To Terezin (2007)

Cover photograph: Jack Ross / Cover design: Massey Printery

To Terezín. Travelogue by Jack Ross, with an Afterword by Martin Edmond. Social and Cultural Studies, 8. ISSN 1175-7132. Auckland: Massey University, 2007. ii + 90 pp.


Jack Ross: Preface

I –
New Europe

Auckland – Bangkok – Frankfurt
Farrell said …
Planet …
The Apartment
John on Prague
Jana’s Note
England …
A legless woman …
Gypsies …
The Resistance
John on computer dating
First Attempt
The Ossuary – Das Beinhaus in Sedlec
Second Attempt
Black Light Theatre
We walked across …
Composed …
Terezín Memorial
Ghetto Museum
One Day to Go
Prisoner of Paradise
Prague Novel

II - The Golem

Trying to Write
Our Lady
Your Past Life Ghosts

Martin Edmond: Afterword


Social and Cultural Studies
Number 8 (June 2007)

Massey University

ISSN : 1175-7132


Why would you want
to go there?

I think

you’ve got to see
the nightmare

for yourself

If the survivors
told me
not to go

I’d stay away


The book is divided into two parts: First, there’s a set of 30-odd poems, collectively titled “New Europe”, which give an account of my stay in Prague in 2001 / 2002 and, more particularly, my visit to the Nazi “model ghetto” Theresienstadt (Czech: Terezín) nearby. Secondly, there’s an essay called “The Golem,” interspersed with further poems, which interrogates the idea of writing about such “touchy” subjects at all: who has the right, and under what circumstances? There’s also a preface and a 2,000 word afterword by autobiographer and travel-writer Martin Edmond. The book is literally “cross-genre,” then: it combines prose and poetry within the frame of a travel-narrative, but is focussed on a conceptual issue: how far one has the right (or even the responsibility?) to invade other people’s privacy in pursuit of an intellectual goal. As a guest in someone else’s country, how can one hope to make sense of the complexities of local reactions to one’s desire to visit (= exploit?) so desolate a monument?


The Imaginary Museum


Leanne Menzies
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School of Social and Cultural Studies
Massey University
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[Martin Edmond (photograph by Tony Carr)]

Reviews & Comments:

  1. Martin Edmond. "Afterword." To Terezin. pp. 84-88.

    This small and elegant work, less than ten thousand words, has a large range of reference, to Kafka and Havel as much as to the magicians of the 16th century or the malevolent necromancers of the mid-20th, to the New Europe as well as the Holy Roman Empire; it is a delightfully informative account of a trip to Prague, with many amusing moments and some piercing insights too; and a sustained meditation on how and why we write and read; but beyond that, and most of all, it is a plea for ordinariness expressed, in the very last line, as a desire for our heroes to walk on feet of clay.

  2. Scott Hamilton. "To Terezin and Back." Reading the Maps (June 14, 2007).

    In To Terezin ... Jack Ross is able to challenge the reticence many of us feel about the Holocaust, without trivialising or otherwise debasing the subject. His book is distinguished by humility as well as ambition.

  3. Jennifer Little. "Visit to Czech Nazi Camp Inspires Massey author." Massey News 9 (July, 2007): 9.

    To Terezin is an entrancing model of how travel writing can encompass a range of genres – essay, verse, images – as well as wider themes of ethics, philosophy, literature, art and history.

[Paul Wegener: The Golem (1920)]

Complete Afterword:
[Reprinted by permission]

Martin Edmond, “Afterword.” In To Terezín. Poems & an Essay by Jack Ross. Social and Cultural Studies, 8. ISSN 1175-7132. Auckland: Massey University, 2007. 84-88.


I first encountered Jack Ross in the fourteenth issue of brief magazine (December, 1999). It was a piece called The Great Hunger, describing a night drive from Auckland city north past Warkworth. That’s a road I know well, having lived for a year of my youth in an old farmhouse down Puka Puka Road, near Puhoi. We had no car so used to hitch-hike back and forth to Warkworth to do our shopping, and to Auckland for weekends of dissipation. This meant a lot of time standing idly by the side of the road, as well as unexpected sojourns in small towns along the way. We would either be, if going down, in a mood of heady anticipation or, if coming back, riotously and/or tragically hungover.

The narrator of The Great Hunger is in a state of restlessness which his indulgences have failed to shift. He thinks he might drive to the end of the night but finds himself unable to carry that particular plan through. You might say he is strung out along a line of his own dissatisfaction. He considers picking up (another) hitch hiker, for what nefarious purpose he doesn’t say, only to realise, seconds later, that it is unlikely that he will see anyone on the road at this hour. In the end he turns around and drives back the way he’s come, his appetite — for what? — unassuaged.

