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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

‘This Incurable Hiddenness’: Anna Rabinowitz’s Acrostics

Sharon Dolin reviews

Darkling: A Poem, by Anna Rabinowitz

Vermont: Tupelo Press, 2001. 85pp. USD $14.95. ISBN 0-9710310-4-5
Tupelo Press, P.O. Box 539, Dorset, Vermont 05251
Phone: 802-366-8185, Fax: 802-362-1883,

What is it about acrostics that have so captivated Anna Rabinowitz? She is the one poet I know who takes this rather archaic and most architectural of poetic forms — words as a literal form of scaffolding — to its literal extreme: the book as building, the letters of a source poem as its armature. In her latest daring booklength masterpiece, Darkling: A Poem, Rabinowitz attempts to grapple with her family legacy of photographs and letters, fragmentary immigrant memories set against the larger holocaust landscape of the twentieth century, by invoking Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ as her acrostic left-hand margin.

I want to begin with her own words about both her choice of the Hardy poem and the acrostic:

I found myself  . . . haunted by ‘The Darkling Thrush’ — by its tone of millennial mourning, by its note of hope in the thrush’s song, and most especially by its opening line which situates the poet at he meditates on the passing century: ‘I leant upon a coppice gate.’ I, too, felt as if I was peering into a coppice — a wood or thicket characterized by a dense, often tangled, underwood of stump shoots and suckers encouraged into being by the periodic cutting down of trees. At the same time, I had been experimenting with acrostics, exploring the possibility of their constraint to generate new constructs of language, all the while wondering if the ancients were on to something in their belief in the mystical power of the acrostic form.

(Darkling 83)

That ‘tone of millennial mourning,’ deepened by the mid-century Shoah (and our reading of the poem in the long shadow of post-9/11) creates a multi-layered linguistic texture of voices, literary and familial, to her enterprise. And what we get are approaches, leanings upon the coppice, the tangled half-memories as well as the false starts into the family wood:

     Grazing sound —
                                 too soon for /
                                          in the aftermath of being —

      Amok with what is unseen / unsaid: love me,
      Touch me, make use of me


                                 as in dawnings,


                                 as in prayers

           Ensnared at the main gate —

                                 and now —

                                         and now —

                                                            oh god —

                                            they’re dead.

(Darkling 4)

I quote the above section corresponding to ‘gate’ in the first line of the Hardy poem so readers can see the way Rabinowitz uses the acrostic scaffolding as ‘constraint’ but also creates openings in the coppice — here achieved by using the page as field; only the left-justified words need begin with the appropriate letter from the Hardy poem, making it a looser weave in certain sections and also allowing the white space to work as palpable absences, gaps, lacunae in her attempt to retell the dead’s story.

In fact, not much of their story ever does get told, and that is either a lyric strength or a narrative weakness; I tend to see it as the former. To my mind, there are enough holocaust and immigrant memoirs around. Darkling is more the record of the failed attempt to piece together from written and photographic shards the story of one’s recent ancestry.

We know a few things: that there was a hasty marriage before the wife (Rabinowitz’s grandmother?) fled to America:

Three weeks earlier they’d met and married — then she fled —
                                 sailed off in a
Huff — and winds whinnied through the ship —
                                 and star-
Entangled whys pocked the fictive fields of sea.

(Darkling 18)

and an exchange of letters, though it’s hard to tell how much of what’s in quotes comes from the letters and how much is Rabinowitz’s construction. The most detailed memoir, of a little brother lost in Brooklyn,  happens early on; it’s the only one, in fact, that feels like the author’s own firsthand conjured-up memory. In early April, I was fortunate to hear a work-in-progress based on Darkling ‘staged’ at Barnard College (it was really more of a radio play) and the only memory that stood out clearly was the same one:

And that time — that hard winter — the El quaking on its tracks,
Narrowly logging distances, station to station, to confirm the hands-
Down drive to get there, the sooner the better ,  (better late than never?).
We shot out, eyes glazed with intensity, high-fired windowpanes crazed
In the glare for which late afternoon pleads guilty . . .
. . . Dear god, do not deliver us unto evil. Help us
Recover the lost boy — only three, blond, blue-eyed, wearing his
Scarlet hat with the white angora stripe, and his leggings —
Dark brown, like mud-slogged Gravesend Bay, its grime
Rambling into the roots of a few plane trees unleafed near the
Edge of the shore. .  . .


