What an enjoyable time academics have with their 'texts'. Their own writing seeks to be scrupulously clean of themselves. And this leaves the reader bereft of conversational comfort. One feels not as though one is being talked to, but talked at.
...est arrivé. Contains my brief but fair review of Tim Kiely's brief but excellent pamphlet 'Footsteps'. May I also recommend a new book of poetry, A Landscape Blossoms Within Me by Eeva Kilpi, translated by Donald Adamson. More info here:
The review below appeared in the first issue of Lunar Poetry (August 2014), a new monthly poetry magazine edited by Paul McMenemy.
To Sing Away the
Poems re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs
by Norbert Hirschhorn
Holland Park Press, 124pp
Reviewed by Wynn Wheldon
Folk songs tend to address the quotidian. Daily life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, on the
Russian pale, was hard, and folksongs were a means both of expressing this
hardship and of coping with it, of calling the monster by a name, to sing away
the darkest days.
still, the Rebbe’s about to sing. When
he chants the holy songs, our whole
earth rings and the Devil will die.
[WHEN OUR REBBE, p.47]
Hirschhorn is well qualified to write about suffering, and
the suffering of large numbers of people, for he is an epidemiologist by
profession, now retired. He also has several books of poetry to his name.
The thirty-odd poems of the present volume are based on
Yiddish folk songs, hundreds of which Hirschhorn studied in rediscovering his
own cultural Jewishness.The chosen songs
are given in transliteration and literal translation in the second half of the
book.I’m not sure that was entirely
necessary.Is the autobiographical act
not confused by the scholarly?I have
chosen to read the poems as Hirschhorn’s own.
They reveal a civilized, liberal sensibility, concerned with
inequality, but amused too by the quirks of human kind. Underlying all however is the great
existential melancholy that the Jews know better than anyone. A greater Jewish
poet, Joseph Brodsky, once wrote that “the reason why a good poet speaks of his
own grief with restraint is that, as regards grief, he is a Wandering Jew”*. Folk songs
are not known for their restraint, but Hirschhorn’s complaints are never
raucous, and they are not for his own plight, but for the pains of others.The voices of these others he inhabits with
enviable ease, employing an eclectic prosody.There are prose poems and poems in free verse, poems that rhyme, and
metrical poems that don’t rhyme. There is the song-like use of repetition and
nonsense (oy-doy-do-diri-diri-tam). The voices are those of both men and women,
young and old, their terms sometimes formal, sometimes demotic.
Hey pussy cat, why such a pout?
You just checked up your pedigree?
So, what did you find out? Your daddy
greases palms at City Hall.Your
a shoplifter.Little brother
fixes ball games,
and sister’s run off with a grafter.
[A PUNTER’S LAMENT, p. 31]
There are poems with two voices, asked and asker:
…who will save you
when our foes hear your singing?
When inquisitors come to seize me
I will drown them in my song.
[CAVE SONG, p. 17]
Hirschhorn, writing in English, is as happy to place his
characters in Leicester Square as in Union Square.These occasional references pull the
English-language reader back into the ambit of the poems as a whole: we are not
allowed to lose ourselves in eastern Europe or Czarist Russia. The gentile reader
recognizes universal themes: the pains and joys of motherhood, life-changing
decisions, oppression, sisterhood, teaching, working, aspiration, wealth and
poverty, exile, and the imperishable ability to keep dreaming of a better life.
just a wee nip to keep that
fragrance, l’khayim, on
your lips; one
last nip, l’khayim, for what
always dream of.
[TO LIFE! P. 49]
Norbert Hirschhorn has pulled off a kind of transformative
magic in this collection.The lyrics of
songs, of prayer, learned in childhood, are more often remembered as sounds
than as words.The reason lies partly in
the communality of the act of singing or chanting.One is driven along by a collective noise.It is one of singing’s pleasures.What reader has not grown up unsure as to the
correct words of, say, Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’, while knowing with utter
confidence the correct sounds?
In these “re-imaginings” Hirschhorn has turned songs to
poems without sacrificing their communal power, and has found a way of relating
common experience without slipping into cliché, and has furthermore reminded us
that art is almost as vital to humanity as a woollen coat in winter.
Now nothing’s of use to me, except this little song.
[A TAILOR’S SONG, p. 55]
*Joseph Brodsy,‘The Keening Muse’,
in Less Than One: Selected Essays, (Viking, 1986), p. 38
At the risk of being accused of hyperbole (which is a
serious charge), I’d suggest that Streaming
by Jon Welch, performed by Pipeline Theatre at the Pleasance Theatre in
Islington contains three of the most powerful performances available to theatre
goers in London at the moment.I can’t
guarantee that there aren’t equally good performances elsewhere, because I’ve
seen very few plays recently, but the energy, conviction and sheer stage
presence of Angus Brown, Kyla Goodey and Anna Munden is exhausting in just the
way it ought to be.
