Kol Ha-Shirim: "Aba" (Pirke Prozah)

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Poetry by Dan Pagis, 1991

Robert Alter notes displacement and playfulness as being singular features of Dan Pagis. This is particularly striking in Pagis's Holocaust poems, where both playfulness and displacement are means of restoring to the event the horror of initial confrontation or the impossibility of comprehending. Sometimes, as in the poem "Footprints," Pagis's playfulness falls into the category of black humor. Thus the poet, remembering his journey in a cattle car, combines it with associations from a banal prewar world. The incongruity is shattering, and once the point is made the thought breaks off in midsentence:

Maybe there's a window here—if you don't mind
look near that body, maybe you can open up
a bit. That reminds me
(pardon me) of the joke about the two Jews
in the train, they were traveling to

In the poem "Autobiography" the playfulness is once again expressed as a deliberate incongruity in tone. The biblical Abel narrates the poem, talking about his own death—and then, explicitly, about Holocaust death—in a deliberately offhand way. Jarred by the understatement (" … at first the details horrify/though finally they're a bore"), the reader is made to confront the event anew.

Displacement in these poems is sometimes a simple matter of presenting the self as separate from the event, as in "Roll Call": " … only I/am not there/am not there, am a mistake." In other poems separation is understood the opposite way, as the state of being of the survivor who cannot resume ordinary life. The poem "Instructions for Crossing the Border" tells a survivor in an ordinary railway car that he "is a man" and instructs him to "sit comfortably," but the man invoked in the opening line is "imaginary"—he cannot rejoin ordinary life. A different kind of displacement results from imagining the event itself from a distance or in a way that at first seems very far removed. Such is the case of the poem "In the Laboratory," about scorpions in a glass beaker. Someone blows poison gas into the beaker, and the poisonous insects turn into victims who feel loneliness, futility, and pain.

God is ambiguously involved in the events, sometimes as complicit, sometimes as distant and surprised, sometimes as provider of peace in an escape that is death. The experiment with scorpions from "In the Laboratory" is observed by "angels of punishment" who are startled. Who then ordered the punishment and why was its outcome surprising? The poem fails to answer. A different ambiguity is at the heart of the poem "Testimony," which begins with the statement that the murderers were created "in the image." The poet, by contrast, imagines himself of another origin: "A different creator made me." It is to this creator, who gives him a life that is like death (or a death that is like life), that the poet flees, describing this escape as "smoke to omnipotent smoke/that has no face or image." Like the initial metaphor ("in the image") that links God and murderer, this final metaphor, linking God and victim, comes from the Jewish tradition. Is it then the same God? Once again the poem gives no clear answer.

Pagis's poems often turn to the problem of understanding. In "Brain," which is not explicitly a Holocaust poem, Brain seeks insight but ultimately achieves peace—in death—when he can give up his quest. "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car," Pagis's most anthologized poem, suggests either that there is nothing to say or that nothing can be said.

The six-line poem is entirely circular:

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i

The circularity (and its sense of entrapment) is more obvious in the Hebrew, which permits a seamless transition from the last word back to the first.

Related to the problem of understanding is the problem of memory. Among the instructions for crossing the border (in the poem of that name) is the paradoxical pair "You are not allowed to remember" (second line) and "You are not allowed to forget" (final line). The first is a condition for resuming life; the second is the survivor's inescapable burden. The need to forget is uppermost even for Brain, who has no connection with the Holocaust. The poem does not tell us what Brain needs to forget—as far as we can see, he has strictly lived the life of the mind. Pagis has perhaps lent him his own memory, or presents, in this poem, the need to forget as an overwhelming fact of existence.

Like "Brain" many Pagis poems that are not really about the Holocaust are not removed from it either. The narrator of "Spaceship" is "receiving a different light," a man apart. Like the hero of "Instructions for Crossing the Border," he cannot fathom the way ordinary surroundings are put together. "A Lesson in Observation" also begins far away from the subject—indeed, at the creation of the earth. Continuing the lesson, the class (whoever they are, they are plural) is shown a blue earth, and then children, and eventually screams and the abstract concept "memory." The final lines contain a question and an answer that is uncompromisingly bleak: "The little dot on the side? It seems to be/the only moon of that world./It blew itself out even before this."

—Alice Nakhimovsky