THE UNIVERSE IS NO CONSOLATION:

HYAM PLUTZIK AND THE ETHICS OF POST-HOLOCAUST READING

By Cary Nelson

Presented at the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature conference, Miami Beach, Florida, November 2018


the victims speak, telling of their crime and punishment. Their crime is all too often that of merely being alive; the punishment is usually the fire, or sometimes the self-dug grave. I imagine passages: “I was so and do, I was so and so, I did such and such; for this I went into the fire.” --Plutzik, from a description of a planned Holocaust poem

In a life that was prematurely cut short in 1962 at age fifty, Hyam Plutzik published three books of poetry: Aspects of Proteus (1949), Apples From Shinar (1959), and Horatio (1961). Despite the brevity of his mature writing life—say, just over twenty years—his posthumous Collected Poems, issued in 1987, adds uncollected and unpublished poems, some of which Plutzik hoped to include in a another book, to comprise a substantial volume of 300 pages. A planned long poem on the Holocaust was never completed, though, as Edward Moran has importantly informed us, Plutzik described its themes and its major sections in detail in an October 14, 1960, fellowship application to the Guggenheim Foundation that is part of the Plutzik archive at the University of Rochester. As Moran points out in a review of a Holocaust film, Plutzik’s notes describe it as a poem “on the most immense subject for a poem in our time: the massacre of six million Jews by Hitler” and adds “it is hard enough to write a requiem for one man, but six million! Is there such a number? Grief ends beyond one or two or three; beyond that there are only statistics.” To answer that impossible challenge by giving it an uncanny reality,  the poem was to open with a scene “in which the six million ghosts appear at midday on Main Street.” The poem was also to feature “a section dealing with Anne Frank,” who, he tells his reads, “I expect, will become an important figure in the poem. The idea of using her came to me soon after reading her diary some years ago.”  “I don’t know whether I have the ability to do justice to this subject,” he advises, “but I shall try” [Plutzik papers, Box 4, folder 7].

In 1941, writing to a former teacher in what would be published decades later as Letter from a Young Poet in 2015, Plutzik observes that “It is an awesome thing to be a Jew and to know that one is hated by so many of one’s fellowmen” (68). The sentence trails off in ellipses. Plutzik was still in the process of shaping his identity as a Jewish-American poet. Born in 1911 in Brooklyn, the child of parents who had emigrated from what later became Belarus, Plutzik had spoken only Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian at home. The family moved to a farm in Connecticut when he was a year old. Plutzik would learn English at age seven when he began attending a one-room Connecticut schoolhouse accommodating eight grades. He would later attend Trinity College as an undergraduate and graduate school at Yale. He was appointed an instructor in English at the University of Rochester in 1945, becoming the institution’s first Jewish faculty member. I believe it is time for an essay-length overview of Plutzik’s poetry that can help renew interest in his work, an essay that will include detailed analysis of a number of poems and give us a sense of how a Jewish poet established his identity as a writer in the immediate post-Holocaust decade when many poets, except those on the radical left, avoided direct and aggressive political commentary. In the 2006 film about him, his widow Tanya describes him as a “neglected poet.” That characterization remains valid more than a decade later. Part of what “doomed his verse to obscurity,” Margot Lurie argues, was “an affinity for Jewish concerns” (30).

I am arguing here not only that the overall coherence and rhetorical sophistication of the 1987 Collected Poems is both remarkable and distinctive but also that it presents a consistently darker vision than other critics have suggested. Although it includes both comic and occasional poems, its fundamental, controlling vision is post-apocalyptic, explicitly imbued with the themes and philosophical outlook that emerged from the rise of fascism in the 1930s and culminated in the defining events of World War Two. Those events are two: the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Plutzik did not, during his lifetime, write topical poems overtly about the Holocaust, but World War II remained an explicit subject, whether in “Bomber Base” from Aspects of Proteus, “The Old War” and “The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’s England” from Apples From Shinar, or the uncollected 1959 poem “On the Airfield at Shipdham,” the latter commemorating the B-24 bomber base in Norfolk where Plutzik was stationed as an ordinance officer in the Army Air Corps from 1944-45. “Bomber Base,” one of the more memorable poems anyone wrote about the war, records some of the work of preparing the B-24s for their bombing runs: 

