Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419
“The Unseen” is set in a specific town in Poland with a particular historical burden. Immediately, the reader knows the setting: the rain, the stone arcade, and smoky air of one “penetrating color.” This color is gray, setting a particular empty tone to the poem. The people in the poem are on a tour and the speaker in the poem provides the images for the reader, including the audience to tour the death camp.
Pinsky presents a list: toothbrushes, hair, shoes, photographs. These are all human ordinary materials, which adds irony to this tour of a death camp, since a death camp seems unordinary and horrific. The speaker even remarks, “We felt bored,” but then, with the use of enjambment, Pinsky juxtaposes boredom with the next line, “And at the same time like screaming Biblical phrases: I am poured out like water.” It is necessary to grasp this allusion to Psalm 22:14 in order to understand the poem’s underlying theme. Psalm 22 is the prophecy of the Messiah, of Christ, and begins with the words “Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me,” Christ’s final words when dying on the cross. Though Pinsky is Jewish and is walking through a death camp where Jews were tortured and killed, he still includes the suffering of Christ, who was a Jewish man, with the suffering of all the Jews killed in these death camps. This brings the poem a more universal theme of suffering and loss.
All this is suddenly altered with the dream vision of the speaker in the poem, invisible, unseen, walking the camp, and killing the Nazi soldiers and officers. The reader may identify with this desire to do justice unto those who have done evil, but the speaker in the poem comes out of the dream and humbles himself. The speaker confronts the “discredited Lord” as a “servant” gaping obediently, accepting all that has been in the face of a much greater being whose mysteriousness is inexplicable.
The easy interpretation of this poem would be to accept that Pinsky is giving his readers a nihilistic outlook of this world, but the textual evidence reads with more humility and acceptance of a powerful unknowable being. When the speaker states, “but still/ We try to take in what won’t be turned from in despair,” the reader must recognize that the speaker in the poem will not despair and believe in nothing, but rather, like Job, the speaker will trust those mysterious secrets of the day and night to be something greater.