“Prayer is said Standing
A Barechu, a call to Worship
We have not bothered, we are weak
We are too weak to even Speak
Every day is our Yom Kippur”
Reading the Tao at Auschwitz, VII, DeWitt Clinton, At the End of War (Kelsay Books, 2018)
DeWitt Clinton’s At the End of War moves with a graceful precision weaving Old Testament stories with contemporary life, visits to the opera or cafe. Here and there are notes of humor as in On Leaving Socrates with His Jailer and hints of middle-America folksy, as in On the Way to Church Camp, Mother Meets the Devil. He speaks in many voices, blending the perspectives of Judaism and the Tao, slowly moving into the unspeakable tragedy of World War II and the Jewish Holocaust. This is the main event, if you will, of the collection, the obscenity of it layered with sacred ritual and text, an unflinching attempt to come to terms, to find identity, to rise above, to move past. The collection derives its name from the closing poem, which is after Wislawa Szymorska’s The End and the Beginning.
Wislawa Szymorska begins her poem with:
“After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.”
DeWitt Clinton closes his collection with:
“Brooms. everybody, find all the brooms.
Can anyone send a letter? We need to let
someone know this has happened.
“Tomorrow we can start burning our families.
Surely someone will see the smoke.
Surely someone will come.”
We are in tears as we close the book. We are at once bathed in despair and hope. How many brooms will we need to clean up after all the wars and genocides? Do we finally grasp the futility of war? Will there ever be an end to the genocides of which twenty-four are happening as we “speak”? / J.D.
The excerpts from At the End of War are published here with permission. This book is recommended. / The quotation from The End and the Beginning is from Miracle Fair by Wislawa Szymborsk, translated by Joanna Trzeciack (W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 2001), also recommended.
ON LEAVING SOCRATES ALONE WITH HIS JAILER
(for my students of The Symposium, The Apology,
Crito and Phaedo)
What started out as a sex wine party turned into a major
Mind concussion for my students, but still, we waded
Through the prose, hopeful they’d find out why
He insisted on so many questions, so many questions,
So many disillusioned Athenians. Yet toward the end,
We could only face the charges, something about impiety
And influencing the youth, both trumped up, of course,
Mostly as a ruse to run him out of town, if he would go.
But we knew he would not go. We voted to acquit,
Even invoking Johnny Cochran’s “if it doesn’t fit,”
But sadly they were only seven at the time, more up
On Paris’s short sojourn than old football stars facing
Bogus trials. Late in the day, we even considered assisting
Our friend out into the dark, but as you must know,
He trusted in the Laws even if the Laws never assumed
It would go this far. We talked about “Prison Break,”
But few even had time to watch that, so busy chewing
The dense prose of friend/reporter Plato late on the scene.
Most of us were quite done in by all the “soul talk”
Of those last pages, and then, we had to leave, some students
Actually having lost their speech, some needing crutches,
Some on life support, leaving our friend wandering
Through the underground calling out for Homer or Orpheus
Or anyone who wouldn’t mind sitting down for a very long
Conversation about nearly everything, since time is now
Beyond even Infinity. That’s when I left, too, our poor
Cave-like classroom a faux jail cell, wondering if any of us
Could have comforted our gadfly, our inquirer, who is
Just now lifting his cup, resigned, cheery even. Au revoir,
Old friend, let’s hope your students do well on their final.
– excerpt from At the End of War
JAMIE: I think it takes enormous courage to visit Holocaust sites – even to visit the museum in Los Angeles – and then to relive the experience through your writing. Would you speak of that?
DeWITT: One of the more provocative statements about art and The Holocaust is Theodor Adorno’s comment, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This remark can be taken several ways, including any poetry about anything after Auschwitz, or as I take it, poetry written about Auschwitz after Auschwitz is barbaric. And why is that? Perhaps because for all who died, and the few who survived at Auschwitz, and at all the other work and death camps, there was nothing “artistic” about it.
Ralph Fiennes, playing the character of Michael Berg, in the film, “The Reader,” asks a child survivor of Auschwitz, “Did you learn anything?” The now aging daughter, played by Lena Olin, replies, “People ask all the time what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren’t therapy. What do you think these places were? Universities? We didn’t go there to learn.” She continues by saying, “Nothing comes out of the camps. Nothing.”
The death camps were neither schools, nor artistic experiences, but it is through art that we can at least remember some of what happened, even if it did not happen to the artist. I’ve been writing about historical events for a number of decades now, and while the art is anachronistic, I think it is also an extension of that history as well. I recall writing about the Spanish conquistador wars against the native Maya, Aztec and Incan tribes, (The Conquistador Dog Texts, and The Coyot. Inca Texts, New Rivers Press, o.o.p.) and the poetry is certainly not “accurate,” as a historian might write, but it is an artistic rendering of the horrible inflictions the native tribes experienced. The same may be true for writing about the Holocaust.
I’ve read historical renderings of the Holocaust, and read poetry and plays and memoirs about the Holocaust as well, and the latter are far more interesting to me as an artist. While studying the Tao de Ching with my undergraduate students, I began to consider a new path that I might take in trying to remember my experience of visiting Auschwitz I and II camps several years ago. The result is an unusual fusion, and quite anachronistic, but I hope readers will ponder the insights of Lao Tzu as they read “Taoist like” poems of what the prisoners might have thought about as they were starving to death, or what they might have wondered as tens of thousands were marched to the gas chambers and crematoriums.
