Ten of the best: your poetry guide

By Peter Lawson, August 15, 2008
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We discover an abundance of wit, history and linguistic versatility in a review of recent collections of verse


Jewish poets frequently cross language barriers. Among the volumes under review is material first published in French (Claude Vigée) and Hebrew (translated by Peter Cole). Katia Kapovich originally wrote in Russian before her emigration to the United States. Lotte Kramer's native language remains German, though she writes in English.

Adam Taylor is Irish and writes about Jews. God's Face in your Gazpacho (Troubador, £6.99) contains witty poems with titles such as The Jewish Singles Do. In Helpline, the speaker phones his rabbi, worried because he covets his neighbour's ox. The rabbi observes that "it's more normal/to desire/one's neighbour's wife". Of the gangster Meyer Lansky, Taylor jokes: "he was a tough Jew/when there were few/but he never killed on Shabbos./Unless he had to". This verse is fast and fun, well suited to Taylor's regular TV and radio performances.

Annie Freud also likes jokes. Though writing in English, she notes how "skeletons tell jokes in foreign tongues". There's a smattering of French and - as one might expect - German in Freud's polished collection The Best Man That Ever Was (Picador, £8.99). Her settings are often continental: Trieste, Paris or Berlin.

The best jokes are sometimes the titles, which can seem like short poems in themselves: I Was the Manager of the Nipple Erectors, The Inventor of the Individual Fruit Pie and Which Ever Way You Twiddle the Knobs all raised a smile from this reviewer. But Freud writes principally about romantic relationships, which can involve "Sausages and Flowers" and occasional "spanking". Whatever next?

Deborah Garrison brings us to babies. An American mother-of-three, Garrison's themes include childbirth and its aftermath. Her poetry draws strongly upon the female experience: "... a second girl/slid out of my body/on the third breath/glistening with the caul/still on her head". It is also strongly Jewish. In A Midnight Bris she reports: "I beamed/to the baby as the doctor got the knife ready/and clamped the penis expertly".

Male circumcision is just one part of a busy Jewish mother's lot and, although Garrison has moved out of New York to the more family-friendly New Jersey, the pace of life evoked in these poems remains hectic: "No time for a sestina for the working mother./Who has so much to do"; "at 5:23, about to miss the bus,/so would you please// MOVE OVER?". Peace comes with recollections of the divine: "That God and infinity/Are spoken in one breath". (The Second Child, Bloodaxe £7.95)

In The Music of the Prophets (Arc, £6.99), Michelene Wandor presents a 350th anniversary celebration of Cromwell's 1655-56 decision to readmit Jews into England. This narrative poem tells the "story of two peoples" and "the story of two people/Menasseh ben Israel/And Oliver Cromwell".

Though written as a libretto to be performed with music by Henry Purcell and John Hingeston, Wandor's free verse works splendidly alone on the page. There is fine lyricism here - "the naming of dreams sweeps away all kingdoms" - together with a transnational sense of what constituted a 17th-century Jewish "home" in England.

Peter Cole delves further back in time to medieval and early modern Spain, presenting the cream of Hebrew verse over five centuries in his own translations (The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492, Princeton University Press, £11.95).

Several of the 54 poets whose work Cole has edited and translated may be familiar, among them Shmu'el Hanagid, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Moshe Ibn Ezra and Yehuda Halevi. Others have been selected by Cole according to recent discoveries and personal taste.

The collection contains some 400 poems, beautifully rendered with notes and a glossary of key terms. The Hebrew originals can be read at www.pup.princeton.edu under the listing for this wonderful volume.
Kindertransport, Before and After (University of Sussex Centre for German-Jewish Studies, £10) elegises and celebrates those German-Jewish children granted refugee status in Britain immediately before the Second World War.

It offers a selection of Lotte Kramer's Kindertransport verse written between 1980-2007 and is arranged thematically to present (as with Cole and Wandor) an historical narrative through verse. Together with the late Karen Gershon, Kramer is a major poetic voice for these children who were separated from their parents and forced to make new lives as "survivors of circles of hell".

Chants de l'Absence/Songs of Absence (Menard Press, £6) offers another type of elegy, this time for Claude Vigée's wife, Evelyne.

The poems are presented in both the original French and in Anthony Rudolf's faithful translations. This is stark and sombre work: "Chacun meurt étouffé. Je crie/seul et nu dans mons puits" (translated as: "Everybody chokes to death. I cry out/alone and naked in my pit"). The work powerfully conveys the pain of losing a loved one.

There is more melancholy from the playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, who has published his first volume of verse at the grand age of 75.

Several of the poems in All Things Tire of Themselves (Flambard, £8) concern growing old. This is a Yeatsian theme, and Wesker alludes to the great man - "We'll sail no more to Byzantium" - in Old boats. Overall, this collection offers a fascinating footnote to Wesker's dramatic themes of extended family, love, the quest for justice and Jewishness.

Another first collection comes from Stephen Wilson (Fluttering Hands, Greenwich Exchange, £7.95). Like Taylor and Garrison, Wilson is adept at anecdotal verse.

His settings range from Wales to Russia, then back to England, and we should be grateful that Wilson ignored his grandmother's advice: "[she] warned me/against poetry; not to get any meshugga ideas,/or fritter away my time on a ganze megillah".

I look forward to more Yiddishe wit from Wilson.

Hailing from Soviet Moldova, Katia Kapovich now lives in Boston. Her poems in Cossacks and Bandits (Salt, £12.99) suggest a hip nonchalance among cool urban types who relish spontaneity and randomness.

They are also poems of exile: "I've locked myself out. I shake the door/Two shots of coffee and I'm set to go." Back in Moldova, Kapovich found a home in imagination: "a free island" for "a loner".

She knew reality only too well: when "some kids at my new school checked the class register/and found ‘Jew' written against my name", she was hounded mercilessly. Now, poetry provides a home from home in a new language.

Peter Lawson is an associate lecturer with the Open University

    Last updated: 12:22pm, August 14 2008