Hoist up the bombs into the belly

Of this great monster and do not look too closely

At the work of your hands as you thread the fuse, performing

The set procedure, till the thing is ripe for killing. (38)

As the poem concludes, he recalls the bomber crews that pass through the base, their names and faces inevitably changing as new crews replaced those whose planes went down and crews lost over Germany and the occupied countries:

You remember that the faces changed often at the table,

That you talked to them, that they had many dreams,

That they were you yourself with a different number.

For Jews at least that last line has a special meaning: it reverberates with Holocaust implications. How many of us have thought about which direction we would have been sent on entering Auschwitz. It is part of our identity. A tattooed number on the arm still resonates for most alive today. 

In Letter from a Young Poet, Plutzik comments after the Japanese attacked in the Pacific and “our men were dying at Pearl Harbor and Manila” that “the die is cast—by one of the lesser members of the camorra of the possessed” (63), the Camorra being a mafia-style criminal organization that may have existed for centuries. “The Camorra” is also the title of a chilling poem from Aspects of Proteus in which he tries to capture the persistence of an ancient and evil conspiracy whose targets may be Jews and whose members deceive the rest of us with false prayers seeking divine intervention:

O they plotted this before Adam was born,

To track us like hounds till we falter at last and fall

Though we laugh behind doors and wear clever disguises.

For they were not all thrown in the burning gulf.

There are those who remained behind and at convocations

Fawn at the Lord and mumble the words of Hosannas. (39)

As Plutzik was very much aware, Jews faced centuries in which forced exile and pogroms were carried out by those who believed they had god on their side. Notably, his second book, Apples from Shinar, gathers poems that are not only post-Holocaust but also composed after the 1948 founding of the Jewish state. One of its substantial poems, the 70-line “The Priest Ekranath” (102-3), is a first-person narrative spoken by a Philistine priest, the Ekranath of the title. Few readers then or since could have imagined that the task of defining one’s identity as a Jewish American poet would have entailed writing an elaborate poem in the voice of an invented Philistine priest. In the opening stanza, the priest mentions Askelon (also Ashkelon) and Gath, two of the five Philistine city-states. Gath is the city where David took refuge as a fugitive from Saul, and it is also the birthplace of Goliath, the giant warrior whom David famously killed with his slingshot in the process of defeating the Philistines.

Ekranath’s narrative is staged as a warning about the Hebrew peoples, “these barbarians from the mountains,/ From the anarchic hills come to destroy us.” Elaborating on a wonderful conceit, the priest complains “they have but a lone god” so stern and judgmental “he is their enemy.” He invokes Anath, or Anat, the Canaanite goddess of violent passions—love, war, and sacrifice—and registers his offended protest that the Hebrew tribes “do not worship her nor any mother-goddess.” She is known to enrich the fields with blood; without this “White Lady of splendid thighs and bosom” there will be no seedsman to “assure the fruit of field and man and animal.” Adonis is the god whom the priests represent as her lovers, and in whose stead Ekranath testifies “I who am sanctified—/ Having lain with the holy harlots at Askelon.” Maintaining the priest’s voice, the poem goes on to have him say

. . . Listen, you nations:

They will lure you from your spontaneous ecstasies

And positive possessions, and with themselves,

Carry you forth on arduous pilgrimages

Whose only triumph can be a bitter knowledge

Out of the suffering they make our worth.

