Fine lines: lyri­cal lust for life in new po­etry col­lec­tions

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment - RE­VIEWED BY PETER LAW­SON

Se­lected and edited by Ge­orge and Mari Gömöri Alba Press, £10.99 Moris Farhi Saqi, £10 Ch­eryl Moskowitz Cir­cle Time Press, £7

Some peo­ple have a prob­lem with Holo­caust po­etry. It seems des­tined to leave readers un­happy. And it might be asked why any­one want­ing to know about the sub­ject wouldn’t do bet­ter read­ing his­tor­i­cal stud­ies.

To peo­ple be­set by such mis­giv­ings, I un­re­servedly rec­om­mend I Lived on this Earth… The po­ets as­sem­bled in Ge­orge and Mari Gömöri’s an­thol­ogy are not de­fined or de­lim­ited by the Holo­caust.

While writ­ers like Mik­lós Rad­nóti, István Vas and János Pilin­szky found them­selves flung into a sit­u­a­tion to which they ap­plied their po­etic gifts, sev­eral of the po­ets in­cluded did not phys­i­cally ex­pe­ri­ence the Holo­caust, although they clearly carry the psy­cho­log­i­cal scars. Zoltán Su­monyi (b.1942), for ex­am­ple, bears wit­ness only in Mau­thausen 2009, when vis­it­ing the for­mer con­cen­tra­tion camp’s mu­seum. István Tur­czi (b.1957) adds an epi­graph to his poem Me­mento: “Noth­ing but a pho­to­graph re­mains of this gen­er­a­tion”.

The Holo­caust is slip­ping into his­tory — which makes this finely trans­lated col­lec­tion all the more sig­nif­i­cant. And a lot of the writ­ing af­firms what makes life worth liv­ing, and si­mul­ta­ne­ously com­pels its readers to ques­tion their own be­hav­iour to­wards oth­ers.

Moris Farhi’s lat­est col­lec­tion be­gins with an af­fir­ma­tion of “God” and “the flesh”. Far from the hor­rors of man’s in­hu­man­ity to man, Farhi’s per­sonae find grace through sex­ual pas­sion: “have you been loved/ as I have been loved?/ have you felt grace/ when you blessed/ your flesh/ and not your mind?// does not pas­sion/ re­deem/ the loss of in­no­cence?”. The po­ems in the first half of this se­lec­tion are largely about sex­ual love. Then death en­ters the picture, and we see that Farhi’s pas­sion is partly shaped by the need to “for­get/ the many ways they have killed us”.

Con­sis­tent with this, in a poem en­ti­tled Af­ter Auschwitz, Farhi writes: “love is wis­dom/ wis­dom is love”. Love is the an­ti­dote to the time — in a ref­er­ence to a mem­ory drawn from his own fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence — “when your sis­ter’s skull/ stared at you from a pile of skele­tons/ in Birke­nau’s Cre­ma­to­rium 2”. Love is “restora­tive soil” and “rein­car­na­tion/ by em­brac­ing the fire”.

The final words of this brave and af­fect­ing vol­ume urge the reader “to keep on lov­ing/ while wait­ing” for “the dust”. Farhi writes a pared-down, “skinny” form of free verse, rem­i­nis- cent of Dy­lan Thomas’s sim­i­larly pas­sion­ate and po­etic lust for life.

Ch­eryl Moskowitz is also con­cerned with rein­car­na­tion in The Girl is Smil­ing. She writes of child­birth: “I un­der­stood for the first time/ the mean­ing of rein­car­na­tion:/ that each new de­liv­ery re­turns us/ ab­so­lutely to the be­gin­ning”. An­other im­pres­sive poem, Lifted, con­cerns the kid­nap­ping and abuse of a “scare­crow girl/ a slip of a thing”.

It is deft and dis­creet in the man­ner in which it tack­les its dif­fi­cult sub­ject. The rapid rep­e­ti­tions are sug­ges­tive of nurs­ery rhyme, a place where an in­no­cent girl en­coun­ters this “man/ this guard/ this brick of a thing/ this thick­skinned/ hard-nosed prick of a thing”.

Con­fronta­tion be­tween frag­ile fe­male and vi­o­lent male re­curs in an­other poem, stress­ing its nar­ra­tor’s in­abil­ity to in­ter­vene: “I couldn’t save her./ My sheets are wet with sweat./ Noth­ing, I say again,/ shout­ing into the pil­low/ to smother the noise”. The life-ful­fill­ing qual­i­ties of the fam­ily ap­pear to be re­demp­tivein­moskowitz’swork,which con­tains some beau­ti­ful po­ems about moth­ers, fa­thers and daugh­ters. Peter Law­son is a poet, critic and Open Univer­sity teacher

Ch­eryl Moskowitz: fam­ily ful­fil­ment

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