Notes on “What Power Has Love”
I can picture myself in my studio overlooking the Garonne, in Auvillar, August 2007––writing and reading and looking out the tall, open windows. That summer I held my first writing residency at the VCCA’s French site. On my desk I had a copy of Le Monde, with a front-page article about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in France. On January 21, 2006, Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man of Moroccan descent had been kidnapped on the streets of Paris and tortured to death; European newspapers were still grappling with the horror. So I began my poem that summer, and finished it only a few months ago, in 2015. Only recently did a note of forgiveness enter the poem’s movement. The title, “What Power Has Love,” comes from Book 3 of William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” where the poet asks, “What power has love but forgiveness?”
Forgiveness can be a long road. France has a long history of anti-Semitism, one that I began to learn about as a student in Paris in 1967, when I boarded with a French family and studied at the Sorbonne. At dinner, the father of the family would reminisce laughingly about the time when the Paris police entered the auto factory where he worked, and “took away” the Jews. I was a guest in their home, seated each night at their dinner table. When the anti-Semitic banter began, I froze. We had not learned in American schools about French complicity in the Holocaust, about the July 1942 “Vel d’Hiv” roundup, where 13,000 Jews were rounded up, 4000 of them children.
Each May I travel to Auvillar to write poetry and to teach my workshop. In Auvillar I have been entrusted with stories about the war, the Jews, the Resistance. Indeed, that first Auvillar summer in 2007, when I pulled up in front of the house where I was going to be a writer in residence, I spotted a white-haired gentleman next door. This elderly gardener was tending the bed of irises. I introduced myself as a writer, and then had the nerve to ask if any Jews had lived in the village during the war. “Oui!” he told me, without hesitation, “There was the Hirsch family. Dr. Hirsch was a radiologist, taken by Mengele to work on medical experiments. His son, Jean-Raphaël, was a boy then, and they asked him to ride his bicycle to Moissac with phony passports, called ‘biftek.’ Madame Hirsch was denounced by villagers, and sent to Auschwitz. She was thirty-three. Their daughter Nicole was hidden by villagers.”
That was the opening conversation. Each day in my studio I let the river hypnotize me, and I listened to its memories. I wrote love songs and silly songs, and I composed documentary poems about the war, transcribing oral histories from the villagers. I treasure the stories that the Auvillarais have entrusted to me; most of those who were witnesses are no longer living. These poems require a different kind of writing than my usual lyrics. These poems demand fidelity to the narratives of others.
“What Power Has Love” for J Journal blends love poetry with history, personal lyricism with politics. “What power has love?” In poetry, love has the power to sing, connect, heal, and to bear witness. Nothing funny in the mix of this poem, alas. Not this time.