Frances Spurrier reviews
by Yvonne Green
A recent article by William Oxley which appeared online in Horizon Review stated:
"...and when academics, and those poets of an academic bent, offer criticism of contemporary poetry invariably, on examination, such criticism can be seen to be a species of scholarly hermenuetics or interpretation; and this is because the academic instinct is not one of caring but of curiosity."
Which I think means that poetry criticism takes something apart just to see how it works, rather as a pathologist might examine a corpse, without finding any thing to love and admire in the art itself or encouraging anyone else to find anything to love and admire. Because I feel Mr. Oxley is worryingly right, I hope to avoid the pathological approach in looking at 'The Assay'.
Yvonne Green was born in London in l957 into a merchant family of central Asian descent. Her mother was born in Egypt and her father was born in Berlin and brought up in Paris. The Assay is her first full-length collection.
So far from being corpse like, these poems are full of life or should I say, full of lives for the glossary of some of the terms used includes words taken from Biblical Hebrew, Judaio Tajik (a dialect spoken by Boukharan Jews) Egyptian Arabic, Arabic, Irish and Moldavian). Some of these pictures are taken across great divides, some are interior shots, but all are courageous and fascinating.
I will dive straight in to the poem 'Without your Jews' commissioned for reading in Bevis Marks synagogue on 16th December 2006, for the 350th anniversary celebrating the readmission of Jews to Britain (extraordinarily the law exiling them has never been repealed).
'But your jews were gone or hidden. Hostages of darkened reason
which believes calumny and cannot see what makes a human being.
Which cannot listen or watch or ask questions or make a judgement,
which doesn't know its history and doesn't want to....
Tucked away down a back alley in the City of London (jews were not allowed to build on the public thoroughfare), Bevis Marks synagogue dates from 1699 and still conducts services in the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic tradition.
Where there are Jews there is food. And this is not just any food. Meals, and the preparation of them are hugely significant anchors of daily life in many cultures, ingredients measuring out love, reward and dissatisfaction - a sort of edible morse code for the emotional state of family life. Salt, rice and flour - the staples of existence - make several appearances. The smell of rice cooking is the smell of my childhood/ and a house devoid of cooking smells is no home... . (Our Food)
Here is food as good:
They never spoke to each other./Love was shown through food/through the soup in our bowls/unlaid chicken eggs the golden prizes/....vermicelli measured out as praise
and as bad -
but then waste was a sin /and the task set out on our plates was impossible
A potent memory of a very vanished age: 'The Oboule' in Alexandria Circa 1935 describes a grandmother 'at home' on Tuesdays with raisins, small cakes, salads fish and rice. 'A morning breeze visited, as the ladies sat on the white verandas.'
'lemon tea in glasses/green tea in small china bowls'.
Part 2 of the collection moves away from the currents of history taking an entirely different tone, dealing with abuse and domestic violence :
Came as a shock/ his hard hand/swing against my face
(the First Time)
....her mind confused, her children silent,/they've learned to be silent/after the whisky on the Sunday night table
(Walking the boys to school)
...it was just me/that brought it out in him/his foot his shoe on my back/my hair in his hand/so I thought I'd be bald
(I didn't really realise)
A theme of loss experienced everyday in ordinary relationships is acutely picked out. For example, in the poem 'The Parents' the narrator comments: You don't listen to me/nothing changes there/ but you do to the children.
These poems tackle many cross-currents and themes but underlying them is the blood that courses through ancient races, ancient racisms and through the veins of modern lives hiding secrets behind appearances of orderliness. Ordinary thoughts are rendered extraordinary by the languages in which they are captured - language which is straightforward to read but which leaves in the mind images and subject matters which are deeply moving.
None of the poems is long - the longest only an A5 page. My personal favourite in the collection is a mere six lines. A life in six lines? I stand amazed and humbled. Here is a poem for every woman who ever felt that their own mother made a better job of homemaking, child rearing, managing the whole shooting match - than she herself ever could.
I reproduce it in its entirety - I could never have written this, but I'm so glad someone else did.
I Am Not A Mother
who fries an onion and fills the house
with expectation, the ever-open presence
alert for returning minions. I am not
the stalwart who never flinches.
I remember my own mother cooking for
for everyone, then lying in a darkened room.
So do I, Yvonne. So do I.
Frances Spurrier is a graduate of the creative writing MA at Kingston University, and published poet and reviewer.