Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hadara Bar-Nadav on "Family of Strangers"

. . . the poem holds on at the edge of itself; so as to exist, it ceaselessly calls and hauls itself from its Now-no-more back into its Ever-yet.
      —Paul Celan

“Family of Strangers” documents my attempt to be receptive to ghosts even when this opening hurts, takes me down, grinds its boot heel into my back. Perhaps words themselves are ghosts that keep us company, little rafts in a sea of loss.

I considered the text as well as the white space of the page when writing “Family of Strangers,” which pays special attention to various presences and absences. For me, white space is never empty, a perspective informed by my work as a painter. The text of a poem has objectness, shape, and weight; the negative space of the page also has shape and weight—all of which inform the poem. Sparse couplets on a page have a different visual resonance than a prose poem or sestina. A poem’s shape sends a signal to the reader before a single word is read.

In early drafts of “Family of Strangers,” I inserted horizontal lines between the stanzas in an effort to compartmentalize the sections and physically contain the ghosts and grief, which seemed to want to fly off the page. Lee Sharkey, co-editor of the BPJ, suggested I take out the lines and I did, letting the stanzas (and the ghosts) hum across and among themselves.

I indented the text where the lines had been to suggest absences being created and filled. The unevenness and inherent tension of tercets created a strained asymmetry, as if the stanzas were limping through space. I alternated between tercets and couplets to embody the difficult navigation among speaker and ghosts, idea and language, and creation and destruction. Here lives a vital and visceral ugliness that recalls for me Picasso’s notion of painting as “a horde of destructions.” Loss gathers and ghosts gather whose absence is palpable and sharp.

Poetry teaches me to open my senses to dreams, impulses, currents of wind, light, color, and sound. Poetry is where the senses sing, cry, and take shape through language. Certainly, this kind of openness can be painful, particularly in a poem such as “Family of Strangers,” which virtually forced me to challenge my own resistance to writing and receiving it:

             Ghosts, I adore your absence.

      Ghosts, I cannot lie to you
      who are transparent, I
      who am also transparent.

Here my dead father knocks on a little paper door. Here my family murdered in the Holocaust knocks and waits. Poetry lets them in. And dreams let them in. If my poems seem surreal I suspect it is because dreams have taught me not to look away, but to look and look again, to become porous, permeable. Both poetry and dreams teach me to be receptive to the disorder of the world and to be generative in the midst of joy, destruction, and pain. Grief made into art.


  1. Wow Hardara! I marvel at your eloquent self-awareness of your writing process. This commentary is wonderful. It adds another dimension and level of intimacy to an already visceral and moving poem. Thanks for letting us into your head. I adore the ghosts coming from the nostrils, the once and future ghosts together in the same poem and your father knocking on a little paper door (Please make a poem out of that last phrase!).
    You talk about the importance of dreams to your writing. I rarely remember any dreams. I wonder how my writing would be different if I did. Do you write things as soon as you wake up or do your dreams linger throughout the day? Do you get into a kind of dream state when you're writing?

    --Stefi Weisburd

  2. Some very interesting commentary here! (And a wonderful poem.) Kevin

  3. Hi Stefi. Thanks for your comment and questions. I do think I go into a kind of dreamstate when I write, but one that invites in all the senses, creativity, and the intellect with full presence and force.

    I do also write from dreams. Recently, I wrote "A Dream Resume," a surrealist poem-writing excercise where you write down pieces of dreams and try to map them together. But more than that, dreams teach me not to look away. I've had night terrors since I was a child (though thankfully I don't have them much these days). I often want to look away from my dreams, but can't. The giant eye of the dream wants to see! And I think about Kurosawa: "To be an artist means never to avert one's eyes."

    Lately, I've been thinking about writing poems as a stronger, greater impulse than fear. How else can I respond to fear? Can I observe it from a distance, can I write through it? Dreams have given me that insight and challenge.

  4. I think it's really interesting that the poem works better (hums---I like your word) once freed of the boundaries. Your descriptions of dreams, even night terrors, reminds me of that strange permeability we experience _only_ via dreams, which can go anywhere they like in our psyche, which we are helpless to actually _put_ up boundaries against. So that leaves me wondering about the form(s) & containers that you have chosen here: what were the choices you found yourself making with this electric & mysterious material you were presented with, what did you keep, and what leave out? ---Ailish (Hopper)

  5. What a powerful poem. I appreciate your discussion of the mechanics of the poem. It's interesting to see how the seemingly small choices a poet makes (indentations, etc) can so profoundly shape the world of the poem.

  6. Hello Ailish. Thanks for your question and comment. Form (via stanzas) really helped me bite off pieces of the poem in manageable chunks. Each stanza did feel ripped from my teeth. Not all poems (thankfully) have such a visceral and high emotional resonance for me.

