BOOKS CHAPTERS AND VERSE
Peter Lawson reviews a trio of recent verse collections Madeleine Kingsley swims in a stream of consciousness
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”