“It is night time when they arrive,
pound on the door,
knock over mirrors.
They have come to find you …”
Among the many images that move from Vienna to Santiago in the poetic meditations of Marjorie Agosín’s Braided Memories, I am especially fascinated by the mirrors. Mirrors knocked over by Nazi plunderers. Elegant windows that once reflected cosmopolitan passers-by, violently splintered into shards one fateful night on the eve of Helena’s departure into exile. Ephemeral traces of Helena’s hands, reflected in the hands of her great granddaughter, the future poet. Mirrors that are covered as Helena’s casket is carried out of her final home.
As an anthropologist who studies ritual performance and indigenous systems of knowledge, I have long been fascinated by mirrors. In divinatory practices around the world, ritual specialists who seek to evoke dynamic thresholds between the visible and invisible worlds, to foretell the future, and open productive passageways between the living and the dead are often drawn to reflective surfaces. Pools of water, polished metal, and glass mirrors reflect back to us in part that which is in the known, objective world, yet always in forms that are somehow inverted or distorted, as if hinting that there is greater meaning and knowledge to be discerned, somewhere and somehow, beyond mere ordinary experience. Pausanias, describing the ancient Greek temple of the goddess Demeter, reports that deeply ill patients would lower a mirror into a sacred pool, and then gaze upon the reflective surface to learn if they would be blessed with recovery.
Seen from a side angle, a mirror is tangible, circumscribed, and minimal in its depth: looked upon directly, when illuminated, the mirrored surface may seem infinite. This enigmatic double quality of mirrors lends itself to central paradoxes in human apprehension of the Dead, who are simultaneously absent (tangible perhaps only in dust or ash) yet whose enormous enduring, presence is deeply sensed by those who have survived them. Many of the famous nkisi nkondi or power figures of the BaKongo people of central Africa have mirrors embedded in their carved abdomens, enclosing a secretive zone where special medications are enclosed. Nkisi are gifts of the spirits of the Dead, who entrust a human healer to serve as their emissary to the world of the living. These mirrors, anthropologist Wyatt MacGaffey notes, are “eyes of understanding,” which bridge the gulf between worlds; they are channels through which the ancestors’ transformative energies enhance living communities and make possible the miracle of future generations.
How appropriate then, that mirrors haunt Marjorie Agosín’s poetic quest to cross through the chasms of time and memory, as she struggles to recover aspects of her long-dead beloved great grandmother, to grasp fundamentally ungraspable stories of the Holocaust, to re-enliven the unspoken stories of lost cousins, “between Vienna and Trieste.” These mirrors are portals to the domain of the Dead, poignant reminders of the enormous gulf that divides us from those whom we have lost, even as they hint at the uncanny proximity of our beloved antecedents. A latter-day Dante, Agosín takes us down into the darkest depths of despair, even as she signals an eventual trajectory of ascent, returning to the light.
Recalling the sad day when Helena was carried in her simple coffin from her home in Santiago, Agosín notes that the house’s mirrors were covered. This was done, she remarks, “so that we could not see the pain of our grief reflected in them.” The explanation is poignant, yet only partial. There are multiple rabbinic explanations for the prohibition in Judaism on gazing into mirrors during mourning. Among these: mirrors normally present us with a visual reminder of the divine, inasmuch as people were created in God’s image. A death, representing the annihilation of the divine spark, threatens to destabilize our capacity to behold the image of God. Alternately, mourning ought to be devoted to the selfless recognition of loss and praising the glories of the divine, and should never be subordinated to self-love, which would be signified by gazing into the mirror. Or, mirrors tempt us to venerate an image, precisely when our minds should be turned to the Eternal, that is to say toward that which is beyond all representation.
Yet, even these theological explanations may be insufficient. The full process of mourning demands that the living gradually separate themselves from the object of loss, however painful that may be. The mirrors that so recently reflected the image of the deceased, and which are themselves ritual thresholds to the enigmatic domain of the dead, need to be temporarily closed off, so that the living can begin the necessary process of detachment and letting go. The dead person, the object of mourning, in turn, must move towards the other world, the next stage in her cosmic journey. The coverings in that sense would seem to institute a necessary, temporary separation from the land of living. After the mourning phase is complete, and proper distance has been established between the bereaved and the dead, the cloths can be safely removed.
And yet, mirrors still carry traces of the dead and remain paradoxical bridges through time, binding past, present, and future in unanticipated ways. Such is the role of the mirrors in Agosín’s vignettes, from the cultivated old capital of the Hapsburg Empire, through the horrors of Kristallnacht, through Helena’s relocation to Santiago, her ultimate journey in death, and finally, through the poet’s rediscovery of Helena half a century later, in which she finds herself reflected in the image of her departed elder. “Now you gaze at me from death. / I find you … You are my clear mirror.”
