Poetry and history can seem like perfect foils. History aims for precision and accuracy; poetry tends to favor ambiguity and subjectivity. If the basics of history are dates, borders and names, poetry – especially contemporary poetry – transcends these details in favor of the timeless and the unnameable. But what happens when factual history is lost, hidden or erased. Leaving only whispers and traces? It is then that poetry and history become one, entangled in a powerful and mythical union.
Rachel Kaufman’s first collection of poetry, Lots to remember, published earlier this year by Dos Madres Press, is an example of such entanglement. Kaufman, who is also a doctoral candidate at UCLA, specializes in the Jewish history of Mexico and New Mexico, where she examines oral testimony and archival documents on the lost histories of conversos – Sephardi Jews converted from force from Spain, who attempted to escape the Inquisition by traveling to the New World, in order to maintain their secret practices of Judaism in relative, albeit short-lived, security. The tropes that pervade the New World story of the conversos are, broadly speaking, familiar: diasporic wanderings, persecution, resilience, hiding, grief – and yet few details of these stories are known beyond academic circles. .
In his introduction, Kaufman writes: “In prison, Luis de Carvajal el Mozo, a famous crypto-Jew (from Spain to Mexico, aboard his uncle’s conquistador ship), sent letters to his sisters in nuclei of peaches, banana peels. His letters are now a book. The archives remember and forget the myth, the history, the tears of one in the other. Carvajal’s autobiography is a rare primary source that offers insight into 16th-century Mexican Jewish history. He includes his letters, which he attempted to smuggle out of his prison cell inside melons. These letters were intercepted by the Mexican Inquisition, which simultaneously preserved these letters carefully and murdered their author. Kaufman’s writing is an attempt to bring us closer to this history while depicting what it is like for a scholar-poet to encounter the archives, where deeply personal and treasured stories are buried under layers of violence, repression and bureaucracy.
“It’s a difficult story to trace because it was a secret religion. It was transmitted with fear, it was taught as a secret observance. Crypto-Jewish observance was mixed with other practices, becoming these tangled observances, so it was less clear what you were conveying. And some people say they were given these nameless traditions: they weren’t attached to Judaism or crypto-Judaism,” Kaufman told me, as we sat in a Los Angeles cafe on a Friday in late afternoon. There was something otherworldly and surreal about learning history this way: the Spanish Inquisition, then the Mexican Inquisition, Seville and New Mexico, refugees and colonizers, dangers and hopes, all centuries old, all unfolding before me, as city traffic continued to zoom right by, like time itself. Learning Jewish history – especially the parts I didn’t know – always feels like its own kind of ritual, its own kind of obligation, perhaps one that calls for a blessing. So it seems only right that the invocation of poetry becomes the vehicle for learning these forgotten stories.
“The archives are the archives of the Inquisition, which are filtered through the Spanish Catholic lens,” Kaufman told me. In other words, to study crypto-Jewish history, one must rely on documents written by the group that sought to erase this same history. Erasure becomes an indelible part of history, and the experience of gaps in recorded knowledge must be treated with as much care as any discovered fact. As Kaufman told me, for her the challenge of writing was “figuring out how to preserve absence while creating presence.” In reading the collection, the challenge I found also came from my encounter with the emotional burden of this absence and what lies behind it. The poem “Essay Number 23 (Translation)” is an example of such an encounter:
On the first question, he says he knows
the questions asked and those
who ask them and he
is thirty years old and short
towards or away. At the second
question he says he heard
the question and it contains
many people and it has been said
by all at once and rang
in his ears. To the third question
he falls to the ground and smiles.
On the fourth he says he never
heard of such lies or such questions
and only an answer like this
could solve a question
like that. On the fifth
he says he doesn’t know.
In the sixth he begins to denounce
every truth he believes and
his lies slide like silver.
On the seventh the public
loses interest and he starts
foam in the mouth.
