     Just as the poem becomes the body of the concentration camp, so the poet as silent, suffering spokesman becomes the poem. "Becoming" refers mainly to the creative process but the second meaning of matching appropriateness carries a grim irony of poetic form suiting the historical subject. Another inversion of identity appears in the "god-like" generals who are figuratively intertwined with their Jewish victims through the black leather phylacteries. The poem becomes the film, the film is transformed into the poem, the audience is on screen, and the reader participates in the memorial service through the poem's self consciousness:

      the poem flickers, fades
the four Yarzeit candles guttering one
      each four million lights dim
my words drift

The poem resembles both the film and the memorial flame which "flickers," "fades," and "gutters" — the last verb echoing the "gut guttural" at the beginning of the poem. The synaesthetic quality of the sights and sounds furthers the "melting" identities as does the reintroduction of the boyhood memory of Saskatchewan. The words drift as the poem reaches its end, drifting like the smoke from Auschwitz to Estevan. The bad picture and failing power are evaluative and judgmental of the poetic process written by the voyeuristic "jewboy yelling" at the western slaughter that acts as a commentary on the brutality of European civilization viewed by the not-so-innocent child:

the gothic word hangs
over us on a shroud-white screen

and we drift away
       to ourselves
           to the late Sunday Times
          the wet snow
           the city

           a body melting

The final line contrasts with the hard name at the outset, and the concluding images hover between indelibility and evanescence.

     Written almost a generation after Klein's The Hitleriad, Mandel's revised "Auschwitz" poem demonstrates some of the post-modernist advances in poetic technique that express what is ultimately ineffable. Beginning with Irving Layton in the fifties, the "School of Klein"'10 gave voice to the silent legacy inherited from the father of Jewish-Canadian literature. Layton's fairly direct poems attack all those implicated in past or present guilt by presenting clearly dramatic situations that unearth the ghosts of six million dead. A decade later, Leonard Cohen employs more experimental verse forms coupled with a black romanticism to explore the universal ramifications of evil in a post-modern world. Experimenting with form to an even greater degree than Cohen's "Hitler" poems, Eli Mandel's single long poem goes to extremes of consciousness and linguistic torture. Out of the ashes of the Second World War, these poets have created monuments to the memories of their innocent brethren and their destroyed European culture. Through displacement, disguise, and indirection Canadian poetry reduces the historical gulf separating the European battlefield from more fortunate Canadian ghettos where a silent scream keeps memory awake. Mandel's Toronto march, Cohen's "silver-black cars / rolling in slow parade through the brain," and Layton's hide-and-seek exemplify the ways Canadian-Jewish poetry trespasses on history, seeking a home in Time's demonic haze and silence in vocal paralysis. If the centre cannot hold, modern Jewish poets shore these fragments against their ruins.

     Mandel's theory of "derealization" and disorientation in the composition of his poem summarizes the evolution of Canadian poetry after Auschwitz:

It would be a series of displacements: structurally, grammatically, imagistically, psychologically. It would be a camp poem by not being a camp  poem. Stuttering. All theatricality. All frantic posturing. All pointed to a resolution that would not be a resolution, a total ambiguity in which two different moments (Toronto, 1970 and Estevan, 1930) dissolved into one  another seamlessly, becoming at that instant another time, the unimaginable place of the killing ground itself."11

What Lawrence Langer says of Holocaust literature in general applies to Mandel's statement and poem: "The reader is temporarily an insider and permanently an outsider, and the very tension resulting from this paradox precludes the possibility of the kind of 'pleasure' Adorno mentions, while the uncertain nature of the experience recorded, combined with the reader's feeling of puzzled involvement in it, prohibits Adorno's fear that the reader may discern in the inconceivable fate of the victims "some sense after all'."12

