Books In Conversation
Yerra Sugarman with Tony Leuzzi
(Four Way Books, 2022)
“Remembering transcends conclusive utterance.” These words, written by poet Yerra Sugarman, concluded a memorable, four-day email exchange in which various concerns about engaging Holocaust themes in literature were addressed. According to Sugarman, there is a “moral risk of representing the Holocaust in literature … in domesticating the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah … using aesthetic conventions to grasp the ungraspable.” Recognition of this risk has prompted Sugarman to ask: “How can a writer not diminish this horror of horrors through efforts at literary mimesis, at looking for ‘objective correlatives,’ aesthetic correspondences for the incomprehensible realities of the Holocaust?”
Considered from this position, searching for “aesthetic correspondences” to the Shoah through literature would seem to invite inherent failure on both artistic and ethical levels. Nonetheless, it is through such literary efforts that most persons access what is needed to remember what they’ve never seen. Their witness comes second-hand, by way of such attempts which, even when sincere, well-researched, and informed by empathy, can only suggest the extent of the actual experience. In this way, Holocaust literature, whether it be based upon first-hand accounts or as imaginative reconstructions of the Shoah, resembles poetry in translation. Imagine trying to embrace a shadow. Entire dimensions are lost in the act.
With Aunt Bird, Sugarman does not attempt to conceal either ethical or aesthetic difficulties. Rather the paradox inherent in her attempts to reclaim the body of her mother’s sister Feiga (which means “Bird” in Yiddish) becomes part of the texture of the poems she writes. If “human lives find hope in movement, / in the gaping mouth of time” then the poet’s project of “fill[ing] in / the holes of [Feiga’s] story” is twofold, allowing Feiga that movement as she tries to survive in a ghetto where Nazis took her life in 1942, and creating spaces for readers of Aunt Bird to remember—and grieve.
During my initial encounter with Aunt Bird, I was gripped not only by the subject of the book but by the sonorous beauty of the poems as poems. Ironically—or perhaps quite predictably—no place in the discussion below directly addresses the deft craft and formal skill Sugarman ensures through care (but not strain). Perhaps this is because Sugarman’s control of the language, impressive as it is, always serves a larger purpose. At a time when self-appointed experts return to tired conversations about the supposed death of poetry, there is this book and this poet, inadvertently exposing the shallowness of those concerns while aspiring to something much greater, namely the “mourning [of] ‘real’ humans, with whom we can identify” so that we “can inspire what the scholar Judith Butler suggests could be a ‘quest for global justice and solidarity.’”
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Hello, Yerra. Congratulations on the publication of Aunt Bird, a book in which you “reimagine [the] experiences” of your mother’s sister Feiga Maler “during World War II and the Holocaust.” As mentioned in the “Notes” section following the poems, Feiga was murdered by Nazis in the Krakow Ghetto in 1942. You have been writing poetry for many years and have published two other collections. What compelled you to turn to Feiga’s story for your third book?
Yerra Sugarman: Hello, Tony. Thank you for your congratulations on the publication of Aunt Bird, and for taking the time to formulate questions and observations about the book.
What compelled me to turn to my Aunt Feiga’s story for my third poetry book was my longing to know her, although she had been murdered by the Nazis before I was born. As the first poem in the volume states, “I have nothing to see her with— / my aunt, whose life is a ripped page.” I grew up almost entirely unaware of her existence, so I attempted to reimagine her life, give her the presence which she had been denied by her killers. I tried to pay tribute to her: erect a monument made of words in honor of her. Because I don’t know where her remains are, I wanted to create a headstone for her as well, poems the material from which the headstone is constructed.
My mother, like many Holocaust survivors, spoke seldom, and only in fragments, about her own experiences during World War II, and about her murdered family members. I dreamt of giving my twenty-three-year-old aunt a reinvigorated voice from the few facts I learned about her from my mother, and from testimony about my aunt, which I discovered in databases devoted to Holocaust victims and survivors, databases that I found by chance on the internet. What I couldn’t know about my Aunt Feiga, I had to evoke through a sort of empathetic imagining, although I had no true idea of what she thought, dreamed of, or suffered. The questionable ethicality of my risking an appropriation of her life in the book loomed over me the whole time I wrote Aunt Bird. But I had to weigh the Nazis’ silencing of her, the erasure of her voice, with my desire to commemorate her, although her suffering is ineffable, beyond my imagining.
