Sunday, December 02, 2012

`An Anonymous Exile Without Passport'

David Myers’ post on Friday sent me back for the first time in years to The Collected Poems of Babette Deutsch (1969). She’s not a strong poet, one who crafts memorable lines with regularity, so my recall of her work was blurry. In “Solitude” I found a noteworthy image: 

“And the books gravely coloring the walls,
Their wisdom shut between boards, behind glass,
Like an anonymous exile without passport.”

Books remain anonymous, landless and incomplete until we read them. That’s why trophy libraries – books as décor – are so depressing. All those unread volumes by Gibbon and Kipling on display beside the silver and the Warhol. “Solitude” is suffused with sober knowledge of the twentieth century, the age of the exile. One of its emblematic figures is the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz whose three-volume Diary was recently reissued in a single volume by Yale University Press. In July 1939, at the age of thirty-five, Gombrowicz sailed from Poland to Argentina, arriving in Buenos Aires on Aug. 21. Hitler and Stalin the next day signed a nonaggression pact and a week later the Nazis invaded Gombrowicz’s homeland. He chose to remain in Argentina and for the rest of his life, until his death in 1969, continued writing in Polish. He returned to Europe in 1963, but never to Poland. In volume one of his Diary, Gombrowicz recounts a dinner party he attended in 1955:

“This supper…was also attended by Borges, probably the most talented Argentine writer, with an intelligence hewn on his own personal suffering. I, on the other hand, justly or unjustly, considered my intelligence to be my passport, something that assures my simplisms the right to exist in the civilized world.”

The same evening I was rereading Deutsch’s poem, I also started Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (Doubleday, 2012). One of her epigraphs is from one of the wisest books of the twentieth century, written by another exiled Pole, My Century by Aleksander Wat:

“The loss of freedom, tyranny, abuse, hunger would all have been easier to bear if not for the compulsion to call them freedom, justice, the good of the people…Lies, by their very nature partial and ephemeral, are revealed as lies when confronted with language’s striving for truth. But here all the means of disclosure had been permanently confiscated by the police.”

1 comment:

Cynthia Haven said...

Great post, Patrick. Thank you for this.