Adorno famously wrote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Andrew Mossin’s Torture Papers manifests that not to write Auschwitz (or for Mossin Abu Grahib, Jedwabne, and Soviet gulags) through the modalities of poetry may be barbaric. Through deft attention to poetic language and form, Mossin approaches ever closer to his documentary sources as witness becomes memorial and memorial becomes witness. It is this double directionality that Mossin so impressively renders and that sustains what can never be sanctified nor paraphrased. Mossin turns momentary sensationlism into durational phenomenalism, as the sorrow of historical barbarism spreads like a blood stain through his exacting presentation. His is page space given agency and words that point and do not point to their references, as a languaged present shoulders a violence that is never just physical: “Afterward there would be the light / of the razor sharp across his flesh. // The light would become a / room in his mind a black shelter a hard site. . . .” Throughout is a probing intelligence: “Who is/ innocent of another? No one / is innocent of another.” Amidst the tortures presented is Mossin’s own father’s testimony of two years in the Soviet gulags during World War II, as aired on a BBC radio broadcast.
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“Memory is a field of blood,” writes Andrew Mossin in Torture Papers; “Memory is a field turned red with blood.” Mossin’s memory book offers graphic witness to tortures at Abu Ghraib and to his Polish family’s experiences during the Holocaust. These atrocities reverberate as history’s horrible call and response: “The eternal outside / . . . can’t be summoned but must be repeated.” Such red fields of memory come to him through documents that “tell the story but not.” Mossin takes on—bears—the responsibilities of the “I” to bring back “tragic facts,” and to engage the “politics of silence” with a poetics of lyrical testimony. Such testimony honors the traumas we know and those that we cannot ever recover. Like Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, this book is as necessary as it is difficult.
Adorno once observed that “the abundance of real suffering permits no forgetting.” In these moving and harrowing poems, Andrew Mossin takes up the task of remembering with an uncompromising clarity and an unflinching gaze. Torture Papers, a sustained meditation on the destruction of personhood through war crimes, whether in the Warsaw Ghetto, Abu Ghraib, or Guantanmo, belongs in the tradition of the great witness poetry of the last century—Celan, Reznikoff, Rothenberg. To bear witness is to carry a weight, often too great for the imprecision of language. Yet Mossin achieves it in these intense, intimate poems. As he asks in one poem, “Who is/innocent of another? No one/is innocent of another.” For Mossin, we each must answer to the other’s fragility. This is an urgent, necessary book—an elegy for the dead and a powerful exploration, free of platitudes, formally rigorous, into the dark history of our haunted times.
Andrew Mossin is the author of three previous books of poetry: The Epochal Body (Singing Horse Press), The Veil (Singing Horse Press) and Exile's Recital (Spuyten Duyvil); and a book of critical prose, Male Subjectivity and Poetic Form in "New American" Poetry (Palgrave). He is an Assistant Professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University.