from THE KANSAS CITY STAR, Sunday, April 11, 2004
Tapping the lessons of history
By KATHLEEN JOHNSON, The Kansas City Star
"Alzheimer's and Other Blessings," one of the most powerful poems in David Ray's latest book, consists of a mere two lines: "Bless the man who can only remember/ one minute, for he is free of history."
Yet, ultimately, One Thousand Years, Ray's remarkable and timely collection of poems about the Holocaust, implores us not to forget history. Why? History has a bad habit of repeating itself.
Like the man in "Witnessing" who, wherever he goes in the world, carries a small sandal with a strap torn loose from a child's "fleeing for life" during war, Ray in these poems tries "reminding people/ how easy it is to let it happen again."
If Ray writes with the compassion of someone who has had personal experience with hardship, it's because he has had plenty. His recent memoir, The Endless Search, details his troubled early years as an abused and abandoned child. But Ray went on to write prolifically, publishing 16 books of poetry, as well as the memoir and several works of fiction.
Though he now lives in Tucson, Ariz., he resided in the Kansas City area for many years, taught literature and writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and founded New Letters magazine and "New Letters On the Air."
In this new book of poems, Ray plays thematically with oppositions: forgetting versus remembering, guilt versus innocence, truth versus lies, art versus annihilation. He also reminds that morality can be muddy, that there are many subtle shades between the black and white of right and wrong.
In many ways, Ray's collection is reminiscent of Picasso's painting "Guernica," another cubistically composed work prompted by the terrors of war. Painted in black, white and gray, "Guernica" is a many-angled vision that forms a stunning coherent whole.
Similarly, Ray explores the Holocaust from various perspectives — from the past and present, from victims and their victimizers, from those who survived and those who did not. He even considers how dogs and horses were affected. This approach creates a richly layered, substantial book.
A poem in 26 parts titled "Under Sentence of Death: Occupied France, 1943" includes direct translation of last words of victims of the Nazi occupation. One part of that sequence deals with how, as a way to keep spirits from flagging and maintain dignity, the persecuted would try to recall fragments of literature learned in the past. It ends in understated lines that linger and haunt:
Strangely nobody knows any Shakespeare
except for a few odd scraps
The man who could recite Lamartine
till the cows come home
went up the chimney on a quiet night
Ray confronts horror and inhumanity in One Thousand Years, but he also writes about hope. The spare tercets that constitute the book's last poem, "The Musician," resonate with truth. Written with the empathy of a fellow survivor, the lines speak implicitly of the poet as well as the musician:
They called him a survivor,
one who emerged
from the terrible years
as an orphan. What
will you do? they asked him.
And at first he said nothing,
could think of nothing,
for grief had overcome him.
But then he declared
a purpose. He would try
to rehabilitate God.
He began with a violin.
Instead of a violin, Ray began with a pen and, fortunately, never stopped being, in the words of one of his poems, "the rare bird/ who sings with integrity,/ the one who tries to awaken the town."