Prof. Vera Schwarcz pens a new book of poems

By Cindy Mindell

Dr. Vera Schwarcz

Dr. Vera Schwarcz

WEST HARTFORD – Scholar Vera Schwarcz has long plied the waters of language and culture, mapping what she calls “the spaces between words” using “language as a life raft in times of historical confusion.”

The Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies and professor of history at Wesleyan University, Schwarcz is author of the newly published Ancestral Intelligence (Antrim House Books, 2013).

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Schwarcz, who lives in West Hartford, was born and raised in Cluj, Romania, where she came to poetry and language early. A native speaker of Hungarian and Romanian, she would also become fluent in Yiddish, German, Hebrew, Russian, and French. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1962, Schwarcz earned degrees in East Asian studies and history at Vassar, Yale, and Stanford. She was a member of the first group of exchange scholars to be sent to China in 1979, and has returned to Beijing many times over the past three decades.

Her scholarly writing includes poems written and published in several languages in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, often exploring the subject of remembrance. Her work has been nominated for the National Jewish Book Award and has won several major grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Ancestral Intelligence is based on the life and writing of Chen Yinke (1890-1969), considered one of China’s most sophisticated minds of the 20th century. Schwarcz turned to the literary scholar, historian, and poet as a mirror for her own aspirations. The two segments of the book – “Words Have No Word,” Schwarcz’s English-language poems inspired by Yinke’s works, and “Words That Are Not True,” Schwarcz’s poems based on Chinese logographs (characters) – evolved over a decade of research and poetic revision.

The poems are written in English, Schwarcz’s sixth language. “Long ago, while living and studying in Taiwan in 1973 and 1974, I recall making a brutal, painful decision to become a writer in a language far from my native terrain,” she says.

“I forced myself to think and even dream in English. A few years later, I invested $900 in a full, 27-volume of the Oxford English Dictionary so as to better sink myself into the world of allusion in English poetry. Chinese poetry is yet another ocean of allusions which I cross with trepidation and delight.”­­

The Chinese logographs that Schwarcz chose as inspiration have been deformed during the last century of political turmoil. While researching the historical allusions in Chen’s writing, she studied the older etymological forms in Chinese language. Many of the words – and therefore ideas – had been simplified during the reign of Mao Zedong. “The result was a tragic desiccation of the emotional and intellectual landscape which mirrored Chen’s experiences,” she says. “By recovering the fullness of the ancients’ speech, I wanted to provide a new angle of vision for Western readers who do not know Chinese. Hannah Arendt’s description of survivors of atrocity grew more vivid in my mind as I wrote these poems about ideograms deformed but not degutted by China’s Communist regime.”

Schwarcz did not intend her book for a scholarly audience, but rather as a conversation with her students and readers about the loss of cultural legacy in all our lives.

“This is a way to reach those who empathize with Hannah Arendt’s reflections on meanings of humaneness in times of inhumanity,” she says. “Arendt understood that words, much like individual persons, can be subjected to brutal persecution in the name of a so-called common good. This volume counters that ravage by paying tribute to spiritual and linguistic resilience. These verses are meant to map a landscape of beauty, grace, and truth that will outlast the machinations of destructive revolutionaries in China and beyond.”

While this “impoverishment of soul” goes far beyond China, Schwarcz says, that “Chinese characters and the life and voice of Chen Yinke became my vehicles to express this larger sorrow, as well as the hope embedded in the art of poetry itself. The discoveries along the way, especially the links I was able to set up with Hannah Arendt’s work after the Shoah, deepened my commitment to this project. Then came the urgent, warm encouragement from Chinese scholars and friends who saw that I was doing something very different and which they could not conceive of due to the limitations of politics, etc.”

Schwarcz says she felt a certain mission to bring “a distinctively Jewish imagination” to this project. She explores the universality of suffering and the bridge that can span between cultures that have experienced destruction and survival. She recalls a particularly significant moment when Chinese and Jewish histories came together in an age-old Chinese phrase.

“In 1989, I was walking with a philosopher friend in Tiananmen Square, at the very moment before the blood flowed,” she says. “We had the sense that the crackdown was hours away and he said in Chinese, ‘Because you are Jewish, you understand what is happening in China; because of who your people are, we are tuned in to one another on a different level.’ He used the expression音– zhi yin – to hear the sound of another’s heart without words; he was using an ancient Chinese expression in 1989, and I was able to give him this empathy. This is what links me to China, why Chinese friends count on my uniquely Jewish ‘empathy’ for their griefs and sorrows. This wordless understanding has enabled me over the years to get near all the pain and joy that cannot be captured in words.”

This theme of empathy carries very strongly throughout the book, Schwarcz says. But despite its core motif of degradation, Ancestral Intelligence is not a gloomy book. “Rather, it is an homage to beauty and cultural richness, even though those were aspects of Chinese life that were lost,” she says. “This trauma can open our eyes to how precious culture is when it’s taken away.”

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Ancestral Intelligence coverFrom Ancestral Intelligence

By Prof. Vera Schwarcz

Chen’s prophetic grief is also evident in a poem that I have called “Unbearably Verdant.” This work comes from jottings collected throughout 1947-48, as civil war engulfed north China. Chen Yinke had returned to Beijing, only to find a devastated city where warring authorities left no room for any cherishment of landscape or of culture. The transliteration and literal translation of one of Chen’s poems from this period is as follows:


cong cong jia qi gu you zhou—

(bursting, bursting beautiful air ancient  secluded city)

ce shi chong lai lei bu shou—

(severed world again return tears don’t harvest)

tao guan yi fei  qian do shu—

(peach vistas already not before extent tress)

gao jie fan shi zui gao lou

(stalk street overturned stands most tall building)

ming yuan bei jian kong duo shi

(famous garden north supervision emptied many scholars)

lao fu dong cheng you du you

(old man eastern city has solitary worries)

chou chang nian nian mian shi di

(disconsolate melancholy recall sleep eat places)

yi chun can meng shang xin tou

(single spring barbarous dream arouses heart head)


Inspired by Chen’s writings, Schwarcz wrote this poem, included in the book:


Unbearably Verdant (1947)

Spring spills over our ancient capital

as I arrive broken

to a vanished world,

find no vessel

to contain

a mourner’s tears.

Flowering peach in country courtyards

are not the ones

I cherished

twenty years ago,

yet each gat proclaims:

You rested here,

you tasted an afternoon’s

fragrant tea.

A cruel dream.

Alien envoys now take

their troublesome ease

in our lofty towers,

while ruined temples

harbor a few

wizened scholars.


I cradle worries like jewels

for an emperor cursed

to defend palaces

flattened by war.

On the Boulevard of Eternal Peace

youth roam with barbarian hearts.

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