Reviews: Don't Mention The Children and Notness

Views political, spiritual and poetical


Don't Mention the Children
By Michael Rosen
Smokestack Books, £8.95

By Richard Berengarten
Shearsman Books, £9.95

Michael Rosen is best known as a children's writer who, as the blurb to Don't Mention the Children rightly states, has mastered a "childlike seriousness", blending innocence with experience.

Several of his poems here concern confronting contemporary neo-Nazis, in both France and the UK. Mme Le Pen, for example, makes its points in both English and French. It concerns Rosen's French great-aunt and uncle: "on a donné une étoile jaune/ à l'oncle et à la tante de mon père". This "post-memory" of the Holocaust spurs Rosen to write public, agitprop poems about personal and family experience, such as that composed for Holocaust Memorial Day: "I knew/ where to look - how many people were on that convoy, how long/ did it take to get to Auschwitz, what happened the moment/ the train arrived, how many never came back, how many/ survived".

The title poem concerns "culture" and "identity" in relation to Israel. It is one of several uncompromising pieces about Israel's reliance on power at the cost of political paralysis: "So you kill children./ Then what?/ So you shell hospitals./ Then what?/ So you say you won't talk to terrorists./ Then what?/ So you say the land is yours./ Then what?"

Rosen empathises with the oppressed, whether Jewish or Palestinian. He evokes Palestinian experience where "every inch of airspace above us, every inch of sea-space next to us/ is guarded, checked and controlled by you". This is unmistakably committed political verse.

By contrast, Richard Berengarten's Notness (an anagram of "sonnets") consists of metaphysical meditations in 100 finely crafted sonnets. Section One of the book's decimalised structure invites us to experience the work Judaically, with Dwelling: for the Shekinah. Berengarten's note links the Shekinah "both with Gerard Manley Hopkins's conception of inscape and instress, and with our English words, 'radiance' and 'glory'".

What concerns Berengarten is not Judaism as a set of religious beliefs and practices so much as the association of the Shekinah with the "immanent and transcendental". Everyday immanence and transcendence are the touchstones of this deeply life-affirming collection.

Judaism reappears in Section Eight, with a sonnet dedicated To the Shekinah, again; and once more in Section Nine where The doubling identifies, through "fractal echoes", "a Star of David in a daffodil". If there are echoes of Wordsworth's daffodils, we should not be surprised. Berengarten is acutely aware (as one of his sonnets is titled) of Text and intertext being part of both the English literary and Jewish religious traditions: "As Midrashim illuminate a text/ each heaven breaks and remakes each last one".

In a sense, Notness is composed of English literary and Judaic Midrashim. It recreates in powerful and affecting language the "Miraculous, reverberating world/ filled with new things unfurling and unfurled".

While Rosen's verse is certainly more accessible, Berengarten's offers the rewards of exploring intense spiritual spaces. Both collections are steeped in contemporary British Jewish culture and identity.

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