Annelise Roberts Reviews Anne M Carson’s Massaging Himmler: A Poetic Biography of Dr Felix Kersten

By | 1 April 2020

Jessica L Wilkinson and Ali Alizadeh’s nonfiction poetry manifesto Realpoetik (published here on Cordite in 2012) is a key resource for the nonfiction poetry movement in Australia, sketching out a vision for actualising ‘the power of the poetic form to realise and enact factual content.’ The Realpoetik is not only about finding a shinier way to couch plain information – as stated in the manifesto, Realpoetik actually seeks to raise questions about the nature of information itself as well as the nature of poetry, to push thinking about the relationship between form and content in a move towards the transformative promise of ‘dialectical aesthetics’. Wilkinson and Alizadeh write: ‘We promote a poetry that is multiple, transformative, moving, contradictory, evental, rhizomatic, inaesthetic, evolving, whispered, piercing, stuttering, disruptive, performative, active, enveloping, epidemic.’

I wondered about the imperative of the nonfiction poetry form in Massaging Himmler – the challenges of the modality kept drawing me to look for it. The rhetorical question that ends the prologue poem provides some quiet reflection on this:

I don a white treatment coat but
may as well not bother for all the protection

it offers: beneath the bed is a nest of vipers – 
venomous, virile. They breed so quickly,

hundreds of hatchlings, scores of adults
in a medusa mess. They writhe and gripe,

twine round the bed legs, slither up to me
fangs out, tasting air. You think this is metaphor?

This provocation takes us beyond the stalemate between truth and fiction and to somewhere different, a place where there are new varieties of possibility. Carson’s vision for what this place is, and what those possibilities are, is present as suggestion rather than something more prominent and muscular.

In this way, Massaging Himmler isn’t a bold enunciation of the Realpoetik – to borrow the language of the manifesto, its effects are ‘whispered’ rather than ‘piercing’. The poetics are delicate and restrained, consisting of graceful and gentle elaborations from the emphasis on the historical/biographical fact, and the language is classically lyrical. Carson prefers the clarity of exposition in the main, so the imagery is staid and utilitarian. The voices of characters are mild, speaking their dramatic monologues in a faded vernacular as if captured in understated sepia: about Himmler, Kersten’s personal assistant Elisabeth Lüben demurely remarks: ‘I do not know how Felix can bring himself to touch him.’ The prose-like rhythms of Carson’s free verse are broken at irregular moments by measured and neat line breaks, rarely departing from the organising principle of the couplet: ‘How far we are fallen to be / devastated by the nurses’ tears,’ remarks a freed prisoner in the poem ‘Of the 2,700: one voice’.

Carson’s lyricism enacts the promise of its raw material elegantly, but there isn’t major formal or linguistic experimentation here – the energy of the work is directed by that emphasis on the historical problem of Kersten and Himmler and the associated thematic ideas, rather than by the innovative potential of prosody. In other words, this isn’t ‘disruptive’ or ‘active’ poetry, but it is absorbing and provocative material.

Marginalia scattered throughout the book provide a scaffolding of key historical dates and moments. Captivating fragments from a lexicon of Nazi terminology draw our attention to the poetics of the National Socialist endeavour – we’re acquainted with horrifically striking phrases such as Seelenbelastung or ‘Burdening of the Soul’, a term used to describe the emotional burden undertaken by those who murdered Jews and other people in prepared ditches (a motive in developing a means of mass murder by gas). The lexicon is like a parallel Realpoetik gesture, a miniature commentary about the political life of poetics, and it complements the meat of the story.

This is Carson’s second book-length poetry publication, following 2013’s Removing the Kimono (Hybrid Press), a collection of poems about the death of her husband. She’s evidently drawn to deeply challenging material and looks for ways to network her poetry to live political concerns, such as donating the proceeds of her 2017 chapbook Writing on the Wall (Mark Time Books) to Anti-Slavery Australia. Massaging Himmler is her most ambitious project, and it’s a fine achievement – there’s great potential in the Realpoetik form and this book is an advancement of a genre with important work to do.

The book ends with a final reflection on its own nonfiction poetics in a poem titled ‘Date of death: 16 April 1960’. Of the Swedish designation on Kersten’s grave, ‘Medicinalrådet’ (Medical Councillor), the final stanza states: ‘No fanfare but simply truth.’ Subtly arresting work.

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