That said, when I was a child, I literally stumbled across the fact of my Aunt Feiga’s life one day. I discovered, in my mother’s photo album, a black-and-white picture of a young woman standing at the top of a soaring staircase. She was gripping the handrail. I didn’t know who she was. My mother told me that her name was “Feiga,” the Yiddish word for “bird,” and that she was one of her sisters. I was fascinated by the awe with which my mother spoke about Feiga, who was scholarly and interested in books. She became a teacher. I identified with her.
When I first came across testimony about my Aunt Feiga, serendipitously, while doing an internet search, I thought it was miraculous that there was information about her that had been made public, corroborating her life and death. My work toward the book took off then, in 2006.
Rail: Reading Aunt Bird, I was often struck by the degree of intimacy involved in your reimagination of her life. I mean intimate in two ways. Let’s begin with the first sense. Here, I am referring to the enormous sympathy you have for her as a fully-fledged woman, despite only having the barest of facts to work from. In this way, she seems to be reclaimed as your aunt, as a woman, and, more broadly, as one of many women annihilated by the most callous hands. As you write in “[Before the city became rind and marrow],” “Not even the executioners, who hunted the body and soul, could keep her from her longing.” You are always foregrounding her humanness so that she isn’t first defined by suffering or persecution. Would you see “sympathy”—as opposed to pity—as one of the guiding forces of this book?
Sugarman: I was conscious of “sympathy” and also of “empathy”—an empathetic imagining—as among the guiding forces behind my writing of Aunt Bird. The bond I felt with my Aunt Feiga as a “fully-fledged woman,” as you observe, steered the book, even though I had never met her, and knew so little about her.
I hoped her “humanness,” as I envisaged it, would enable readers to identify with her, to picture her as a real woman with very human instincts, one whom readers could grasp as living her life, before the war, the way in which they might have lived theirs. As a result of my portrayal of her and her tragedy as a victim of the Holocaust, I hoped she and other victims of the Holocaust would seem neither alien to other people, nor overly-familiar or over-simplified. I wanted others to understand that her real life was the real life of others, and that her tragedy potentially a tragedy that could happen to any of us, that genocide does occur even now. On the one hand, I attempted to depict Feiga’s specificity as a woman at that time so that a reader could empathize with her; on the other hand, I tried to confront the problem of preventing the reader from becoming too accustomed and inured to the horror of genocide, as if the Holocaust, in particular, was a worn-out subject matter in art.
I wanted my Aunt Feiga’s life and grief to be “habitable,” a term I borrow from the late poet Eavan Boland. I hoped, by rendering my aunt’s humanness, that this was a means of forestalling a kind of callous forgetting that our culture teaches us to immerse ourselves in so that we are anesthetized and compliant with forces that would manipulate us.
There is a great deal of discourse which considers the poetry of mourning the dead—the elegy. In relation to the work of mourning itself, Freud wanted such bereavement to be “healthy,” by which he meant that the mourner could find resolution and closure, replacing the deceased with a new object of love. In early elegies, such resolution, by means of which the person who had died could be elevated to an ideal being, was considered a suitable way of commemoration. Many American elegies in the twentieth century stopped idealizing the dead, but rather created real flesh-and-blood humans. I hope that mourning “real” humans, with whom we can identify, can inspire what the scholar Judith Butler suggests could be a “quest for global justice and solidarity.”
Rail: Another way your sympathetic approach is observed involves the ways in which you weave yourself and your quest to understand her story into the fabric of the poems. Your presence, beginning with “Aunt Bird, Conjured,” enables the book to move in two directions at once. While Feiga’s life is fleshed out through ruminations and details, we also see the effort those very ruminations and details have upon your own progress through the project. Almost midway through the book, in “[Day’s hem comes undone],” the physical and emotional effort of this quest is partially revealed: “Three hours of sleep slide behind my eyes as I look up, on the Internet, a Hebrew poem by Judah Halevi, imagining it might be something my Aunt Bird would have read in a book, underlining some of its pages with a pencil.” Here, we understand that each of the book’s numerous, evocative details has arrived through effort. Such intimacy through sympathy has its rewards, obviously; but it also comes at a cost to your own energies. Could you discuss what it was like for you to reimagine her life one painstaking detail at a time?