We are not of course only in the domain here of pagan complaints about the arrival of a monotheistic people that finds

Our sunwashed cities despicable and meaningless,

Our splendid artistic productions abominable,

Our majestic pantheon foul as a kennel

but rather in the territory of the pagan culture of the Nazis who overran much of Europe. And all of Ekranath’s complaints about the Hebrew tribes reverberate in the Nazi propaganda that so recently demonized the Jews. From Ekranath’s perspective, the Hebrew tribes are an invading barbarian other, not only politically, culturally, and religiously, but also sexually. 

Although the poem does not name him, the priest reports that he “met a certain one:/ Sly as a jackal yet arrogant as a lion,/ Rough-bearded, out of the desert,” and that is clearly David. The poem is not only about the Philistine rage at the founding of the ancient Jewish kingdom, but also about the founding of the modern Jewish state. In the poem’s final lines Ekranath testifies that through “the sacred harlot’s embraces” he has learned “the syllables/ (Ah, they are powerful and barbarous!)/ Of the secret incantation that gives them strength.” But if we expect the poem to close with the Shema it does not. Instead it lists the names of eleven of the tribes of Israel:

Hear how they thunder! Listen: Issachar

Levi simon reuben judah dan

Zebulun asher naphtali menassah ephraim.

Recited without capitalization or punctuation, they form a renewed incantation for the present. As Margot Lurie writes in a review of a reprinted edition of Apples from Shinar, “The roll call of Israelite tribes is unsettling not only because of its lofty authoritative tone, but because of its form. The tribes are not presented here in birth order, nor are they divided according to their mothers or territorial divisions. Only eleven names are listed, with Gad and Benjamin omitted. But while the names are presented irregularly, their appearance in the poem’s final two lines marks a shift from the previously irregular meter into a thumping pentameter” (31).

If the legacy of the Holocaust echoes throughout the Collected Poems, however, explicit references to what was then our newly nuclear present and future are mostly absent. Yet there are possible allusions to the use of atomic weapons in some of his works, as in the lines “In this mid-century / Screaming is easier . . .  ‘A poison bolus / Out of the sky has blasted your wife and child’” (247). Consider as well the remarkable short poem “Two Hearts and an Arrow” from 1950 (217):

Deserted railroad sidings on Sunday

Adumbrate the rust of our future,

When the antiquarian will comment,

“No, they were not wholly detestable.

“Though the barbarians burned the libraries,

And the rocks are still radiant from their warring,

See, I have found in their more casual inscriptions

Hints of tenderness or only moderate hate.”

This is a poem that anticipates how we will be read in a future time, something we can foresee now in the vacant silence of an abandoned, decaying railway spur, perhaps suggesting the abandoned lines to Auschwitz and other camps used to transports Jews to their deaths but a few years earlier. The poem suggests that  what we were and how we will be understood will be at once faintly recognizable and partly concealed (both meanings carried by “adumbrate”) by the rust accumulated on disused rail tracks. With his typical wry humor, Plutzik suggests we will then be merely an antiquarian interest. In an imagined debate among his fellows, the antiquarian pleads our case as best he or she can: we weren’t wholly detestable. Alluding perhaps to Nazi book burnings in the opening line in the second stanza, a reference reinforced by his warning in Letter from a Young Poet that “a thousand books may go up in smoke on the Alexanderplatz” (77), the speaker from the future tells us “the rocks are still radiant from their warring.” Rocks heated and shattered from bombings do not long radiate their heat, but nuclear radiation can last. Of course Plutzik may only be metaphorically representing the intensity of our conflicts, but it seems a reference to atomic war is more likely. For a poem that effectively shifts between past, present, and future and thus displays a certain temporal mobility, it is strikingly claustrophobic, a characteristic of many Holocaust poem, in this case a poem that arguably combines allusions to both the Holocaust and atomic war. As Brunner further suggested to me, poems like this “resound with a fierce restraint below which anger simmers.” 