The Great Hunger is a straightforward piece of narrative writing, concise, readable, yet evocative too; but its epigraph, from G M Hopkins, is all but inscrutable and the other accompaniments to the central text, arcane: an excerpt from a 1957 self-help book on the treatment of insomnia, a table of letters and numbers that appears to be about the resolution of some code, a reproduction of a page from a 1496 book showing Apollo Conducting the Music of the Spheres.

The text itself is interrupted by fragments that might be lyrics of songs on the radio or maybe tags of poetry rattling around in the narrator’s head. And then there is the title: is The Great Hunger a translation of An Gorta Mór, Gaelic for the potato famine? What does that have to do with a night drive past Warkworth?

I was intrigued by it in a way that wasn’t the case with a lot of what appeared in brief. Most I simply couldn’t be bothered with. I’m perhaps, like the Jonathan Franzen quoted in To Terezín, a lazy reader. I need a quick hook or I don’t go. There’s too much else to read. The Great Hunger had that hook, that drive. Afterwards, I always looked out for the work of the symmetrically named Jack Ross. Which isn’t to say I really got what he was doing, just that I was interested and paying attention.

It wasn’t until another eight or nine issues of the magazine had come and gone that the penny dropped. In the twenty-third brief (March, 2002) is a piece called Tahiti in 1978. There are several strands to it: Jack remembering his 1978 visit to Tahiti is the main line, but alongside the reminiscence are a number of other things, including diary entries that seem to have been made while he was recalling and writing down details of that long ago visit. He’s, in the present, in various parts of Auckland and North Auckland.

The memories of Tahiti come in two forms: brief prose narratives and lists of fragmentary words and images of the kind that drift up unbidden when we set ourselves to recall the past. Or are they notebook jottings from 1978? For the rest, there are a few poems, all short and perhaps fragmentary too; various quotes from other writers, many of them French, with translations; and most fragmentary and poignant of all, Jack’s grandmother’s last letter to him and the story of her subsequent death. This emerges out of the complex with some force and in a way that’s very moving.

What I understand Jack Ross to be doing in this and other pieces is giving us simultaneously both the writing itself and the tangled web of association that writing arises from. The writing is, if you like, the figure and the mass of other material surrounding it, the ground; but for the analogy is to work you have also to acknowledge that there is a figure / ground ambiguity at play.

For who is to say what is ‘writing’ and what ‘web of association’? Aren’t they both part of the whole? Of course they are; but the fact is, most writers suppress the latter in favour of the former, so that their writing appears to float freely on the white page before us. Jack doesn’t do that; he brings both figure and ground together and leaves us to sort it out in whatever meaningful way we can. I think of the method as a generosity, though others might find it frustrating or irritating.

An assumption, or perhaps a consequence, of this method is that you, the reader, will be left with a feeling that the whole cannot be comprehended in its entirety. There will always be loose ends, incommensurables, riddles, absences, gaps, losses, deaths. And entrances. This is merely true. You will never grasp, if it is doing its job, the whole of any piece of writing. Even a lyric as apparently simple as: O western wind, when wilt thou blow … witnesses an emotion that cannot be explained. You might say that the act of writing, if successful, frames a mystery that has no final solution.

Speaking of mysteries: in the year 2000 Alan Brunton’s Bumper Books published Jack Ross’s novel, Nights with Giordano Bruno. It is, by any measure, a peculiar, even intimidating book. It looks at first glance impenetrable: a page of small text on each right hand side of an opening, some piece of ferociously obscure arcana facing it on the left. And yet it turns out to be surprisingly accessible: a maze I was happy to lose myself in, which is another definition of a good book.

Nights with Giordano Bruno includes multiple narrative strands, all perfectly coherent, all of which unfold in a straightforward linear fashion as you go through the book—with one caveat. They are not continuous. You have a page of one story, then a page of another, then a page of a third. The stories are interleaved. They don’t appear to have any other intrinsic relation, apart from this: all have an element of the fantastic, or perhaps just of fantasy, to them.

The cumulative affect is extraordinary: like dream-hopping. Each time you turn a page, with the last one still lingering in your mind, you fall into another part of another dream. In this context, the arcana of the illustrations on the facing pages—they are mostly, but not exclusively, visual—emphasises the vertiginous strangeness of the reading experience. Quite a long way in, The Great Hunger re-appears and attentive readers of brief learn what is prefatory to that desperate late night ride.


