Miriam Pellman Maust

The Conrad Grebel Review 19, no. 2 (Spring 2001)

Sarah Klassen, Simone Weil: Songs of Hunger and Love. Toronto: Wolsak & Wynn, 1999.

What an eloquent voice Simone Weil has been given in the poet Sarah Klassen! Earnest, pleading for understanding, the Weil/Klassen persona in each poem enthralls the reader with an otherwise difficult theme: suffering and martyrdom. Because of this beautiful poetry we are led to consider the meaning of a desire to suffer for others.

No doubt Weil would have agreed with Victor Frankl that "meaning precedes being." She seems to have been born with this mission for meaning. In "Hunger I" the explanation begins:

I was born hungry.
... How should they have known,
my mother, my kind father:
their joined flesh, satisfied,
could generate voraciousness
spawn such unseemly thirst and this
unearthly appetite. (12)

Part I ("Hunger") of this three-part collection elaborates on this unearthly appetite: Weil's precocious childhood; her adolescent sensitivity toward the poor who have been harmed; and her resolve in young adulthood "to eat nothing but God whom I wanted to swallow whole" (19). Part II ("God exists because I desire him") embodies her work as an activist showing solidarity with coal miners, machinists, potato diggers, fisherfolk. Part III ("We can only cry out") delves into the mystery of suffering with images of Christ's passion, Lear's loneliness, and allusions to earlier mystics such as the anonymous writer of The Cloud of the Unknowing.

For the most part, the voice speaks in the past tense, which serves to deliver biographical facts in an offhand manner, heightening interest in Weil's desire for a more perfect life. Born in Paris to a privileged life, Weil became a philosopher, social activist, mystic, and writer. She taught, but interspersed her intellectual life with stints of manual labor. She developed a mystical feeling for the Catholic faith, but a strong aversion to organized religion and therefore was never baptized. Partly Jewish, she escaped to the U.S. in 1942 only to return to London, where a year later at age 34 she died of a hunger strike, suffering with and for her French compatriots.

I remember a conversation several years ago with Sarah Klassen when she first offered some of these poems to publishers and was surprised to find a keen interest in Weil. I'm not surprised. The spare, haunting beauty of the Weil poems leads us to look at other times and places, to refugees, misfits, and uncompromising disciples we have known. The poems allude to the strangely ordinary ("I'm sounding so much like my mother...." - "Lyrics from a lycee 3. The teacher," 22) as well as the great mystery ("The unmistakable breathtaking wingbeat of grace," 80).

I find the meditative "Pensees" powerful. The poem's pulsing desire to be the hands and feet of God carries a tone of pathos and spent energy. Yet the question remains whether activity can ever reach the model of divine love:

Someone is leaping and leaping in the air
each time a little higher. This is not
the way to God. Nor can imagination
fill the emptiness, command growth of wings,
defy gravity. (51)

The author's restraint from overt criticism of her subject (Weil) strengthens these poems. Only a hint of personal realism appears in one of the quotations used before them: "There is no great genius without some touch of madness" (Seneca). We are left with the irony that one so hungry refuses to eat, and that points us to consider the multiple meanings of hunger.