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“Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar”: Voices from the Periphery

Erin Smith

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Erin Smith

The University of Georgia

 

 “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar”: Voices from the Periphery

 

This essay discusses Dan Pagis’s “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar” in reference to a model of critique described by Edward Said in “The World, The Text, and The Critic.” I assert that if we put Pagis in the position of the critic within Said’s model, then we can see how Pagis’s poem functions to keep the Holocaust a relevant, human event in our socio-historical consciousness. By utilizing allusions to create links to other works of dominant cultures, and by evoking emotions that bring events to life, Pagis revives the significance of the Holocaust in the minds of those who did not directly experience the atrocity. Without this resurgence of attention directed toward remembering the Holocaust, the voices of Holocaust survivors would fall to the periphery, casting their texts into the outer abyss where their voices would scarcely be heard.

 

“Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar” is a six-line poem by Dan Pagis, an Israeli poet and Holocaust survivor. The only direct reference to the Holocaust in this poem are the words “בקרון החתום” (in the sealed boxcar). The sealed boxcar is one of many symbols of the Holocaust, having served as the mode of transportation to concentration and extermination camps. Pagis’ poem falls into a unique genre of art that Lawrence L. Langer dubbed “literature of atrocity.” It is a category that includes all works that attempt to represent massacre and take on all of the difficulties that inherently exist in such art. In his essay “The World, The Text and The Critic” Edward Said discusses the role of the literary critic. Said argues that texts are not equal in relation to each other because everything depends on the time and place in which the text was written: a text written in a dominant culture is far more likely to be heard than a work from a subordinate culture which is much more likely to be silenced. According to Said, it is the critic’s job to allow voices that would otherwise be ignored to be heard. In the case of literature of atrocity, a term coined by Lawrence Langer, the farther removed from the Holocaust we are, the less inclined we are to pay attention to works about it, and this makes such literature peripheral. In my application of Said’s model, I put the Holocaust in the position of text. In order for something to be considered a text it must be able to be read. However, reading is simply the process through which we derive meaning from symbols. In this case, when we see classic symbols of the Holocaust (swastikas, gold stars, gas chambers, etc.), we derive meaning (e.g. the emotion of hate) from them. If we apply Said’s model to “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar” and put Pagis in the role of the critic, we see that Pagis examines the Holocaust and breathes new life into literature of atrocity in order to keep the events relevant in our minds through the cyclical and emotional nature of his poem:

 

כאן במשלוח הזה

אני חוה

עם הבל בני

אם תראו את בני הגדול

קין בן אדם

תגידו לו שאני

 

Here in this transport

I Eve

Am with my son Abel

If you see my elder son

Cain son of man

   Tell him I am

 

This is the whole poem, which seems to end abruptly, leaving us to wonder what the speaker intended to say: “Tell him I am.” While pondering why the poem ends in that way, we read the poem over and over again. In doing so, we come to realize that the poem itself is cyclical:

 

Here in this transport

I Eve

Am with my son Abel

If you see my elder son

Cain son of man

Tell him I am

[Here in this transport

I Eve

Am with my son Abel

If you see my elder son

Cain son of man

Tell him I am…]

 

This would read as one continuous, unending poem, suggesting entrapment in an eternal cycle (just as Llewyn Davis is in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis). This interpretation parallels the theme of eternal repetition of atrocity, as suggested by Pagis’s use of allusions from the Book of Genesis. Specifically using the figures Eve, Cain, and Abel, Pagis references the first murder ever committed according to the Hebrew Bible as a mythic referent for the Holocaust. The cyclical nature of the poem revitalizes our interest in thinking about the Holocaust in two ways. First, by suggesting that the world is caught in a cycle, the poem feels more relevant to us because the cycle concerns us as well. Second, by anchoring the poem in Genesis, Pagis links his poem with a story that is based in the religions that have dominated the world for more than two millennia. Said asserts that critics writing from a place of power and privilege are heard while those that write on the periphery are silenced and that it is the critic’s job to acknowledge these privileged positions and help those on the outside be heard. Pagis utilizes allusions to a story that holds a position of privilege to solidify significance in the minds of readers who would otherwise feel indifference toward the subject.

            “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar” evokes feelings of worry, fear, and desperation. According to the title, the poem was “written in pencil,” an instrument whose words can be erased. Why would Eve, leaving behind possibly her last message, choose to write with something that can only create temporarily existing words? By specifying the use of a pencil, Pagis presents to us an eyewitness account that cannot persist over time, which increases the feeling of desperation in the poem. Additionally, the poem’s lack of punctuation lends a sense of urgency, as though the speaker does not have very much time to get her message out. Initially, the poem also seems to end abruptly, adding to the suspense as one wonders what could have possibly kept Eve from finishing her thought. It is a vain attempt on Eve’s part, and elicits feelings of sorrow in us because we know that her act is futile. Yet, it stands to mention that we are reading her note so the attempt was not so futile after all. Acting as the critic, Pagis keeps the events of the Holocaust relevant to us through emotion. The urgency and importance we feel for the poem makes an increasingly distant point in history feel urgent and important as well, allowing the speaker’s message to persist rather than falling by the wayside.

            T.W. Adorno, however, does not see it this way. He believes that an artist cannot do the experience justice because only through complete “disfiguration” can the viewer be stopped from getting aesthetic pleasure from the art of atrocity. By “disfiguration” Adorno means “the conscious and deliberate alienation of the reader’s sensibilities from the world of the familiar” (Langer 3). The work must shock its audience to the point that they are unable to feel the “pleasures inherent in artistic response” (Ibid. 2). Pagis’s poem is exactly the opposite of what Adorno considers appropriate for the representation of atrocity. It is subtle. No gruesome scene is described. There are no heinous choices that the characters must make, nor are we shown scenes of pure anguish. But subtlety can have just as much shock value, especially when referring to this specific genre of literature. Langer says, “the art of atrocity is a stubbornly unsettling art, indifferent to the peace that passeth understanding and intent only on reclaiming for the present, not the experience of the horror itself... but a framework for responding to it, for making it imaginatively (if not literally) accessible” (12). Langer points out that anything that falls into the category of “art of atrocity” automatically is beyond “the world of the familiar.” Rather than aiming to shock the audience so much that they cannot even react to the work and the event, the purpose should be to facilitate the beginnings of response. Langer’s idea of making the work accessible is similar to what Said says is the main role of the critic. He says that “the critic is responsible to a degree for articulating those voices dominated, displaced, or silenced by the textuality of texts” (281). In other words, it is the critic’s job to promote the voices of those whose lack of privilege hinders their voices from being heard. This is what Pagis is doing in “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar.”

            In Said’s definition of the critic’s role, Pagis helps keep the Holocaust a relevant, human event. New interest in literature of atrocity keeps the Holocaust in our minds so that it is never lost and does in fact stand the test of time. While the poem has impermanent characteristics, we are in fact reading it, which makes it permanent. Otherwise, the voices of Holocaust survivors would stay in the periphery and never be heard.

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Pagis, Dan. "כתוב בעיפרון בקרון החתום" (“Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar”). Dan Pagis: Kol Hashirim. Jerusalem: Hakibutz Hame'uhad, 1991. Print.

Langer, Lawrence L. The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1975. Print.

Said, Edward. "The World, The Text, and The Critic." The Princeton Sourcebook inComparative Literature: From the European Enlightenment to the Global Present. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. 259-81. Print.

 

 
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