Although a few of Plutzik’s published poems predate the outbreak of WW II in 1939, none of them predate Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933 or the advent of the viciously anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935. The first phase of Germany’s relentless assault on its Jews had its next defining moment in 1938’s Kristallnacht. These events and others were widely publicized in the US, and Plutzik was certainly well aware of them. The legacy of the Holocaust would continue to haunt him through 1959’s Apples From Shinar. It obviously informs “Portrait,” whose subject “with what careful nonchalance . . . tries to be a Jew casually” and thereby “to ignore the monster, the mountain—/A few thousand years of history” (112). The passage is also partly self-reflexive, as Plutzik, a nonobservant Jew, nonetheless feels his identity is historically, politically, and religiously shaped by his Jewish identity. And the poem effectively condemns those forms of assimilation that replace historical memory with consumerism. For one then wears but “the borrowed shirt . . . a shirt by Nessus.” The unpublished prayer poem “Kaddish” also reads as a post-Holocaust text: “May he who establishes his peace on the heights bring peace and comforting also to us and to all Israel” (270). But the eleven-month tradition of mourning for a family death does not suffice for the dead of the Shoah or for the people Israel in its wake; the Kaddish prayer will now reverberate through to the end of time.

“After Looking into a Book Belonging to My Great-Grandfather, Eli Eliakim Plutzik” (97) is only readable as a Holocaust poem, even if its references once again are somewhat indirect. It opens with the first-person line “I am troubled by the blank fields, the speechless graves” (97), which invokes not only the dead of the Shoah who have no living relatives to speak for them but also the vanished villages that have no remaining presence. They include obliterated Jewish cemeteries whose wooden tombstones have disintegrated. If we have words for the genocide itself—Holocaust, Shoah—we have “no word/ For the thousand years that shaped this scribbling fist” that “carved upon wood.” The killing fields and camps we can recall and name, but the “veldt dragging to Poland” trails a still longer history behind it. In the end, there is necessarily recourse to a placeless, rootless, diasporic form of mourning to which Jewish identity must testify: “Only Here lies someone,/ Here lie no one and no one, your fathers and mothers.”

The Holocaust is also surely behind the need to address T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism in “For T.S.E. Only,” first published in 1955:

You called me a name on such and such a day—

Do you remember?—you were speaking of Bleistein our brother,

The barbarian with the black cigar, and the pockets

Ringing with cash, and the eyes seeking Jerusalem,

Knowing they have been tricked. Come, brother Thomas,

We three must weep together for our exile.

Eliot’s rather modest exile is from his American birthplace to his chosen country, England, whereas the Jewish people’s exile is from the Holy Land to the realms of the Diaspora and from there, through the centuries, to further exiles from European countries. There would have been scant faint hope that Eliot could have found commonality with Bleistein and Plutzik and the Jews on the grounds of shared exile. It is an appeal to an Eliot of potential sympathy who does not exist.

Eliot’s “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar” was published in his 1920 Poems. Among its uncompromising lines are these: “The rats are underneath the piles. The Jew is underneath the lot.” But the key issue is not Eliot’s anti-Semitism, which he confirmed repeatedly in poetry and prose over a number of years, but the way it corrodes everything else he stood for as a major voice of modern poetry. And for our purposes the pressing issue is why Plutzik returned to highlight a 1920 poem thirty-five years after it was published. And the continuing pressure of the twentieth century’s defining genocide and the growing assault on Europe’s Jews that lead up to it would seem the logical answer. That may help contextualize the most telling challenge Plutzik issues to Eliot: “And now in the time of weeping you cannot weep” (110). The Holocaust is the supreme “time of weeping” in all of Jewish history, despite the pogroms, exiles, and categorical political, cultural, and religious acts of othering that preceded it. Because of his exalted literary status, Eliot stands at the forefront of the modern  vocation Plutzik has chosen for himself. And so Plutzik asks Eliot, even now, in the wake of the apex of my people’s suffering, will you not disavow your hatred? But of course Eliot never did. I am thus not inclined to impose on this poem a consoling sense of human fraternity as some readers have. It seems instead to offer forlorn witness to the brotherhood that anti-Semitism disavows, an awareness of which haunts Jewish identity.