Sugarman: My attempt to reimagine my Aunt Feiga’s life “one painstaking detail at a time,” to “weave” myself and “my quest to understand her story into the fabric of the poems,” as you say, was part of a long and sustained process which took place over many years, and during which I argued with myself almost all the time. You could say that I was learning to hold myself accountable, to justify myself to myself. In a sense, I had to be as human as I could be, and as open to my flaws as possible. I had to watch myself stumble, fail, and, hopefully, evolve, one small step at a time. I suppose in this way, the book’s details, as you observe, were arrived at “through effort.”
Would I say, then, that the writing of Aunt Bird came, as you put it, “at a cost” to my own “energies?” Perhaps it was a “cost” that had to be paid painfully, yet also with pleasure, in order for things to be obtained: for me to honor my murdered aunt, as well as my family members who died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, and for me to live with integrity as best as I can. What does living “with integrity” mean to me? It means mending my flawed self daily, trying to bring unity to a very damaged and divided self that is me.
While there is, and was, no possible way for me to fathom what my aunt had experienced during her short life, I could, in order to pay homage to her, interrogate, humble, and accept myself through a process of self-examination, which continues every day.
Rail: Regarding such self-interrogation, I’d like to return to something you said just a moment ago, specifically that you needed to weigh “the questionable ethicality of … risking an appropriation of [Feiga’s] life in the book” against “the Nazis’ silencing of her, the erasure of her voice.” One of the most affecting motifs in Aunt Bird involves the myriad ways in which you embody what has been annihilated, including not only Feiga herself but the Hebrew and Yiddish languages and the daily life of Jews in the Podgórze ghetto. Early in the collection, you imagine Feiga witnessing violence against certain Hebrew characters (Lamed and Vov) who through their suffering become personified, become beings in the world. In section three of “Aunt Bird, Conjured,” what has “vanished” from “the garrulous streets of Kazimierz” is resuscitated by the vivid scenes you have conjured. Conversely, the perpetrators of violence and cruelty are disembodied. In “She Lived Amid the Tumult of an Occupied City,” for instance, “the enemy” tersely becomes an “it” one line later, whereas a litany of “those” who were “hauled away” shores up several stanzas. In doing all of this, it seems to me that the book balances ethically in your favor, and that you avoid appropriation not only through care and research but by a certain amount of mythmaking—itself an activity in which belief and narrative emerge from a great deal of unknowns. Would this be a fair assessment? Or am I inaccurately representing your intentions?
Sugarman: Your assessment of my intentions with Aunt Bird is very accurate, Tony. While my Aunt Feiga’s murder by the Nazis, the tragedy of her abbreviated life and my attempt to reimagine that life are the central subjects of the books. I try to “embody,” as you observe, Jewish language and life that were annihilated during the Holocaust. The Yiddish language, to a great extent, and European Jewry—an entire culture—were wiped out. Aunt Bird is a book-length elegy for Feiga Maler, for Yiddish which was the everyday language of eleven to thirteen million Jewish people worldwide until the Holocaust, and for pre-Second World War II European Jewish culture.
In relation to your comment about the book and how you find it poised ethically in my favor, I can only express my gratitude that you find it so. I have, for many years, devoted myself to studying theory that addresses Holocaust representation. This eventually led me to pursuing a PhD at the University of Houston in order to deepen my understanding of poetry, English Literature, and, specifically, of the elegy—poetry which laments the dead.
My focus on theories of Holocaust representation in art and literature and my study of the history and evolution of the elegy enlightened me as to the dangers of both writing the Holocaust and the elegy, both of which create art from the tragedies of others. Doing this, writing “creatively” about genocide and death is inherently ethically problematic.