I have read a number of artistic renderings of Holocaust experiences, and I hope anyone who reads “Reading the Tao at Auschwitz” will be open to considering a new lens to consider the horrors experienced by all who died, or survived. I can also appreciate how survivors, or children, or grandchildren of survivors, might be appalled by such artistic renderings of mine. It’s a long and difficult to absorb poem, but I hope it is also a valuable contribution to Holocaust literature.
JAMIE: As a writer, what drew you to poetry instead of other literary options?
DeWITT: I’ve always imagined writing screen plays, novels, stage plays, short stories, novellas, and an array of other genres of imaginative writing, but I’ve been drawn to poetry ever since a college professor asked me to rewrite a prose piece to poetry. Then I enrolled in a poetry writing workshop with the same professor my last semester, and though I can’t or don’t want to remember what I wrote in that class, the experience was quite wonderful, especially the instructor’s wife’s cookies. I’ve been drawn to poetry workshops, classes, conferences, and retreats for quite some time now, and do I know why I’m still drawn to poetry? No I don’t, even though I am still poking around for images and lines. It’s just a huge joy to be able to still compose poetry, no matter what evolves from a writing session.
JAMIE: As a beginning writer, what poetry most inspired you and why?
DeWITT: I took a copy of Coney Island of the Mind with me to Vietnam in late 1969 and read it over and over, but not when we were being shelled or fired upon. I may have taken other poetry collections, perhaps The Wasteland, but I’m not sure about what I read. But I did enroll (by correspondence) in an extension class from the University of Kansas at Lawrence. The course was a fairly traditional reading class of modern poetry, and though I enjoyed it, I soon asked the professor if I could send him some scraps of poetry I’d been writing on a 105 howitzer firebase in Vietnam which would later become “The Spirit of the Bayonet Fighter,” published in Harper & Row’s Winning Hearts and Minds.
By the end of my tour, I was hoping to enroll in grad school at Wichita State University which offered a M.A. in English & Creative Writing, and later an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing at Bowling Green State University (Ohio). By then, and then was a long time ago, I was interested in what would later become a career of teaching English and creative writing, and hopefully, writing more poetry, and finding a few kind hearted editors. The teaching career is over, but I still look forward to writing new poems, and I’m still sending out a few now and then.
JAMIE: What’s next on the agenda for you?
It occurred to me only a few days ago that I may have a third collection of poems (a second collection is in production with Michael Dickel, Gary Lundy, and Is a Rose Press, an adaptation of Kenneth Rexroth’s 100 Poems from the Chinese) as I’ve been writing much more since I retired from teaching a few years ago. I’m not quite sure it’s ready for submission as a book, but I’d like to keep working on it. One press has a deadline in late August, and I’m hoping to aim for that as a possible submission. Poetry isn’t everything in my life, as I also appreciate the benefits of Iyengar Yoga, and training for races and triathlons. The next big one is in Berlin, one of the 6 world major marathons. I certainly did not qualify to be in the race because of my lightning speed, but instead I earned a “lottery” ticket, which was a random selection of thousands of hopeful participants. Sightseeing a few days after, including a short trip to the Wannsee chateau where during a luncheon in early 1942, high ranking Nazi Party and military officers designed what was known as “The Final Solution.”
“From this place
Ashes rising from this place
Ashes circling as far as one could see
Ashes circling over All
Over Everyone over Everything
Circling a constant circling
A rink forever circling
a constant ringing s’hma Israel”
Reading the Tao at Auschwitz, XVIII, excerpt from At the End of War
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ecḥad
Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One
DeWITT CLINTON is the author of three books of poetry: The Conquistador Dog Texts and The Coyot. Inca Texts (New Rivers Press), At the End of the War (Kelsay Books, 2018), and a fourth collection is coming out in late 2019 or 2020: On a Lake by a Moon: Fishing with the Chinese Masters, (Is A Rose Press). His poems and essays have appeared in The Journal of Progressive Judaism (with co-author Rabbi David Lipper), Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, Cultural Studies< => Critical Methodologies, Storytelling Sociology: Narrative as Social Inquiry, and Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (Oxford U Press).
A few recent publications include The Last Call: The Anthology of Beer, Wine & Spirits Poetry, Santa Fe Literary Review, Verse-Virtual, New Verse News, Ekphrastic Review, Diaphanous Press, Meta/Phor(e)Play, The Arabesques Review, and The New Reader Review. He is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Wisconsin—Whitewater, and lives with his wife, Jacqueline, in Shorewood, a small village one street north of Milwaukee.
DeWitt’s Amazon Page U.S. is HERE.
DeWitt’s Amazon Page U.K. is HERE.
Recent in digital publications:
* Four poems in “I Am Not a Silent Poet”
* Remembering Mom in HerStry
* Three poems in Levure littéraire
Upcoming in digital publications:
“Over His Morning Coffee,” Front Porch Review
A homebound writer, poet, and former columnist and associate editor of a regional employment newspaper, my work has been featured widely in print and digital publications including: Ramingo’s Porch, Vita Brevis Literature, Connotation Press, The Bar None Group, Salamander Cove, I Am Not a Silent Poet, The Compass Rose and California Woman. I run The Poet by Day, an info hub for poets and writers and am the founding/managing editor of The BeZine.
“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.” Lucille Clifton
Wonderful interview Jamie. Very poignant.
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