Throughout Horatio,  Plutzik again opts for indirection, although no reader of Horatio with any political sophistication could miss the contemporary implications. The same pattern of indirect contemporary implication informs his uncollected 1960 poem “On the Last Survivor of Our War, 1861-1865,” where he tells us “The dead that Matthew Brady saw by the wall/ Call too loud now to be denied” (231). He had been stationed at several locations in the South during his World War II service, including Mississippi, so he was aware that the legacy of the American Civil War was still strong there, but his broad national claim that the dead of a hundred years earlier call loudly to us is not really true. It is our dead, the dead of both World War II and the Holocaust who called loudly to us in that moment. The 100-year anniversary of the start of the civil war provided the poem’s occasion but did not limit its contemporary relevance. When he concludes the poem by remarking “My God, how the storm of the generation passes,/ How each wave is lost at last in the sand” he registers with others the concern that those more recent dead might pass from living memory. The same concern of course led the Israelis to capture Adolf Eichmann in Argentina that year and put him on trial in 1961 in Jerusalem, the event that made individual testimony such a strong feature of Holocaust memory. And in that moment the dead did “Call too loud now to be denied.” 

The most compelling act of witness incumbent on us is the need to bear witness to the presence of such evil. And evil is embodied in facts we cannot afford to see eroded. The preface to Apples From Shinar, which is effectively dedicated to Federico Garcia Lorca, politicizes the whole book in multiple ways. Although Apples was published in 1959, Plutzik dates the preface October 1950, when it was produced for the Rochester Poetry Society. The effect is to indict the whole decade of the 1950s, not just its concluding years. García Lorca’s death, however, is usually paired with Grenada, not as Plutzik does, with the Albacín, which is one of Grenada’s districts. But the Albacín contains the Jewish quarter that thrived during Spain’s long Muslim period. Once again, Plutzik embeds a cultural, historical, and distinctly Jewish allusion in a way that will not hail most readers. That may be part of David Scott Kastan, in an otherwise sensitive afterword to the 2011 “Special Edition” reprint of Apples, says Plutzik “was not a Jewish poet, but a gifted poet who happened to be born Jewish” (63). Obviously I disagree. The Albacín reference is as indirect as the inclusion of the name “Shinar” in the book’s title. Shinar alludes broadly to Babylonia, site of the Tower of Babel and a place of exile for the Jews. In a November 1958 letter to Donald Hall, Plutzik writes “The plain of Shinar was where the garden of Eden was located, and the apple eaten.”

In  Letter to a Young Poet Plutzik observes that “It is no wonder that the Jews have always been Hitler’s main enemy. We are the people of the book; we are a symbol of the continuity he would break; we (with all our admitted faults) represent that element of conscience that he must eradicate entirely from mankind before he can implant his odious philosophy of brutality and selfishness in humanity” (76). And in a poignant moment, writing before the scope of Hitler’s plans were known, Plutzik argues that the Jew cannot be drawn into a Faustian bargain with Nazism: “the Jew, compared to other people, would be comparatively fortunate in a Hitlerian world. . . . his soul would be his own, for by the very basis of Hitlerism he is outside the pale; he cannot be accepted into the new philosophy even if he wishes to. Therefore will his spirit be left inviolate and unconquered as it has been through other periods of persecution” (76). The Wannsee Conference would not take place until the following month, on January 20, 1942, but the systematic murder of the Jews of the Ukraine had already begun with the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. But it was not yet public knowledge, so I don’t see Plutzik’s observation as naïve; it speaks instead to the fragile, tragic limits of our awareness in that moment of the reach of human evil, even as it acknowledges that the Jewish people will be victims, not perpetrators, when the legacy of the war is recognized.

