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Poetry of ‘a detailed curiosity’.

A Fortnightly Review

The Music of the Prophets
by Michelene Wandor

£6.99 | Arc Publications | 60 pages

Harmless
by Myra Sklarew

$15.95 | Mayapple Press | 92 pages

By Alan Wall.

 

T. S. ELIOT SAID that whatever else poetry might be, it had to be a form of intelligent punctuation. Words are never more vividly alive on the page than when verse is exhibiting its sinewy constructions. Language at its most compressed, economic and potent tends to be parsimonious with conventional punctuation marks. But then lineation is verse’s own particular form of punctuation. The whiteness of the page is deployed by the skilful poet as an antiphonal device. Verse impresses the eye first of all as a visual shape, a design fashioned out of words. In irregular verse forms, vacancies articulate themselves between the verbal shapings, and in them as much as the words themselves the reading eye receives instructions as to rhythm; the breathing periods of composition. In this, verse immediately distinguishes itself from prose, where all such shapings are simply left to the discretion of the typesetter.

In The Music of The Prophets Michelene Wandor is remarkably economic in the marks she requires to frame her lines and phrases. Reading this slim volume one is made aware quickly of the remarkably deft disposition of words. At times this alerts us to the fact that a visual intelligence is shaping these lines as much as an aural one. Eye and voice are here perfectly poised in dialectical tension. When punctuational ascesis becomes programmatic, it can easily become tiresome; it is interesting how dated and weary the paginated typewriter novelties of E. E. Cummings now appear. A certain minimal punctuation enhances rather than depletes the force of even the sparest verse. Wandor’s skill here seems to me nothing short of remarkable. Her deployment of indentation, lineation, a skeletal enjambment and a nimble dancing line combine to produce page after page of highly effective writing, which slides easily from verse to prose and back, as did the Hebrew scripture, and Shakespeare, or the sequence poems of George Oppen and David Jones.

THE POEM EXPLORES the world of the Jews in seventeenth-century England and Amsterdam. The Jews had been expelled from England in 1290. When Cromwell was Lord Protector, the time was felt to be ripe for a return. Cromwell himself was sympathetic, both for economic reasons and probably for religious ones: there was a great deal of messianism about at the time, both Christian and Jewish. Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam believed firmly in one messianic requirement: Jews had to be settled in all countries, and he turned his own attention toward England. He visited London in 1655, and it was quietly agreed that the Jews could start to return. That is the setting for Wandor’s text, and she explores this situation from Amsterdam and London, from a Jewish perspective and a Christian one. The writing is in love with sensuous detail and there is a frank delight in litanies; in what Gerard Manley Hopkins called all trades, their gear and tackle and trim:

        And the Jews will bring with them trade
into England
cinnamon and cardamom, nutmeg, mace and black pepper
pomegranates, emeralds
and cloves
silk, cotton and mohair
raisins, dates, dried figs and coffee
Persian silk, phosphorus, white pepper
and cloves

It is this scrupulous attention to the dailiness of life, its unrelenting quotidian detail, that anchors the work, despite the grandeur of some of the sentiments expressed:

            Menasseh ben Israel
and Oliver Cromwell
sit in the coffee house
as ordinary as
a merchant banker
an insurance underwriter
a broker
a musician
a journalist

There are frequent echoings here of the verse of the time. These are usually handled with throwaway ease, but section twenty-two engages in some heavy echoes of Marvell, which threaten to become obtrusive. ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is a jingly poem, as it was presumably intended to be: Marvell was ringing Cupid’s little bells in the dark hall of Thanatos. That winged chariot of time seems to arrive in a pantomime costume these days. There are also frequent references to Rembrandt and his involvement with the Jewish community in Amsterdam. Modern scholarship seems to have grown uncertain about this involvement, and has even questioned whether the etching by Rembrandt reproduced on the back cover is actually a portrait of Menasseh ben Israel at all.

Not that any of this detracts from the overall achievement. This is a poetry whose porous borders allow history, politics and the factuality of documentation into its purview. It reminded me of the work of Charles Reznikoff.

OF COURSE YOU DON’T have to go to the past to find history, since it constitutes the present too. Myra Sklarew observes a world which has most certainly supped full of horrors. The Lithuania that was her mother’s home, and the exterminations that took place there during the war, reverberate beneath the surface of other places and other times in her writing. But she has a remarkable gift for finding occasions of joy too, never sentimental and never insipid.

Harmless is a collection of discrete lyrics, which impress with their lucidity. Obscurity is easy to achieve in verse; it is often the first stop you come to, but lucidity has to be earned. Here in poem after poem, some employing stanzaic structures, others in free verse, we have moments of intense encounter explored with compassion and intelligence. These moments often focus on the meeting-point between the natural and the industrial, or the organic and the mechanical, as in ‘Spider Concerto’:

  Irascible Brahms, afraid
of boats, never ventured as far
as America. But this spider

has set up her guide wires
between mirror and door
of a red convertible parked

in the grocery store lot
and she is keeping time
to Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

As this poem develops, what impresses the reader is the attention the poet pays to a specific situation, one that most of us might note briefly before sauntering off. But there is no sauntering here. The spider’s actions are noted as the car is entered by its owner and driven away, and all is related to Brahms and his music. It is a quiet epiphany and like many of the poems in the book it produces a curious exhilaration in the reader.

Although radically different books, both of these exhibit a detailed curiosity regarding the minutiae of existence, whether itemising seventeenth-century trade or arachnid encounters. The threads that tie dissimilarities together, whether gossamer or memories of Lithuania, hold the poems together with an alert gracefulness. And there is here too on occasion a kind of scriptural passion. In the remarkable poem ‘Misreading’, Sklarew once more fixes her attention on insects, and the ecology they share with humanity. The poem ends with this startling disclaimer:

No matter the bomb in the school library
mixing blood and pages in holy books.
My bugs and I, we have no opinion today
on the jurisdiction
of righteousness, on who
owns the air, the currents of the sea, on which
God is memory’s oldest, on violence within
pushing with all its might
against violence without.


Alan Wall was born in Bradford and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and a book of short stories. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He has been Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores. He is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and lives in North Wales. His most recent book is Doctor Placebo.    

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