From Ploughshares, Winter 1997-98
OTHER PEOPLE’S TROUBLES Poems by Jason Sommer. Univ. of Chicago Press, $12.95 paper. Reviewed by H. L. Hix.
Although the jacket copy on Jason Sommer’s Other People’s Troubles calls attention to the poems’ focus on the Holocaust, the poems themselves wisely do not. If the jacket shouts Holocaust, the poems breathe it with the same combination of urgency and patience that must have been audible on still nights in the bunks of Buchenwald and Birkenau.
Princess Di’s recent death testifies to how quickly quantity of discourse anesthetizes us to tragedy. By the third day, who wouldn’t flip to Frasier rather than endure another news special in praise of the Princess? A similar circumstance haunts Holocaust literature. Certainly our Cynthia Ozicks and Elie Wiesels are important, but after half a dozen, who needs another? So much speech has dulled the Holocaust into a counter, a stimulus to which the response is a satisfying sorrow soothed by safe distance and a layer of dust.
Against this background, a body of poems that begins in the Holocaust can be saved from self-indulgence only by becoming essential as breath. The experience of Holocaust victims were horrific, as were the consequences for their kin, but to explain those experiences or communicate those consequences calls for an edifice tightly masoned as Oedipus, language as lush as Lear. If even the camp guards who created and daily observed those experiences could not see them, we who were not there but who have heard the stories before will understand them only as other people’s troubles unless finely whetted language grafts others’ lives into our own.
Just such fruitful surgery does Jason Sommer perform in his evocative, funny, sad, and damn near perfect new book. “Some distance in,” he begins, “a life fills/with people,/despite the early departures,” like childhood friends and “the very old/who were at the gatherings once/or twice, tenderly served and seated/to the side, speaking/their other language sparingly/among themselves.” Sommer’s interest lies in the fact that “of those who vanish forever/you may keep a likeness,” and he offers in this book a series of memorable likenesses. Meyer Tsits, for example, “the village idiot of a Munkacs neighborhood,” whose death (“in 1940 they practiced Holocaust/on his sort just to get the knack”) was presaged by the neighborhood children making fun of him, a reminder to Sommer that “before the astounding/cruelties are the ordinary ones.”
Some of the likenesses are of just such ordinary cruelties: the friend “for whom I’d written / / a letter of recommendation” who in rush-hour traffic blares her horn and shouts obscenities at the narrator apparently without recognizing him, “tailgating dangerously” in the “rage that can make strangers / / out of anyone.” The focal likeness, though, is Sommer’s aunt Lilly, a survivor of astounding cruelties, to whom he addresses his portrait of Mengele shitting past a hair ball in his colon grown from chewed-off bits of his own mustache. Sommer offers Mengele’s unhappiness as a consolation: “a small hell in the body, such as the innocent also experience,/and that hand, which motioned thousands toward death,/those fingers reaching up his ass for years,/this thing I tell you that few people know.”
The book’s title poem retells a Jewish parable about “the waiting room/where all souls come,” leaving each its bundle of troubles hung outside, to be picked up after its interview. As in the parable, so in the encounter with Jason Sommer’s subtle and sagacious book: a soul emerges from its interview surrounded by other people’s troubles, and better able to bear its own.
H. L. Hix’s most recent book is Understanding W. S. Merwin (South Carolina, 1997). His first book of poems, Perfect Hell, won the Peregrine Smith Poetry award and was published in 1996 by Gibbs Smith.