But Plutzik also realizes Nazism and anti-Semitism meanwhile will spread: “Other people will be given the privilege of corrupting themselves; they will be given material bribes (ultimately more apparent than real) in order to make them accomplice to it all. And since the flesh is weak, many will yield, to their own final doom and that of their children” (76-7). Because he is a Jew, Plutzik understands how comprehensive is the evil the Nazis promote: “All that mankind has hoped for, they would negate” (75-6). It is the possibility of that comprehensive negation that so overshadows post-Holocaust life and the definitions we can offer of human identity. Our capacity for evil is part of what defines a specifically postmodern identity.

It is with the problem of evil, notably, that Plutzik chose to open his first book, devoting several beautifully crafted poems to the history of evil and its variations. As always with Plutzik, history speaks to and is layered into the present. We make contemporary choices in concert with those of the past whether we recognize it or not. But Plutzik knows the history of the twentieth century demonstrates repeatedly that we mostly deny such connections. The book’s opening poem, “To The Predynastic Egyptian Who Rests Within the Entrance of the Metropolitan Museum,” points out that New York has given this ancient Egyptian a new tomb, “a mausoleum of granite/ Which even the King would have longed for” (3), then sardonically assures him

. . . The place of evil

Where you met the jackals and were thrown into the pit

Is not here, where civilized people pass and whisper

On the long, clean streets.

Your score is paid and the demons long since mollified.

O do not think there is darkness in our days.

Look upon us. We are not guilty, guilty.

Whether he really thought of a book of poems as a kind of mausoleum is difficult to say, but the poem about the entrance to the Met is placed at the entrance to his book, and the challenge it extends to the reader’s illusions about modern civilization and inherited responsibility can hardly be mistaken.

A few poems further on we encounter “The Begetting of Cain” (11), where Adam, besotted with Eve, does not see nearby the “Creature of pointed ear,/ Of the cleft hoof and the tight-mouthed sneer” :

All were engulfed—these two, the birds of the air,

The burrowers of the earth, by the quenchless mind

Roaming insatiate on the lowland, blind

In its lonely hunger, lusting to make all things

One with itself. Brief as the flutter of wings

Was his mastery, though ranging through world and void

To the dusk-star shining. But all, all were destroyed:

The two on the odorous earth in the garden there;

The beasts, the birds in the nest, the fireflies in the air.

Once again, the allusion to modern history’s evils is clear. Plutzik’s metrical control, the punctuation of the message with rhymed couplets, all this underlines and strengthens the message, binds it formally and gives it no exit. There is no reason to write this poem and publish it in 1949 save the conviction that this is the world we have inherited and in which we live. It is in every sense a postwar poem burdened with the twin legacies of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.

This historical recognition cannot, however, be decisively settled by trying to determine the poet’s intent. There are, to be sure, poets who have been explicitly focused on the Holocaust throughout their careers—from Paul Celan in France to Lily Brett and William Heyen in the US to Dan Pagit and Abraham Sutzkever in Israel—for whom one can set aside the question of whether or not a given poem addresses the Holocaust. Instead one asks in what ways a particular poem does so and looks to intertextual echoes and connections to place the poem in the career-wide network of Holocaust commentary, consequence, and implication. And there are other poets, conversely—from Sylvia Plath to Anthony Hecht to Jorie Graham—who have written a limited number of very powerful Holocaust poems that can be considered separately from their other work.

But that does not exhaust the impact that the Holocaust has had on post-war literature, culture, and human consciousness. It does not exhaust the ways the Holocaust and Hiroshima have redefined our individual and collective understanding of human potential and the human capacity for evil. It does not exhaust the way the century’s defining genocidal project has changed our view of nation state responsibilities. Not every contemporary poem merits an explicitly post-Holocaust reading, but poems taking on such major topics as these do. While I believe it is useful and important to reflect on a writer’s possible intent, that does not exhaust the work language can do. Contemporary poems that address fundamental questions about human existence are now implicitly post-Holocaust poems. That can include poems about such apparently unrelated subjects as the potential for global warming to extinguish life on the planet. 

