Journeys and joys, pain and pleasure

In an autumn selection of poetry by Jewish writers, we find both charm and audacity


By Michael Horovitz, November 19, 2010
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Dannie Abse, gently grand old man of Welsh-Jewish letters

Dannie Abse, gently grand old man of Welsh-Jewish letters

For more than 50 years, Elaine Feinstein has quietly stockpiled her diverse literary energies, which continue to glow like a constantly burning bush of inspirations, athwart the contemporary wastes of near-universally officialised Philistia. Her latest book of poems, Cities (Carcanet, £9.95), amounts to a colourfully revealing snapshot album of her physical and mental travels around the globe and through history.

While recalling how, All my grandparents came from Odessa/a century ago, she watches today's migrants, arrive in London with battered luggage,/holding fast to old religions/and histories, remembering/the shock of being hunted in the streets,/the pain at leaving their dead/in broken cemeteries, their resilience/hardwired as birds' skill in navigation.

Feinstein's fecund relationships with beloved fellow poets ‑- as with Ruth Fainlight (whose New & Collected Poems are to be released imminently by Bloodaxe) in Lisbon, Janos Pilinszky in Budapest, Miroslav Holub in Prague - are delicately evoked. But what strikes me hardest in this sequence as in its predecessors, is her unflinching realism in the face of the heavy costs of creativity: the pain waiting on the next page for me/the blank of betrayal which would/rapidly scoop out my life and release/the blood flow of poetry.

Lotte Kramer came to England in 1939 with the Kindertransport. Her 13th volume, Turning the Key (Rockingham Press, £7.99) is made up of a compelling quantity of toughly pared-down lyrics. One instantly sees why she cherishes an unassumingly grey-toned necklace though . . . not prone to ornaments./It was the simple beauty of design/That spoke to me, the thinness of the chain,/The tiny pearls like petit-pois.

German poets prompt Kramer’s sharp eye and sonorous ear again and again

The fountain-pen she has kept from childhood years now, needs refilling too often/Runs out in mid-sentence/Like someone with loss of memory/Hungry for indelible black ink.

Kramer is, like Feinstein, an accomplished verse translator, and the last 15 pages of this collection are brimful with versions and translations of poems by Hoelderlin, Heine and, most of all, Rilke, which prompt her sharp eye and sonorous ear again and again to explore and convey the mysteries of things at once graphic yet metaphysical.

Thus in Kramer's rendition, Rilke's Eve, stands simply at the cathedral's great/staircase, near the rose window/holding the apple in that apple-pose/guiltless-guilty once for all times at/the growing being that she bore/since lovingly she left the circle/of eternities to battle through earth/so much like a young year."

Dannie Abse's Two for Joy: Scenes from Married Life (Hutchinson, £15) is the only hard-covered book of this round-up, and an outstandingly elegant production, as well befits this gently grand old man of Welsh-Jewish letters.

After his wife and muse Joan was killed in a car crash five years ago, Dannie wrote The Presence (Vintage Books, £8.99), a beautiful prose memoir of loss. The proverbial "One for sorrow, two for joy" (as applied to the magpie in rural folklore) is completed with this companion volume of 50 poems of celebration:

I lived her life and she lived mine – /not only in the easy valleys of Pretend/where bosky paths descend to lakes where no swan/is singular (and fish ignore the hunched Angler)//but here where the uphill road to happiness/has ordinary speed limits,/and still the revelation is/that there can be such a thing . . .

Though the undercurrent of most of these elegiac pieces was bound to be sombre, Abse's always tender way with words, images and concrete details exquisitely conveys the good humours of his and Joan's marriage of true minds and bodies: Last night, lying in bed,/I remembered how, pensioners both,/before sleep, winter come,/your warm foot suddenly/would console my cold one.

Each of these three poets is well represented in Peter Lawson's wide-ranging anthology Passionate Renewal: Jewish Poetry in Britain since 1945 (Five Leaves, £14.99).

The fate of busy verse editors, anthologists and teacher-critics is that their own poems often get overlooked. In Lawson's case this would be a pity since his first, all-too-slim volume, Senseless Hours (Bayswater Books, 57 Central Avenue, Pinner, Middx HA5 5BT, £9.50 post free), displays considerable wit, intellectual pizzazz and technical audacity.

In English Middle Classes, Lawson defines himself via a negative aftermath to an encounter with his conformist brother: I listened patiently for soul beneath/the peremptory condescension,/seeking some hint of feeling, even/interest in me, I experienced rock/where there could be openness/mirrors where there might be/windows, cleverness where I hoped/for knowledge and understanding./Yet amidst this awful English/middle-class smugness, I felt/revitalised through recognition/of what has shaped my spirit/of resistance & purpose.

After visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau Lawson reflects that, Today/cctv would be everywhere: no chance/for subterfuge. Barracks death-in-life/would be displayed on monitors 24-7 /in a central control room: pixelated/drops of blood and mercilessly punished/plots, with revelations recorded before/executions. Nazi home audiences would/relish such reality tv. It's coming soon . . ."

Lawson's 12 lines on "Chagall's 'The Poet Reclining' (1915), still on view at Tate Britain, feel in perfect tune with this lovely painting. As is Shabbat, with the essential spirit of that ring-fenced haven from the workaday world: Folding my swimming towel/On the morning of Shabbat,//Its royal blue brought back/Images of the velvet pouch//In which I folded my tallis;/And the lighter blue trunks//Were the colour of the button/Atop my childhood yamulka,//Blue as skies without stratus,/Cumulus, depressed conditions.

Another undeservedly less well-known Jewish poet has appeared in the form of Jessica Lawrence's Dreams of Flight (Poet Launderette Press, £8.70). Lawrence has taught creative writing and pioneered programmes in health education for young people in both the UK and US.

To her credit, this selection from 25 years' poetry output is packed with pristine thoughts, emotions and perceptions palpably true to her experience, with none of the literary-careerist clutter that so frequently unpoeticises the verse of more competitively ambitious but less pure-spirited contemporaries.

As with many I would consider good Jews, her cornucopia of flowing lines in this book is the more kosher for being unorthodox:

The thing is to belong//and I don't belong,/not to any one thing or/person, any idea or/commitment to anything/that ordinarily/can be relied upon.//I don't belong as a/wife to a man who/belongs to me/as a husband.//I am a lone star/on the horizon/guiding no one/not even myself.//You could say/I am lost/but as I don't belong/to any one place/anywhere is/somewhere/I call home."

Michael Horovitz is a poet, critic, painter and performer

    Last updated: 10:23am, November 19 2010