This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.
Buried among the various iterations of erasure done by Srikanth Reddy on Kurt Waldheim’s memoir The Eye of the Storm the poet confesses his obsession with “the fate of a machine which had been launched into creation and disappeared from sight during [his] boyhood.” And surely in this statement, Reddy is concerned with the participation of the disgraced diplomat in preparing text sent to space aboard NASA’s Voyager project during the 1970’s. But, this satellite is a poetic machina in its own right; what Reddy is truly concerned with is the machinery of legacy and dark personal history.
True, Voyager is the tale of one man, but it is the story of what we leave behind when we depart this living galaxy and how those left behind will make sense of it.
That the book is titled after a spacecraft intended to serve as an ambassador for our species is both a red herring and an invocation of a persistent presence just outside of our reach – a relationship similar to that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and his off-stage adversary Fortinbras. Before even beginning to read the book, Reddy is already commenting on the pervading sense of things left behind that we cannot edit, touch, or shape. It is with this nod to history, a removal of control, that Reddy makes his reader presuppose the uncertainty and powerlessness present in the text.
Waldheim, during his tenure as President of Austria and after his two terms as Secretary General of the United Nations, was exposed as having been an officer in the Nazi SS, and implicated in awareness of the horrors visited on the Jewish communities of mainland Europe. When confronting such tragedy, how can one even begin to address it? Much has been made of Reddy’s poetic technique of “erasure,” almost to the point of novelty in some circles, but one must keep in mind that this is merely the technique of a writer who is expressing his dismay and despair through Waldheim’s vocabulary. To speak of horror on a scale such as this, to understand such a man’s passivity and worldview, Reddy is hunting for even the smallest kernel of reason – even if, as section one of Book Three ends, what he finds is a “slim thread of truth but little help.”
Indeed, Voyager is a puzzle as confusing and frustrating as the man it parallels. But, that is not to say that, as reader, the logical jumps, starts, and stops destroy the reading experience. The missing information, dead-ends, and space between words in sections One and Three make the conclusions at which Reddy arrives deceptively simple or mechanical; almost mathematical or scientific or, shockingly, even self-evident. Written throughout Book One, single-line stanzas such as “the world is the world” alongside others like “Jerusalem. Jerusalem indeed” make consideration of the larger problems portrayed in the text as though they are something that happens, as we as children might have reasoned, “just because.” We expect that Waldheim will have some revelation that will allow us to put his life in context, but with Reddy’s intervention, it never materializes. The third book, written in cascading tercets of lesser ambiguity, still Reddy speaks through Waldheim employing simple reasoning when called to account. Part of his erasure of the memoir’s fourteenth chapter reads:
asked why I denied/the play of perceptions, I repeated my, my // inspected my fly,
as Reddy’s conception of Waldheim descends from disregard to a form of madness. Only two sections later, the text breaks down completely – forsaking any coherent form and taking on less a language and more an aspect of stage direction: “[a splendid/lamentation] // [under constraints/the/scarred/form//steps/in]“. The spacing and chaos cannot be accurately reflected or done any justice by this review, it is truly a breakdown reflected in text – a moment of absolute personal disaster that almost amounts to babbling.
These two sections are mediated by Book Two, a section that is written in clean, clear, blockish prose. Reddy has presented evidence in Book One, and attempts to make sense of it in Book Two through rational sentence construction and form. Book Three, then, demonstrates to the reader that his interpretation is as unhelpful and untenable as the tenor created by Book One would suggest. Even using Waldheim’s speech and reasoning, the Reddy cannot come to terms with the life of a man who attempted, as written in Book One “Peace. Peace.”, but had a past that suggested otherwise.
He sets the reader up for the moment portrayed in Book Three, section fifteen when pandemonium strikes.
The last two parts of Book Three come back to the order set out by those previous, but are inhabited the voice of a man who cannot even reconcile his own expression with his belief, as the erasure of chapter sixteen ends, “I believe. I believe.” The mark-out of what is, essentially, a mark-out is a striking effect. Though it is used in other parts of Voyager, it is stark in Book Three in which names such as Adolf Hitler (and even Waldheim’s own name) are marked out, but left on the page – a true reminder that even a man’s past is not all passed, and a true attribution of tragedy to the everyman. The last section of the book contains three struck-through mark-outs of Waldheim’s epilogue, as if to show the reader that not even the poet can find finality in the words left. This section, comprised of ten pages, only leaves 117 words unmarked, demonstrating that, even in light of an attempt at reason, there is little solace to be found, with the closing lines reading “Yet I am not without hope/citizens/I am a believer in silent prayers”, but the last word head-faking the reader, “relinquished.” That final word leaves the reader with troubling discord; Reddy’s speaker is endowed with faith in humanity only to retract it at the last second.
Critics and readers alike are fascinated with Reddy’s method, but it is often tantamount to making it a gimmick; erasure is merely the vehicle that Reddy uses to employ Waldheim’s words. It works so well because more than merely erasing a stray word or a line here and there, it is the intense focus of master craft that makes the technique come alive. The poetic form is used in the middle section (Book Two) as a skin for personal reflection in a way that injects Reddy-as-speaker into the piece more than some confessional poets cast themselves into their own work. Book Two approaches the narrative more than the poetic, but in a world of uncertainties what demands and effects are our standards allowed to place on a text? It is not a factor that dismantles the work, but, instead serves an extrapoetic effect – that of the speaker of these poems absorbing some of the impact. The entrance of the closer-to-Reddy-than-Waldheim “I” in Book Two achieves almost a Brechtian sense of disconnection to the end of the attempt to make sense of Waldheim’s world highlighted above. Reddy’s technique applied to create the section is masterful (he has generously provided photocopies of his method here). His unearthing of the narrative as so approach inserting himself as mediator between sections allows the reader to see the skill, time, and adroit cognizance of the author on display. In addition, it lends a sense of speed to narrative. The source text is 278 pages, whereas Reddy has trimmed the book to 124 pages, removing an untold weight of words.
But, it also shows that, in casting himself in Waldheim’s words, there is a horrifying sameness that the reader feels.
Ultimately, as a line that Reddy erases to in two parts of the book, “if there is a story it is this”: the only way to understand the man is to speak his language; the only thing he left behind are shades of horrors and words. And, after a fractured blitz through the memoir’s text, we find, along with the speaker that, in memory, “The silent alone lie united.”