Explicit Holocaust or Hiroshima poems, as we see, do not exhaust the burden that the twentieth century’s pivotal and defining events place on post-Holocaust readers. The ethical burden of post-Holocaust reading necessitates receiving whatever we read in the historical context in which we live, and we live in the wake of those terrible events that changed everything. Analyzing a poem involves contextualizing its historical interrelationships whether or not the poet was consciously aware of them.

No postwar interrogation of the destructive capacity of nation states can be mounted outside the shadow of the massive death toll in World War II and the apotheosis of those deaths in the death camps and in the ruins of two Japanese cities. But it is the Shoah that places the most deeply troubling and corrosive burden on subsequent generations. That is where questions about individual agency, identity, and complicity were forever transformed. And it is the place where genocidal malice combines collective planning and execution with infinite personal variations on how to belittle, dehumanize, and kill. It eviscerates every previous utopian dream and leaves us wary of every possible human future, for it forever changes our conceptions of what people are and what evil of which they are capable, undermining every humanist model of human nature and the fundamental character of human civilization.

In laying out his plans for a Holocaust poem, he writes “I picture the poem not as a cry for vengeance but as an exploration of the areas of evil in the human heart.” His goal is to craft an act of witness:

The massacre of the six million Jews must be remembered, not that a particular nation may be saddled with the crime but so that men, all men, may always be aware of, and on guard against, their extraordinary capacities for evil. For the vastness of the crime makes it almost incredible, and that which is incredible is forgotten or ignored, once the generation of those who grieved personally is past. The job is to make the event credible, to show that it really happened. And for this, one needs not history, but a poem.

Part of the challenge, as he saw it, was to combine the monstrous particularity of the crime against the Jews with a broad witness to the Holocaust as the defining event of the century’s many crimes. Of the five sections he describes, the third will catalogue by name “with some narrative and expository material, names of the victims of the various terrorisms and tyrannies of our time: Communist, Fascist, and other; victims of the tyrants who had no ideologies but were for themselves only; victims of injustice in states not ordinarily tyrannical; victims of the bestialities of war; victims of the isolated malicious impulse that none the less reflects the maniacal stain of our time.”

In his 1958 letter to Donald Hall, Plutzik worries that Apples From Shinar might be too politicized a title. I think the plan for his long Holocaust poem demonstrates he realized he would have to cross that line and was prepared to do so. No more was he to embody a Jewish identity indirectly. The fifth and final section of the poem indeed was to fuse the personal, the historical, and the political—in its widest and most telling sense—in a searing act of testimony:

A section on the little town in Russia from which my parents came to this country, and in which my ancestors lived for perhaps a thousand years. Its name is Lapich (which, I gather, means something like “Old Shoe” or “Peasants’ Clog”). It is in what was once the old Czarist province of Minsk. It is near Bobroisk (famous as a strongpoint in World War II). Nearby, at the river Beresina, the armies of Napoleon foundered in their flight. In my childhood I heard many stories about the town from my father and mother, so it is quite vivid to me: a place inhabited by peddlers and scholars. And before his death, my father send me at my request a long description of the town, as well as translations of letters from our few surviving relatives, recounting the fate of the family and their own harrowing experiences. From other sources he heard the following story (which I must check up on somehow): When the Nazis arrived, those Jewish inhabitants who had not manages  to flee were herded to a spot on the outskirts, forced to dig a big pit, shot, and buried there. And all that remains of the community is a big mound of earth.

