This meditation on horror and healing, set in a Jewish cemetery that was part of the Łódź Ghetto, achieves a tentative blessing
Sujata Bhatt's newly published Collected Poems explores, with remarkable consistency of voice and style, a lifetime of rich, diverse cultural experience. Born in Ahmedabad in 1956, Bhatt describes her background as "a traditional Gujarati Brahmin family of writers, teachers, social workers, musicians and scientists". She learned English at the age of five, when her father, a virologist, moved the family to New Orleans, and ultimately took an MFA degree at the University of Iowa.
Her absorption in 20th-century American poetics, and her interest in Eastern European literature in translation, are reflected in this week's poem, "Łódź", as is her residence in Germany since the late 1980s.
Originally published in Augatora (2000), "Łódź" forms part of a section titled "History is a Broken Narrative". Some poems pick up various fragments of the limitless human diaspora and solder them together, often augmented by the stories and voices of individuals. Other poems, like this one, centre on a reticent personal act of witness that seems akin to meditation.
In the shadows of Łódź lie several broken narratives of the 20th century. The Jewish cemetery of the poem, established in 1892, formed part of the Łódź Ghetto in German-occupied Poland. "Łódź" acknowledges this history obliquely by beginning with a kind of tactful withdrawal from its own impulse: "I hesitate to say/ what I think:/ 'this cemetery is beautiful' …" The use of dashes throughout the poem, sometimes in lieu of full stops, emphasises the delicacy of feeling, as if more formal punctuation would too severely pin down and possess the poem's subject.
It's entirely fitting that the diction is simple and almost colloquial. This linguistic style might be described as formal-informal. The plainness is not quite that of ordinary speech: "it is" is never elided to "it's". That kind of formality slows and dignifies the utterance. It represents one of the subtle ways in which the poem is accountable to its occasion while minimal in figure and rhetoric.
In the fourth line, the break momentarily urges us to read "the cemetery that was" and it's as if a slight shift of light makes us review the meaning as we get to the next line and follow the sentence to its end: "this cemetery that was/ once in the heart of the ghetto" . A similarly glancing verbal shift is produced by the break after "still".
The poem begins tentatively to move to its emotional core with the image of the earth "trying to heal itself" and the speaker "reluctant to leave". Dashes, as well as suggesting hesitation, make connections. Parallel to these little grammatical silences, the silence of the landscape is an interleaving silence "between the dead" and "between the wild flowers/ and the sky …"
It's also an internal silence "that pulls me/ deeper into my own being" and it accrues a gravitational force. It seals the speaker into the meditation I mentioned earlier.
At this point, the poem becomes very concentrated. While "looking for another/ path I could walk down" the speaker, we sense, is motionless. She scans the area for the inviting prospect of a new path between the graves, and simultaneously an interior avenue seems to make her part of the landscape.
The speaker continues the dialogue with herself, juxtaposing present certainty ("It is May") with the conditional moods of the future. There's a possibility, even a hope, that she would visit every day, and walk here "even during the darkest days of November/ and December –" but the voice seems too wise and too candid to take the intention as far as a pledge.
Characteristically, the poem ends on a dash, not a full stop. Without the slightest arrogance on the speaker's part, it achieves a tentative blessing: a sense that the place has been salved by the vision of historical continuity, that vista of paths which extend before and after the horror of the ghetto. Trees, grass and flowers have sprung up around the gravestones. This Polish cemetery seems warmed and soothed by the green light that emanates from Bhatt's memory of her childhood garden in Poona.
I hesitate to say
what I think:
'This cemetery is beautiful' –
this cemetery that was
once in the heart of the ghetto –
But it was there before
the ghetto – and it is still
being used today.
is trying to heal itself –
I am reluctant to leave –
The silence between the dead –
The silence between the wild flowers
and the sky – the silence that pulls me
deeper into my own being
is what keeps me
standing here looking for another
path I could walk down –
It is May and the green
shadows falling across the stones
make me think
that if I lived in this town
I would visit
this place every day –
It is May but I tell myself
that if I lived in this town
I would walk here even
during the darkest days of November
and December –