Sunday, November 29, 2009

Erika M. Nelson, "Traumatic Traces"

Erika M. Nelson

Traumatic Traces in Crumbling Structures and Invisible Spaces

There have been no words.
—Suheir Hammad

Trauma leaves one speechless and lost. One becomes keenly aware of the limits of language, and a sense of disorientation, even futility, seems inextricably linked to the experience of trauma. Usually productive approaches to life appear inadequate at addressing and articulating loss and healing that, which is irreparably broken asunder. Trauma shakes our sense of security in the world and dismantles otherwise reliable roadmaps of physical and psychological structures, thus forcing a radical reorientation. As much as language fails and silence threatens to overwhelm us, nonetheless, it is to words we turn in our attempts to sort out such experiences. Often we return to art and poetry. Art, as Daisaku Ikeda suggests, gives voice and form to “a voiceless cry in the depths of our souls, waiting for expression”
[1] that helps “restore our lost or distorted humanity” (83).

In the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, a day commonly understood as a “day that shook the world,”
[2] poets were among the first to struggle to express the effects of organized terrorism aimed at destroying human life. One such poet, the young Palestinian-American Suheir Hammad shared her piece “First Writing Since”[3] publicly a week after the attacks. The poem’s first lines capture the stunned collective silence of Ikeda’s inaudible outcry:

“1. There have been no words.
I have not written one word.
no poetry in the ashes south of Canal Street.
no prose in the refrigerated trucks driving debris and DNA.
not one word.”

Mutlu Konuk Blasing points out in her book, Lyric Poetry: the Pain and Pleasure of Words,
[4] that poetry is a radically public language (4) able to inhabit the gaps in language and experience. Furthermore, poetic conventions sanction language use that “undoes, even as it reinstitutes” the poetic subject within “a history of communal acknowledgment of a shared trauma” (62). As such, it keeps the “unassimilable trauma […] still audible” (62), constituting “a willed return to a site of pain,” not in order to “dwell on loss or retrieve what is lost” but as “an affirmation of loss” (62). Blasing argues that “poetry wills to reopen the wound, to repeat the violence that opens the history of the human subject, so that we can re-cognize our selves in the experience” (62) within the “specialness” of poetry that “remembers a personal and communal history in language” (64). Through the “groundless ground” of poetry, we learn “the will to lose again, to choose language again” (62).

In Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Julia Kristeva similarly underscores how one overcomes depression generated by loss by learning “how to lose.”
[5] For Kristeva, this translates to the willingness to leave the memory of the lost unity between mother and child, an archaic memory of primal connection in existence before the occurrence of an inevitable emotional separation, and to re-establish a new unity that compensates for the loss in the realm of imaginative representations, i.e., in the world of language and symbols.

Through willfully creating and destroying imaginative structures, poetry facilitates this learning process: poems re-assemble fragments into architectural monuments in language and rhythm of a collective human history. In traumatic times when physical structures literally collapse and radically obliterate landscapes that once existed, poetry imaginatively retraces and revisits these invisible spaces, recreating the loss as a means to fight forgetting. Among the crumbling structures, amidst the invisible spaces, the human voice survives and rises out of the rubble.

One such voice is of the Croatian poet Dragica Rajčić, who writes in German, the language of her adopted country Switzerland. In her collection of poems entitled Post Bellum,
[6] Rajčić chronicles in minimalistic style glimpses of a woman’s everyday life against the backdrop of the Balkan war, presenting with candor the stark realities of modern warfare, the post-war ruins of one’s homeland, but also the ways that daily life re-emerges out of such destruction. Her signature style of visibly “brocken” German (Rajčić writes in grammatically and orthographically incorrect German) conjure up unexpected connotations and associations. In the places where the conventional map of language fragments, new meanings emerge. For instance, in the poem “Hunderste Gedicht ohne trenen” (Hundredth poem without tears), the word “trenen,” as it is not capitalized as one expects of the homophonic noun “Tränen,” (German: tears) suggests the verb “trennen” meaning “to separate” in place of tears. Co-joining tears with separation, Rajčić laconically asserts that this poem, along with ninety-nine others, courageously defies the obvious inclination to mourn.

