The Wherewithal: A Novel in Verse by Philip Schultz

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When one writes about a subject for many years, some words can appear too often, but readers more tech savvy than I, and with better eyesight, can confirm my suspicion that I have never used “masterpiece” to describe a work by a living poet. The Wherewithal, by Philip Schultz, who won a Pulitzer for Failure, is a masterpiece.

It takes a mysterious combination of humility, bravery, curiosity and skill to try to comprehend massive evil, and to illustrate that effort. Most of us know we can’t touch it, and throw up our hands. Philip Schultz, like the very best chroniclers , has something in him that has made him grapple with this task, and do it with the kind of fervently controlled jitters not seen since See, Under Love, David Grossman’s much longer, prose fiction treatment of post-Holocaust reckoning.

Schultz’s subject is a massacre of Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne, during the German occupation. His narrator lives in San Francisco, and is a clerk denying himself emotional engagement when the city was terrorized by the infamous Zodiac killer, a creature as lacking in guilt and as pleased by the suffering of others as the most bestial Nazi.

Henryk Wyrzykowski’s mother saved a few Jews, and is losing her powers of recollection to Alzheimer’s. When much younger she had memorized the Old Testament “in order to think like a Jew,” with truly Christian sympathy. As an elderly woman she has hidden her diaries. One learns all of this in a few pages and immediately thinks that Schultz (glowing blurbs aside) cannot possibly pull off what he and Norton bill as “a novel in verse.”

Yet he does. By brilliant selection (let us not forget what that term meant to Nazis) , he says what needs to be said, allowing space to face evil and be grateful for the grace that enabled Henryk’s mother and other “real” people to behave decently. The use of her Alzheimer’s is a stroke of genius, making Henryk’s and the reader’s engagement with her almost unbearably crucial, which is as it should be.

despite enjoying a mere half-life—
no wife, girlfriend, family or friends
I remain (to myself at least)
somewhat “interesting,”
more than a passing blur
blending lizard-like into gray air
as I sneak down hallways,
hiding in the frayed inside pocket
of a nervous suit jacket,
my wallet and keys,
avoiding those whom only recently
I was counted among

Behold the man. Our determined Virgil with belief in his own innocuousness that anchors and energizes his tale, and permits him to take on the voices of the best and the worst he and we encounter:

After the Kosmaczewskis murdered
Malka’s husband and two sons,
wearing and eating proudly
the products of their labor,
Mother hid her Jewish neighbor,
Malka Piekarz, and her six-year-old daughter.

And by the way, it is still 1968, Henryk has draft board issues, and the Zodiac is reminding him and all San Francisco how much satisfying fun it is to kill and create terror. It sounds as mad as the Holocaust itself, but clearly it is not, and alchemically, it all succeeds.

Naming his prey provoked satisfaction
for the Zodiac, deepening
the ecstasy of expectation
of further brutality. Thus
the invention of ungrammatical logic
designed to hypnotize, hold hostage
and convince a multitude of ordinary citizens
to replace their reality with his own.

This isn’t subtle, but it’s perfect. It is as if Schultz created a kind of geometry of evil in which, in the form of his mother’s diary, goodness extrudes thin, strong wrapping- wires made of the most precious, gleaming metals. From that diary:

Zydokomuna they were called….communist Jews
we could hate better maybe, like everyone didn’t
kiss up to the Russians…more a matter of not wanting
to share our martyrdom …as if Christ doesn’t know
who lives where, whose work earned which house
boots coats…belonged to…kill a child and your soul
turns black as the ash you turn them into…

In all the diary lines we have steady moral voice, and the necessary ellipses here and elsewhere provide room for the heart of a woman facing a horrific wrong and modestly explaining why against everything but pure faith, she will renounce that wrong with the acts of her body.

Strong medicine, no?

Medicine so strong, and the killing continues, on a small scale and on a massive scale. It is both paralyzing and encouraging to consume a book like The Wherewithal, as Schultz himself implied much earlier, in Henryk’s voice:

I wish I could say I possessed the wherewithal
(like Ludwig Wittgenstein) to regard
my thoughts as mere remarks
that can be condoned and trusted,
rather than footnotes,
or facsimiles of actual thoughts

These lines, if Schultz were less astute about what is and is not bearable, could, on the page, instead of constantly in my mind, repeat as a chorus that holds the narrative together, again like a kind of verbal geometry with irrefutable laws.

People die. People whose names have not yet been written for humans to know, have acted and will act with modest decency. And the worst continues. If Henryk is still alive, he is an old man, looking back on his effort to retrieve his mother’s goodness not as an artifact but as a breathing object lesson that can be learned in spite of what the details of history proclaim. His mother’s mercy gave her the kind of sympathy that George Eliot and other great fiction writers (Eliot also wrote poetry, but much of it was not good) insist on:

when the Germans made them burn their holy books
I tried to imagine burning my grandmother’s bible from
which my grandmother read to me each night before bed….
they didn’t also have grandmas and bibles…one day
Henryk will read this and remember…what we did
to other human being like us…

“Like us” encapsulates this extraordinary volume of poetry. I repeat. We have been given a masterpiece.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →