Poetry in Life Writing: The All We Can Know
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“To write poetry after Auschwitz is all we can know.” -Marlene Kadar Marlene Kadar’s “Barbaric Poem” begins with a declaration from German philosopher and composer Theodore Adorno: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” These words are italicized and footnoted; they are demanding to be responded to. These words are from 1949. Five years have past since the war. And yet poetry is still barbaric. Why? Is poetry meant to stand for beauty? Is a particular memory still too close for passing thoughts of wonder? For passages of sound, rhythm, and melody? Poetry’s language is marked by its gaps in time; words are continually removed and placed elsewhere. We are left with choices to make: which words should we keep or discard? Which memories? When we examine the archive and archival lives, we are desperately trying to fill in gaps of time. When we put fragments of diaries, letters, notebooks, and interviews together, our research is akin to writing poetry. We are stringing the threads of a story that we only know the beginning of or ending to. We yearn for coherence in our narratives, we yearn for balance. When we account for lives lost or stolen, we are tipping the scales of histories lost or stolen. Poetry is a way of filling in gaps of time; the gaps in our research; the missing voices. Poetry can speak for the lives we cannot account for, for the stories we are unable to tell. The only way we can know barbed wire is when we see it flash in the sunlight in idyllic meadows. The only way we can know the ardor of the lost child’s fever is when we can wipe the wet forehead. The only way we can address a stolen daughter’s family is by reading about the story you made up about her based on facts based on memories now found. My paper will foreground Marlene Kadar’s “Barbaric Poem” (2004) as a way of acknowledging the possibilities of poetry in life writing and feminist studies, particularly in relation to interrogating histories of trauma. My arguments will be informed by Ann Cvetkovich’s (2003) theories on the archive of feelings and the quest to understand trauma and survival as a psychic need. Kadar is clearly expressing a psychic need for poetics in her poem, and my immediate, affective response is to trace this desire back to the archive and archival research; the functions and limitations of each.