Revealing her work’s conscious, simultaneous writing and “unwriting” of the past, Rajčić’s Post Bellum portrays a woman’s personal struggle with war’s fracturing of loyalties and its shattering of personal dreams. Giving voice to feelings of exclusion and exploitation, Rajčić commands lyric’s intimate language of emotional experience in its barest form to bear witness to individual lives. Against the barbarity of war, she fights with her arsenal of humanity. Speaking for the collective personal voice of those who could not speak, out of the void of stories and testimonies not told, Rajčić tells stories of lives forever changed by the war. In her work, war is ever-present. Yet the specifics of war, i.e., the political reasons and rationale for war, remain vague and uninteresting, and are only referenced indirectly in the titles of a few poems with the naming of places and years. As for instance in her poem, “Bosnia 95,” where Rajčić writes:

Bosnien 95

“Die lateinische wort für krieg fehlt mir
spaeter ein
jetzt suche ich kinder hose
schneide rechte bein ab
nähe zu die offnung
mit unsichtbaren garn
auf meine zunge liegt
ein unerhörtes

Bosnia 95

“The Latin word for war comes to me
now I’m looking for children’s pants
cut the right leg off
sew up the opening
with invisible thread
on my tongue lies
an unheard of

The speaker cannot remember the Latin or learned word for war, suggesting that she cannot or will not sustain the required intellectual rigor for theoretical discussions of warfare. She does not even choose the correct gender for the noun “word,” choosing the feminine form “die” in place of the neuter “das.” The feminine word, associated with war, does not occur to her (”fällt ihr nicht ein”). Written as a homophone: “fehlt ihr nicht ein,” (fehlt = German: missing) the line addresses that which is missing. Thus, war does not make logical sense to her feminine sensibility and invokes only a sense of loss. Her focus is on the task at hand: with invisible thread she sews up the gaping opening of the cut children’s pants. Mending that which has been torn wide open, she nonetheless maintains a prayer on her tongue: “Gebett” is introduced here with two tt’s, like “Bett” (German: bed) and thus invokes a sense of this prayer being imbedded and uninjured on the tongue. Nonetheless, the simple word unverletzt, (German: uninjured) is misspelled, undermining again the poet’s assertion of safety. Her prayer goes unheard, (unerhört = German: unheard) at the same time that she cries out at the injustice (unerhört = German: shocking, outrageous). The senselessness of war, the chronicling of it and naming it in Latin is revealed as having nothing to do with the immediate albeit mundane and necessary tasks at hand, those of everyday life—of caring and childrearing—which continue on, unnamed by any Latin term, relentlessly commanding the speaker’s attention and propelling her forward, motivated by the unheard and outrageous wish for something better.

Rajčić’s work is not limited by concerns of political correctness. For her communication is central, as is the process of recuperating, recovering and rebuilding from bits and pieces—if only in language itself – what she calls “a house, nowhere”:

Ein haus, nirgends

für stück
von Wortern
herunter fehlt
was mache
ich da
ich sammle Silben
baue Ihnen
ein haus, nirgends”

A house, nowhere

by piece
in words
falls down missing
what do I do
then there
I gather syllables
build them
a house, nowhere”

This construction of a “house, nowhere” is the attempt to take action in language, with language to create against the very threat of destruction and non-existence. As she builds, piece by piece, faith of words not in words, (Rajčić chooses the preposition “von” not the anticipated “an”), there is the moment here in the poem when the pieces fall down: “herunter fällt”, actually written as “fehlt” (German: missing), which introduces a break and rupture in the assumed understanding of the poem. Here, the process of creating and rebuilding even poems themselves as things fall apart is simultaneously a process of building something of value out of what is missing: the elusive wish of creating a “home” that can withstand loss— a tower, fortress, or sanctuary of words. As the world around her falls apart, the very crumbling of her world becomes part of an inexorable reality she must accept as truth.

Similarly, in Suheir Hammad’s poem, the poet confronts the distortion of her world after tragedy, melding it into an unusual harmony:

“evident out my kitchen window is an abstract reality
sky where once was steel.
smoke where once was flesh.”