In relation to writing about the Holocaust, the philosopher Theodor Adorno famously warned, “After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.” By this, I believe that he was referring to the moral risk of representing the Holocaust in literature, the peril involved in domesticating the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah, as the Holocaust is called in Hebrew, through using aesthetic conventions to grasp the ungraspable. How can a writer not diminish this horror of horrors through efforts at literary mimesis, at looking for “objective correlatives,” aesthetic correspondences for the incomprehensible realities of the Holocaust?
In relation to my combining research and mythmaking in Aunt Bird, as you mention, the latter “an activity in which belief and narrative emerge from a great deal of unknowns,” to use your insightful words, I think of John Keats’s phrase: “negative capability.” By this, he seemed to be referring to a kind of emptying of the self that he believed writers should be capable of in order to live with “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts…”
Rail: Another motif I see at work throughout Aunt Bird is how the comparatively recent historical events of the Holocaust are joined to ancient biblical stories. In “During Wartime, Aunt Bird Reconsidered the Story of Abraham and Isaac” you allow Feiga to ponder the father and son’s predicaments in the face of God’s ruthless directive. Through this analogy, one sees Feiga struggling to understand God during a time of previously unimagined horrors. Should she “give in without understanding” as Abraham might have been compelled to do? If she and those of her community survive these horrors, will they know happiness again? I have read quite a bit of Holocaust literature where similar comparisons are made, but in Aunt Bird, the ancient and contemporary conflate in a very personal way. For she who “studied like a scholar—like a man, they would have said back then” (“[Before the city became rind and marrow]”), Feiga’s reconsidering is as intellectual as it is emotional. Is this how you imagine her? Or is this a moment in the book where your interests and how you imagine her might fuse together?
Sugarman: Your observation about Feiga’s reconsidering of her experience during the Holocaust and her joining this with a questioning of ancient biblical stories is how I imagine her and, also, the way in which our interests fuse. As you point out, Feiga’s reconsidering is as intellectual as it is emotional. This reminds me of what T. S. Eliot said of John Donne’s poetry. Eliot points out that “there is a sensuous apprehension of thought into feeling,” through which “erudition” was “incorporated … into sensibility.” Eliot notes that for later Elizabethan and early Jacobean poets, “their mode of feeling was directly and freshly altered by their reading and thought.” I imagine that my Aunt Feiga’s unusual erudition, her love of studying, was something which she, as a passionate young woman, fused into her life of the senses. I understand this…
Rail: In “[Night after night, what she saw in her sleep]” Feiga “dreamt God unhinged the constellations / and whisked away the stars.” It is, in her mind, a moment where the Hebrew God associated with the creation of the world exercises terrifying power: “Uncreating. Uncreating.” This dream, prompted by an image of “an upside-down Havdalah candle” mirrors the book’s cover image of an inverted synagogue reflected in what appears to be water. What does one make of such an inversion? Feiga struggled to survive in a structure of evil. But with all of that destruction comes a concomitant restructuring. In “She imagined painting all the walls,” Feiga sees herself “breaking down whole rooms, houses” etc., in order to liberate and mend “the bones underneath.” In “[An owl’s hoot scoops the pulpy dark]” you “take apart the sky, / even as I dismantle the wind, / even as I pry history open.” Just as, in history, Jews were dismantled and taken apart by persecution, the history of their suffering is dismantled in order to be understood and redeemed. In a real sense, all creation involves destruction. However, these mutual processes seem especially pronounced in Aunt Bird. Was the push-and-pull between creation and destruction more evident to you here than it was in the writing of your previous books? Were there any ethical or philosophical considerations you were compelled to confront regarding this?
Sugarman: You ask, Tony, if “the push-and-pull between creation and destruction [was] more evident to [me] in [Aunt Bird] than it was in the writing of [my] previous books.” To this question, I would have to admit, yes; as I grow older this “push-and-pull” becomes increasingly clear to me as being an essential part of the western world’s ethos. My writing of Aunt Bird was done in phases: first in 2006, then in 2008, later in 2011-2012, and, finally, during the Trump administration and the shocking (to me) rise of oppressive, far right-wing autocratic governments.
You also ask about “ethical or philosophical considerations” that I was “compelled to confront regarding this.” I thought about Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which Machiavelli discusses the power a ruler sustains by ruling through fear and punishment. Do I understand this ruthless need to maintain power? Not yet.
