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The Crossed-Out Swastika Paperback – May 8, 2012
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
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He communicates very strongly about the people involved. The readers should look as deeply into his poetry as Mr. Cassells wishes.
There is a real danger to this type of writing. Most writers shy away from such a difficult subject for fear of seeming false or assumptive or histrionic. Improperly handled, poems about global catastrophes can easily become didactic and amateurish, pushing a poet's agenda or offering easy solutions. But the absolute triumph of Cassells' work is that it stands outside of history and reveals the commonality of pain in such a stark, revelatory way that it seems, after reading, as though it was idiotic to think there was ever any distance between a contemporary reader and a Ukrainian child in the 1940s. This equalizing humanness is powerfully summed up in poems like "The Ravine," about Nina Roufimovna Lisitsina, a survivor of a mass-grave execution:
In my fifth
holy year on earth,
I climbed out of a corpse-filled,
clutching the roots of trees
the god-tall cypresses,
the grandfather pines
in that part of the Crimea),
and groped my way, gingerly,
toward my twilit village,
the lone, itinerant survivor.
The pull, the rose light
Cassells, always known for this depth of feeling, for telescopic leaps between the minute and the enormous, showcases a touch that is at once light and heavy. The people of these poems speak clearly, but not loudly or boisterously. The mark of a skilled poet is an avoidance of making round conclusions when it comes to difficult subjects. Cassells is so deft at this that the question of the writer's place amid these events never enters into consideration. The writer, as he should be, is a non-presence.
The subjects of the poems range across many characters, from Sophie Scholl (the German anti-war activist who was beheaded for distributing pamphlets) to Primo Levi (the famous Italian Jewish chemist and writer) to an imagined exchange between a photojournalist son and his mother, a survivor. Always, there is a sense of real exploration, of searching and finding within these poems. Perhaps this is the hallmark of Cassells' craft. Over the last thirty years and previous four collections of poetry, Cassells has cultivated this sense of seeking through the past for clues to understanding the present and future. In Beautiful Signor, his sensual and ecstatic path through the labyrinth of contemporary love was the focus, and More Than Peace and Cypresses tracked the writer's artistic lineage, among his family and his poetic idols. One of the credits of this collection is that the poet has maintained his singular voice while pointing his focus at one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century.
Of course, there is love here also. An argument could be made that Cassells is, at the end of the day, a poet whose sole preoccupation is love. The longing for understanding in this work is a longing for human connection and human logic, a search for the reasons why man inflicts such supernatural horrors upon himself. More than this, there is a constant reminder, a banner over the battlefield of this grim past that prompts readers to consider the reasons for surviving. In poems like "Elegy with an Owl in It," Cassells takes a brief detour around the characters that survived and consequently shaped this work to discuss, objectively, the all-consuming emotions that goad us into empathy:
The young, the war-buffeted, the banished -
they were blossom-and-fruit-seeking
and their time under watchtowers,
brief as relinquished myrrh,
brisk as an owlet fluttering against
a soldier's insignia.
Cassell's gifts as a poet and his generosity of spirit manage to breathe life into what should be lead and ash. He has woven grief and outrage into a blanket for those who were lost, and for those who survived, carrying the burden of memory.