Thursday, 26 July 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch 4

What happened after Metro?

On the positive side, those who hadn't noticed my work much before now noticed it. It was identifiable as a theme and that always extends interest.

On the negative side, those who had taken the closest interest in my work before stepped back. It was a very slight step back, the first, but I registered it.

It might have been partly because Metro was autobiographical in a sense most of my earliest poems had not been, nor have been since. The small boy figure that appears in it in one or two places, and with whom the poem begins, was certainly me, and the events in the poem, when they were not clearly metaphorical or invented, were identifiable as a distanced metaphoric form of documentary.

There was something a touch improper in this relationship of poem-voice to an 'I' character - there often is - but I felt it was the most honest way of approaching the subject, that is if I was going to write it at all. By the time I had taken that decision about half the poem was writing itself: the rest remained to be written. I think the poem has its longueurs but that it also has its highlights, and that those highlights are among my most intense writing.

But this wasn't primarily an aesthetic argument about the genuine, deeply problematic place of documentary or autobiography in poetry. It was related but there was something else.


It was as if I had pulled a fast one by playing 'the Jewish card'.  There was such a thing as Holocaust literature and I was now part of it. That literature was suspect. Everything that could possibly be said on the subject had been said and that should have been the end of it. It was contaminated territory.

The fact was I hadn't read very much Holocaust literature myself and still haven't. I too was suspicious of it. I didn't like the idea of curling up with lists of horrors, chanting them over and over again and cultivating the wounds of others as though they were my own. An English Jewish friend told me how his parents would carry a piece of Holocaust literature with them to the beach and conspicuously read it if there were Germans nearby. My parents never did that: I couldn't imagine them doing it.  Quite quietly, without any fuss, they boycotted German goods.  That was their personal response to all that had happened directly to them.

I felt a certain contempt for my friend's parents. Contempt is too strong a word perhaps. The story made me inwardly shudder.

However, there was a contaminated area and the warning sign on the contaminated area said:

No entry 

You may read Primo Levi or Imre Kertész or Paul Celan, but that's enough. Because if you do more, if you turn it into a positive fetish, you are claiming special status and excluding the sufferings of others we consider just as important as you and that includes us. 

We too have suffered. 


I hadn't looked to claim a special status for myself: Metro was the conclusion of a series of longer poems about my mother and what had made her what she was. She was my 'subject' along with the city that had blown me away in 1984 and '85. It was what the whole Hungarian experience had driven me to. It was partly what Budapest, in all its beauty, really was. It had happened. Nothing very special, but it had happened.

The response, though faint, was a kind of education. Harping on about the subject could be perceived as a form of accusation. It could make people feel guilty when they had no personal cause to be. It was to load the dice. It was an irritation and a bore. It was sentimentality exactly as I described it before: a feeling notionally directed at others but actually directed at oneself.


Metro ends with the direct memory of a drunken woman sitting on a bench in the metro and another sitting next to her with a pool of urine at her feet. A policeman moves them on. I couldn't quite say why the poem ended there but it felt right it should do so, and still does. This image of humiliation and squalor may relate to something in my mother's psychological condition. It might relate to something in mine. I don't know.

The problem began in the first two of sixty stanzas, the point when what I now think of as the yellow room appears. Here is my great aunt, Riza, in the yellow room in Budapest:

My aunt was sitting in the dark, alone, 
Half sleeping when I crept into her lap.
The smell of old women now creeps over me,
An insect friction against bone
And spittle and an ironed dress
Smoother than shells gather by the sea,
A tongue between her teeth like a scrap 
Of cloth, and an eye of misted glass,
Her spectacles with the image of a lit room
Beyond the double doors, beyond the swing
Between the doors, and my head in her bosom
At rest on soft flesh and hard corsetry,
And in that darkness a tired and perfumed smiling.

Across the city darkened rooms are breeding
Ghosts of elderly women nodding off
Over the books their grandchildren are reading,
Or magazines, or bibles, or buttons to be sewn,
With letters, patterns. recipes, advice.
Some of them might have the radio on,
Like her, my aunt, who will remain alone
Within that room in which I visit her,
Ascending to her skin, which is rough
About the mouth, with hard nodules, like rice,
(Her face glows like a lantern) and she says,
There is a God, the God of the Jews, of Moses and Elias,
But this is not the time to speak of him.

Nor was it the time to speak of him (I had been baptized by full immersion twenty-six years before), but it was time to speak of the aunt and of my mother in the other room, and of the room itself.

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