Peter Law­son re­views a trio of re­cent verse col­lec­tions Madeleine Kings­ley swims in a stream of con­scious­ness

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - RE­VIEWED BY PETER LAW­SON Peter Law­son’s books in­clude ‘Pas­sion­ate Re­newal: Jewish Po­etry in Bri­tain since 1945’ and a vol­ume of po­ems, ‘Sense­less Hours’

MAN­UAL By Richard Beren­garten

Shears­man Books, £8.95 COM­ING FORTH BY DAY By Gabriel Levin

Car­canet, £9.95 LEARN­ING TO MAKE AN OUD IN NAZARETH By Ruth Padel Chatto & Win­dus, £10

WHAT DO we do with our hands ? We hold hands, craft ma­te­ri­als into ob­jects, play mu­si­cal in­stru­ments and clap when part of an au­di­ence. From in­fancy on­wards, our hands explore the world.

In Richard Beren­garten’s hugely im­pres­sive new col­lec­tion, hands are the sub­ject of an ex­tended con­tem­pla­tion andc el­e­bra­tion. Beren­garten has writ­ten 100 po­ems com­pris­ing two verses of five lines each. Thus, each re­sem­bles a pair of hands. In turn, he has pro­duced a book di­vided into five sec­tions, like five fin­gers of a hand.

The first sec­tion jux­ta­poses the most ten­der of man­ual con­tact (“ex­tended one small fin­ger/ of this my bet­ter hand into the palm/ of a sleep­ing child// and felt his fin­gers clasp/ and clamp my own in­vol­un­tar­ily”) with the most bru­tal (“pulled first trig­gers on vic­tims over ditches/ per­son­ally slit throats”). The sec­tion ends with the hand-sized po­ems reach­ing out to touch the reader: “across time and space and de­spite our mor­tal­i­ties/ you and I join hands through po­etry in a kind/ of peace and har­mony that is un­shake­able”.

Beren­garten’s med­i­ta­tion moves from the mys­ti­cal (“And my guide took me by the hand and led me/ into a dark­ness that was not a dark­ness”) to the do­mes­tic (“The woman woke early kneaded and shaped the dough/ sprin­kled poppy seeds all along its length”). It en­com­passes the bib­li­cal (“this ap­ple/ An Eve might have picked and handed to an Adam”) and the de­motic (“Hey you give me your hand/ No you won’t fall”).

Like Beren­garten, Gabriel Levin is in­flu­enced by the pared-down aes­thet­ics of mod­ernist po­etry. In­deed, there are echoes of po­ets as di­verse as T. S. Eliot and Christo­pher Okigbo in Com­ing Forth By Day.

Levin’s verse delves into a Mediter­ranean mix­ture of mytholo­gies, from the an­cient Greek to the Egyp­tian. He of­fers read­ers “a mon­grel tongue”, with cul­tural roots in France as well as Is­rael (where the poet lives).This is self-con­sciously hy­brid po­etry.

Levin owes much to French sym­bol­ism, as his poem Af­ter Mal­larmé sug­gests. His verse is pri­mar­ily an aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence, so be pre­pared to read with an open heart and re­cep­tive mind to en­joy be­fore un­der­stand­ing your plea­sure. Lan­guage such as “the rap­tor’s // rasp in the or­a­tory’s col­lapsed lung, its crazed/ apse pass­ing for a nup-ended, ribbed keel” are pho­net­i­cally ex­hil­a­rat­ing, and ex­cit­ing, with­out of­fer­ing an easy nar­ra­tive.

One of Levin’s more ac­ces­si­ble po­ems is Un­veiled in Jerusalem, which in­cludes ap­pre­ci­a­tions of the Jewish artists Modigliani and Chaim Sou­tine: “Modigliani, the won­der/of his art”, and “Chaim” who “fast//run­ningoutof pig­ments, gesso for the un­der­coat,/ even so he’d toiled over a dan­gling/ car­cass”. Here, as else­where, Levin’s highly aes­theti­cised po­etry works well when fo­cused on art.

By con­trast, Ruth Padel’s Learn­ing to Make an Oud in Nazareth has a clear mes­sage. She ad­dresses the Mid­dle East, and at­tempts to show the com­mon ground shared by Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam. It comes as no sur­prise that the vol­ume is en­dorsed by the poet and for­mer Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, Rowan Wil­liams. Both Pade­land Wil­liams are es­sen­tially moral­ists, whose po­etry is nei­ther bril­liant nor easy to dis­miss. When I read lines like “the soft blue stem of a Per­sian rose”, I re­main un­sure whether I am read­ing work­shop verse or the real thing.

Cer­tainly, this col­lec­tion has its heart in the right place. By urg­ing read­ers “to move be­tween the lan­guages –/ in your case Ara­bic, He­brew, Ara­maic, Greek”, Padel re­minds us that Is­lam, Ju­daism and Chris­tian­ity are in­ter­con­nected lin­guis­ti­cally, the­o­log­i­cally, his­tor­i­cally and ge­o­graph­i­cally. Her vol­ume ends with one of its bet­ter po­ems, Fac­ing East, which again em­pha­sises “our an­cient his­to­ries on com­mon ground” Con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent state of the Mid­dle East, this is a point worth re­peat­ing.


Ruth Padel: heart in the right place

Richard Beren­garten: neat, nu­mer­i­cal and pow­er­ful

Gabriel Levin: Mod­ernist and “mon­grel”

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