What has this to do with To Terezín? Well, if I’m right about Jack’s method — include the materials of writing with/in the writing, introduce marginalia that has only a tangential relation to the main line, know that the whole of a subject will always elude you—then the decision to write about a visit to a Nazi death camp is going to, at the very least, challenge that method.

So how does he go? To Terezín is in two parts: a suite of poems and a prose essay. New Europe consists of disarmingly simple lyrics that form a travelogue of Jack’s trip to Prague, with a central prose section interpolated describing, in a very understated and low key way, the actual visit to the camp. There is no grandstanding, just a characteristic series of hesitations that edge us closer to the heart of the subject—which we reach, at the end of the suite, in that terrible moment of identity and loss at Frankfurt Airport.

The Golem, part two, the essay, is on writing as a process and can be read as a commentary on the poems in New Europe. The verses that intersperse its seven sections are divertissements, entertainments to give relief from the weightiness of the prose sections — not that they are heavy in any congestive sense. These poems are probably also about the things Jack was doing in between, or while, writing the essay; and they make a mirror of the two parts: New Europe verse with a prose insert; The Golem, prose with verse inserts.

The inception of the essay lies in one of those hilarious and unaccountable errors of the world gone wrong that come as gifts to writers, a mistake which allows Jack Ross to deliver his own brand of bent humour at full force. The notion that Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon are the same person is so improbable and so right that you want to believe it to be true, even though it obviously can’t be. Can it?

What Jack draws out of this, a theory of writing as transgression into those aspects of the world that resist interpretation, I believe to be essentially correct. His suggestion — Press on the pressure point because it hurts — is one I try to follow myself. To apply it to an aspect of the Holocaust is foolish and intrepid, crazy and sane, false and true. By doing so, and keeping to his method, Jack has managed to say something where it has been alleged that nothing more can be said.

There’s another aspect to Jack’s work. He is well read, knows several, perhaps many, languages, and has a comprehensive frame of reference for world literature, past and present. At the same time, he is enamoured of popular culture, particularly movies. Hence, in that world wide web of associations with which his works come entrammelled, there will be references to schlock-horror flicks or pornography as much as to, say, the poetry of les Symbolistes.

These are, however, extra-textual: they might be intrinsic to the writer, they aren’t necessarily so for the reader. If they are in a language other than English they will usually, though not always, be translated. If they are to a movie or to some trash piece of exploitation, then the context given will probably be enough for you to take the point. That said, the external references in this book are meticulously accounted.

But there is a question here, and in the course of The Golem, it does get asked: Is it or is it not possible to write “well” … and “accessibly” at the same time? Some people might say those two things — well, accessibly — are the same; I’m not sure that I would. In fact, I’m not sure if I’d try to answer the question at all, which doesn’t mean it isn’t a good one: maybe all the best questions are unanswerable.

What I will say is one of the qualities I admire in Jack Ross is his readability. I find him to be a writer of clarity. I like the modesty of his intentions and the way he declares those intentions. I like how his effects come, not as a result of great feats of prestidigitation, the flagrant manipulation of smoke and mirrors, or tricks of rhetoric or polemic, but out of a fidelity to the matter at hand and what can sensibly be said about it. I like the way he puts emotion, not intellect, at the heart of his writing.

I like particularly the paradox of a writer of such luminous simplicity surrounding his works with a peacock’s tail display of arcana, to ordinary mortals more or less occult, but from which, now and again, and unexpectedly, perfect shards of meaning, like eyes, detach. Witness the way the symbolical map of Europe as a virgin and its sly caption made out of an advertisement for Vampires from an Edinburgh publication reminds us of another cultural tradition with equivocal intersections in Prague.

This small and elegant work, less than ten thousand words, has a large range of reference, to Kafka and Havel as much as to the magicians of the 16th century or the malevolent necromancers of the mid-20th, to the New Europe as well as the Holy Roman Empire; it is a delightfully informative account of a trip to Prague, with many amusing moments and some piercing insights too; and a sustained meditation on how and why we write and read; but beyond that, and most of all, it is a plea for ordinariness expressed, in the very last line, as a desire for our heroes to walk on feet of clay.

I wonder which glyphs, if any, Jack Ross painted on his forehead in order to enter Terezín, and what words he kept hidden under his tongue while there; I’m pretty sure he will have erased and/or spat them out afterwards, in order to return to us as the wise, witty and generous writer he is. I know we are lucky to have him back.

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