Flowers, violence and resistance

Peter Lawson reviews four recent verse collections


Poetry pamphlets are not unusual but it is exceptional to come across one with just four poems. Peter Phillips’s pamphlet Four Poems (Hearing Eye £3) is printed on cream-coloured paper and illustrated with black and red lino-cuts by Emily Johns. His poems — Snowdrops, Ukraine Sunflower, Knotweed and Tulips — juxtapose the innocence of flowers with the violence of our human world. Snowdrops features “a bloodbath” imagined in England: “in the east –/ Walsingham, Framlingham, swathes of us were//wiped out”. In Tulips, the flowers resemble Nazi Stormtroopers: “Their black boots marched,// iron crosses glittered on their tunics.” This pamphlet is a small objet d’art, its metaphors reminiscent of Jon Silkin’s Flower Poems (1965).


Joanne Limburg’s new collection of poems follows Feminismo (2000), Paraphernalia (2007) and The Oxygen Man (2012). The last of these, published as a pamphlet by Five Leaves, is incorporated into The Autistic Alice (Bloodaxe £9.95).

Limburg’s volume is divided into three sections: The Oxygen Man, concerning the death of her brother; The Autistic Alice, conveying the alienation of autistic experiences; and Other Poems, which are less thematically linked. There are several explicitly Judaic poems here, which refer to the Bible and Jewish liturgy. For example, in Kaddish for Amy we are urged towards sublime prayer: “Let us bless and extol Him, exalt and praise Him,/ who, beyond the reach of any song performable,/ commands us still to sing”. A diasporic sensibility permeates this impressive collection. The poem Alice Between suggests both anxiety and transcendent confidence: “Sometimes, she is petrified;/ sometimes, she sublimes”; while “Alice and the Red Queen” presents an Alice-in-Wonderland protagonist both nervously “far from home” and proudly self-assertive: “‘Screw you,’ she says, and walks”.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Robson continues with his poetic renaissance. After a writer’s block of some 40 years, Robson recently gave us Blues in the Park (2014). Now he follows that delightful volume with Subject Matters (Smokestack Books £12.95) This reads very much like oral poetry transcribed to the page — “and in a service conducted by a rabbi/ who is female too, what’s more!/ ‘Tut tut,’ I hear them say. ‘Oy vey!’”.

Unlike the work of Phillips and Limburg, Robson’s tends to soothe and reassure rather than disturb and explore. Occasionally, one senses that charm and playfulness are Robson’s priorities: “It/ was an era too when love was said to be free,/ though it always seemed expensive to me.”

At his best, Robson achieves the directness of expression that one finds in the poetry of Dannie Abse. Indeed, his elegies to Abse are among the best poems in this volume: “Darkness starts to spray the scene with black./ The peacock’s feathers are scattered/ on the ground. There’s thunder in our head/ as we wait the news we dread”. This is an intimate, kindly and comforting collection.

Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann writes in Hebrew, and Anthony Rudolf has performed a mitzvah in co-translating her verse (with the author) into effective English, entitled Death of the King (Shoestring Press £10). These poems are by turns gloomy and passionate, while vividly engaged with art and its rhetorical description, ekphrasis. They address themes of love and loss, post-memory of the Holocaust, life in the Occupied Territories and survival “through creative existence”.


Powerfully, Neiger-Fleischmann links her own pain with that of the Palestinians: “Everyone wants/ to keep evil at bay./ Therefore, I don’t cry/ over the Palestinians,/ nor do I cry/ over anyone else!/ Because, if I cry/ over my dead,/ they will stand before me/ in a long line”.

As a Jew, Neiger-Fleischmann knows deeply in her “blood” that “mindless oppression” has to be resisted.


Peter Lawson teaches literature at The Open University. His books include the anthology ‘Passionate Renewal: Jewish Poetry in Britain since 1945’ and a volume of poems, ‘Senseless Hours’

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