Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Survivor by Primo Levi

Once more he sees his companions' faces
Livid in the first faint light,
Gray with cement dust,
Nebulous in the mist,
Tinged with death in their uneasy sleep.
At night, under the heavy burden
Of their dreams, their jaws move,
Chewing a non-existent turnip.

'Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven't dispossessed anyone,
Haven't usurped anyone's bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It's not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.'

Primo Levi was a survivor of the Holocaust himself and here he challenges our notion that those who have lived through trauma and survived are “lucky”. This survivor is haunted by memories and by guilt. The poem starts in the third person and this gives a sense of distance, as does the soft descriptive language “gray”, “faint light” “nebulous”. The atmospheric first half of the poem contrasts with the tortured justification of the survivor, who aggressively rants that he has nothing to forgive himself for yet struggles to achieve that self forgiveness.

Above: This photo from the San Francisco Holocaust Memorial seems to capture some of the unbearable sense of being haunted by memories you cannot turn your back on that is seen in Levi's poem.

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