Location, location, location

Recent verse collections frequently convey a strong sense of place whether it be country, city, village - or even a desk


By Peter Lawson, January 3, 2012
Follow The JC on Twitter
"Open-ended" Adrienne Rich

"Open-ended" Adrienne Rich

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010
Adrienne Rich
Norton, £19.99

Centuries of Skin
Joanna Ezekiel
Ragged Raven, £7

Turning
Adam Horovitz
Headland, £7.95

The Full Heritage Experience
Maureen Sandler, Helen Sandler and Rosie Sandler
Tollington, £8.99

The Assay
Yvonne Green
Smith/Doorstop, £8.95

Wanted on Voyage
Wanda Barford
Flambard, £8

New and Collected Poems
Lotte Kramer
Rockingham, £9.99

Beckmann Variations & other poems
Michael Heller
Shearsman, £8.95

No School Tie
Peter Phillips
Ward Wood, £8.99

There may still be some who wonder "who is a Jew?" but maybe a more interesting question is "where is a Jew?" Our poets are spread across the country and, because we are talking about English-language practitioners, across the USA.

Adrienne Rich lives in California. Her style is clearly influenced by literary modernism, and the open-endedness of such writers as Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets. This latest collection (Rich has written more than 30 books of poetry and prose) does not disappoint. How Jewish to describe herself as a "vagabond poet who can work anywhere"! There's a wonderful freshness in Rich's verse, typically describing a female friend as an "endless beginner".

Where should a Jewish poet work? Rich writes of "her true/ country" being "on a desk". Jews are where we work. If this sounds too American for English readers, altogether too confident and positive, Rich also reminds us: "You're/ designed to tremble too. Else break". That's a deep insecurity I can recognise.

Joanna Ezekiel lives in Middlesex. She writes about London, Russia and Israel, among other locations and her poems are often focused on place. Here she is Crossing Hungerford Bridge (a bridge is a good in-between place for a Jew), then observing men who "talk in Arabic" in Richmond and considering a UFO in a Russian Village: "Although it is not a burning bush/ it has chosen us. We watch it glow// past blind stars in the gunpowder sky/ to smash a crater the size of a mass grave." This is accomplished writing from Ezekiel's first book-length collection. She presents a non-provincial Jewishness which travels as "sycamore seeds/whirl their wide destiny".

Adam Horovitz is also to be congratulated on his debut collection, Turning. His meditation on Jewish space is highly critical of a ghettoised, excluding sense of place: "tonight I am/ being moved like a chess piece/ from room to room in an effort to preserve/ the kosher space around my invisible aunt". Space which excludes members of the family who are not considered Jewish is "bigotry run riot".

Horovitz is far more connected to his deceased mother, the poet Frances Horovitz, and his father, poet Michael Horovitz. His poems addressed to each parent are among the most impressive in this collection about love, closeness and the familial "urge to hurt".

Family features even more prominently in The Full Heritage Experience. Here a mother (Maureen of Derbyshire) and her two daughters (Helen of North London and Rosie of Essex) share a first-collection together. The format is wonderfully creative, as these three family members consider common experiences from different perspectives.

Adam Horovitz

Adam Horovitz

Helen is a trendy lesbian who writes well about "the N4 district" (that's Finsbury Park, to you non-trendies), Maureen somewhat of a sentimentalist ("Go my beloved Wolf. Go with my blessing") while Rosie is the real thing: "I had never felt more of an outsider: standing small in the playground of my son's new school and scouting shyly for a friend. Our old country cloaked me still, its woods and hills shrouding me in otherness." The Jewish concerns of this delightfully intimate collection are clear from such titles as Refugee (Helen's), Beyond the Border (Rosie's) and Destination Unknown (Maureen's).

Yvonne Green is also concerned with heritage. In The Assay, it is Sephardic and polyglot: "Tuesday was my grandmother's day… English, French, Italian, Arabic, Greek, Boukharian, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, Ladino were spoken interchangeably". Green includes several translations of Russian poems by Semyon Lipkin. Overall, one might categorise this first collection as a species of auto-ethnography: from a London metropolitan perspective, Green explores her culturally Sephardic particularities.

Wanda Barford's fifth poetry collection, Wanted on Voyage, takes us to similarly non-English places. Barford writes of leaving Italy when Mussolini took power ("It's 1939 - I'm nine./ We're leaving Europe for Africa") and her childhood in Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe ("the tall Shona girls who were chic"). The Holocaust also figures in Rhodesia as English prejudice against Jews ("the subject/ of the millions gassed in Auschwitz/ came up; 'Good riddance,' she said,/ 'Don't you agree?"'). Barford is concerned with Jewish place and migration: "And you'll walk away slowly,/ whereas last time you'd packed fast/ but left most things behind." This is an enjoyable contribution to her peripatetic oeuvre.

Lotte Kramer came to England as a refugee child on a Kindertransport from Germany in 1939. Since 1980, she has been writing verse on that traumatic and life-saving experience, as well as reflections on the Shoah. Kramer is well aware that its language risks becoming stale with over-familiarity.

In the tellingly titled Media Measures, she writes: "The burdened words,/ A century has stolen/ Their innocence: 'Final solution/ Broken glass/ Railway lines/ Ethnic cleansing'/ A history of ashes/ Spells out their alphabet".

Since I included Kramer's poetry in my anthology, Passionate Renewal: Jewish Poetry in Britain Since 1945 (Five Leaves, 2001), she has gone on to consider related subjects, such as American wars of "revenge" for 9/11 and "The paradox of 'friendly fire'" in modern warfare. Kramer is an important poet of Jewish loss and restorative memory.

Michael Heller, too, is a heavyweight, having written several superb collections of poetry, and I was expecting great things of Beckmann Variations & other poems. As an American writing about an exhibition of paintings by the German-Jewish artist Max Beckmann at Tate Modern in 2003, Heller makes London sound positively exotic, even Parisian: "Here, where the Thames bulges north and makes a curve, the old cathedral dominates, towering over the streets." For this American Jew, London equates to a rose-tinted "ancient, supernatural Europe". The meditative prose commentaries on Beckmann's paintings that follow are thought-provoking (perhaps more so than the interspersed poems), if slightly pretentious: "The inexpressible produces words only as irritants, words that never leave off - one never quite arrives at the inexpressible."

In No School Tie, Peter Phillips evokes places familiar to many London Jews: the City, Hampstead Garden Suburb and the Heath. Phillips's Jewish empathy with the migrant is evinced in such poems as Janek's Story and Andrei Kushkov. Moreover, he strikes the right, light note for successful comic verse.

My favourite poem in No School Tie is The Horse, an anthropomorphic study in the tradition of Edwin Muir, William Carlos Williams and Philip Larkin: "He shakes his head, snorts// as if to say This is my land." The theme of claiming to belong somewhere runs through all these volumes of Jewish poetry.

Peter Lawson is a poet, critic and academic working at the Open University

    Last updated: 11:23am, January 3 2012