On Philip Schultz’s The Wherewithal: A Novel in Verse

Ronald A. Sharp

New York, NY: Norton, 2014. 192 pages. $ 25.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Philip Schultz’s first book of poems, Like Wings, which came out in 1978, was a National Book Award nominee and was honored by an American Academy and Institute Award in Literature. Over the next few years he published a number of poems in The Kenyon Review, which had been revived in 1979, and in 1984 Schultz’s second collection, Deep within the Ravine, was the Lamont Poetry Selection. In the eighteen-year period before his next book, The Holy Worm of Praise, was published in 2002, Schultz virtually stopped writing poetry and concentrated instead on writing various novels, none of which came to fruition. His fourth collection, Living in the Past, appeared in 2004, and three years after that, in 2007, his fifth collection, Failure, whichtogether with Robert Hass’s Time and Materials—won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

To suggest that the shape of such a career is unusual is to miss the more important point that, as Schultz, in a characteristic poetic gesture of comic self-abnegation, puts it:

                                                            Because
I never really had one before, my career never
used to ask for much.
(“Attention,” 2010)

Now, thirty-six years after the publication of his first book, Norton has published The Wherewithal, described in the subtitle as “A Novel in Verse,” which is the same designation both Carcanet in England and Farrar, Straus in the U.S. gave to Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune fifteen years ago, a term which has been used by various critics to describe a wide range of long poems from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, from Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh to various long poems by Derek Walcott and Dorothy Porter, including Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I am less interested in defining distinctions between novels in verse, long narrative poems, epics, and verse memoirs than I am in underlining the importance, both for understanding and evaluating The Wherewithal, of the conjunction of the narrative and lyric impulse in Schultz’s work.

The sheer number of plot lines in The Wherewithal is extraordinary. There is the central story of the Jedwabne massacre during the Holocaust in Poland, and the heroic tale of one Catholic woman who for two and a half years hid seven Jewsthe only Jewish survivors of this villagein a hole that she dug underneath her barn. There is the story of her family’s later immigration to Chicago, the growing up in that city of her son Henryk (who was a toddler in Jedwabne), of his (probably, but not definitely) accidental killing of his high school friend Rossy, who is the son of a survivor of Treblinka. There is the story of twenty-something Henryk’s adventures in San Francisco during the late ’60s dodging the draft, living on food stamps and the meager earnings from a position as “Head Clerk of Closed Files” in the basement office of a welfare building that is graphically illustrated throughout the book with Piranesi’s haunting eighteenth century depictions of “Imaginary Prisons,” of endless claustrophobic chambers and dungeons and hallways leading nowhere, which becomes Schultz’s extended metaphor for modern America’s horrific neglect of the poor.

We also learn about Henryk’s colorful predecessors in his job, including Arthur P. Swigge, whose “Notes of a Know Nothing” Henryk reads in his basement office, where his main energy is focused on translating the diaries that his mother kept about the massacres that she witnessed in Jedwabne and about hiding the Jews literally in a hole in the ground. Those diaries, which are a poetic invention of Schultz’s rather than an historical reality, take a significant turn when, as an older woman with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home, she is tortured by being unable to forget the nightmare: “Her dementia discloses / rather than obscures the horror.” And there are the many love stories. Before Henryk comes to San Francisco, while doing a Ph.D. on Wittgenstein, he is pursued by the wife of his department chair, who in response to her husband running off with his secretary, falls desperately in love with Henryk and eventually follows him to San Francisco, where Henryk has already fallen in love with “a zonked out hippie hillbilly lioness” whose “go-go dancer’s moniker” was “Butterfly.” To say nothing of the heartbreakingly complex relationship between Henryk and his mother, whose courage and heroism he admires, whose tenderness is sustained through the trials of her dementia, but whom at some level he still resents for having put him in harm’s way all those years she was hiding the Jews, and even shooting his beloved dog Buddy “because he wouldn’t stop barking / at the hole people.”

The challenge Schultz faces in writing this poem is not simply the narrative task of weaving so many disparate stories together but how to do so without trivializing the unspeakable horror of Jedwabne, a story first documented by the historian Jan T. Gross in his 2001 book Neighbors, which examines how it is that a Polish village in which for centuries Jews and non-Jews had coexisted peacefully and mingled freely suddenly could become one of the most horrific killing fields of the Holocaust, with Jews being hacked and pitchforked and 1600 of them rounded up and thrown into a barn that was then set on fire. Anybody writing about this nightmare confronts a series of issues raised by Adorno’s famousand misunderstooddictum about how there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Schultz’s challenge, then, was not just how to write a novel in verse but how to do so about a subject that raises every red flag of survivor’s guilt, every anxiety about the inadequacy of any literature or art to take on such material.

The great triumph of this poemand it is a triumphis that Schultz has found a way not only to make these many narratives inform each other but to do so in the service of what becomes the lyric celebration of the possibility of love and beauty and heroic action in the face of ultimate darkness. Far from trivializing the Holocaust, Schultz expands our understanding of it not only by confronting it head on but also by seeing its surprising relationships to certain brutalities of poverty. What is so remarkable about this poem is its symphonic orchestration of conflicting tonesof outrage and anger, passion and compassion, guilt and longing; its pitch-perfect depiction of both ultimate horror and the possibilities for moral triumph and human connection.

Like much great tragic art, The Wherewithal finds its deepest affirmations not beyond the scope of human suffering but in the very pitch of it. At the end of the poem Henryk says of his mother:

She didn’t turn away, but stood there,
Eyes wide open, seeing everything.

