On "The Unseen"
Yet there are poems in the collection [History of My Heart] expressing emotions peculiar to adults, especially "The Unseen" in which Pinsky relives a visit to a death camp as if his memories had been memorialized on film. Rather than raise an angry hand to heaven, the poet in an epiphanic moment sees the agony that took place there as a part of a broader canvas of suffering which even includes Christ's. "The Unseen is one of the most original responses to the Holocaust ever written.
World Literature Today, vol. 58, 1984: 609.
... There is another poem in the book [History of My Heart] whose rhetorical authority is even more challenged: "The Unseen." The obvious must be made at the start that no poem about concentration camps can be without flaw. Just to attempt the subject, especially in a short lyric of over 50 lines, shows moral courage of artistic aplomb beyond the ordinary. Luckily, for us, Pinsky has both. So, when I question the poem I do so only on the highest level. Briefly my point is this: the stance at the end of the poem is accusatory, not towards the Nazis only and obviously, but toward the Godhead, the "Lord of Hosts." But can such an accusation stand? Ordinarily such accusatory rhetoric is the privilege (if that's the right word) of mystics and rationalists. The "regular believer" cannot claim the depth of experience or the alternative ontological grounds by which to challenge a deity. (That Pinsky speaks as a Jew to a deity imaged in Christian terms alters this argument only slightly, I think.) If I'm right in this, then Pinsky's speaker (to use that old-fashioned literary convention) must base his rhetorical authority on being a rationalist (he clearly is no mystic in the poem), and not a regular believer. But the compassion of the closing lines is not a rationalist's compassion; it's that of a believer. Thus Pinsky must somehow combine the ironic skepticism of a rationalist and the compassionate acceptance of a believer. To my mind he doesn't fully succeed, though that he nearly does so is enough to make the poem gripping and memorable.
It begins almost casually with a feeling of modernist sang-froid masking a deep uncertainty:
In Krakow it rained, the stone arcades and cobbles
And the smoky air all soaked on e penetrating color
While in an Art Nouveau café, on harp-shaped chairs,
We sat making up our minds to tour the death camp.
The ironic details here -- the harp-shaped chairs, the Art Nouveau -- soon give way to a grim facticity as the speaker confronts the "whole unswallowable / Menu of immensities." During the tour of the camp everything takes on a "formal, dwindled feeling." (A sure instance of emotional rightness.) The speaker remembers a childhood game where he dreamed of killing the Nazi butchers, and his reverie is broken when he arrives at the "preserved gallows where / The Allies hung the commandant, in 1947." In a sense the human vengeance ends at this point in the poem, a little past halfway. The remaining five tercets deal with the speakers realizing that he doesn't feel "changed--or even informed" (he's obviously come to terms with it in some way before the tour), but also realizing he must accept his own attempt to "swallow" the fact of the unbelievable crime. He fights his own despair, and the poem directly addresses the "discredited Lord of Hosts" with these words:
We try to take in what won't be turned from in despair
As if, just as we turned toward the fumbled drama
Of the religious art shop window to accuse you
Yet again, you were to slit open your red heart
To show us at last the secret of your day and also,
Because it also is yours, of your night.
That is a ponderous "as if' and it saves the poem from being ruined by declamatory excess, but it still doesn't remove the language from the realm of the prophetic. By looking into the heart of God, Pinsky invokes a context that can only be that of a prophet. Especially in the five words that begin the last line, the poet doesn't flinch from an almost stately, judgmental eloquence. Here we must accept that God's love is dark perhaps even evil. The human judges the divine at great peril, whether within or without the suppositions of religious faith. If said by a believer, these lines are truly awesome. If said by a rationalist septic, they are misdirected, since the real fury of the poem should then fall on the human criminals and not the divine shadow they did or did not evoke to cover their bestiality. We realize this poem was written by a post-Holocaust Jew, and so if we detect in it an "unsteady" mix of rationalist skepticism and fervent compassion, we can hardly be surprised.
Hollins Critic, vol. 21, 1984.
"The Unseen" ends with a passage of old fashioned rhetoric which does what I imagine rhetoric has always done, i.e., compress thought and feeling in an expansion of syntax and locution.
Poetry, CXLVII, 1986: 236.
"The Unseen" begins with a group of tourists in Kraków, touring the death camp. The scene is "unswallowable," both unbearably familiar and unbearably horrific: "We felt bored / And at the same time like screaming Biblical phrases." Stalled between these extremes, Pinsky remembers a "sleep-time game"--an insomniac's dream of heroic destruction: granted the power of invisibility, Pinsky roams the camp, saves the victims from the gas chamber, and, as a finale, flushes "everything with a vague flood / Of fire and blood." As in "The Destruction of Long Branch," Pinsky dreams of having power over his history, remaking what made him.
It's not possible to take that dream too seriously in "The Destruction of Long Branch," of course: its act of destruction serves as a kind of metaphor for the self's struggle with language and history. In "The Unseen" the act is too literal, too historically charged, and Pinsky must back away from it more distinctly.
I don't feel changed, or even informed--in that,
It's like any other historical monument; although
It is true that I don't ever at night any more
Prowl rows of red buildings unseen, doing
justice like an angry god to escape insomnia.
Though he feels unchanged, Pinsky describes an important transformation here. Having imagined himself as the "unseen," Pinsky now recognizes a more potent invisible presence,
O discredited Lord of Hosts, your servant gapes
Obediently to swallow various doings of us, the most
Capable of all your former creatures ...
In Pinsky's lexicon, this force could be called "history" as easily as "Lord of Hosts." Having earlier found the scene "unswallowable," Pinsky realizes that he has no choice but to take in the past. And as "The Figured Wheel" suggests, the past--however sordid--is already inside him: in this sense, the force could also be called "my heart."
From Modern Poetry after Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press. Copyright © 1997 by James Longenbach.
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