The Meditations is a curated series of reflections on writing and storytelling from contributors to the thirty-third issue of Going Down Swinging. This reflection comes from Anne M. Carson on her poem ‘The Limits of Goodwill’.
THIS POEM WAS CALLED INTO BEING while I was researching an aspect of the Second World War for another project. The episode on which it was based happened in my early twenties when I was backpacking my way around Europe. Being interrogated by the Czech Transport Polizei had deeply frightened me and seared my nervous system. I knew at that age about State Power in theory but this was my first direct encounter with its implacable reality, one whose interests could prove inimical to me. Many of my naïve assumptions were challenged, including my cavalier belief that I could use good will to get through any circumstance and that the world was a safe place. In time the episode had become a kind of initiation into the darker realities of the world and thirty years later I discovered, that all these imprints remained, coiled, in a dark corner of my mind.
In unearthing the memories I found my creative imagination liked the contrasts between the different elements – the Aussie backpacker ethos of using a Kodak canister for Vegemite, the black humour of mistaking Vegemite for hash resin, the shock of how thuggish the Polizei were and the further shock of them using body language and B grade theatrical ploys to try to intimidate me. Their contrived staging had a farcical element and the contrast with the very real threat they posed was extremely disorientating. Despite it being, in the end, just the merest taste of danger, the threat I felt was real, as was my relative powerlessness. This engendered an even closer, more visceral compassion for all those who had (truly) suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of the State. The event shook me and was, looking back, a good lesson to learn as a privileged, white, well-educated, affluent, young woman.
As I started contemplating this material my poetic antenna started vibrating. One of the things which engages me is what I might call the Poetry of Occurrences – the coming together of meaningful dimensions in life be they moving or contrasting or absurd. I see these types of synchronicities as naturally poetic, and they resonate beyond their surface shape. In combination there’s often a poetic synergy. It’s challenging to use them and the narratives they offer as starting places for writing, weaving poems out of their nature or nuance or juxtaposition.
A number of these Poetry of Occurrences formed the basis for the writing of ‘The Limits of Goodwill’. The event itself was dramatic; infusing the richness of burlesque with the fear and threat more commonly found in thrillers. These elements occurred while I was en route to Berlin – that centre of so much suffering and darkness. Initially it was in these juxtapositions that I found poetry. Then I found the Robert Haas quote I used as epigraph. It brought the Holocaust more obviously into the poem and underscored the poignancy and seriousness of the poem’s themes, linking Berlin to its past in a way I had not been fully able to do when I travelled there in my early twenties.
Writing the poem enabled me to find a container for the episode outside my own psyche. In this sense it was cathartic. But not, I hope, solely for me as writer. If it has worked it needs to offer catharsis for the reader, setting up a broader and more universal set of circumstances – in this case an individual’s confrontation with the State as the wielder of Power – and to offer a satisfying resolution or accounting of the fear engendered. In other words it needs to come together as a work of art, having internal coherence and legitimacy. Having ‘The Limits of Goodwill’ accepted for publication in GDS gave me the feedback that others felt I had at least achieved some of my poetic goals for the piece.
Anne M. Carson
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