There is no eighth and the people
and the questions fly
in the street and everyone
tie their shoes and stay
mad, driven to
the rain falls
his pointed hat.
The poem is built around escapes, underlined by sharp crossings. Obviously someone is being interrogated here. While the crossing over of the very first line “he knows” seems momentarily to indicate cooperation or assent, on the following line the poem deviates, reversing the roles. Instead of answers, interrogators are faced with a mirror: “he knows/the questions asked and those/who ask them”. The respondent immediately offers an additional ambiguity that underlies the complexity of the predicament of the Mexican/New Mexican conversation: “run/to or away”. Indeed, fleeing for shelter, the conversos join the conquistador missions, becoming themselves agents of Spain: fleeing the empire, they further expand the borders and possessions of the empire. If there’s any irony in that, it’s a very discouraging irony, as is the fact that one can easily guess the outcome of the trial unfolding along these lines. The poem spins through darkness into dark humor, absurdity and strangeness. As Kaufman told me, “The Inquisition records are fraught with violence… [The question is] how to translate archival language into poetry and retain the elements of history, silence and strangeness of archives – the way they reach me with things I can and cannot touch.
In the first pages of Lots to remember, we find a visual image of such an archival document from the trial of Leonor de Carvajal. Looking at it, it’s impossible not to be struck by the beautiful handwriting. Who is this scribe, taking the time to seal a crypto-Jew’s verdict while wrapping his capitals in pure calligraphic beauty?
Throughout the collection, Kaufman offers allusions to his own family history, and in particular to his grandfather’s flight from Germany at the start of the Holocaust. There are parallels and resonances for her there, as she writes in the introduction: “I see two stories at the same time, superimposed, superimposed, distinct. Through one, the other – the desert sun reflecting off the swirls. Empathy rather than comparison. It is as if the two stories, in an empathetic relationship, complemented each other, together becoming sacred texts, marked by the common reference to biblical wanderings and mythical revelations of the “desert” invoked by the poet. It would seem impossible for stories to be both “layered” and “separate” – and yet, isn’t that exactly how history and our personal perceptions of history work? As Kaufman said in our interview, “the analogy is really tricky…but with poetry, distinctiveness can be held more delicately.”
Some poems in the collection, like the title poem below, seem to be about both his stories and their intertwining, as well as, perhaps, a more universal story too:
Breaking the slate. Break marble. Break the bread
above the sink. Break the chimes, break the glass, break the time
in pieces like fingernails. Break the blades
of grass, break the glory (don’t laugh). To break
the oven and burn the toast. Break a person and
watch it melt. (The break is this.)
Break a ceramic plate, break the broom,
break the shovel, watch the house
pick up stones. Break the hand of the statue,
break the mother’s hand, break the salt
on the potatoes. Cycle break,
break patterns like plaid. break the snow,
break the fall, break the fast
and look at the Torah
fall to the ground. break the windows,
breaking walls, breaking rocking chairs, breaking fingers.
Break spontaneity, break language, break dough and
cook it outside. Break the tent, break the wood,
break matches into thirds, sit cold.
Break skin with tattoos, with numbers, with
Labels. Break the codes, break Eichmann, watch the trial
from the left hand of evil. Breakthrough,
break free, break under the barbed wire,
crash into the sky.
History is fragile, and to hold it is to risk it breaking, crumpling to the touch. Yet perhaps it offers an understanding of the fragility that pervades not only the past but also the present – the poem, after all, is in the present. Here, “breaking” becomes a refrain, an implicit ritual act, an act that subsumes images ranging from the mundane to the transcendent to the personal, an inquiry into all that can be, and has been, broken.
The pieces of history do not come to us whole. But in poems they are set afloat, as the poet says in “Me’am Lo’ez“We are told/our souls will grow/become accustomed to hearing echoes/of our customs – these songs/set aside from the myth to keep/a certain holiness adrift.
To receive these pieces is to experience a part of this holiness.