How his mother summoned the “wherewithal,” to borrow the poem’s title, not only to see clearly the unfolding nightmare but also to take courageous action against it, at massive risk to her self and family, is one crucial aspect of the title’s significance. The other half concerns Henryk’s challenge, which constitutes the poem’s central quest, to do the same: to confront the horror unflinchingly and to summon the wherewithal not only to see it clearly but to act heroically despite the horror. “At age two,” he says,

I went to our barn
with Mother to feed our Jews.
A memory insists it can still smell
their filthy clothes, the rot between
their toes that they tried to wash off
in the pig trough every other Tuesday.

This memory, he continues,

insists it can see, in the dawn’s light,
their eyes startled out of sleep,
gazing up into mine, then quickly
looking away, as if to spare me
the shame of their wretchedness.

Schultz gives full play to the many factors (both tragic and comic) that complicate our ability to retrieve a clear vision of the past, whether in the private recollections of an individual or the collective apprehensions of historical memory. But a central component of the wherewithal that both Henryk and his mother muster is a faith that one can indeed distinguish good and evil, justice and injustice, exploitation and compassion, however difficult the task, and that the prerequisite to such judgment is the willingness to accept the pain that inevitably comes from unblinkingly seeing what is in front of us. If Piranesi functions in the poem as Schultz’s version of Virgil guiding Dante through hell, the poem’s final entrance into the burning barn, the epicenter of the Jedwabne massacre, functions as the climactic descent into the fiery underworld in which human beings are enacting the ancient iconography of hell that defines so much of the Holocaust: of literally burning other human beings alive.

Summoning the combination of strength and intelligence to undertake such a painful and dangerous act of vision is not only a metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical challenge; it is also an aesthetic challenge for which, I would argue, Schultz’s earlier work, with its fierce dialectic of joy and grief, knowledge and suffering, has been a painful preparation. Although that earlier work is notable precisely for its bold combination of laughter and pain, lament and celebration, the poems since his emergence from eighteen years of poetic silence reveal a new source of emotional strength, a sense of healing and moving beyond paralyzing grief and sadness. Although The Wherewithal ventures even further into the darkness, Schultz seems to have found an even deeper well of affirmation that has allowed him to confront the ultimate horror of the Holocaust, to enter wide-eyed into that burning barn at Jedwabne, without trivializing, sentimentalizing, or sensationalizing what he sees.

The poem’s humor, which is extensive and often hilarious, is obviously one among many mechanisms employed to process and provide a buffer against such unrelentingly dark material. Schultz’s use of Wittgenstein, of a very carefully if unobtrusively managed sixteen-part structure within each chapter for sustaining and interweaving the many narratives, of elaborate structures of imagery that run throughout the poem (hair being the most pervasive, complex, and moving)all of these are important ingredients in developing the “wherewithal” to deal with this explosive material. Another technique is the extended analogy the poem develops between the treatment of Jews and the poor, both of which involve elaborate bureaucratic mechanisms for exploiting vulnerabilities, inflicting suffering, and degrading human dignity. Piranesi’s images provide a visual counterpart to the poem’s portrait of the pointlessness and hopelessness of the welfare system, with its endless lines of bewildered victims filling out countless forms that end up in basement file cabinets like the ones that surround Henryk in his underground officethe same office, it should be noted, that appears in Schultz’s poem “Balance” from the early eighties, where “Mornings I filed dental reports & wore earplugs against the crying / for crutches, steel hands & mattresses fitted to broken backs.” Arthur Swigge, Henryk’s predecessor, observes that the poor

know their suffering sustains us,
validates our importance, that without
them our happiness is impossible.

But of all these many effective devices of providing distance and perspective, it is humor that figures most prominently in this poem. In a way that is characteristic of the entire body of Schultz’s work over nearly forty years, it is his use of humor that simultaneously provides a clearer lens into the matter at hand and allows him to deal with the implications of what that lens brings into focus. It is humor that, unlikely as it might have seemed for a poem about the Holocaust, provides both a deeper way into the material and a mechanism for living with what is discovered.

Perhaps the culmination of this characteristically subtle orchestration of tones is the moment, late in the poem, when Henryk, in his basement office at the welfare building, takes a phone call from a woman named Zelda Progmeyer, who, like so many of the poor people that the poem describes, has been given the runaround by the welfare system and is now so desperate for help that she tells him: “Misterlisten, I’m holding a knife / to my throat, I’m not kidding.” Despite the fact that someone had “plowed into my car, broke my back,” the mother of three has had her disability cut for no good reason:

I need a special bed for my back,
maybe a new back, or life.
You can tell I’m serious, right?

As he listens to Zelda stifling tears, he decides to tell her about his mother shooting his dog when he was a child “because he wouldn’t stop barking / at the hole people,” and sometimes, he continues, Buddy revisits him in dreams,

“all white except
for a black ring around his left eye.”
“The color of grief,” she says,
“what an awful dream, maybe
you should talk to someone . . .”
Now we’re both laughing, slowly,
cautiously at first, then loudly,
without pausing for breath.
“You’re too much!” she says,
and hangs up. A dial tone. Gone, fini.
Still holding the phone, listening
to our echoes, unable to move.
Yes, I think, the color of grief,
and begin laughing again.

It is a laughter that, far from ignoring the darkness, makes it possible to see it more clearly, not only to better understand it but also to help create the wherewithal—the fusion of narrative unity and lyric celebration—to live with it.

Click here to read an interview of Philip Schultz by Ronald A. Sharp.

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