    The revision of this particular poem had more to do with re-ordering stanzas than adding or cutting phrases or lines. And, as I mentioned in the essay, the revision also focused on the form itself (the use of lines and then erasing them in favor of continuity--humming across stanzas--and tabbing over lines).

    In the end, I presented what I had been given--and felt as a daughter and a poet that I had little choice otherwise. And certainly, this echoes to me of the theory of the poet as a vessel for the poem to occur. Not all poems I write I experience this way, but some do seem to write me or rather, to write themselves. through me.

  7. Thank you for sharing your writing process! I am fascinated by the placement of the spaces, too. The form fits. I also like how each sentence is a stanza, is a moment. If a sentence _is_ a measure of time, then these do the work. Hadara, I'm not sure about your previous drafts, but did you mean for the turn to happen in the middle? It works on the level of the sonnet for me. It goes past the sonnet. This poem makes it volta in the center, as if divided between night and day. Amazing!

  8. Hello Dennis. I really appreciate your observation about the poem as a loose kind of sonnet with a volta--something I had not intended. I don't doubt however that my study of poetry and of poetic forms informs my work. Your idea about the volta being in the middle ("In daylight I miss you") also intrigues me in terms of form. I wonder if new approaches to poetic form (in this case, tabbing or placing the volta in the middle of the poem) can help us reconfigure given forms. I've seen some very interesting explosions of sestinas and sonnets, especially in literary journals (ie, collages, playing with enjambment, tweaking language patterns and repetitions, regrouping lines into irregular stanzas, etc.). And I've certainly played with exploded couplets. In any case, I appreciate your observation and your invitation to keep exploring form!

  9. First off, I really enjoyed your poem and your discussion of the writing/thinking process from which it evolved. Both resonate nicely with an essay by Nathaniel Mackey (“Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol”*) that I was reading at around the same time I read your piece. Your comparison of the poem’s “strained asymmetry” — its visual and rhythmic syncopation — to a physiological deformity (a limp) sets up a rich interplay between body and poetic language (the foot as both appendage and rhythmic unit), something which Mackey also discusses at length. Like Mackey, you assign an ultimately redemptive function to a poetry of limp and stutter, of absence, of disorder — an elegiac poetry that, more than lament, attempts to inhabit the very space of loss.

    Since you mentioned to me your interest in the predominance of the elegy in recent American poetry, I thought I’d ask you to discuss your ideas about the elegiac mode (either in terms of your own work or in relation to current poetic trends). Thanks Hadara and BPJ for such great work! --Mande Z.

    *If you haven’t read the essay and want to (I think you’d like it!), you can find it in a book called Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry, ed. James McCorkle.

  10. Hi Mande. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and question. I have read the Mackey essay, though some time ago. As I recall, Mackey examines music and poetic language and ways of responding to music in literature, which I think nicely dovetails with my discussion of form in poetry. Both form and music can inhabit loss, which you eloquently stated. (I was thinking of Billie Holiday’s breathing, how even before the note is sung comes her breath—a painful, painfilled rasp that also is miraculously beautiful, and connecting that idea of musical spatiality to visual spatiality in C.D Wright’s new book Rising, Falling, Hovering. Wright presents various narratives and voices as a polyphonic collage, both literally—the voices collide as the poems unfold—and visually—Wright uses form to suggest violence and loss and creativity in the face of it all. In both Holiday and Wright, the musical and visual “absences” are not really absences, but, as you point out, a way to inhabit the very space of loss, to activate and even articulate it.

    As for the elegy, Mackey cites the Kaluli people who connect poetic language to weeping and claim death and/or loss as the source of music. That takes me back to Picasso’s idea of art as a “hoard of destructions,” which is, of course, only one among many ways of thinking about art. The elegy is certainly receiving quite a bit of attention these days, which is not unsurprising considering the world in these times. There is C.D. Wright’s aforementioned book, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, Natasha Tretheway’s Native Guard, and Rusty Morrison’s the true keeps calm biding its story, among other elegiac collections. Each of these collections has been extremely well received and the authors awarded prestigious prizes (Wright won the Griffin Poetry Prize; Tretheway won the Pulitzer, and Morrison won the James Laughlin Award). These authors are evidence of death and loss as potential sources of creativity. Moreover, the very positive reception of their work also speaks to us, the readers, who perhaps are coming to know or have always known that death and life or destruction and creativity are inextricably connected, even symbiotic for the artist.

    To return to the discussion on form, Wright, Bang, Tretheway, and Morrison have a unique vision of the shape of the elegy. Unlike the obsessive sestina with its fixed repetition or the tight sonnet with its seemingly neat stanzas and quick end, the elegy is a formless form. It is up to us, the writers, to give form to grief. The elegy asks us: what form does grief take? And one look at my poem or a poem by Wright or Tretheway shows the form of the elegy is as varied as our imaginations.