Archive, Features, New Series, Poems

Srikanth Reddy: “Voyager, Book 3 (Chapter 6)”

Probably the first thing to say about this “poem” is that I didn’t write it.  All the words here belong to Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the United Nations who was later discovered to have been, also, a former SS officer in Hitler’s Germany.  (So if you don’t like the writing here, blame Waldheim, not me).  I composed this text by deleting words from Waldheim’s memoir, In the Eye of the Storm, and closing up the spaces left by my “erasure.”  Then I took the liberty of visually arranging the resulting word-sequences into the “step-down” tercets that William Carlos Williams used for his poetic sequence on the underworld, but I didn’t rearrange the order of words in Waldheim’s original text.

The second thing to say, I think, would be that this is an excerpt from a longer passage in my book, Voyager, that depicts Waldheim’s imaginary descent into the underworld.  I was trying to find a story under the surface of the story—about the United Nations and Cold War geopolitics—that Waldheim tells in his memoir.  Because Waldheim himself never talks about the secret story of his involvement in genocidal war crimes during World War II, it seemed right to me to find a “subtext” inside Waldheim’s memoir that recounts a Dantean allegory about reckoning and accountability.

The last thing to say is that I don’t think I’ll ever try my hand at literary erasure again.  Deleting this passage into existence was one of the most difficult things I’ve attempted as a writer, and now that it’s done, I’m glad I did it—but now I’d like to try speaking for myself, for a change.6961593307_bf01e202f9_b

Voyager, Book 3, Chapter 6

+++++++++++Archbishop A
+++++++++++++++++++++++with his deteriorating wing

regarded the world.
+++++++++++I visited the spirit
+++++++++++++++++++++++there in his august palace.

He complained about the heat
+++++++++++and asked if I would mind
+++++++++++++++++++++++if he took his mitre off.

I agreed and took off my coat
+++++++++++Whether he really believed
+++++++++++++++++++++++is difficult to say . . .

Certainly life
+++++++++++burned inside him.
+++++++++++++++++++++++He had composed a few lines

in Greek,
+++++++++++insisting it was only a draft.
+++++++++++++++++++++++My shaky work he called it,

but I had to admire the line
In Greek I repeated it.

He would look
+++++++++++into the blue overhead
+++++++++++++++++++++++from this private chamber

and praise his own words
+++++++++++with no intention
+++++++++++++++++++++++whatsoever to stop.

Very little could be done,
+++++++++++so I took it upon myself
+++++++++++++++++++++++as cautiously as possible

to cross that phantom out thus
+++++++++++Archbishop A
+++++++++++++++++++++++and took the chair

+++++++++++in disrepair.
+++++++++++++++++++++++There was an eerie silence

at the table.
+++++++++++I tried making
+++++++++++++++++++++++stone men to continue

the discussion.
+++++++++++As evening progressed,
+++++++++++++++++++++++the men unbent –

edging closer
+++++++++++++++++++++++good++++good . . .

We spent hours discussing forms.
+++++++++++One had a map of the real
+++++++++++++++++++++++that we later published

in the Times in Latin.
+++++++++++One opened a little clock
+++++++++++++++++++++++and said freedom.

+++++++++++we opened my will
+++++++++++++++++++++++over August wine

poured into new bottles
+++++++++++as one asked
+++++++++++++++++++++++Why don’t you smile?

I smiled, and set my spade by.

Srikanth Reddy is the author of two books of poetry–Facts for Visitors (2004), and Voyager (2011)–both published by the University of California Press.  A book of criticism, Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry, was published by Oxford University Press in 2012.  He has received fellowships and awards from the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Creative Capital Foundation, among others.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the doctoral program in English at Harvard University, Reddy is currently an Associate Professor of English a the University of Chicago.

photo credit: stone faces (license)