Of course a good script to work to is important, and they
have that in Welch’s downbeat riff on the Wizard of Oz. A father, Toby, and
daughter, Rosa, previously well-to-do, have fallen on hard times following the
death of wife/mother and the loss of Toby’s job, and have had to move into
low-rent accommodation.Their neighbour,
Candy, provides online sexual favours for paying clients.She befriends the lonely, teenage Rosa, who
finds disagreeable her father’s desperate attempts on the one hand to get work
and on the other to keep her happy.Toby
declines into alcoholism; Rosa moves in with Candy, becomes ‘Dorothy’, and
starts her career as a webcam girl.
Perhaps I could be accused of spoilers but actually what
grips right from the start is the intensity of the performances.The play itself has holes (why doesn’t Rosa
go to school?) and rather rushes to its end.According to the author’s notes in the programme, the play is an
investigation into the cost of the objectification of women, but actually – and
this saves it from being a simple-minded piece of agitprop - one’s sympathies
are not wholly with Rosa. Toby’s situation – widower, financially ruined,
alcoholic, and with a teenage daughter intent on making her own way – is hardly
to be envied.Either we must accept that
his advice to his daughter not to make friends with Candy is sensible or we
must decide that Rosa at sixteen is old enough to make her own decisions.In the final masque there is a sense that
Rosa and Candy have somehow triumphed over Toby, who has been reduced to a
wordless masturbator. It is hard to feel that any of the characters deserve
Angus Brown and Anna Munden make an astonishing pair on
stage, the one manic in his despair, for ever rubbing his scalp (hair all
pulled out perhaps) pinching the bridge of his nose, and stalking the small
room, his phone limpit-like to his ear; the other, in contrast - Anna Munden as Rosa - is quiet, with a mesmerising stillness.This stillness directs one to her face.She acts with her eyes, and the movements are
never affected; always subtle, always natural, but also always emphatic.Having seen her in Pipeline’s previous,
brilliant, production, Transports, it
is evident that she has the makings already of an exceptional actress.She has inimitability.No-one is like her and she is like no-one.
There is comedy and comedic pathos in Kyla Goodey’s
performance as Candy.I had been
concerned to begin with that she was playing too close to the Catherine Tate
character Lauren Cooper or Vicky Pollard, but she
stayed just the right side of stereotype.
As with Transports,
the stagecraft is exemplary.So often in
Fringe theatre the audience is made uncomfortable by the awkwardnesses of the
staging.Pipeline do holisitic work, all
is of a piece.It is difficult to
imagine the play being done in any other way.The design is simple but clever, the lighting and sound design more or
less flawless, the costumes properly thought about and executed.
I don't know about anybody else, but my Sports Personality of the Year is chosen. Rachael Letsche may be the most boring girl in the world, but she can do this:
Mel Pryor's poem below reminded me strongly of one of my own, written some time ago, and published in my pamphlet, Tiny Disturbances. This is a very slightly different version.
ARRIVING AT MONEMVASIA, 1992
It was a moment plum rich with allusion,
with symbol - a full moon striping the wine-dark sea,
Dylan singing she might be in Tangier.
The rooms of Monemvasia, limpet fast
upon the rocks around us, soft light issuing,
were home as only home can be: safe, warm,
full, with a clever magic, of the familiar.
We came upon our friends, sitting, smiling,
terraced beneath the moon, above the sea,
a mild joint passing, sweet hash scenting
the already spiced night with the knowledge
of laughter to come. A rug, cushions.
Comfort never to be known again, maybe,
because our lives soon would turn with children
and that good responsibility
consigns such innocent indulgence to youth
and we no longer incline to symbols.
Now, when the full moon stripes the wine-dark sea
It is not itself that moves us, but the memory.
The year we met, that summer driving
in your tin drum sports car from Abbraccio
del Lago to Dolcedo, music on, cigarette smoke
choking the open top and a glaze of alcohol
as golden as the light spilt over the tongue of the road,
I remember thinking
we would never love like this again -
the settlement of early evening,
the easy smell of grass, the moon,
the whole damn white of it.
I held onto you those years ago
and now, on the same long Italian coast road,
I hold onto that slim translucent memory
the way the day will sometimes
hold onto the moon in its blue sky.
from Drawn on Water
£5.00 from Eyewear Publishing
Some of the thoughts of Constance Yokeham, the presiding genius of my mother's unpublished novel. Daughters of the Flood. This passage is from the second volume, The Leopard on Kamak San, set partly in Korea during the Korean War.
Went tonight (about half past midnight) to see the poppies. The night was dark and wet, but there they were those hundreds of thousands of poppies. One of them was for Gordon Nunns, a great uncle, killed in the last days of the war (September 1st, 1918) at the age of 20.
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red
Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by
stage designer Tom Piper
My review of, here: http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/9360262/amnesia-by-peter-carey-review/
I ought to add that under normal circumstances I'd "never ... lose an opportunity of reasoning against the head-dimming, heart damping principle of judging a work by its defects" (Coleridge quoted by P.J Kavanagh in the Spectator a few years ago now) - but I had been very much looking forward to Amnesia, and I was seriously disappointed (as will be fairly obvious if you read the review).