Cassells, Cyrus. The Crossed-Out Swastika. Copper Canyon Press, 2012. 83 pp. $16.00.

Cyrus Cassells’ fifth collection of poems is, in many respects, an extrapolation of the last three poems that close his second book, Soul Make A Path Through Shouting. As in all his books—even the paeans to art and artists that suffuse Beautiful Signor and More Than Peace and Cypresses—the ephemeral and eternal, breath and ashes, are intimates. Few American poets have made such celebratory music of mourning. But those final poems in the second book focus specifically on the victims—the murdered and the survivors—of the Holocaust. The Crossed-Out Swastika elaborates this theme. Organized around a series of poems written largely from the perspective, if not in the voices, of the survivors and post-Holocaust witnesses, The Crossed-Out Swastika has the directness and sparseness of documentary poetry. Because the topic is so familiar—unlike that of, say, Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, which usually receives attention from the general media only in the context of mining disasters (e.g., in southern Chile or western China) or controversial drilling practices (e.g. fracking)—Cassells is at pains, on the one hand, to strike an original note while, on the other hand, remaining faithful to the details of the occupations, evacuations and camps, details that have become, a la Cynthia Ozick, vacuous stereotypes in the popular imagination. Certainly the documentary mode offers one response to this dilemma; it presupposes that each individual, each victim, has the right to be heard, or have his or her story told, however repetitive or redundant. The corollary to that axiom is, of course, the injunction to never forget however strong the temptation to “move on.” Both presuppose, rightly so, that the accelerated pace of modernity renders, with increasing rapidity, the past obsolescent, and what counts as the past is increasingly close to the present. In Soul Make A Path Through Shining, Cassells circumvented this problem by celebrating and mourning martyrs and survivors across a number of historical periods, geographies and issues: genocide, racism, AIDS and homophobia served as indices of totalitarian tendencies across temporal and spatial, cultural and social, boundaries. Here he narrows his focus to victims of the Holocaust. The results are uneven.

Perhaps no one since Joyce has better articulated the dilemma: how does one wake up from the nightmare of history? No doubt he was giving voice to past and future, to say nothing of present, acts of defiance, acts that cross out, without erasing, the swastika and its cognates. The title of Cassells’ book comes from one of the more successful poems in the collection, “The Postcard of Sophie Scholl,” “the young, intrepid resistance heroine” who did not go gently into that night (73). Certainly, from at least his second book, Cassells has consistently celebrated the spirit of human dignity in the face of human cruelty and terror. But what makes “Postcard’ successful is not its subject matter but Cassell’s imaginative and complex language. To complicate the documentary poetics that dominate much of the book, Cassells has his narrator awakening on a train at Auschwitz, startled that the Italian postcard he purchased “years ago/as a genial talisman//isn’t of a pie-dreaming/Italian,//no, no, but an androgynous/image of Sophie Scholl [. . .]” (73) In the murky zone between sleep and wakefulness, the traces of desire complicate perception, blending with historical knowledge, implicating the narrator in the entanglements of a history whose remainders—the ineluctable human ashes that are now  a part of the very ground over which the train speeds, on which all tourists walk—haunt the present. Thus the celebration of resistance—“Someday you will be/where I am now,”—leads to an uneasy, ambivalent conclusion: “it’s the spirit of crusading youth/that I’ve cherished” (73-74). The narrator’s admission (confession?) can apply to both the Sophie Scholls and the Hitler Youth of the world. Having mistaken—or not—a young boy for a young girl, the narrator problematizes the value of the witnessing so central to documentation. Here, memory and perception are thrown into relief against the backdrop of moral responsibility and culpability as they apply—or don’t—to “crusading youth.” This kind of complexity tends to be rendered when the documentary mode is mediated, implicitly or explicitly, by a third party or instrument (rhetorical, aesthetic, cultural, etc.). Thus in “A Great Beauty,” the grieving wails of mothers who have lost sons to the war become a kind of music that redeems the tragedies of life—a common enough theme—but this redemption is dreamt:

In the dream, Isa recalled,
the singing of the harrowed women

with war-taken sons
hushed the world’s barrenness.

