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Itinerary of identity takes in York and Pasadena

Reviews of Honoured, Homecoming and Trajectories

    Homes and homelands: Ezekiel, Eisenstein and Green
    Homes and homelands: Ezekiel, Eisenstein and Green

    Honoured
    By Yvonne Green
    The Poetry Business, £9.95

    Homecoming
    By Joanna Ezekiel
    Valley Press, £7.99

    Trajectories
    By Sam Eisenstein
    Eyewear Publishing, £9.99

    Hendon, Herzlia, York and Pasadena: apparently, all are homes for anglophone Jewish poets.

    Yvonne Green commutes between North London and Israel, yet retains fixed notions of Jewish identity in both places.

    Titled Jews, the fifth and final section of Honoured makes it clear that Jews in Israel are no longer "a hostage to fortune,/ or a whipping boy"; that transcendental Jerusalem "stands outside" earthly "geography", and that "Races and religions,/ care and are cared for interchangeably" in the Promised Land.

    Juxtaposed with this idealised vision of Israel is a Zionist narrative of the diaspora (presumably exemplified in Hendon) where Jews are, at best, irrelevant: "neither novelists nor poets/ would ever write" about them. Green assigns herself the task of just such writing, for without it there is the risk that you will "lose yourself".

    To counter this risk, Green's poems brim with what one might term -from a British post-colonial perspective - ethnic language; for example, "Our hakafohted, cleaned, khallah baked, b'dikatid, bathed,// de-hametzed, memounah'd kaleidescope". Thus Green signifies her Jewishness, and ensures Jewish women have a distinctive voice in English poetry.

    Finding a voice in England is also a concern of Joanna Ezekiel. York, to passionate souls, might well feel "muted" and "subdued". By contrast, Mediterranean locales such as Malta are often "louder".

    Still, Ezekiel finds a home for her passion in politics. A march to protest against climate change is fuelled by "anger" and achieves a lyrical quality "like birdsong". Ezekiel is angry about the current government, and angry about the war in Iraq: "blood stained earth/ tearstained earth". She finds peace through lyricism: "I think of a bowl of oranges,/ a folding card table.// Sunlight at the window." Subdued passion in provincial England finds expression through "soft music, quiet conversation".

    One of the most impressive poems in Homecoming gives voice to a Muslim named Ahmed. Like a Jew, or anyone with ancestry elsewhere, Ahmed can comfortably "dream of my homeland". It is both a homeland of the imagination and it is the existential present: "It is the midst and it is here, now".

    Ezekiel's attempt at empathy with a Muslim, as a Jew and a poet, demonstrates passion effectively deployed.

    Unlike Green and Ezekiel, Sam Eisenstein is American, male and octogenarian. Trajectories is his first published collection.

    From the perspective of Pasadena, Jewishness is pretty much the same thing as the human condition. As the poet reflects on family, illness and the prospect of death, he senses that no single image can summarise his life. Rather, "Lost between" proposed images "is a being/ who may be me".

    Such universalism does not preclude considerations of American Jewishness. Born in 1932, Eisenstein is well aware of the big difference between European and American Jews of his generation. He experiences "Survival envy" and covets European "history", only without "the scars". By comparison, his American experience appears "placid", almost irrelevant.

    Yet Eisenstein has written some remarkable poems about his Jewish-American upbringing. Like the novels of Henry Roth, several evoke the immigrant parents of first-generation Americans.

    Eisenstein recalls his father's repressed anger at suffering "insults" and how he "poured onto me/ every unreturned blow// I was his Jew/ He was my gentile/ with a clenched fist// Nothing really personal".

    This makes for a harrowing read, but also avoids either idealising or dismissing the tensions within Jewish family life. Eisenstein's mother blamed the "innocent tree and me" rather than answer back to "anti-Semitic neighbors". Eisenstein survived to write these marvellous, confessional poems.

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