This was perhaps to be the transformative poem of Plutzik’s career. And yet of course he did not live to write it. But think about and plan it he did. In a way his whole career was leading up to this moment. We have warrant to rethink his body of work in the light of this plan for a Holocaust poem, a plan we are lucky enough to have and which I am privileged to share. Yet we may also be haunted by the special significance of a substantial but unrealized Holocaust poem. We can easily enough at least partially imagine the ghosts of those six million victims appearing on a city street. That was to be the opening section of the poem. But that is a visual image; the words that would in their way flesh out those ghostly figures and give them voices will never be heard. And so, like so many of their fellow murdered Jews, they remain voiceless, unrepresented. An unwritten Holocaust poem is unlike an unwritten poem on any other topic; it is uniquely burdened by the traumatic conditions and possibilities for Holocaust memory and representation. It creates at once a defining absence and an additional layer of meaning in this poet’s legacy.


WORKS CONSULTED

Brunner, Edward. Cold War Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

_____, “Hyam Plutzik’s Horatio as a Postwar Text: Dream-Work, Verse Drama, Underground Myth,” available online at http://www.hyamplutzikpoetry.com/commentaries/.

“Hyam Plutzik: American Poet,” directed by Christine Choy and Ku-Ling Siegel (2006), available online at http://www.hyamplutzikpoetry.com/videos/.

Johnson, Kimberly, “Beyond the Thule of Possibility: The Task of Hyam Plutzik’s Horatio,” available online at http://www.hyamplutzikpoetry.com/commentaries/.

Lurie, Margot, “Golden Apples: Apples from Shinar by Hyam Plutzik,” Jewish Review of Books 4:1 (Spring 2013), 30-31.

Moran, Edward, “Review of Claude Miller, A Secret,” Hosokinema (2007), available online at http://hosokinema.com/asecret.html.

_____,  “The Life and Poetry of Hyam Plutzik,” available online at the Hyam Plutzik website at http://www.hyamplutzikpoetry.com/life-and-poetry.

_____, “T. S. Eliot and Hyam Plutzik: ‘Hypocrite Lecteur, mon Semblable, mon Frere,’” paper presented at T. S. Eliot Conference, September 2009>

_____, “Miami in Hyam Plutzik’s Poetry: ‘Death at the Purple Rim,’” paper presented at JAHLIT Symposium, November 2013.

_____, “The ‘Soldier Poetry’ of Hyam Plutzik as Revealed Through His Wartime Letters, 1944-45,” paper presented at JAHLIT Symposium, November 2016.

_____, “Horatio: The Long Road to Publication” (2018).

Moran, Edward, and Steven Sher, “Hyam Plutzik’s Horatio as Post-Holocaust Poem” (2008), available online at http://www.hyamplutzikpoetry.com/commentaries/.

Nelson, Cary. Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Osherow, Jacqueline, “Value the Intermediate Splendor” (2008), available online at http://www.hyamplutzikpoetry.com/commentaries/.

Plutzik, Hyam. The Collected Poems. Foreword by Anthony Hecht. Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1987.

_____. Apples From Shinar. Special Edition reprint, with afterword by David Scott Kastan. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. 

_____. Letter from a Young Poet. Hartford, CT: Watkinson Library at Trinity College, 2016.

“Polio Strikes Down Faculty Member, Two Undergraduates in Single Month,” Rochester Alumni-Alumnae Review (October-November, 19490, p. 10, available online at https://www.lib.rochester.edu/IN/RBSCP/Databases/Attachments/Reviews/1949/11-1/1949_October.pdf.

Rolfe, Edwin. Collected Poems, ed. Cary Nelson and Jefferson Hendricks. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Shapiro, Sidney, “Hyam Plutzik, American Poet: The Making of a Remarkable Course” (2012), available online at http://www.hyamplutzikpoetry.com/commentaries/.

Witte, Esther A., Fiction or Imaginative Truth: Poetic and Dramatic Modes in Hyam Plutzik’s Horatio“ (29011), available online at http://www.hyamplutzikpoetry.com/commentaries/.