The Poetry of Witness

“… and those blessed to survive wrote their poetry not after such experiences but in their aftermath—in languages that had also passed through these sufferings; languages that also continued to bear wounds, legible in the line breaks, in constellations of imagery, in ruptures of utterance, in silences and fissures of written speech.”
Carolyn Forché, ‘Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art’ (2011)

The experience hit me like a slate of cold light—illuminating, but not without a sense of abandonment. I imagine: it is the leaden feeling that settles in when the lid of an innocuous box is turned over to reveal a convenient grave. The skull stares eyeless at me—a hollowed witness.

It felt like this when I read Miklós Radnóti’s poem ‘Forced March’ (1944), a forlorn rendering of his staggering with thousands of others en route to Hungary during World War II—where he would later die by gunfire, shot because the Nazi soldiers were ‘unable to find a hospital with room’—a tragic perversion of the nativity. The original ‘manuscript’ (if one may term it that) is a withered leaf off the body of a notebook found on his corpse after his grave was exhumed. Soaked in what looked like the fluids from his body, so they say, it was later left to dry in the sun. The stains remain on the original like an unfinished chromatogram.

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Manuscript of Radnoti’s ‘Forced March’ (1944)

The penmanship is remarkably measured for one tormented in both body and soul—for one whose mortality lingered on the fray of a frail thread like the sword of Damocles. But it is ponderous; the ink does not bleed, it curves with a heavy finality. It does not stray, but bends to an unseen, final purpose. There are blots that try to scratch out honest mistakes—an endearingly human gesture. Even in such savage scenes, there remains the impulse to perfect and revise that reflects a mark of aesthetic sense. This man seems to have been lucid till the very end, for better or worse. You can see it not only in his poetic resolve, but in his methodical verse architecture. The poem is cleft in twain by what appears to be a fracture that runs in a meandering chasm across its length—a concrete signifier of a spiritual wound and lacerations hidden by linen tatters. It is a trauma made visible and material; it is the cry of a man in the throes of a death that he foresees. In these undulating lines, there is a seismic shattering. They are condemned hereafter to speak to fill the spaces between.

What is the reader to do? I can only gape, mouth ajar, like the jagged perforation on the page. Now reproduced in print on a sheet of white paper, there is no stain. Yet the wound seems still to bleed; it is slit and carved in all the right places. In duplicating the poem, one has also duplicated the wound. The fracture is a sign that seems to have escaped the deconstructive impulses of repetition over time and space; how is this possible? I trace the emptiness with a tentative finger, fearful of what I may find in the crack. I see a dishevelled Radnóti, clothed in filthy despair, purposively pausing his pen to leave an aching gap in the line—in every line; the gaps begin to appear in deliberate unevenness to create a disturbing asymmetry. There is the scrunching of Nazi boots nearby—he tucks his notebook, gorged with crumpled paper paraphernalia, into his pocket. He is done. The poem is torn apart.

I stare off into the space in front of me. In my sense-making quietude, the zigzagging fissure on the page seems to chastise me for my melancholia which, in light of this man’s monumental suffering made material, is nothing but the petulant groan of a good-for-nothing modern romantic.

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