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Fanny Howe

Fanny Howe

Fanny Howe has written novels, poetry and essays and currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has won a Guggenheim Award and the Ruth Lily Award for Lifetime Achievement.

If I Had A Hammer

The site of a massacre, or a place of incarceration, is one of the most sacred we have on earth.

These spaces are marked off as ones where God did not appear.

The ashen field, like a graveyard for a meteor pounded into the ground opens our eyes onto the sky.

Here, on this site, goodness is forever described as left out, excluded, and more palpably real than our memory of what happened there.

We identify it as an animal would, with our senses.

Remaining scrawls, eyeglasses, pencils from one of these sites have a power emanating from the pitiless fate that came to each one of their owners.

A passer-by is rendered speechless at such signs of a negative force-field.

Survivors from any prison experience carry the place with them as if the lenses of their cells had been bent.

Until the ground-site is widely pollinated by alien seed, and there is movement in the earth, it will remain petrified.

I came to realize this after working on a translation for seven years. A Wall of Two is a small collection of poems by two sisters written in Polish and adapted from rough English translations by two Polish speakers.

I began work on it in 2000, and it was published by the University of California Press in 2007.

I can say that I might never have taken on the job of editing and translating A Wall of Two if I had known how deeply it would affect me and if I had not known one of the authors as well as I did.

I did it primarily in memory of her. It was as plain as, "Don't forget your boots."

Ilona Karmel was already imprisoned inside the Krakow Ghetto, age 14, when I was born. During that October, the battle of Britain was being fought. It was 1940. Ilona was rushing from street to street as a courier in an increasingly guarded section of her city

In snowy Buffalo, I was eyeing the rooms around me in the lap of a kindly Nazi nurse who was deported back to Germany before I was one.

Ilona and I met in 1978, nearly forty years later. She died in 2000.

As it turned out, I understood the meaning of the fear of God when I took on the task of translating poems written in a concentration camp, including at the last one where Ilona lived, Buchenwald.

I had to ask myself questions about appropriation, intrusion, and impassability.

It was rude to write a third hand replica. How far had I gone from the original? I would never know. I would never be sure if I had chosen the wrong word, no matter how many Polish readers assured me it was okay.

If you know you are not improving something, then what are you giving it? What is it giving you without having any desire to give you anything at all?

The last question can't be answered until long after the give-and-take has settled its scores and you have had time to experience yourself as being permanently altered by the activity.

It took a lot of time for me to understand what had taken place while I was working on this group of poems. Much of it was saddening.

Simone Weil remarked that if the cry of victims is Why? the cry of the tormenter is Why not?

I became certain that the question of hospitality, so pervasive nowadays, grew out of its perversion during the 20th century and before, in the familiar accounts of slavery dating back to Scripture.

Adaptation, translation, appropriation, continuation...This why/why not morphs into its shadow-authority figure, Justice, who weighs and wonders at the act of translation.

Who is most worthy—the poem aspired to, the poet who can't quite get there, the witness to the poem's struggle or the victim of the experience that gave rise to the poem in the first place, who may not even be the poet?

To translate or adapt poetry—FROM Buchenwald, not AFTER Auschwitz—is to experience the stench of a mass grave, silence and a new kind of theology.

It is a theology that speaks from the ground and from inside walls, hidden, the way prisoners and slaves have knowledge that no one else has. Its articulation depends on a chance eruption.

How like nails words are, hammered in to support the spaces around them, not the surrounding materials but the spaces.

Ilona wrote the following poem about writing poems:

      First there is a soul and a seed
      Swelling, secret, deep.
      A troubled premonition.
      Dusk, germination.

      The seed is sharp, patient.
      It spreads into words,
      Strophes, sound, branches.
      Then you are its gardener.

      Its rhythm comes like a gale
      That sways in your soul.

      Your pen is your shovel
      Transplanting these words
      Into ridges on paper where
      They flower in air, tear off and disappear.


For her, (writing on worksheets with a stolen pencil), the result is very vegetable and vulnerable. It can be burned, buried, consumed, changed, or it can rot and blow away.
Writing in prison feels far nearer to decomposition than anyone outside can imagine.

But prisoners do write, and they do dream of their poetry as having cultural value. It might become part of a genre, slipped into an anthology, adapted to music as a ballad, or for the stage. It might even filter like pollen into a new triumphant flowering. But probably the aspiration is just about enough.

I say "flowering" because Ilona used that metaphor, but also because I found that the translation process was the closest to science that writing had ever been for me.

Each foreign word is like an insect or a leaf that can only reveal its integral sense by acting in relation to the one near it.

Moving the words around, slightly changing their relationships according to sound-value, revealed the underlying importance of equality, justice, and above all, libertyóas in the space that would fall between each word and line, and where to put it.

Fortunately English is like a meadow, not a cultivated garden, and receives what falls into it and produces new and strange flowers blown from elsewhere.

So I had this meadow, and these Polish words to plant in it and I had my familiarity with the operation. I had worked on tons of poems already.

So I proceeded, and my own thinking and writing changed correspondingly. The poems became closer to shadow with plain grammatical construction, (subject verb object) and farther from color, flight and air.

The lines of my poems, seemingly fixed into an ordered narrative, could actually be switched from one poem to another with ease. They were this basic and perplexed.


Suffering is precious and personal. Some might even say that it holds up the heavens with its radiance. How a person manages her suffering, and how it is managed by others, is often surprising. Some people never speak of it, and some give it away, some hold it tight and some drop it on the path and run.

For many of us, from the sixties, the appropriation of suffering is a theft that occurs when a person has run out of ideas of his own.

He turns someone else's words into gold. This of course happened in the music industry, but it also happens in all the arts causing some artists to feel like imposters and turn into ironists.

This has given some critics the privilege of reading suspiciously. That is, to read against a model drawn from a copy.

It seems like an ontological inversion to be re-writing something that was already written, like drawing a description of a crash on a blackboard, and saying, This is what happened.

However, this inversion has happened, and will continue to happen, and has its own necessity, the necessity of formal invention.

I continue to think of poems as messages. They come from a noetic movement towards a unified field where they are received unnoticed.

This is something to be thankful for.
It is silence that runs the operation, and in the language arts this silence is marked by space.
Here you are safe, because in the end it is something.

Science has shown us how far our eyes can see, and our eyes have imprinted these images in our brains and it is only our brains that have let the images in.

How should we interpret these things? We have our words for them in place, but what about the spaces between?

[Ratzinger and the curia changed several words in the liturgy.

The Anglican Church has done one worse: it has changed the Lord's Prayer as we have recited it for decades.]

The Lord's prayer is wood and nails.
It makes its case in the rhythm of breath, of space. This is the model of impersonality I hold dear, the one I glimpsed in the act of adapting words from one language to another.


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