EOAGH Books, Fall 2019
Poetry / Transgender Studies / Holocaust Studies
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The Book of Anna is written in the voice of Anna Asher, a fictional Czech-German Jew who spent her adolescence in a concentration camp and now lives in 1950s Prague answering phones for the secret police. This genre-defying book of prose diary entries and autobiographical poems offers intimate glimpses of Anna’s present – her writing process, relationships with neighbors, obsessive sexual behavior, chain-smoking, and idiosyncratic exploration of Jewish tradition – while the poems recount her unsparing efforts to reckon with horror, survival, and their aftermath. Written in the midst of Joy Ladin’s gender transition, this book asks provocative questions about the meaning of trauma, gender, suffering and empathy that speak to our current historical moment in haunting and indelible ways.
Part novel, part shattering lyric sequence, The Book of Anna presents itself as the work of Anna Asher, a Holocaust survivor living in 1950s Prague who looks back on her pre-war love of a Heidegger-reading yeshiva bocher, on the women who saved her life in Barracks 10 (The Rebbetzin, The Physicist, The Whore), and on the Biblical “song made of songs” where “God is so utterly absent that the rabbis decided—what else could they do? – to see Him everywhere.” A stunning, sometimes shocking mix of Jewish learning and daring, The Book of Anna was Ladin’s breakthrough volume, and scarred, sardonic Anna is an unforgettable contribution to Jewish American poetry.
It’s nearly impossible to capture the magnificence that is Joy Ladin’s The Book of Anna, what it begins and what it foretells. There is something deeply familiar in the text. I feel as if I am suddenly sitting on the yellow plastic-covered couch in my grandmother’s living room, listening to the conversations while she and her friends play bridge or mahjong. The women speak Yiddish or Hungarian, and their talk is filled with cigarettes, gossip, and the kind of dry side-eyed humor that belies their own survival and the loss of parents, brothers, sisters, entire families, in the genocide that occurred not two decades before in the villages and towns of their birth. These were women trying to live. Through poems and accounts of a friendship with another survivor, Ladin follows Anna’s efforts to find some sign that will allow her to go on living. And something shaped like a woman / As you are shaped like a man / Waiting in the middle of the Charles Bridge / For death or truth / To make her breathe again. In the end, Ladin’s Anna chooses to breathe, and we are grateful for her journey in all of its reckoning, and for this prescient and gorgeous book of becoming.