THE STEAM SEQUENCE by CARLY SACHSEILEEN TABIOS Engages
the steam sequence by Carly Sachs
(Washington Writers Publishing House, Washington D.C., 2006)
For Galatea Resurrects, I don’t have particular books in mind to review. I just read poetry as widely as I can and then review whatever moves me to engage with them in that manner. With Carly Sachs’ the steam sequence, I felt compelled to write about it, even as I suspected that I probably will fail at fully articulating why I am so glad to see this collection in print.
the steam sequence is not just about, to quote from Henry Israeli's blurb, "an unnamed Jewish woman, a Nazi soldier, a dead child". It's not just about their experience. It's about remembering that experience. And reminding people that people underwent their experience. But also about the inevitable failure of remembering accurately -- that what will become memory is full of holes, and perhaps deliberately so.
It's about reminding people of something so brutal that many people would just as soon have their memories evaporate: the kettle screams forth its steam but, afterwards, the steam disappears.
So I can talk about the deftness of the poetic craft and book design. And I will because I want to respect the poet's and designer’s skill.
Book design and composition are attributed to Patrick Pepper; cover design to Moira Egan, Patrick Pepper, and Graham Wimbrow; and cover art to Graham Wimbrow. We see the effectiveness of their thought process: the grey of the front and back covers as grey as steam that arose from one of humanity’s worst histories, as trains arrived, or as chimneys belched out a certain smoke…. We see the cover image to be an undefinable image except that it’s grey; it could be a night sky, a sky blackened by smoke, a crater, or a moon suddenly blackened by ash. The all of it -- and what it is not -- befits what lies within the book.
Within the book, we have the effective use of caesuras and spare language to capture what cannot be captured, for instance, horror:
in the room
the radiator the beating
Design. Yes, we see how the placement of a few lines on a page, leaving the page mostly blank, enhances the silences -- and erasures. For example, the above three lines are atop the page and the rest of the page is blank. The blank evokes a scream. The blank encourages the reader/viewer to fill in the rest of the page with response. The blank page reminds: the blank page is not horrible because it’s silent but because a voice was -- voices were -- silenced.
and told her
no one would be [left a]
And why not rely on fragments? Even the full-frontal narrative of the following seems somehow to understate the experience of … Auschwitz:
They let certain women keep their hair,
those were the soldiers’ women,
always the ones most recently off the train
who were given soap and water
then taken naked to a concrete room
where the soldiers would shove the heads
of their rifles inside them.
Sent back to the women’s barracks
beauty gone, the other women
picked on the bones,
scavenged these broken bodies
for jewelry, a hidden tube of lipstick,
the mirror, though no one
wanted to see what they had become.
And yet the specificity of the above is critical. It provides a backbone, though broken, to excerpts like this:
some days she
sits in the kitchen
water all day
the tea kettle screaming
or this excerpt
in a jam jar
how many hands and bodies
Each page offers one broken piece after another. That the texts manage to be organized into a poetry book does not preclude the experience from being one of “music", albeit of a "music / thinning / to air.”
Reading this book also reminded me of an art exhibition I witnessed in 2001: installation and mixed-media art by Ruth Liberman at Messineo Wyman Projects in New York City. I reviewed it for the now-defunct ReviewNY. Here’s an excerpt:
Poetry is what cannot be articulated. Ruth Liberman’s works address what should not be articulated: horror and evil. Consequently, Liberman uses text as visual material. In doing so, she creates visual poetry and subverts meaning.
Liberman is concerned about what she describes in an Artist’s Statement to be “people in extreme situations.” In this exhibition, she ask what meaning can be found in such horrors as Nazi-perpetrated genocide….
“Petrikau 26.7.43 (1990-94)” is a set of four vinyl panels covered with the carbon traces of used typewriter ribbon. Through the ribbons, Liberman marks the vinyl with words from an unpublished 1943 diary of a German army officer on duty in the SS-occupied Jewish ghetto in Piotrkov (Poland). The officer writes descriptively—hence, brutally—of what he witnessed as the ghetto was shut down and people deported or killed. Stretches of black tape cover portions of the text that Liberman perhaps deems too brutal to expose. The hidden sections only make more horrendous the feelings generated from such fragmented texts as:
--“a little white coat and white tiny cap”
--“It all takes its course. The air feels leaden”
-- “I see how the fat bleached blond, having already returned, presses the face of the twelve-year-old against her body”
As with Liberman’s installation art, the steam sequence fragments the shield of forgetfulness. These works record. Sach’s poems are about something. That their subjects are ghosts does not make them any less real. Indeed, whether from memory or horror or some combination thereof, both the steam sequence and Liberman’s exhibit embody -- or rather, as Lyn Hejinian puts it in her blurb, “re-embody” -- something that, as Hejinian also puts it, “by its very nature can’t be remembered, is about the very limits of experience.”
Yes, poetry can be written afterwards.
Eileen Tabios recently released THE LIGHT SANG AS IT LEFT YOUR EYES: OUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY (Marsh Hawk Press, 2007).