Shirley Kaufman Ironwood 26




Some Thoughts About "Disasters"



…it is dreary

to descend

and be a stranger…

There was nothing dreary in the way Mary and George Oppen descended from the airplane in Israel in September 1975. They had been invited by the Mayor of Jerusalem to be his guests at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim, a residence facing the walls of the Old City, for distinguished artists, writers and musicians from abroad. Mary was wearing a bright pink sun hat, and I remember the rosy glow of her face under it, how she held onto the brim of her hat when the wind at the airport almost carried it away.

……….this wind that

rises like a gift

in the disorder

George had written us three months earlier: "…we think it will be marvelous. Marvelous. Almost sense of Jewishness is a vague sense of being foreign…"

To visit Israel for the first time, especially if you are a Jew and sensitive to conflicting claims, is both marvelous and disturbing — the strange and exotic faces and costumes (are these my people?), the high-pitched voices, tape recorded chants of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, thorn crowns for sale on the Via Dolorosa, the constant din of building construction and sewer repair, dust in your eyes, ruins, soldiers strolling casually with their rifles, the schizophrenia of the West trying to make some order out of the Levant.

As we drove up the winding highway through the hills to Jerusalem, we were delighted by the Oppens' excitement. The questions came later, and seemed related to what George had written in his letter:


shall we descend

who have become strangers…

George had accepted the "sense of being foreign" as a condition of Jewishness, but a part of him wanted not to feel foreign, alienated from his history, at least not in Jerusalem. The facts of his life made this difficult.

And another question:

…the mother-tongues can they

with all their meanings


Which mother-tongue? English? German? Hebrew? The impossibility of translation. The difficulty of communication between people — between Jews — who do not speak the same language. The difficulty of finding the way from western disasters to the east, of stepping out of history or falling into it, or coming out on the other side of it — to begin again — in caves.

"Disasters" was written in Jerusalem. The poem is clearly much larger than its occasion. It is part of the ongoing poem of George Oppen's life. And yet.


I want to record a fragment of what George experienced during his month with us. Not as a critical scaffold for the poem. Rather a small inquiry into transmutation.

One of the things that happened to George in Israel was his meeting with the Hebrew poet Abba Kovner, who had led the Vilna ghetto partisans in their desperate fight against the Nazis during World War II and written a number of poems about the Holocaust, most notably the book-length sequence My Little Sister. In Kovner's poem the sister, a child placed in a Dominican Convent during a winter storm, to save her life while the Jewish community outside the convent is destroyed, becomes an allegorical figure in the end, the sister of all Jews, of all men and women who suffered and perished in the Holocaust.

We spent the day with the Kovners at their kibbutz; there were other visits in Jerusalem. George and Abba spoke about the War in Europe and the early Communist ideology of Kovner's kibbutz. They communicated with long, warm silences, Abba's halting English, and my husband as interpreter. George read the English translation of My Little Sister and must have recognized how many vivid images Kovner and he shared. Here are the prologue and some lines from the first two sections of that poem:

They came as far as a wall.

On the seventh night into the dawn

heard from the wall the drowning in the snow

not seeing the marchers' faces

in the white wind.

1      Came as far as a wall. The iron ring

of the bell caught in a mass

of ice…


Naked. Braids on her breast —

my fragile sister!

Standing at the door.


Wind. Ice. My fragile sister. The wind that raged through Europe, unlike the western wind in the exquisite anonymous medieval love poem alluded to at the start of "Disasters," and that "storm//of politics," erupting from and over Germany, left in their wake the worst devastation of modern history. There were other wars, other betrayals, but Oppen's experience in World War II had long been part of his poetry. Now, in the poem by Abba Kovner, he reexperienced the war through the fate of "my little sister."


O I see my love I see her go

over the ice alone…

Kovner's "sister" leaves the safety of the convent after a time to return — again through snow — to a dead world. Kovner does not name her. Oppen sees her go at the same moment that he recognizes himself:

over the ice alone I see


and speaks the name of Sarah — mother, wife of Abraham (who told the Egyptian Pharaoh she was his sister), the first of our ancestral women. When he calls "…Sarah Sarah…" it is as if both he and Abraham are calling, voicing our need at the most primitive level to recover the lost by giving it a name.

In that sad, angry love/hate poem about Pound, "Of Hours," published three years earlier, George had also confronted himself as a Jew, a recurring theme. But here, especially in relation to the War and to Pound/father, he noted the bitter experience of

Burying my dogtag with H

For Hebrew in the rubble of Alsace

George would retrieve that dogtag in Jerusalem.


Kovner's poem is about the hidden sister. Oppen ends his poem with "…the caves/of the hidden/people" — perhaps the caves in the Judean desert where the Essenes lived the monastic life during the decline of the Hasmonean kingdom, and where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. (We walked with Mary and George through these excavations on a plateau rising above the Dead Sea.) They also suggest the holes he described in that memorable passage in "Route," which Alsatian men dug in order to hide from the German army.