     In the Hebrew temporal agon, not the Hellenic spatial icon, Jewish-Canadian poets strive with Klein and other biblical precursors. In The Second Scroll Melech Davidson is quintessentially Jewish in leaving no belongings; though Klein may never look upon his face, he may scan hissole legacy, the penultimate poem, "And in that Drowning Instant." The poet's "preternite eternity / the image of myself intent / on several freedoms" fades to earlier faces and metaleptic moments:

        the face
is suddenly beneath the arch
whose Latin script the waves erase
and flashes now the backward march of many

This erasure of signifiers by the palimpsest of history creates a blank and a blindness to be restored by Klein's biblical precursors and his Canadian followers who revise and revive him. Layton's mourning struggles to reveal itself but the pale dust of history conceals presence. The Rhine is empty ("rein"), blind, invisible, defaced and effaced. For Cohen, there are "no black syinbols" "exposed to camera leer," "eyes burnt," "invisible trouble"; for Mandel, there are black and secret blanks, fading poems and faces on a shroud-white screen. The leaves cry when their verse turns to the immediate past and to a more remote biblical horizon. With Klein, they barely see "as on a screen," "dark against blank white / The bearded ikon-bearing royalties," eclipsed in "Diaspora-dark."

     The examples of Edmond Jabes or Paul Célan demonstrate how writers cope with (or fail to cope with) the Holocaust and post-modernism: they write neither about the Holocaust in traditionally representational forms nor do they write themselves in intransitive, non-referential solipsism. Instead, they write-the-Holocaust: the object writes itself, the narrative voice is the voice of history.13  Layton, Cohen, and Mandel move in this direction, but Klein's inability to reconcile moral and aesthetic questions, to find sanctuary in mediated or unmediated dialogue, may have led to his final silence, a silence echoed in Célan's suicide.


  1. Adorno is quoted in George Steiner, Language and Silence (Harmondsworth,  1969), p. 75; see also Martin Jay, Adorno Cambridge, Mass., 1984), p. 19. Jay also demonstrates the continuity between the Frankfurt School of critical theory with its "negative dialectics" and current trends in deconstruction. Both of these in turn may be related to the situation of the Jewish post-modern writer. For an account of this see Michael Greenstein, "Derrida and the Diaspora," Response, 15 (Summer-Fall, 1986), pp. 33-41.[back]

  2. A. Alvarez, "The Literature of the Holocaust," in Beyond All This Fiddle (London, 1968), p. 26.[back]

  3. Eli Mandel, "Auschwitz: Poetry of Alienation," Canadian Literature 100 (1984), p. 217.[back]

  4. For a discussion of Levinas' position see Susan Handelman, The Slayers of Moses (Albany, 1982), pp. 170-75. [back]

  5. Klein's review of Layton's early poetry appears in Irving Layton: The Poet and His Critics ed. Seymour Mayne (Toronto, 1978), p. 25. See also Layton's review of The Hitleriad in First Statement (Oct-Nov. 1944), repr. in Engagements: The Prose of Irving Layton (M & 5), 1972), pp. 22-25. [back]

  6. Ibid., p. 20. [back]

  7. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, 1978), p. 108. [back]

  8. Quoted in Alvin Rosenfeld, A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature (Bloomington, 1980), p. 21. [back]

  9. George Woodcock, "The Song of the Sirens: Reflections on Leonard Cohen,     Odysseus Ever Returning (Toronto 1970) p 102 Sandra Djwa also questions the integrity of Cohen's vision in "Leonard Cohen: Black Romantic," Canadian   Literature 34 (1967), 32-42.[back]

  10. Milton wilson, "Recent Canadian Verse," Queen's Quarterly 66 (1959), p. 271. My use of the phrase differs somewhat from Wilson's.[back]

  11. Mandel, p. 217.[back]

  12. Lawrence Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven, 1975), p. 3. Layton's review of The Hitleriad points to the difficulties of using traditionalist forms when writing abeut the Holocaust.[back]

  13. See Berel Lang, "writing-the-Holocaust: Jabes and the Measure of History," in The Sin of the Book: Edmond Jabès ed. Eric Gould (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1985), pp. 195-96.[back]