Philip Gerard on Grace and Writing

This past June I heard Philip Gerard read at a front porch reading at Chautauqua.  He read a piece titled “Three Portraits of Grace” — and the crowd of about 40 was stunned into silence when he had finished.  Ever since that summer afternoon, I had wanted to buy a copy of this essay which was published in the spring edition of The Louisville Review.  I finally got my copy.  “Three Portraits of Grace” is a work of creative nonfiction which captures three separate stories of the Holocaust.  In the first part, the narrator tells about an old veteran of World War II who breaks down to tell about how his job after the war was to “drive a bulldozer to Dachau, the infamous concentration camp.  His job was to push hundreds of bodies into mass graves.”   The second piece tells a story of a photograph of a SSS officer who is little more than a boy aiming a gun at a man cradling a baby in his arms.  The third part relays a narrative of a daughter whose father served as a captain and had died in the war.  In this part, he relays a daughter’s memory of her mother: “Her mother sits besides the stove in the kitchen of their New England home. In front of her is a stack of letters.  She takes each one from the envelope, reads it, then carefully places it into the flames.  Her eyes are streaming tears.  It takes her a long time to burn all the letters.  Her little daughter watches.  Her mother is a war widow. It is the eve of her mother’s wedding to another man.”

Philip Gerard is careful to explain that some stories do not have “an obvious, coherent narrative.”  This explanation shows through in his piece, which connects three parts to talk about grace in writing.  I was especially struck by Gerard’s final words on the subject:

I believe in the writer as a witness to evil, as a reporter of injustice, as a chronicler of human compassion, even on occasion of greatness, as one whose skills illuminate the Truth with a capital T, without irony.  I believe it is the job of the writer to put into words what is worst — and also what is best — about us.  To light up our possibilities, to discover the finest lives to which we can aspire, and to inspire our readers to greatness of soul and heart.

I’m thinking of Gerard’s words this weekend in the context of today’s poetry.  His piece instantly reminds me of the work of poet  John Guzlowski whose book Lightning and Ashes tells the story of his parents who were slave laborers in Nazi Germany.  But Gerard’s work also reminds me of other contemporary poets who write about social issues and history (besides the Holocaust).  I’m especially thinking about the book My Kill Adore Him by Paul Martinez Pompa which should arrive in my mailbox sometime this week!!

But I’m also thinking of “Three Portraits of Grace” in the context of my own work.  I have loved poetry for a long time, in different forms and different styles.  But I was especially taken with contemporary poetry when I read Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life during my first year of college.  Since that point, in one way or another, I have wanted to write working-class poetry, or blue collar poetry, or Rust Belt poetry — whatever I call my own work in any given week.  I have noticed that lately some of my works seem to be veering away from my working-class roots, and I’m not sure what to make of that.  Am I simply experimenting?  Or am I losing track of my original goals?

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