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The Grace of Accuracy

Kevin Stevens

The Laughter of Adam and Eve, by Jason Sommer, Southern Illinois University Press, 74 pp, $15.95, ISBN: 978-0809332786

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme –
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?

These powerful lines, from Robert Lowell’s “Epilogue”, the final poem of his final volume, are a reminder of how the best postwar American poets, no matter how prolific, no matter how esteemed, grappled to the end with the era’s consistent challenges: the limitations of representation, the need to move beyond confession, the matter of form, and the search for “the grace of accuracy” required to transform language and narrative into poetic vision.

… sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.

Lowell’s fear of aesthetic paralysis is a familiar American lament. Yet his death in 1977, soon after he had written this poem, marks a watershed – not just because the culture has failed since then to give us a poet of his stature but also because of the continuing inability of most contemporary American poets to address those challenges, or even to subject them, as Lowell does here, to revealing poetic scrutiny. Though in free verse, “Epilogue” has the sure sense of line, intensity of image, and heightened use of language that constitute, as a minimum, the formal requirements of serious poetry. Attitude, voice, or irony cannot, by themselves, carry the weight of poetic vision. Yet too often these days they are expected to do so.

It is dangerous to generalise, of course, and time may sift through the current raft of quarterlies and slim volumes to present to us eventually a figure or two of commanding presence, but in spite of more poems being written and disseminated than ever before, American poetry does feel as if it is going through an extended period of uncertainty and hesitancy, where poets lack or fail to pursue what Mark Edmundson identifies as the qualities necessary “to write superb lyric poetry”: power of expression; a serious theme, passionately addressed; and ambition.

Jason Sommer is one whom time may select. Let’s hope so. The Laughter of Adam and Eve, his fourth collection, extends and builds on the strengths of his earlier volumes: a master’s command of language, rhythm, and image; a formidable narrative gift; and an unflinching willingness to take on themes that are both intensely personal and expansively historical – qualities that map to Edmundson’s criteria and compel us to consider Sommer not just in the context of the current landscape but within a tradition that extends, via his Jewish heritage and deep literary curiosity, to ancient antecedents.

A native of New York City, Sommer has lived and taught in St Louis for the last thirty years. He spent seven years in Ireland during the seventies, teaching at University College Dublin and translating the work of contemporary poets writing in Irish, including Gabriel Rosenstock and Michael Davitt. His range of interest is impressive. He loves language and is not afraid of challenges, as evidenced by his recent partnership with Hongling Zhang to translate fiction by the prominent Chinese writers Wang Xiaobo and Tie Ning.

Few poets attract more than the narrowest of audiences, so to complain that Sommer has not reached the readership he deserves feels futile. Yet, over time, the critical attention he has received from knowledgeable quarters and the quality of his published work have alerted attentive readers to his talent – Stanford Mirrielees and Whiting Foundation fellowships, awards from PEN and the Society of Midland Authors, two books published by the University of Chicago Press. And in 2000, he was among a select group of poets invited to read at the National Holocaust Museum with Nobel Prize laureate Czesław Miłosz.

Most of the critical focus has been on Sommer’s longer poems dealing with the Holocaust – a little one-sided given his breadth of form and subject. The Laughter of Adam and Eve includes several explorations of gender, a tribute to Anna Akhmatova, sonnets and epigrams, and pieces on sex and will and language (and its failures). But there is no denying the power and depth of his poems about the experiences of survivors and being the son of a survivor, poems which, published across a span of thirty years, form an overarching narrative of their own. The art of these poems is fierce, the thought behind and within them complex.

Sommer’s breakout book, Other People’s Troubles, published in 1997, contains an astonishing sequence of pieces that explore the death camp experiences of his father and his father’s family, most of whom did not survive, and the effect of these experiences on the next generation. It feels inadequate to list the themes – remembering and forgetting, guilt and forgiveness, the human need for narrative, language and identity and the great difficulty of capturing them truthfully – so subtly are they developed and interwoven (not to mention the compelling art of the stories themselves). The sequence culminates in a four-part piece of nearly twenty pages, “Mengele Shitting”, which is one of the great poems of recent decades. To read it is to confront the worst of history in a way only serious poetry can enable:

I cannot look at Lilly as I ask
my father about his younger brother Shmuel,
whom she knew only a little,
the brother also of her husband Harry
sitting on my left. Of these
survivors of slave-labor and war,
her history may be the worst,
and she never speaks of it, not of Auschwitz
or the brothers of her own she lost there,
so it’s her eyes I avoid as I break the etiquette
forbidding anyone to ask for speech
when speech is memory and memory is pain.

