Between Two Walls

Review of Chisel of Remembrance

A Small Still Voice in the Face of a Shattered World

Vera Schwarcz. Chisel of Remembrance: Poems. Simsbury, Connecticut. Antrim House. 2009. ix + 76 pages. $16. ISBN 978-0-9817883-2-6

Vera Schwarcz is a historian and poet of Jewish origin, who has built a formidable reputation on an impressive list of publications, including the prize-winning Bridge across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (Yale University Press, 1999). Her poetry blends a woman’s sensitivity and imagination, a Jew’s religious piety, the erudition of a multilingual scholar, and a deep sense of responsibility of a child of Holocaust survivors. Her latest volume of poems is called Chisel of Remembrance; the title manifests a central theme in all of Schwarcz’s works, i.e., “the quest for remembrance.”

Schwarcz incorporates in these poems remembrances of her childhood and her family members, of the sufferings of the Jewish people in general, of the ancient Judaism, and of other ancient cultures, especially the Chinese culture. These remembrances are more often than not intermingled, and sometimes in an unexpected way. In “Hands,” the poet addresses her grandfather, whom she never knew. He “died in bed, / a heart attack. / Jews did not just die / in 1944.” The second sentence seems to be a casual comment on the first. The very casualness of its utterance creates a tension with the weight that lies behind the (under)statement. If the agonies suffered by the Jewish people are expressed implicitly in “Hands,” in “The White Button” it is made explicit. The war splits the once happy family – just as it splits the poem down the middle, as it were – putting a stop to every dream they once cherished. “War comes,” so unexpected, yet so inevitable and fated; the spondaic disyllabic line has a pounding effect not unlike the motif in the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. The aristocratic chair, gold chain, hat, and wig are all gone; what remains is the white button, “a pustule of hope.”

Schwarcz’s imagination and sensibility is best exemplified in the poems inspired by the Chinese classics and language. “Confucius Feasting” juxtaposes two separate episodes from The Analects, to which is added an imagined third episode. In the original text (The Analects 7:13), Shao韶 is the name of music allegedly composed by Emperor Shun舜. Here, it is rendered as “an ancient ode,” thus joining the second stanza, in which the Master enumerates the reasons why one should cherish the Book of Odes. After hearing the ode, for three months the Master did not taste meat, not because he was entranced by the music, which is at once perfectly beautiful and perfectly good (The Analects 3:25), but because he was “mourning / the death of songs.” Also, the music of the Book of Odes “recalls / forgotten words,” and “their silences instruct / a noble heart.” All these create a nostalgic Confucius, who holds dear things that are gone, forgotten, or silenced. Schwarcz’s innovative reading of the two Chinese characters – one traditional and the other simplified – of閒and闲 (xian, idle) in “Listening to the Universe” reminds us of Ezra Pound. Like the Master in “Confucius Feasting,” Schwarcz favors the character now out of use, which is “made up / of two gates framing the crescent moon, / hinting at the art of listening to heaven, / lingering at the doorposts of the unsaid, / alert to what steals in and out of language at ease.”

For Schwarcz, the past is not buried permanently in the tomb of history; instead, it inevitably interacts with the present. Those who have suffered and died may have their voice again only if the living remember who they are and what they have experienced. As is expressed in “The White Button,” “I refuse to let them vanish / speechless. I call them back / on this page.” Remembrances are a frame for these poems, which are her “tools / for picturing eternity” (“Hands”). Schwarcz seeks in her works to find “the voice within the silence” (“A Pilfered Life among the Grasses”), while her own voice is “a small still voice, / as one woman polishes the sapphire / of her thoughts” (“Gems”). Everything the opposite of grandiloquence, her voice is able to pierce the reader’s heart deeper and linger there longer. For me, the weightiest thoughts that Vera Schwarcz gives voice to in this volume occurs in “What Is the Good of Studying History?” : “What is the good / of studying history? / Nothing, but to be less tongue-tied / when disaster strikes, / to look into darkness / with open eyes.”

Zhao Yuan

Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing

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