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.