With My Shadow
- By Vika Mujumdar
A Review of With My Shadow: A Bilingual Selection by Hilde Domin. Translated by Sarah Kafatou. (Paul Dry Books, 2023.)
Mary Ruefle writes in Madness, Rack, and Honey: “You might say a poem is a living semicolon, what connects the first line to the last, the act of keeping together that whose nature is to fly apart” (4). I read Madness, Rack, and Honey right before Hilde Domin’s With My Shadow, and I found my experience of reading Domin so much richer for having read Ruefle. I find Ruefle’s framing of the poem here particularly compelling, especially in relation to the exilic poet; each of Domin’s poems in this collection is keeping together a fragmented self, a self fractured by the experience of exile, as a German Jew forced abroad by the specter of Nazi persecution. The exilic poet, and the exilic poem, bring together the homeland and the geography of exile, spaces once distinct and now unified in their connection to the reality of estrangement. These poems by Domin bring together the fragmented selves of the speaker, shaped in equal parts by the love, loss, and nostalgia of exile.
Domin’s writing builds in echoes, throughout the collection; in an early poem, “Moving Landscape,” she writes, “roots firm in the ground,/ as if the landscape were leaving while we stand still” (15), and a few pages later, in “Build Me A House,” she writes: “I long for solid ground/ green, roots knotted/ like fabric” (19). This recurring image, of a home that one can stay in, linger in, remain rooted in, is at the heart of Domin’s collection—as an exile, these poems are shaped equally by the melancholy of rootlessness as by the desire to remain rooted somewhere, everywhere. In “Guaranteed by Clouds,” Domin writes, “I’m homesick for a country/ where I’ve never been,” (51). In this poem, the speaker longs for home, aware that she will be unable to find home anywhere else, but that what was once home is now inaccessible, transformed into an unrecognizable landscape of fear and destruction. Yet Domin never loses sight of hope amidst her loss, imagining for herself “a place on earth/ where they will have to take me in,/ without a passport/ guaranteed by clouds” (51).
“Her use of materials is always frugal: she reworks and transforms her repertoire of metaphors, images, themes, and ideas again and again, extending and refining, never explaining too much,” writes Kafatou in her introduction (10). This sparseness is always clear, always at the center of Domin’s poems. Domin’s economical lexicon is in contrast to the abundance of her images; in images of clouds, trees, pomegranates, Domin is most at home, her restraint and concision in contrast to the lush imagery. Her poem “Words” is fairly short and concise, but still incisive and sharp in its engagement with language. Domin writes:
“Words are ripe pomegranates
that fall to earth
and split open.
What was within turns outward,
the fruit reveals its secret,
showing its seeds/another secret.” (47)
“Words” displays Domin’s craft in the tension between the simplicity and economy of the lines themselves, and the way the metaphor unfolds as the pomegranate opens. Domin’s poetry is not necessarily formally inventive, but in these short, lyric sentences and fragments, her images and metaphors are always compelling and haunting, revealing her obsession with language and its role in the life of the exile.
Domin’s poems also—and most importantly—deeply love language, deeply love literature. She shows, repeatedly, a belief in language and poetry as a space where the exilic self can possibly be reconstructed, where what was once fragmentary can understood more fully. In “Exile,” Domin writes:
“The dying mouth
in a foreign
For Domin, exile is shaped by language. And language, through poetry, as Ruefle says, is the only way to keep loss and love connected, to maintain the connection between nostalgia and desire. In one of the last few poems in this collection, “Growing Older”, Domin writes: “Hand in hand with language/until the end” (181). Again, here we see Domin’s deep commitment to language—her exilic selfhood is constructed and understood through language. And Domin’s poems are propelled forward by a belief that this is necessary work, that she has to chronicle her exile, that she has to document the emotional experience of expulsion; in “Go There,” she writes, “Because of this lack of clarity/ that begins where a word ends/ the words have to be said/ I have to say them” (161).
Sarah Kafatou’s translation of Hilde Domin’s poems ends with her Afterword, which itself ends on lines Kafatou wrote in memoriam for Domin, whom she befriended during her time in Germany—and this poem is just as moving as any of Domin’s themselves. The poem is full of love—love for Domin, love for Domin’s poetry—and is something that, in many ways, changed how I understood the collection after I read it. “I wanted to know you,” Kafatou writes, and this desire, in retrospect, is evident throughout the collection. These translations and poems are full of the refugee’s loss and longing, made infinitely richer by Kafatou’s love for the poet and poems. This is a deeply loving, compassionate collection of poems, remaining anchored, ultimately, in the exile’s intertwined desire and nostalgia for home.
VIKA MUJUMDAR was born in New Jersey and raised in Pune, India. She is an MA student in the Comparative Literature program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she studies Asian American and Asian diaspora literatures by women. She is the editor of Liminal Transit Review.