Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Mourning, Memorial, and the Yizkor Books in Eli Mandel's out of Place

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Mourning, Memorial, and the Yizkor Books in Eli Mandel's out of Place

Article excerpt

This essay examines Eli Mandel's long poem Out of Place as a work of mourning and memorial that challenges the efficacy of signification. The poem employs generic attributes of the Yizkor (memorial) books and is a personal and communal monument to the loss of family and community in southern Saskatchewan.

Canadian and Saskatchewan poet Eli Mandel's 1977 book-length long poem Out of Place is a complex and nuanced engagement with personal and communal loss, memory, and writing. In the presence of physical sites, artefacts, and memories relating to a childhood in various parts of southern Saskatchewan that are linked to Jewish communities, a process of mourning is catalyzed. Mandel explores a span of history, reaching into the nineteenth century and the migration of his parents from Russia along with other persecuted Jews to establish six main farming-based settlements that dwindled and then disappeared as their inhabitants moved on to urban centres. The result of this work of mourning is the production of a physical text, the volume Out of Place itself--a literal work of mourning--that in its concreteness stands as a memorial to the lost communities and serves as reclamation of memory. Private and public, Mandel's mourning process is figured as a chronicle of how a personal work of mourning unfolds and how that work can be in the service of a community as he employs and recasts generic attributes of the Jewish Yizkor (communal memorial) books that primarily arose out of the destruction of the Holocaust.

Mandel makes complex this dual purpose of mourning and memorial by exploring the tensions inherent in attempting to work through active feelings of loss while recognizing the inadequacy of the act of exploring grief to offer consolation and closure. This challenge to closure is troubled by Out of Place's generic gestures and references to Jewish memorial rituals, which convey a sense of the monumental to the work. Mandel asks his text to be two at times contradictory things: a figuration of mourning in flux and without adequate articulation, and a concrete memorial volume to a community that has disappeared. The uneasy relation between the text's concrete status and its inability to allow psychic achievement is concomitant with mid-to-late-twentieth-century understandings of the work of mourning, and yet this figuration is modulated by Mandel's use of qualities of the Jewish memorial books: while the labour of mourning is elaborated as a process of emotion, the needs of a memorializing structure are also signaled. These dual concerns are reflected in generic patterning as well as in the movement of loss that is figured, qualities that result in a textual tension between the need to articulate a process and the requirement of a memorial text to signify as a monument to its reading community.

Textual tension is suggested by the complex signifying challenges that Mandel establishes in the preface1 to Out of Place and which he revisits in various ways over the course of the remaining four numbered and titled sections of the volume. The focus of the preface establishes the multi-layered complexity of the book, for it introduces a speaker-figure--identified as his wife Ann Mandel--who describes her visit, along with her husband, to an abandoned farm. The predominating pronoun is "we," signaling that the individual speaker intends to speak for both of them, and she only identifies herself in the singular where she situates herself in several moments of phenomenal perception rather than when she contemplates the manner with which the two of them deal with the documents they find to create the narrative that constitutes most of Out of Place:

   I spent long hours staring
   from the black interior to the blazing doorway.
   When my eyes burned past that white rectangle, I
   could see long beige and yellow prairie grasses.

Over the course of several days, they work their way through papers they find in a vault in the farm house. …

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