Helena was a life-long urbanite; and cities, it should be noted, are filled with reflections, hinting at an endless range of subject positions. Charles Baudelaire recalls himself first arriving in Paris, staring longingly through shop windows at all manner of marvelous manufactured commodities. At that very moment he caught sight of his own reflection in the shop window, and recoiled at the scenario of himself in the thrall of commodity culture. For Marshall Berman, this moment of ambivalence was the birth of the modern: we are simultaneously seduced by the delights of industrial civilization and yet are ironically distanced from that seduction, forever self-critically gazing upon ourselves, always longing for something more essential and authentic than the city, as much as its bright lights (and reflective surfaces) entrance us.
Which brings us to 1938, to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which heralded Helena’s escape and the inexorable march towards the “Final Solution.” “When the noise of breaking glass shook the ground where you trod.” How horrific, yet how perversely appropriate, that a pivotal moment in the rise of fascism, a movement so contemptuous of cosmopolitanism, would have been an assault on glass store-fronts, heirs to the very surfaces that initiated Baudelaire into his ambivalent, sophisticated stance, simultaneously engaged in and detached from the spectacle of the modern.
Appropriately, in the accompany image narrative, photographer Samuel Shats shares a few mirrors to guide us on our way. For the poem “Between Worlds” he gives us a glimpse of an old wooden mirror, draped in cloth. “Who were you calling with your sweet bell of a voice while they covered the mirrors in your house?” In turn, “Why Were We Silent?” is encased between two frames, perhaps empty mirrors, on which two shards of shattered glass rest. The poem “The Languages of Others” rests between two images of shadowed faces, as if glimpsed in an ancient looking-glass. “It seemed the ghosts of those dead languages also wandered through that house.”
Even when literal mirrors are absent, the artist plays with reflected and inverted motifs throughout the text. Nearly all Shats’ images are printed with interrupted lines at their base, evoking the shimmery, reflective surface of water, the sea of memory lapping at them, as if they are just about to submerge, or perhaps as if they are arising from the poet’s unconscious mind.
The title of the opening part, “You Call to Me from Dreams” is framed between reeds emerging from a pond and their reflection below, anticipating later images of the Jewish cemetery. The poem “Voice of a Sweet River” presents a scene that seems to be glimpsed from underwater, looking up. “Your Soul, Light as a Feather” is illustrated with Shats’ picture of a tree with two parallel branches, given visual form to the poet’s observation, “Now I am here to safeguard your soul, to entwine it with mine.” In a similar vein, “Your Hands in Mine” presents us with gnarled tree roots that evoke intertwined hands: “I see the fleeting reflection of your hands in mine.”
I close with a memory of mirrors in Helena’s city. When I was eight years old, we visited my great aunt Cilli in Vienna, the city where she had spent nearly all of her adult life, interrupted only by stints in fascist prison camps and wartime service in the Comintern in the Soviet Union, helping organize underground hospitals for the Red Army near the battle front. A lifelong communist, she was careful to steer us towards the “proletarian” cafés of Vienna. These, we learned, were just as luxurious as the “bourgeois” cafés she gently mocked, just as filled with gilt and sparkling mirrors and elegant pastries, although the newspapers, of course, were different.
A decade later, when Aunt Cilli stayed with us in Paris, I told her how much I loved the café mirrors of Vienna, which struck me as so resplendent with the city’s interwar sophistication. She was uncharacteristically silent. I try not to look directly into those mirrors, she said. Still, after all these years, I catch a sidelong glance of something. I seem to see so many of those who are no longer here. They are gone, I know, but in the mirrors it is if they are still here, or almost here.
She never said the names of the lost, but innumerable friends and family had been taken from her during the Shoah, including her father (my great grandfather Isak), who perished in the Vindiceni labor camp in Transnistria in January 1944, two months before the Red Army liberated the region.
We can never know for sure, but perhaps for Helena, as for Aunt Cilli, the mirrors of her life were not devoid of presences, even when no one stood before them. They too may have been crowded with lost loved ones, and the energies, beauty and excitement of prewar Vienna. There was so much she could never say to her beloved great granddaughter, about siblings, cousins, friends, and neighbors, taken prematurely from this world during Europe’s longest night.
Her voice may have been silent in the shadow of the dead, only hinting at those residing in the camp of ashes, as she dwelled in the dark room with owls and ghosts. Yet her love of mirrors was bequeathed to Marjorie, and those mirrors, in the masterful hands of the poet, become the windows through which Helena gazes out at the southern ocean and looks back, in the poet’s mind’s eye, to the Vienna when she and her sisters were once safe and free. These are the mirrors and windows that call Helena, her sisters, and their lost world back to life in the House of Words. Through these delicate, reflective surfaces, miraculously reassembled on the page, we too may learn, in time, to speak in the language of lost things, and to behold, in the wondrous dance of fireflies, the encircling souls of the dead.
Text © Mark Auslander
Photographs © Samuel Shats
© Solis Press