Gathering up from the fragmented and disorganized pieces left in the aftermath of violence, characterized by the countless photo collages and stories plastered all over the scene, beckoning people home, Hammad’s poem echoes among these stories:

“3. The dead are called lost and their families hold up
Shaky printouts in front of us through screens smoked up.
We are looking for Iris, mother of three.
please call with any information.
we are searching for priti, last seen on the 103rd floor.
She was talking to her husband on the phone and the line went.
please help us find George, also known as Ael.
his family is waiting for him with his favorite meal.
I am looking for my son, who was delivering coffee.
I am looking for my sister girl, she started her job on monday.

I am looking for peace.
I am looking for mercy.
I am looking for evidence of compassion.
any evidence of life.
I am looking for ife.”

As in Rajčić’s work, Hammad’s “home” is similarly complex and fraught with fragility, portraying a multitude of possible homes, equally traumatized. Hammad specifically addresses her own sense of alienation and belonging as an Arab New Yorker, occupying both spaces of insider and outsider simultaneously:

“I have never felt less American and more New Yorker, particularly
Brooklyn, than these past days.
The stars and stripes on all these cars and apartment windows represent
the dead as citizens first, not family members, not

I feel like my skin is real thin, and that my eyes are only going to get darker.
The future holds little light.”

The unsettling tone warns of future attacks, misunderstandings born out of difference. Nonetheless, Hammad’s poem concludes with an affirmation of life, her poem acts as a testimony of such survival. Using the rhythm of her verse to create a fortified space within language, she concludes with a call to action:

“There is no poetry in this.
There are causes and effects.
There are symbols and ideologies,
mad conspiracy here, and information we will never know.
There is death here, and there are promises of more.

There is life here.
Anyone reading this is breathing, maybe hurting, but
breathing for sure.

and if there is any light to come,
it will shine from the eyes of those who look for peace
and justice
after the rubble and rhetoric are cleared and the phoenix
has risen.

Affirm life.
Affirm life.
We’ve got to carry each other now.
You are either with life, or against it.
Affirm life.”

Hammad’s and Rajčić’s works encourage us to embrace survival in the face of trauma. Forging self-awareness, understanding, and courage, their poetry restores traces of hope and possibility in the willingness to lose again and speak out, expressing the voiceless cry that heals, as Hammad captures so exquisitely:

“I have not cried at all while writing this.
I cried when I saw those buildings collapse on themselves
Like a broken heart.
I have never owned pain that needs to spread like that.”


[1] Daisaku Ikeda. The Way of Youth: Buddhist Common Sense for Handling Life’s Questions. (Santa Monica: Middleway Press, 2000) 83.

[2] The BBC characterized September 11, 2001 as “the day that shook the world” in the title to a book documenting the events from September 11, 2001 to November 13, 2001 (Baxter and Downing 2001). As mentioned in Susan Hawthorne and Bronwyn Winter’s Introduction in After Shock: September 11, 2001 Global Feminist Perspectives. Susan Hawthorne and Bronwyn Winter, Eds. (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2002) 11.

[3] Suheir Hammad. “First Writing Since,” in After Shock: September 11, 2001 Global Feminist Perspectives. Susan Hawthorne and Bronwyn Winter, Eds. (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2002) 115-120.

4 Multlu Konuk Blasing. Lyric Poetry: the Pain and Pleasure of Words. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[5] Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) 4-5.

[6] Dragica Rajčić. Post bellum: Gedichte. (Zürich: Ed. 8, 2000).

Dr. Erika M. Nelson is currently the John D. MacArthur Assistant Professor at Union College, where she teaches German language, literature, and culture courses. Her doctoral research, completed at the University of Texas at Austin, focused on issues of identity construction and sound in Rainer Maria Rilke's Orphic poetry and was published as a book entitled Reading Rilke's Orphic Identity. Her current research explores transnational identity and poetry, German spa culture, and modern renditions of mythic figures in literature and film.

RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture,
http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence

1 comment:

Mason Hickman said...

Erika, I really enjoyed reading this, thank you!