Guest Review: Sergeant on On Cigarette Papers
David Sergeant reviews
On Cigarette Papers
by Pam Zinnemann-Hope
The unusual nature of On Cigarette Papers is described in a foreword. In 1935 Pam Zinnemann-Hope’s parents – mother German, father German-Jewish – eloped from Nazi Germany to Russia, where they were imprisoned during the Stalinist purges, before escaping to England. Following their deaths Zinnemann-Hope found ‘an archive of letters, photos and objects’ left by her mother; included in these was a tiny pile of cigarette papers on which recipes had been written. These were the launching point for ‘a journey of discovery through [her] parents’ story and the wider story of [her] family.’ Some of the poems are written in her own voice; others take on the voices of her parents and grandparents, and switch between German and English.
Unsurprisingly, given the drama, heartbreak and intimacy bound up with this journey, the volume is deeply felt. The poems are written in a sparsely referential, staccato style that hints at the brittleness of these people’s lives and communication, as they are shunted across borders and languages by forces beyond their control. Occasionally the style also hints at, not so much the limitations, as the brute simplicity of the affiliations and identities through which her parents picked their way; as in ‘Oma Leah Hears The News’, which reads in its entirety:
When Kurt and Lottie tell me that they’ll marry
I fall to my knees immediately,
I beg you, please don’t choose my son, Lottie,
I want him to live with me.
Of course I would prefer if you were Jewish!
The absence of lyricism, of the complex music and use of language which normally constitute poetry, gives a sense of the vacuuming gulfs which threatened these people, and in which so much of their story has been lost, despite the poet’s best attempts at reclamation. As if she clutched into the dark for a flower and came back with the tiny shred of a leaf. Recipes, letters and a proclamation from a Borough Council are also folded into the volume, with what seems a minimum of alteration, just the chopping of prose into poetic lines. The volume relies not on any poetic technique or accomplishment but on the immensity of the story from which it arises. Another way to conceive of it is as bulletins from a story we don’t get to read, which perhaps doesn’t even exist anymore – and indeed, Zinnemann-Hope’s talent is strongly novelistic, as she gives a sense of the characters’ individuality, and deftly selects the incidents which form the stepping stones through her river of lost time.
It is this very novelistic quality which also gives one curious effect of the volume, as it vies with the documentary, testimonial function implied by its vocabulary of ‘archive’ and ‘letters’, by the lack of any kind of poeticism, by the individualised first person voices which relay the lives of all the characters, parents, grandparents and poet. Zinnemann-Hope makes clear in her foreword that what follows is ‘her version of the truth’, but still, the admission that her parents barely spoke of what they’d undergone exists in a strange tension with the speaking that follows. In what sense is this letter an actual letter? I found myself thinking, these words words that were spoken or thought? How far is this the poet’s and how far the historical characters’ ‘truth’? The obvious rejoinder is does it matter? but I think that in our culture and in this context it does, though perhaps for no very good reason: hence the furore that accompanies memoirs, however powerful and historically accurate, which turn out to be invented. The issue is particularly pressing for a volume that relies so much on the testifying voice, and whose sparseness is compensated for by documentary history, the power of what actually happened, was said, seen or thought. An afterword entitled ‘Sources’ expands a little further on the division between ‘inspiration and information’ in some of the poems, as with this note:
The letter Grossvater Erich wrote to my mother (in German) is in the archive. ‘It’s been thirteen years since I heard from you’ is the only quote, though he does mention his cough.
It’s a slightly disconcerting experience to then have to rejig in our memory the poem to which this note refers, ‘Translation Of A Letter From Grossvater Erich, To My Mother’, in which the man’s voice recounts memories such as these:
When you were here
I took you to the Bulgarian forests.
That’s where my memories gather
They gather mushrooms;
They gather some for me and some for you.
Were these forests mentioned, like ‘the cough’? Were the mushrooms? And to this end, and in something like these words? Of course, we understand through stories, we remember through stories; our sense of other people’s lives is often a compound of fact and fiction, ‘translated’ through ourselves. And perhaps this is Zinnemann-Hope’s point, that what she calls in the foreword her ‘sense of identity’ is fluid and malleable and has to be built up – can be rebuilt – from the materials available. But it’s a strange way of ‘holding a conversation’ with the dead, a phrase that grows stranger the more it’s thought on. How do they answer back? How do they think? Whose voice are we actually hearing, and how
David Sergeant, born in 1979, is a British poet published by Shearsman.