In the dream, the startling river of sound
altered the embattled earth. (70)

The reminder that this was only a dream undercuts the homily’s function—death redeemed, if not justified, by art (however artless). There is grief, there is singing, but only in the netherworld of dreams do they change anything. In the actual, waking world of Isa and other mothers, there is only a grieving, an existential cry of irredeemable, interminable, isolation and mourning. In these poems, and others like them, Cassells writes against himself, against his own transcendental tendencies, in order to honor history.

Less persuasive are those poems that attempt to recapture the point of view of the young even if from the perspective of a man looking back on his own youth. In the son-mother dialogues that comprise the poem-sequence “Riders on the Back of Silence,” the most compelling poems are those written from the perspective of a mother. Cassells is a perceptive, lyricalpoet and so one is not surprised by some of the arresting images in the son’s poems—“ [. . .] my boyhood/ was a suitcase/by the door” (7) —but too often the efforts seem strained, and strained in a particular way. In insisting that children must have had moments of childhood wonder and innocence amid the horrors of the evacuations and encampments, Cassells’ “hand” overshadows the pictures he wants us to see. In brief, Cassells is sometimes too imaginative a poet to be, well, a kind of Rukeyser. Who can resist the taut aesthetics of a couplet like “their Gypsy-less Jew-less/ jerry-rigged heaven” (13)? One could accept lines like these as the adult narrator’s lyrical interference (a la Olson) with his attempt to recount his youth, and thus not only exempt but also praise Cassells for his ability to complicate the processes of memory and narrative. However, as I noted earlier, lines like these seem less an index of narrative complexity than a sign that Cassells is on his game. As I indicated above, Cassells has always been a poet impelled by redemptive poetics; the implicit theme of all his books can be summed up in a word: “despite.”  Despite war, despite racism, despite homophobia, acts of courage do occur. However, in the case of the Holocaust, the struggle to survive rendered its victims comparable only to the victims of the Atlantic slave trade. Betrayal and sacrifice often co-existed as moral tendencies in the same person. Thus, all the son poems of the “Riders on the Back of Silence” sequence, written from the point of view of a man and woman looking back, raise the inevitable question of distortion: to what extent has the past been edited to make it more heroic and more child-like, more horrific and less horrific, than it really was? There is, of course, no answer to this question, but my point is that the issue never arises within the poems. On the other hand, the mother’s straightforward, if not unadulterated, memories of her experiences in the war seem appropriate. There is little metaphor, little “symbolism,” in her verses, whatever their “truth value.” Here Cassells approaches the directness and urgency we see in Book of the Dead. Still, it is perhaps not surprising that the best poems tend to be the lyrics, those snapshots that capture and delmit the “meaning” of a specific history. The best examples of this mode are in the poem-sequence “The Fit,” which concerns homosexual (gay would be an anachronism here) lovers, another target of the Third Reich. Again, these poems are narrated from the perspective of a survivor, in this case, “old Loic” who “invokes his first love://Luc—impossibly black lashes/against tallow-pale skin [. . .] an Orphic beauty that was later/savaged by dogs” (34). As in the Sophie Scholl poem moral responsibility is complicated, here by Loic’s donning a Hitler Youth uniform in order to “pass.”  Circumventing our expectations, Cassells doesn’t focus on “survivor’s guilt”; instead he simply narrates the capture, torture and murder of Luc. More important, the penultimate poem in the sequence, “The Recurring Roll Call,” implicates Loic, who wakes up “howling/in the middle of the night,” while opening the question of moral responsibility to other witnesses:

Hundreds of prisoners were made
menaced spectators

to Luc’s monstrous end—Where are they?

Why do they remain silent? (43)

Here, as in the mother poems from “Riders on the Back of Silence,” Cassells stares—and makes us, readers and narrators, stare—unflinchingly at the links between moral responsibility and culpability, at our conflicted desire to simultaneously forget and remember. In these moments The Crossed-Out Swastika reminds us that what is under erasure is always stigmatized, always erupts as a symptom and a scar of a trauma, however deeply buried beneath the collective consciousness we call history.

Video: Cassells reading from THE CROSSED-OUT SWASTIKA

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TYRONE WILLIAMS is the author of c.c., On Spec, Howell and other books of poetry.