With the Witnesses: Poetry, Compassion, and Claimed Experience. McGill-Queen's University Press
What are the ethics of reading literature about trauma? Influenced by trauma theory’s application in the humanities, many students and scholars of literature might suggest reading about others’ experiences with empathy or sympathy. Dale Tracy’s With the Witnesses instead proposes compassion. With the Witnesses is a wide-ranging exploration of how to read witness poetry—“poetry responding to social suffering and atrocity”—without the over-identification that empathy and sympathy can provoke, an over-identification that, Tracy argues, supplants deeper analysis. As she contends, “[l]iterature does not help one to know what it is to be another. Rather, literature helps one to know what it is to encounter another.” This encounter requires that readers recognize their own distance from the suffering a poetic speaker describes. A witness poem does not place the reader in the position of the sufferer (what Tracy terms “feeling as”), but in a position to feel compassionately toward the sufferer (“feeling with”). Tracy terms this compassionate response to witness poetry “with-ness”—an approach to reading that locates readers in an explicit relationship to the poem, allowing them to recognize their response to it as contiguous to that of the poem’s speaker. A compassionate reading leaves room for readers to recognize their own feelings and reactions, rather than assuming—with implications of taking on, feigning, and appropriating—the speaker’s feelings or experiences.
With the Witnesses explores how compassion can be both “a mode of life” and a particular response to poetic representations of trauma, anguish, and violence through testimony, confession, and secondary witnessing. To demonstrate different approaches to compassionate reading, With the Witnesses looks to an extensive array of witness poetry depicting personal, national, and international traumas, authored by a diverse group of anglophone poets: Frank Chipasula, Peter Balakian, Joy Harjo, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Lee Maracle, Rachel Tzvia Back, Les Murray, Dionne Brand, Antjie Krog, Derek Walcott, and Jack Mapanje. One of the book’s strengths is Tracy’s thoughtful demonstration of the many ways of looking at a poem or a poet’s oeuvre—the poets and their poetry reappear across the book’s sections and chapters. For instance, Brand’s long poem Inventory is analyzed at length, alongside Murray’s “Letters to the Winner,” in a chapter on metonymy and the poetic positioning of the reader. Brand’s poetry—Ossuaries this time—then reappears in the following chapter’s discussion of poetic structure and metonymic representations of bones, ossuaries, and signatures. Similarly, Balakian’s poem “The Oriental Rug” appears in the first chapter in a consideration of secondary witnessing and distance, and then in subsequent discussions of ekphrasis and of witness poetry’s use of dedications.
Tracy’s approach provides exciting frameworks for considering witness poetry, particularly in terms of its use of metonymy, from her extensive discussion of how representations of maps, land, and the bodies that exist within that land draw connections between poetry and community, to her analysis of the many ways poets “sign” their poems—through dedications as well as inserted names (for example, “branded” and “back” in the poetry of Brand and Back, respectively). Tracy’s analyses also extend to other witness texts, including Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, and Jan Švankmajer’s Kostnice (The Ossuary). These examples imply the wider applications of her approach and left me curious about further examples of witness poetry and witness literature. (By way of first-hand investigation, I introduced Tracy’s approach to my undergraduate students to frame what turned out to be a deeply thoughtful class discussion of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.)
The resolutely comparative poetic study of With the Witnesses attends to far-flung contexts and themes. The constellation of poets and witness texts is complemented by Tracy’s attentive analysis of existing scholarship on trauma theory and witness poetry. She both critiques and extends the work of scholars such as Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub, Martha Nussbaum, Carolyn Forché, and Dominick LaCapra. This detailed analysis of existing scholarship is both a boon and, at times, an interruption: Tracy’s readings of individual poems are so compelling, and her analyses of trauma theory’s (mis)applications so thorough, that it can be distracting to see each poem’s analysis first prefaced with an extensive summary of the existing criticism. In its new directions for the application of trauma theory and the analysis of witness poetry, With the Witnesses opens up useful new strategies for the study of trauma and suffering in literature.