Lines that lead back to Berlin, childhood and beyond

Peter Lawson samples some verse


Nostalgia is particularly poignant for refugees. Beata Duncan was a German Jew sent by her parents to England in 1934, aged just 12. In this, she resembles Kindertransport children, several of whom went on to write verse reflecting on their experiences of right-wing nationalism, antisemitism and the loss of their families.

Beata Duncan’s poetry is different, in that it mainly celebrates Berlin in the 1920s. A sensuous nostalgia is displayed throughout Berlin Blues: “And I am back in their flat again/ handling those figurines,/ the smoothness of the bronze,/ their striding bodies and limbs,/ the coolness of the stone”.

Visual art, music, cabaret and theatre are evoked as Duncan recalls her playwright father Hans Rehfisch and his celebrity friends Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Overall, this is a happy collection about a Berlin childhood when assimilated Jewish life seemed “a play, we their theatre”.

Tania Hershman’s debut collection, Terms and Conditions, also revels in nostalgia for childhood. Hershman champions childhood as a form of escapism from engagement with the adult world. How to be fully-grown, for example, urges the reader to admire children taken to a museum who “are fascinated by the brilliantly-shined/ museum floor, sliding along it”. Education is dismissed for encouraging such spontaneous fun to be “stamped out” of the young.

A more thought-provoking poem is Relativity: “this is Einstein’s world A hundred/ years ago he showed how/ we all are bound I nudge space/ and you/ are shifted”. Particle physics has expanded the bounds of poetic possibility. Terms and Conditions features such imaginative delights amid its whimsical verse.

Published in California, Shirim is an exciting bi-annual Jewish poetry journal. For 2017, its editor Marc Dworkin commissioned the Canadian poet Seymour Mayne to produce a double-issue of his own poems alongside translations from the Yiddish writers Malech Ravitch, Rachel Korn and Abraham Sutzkever. Interspersed with these are autobiographical prose pieces which explain Mayne’s dedication to Yiddish through his upbringing in Montreal where, “in the home, English and Yiddish vied for supremacy”.

There are some wonderfully sensitive translations here, particularly of lines by Rachel Korn — “memory is a dark knot/ and on my hair I can still feel/ the caress of hands”. Mayne also shapes some striking images in his own poems: “Found decades/ after your passing,/ the prayer shawl/ is home to minyans of moths/ silently incubating” (Der Zeydehs Tallis). This special issue of Shirim offers readers a unique insight into a fascinating fusion of Canadian-Jewish English and Yiddish poetry.

Mayne is also the author of In Your Words: Translations from the Yiddish and the Hebrew.

Several poems from Shirim appear in the Yiddish half of this collection, while the second half contains a generous selection of verse by the Israeli Hebrew poets Moshe Dor, Eytan Eytan, Elisha Porat and Schlomo Vinner.

Here again, Mayne proves himself a master in translating understated yet powerful images. Moshe Dor’s Shalom, for instance, begins: “Two syllables shorter than the grass/ in a world noisy with big words”. Such lines remind us that small words, like peace, demand our careful attention.

Peter Lawson lectures in the English department of the Open University


Berlin BluesBy Beata Duncan

Green Bottle Press, £8


Terms and Conditions By Tania Hershman

Nine Arches Press, £9.99


Dream the Living Into Speech: A Selection of Poems and a Homage to Yiddish By Seymour Mayne

Shirim: A Jewish Poetry Journal, (US)


In Your Words: Translations from the Yiddish and the Hebrew By Seymour Mayne

Ronald P. Frye, (Canada)

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