………………………..the marvel

of the hidden

……………………… lost

sister her small

voice among the people…

…………………………….whose armies

have marched…


The immediate scene is Israel, the devastating wars that have taken place in this small (that word again!) land since the state was established in 1948. The Oppens were in Jerusalem less than two years after the trauma of the October war of 1973, when morale was still at a very low ebb, "of wars…and storm//of politics…" the Israelis were (are!) also sick. George caught the mood almost immediately.

But there were also the armies of the western world. In Oppen's poem, disaster is first generalized ("of wars"), and then becomes a deeply moving lament for "clumsy" and "lost" humankind since the beginning of time.


Inner life is never static. There is movement which cannot be interrupted or organized by time. Present and future join with the past so that collective human experience, historical events, Biblical legends are reenacted together in the immediate landscape. There is no linear sequence. Oppen has always arranged his lines accordingly. He shifts and transposes words and the order of words, challenges the illusion of Shelley's "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" with "legislators//of the unacknowledged world." He anticipates the future while talking about the past:

…………if our story shall end

untold to whom and

to what we are ancestral…


He juxtaposes — as he does here "myself" with "Sarah," so that a third figure emerges, or "young/brother with lost/sister." Who is this young brother? Abraham again? This time at the start of his trek through the desert to claim the land God promised him? Or possibly another dimension: "my young/brother…is my lost/sister." As if the sister — victim of the death camps — her voice still heard by the survivors, has been replaced by a new generation, born after 1948. If not the resurrection of the dead, these young Israelis were (are?) the future hope of a decimated people. "Clumsy" and "alone" but alive! George had a disarmingly romantic view of his encounters with young people here, especially the poets. He seemed to be searching for his own beginnings.


Words like desert have a powerful and independent life, linking us to what may be remote, even archaic in time, but shockingly near in Jerusalem where the desert is a real place as much a metaphor for a cultural wasteland. Oppen came here as an urban poet — New York, then San Francisco, and summers on an island in Maine. City streets, tall buildings and vast oceans had been his territory. Suddenly there was the desert wind, not the wind of the Atlantic or Pacific, more like the whirlwind of Job. And the sand of the desert, not the beaches of Maine or California.

……………….the song,

changes the wind has blown the sand about

Although the anonymity and loneliness were the same, there was a "distinction." Even a "distinction dance," if you let the words run together before the enjambment "of the wasp wings."

So we come back to the question near the start of the poem:

…………….the mother-tongues can they

with all their meanings


"Disasters" opens a path toward the understanding of that question. The dance — for poets, whether they write in English, Hebrew, or any other tongue — must be in the play of language itself as it advances and withdraws, as it loses and finds its way again, as it travels through pre-history, Biblical history, and into the history of the twentieth century. Oppen created a world out of disparate images from his life and his reading as he encountered them against the very real landscape and ancient walls of Jerusalem. Out of the shook-up sense of his Jewishness. And I believe this precarious, vulnerable, "unacknowledged" world of which he has always written dances with special intensity as it balances on the edge of the Judean desert.

The "journey" George Oppen made in "Disasters" was not only by airplane from San Francisco via Maine and Greece to Jerusalem, but deep into himself. While in Jerusalem he saw "the tent/in the desert" and "the caves/of the hidden people" and the suffering that lonely and confused humans inflict on each other — together with "the five bright elements." The marvel of that. He saw this most clearly and precisely in that month of September 1975 when he wrote "my life/narrows." Feeling the narrowing, he more truly identified with the lives of his historic "family" than ever before. He told us the visit was a "central experience" of his life.

He began to write the first drafts of "Disasters" half-way through his visit. He worked slowly, painstakingly, shifting the words and lines with great care day after day, before and after his long walks with Mary around the city and up and down the slopes of Mount Zion next to where they were living. It was almost completed by the time he returned to San Francisco. He had heard the "small/voice (of his sister) among the people." It's always small isn't it? As George's voice was also, reading his poetry aloud quietly, tentatively, never insisting. As we should not in interpreting.

June 1985

Jerusalem, Israel



of wars o western
wind and storm

of politics I am sick with a poet's
vanity      legislators

of the unacknowledged

world it is    dreary
to descend

and be a stranger how
shall we descend

who have become strangers in this wind that

rises like a gift
in the disorder     the gales

of a poet's vanity if our story shall end
untold to whom and

to what are we ancestral we wanted to know

if we were any good

out there     the song
changes the wind has blown the sand about
and we are alone the sea dawns
in the sunrise verse with its rough

beach-light crystal extreme
sands dazzling under the near
and not less brutal feet journey
in light

and wind
and fire and water and air the five

bright elements
the marvel

of the obvious and the marvel
of the hidden is there

in fact a distinction dance

of the wasp wings dance as
of the mother-tongues can they

with all their meanings

       dance? O

O I see my love I see her go

over the ice alone I see

myself    Sarah   Sarah    I see the tent
in the desert my life

narrows my life
is another I see
him in the desert I watch
him he is clumsy
and alone my young
brother he is my lost
sister her small

voice among the people the salt

and terrible hills whose armies

have marched and the caves
of the hidden