Friday, 27 January 2012
Holocaust Day 2
I have often enough written that I was not brought up as a Jew. I mean in any way at all. I was led by my mother to believe that she was a Lutheran, and that therefore we, as her children, would be, officially, of Lutheran background. Not that we ever set foot in a Lutheran church. Both my parents were, at the time of my childhood, atheists. They did not worship any God, neither the Jewish one nor the Lutheran one. We never set foot in a Synagogue either and we kept no Jewish holidays. I knew nothing about them. I think my father would have kept them but my mother insisted on complete dissociation. It was only after her death that our suspicion that she was in fact Jewish was confirmed.
That left us - and now I must talk about myself alone - in a curious position. At some stage or other the question had to arise in the poetry because, however impersonal our subject, our sense of the world is, at least partly, determined by who and what we are. It took me three books to get to the point at which I felt it important to return to Hungary (and it was important, it utterly changed my life), and it was the fifth before the sense of the Holocaust and Jewishness emerged as something pressing. Even so, it was not pressing in my own immediate experience, but as a factor in the sense of sheer being. Budapest, that most beautiful of cities, presented itself physically as scarred memorial to a past of which I was a small part. I felt the bullet- and shell-pitted surface of the buildings at my fingertips: they felt like marks under my own skin, like marks of a realisation that said: 'This is what life is like, not just your life, but life itself'. The poetry then had to go forward, first as 1956, the year of the revolution, but later as 1944, the year of the transportations and vanishings.
When I think of the sense of history in a poet I think of the awareness , under the skin, of death as a presence, death as total indifference in a world of amusement and beauty. That is why Elizabeth Bishop's 'At the Fishhouses' means so much to me. The hand dipping in the icy sea where the seal appears so comically is one of those perfect emblems. The sea to Bishop was as the walls of Budapest were to me. One doesn't have to have direct experience of such things in order to sense them and I value most those who can sense them: not just the tragedy, but the humour and the indifference and the beauty.