Tom Sleigh

The Drowned and the Saved
August 23, 2016 Sleigh Tom

The Drowned and the Saved


If all of us were to try to kill ourselves at least once, then all of us would know nothing more than that: which is why Primo Levi may have had a dizzy spell before he fell over the stair railing to his death, which would mean that he didn’t commit suicide but instead felt light-headed and lost his balance. He was a small man, five foot five, only about one hundred twenty pounds, and if you think of the disproportionate weight of his head in relation to the rest of his body, then it makes sense that he landed more or less on his skull. And so Auschwitz may not have been his nemesis so much as his exhaustion and depression and the medication he was taking after a prostate operation.

But as he plunges down the stairwell, Auschwitz is the easiest explanation: for some, it confirms their heroic/tragic notions of what a concentration camp must be, of how the barbwire and Arbeit Macht Frei and the SS joke about coming in by Gate A and going out through the crematorium at Station Zed become like the two pillars that were said to mark the limits of the known world beyond which lay Atlantis. Which of course was destroyed by the gods and buried by an earthquake that reared up a huge wave that swept Atlantis away. But Levi has just received his mail from the concièrge——a few newspapers, some advertising leaflets——nothing that might noticeably have upset him, nothing that could have built itself into the ship that would have carried him out onto the open sea where he could witness Ulysses, Dante’s version of him, anyway, sailing through those pillars toward Mt. Purgatory where a vast whirlpool drags him and his entire crew down.

For Levi, there was another whirlpool whirling in his own apartment that has nothing to do with the drowned or the saved, but with what a friend once called “the hateful strength of the dying”: his mother and mother-in-law, both living with him, both in their nineties, cared for by the same nurse. It’s said by a rabbi who claimed to have received a phone call from Levi just minutes before he killed himself, that Levi told him he could no longer stand looking at the senile, ailing women, because they reminded him of the men dying stretched on the benches at Auschwitz. If you imagine these old women in a tiny boat spinning round and round inside their own brains, and Levi watching them spin, unable to help them back onto dry land…then? Then what?

Maybe what’s more useful is to think of his purported suicide as an inevitable requirement, a wound that never heals, a reason for others to imagine that the events that led to Auschwitz can never be escaped because it confirms in some obscure way that life matters—that one died not because one got dizzy and fell by accident over a balcony railing which at most came up to Levi’s navel, but because even forty years later Levi was still in the lager, waiting for the word he feared, but knew was coming: Wstawàch! Get up. Unlike one other famous Holocaust surviving suicide, Jean Améry, who Levi once said was a “theoretician of suicide,” Levi was concerned with chemical reactions. His last unfinished novel purports to be the correspondence between a man and a young woman, in which the man reveals to her the chemistry that allows one to make omelets and fancy sauces. Béchamel, for example, combines butter and flour, and milk. Maybe he was thinking of butter combining with flour when he fell. Or maybe he was thinking of how silver in the mountain can be enriched when other materials enter it and form chemical concentrations that raise the yield.

In the background of his death, in black and white, footage of the Holocaust plays over and over on computer screens and movie screens, commentators in magazines speak of his books as prolonged, if delayed, suicide notes; they say that the nature of hell is its inescapability, that he died still in Auschwitz forty years later.

But what if he had a dizzy spell? What if he was thinking about Béchamel, or how heat causes the egg’s globe-shaped proteins to move around more and more violently, so that the collisions between the strands of protein weaken the bonds between them so that the different strands can bond together—which is why egg whites go from transparent to opaque as they are cooked.

The boat sinks. The eggs get eaten. The body falls.

And if that’s all that we have to think about, and if suffering is inside us and outside us, and if an egg has at least chemical awareness of the heat that is denaturing it, making it into another kind of being, then the newspapers and advertising leaflets, the plunge through the airshaft to the floor below, all the circumstances that lead Levi to climb the rail or to simply lose his balance, are whirling around us now, and who can tell if it’s more terrifying to be sucked down, or to have been sucked down and now, still alive, emerge back up riding the rim of a bubble expanding as it rises from the bottom of the sea?

Tom Sleigh is the author of eleven books of poetry including winner of the 2023 Paterson Poetry Prize The King’s Touch (Graywolf Press, 2022), House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018), Station Zed (Graywolf Press, 2015), and Army Cats (Graywolf Press, 2011). His most recent book of essays, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age of Refugees (Graywolf Press, 2018) recounts his time as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, NEA grant recipient, and winner of numerous awards including the Kingsley Tufts Award, Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, John Updike Award and Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His poems appear in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Threepenny Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Raritan, The Common, Five Points and many other magazines. He is a Distinguished Professor in the MFA Program at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn, NY.


MEDIA INQUIRIES: Marisa Atkinson | Graywolf Press