I also think of the historian Dan Diner in his consideration of the Nazis and the conflicts which they caused in “the inhabitants of Eastern European ghettos,” as pointed out in the Introduction to the book The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings, edited by Neil Levi and Michael Rothberg. They discuss how Diner claims that “Auschwitz must be thought before it can be written historically.” This claim, they state, “emerges out of an attempt to provide an historical explanation” of events “that cannot be understood through reference to any familiar notion of rationality.” Diner argues, according to Levi and Rothberg, that “the historian must posit the existence of an unprecedented form of reason—which Diner calls ‘counter-reason’—before being able to write the history of Nazi terror.”
Rail: This “counter reason” Diner speaks of is especially interesting when considering poetry itself, a medium which celebrates this world yet also attempts some degree of apprehension of that which cannot be wholly articulated in words. Poets may engage counter reasoning, albeit in an entirely different way, to reach clarity. So, even though Diner’s mention of “an unprecedented form of reason” speaks to the engines of Nazi terror, ironically, it would seem poetry is especially well-suited to confront what Stanley Kunitz once called “the lawless energy” of the Nazis. What are your thoughts about this and was this irony a consideration when writing Aunt Bird?
Sugarman: The irony you speak of was less prominent for me than Adorno’s caveat about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz. Is the true irony the invention of symbols and images that seek to correspond to the systematic extermination of millions, when silence might be the only wise response? Maybe it’s a question of whether or not any form of artistic representation of the Holocaust can be well-suited for the task. The Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld argued about efforts at literal or direct expressions of the Shoah’s horrors that, “One shouldn’t, one can’t.” In other words, one shouldn’t dare.
Given poetry’s attempts, as you point out, to apprehend, to some degree, what cannot be “wholly articulated in words,” does this mean it is especially conducive to expressing the unspeakable barbarism of the Nazis? For me, poetry attempts to apprehend what is ineffable—meaningfully ineffable—by lodging language as music in the interstices of the heart and mind.
Like music, poetry, in all its unspeakableness, has a form, some sort of order, and a “why,” a search for “clarity,” for significance. The Italian writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, stated that the journey toward the concentration camps was “a journey toward nothingness,” toward meaninglessness. When he arrived as a prisoner at Auschwitz in February 1944, a German guard informed Levi, “Here there is no why.” How, then, can poetry seek meaning if there is no “why” to be discovered?
Rail: In preparation for this interview, I re-read Aunt Bird for a third time and noticed how impeccably sequenced the poems are in semi-discreet sections. There is a noticeable movement here, from embodiment to habitation to lament. In several poems from earlier sections, you spend a good deal of energy giving Feiga and her lost world presence. As the book moves on, you integrate yourself into the poems more fully and begin to converse with her and/or your project of “try[ing] to fill in / the holes in her story, / the many hollows.” “What is her life and its small engine” you ask in the final stanza of “[Aunt Bird moves to Kraków before the bombardments and before the sky]”. In the poem that directly follows, you confess: “I lose faith in how I summon up Aunt Bird / through the sift of self…”. And then, in the penultimate section, before writing her Kaddish, you lament the vanished body that poetry has tried to conjure. “How did my mother bear the weight of not burying her sister’s body, the distress of not knowing how my aunt’s life ceased?” As you recognize, no: honor, your mother’s “unresolved sorrow” the project opens up even more, becomes part of a greater collective suffering. Were these poems written in the order they appear? Or, if not—and likely not?—I am wondering if you had the plan for the book’s outline or structure in your mind as you were fleshing out the book.
Sugarman: The process of writing Aunt Bird took place over many years and over many phases of composition and of self-interrogation, that is, of questioning myself as a poet and a human being. I wondered if I had integrity as either. So, the book’s evolution became my own evolution as a person whom I hoped could travel along a path toward some sort of decency.
