Dan Pagis Essay - Critical Essays


Reflecting the geographic and linguistic displacements of his life, displacement is a governing concept in Dan Pagis’s poetry, in the sense that to “displace” is to remove or put out of its proper place. Although there is a great deal of horror in his poetry, the historical record of that horror is so enormous that Pagis uses displacement to give it expression without the shrillness of hysteria or the bathos of melodrama. Instead, he cultivates a variety of distanced, ventriloquist voices that become authentic surrogates for his own voice. Pagis survived one of the darkest events in human history and managed to set distance from it through the medium of his art. Pagis is a playful poet as well, sometimes using humor and whimsy to transform the displacement of his life from a passively suffered fate into an imaginative reconstruction of reality.

Poems by Dan Pagis

In Poems by Dan Pagis, it is apparent why many discussions of Pagis’s poems tend to pigeonhole him as a “poet of the Holocaust.” The first poem is titled “The Last Ones,” and the first-person speaker in the poem speaks for all the Jews left after the Holocaust. Ironically, he states that “For years I have appeared only here and there/ at the edges of this jungle.” Nevertheless, he is certain that “at this moment/ someone is tracking me. . . . Very close. Here.” The poem ends with the line “There is no time to explain,” indicating a collective consciousness that is still running in fear for its life.

A section of the book called “Testimony” contains six Holocaust poems, among them “Europe, Late,” the brilliant “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car,” and the chilling “Draft of a Reparations Agreement.” In “Europe, Late,” the speaker betrays his innocence by asking what year it is, and the answer is “Thirty-nine and a half, still awfully early.” He introduces the reader to the life of the party, dancing the tango and kissing the hand of an elegant woman, reassuring her “that everything will be all right.” However, the voice stops midsentence at the end of the poem, “No it could never happen here,/ don’t worry so—you’ll see—it could.”

Often Holocaust themes are placed in an archetypal perspective, as in the widely known poem “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car.” The speaker is “eve” traveling with her son “abel,” and she means to leave a message for her other son. “If you see my other son/ cain son of man/ tell him i”; here the poem ends abruptly, leaving the reader to meditate on the nature of evil.

In “Draft of a Reparations Agreement,” the speaker is again a collective voice, the voice of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The agreement promises that “Everything will be returned to its place,/ paragraph after paragraph,” echoing the bureaucratic language in which the whole Nazi endeavor was carried out. In a kind of mordant displacement the draft writer promises “The scream back into the throat./ The gold teeth back to the gums.” Also,

. . . you will be covered with skin and sinews and you will live,look, you will have your lives back,. . . . . . . . . . . . Here you are. Nothing is too late.

The exquisite irony exposes the absurdity of reparations as well as the lunacy of the speaker.

Points of Departure

In Points of Departure, Pagis’s voice runs the gamut from horrifying to deceptively whimsical. In “End of the Questionnaire,” he creates a questionnaire to be filled out posthumously, with questions including “number of galaxy and star,/ number of grave.” “You have the right to appeal,” the questionnaire informs the deceased. It ends with the command, “In the blank space below, state/ how long you have been awake...

(The entire section is 1637 words.)