What the Furies Bring

Ken­neth Sherman
  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
When dark­ness of war, prison, ill­ness, death, or oth­er hor­ror touch­es gift­ed writ­ers, and they write about it, how are they trans­formed, and how does read­ing their writ­ing impact us? Ken­neth Sher­man, a Cana­di­an poet and essay­ist, explores these issues in this haunt­ing col­lec­tion of pen­e­trat­ing, pen­sive essays, pub­lished in a beau­ti­ful paper­back edi­tion, with thick tex­tured paper and love­ly prints from steel engrav­ings.

After Sep­tem­ber 11th, 2001, Sher­man sought out writ­ers who had under­gone and wit­nessed extreme expe­ri­ences and trans­mut­ed them into prose and poet­ry. With the excep­tion of a num­ber of essays, includ­ing one about how his great-grand­fa­ther reject­ed Toron­to in the 1930’s and returned home to Poland only to be killed by the Nazis a few years lat­er; one that treats Wells’s The Island of Dr. More­au” as a sort of lit­er­ary pre­mo­ni­tion of the dehu­man­iz­ing fusion of sci­ence and fas­cism; and one on Yid­dish as a Jew­ish lan­guage, with a focus on Ruth Wisse’s book, The Mod­ern Jew­ish Canon, the oth­er 19 essays large­ly focus on such writers.

In one essay Sher­man traces the trans­for­ma­tion of a sad Hasidic sto­ry of Rab­bi Nachman’s in the writ­ings of Buber, Kaf­ka, and Mala­mud, and in anoth­er, he re-exam­ines the works and life of Rupert Brooke, the British poet know for his roman­ti­ciz­ing of self-sac­ri­fice for Britain’s glo­ry in World War I, before dying young him­self, whom Sher­man con­trasts with Wil­fred Owen, Brooke’s con­tem­po­rary who also died young, and wrote war poet­ry of a far less roman­tic strain. Oth­er poets Sher­man exam­ines include Robert Low­ell, Eliz­a­beth Bish­op, Ted Hugh­es, Zbignew Her­bert, and Czes­law Milosz. 

Sher­man also looks close­ly at Pri­mo Levi and at Var­lam Sha­la­m­ov, the lat­ter of whom Sher­man adjudges as being the supreme artist” of those authors who sur­vived Nazi and Sovi­et camps. Shalamov’s book of sto­ries of Siber­ian camp life, Koly­ma Tales,” is lit­tle­known here, but has been trans­lat­ed, and accord­ing to Sher­man, deserves a wider audi­ence. In anoth­er essay, he writes about the Sovi­et jour­nal­ist Vass­i­ly Gross­man, who wrote sear­ing­ly of what hap­pened at Tre­blin­ka. Sher­man also exam­ines how nov­el­ists Mar­tin Amis and John Updike treat­ed 9/11 in their books, The Sec­ond Plane: Sep­tem­ber 11: Ter­ror­ism and Bore­dom (Amis), and Ter­ror­ist (Updike).

In sep­a­rate essays Sher­man exam­ines the diarists Chaim Kaplan and Anne Frank. Kaplan chron­i­cled almost three years of his life in the War­saw Ghet­to before it was liq­ui­dat­ed, and part of this diary has been pub­lished in Scroll of Agony: The War­saw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan”. In look­ing at Anne Frank’s diary Sher­man sees it less as a Holo­caust doc­u­ment than as a record of an exis­ten­tial quest whose theme is the mak­ing of the self.”

In Toward the Earth: Poet­ry and 9/11,” Sher­man crit­i­cal­ly con­sid­ers the poet­ry that has been writ­ten about 9/11. He feels that much of it was writ­ten too hasti­ly; that the req­ui­site dis­tance in space and time for pro­cess­ing such trau­ma wasn’t wide­ly respect­ed. In The Angel of Dis­ease” he looks at how writ­ers close to those with chron­ic and ter­mi­nal ill­ness­es and who have them­selves been afflict­ed have treat­ed the sub­ject of suf­fer­ing. Writ­ing is alche­my that trans­forms pain into some­thing we val­ue,” he writes. These, like all the essays col­lect­ed in this book of extra­or­di­nary insight and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, are about art itself (here con­fined to writ­ing), ask­ing what is art” and what is art good for” and Sher­man con­sis­tent­ly affirms the pow­er of art to make suf­fer­ing not only bear­able but meaningful.

Discussion Questions