You’re correct that the poems in Aunt Bird were not written in the order in which they appear, nor did I have a plan for the book’s structure in mind as I was “fleshing out” the volume. And I revised and revised Aunt Bird until the last possible moment. But the order, in some ways, asserted itself finally, although I wasn’t able to see it. It took the help of my dear friend, the brilliant poet Jehanne Dubrow, to help me accept that there was a book there, and to help me find its order. Also, my publisher and editor at Four Way Books, the outstanding poet Martha Rhodes, guided the ordering of the book as well. I am forever grateful to Jehanne and to Martha.
Rail: There were so many moments when reading Aunt Bird where I stopped because a line or passage startled me. We tend to think of “startle” as that which shocks us, but for me being startled can involve encountering the absolute rightness of a passage, not only within the larger poem but as a micro-poem within the poem. For me, one such instance occurs early on in “[All morning, I am just my body]” when you say: “A dove’s sob dents the wind, / but bears witness to no one’s history. / It is only the cry of something common, / the small sum of a lung at home in the homeless breeze.” The third line in particular brings me close to tears each time: that a common thing, an unexceptional thing, a forgettable or anonymous thing, feels the same intensity as that which is deemed memorable or exceptional, and that the narrative voice here is attuned to the cry of such a “common” thing seems an important sub-theme in Aunt Bird. Feiga was one of six million victims, a name among so many names. Yet, because you regard her with care and concern, she becomes extraordinary and unique. Could you speak to this transformation of “something common” into the extraordinary, and how you developed the theme in the book?
Sugarman: Regarding why the “common” and “anonymous” are elevated to the “extraordinary and unique” in Aunt Bird, I want, first and foremost, to stress the distinctive life of every Holocaust victim. I overcame my concern about appropriating my Aunt Feiga’s experience to give prominence to a human being with whom a reader could empathize, but also, to prevent the reader, through identifying with the victim, from becoming inured to the horror of genocide.
In general, I take a sort of Cubist painting approach to everything in my daily life and, by extension, in Aunt Bird. What I mean by this is that I tend to look at people and things, in any given moment, from different angles and vantage points, from multiple perspectives all at once. We are countless personalities simultaneously, consciousnesses flickering between the common and the extraordinary; things, too, oscillate, take on lives of their own, depending on when and where they are viewed.
Writing about the Holocaust, from my first book on, I had to question how the so-called “ordinary” borders on what is extraordinarily horrible. I wrote in an early poem, titled “Because,” the following:
What I still don’t understand—the simultaneity:
beauty fringing horror, the everyday
lined like a coat with the fabric of the extraordinary. A glitter
of lakes, the plush of trees alongside the route of freight trains
from Drancy to Auschwitz.
Rail: In Elie Wiesel’s Night, young Eli’s rabbi says to him that “every question possesses a power that is not revealed in the answer.” I think of this assertion when I regard a question that appears in my favorite poem from the collection, “[Simone Weil wrote about force]”: “Am I wrong to believe in redemption / when there are events that scorn us, / that fill our mouths with snow / and coat our tongues with silence?” Unsurprisingly, the question is never directly answered in this poem, or elsewhere in the collection. I am wondering if, more broadly, you might speak about redemption and how writing Aunt Bird encouraged and/or discouraged such an outcome.
Sugarman: It is hard to know what to say about redemption in relation to the systematic murder of six million people because they were Jewish. It is hard to know what to say about all genocides. We might ask, “Where was God? or “Where was the human race?” I am speechless and have no answer except to quote the Jewish mystic and healer, the Baal Shem Tov, who stated, “Remembrance is the secret to redemption.”
Rail: Yerra, you have been so inspiring to work with during this conversation. I want to thank you for the rigor and generosity with which you approached each question. As we conclude our discussion, I am wondering if you feel your poetic reclamation of Feiga is complete, or if you feel there may be some other ways (or forms) in which you approach her in the future. In other words, do you feel Aunt Bird achieves what you were aiming for, or are such expectations either unrealistic or inapplicable to projects such as this?
Sugarman: Thank you, Tony, you have also been inspiring to work with throughout our conversation! I can only offer a brief response to your last query. My poetic reclamation of Feiga can have, I believe, no conclusion, no resolution. As Jacques Derrida has said “The book of man is a book of question.” For me, living is remembering. It is ongoing. Remembering transcends conclusive utterance.