Here one can’t help musing over the irony of the boy who disappears only to reappear ‘delivered into the / Long arm of the law’ (6). For once it’s the police who save the Jewish boy, a scene set against the backdrop of memories of different kinds of uniformed men who made so many Jewish boys — and their families — disappear. And as though to provide historical counterpoint, on the next page: ‘Final solutions are at hand while official denials spangle the airwaves’ (7).

But why use the acrostic? According to The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms, the acrostic may ‘first [have been] used as a mnemotechnic device to ensure completeness in the oral transmission of sacred texts. In ancient times mystical significance was attributed to acrostic compositions. In the Old Testament all the recognized acrostics belong to the alphabetical type (abecedarian).’ Acrostics occur in a few of  the psalms as well. According to Raymond Scheindlin, Professor of Hebrew and Arabic Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew ‘poets of Muslim Spain used acrostics of their first name (Abraham, Judah) in their short poems using Arabic meters written to introduce traditional prayers.’

Rabinowitz herself has been a practitioner of the abecedarian which, in retrospect, feels like her apprentice work before she could take on a booklength acrostic project. In her first book, At the Site of Inside Out (Amherst: U Mass Press, 1997), the proem ‘Below the Dome’ is an abecedarian as is the second section of her ‘Ars Poetica,’ whose opening lines are:

Alphabets act with agility
Before assonance, alliteration,
Consonance, anaphora or other
Devices dramatize a dilemma
Equal to our very existence.


In Jewish terms, the abecedarian is like a little universe — an encyclopedia — in that it includes all the letters out of which the world is made. It is, in Rabinowitz’s hand, a way to contain the fecund chaos of poetic forms. In the acrostic of Darkling, a more particular and somewhat darker world-view is evoked through the thicket of Hardy’s poem. And pushing it even further, Cento-like, Darkling often manages to import words from ‘The Darkling Thrush’ into the field of the page. Thus, if Hardy ‘leant upon a coppice gate,’ Rabinowitz is ‘Ensnared at the main gate’ (4); Hardy’s line ‘The tangled bine stems scored the sky’ is ghosted in Darkling as: ‘Scores of music I / Can’t hear any more . . .’ (9). And later, Hardy’s ‘So little cause for carolings’ becomes ‘So little cause, and illusions of meaning withdraw’ (60).

Definitions of history in this family history abound:

           and she will disembark in a strange
Country not knowing all history is an epitaph spinning
Away from her — an appetite unable to fix invisibles — a stutter
           between two voids — expendable as
Nevermore readings, inaccurate as the peripatetic mind —


I find myself attracted to the notion of history as elusive epitaph. All histories are dead, invisible, unfixable, unattainable, broken, inarticulate (‘stutter’). Yet they must be grasped. I think it was Nietzsche who said ‘Those who do not write are condemned to be written.’ For Rabinowitz ‘history shoulders everything —  /and nothing . . . . ‘ becoming ‘that which jars (bars) memory’ (25). So while I admire Bin Ramke’s intelligent review of Darkling in The Boston Review, I question his decision to start with Adorno’s admonition against writing poetry after the holocaust and Adorno’s own later self-correction in Negative Dialectics: ‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.’ I would go a step further and suggest that Darkling as a project embodies the idea that writing poetry, however fragmentary, may be all one can do or the best one can do after the Shoah. (Note in our own perilous times, the palliative effect of poetry such as Adam Zagajewski’s ‘Praise the Mutilated World,’ a poem that appeared on the back page of The New Yorker days after September 11th, yet seemed to capture for many the chiaroscuro spirit of the time: one must continue to praise the brokenness.)