Breaking the etiquette is part of Sommer’s journey and involves careful balancing of experience and memory, history and judgement. He pays due respect to those who have gone through the European fire while acknowledging the damage to sensibility such tragedy can impose. He admits that the attitudes and behaviours of the generation that followed can appear frivolous at best beside the memory of “chimneys’ / fires and long shadows / of ash,” yet he demands – or has his persona demand – “the right to speak”… and to question and puzzle and interpret:

These children, theirs or others, ask their stories,
attracted to extremity as to
a laboratory of the true, as if
out far enough, or down toward human zero –
till there was nowhere further must be truth.

Sommer asks these stories and creates his own because this is what, as an artist and a man, he is obliged to do. He seeks no less than the truth. And this journey, lifelong needless to say, shapes many of the best poems in The Laughter of Adam and Eve. The lines above are from the collection’s centrepiece, “St. Kevin, Blackbird, and Others”, at once a further exploration of the horrendous experiences of his father and aunt, a tribute to his friend and mentor Seamus Heaney, and an imaginative extension of Heaney’s poetic meditation on the tension between the material and the divine that seeks to define, however tentatively, the nature and purpose of agony.

Remarkably, after years of questioning, listening, doubting, and struggling to voice the complexity of his father’s war and his own response, Sommer is still being surprised, and surprising us with new poems that bring new insights. “Gunga Din” tells the story of the man who carried water to the detachment of slave labourers that fed the smelters of his father’s camp, a narrative rich in language and physical detail that call to mind The Inferno:

Ferrying
into the circle of the smelter’s heat,
he waits for the men who serve the molten roiling:
lifting together rafts of checker plate,
engine casings, lengths of rail, pieces
of locomotive wheels. Anyone’s slacking
a moment, or stumble, may mean deadfall of iron
on everyone.

Typically, the water-carrier’s story is nested within a complex of narrative layers: the narrator’s father asking for a poem to capture a story he has told many times; the narrator’s resentment at being asked, remembering the times his father had “roared and struck, the heavy-handed / absences, the stories of privation / depriving me, locked in with him inside / that closed economy with almost all / the space for story taken”; interpretation and then reversal as the narrator sees that what he has believed about this story throughout his life is mistaken, an epiphany that reveals how, in the worst of places and at the worst of times, love can flourish.

Sommer’s relationship with his father is always under scrutiny in these poems, and this oedipal thread runs within the drama of world events without the former being dwarfed or the latter losing specificity. The effect is symbiotic: the poet’s significant personal moments are given a context that stretches back through the horrors of the last century and eventually to Biblical times (Sommer is especially adept at mining the Old Testament for images and analogues). And history is seen to be living in the often invisible moments of joy and pain that make up the lives and relationships of us all.

Similarly, Sommer’s persistent search for the right words and imagery, characterised by frequent asides and sometimes gnarled syntax, often turns in on itself, so that form becomes content, and sound and naming and meaning are examined in the fullness of ancient time and linguistic space. Like his mythical “One Who Knows All Language”, Sommer “hears / and overhears, attends and listens / to the music of the common / origin, past Babel into Eden.” The first laughter of our first parents, described in the title poem, is such a moment, hilarity followed by the first word, the first of Adam’s universal namings. And what else, to a poet, to anyone who thinks about it, can language be but a gift, even if it did result from original sin:

The curse notwithstanding,
this first fruit of exile he offers her,
plucked bodily but with some ease
from the barren land, is sustenance forever:
a knowledge of evil that is good.

“The painter’s vision is not a lens,” Lowell tells us, “it trembles to caress the light.” The Laughter of Adam and Eve is full of poems that caress both light and darkness. They take on not just the tragedy of the Holocaust but the span of an ordinary life’s contrasts – risk and regret, language and silence, plague and pleasure, first things and last things – and by means of poetic deliberation, sure technique, and language that, as Heaney puts it, “has a high specific gravity”, turn them into stories truly imagined, not recalled.
10/02/2014

Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.

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