Poem of the week: My pity is fake … by Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann
These stark lines set out a hard, unfinished personal reckoning with atrocious memory Carol Rumens
Mon 15 Jun 2020 10.34 BST
‘Nobody cares / if we count their dead / or our own dead’ … the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. My pity is fake,
my poems, atonement.
Mutation in my genes
began in the gas chambers.
Even before that,
created in my blood
against torture and murder
and mindless oppression
and all kinds of atrocities.
Yet, nobody cares
if we count their dead
or our own dead.
See the dead
arranged in a row,
arranged in a pile
or burned in a pile.
to keep evil at bay.
Therefore, I don’t cry
over the Palestinians,
nor do I cry
over anyone else!
Because, if I cry
over my dead,
they will stand before me
in a long line,
their fleshless corpses
eaten by time,
as in a roll call
or on the “day
and their mute muselmann hands
from an old shroud
to wipe my tears if I weep
If I weep
Translated by the poet and Anthony Rudolf
This week’s poem is by the award-winning Hebrew poet, literary scholar, and visual artist Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann. It comes from Death of the King and Other Poems, a selection of 30 years’ work, translated by the author in collaboration with Anthony Rudolf.
Neiger-Fleischmann, who has lived in Jersualem since her infancy, was born in 1948 “in a border town divided between Slovakia and Hungary by the Danube River”. Lisa Russ Spaar emphasises in her introduction to the collection the strong visual elements in Neiger-Flechmann’s writing, and connects it to her exhibition at the Jerusalem Artists’ Gallery, Bordering on Embroidery.
There’s also an abstract, scientific dimension to Neiger-Fleischmann’s writing, one that particularly concerns genetics. This science impinges on personal and family identity, of course. And it may beget visual form. In one of the poems, the young narrator questions how she can read and paint “while grandmother, / wearing her yellow star, / keeps a solemn eye on me / from beyond the mysterious / red horizon” (How Can I …).
This week’s poem begins its difficult katabasis by way of an immunological metaphor. The tone of voice itself approaches scientific detachment. As printed, the poem is untitled, headed simply by an asterisk. There’s no easing-in for the reader, and none is claimed for the poet. The mood is set by that first unapologetic assertion, “My pity is fake”. Grief will be encountered, as the dead are encountered, in the later stage of the journey but only, it’s claimed, by conjecture.
The difference between “pity” and the “atonement” of line two is a grave one. Does the implied opposition suggest an argument with Wilfred Owen concerning “the pity of war” as expressed in his poetry?
More immediately, atonement connects us to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish calendar, set aside for penitential fasting, prayer, and abstention from physical pleasure. Her poems, the writer suggests, are doing equally hard psychological work. The ark of atonement may embrace many things – survival as well as “all kinds of atrocities”.
Neiger-Fleischmann’s metaphorical “antigens” made me think more about scientific terminology, and wonder whether it really is as abstract as one might suppose. Antigens, antibodies, viruses – we may never have looked at one through a microscope, but, as we hear about them constantly these days, doesn’t our imagination inevitably give them shape and colour?
The antigens of the poem resist moral disease at a physical level. They “began in the gas chambers”. Atrocity is fought off by the cells that inherit its memory. The speaker’s consciousness is open to a broad spectrum of cruelty: “Yet, nobody cares / if we count their dead / or our own dead.”
“Dead” chimes three times like a tuneless bell (“their dead”, “our own dead”, “the dead”) and a hard numbness sets in, a flatness of perspective. This is shockingly effective. We’re shown a single row, a single pile, of bodies, now awaiting cremation. The poem has a vaster, uglier pandemic than coronavirus in its sights, of course, but the antigen metaphor takes on additional resonance because of the current situation. Many of us may know a little more about survivors’ pain. Or we may take on extra but life-saving personal protection – against knowing, against feeling, too much.
The speaker not only refuses “to cry / over the Palestinians”. The exclamation mark at the end of line 23 draws attention to the generality of the refusal to mourn; “nor do I cry / over anyone else!” Neither do I cry for my dead is implied.
But the dead are imagined, this time standing in line, as if ready for the camp roll-call or the biblical day of visitation. The dead are sympathetic, their depiction emotive. They respond to the speaker’s tears, “their fleshless corpses / eaten by time” offering “faded shreds / from an old shroud”. These lines recall the heartbreaking encounters of humans and shades in classical Greek narrative. This poem’s encounter, though searingly described, can be avoided, it’s suggested, if the speaker avoids weeping. Fresh resistance is summoned at the end in the repetition of “if I weep”, the second time with a capital “I” to emphasise the conditionality of the “If”.
References in the Bible to the day of visitation may connote mercy, or ruthless judgment. The endnote quotes Isiah, 10:3: “And what will ye do in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which will come from afar?” It adds that “desolation” translates the Hebrew word “shoah”, now frequently preferred as a term for the Holocaust. There is neither fake pity or fake hope in the poem, but a cold, honourable courage, itself an antigen against desolation.
Neiger-Fleischmann’s co-translator Anthony Rudolf has been influential in many literary fields. He has written in a range of genres including memoir, criticism and translation. His collected poems, European Hours, was published in 2017. He is currently working on a long essay about the first world war and its aftermath, a dystopian novella and a book on art.
The original Hebrew text of My pity is fake … is reproduced below.