I wrote these poems on the spot itself, in that place of horror, on Tuesday the 27th of May, 2003, an echo of Paul Celan, the great Jewish-Romanian poet who put an end to his life in Paris, 1970. He was a poet who, after the disaster, decided to adopt the language of the torturers so as to invent for himself a new kind of poetic tongue, with its scansions accompanying the unending labour of mourning. Celan found the act of writing poetry impossible in the face of the enormity of a crime never before seen. Borne along by obscurities, the poem, intended as an interpretation, attracted all the indications derived from the Shoah, which re-orients Existence. So such a poem tells of the Holocaust as something inexpressible at the time of its happening, constituting a nonsense, a taboo on memory. As a poet who reads and re-reads Celan, and a friend of one of his most penetrating interpreters, Jean Bollack, I knew where to situate Auschwitz in my mental landscape. Dare I add that the words in the poem about the unspeakable say more than the stones, the relics of the deadly machine erected upon “the field of malediction”?

The litany of the cuckoos
nothing breathing neither grass
nor earth nor flowers
rows of bricks collapsed walls
only the foundations show cells
the hermetic images
the buzzing of insects
the blanched trees fuse
into a masked sky
that filters the heat
the song’s caesura

no, the blackbirds have not fled
where the unspeakable
nor the sun
and nature indifferent
to misfortune
bear no mourning.

in the pavement cracks moss
overrun by frantic
in this place that knew
death absolute factory
of death
vestiges of our times
do places have a memory?
with body swaying
to the rhythm of the voice
with breath that opens
the eye of the heart
grant this place
its memory
preserved by its silence.

here end of May
where the unspeakable
rediscover a sign of childhood
white tufts flying
hair plucked from Satan’s beard they call them
clinging to eyelashes now ten years ago
in Florence
on the way to the great Cena
of the most barbarous of sacrifices
where the century begins and ends.

close your eyes Jew close your eyes
against the gaze rebounding from the slab
torn-up concrete cracked shattered
by the earthquake of men’s hands
the child’s black nightmare come true
persists in the doubt wherein the god withdraws
in the weight of the day
that levitates in the shadow of the mirror
that reflects a finger
raised on high through which smoke
disappears into the heavens

Auschwitz, 27 May 2003


marked by the voice
after being assailed by doubt
he went to find consolation
in the bosom of his wife
she (who had not heard the voice)
waited until the face in the vision
appeared again to her man
for her to lift up her skirt and show her sex
at once the image vanished
so was the mission’s authenticity obtained
at the cost of a dispelled voice

so did destiny take final form, enunciated
from the beginning in the first Book
the ancestor expelled into the desert
he too was a man lending an ear
to the voice the name itself explains the meaning

in three scenes the word was transmitted
by the voice with its three actors
competing to be first to tread
the boards and gain the reputation of having
heard the voice instead of having seen it
he is the one who hears
who returns from the mountain with
the table under his arm, the other lends body
to him who is beyond all body, to
resolve the paradox between the law and
the sacrifice what remains for the last one
except to offer to eye and ear the letter
copy authenticating the inaccessible archetype

voice dictating must the poet be believed
– before and after the prophet –
when he claims kinship with him?

and the other voice evoking Avicenna
that utters the inarticulate cry,
Pythia who sees and shrieks,
no need to go all the way to Delphi
to discover the priest
who converts the cry into speech

other voices perhaps are more secretive
history is transformed into mystery in the telling
like she who traverses distances
the dunes of sand and veils of dust
to approach the warriors of the faith
and suggest to them the ruse that leads
to victory – voice come from far away
and that the sides of the mountain
echo to lead the soldier from his confusion

(truly, Joan of Arc belongs to France,
but her followers, children, women,
men, carry on the work in other
tongues whose speakers sanctify
the chronicle to their own ends)

there is talk of another voice, perhaps even more
miraculous, when it is given tongue from
the Sufi’s breast and allows itself to be heard
by all the inhabitants of surrounding villages
even the deaf find their infirmity in abeyance
as it welcomes the waves of sound
whose source is a mouth rinsed with pure water

and that voice passing over the riverside
to operate a displacement
by crossing the frontier between languages
(from Arabic to Persian) is a voice that becomes
the echo spoken in borrowed speech –
a supplementary tongue it can do without
but that upon the bridge that separates the two continents
is realised through the multiplication of the voice,
in a response that makes the brain reel,
it is the counterpoint that imagination
presents to this world of phantoms

– otherwise how to explain the use
of the same word to signify
the voice that comes from nowhere and the one
that in our present times is heard
through a receiver? Certainly technique
performs the miracle that extends the reach
of lovers and afford them a closer
liberty than that of the telegraphy
hymned in his day by Mark Twain –

and time that works for lifting
of switchboard censorship, direct line,
from plugged-in to mobile, and love gains
a vaster range to the detriment of meetings
a stroke-of-luck rendezvous holds all the cards
in its favour and the globe expands without losing track
of what’s left in reserve for art that sniffs and ferrets

voice O voice that the recording wires relay
it works as a distance to assist in the overturn
of thrones, to expose illusions and allow
lay philosophers to dream of a “political
spirituality” that raises doubts about those born
in territories from which eventualities arrive

and the illiterate old woman
deep in her oasis in the shade
of a pomegranate tree, her transistor glued
to her ear even when she’s sleeping –
she is the far-seeing counsellor who predicts
the collapse of states

all of which is only the final avatar
of clandestine wire-tappings in cellars in
garages in the back rooms of shops
where the traditional maxims bear a number
that unleashes energies reacting to the hoot
of trains that collide on tampered tracks
to scramble the transmissions of
orders voice against voice

so many voices sounding through scenes
of the divine of love of war
metamorphosed at last (humbly)
(and in many tongues) into a shred of paper
concealed in an envelope behind the curtain
and that is then slipped into a transparent cube
message in a bottle
when you decide not to tear
into shreds such a shred of paper
to exorcize the demon that guards the law
and spare the sinner a confrontation with the damned
might just as well leave the voice
circulating in the sewers
shards of glass conveying the emanations
from the underworld that kills the voluptuousness
of the double ecstasy electrified
by the conjunction of salt and spume

Translated by
James Kirkup