Compassion and its Contiguities: Witness Poetry and Metonymic Reponse
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I read witness poetry as a model of response to suffering. Compassion is feeling together with another. Compassion is, then, opposed to empathy’s feeling as another. Compassion can be better understood through the witness poetry that privileges metonymical relationships in which readers are contiguously positioned in relationship to a speaker. This emphasis on relationship can be contrasted to the collapse of relationship in identification in which a reader reads as though he or she is the lyric I, the poetic voice, rather than a listener. I discuss this reader-as-listener in contrast to the trauma studies-influenced discourse surrounding witness poetry, a discourse which focuses on indexical poetic evidence of a poet’s wounds and the transferability of the poet’s trauma to readers. Compassionate response, as demonstrated by this poetry, is premised on a recognition of one’s intimacy with or distance from that which one witnesses. Distance is not synonymous with disengagement, but rather with the space of relationship through which connection and consideration is possible. All intimacy involves some distance; the two are not opposites, but a continuum. Witness involves waiting: response derives from the time of relation through which it might form. This waiting has reflection as its retrospective partner. Together, they form commemoration, which brings reflection into future and communal celebration and remembrance. Com-memoration is linked to com-passion in this communal element. My project engages witness poetry as a communal form inviting feeling in community, response to widespread suffering, and the establishment of relationship and connection.