Wednesday, 25 July 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch 3

There are two early Jewish figures in my work, both in my second book, November and May (1981). The first, a woman, appears in 'The Phylactery', a set of quatrains after a photograph. Something about the photo must have struck me because there are a number of details in it that I seem to have registered. The woman is at some distance psychologically, hiding behind a phylactery. She represents something - a moment in an apocalyptic event that was likely to occur again on a cyclic basis, between the first rain and the latter rain' as the poem put it in its last line.

The other poem is titled 'North Wembley', the tenth line of which reads:
Jewish boys practice the violin in dark but modern lounges.
The poem is about the eponymous suburb of London and the violin-playing boys are just a passing element in it. They are seen from the outside. I suspect my younger violin-playing brother is an important aspect of the boy, but the lounges I was thinking of were bigger and darker than ours, rooms glimpsed through windows. The boys were close but elsewhere. I simply noted them but I was not them.

The ghost of my mother (who had died almost six years earlier) had already appeared in one poem, 'At the Dressing Table Mirror', and is a shape behind the eyes in 'Half-Light'. There are one or two memories of Hungary. A familiar block of flats, a smell suddenly noticed in a derelict house that reminded me of a Budapest lido.

Otherwise the poems spring from apprehensions and pleasures, particularly love and the precarious state of existential affairs on which love depends for its excitements. All these feelings are directed towards a general sense of strangeness and foreigness in Short Wave (1984).  There is very little there on the subjects I am now discussing. There is probably more of my mother in 'Goya's Chamber of Horrors' than anyone would have realised and 'The `Impotence of Chimneys' does contain a rather ominous, ambivalent crematorium chimney but Hungary is the more pressing subject and informs a group of four poems 'Assassins', 'Foresters', Short Wave' and 'In the Cabbage Grove', the last of these identifying with Hungarian peasant women whose 'voices prove / the gruffness mine' and who were 'the savages I gather in'. Those women would have been the tough tellers of village tales I imagined rather than knew. They were certainly not Jewish but creatures of the field.


This isn't a retrospect of my poetry but it's interesting to see how the twin themes of Hungary and the yellow-room inside it begin to emerge. In 1984 I went to Hungary for the first time and that changed everything. The first book to arise out of it, The Photographer in Winter (1986) moved around the figure of my mother (the photographer in question, but also myself as the secret agent observing her) as a Hungarian in Hungary who then came to England. It was very warmly reviewed and was considered a leap forward particularly on account of its three longer poem sequences.

But there was one aspect of the return not covered in that book: it was my mother's arrest and transportation to first Ravensbruck, then to Penig. Out of that subject came the long (780 lines) title poem of Metro (1988) and here is where the Jewish question first arose.

Again, the book was enthusiastically greeted, but something curious happened.

The poem traces my mother's removal from Budapest in the late autumn of 1944 (I don't know the exact date). There are three key motifs.

First is the Greek notion of the psychopomp, the spirit guide to the land of the dead.

The second is the metaphor of the Metro, or rather the Földalatti, the first underground line of Budapest, opened in 1896, and running so close to the surface that you can feel the vibration of the train under your feet: the transportation trains of the Holocaust are clearly echoed and the passengers at the stations are imagined burning.

The third was the reconstruction of not only a surmised family history but of my mother's voice in italicised passages. As for the history, I spent two years after my mother's death, talking to my father on tape, trying to fit together what happened both to him and to her. It was a way of distracting him from his loss and grief. The voice was of course a problem, and the poem makes some references to the synthetic notion of an enterprise it considers necessary.

The location was Budapest as it was in 1984 - a magnificent city whose buildings were marked by the bullet and shell holes of not only 1945 but 1956. You could put your hand to the walls as though they were living skin. It was like feeling history breathing.

And of course it was about the removal of a specific person, someone who was being removed specifically because she was Jewish. Entering that territory - the Jewish territory - was a big but unavoidable step. It was to enter the yellow room behind the locked doors of a perfectly ordinary but desolate lounge, all absence, the railway from it leading where it did in fact lead.


What happened?

 Having been received first as a poet with an interesting foreign background, then as a Hungarian poet (I was billed as such despite never having written in Hungarian), I was now a Hungarian Jewish poet (and billed as such.) I think I only partly understood the situation, but it was clear that this last change was considered more dramatic than the previous one. It made one a special creature, one of those: 'Jewish boys' who 'practice the violin in dark but modern lounges.' I still didn't feel like one in myself. That boy was still someone else. Still is.

Then other things happened. The reasons for this were, I now think, complicated and worth trying to pick apart.  That's for the next post.

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