Robert Hass and Serhiy Zhadan

Last night, the second reading in the main hall was rife with moral questions. American poet Robert Hass’s poems and his comments touched on the aftermath of Word War II in Amsterdam; the rape of German women in Berlin by Soviet soldiers; sex traffic in young girls in Bangkok; and the alcoholism of a mother. They almost seemed to be interrogating issues raised more vaguely by Serhiy Zhadan’s poems, which opened the reading. I say vaguely because Zhadan uses elliptical streams of associations rather than precise statements. Zhadan, from the Ukraine – (personal disclosure, my father’s parents left Tchernogov in 1905) – read energetically, with the enthusiasm, it seemed, of the young and morally righteous – and touched on Russian oligarchs stealing eastern European resources “with dispensation from Jerusalem,” about Islam, about Chinese drug smugglers, gypsies (with “lazy movements”) and so on.

In Poetry and Ethics, Natasha Saje writes that “In one sense, poetry itself is an exercise in othering, in trying to understand something or someone foreign from oneself.

“Transactions between writer and reader are like transactions with real people, and that is why they matter,” she says. “Moreover, because of poetry’s intimacy – the readers of a poem are simultaneously addressee and speaker – I believe that some poems create an ethical disjunction for their readers.”

She discusses her discomfort when “the poet is making art out of others’ suffering without any risk or consequence to himself or herself”. She quotes Susan Sontag’s comment that “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain”; “what matters precisely is who is killed and by whom”.

And she notes that Sontag suggests “a narrative seems likely to be more effective [in conveying pain] than an image. Partly it is a question of the length of time one is obliged to look, to feel”.

For me, listening to selected poems by Hass and Zhadan on Friday evening, it seemed that Hass had a clearer narrative, or at least one clearer to me. After the reading I asked him why he, not Jewish, was so sensitive to the fact of the Holocaust: “I was born in 1941,” was his answer. I didn’t get a chance to speak to Zhadan, with his careful attention to ethnicities (Chinese, Polish, Islamic) and interest in, as one of his titles reveals, ‘The History of Culture at the Turn of this Century’.

Is there a new narrative in this new world? Perhaps because I have not experienced the aftermath of the end of the Soviet Union (thanks to my ancestors, who went to America from the Ukraine and Romania), I don’t quite understand exactly which culture Zhadan refers to when he writes about it unpleasantly entering his bloodstream:

this is how the era began,
this is how it turned – awkward, heavy like a munitions truck,
leaving behind dead planets and burnt-out transmitters,
scattering wild ducks in the pond

[ . . . ]

When choosing your course of studies you should find out
among other things –
if the culture at the turn of this century
has already pressed itself into the veins of your slow arm [ . . . ]

(translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps)

Perhaps readers of this blog have suggestions?