Cacophony and community, psalms and honey

Owen Lowery reviews two collections of poetry


In My Jewish Life (Editions des petits nuages £9), Sharon H Nelson explains the political and religious interests that are essential to her work in general, as well as to this posthumous collection of her prose and poetry. My Jewish Life is the intimate reflection of a writer, aware of her impending death, but is also the public statement of “a Jewish woman” belonging to “a culture in which women are valued less than men”. This dilemma is apparent throughout My Jewish Life, as is the sense of poems as “gifts… to a prospective community of readers.” Community is explored through the ritual of preparing, and serving food, Rosh Hashanah, the shared guilt of wasting “the protein in a small lump of boiled-out turkey”, the recent memory of “starvation”, and genocide, the commemoration of exile, and the familial legacy of skills carried from Russia to the West. Food becomes symbolic of life as one of the “Jewish children of Jewish immigrants/in a kosher world,” as does music in poems such as A Joyous Cacophony.

Given the weight of history, culture, and identity, it is natural that Nelson’s voice is joined by those of others, including her father. She is part of a community of voices, as well as a “living suitcase”, carrying “an incredible joie de vivre” capable of escaping the past, and the tragedy of the writer’s death, by celebrating “what is,/no matter what had been”.

Maria Apichella’s Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing £9.99) also recognises the communicative importance of food, religion, faith, identity, and music, through the biblical figure of David. He remains a lover, leader, warrior, and musician, but is transported to Wales, the land of song. As the object and subject of physical adoration, he is the point at which religious and secular worlds merge.

David is both “ruddy”, in the biblical sense, and “too tipsy to find his room”, a soldier on leave, a human being with genuine flaws.

Often, these boundaries are crossed through the timeless image of honey “like dense sunlight”, “a slow coming sweetness, a kiss.” Honey and honey-making are significant themes throughout, tokens of those appetites which render David accessible. However, this also creates conflict, between the believer, in the form of the first-person speaker, and David, the agnostic.

Yet, through conflict, Apichella’s voice emerges, subverting biblical notions of subservient womanhood. Psalm 76 boils over into “God love you, great Welsh bastard for I can’t.” This energy is extended into the “roar” that “judders/my neighbour’s walls”, “shakes you, my big-eared God”, and “stirs/David from his sleep”.

Fittingly, Apichella’s last words pay homage to the female poet’s discovery of her own voice: “I can’t pick the harp/but I can respond.”


Owen Lowery is a writer and critic

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