But how different Darkling’s use of fragments is from T. S. Eliot’s early twentieth century assertion, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin.’ Perhaps it is true, as Ramke claims, that ‘Darkling is about how to quote responsibly.’ It’s also about how to leave the gaps and knowing when to fill them in for speakers who remained silent. Certainly not a Wilkomirski, a fabricator out of whole cloth of a holocaust experience, Darkling resembles a patchwork quilt of letters, words, photographs, half-memories and is as much about the failure to tell her ancestors’ stories. And through her frustration another kind of story: less reassuring, does get told.

What I particularly like about this handsome book, published by Tupelo Press, a new poetry press based in Vermont, is that family photographs, thanks to the genial hand of Chip Kidd the book’s designer, have been interwoven with the text and then the poems comment on the images as well as incorporating their decontextualized inscriptions. ‘She doesn’t know as she poses how camera/ Expertise negates the future and absolves the past . . . ‘ (7).

      Our friend, we give you this photo —
            — remember us forever,
Warsaw, 1932 —
                        — remember me —
                              — remember I wished you the best —
      from me, Isaac,
            from me, Helena, Regina, Frank,
                  from me
                        and me,
Ostroleka, 1936 —
                  and me. . .
Is it re-entry they are after,
                        is it markers for their graves,
      is it to remind us they burned
                        with the best possible light

                  or is it to urge us to complete them —


And we can stare at the faces that Rabinowitz stared at, the uncanny ‘presence’ that photographs even more than words retain, and know there is no completing them, that many of them were, indeed, ‘CHOSEN,’

Victims of openings forever closed, redactors
Of the latest version of How To:

      how to be TRAPPED, how to be

            while a husband and wife
Rubbed a few coins together in America —  


Which of the faces are which? Which ones perished in the Shoah and which one ‘screwed her way / out of danger’? As a reader you don’t know, and it’s not clear Rabinowitz always does. For she writes of:

                  profiles, three-quarters, head-
Ons of unpowderable nose, unshavable chin —
Name  —
Context  —


And yet Jews are, after all, the people of the book. Even the traditional New Year’s prayer and greeting is ‘to be inscribed for a good year’ (32). Rabinowitz’s attempts to inscribe the past, or to re-inscribe her ancestors’ lives, remind me of the traditional story told by Gershom Scholem at the conclusion of his great book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, which he heard from the Hebrew storyteller S. J. Agnon, about the the diminution of Hassidism:

When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer — and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the ‘Maggid’ of Mezeritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers  — and what he wanted done became reality. Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it belongs — and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the storyteller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.

(Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 349-50)

Now, contemplate Darkling through the lens of this story — as analogy for knowing one’s ancestors — then take it one step further. The poet no longer can light the fire; she barely knows the prayers; nor does she know how to tell the story.  Instead, she’s just left with threads — shards of stories. Or just names. Or just photographs. And the story of her piecing them together will have to do.

Photo of Anna Rabinowitz

Anna Rabinowitz's At the Site of Inside Out won the Juniper Prize. Other honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She lives in New York City where she edits and publishes American Letters & Commentary.
Photograph of Anna Rabinowitz by Ann Chwatsky

Sharon Dolin’s Heart Work was published by Sheep Meadow Press in 1995. Her second collection of ekphrastic poems, Serious Pink, is forthcoming from Marsh Hawk Press. (‘Fruit’ is from that collection.) She is also the author of four chapbooks, most recently The Seagull, a letterpress chapbook forthcoming from The Center for Book Arts and available through them in December, 2001. Sharon teaches poetry workshops at the 92nd Street Y in New York City and is the coordinator and co-judge of The Center for Book Arts Annual Poetry Chapbook Competition.

You can read three poems by Sharon Dolin in Jacket 16.

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