Poetry News

Looking at Jerome Rothenberg's Polish Trilogy, Triptych

By Harriet Staff


Awesomely, people remember 2007 and are writing about books published then, well, now. In particular: The Fiend Journal has just posted a review of one of our favorites, Jerome Rothenberg's Triptych (Poland/1931, Khurbn, The Burning Babe), entitled "The Shaman of Subversion: Jerome Rothenberg’s Radical Deconstructions." Yep: "Triptych brings together perhaps his finest two works: the radically irreverent Poland/1931 and the brilliant holocaust memorial Khurbn. This ‘Polish’ trilogy is concluded by a fascinating recent work The Burning Babe. Poetry, therefore, from the 70s, the 80s and the new millennium respectively. A satisfying and ideal introductory compilation, in short, to one of the few innovative mavericks of contemporary American poetry." Poet Mark Wilson is very thorough in his reading, and looks at each book. A bit from the end of the first section and into the second:

...Here we are in the realm of postmodernist multi-persona and trickster-heroes. Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger or Gary Snyder’s re-workings of the North American Coyote myths come to mind as obvious precursors. The incarnation of Cokboy is wonderfully irreverent, but equally captivating and heartwarming as well. At any rate, an agreeable alternative to trenchant capitalism and gloss-slick urban utopianisms. In some senses a caricature, with Rothenberg sending himself up as a poet-searcher-pioneer (with all his many personas to boot: poet, translator, anthologist, essayist, performer, activist). It is certainly the perfect foil to what will come next in Triptych.

Poland/1931 takes up two-thirds of Triptych. The second part is the forty-page holocaust-memorial Khurbn written in 1988. A change in register could not be more pronounced. The Polish-Jewish holocaust was but a subtext in Poland/1931 whereas in Khurbn it is the central, and really the only, thrust for the sequence. Khurbn is excerpted from its original context in Khurbn and Other Poems (1989) and placed in its truer context as the progenital sequel to Poland/1931.

Rothenberg visited Poland for the first time in 1987 and was able to see his ancestral town, Ostrow-Mazowiecka. Here he discovered that the town was only fifteen miles from Treblinka. During the war those in his family had died without a trace and an uncle committed suicide on hearing the news of the death of his wife and children at Treblinka. In his ‘pre-face’ to Khurbn Rothenberg explains that the word holocaust had always seemed to him ‘too Christian, too beautiful, too much smacking of a “sacrifice”’ and he was therefore uncomfortable in using it. The word “sacrifice” suggests that there was a point to the suffering or, at least, some sort of ‘purpose’ or underlying ‘meaning’. Instead (Rothenberg writes) ‘the word with which we spoke of it was the Yiddish-Hebrew word, khurbn‘. This word meaning “destruction”, and the poet’s preference for it, acts as a subtly subversive critique of most European/North American presentations of the holocaust. It also flies in the face of Theodor Adorno’s dictum that after Auschwitz there should be no poetry only silence. As Charles Bernstein points out in the preface to Triptych there is definitely a ‘negative dialectics’ at work in Khurbn. Whereas Poland/1931 was peopled with dynamic, bristling, headlong life which the poet presented with a gleeful chutzpah, Khurbn is the flipside of the shekel: a dark Sheol filled with ghosts, spirits and dibbiks:


all their lights went out

their words were silences,
drifting along the horse roads
onto malkiner street

a disaster in the mother’s tongue
her words emptied
by speaking

Here we have an ultimate ‘emptying’. The poet’s tone has transmuted into a voice of witness. The poems have become a whispered testimonial as opposed to the loud and percussive ‘ethnopoetics’ of Poland/1931. In that book the people had been full of somatic, gargantuan life. In Khurbn people are lonely wraiths who are positively spectral, existing in a shadow-land between life and death...

Read the full piece here. "It is certainly this pivotal American poet’s major opus." And if you'd like to immerse yourself even further, here's Charles Bernstein on Triptych, published in The Brooklyn Rail in 2007.

Originally Published: August 21st, 2012