Negotiating the Past

“Although my father rarely spoke of his own wartime experiences, our house was a repository of twentieth century atrocities. The walls were lined with books about Stalin and Mussolini, decisive battles and accounts of concentration camps. Frost-bitten Russian POWs crawled out of books and into our imaginations, their broken boots stuffed with straw. Like the heroine at the end of Dr. Zhivago who disappears in a crowd of anonymous women moving towards any number of grim fates, my father was carried off by a horror that was larger than his own private experiences. His efforts to contextualize and to understand what had happened to him within the larger picture of the war caused his already imperiled sense of self to disintegrate further. The spectacle of the mass grave—that led Joseph Brodsky to call Hitler a kind of Michelangelo in reverse—is the opposite of the humanist project, an annihilation of the integrity and sanctity of the individual. He was defeated finally, by the same set of circumstances that inspired the existential writings and philosophies of Sartre and Camus, and that reinforced the fractured, fragmentary modes of modernist poetry catalyzed by the horrors of the First World War.”

An excerpt from my essay published last year in The New Quarterly: Negotiating the Past (in Poetry)