Homeless Chronicles from Abraham to Burning Man
reviewed by Nick Houghton
by Gerard Sarnat
Gerard Sarnat, now in his seventh decade, has brought the precision learnt during his medical career, combined it with the compassion acquired while running staffed clinics for those on the margins of society, to produce a collection of great power. By fusing his own life experiences with those of the outsiders described in the poems, Sarnat has achieved the goal of every poet, that of making the personal universal.
In the opening section Sons Rise in the West, the two poems First Times and Whimperbang: Yad Vasheem Revisited, initially seem aesthetically worlds apart. However, the two poems are linked by the juxtaposition of the joyfully erotic in First Times, when the poet’s first sexual encounter is described,
basement rendezvous dark and dank, huddled near the furnace, boil boil, trouble trouble trouble,
and the bleak evocation of industrialised slaughter in, Whimperbang:Yad Vasheem Revisited.
In the shadow of cold chimneys, g-d makes us pay for the air.
Heine was right:
when books burn, humans are destined to be next.
This weaving together of personal rite of passage with an event – The Holocaust – that defies understanding, is the fuel that powers this collection and, by delivering this particular example so early in the book, the reader is quickly acclimatised to the rarefied but entirely accessible nature of the poems.
Sarnat’s work with addicts, the homeless and the disenfranchised – work which has formed a significant part of his career – also powerfully informs the collection. His eye is honest and empathic when he describes a group of homeless hostel dwellers in The Four Corners, 2003.
untended unpresent absentee mindbodies angular to the universe,
mostly shrouded in grays and blacks, droop in morose lagoons,
swoon under monsoon thickets, doze daymares on the stoop.
Sarnat’s honesty extends to encompass the conflicting motivations that drive people who work in this area when, in the same poem, he writes,
I giggle at us practitioners of impermanence, mostly atheists
who worship Monet cathedrals much as Vipassana nowhere.
yes, bricks and mortar appear quite enduring
- a sultra of non-abdication, our edifice complex?
This is the kind of self-deprecating humour that is essential if one is to work successfully with the most marginalised in society. That this is not gallows humour though, is evidenced by the single line,
I am glad to be a physician not the coroner.
This weights the humour, giving it a poignancy that illustrates the author’s commitment to his work, both with people and words.
In Irregular People: M-W-F, Sarnat perfectly catches the trenchant yet inclusive tone of a community clinic with,
You’re on the nod tomato can,
- it’s time to move on, and make it quick.
It is a testament to his humanity that he has retained a poetic ear capable of such subtlety while delivering real care; these are messages from a hardworking soldier in the fight against social exclusion, not mere reconnaissance. This is driven home in the next stanza, when he paints a scene of quotidian horror, in language as precise as any cut made with his scalpel.
Injecting her weekly STD cocktail
through vermillion slattern capris, I remind flaming Maria Diana
this ain’t the place to transact charnel house commerce.
These characters are evoked with great clarity and sympathy. I cannot recall a more humane engagement with people on the margins of society than the one contained in My Odyssey, My Iliad, when he describes a young, homeless Spanish man on the street.
Tied to the mast, sailor set to sea
without biscuit, on the street, no way home, no family or papers,
too weak to work, alone till the shelter re-opens tonight,
strongly greaved, unharbored, he weeps, ‘Gracias,’
By exploring the universal through the prism of the personal, Sarnat has transformed these urban wraiths into a metaphor for the post WW2 refugees of the poet’s youth in newly multi-cultural America.
Later in the collection, his sense of isolation returns in Lost in Translation when after an afternoon of,
multicultural allusion, intertextual repurposing,
dehyphenated esoterica – my stomach growls,
passing lovers holding hands, whispering Mandarin,
ill at ease, I pause my cell before smoked tea duck.
As the collection progresses, this more personal tone becomes predominant, and we glimpse the beauty and occasional frustrations of family life as, in My Own Little Israels.
Though most of the time time is not mine,
Once a blue moon I shed skin
Of father, husband, breadwinner.
Everything stops for an afternoon.
I go inside for a date with myself.
A matinee where Gerard stars.’
Homeless Chronicles from Abraham to Burning Man describes the trauma that attaches to modernity, be it cultural dis-placement, homelessness, addiction or the overarching horror of genocide, while still managing to retain a humane and optimistic voice. It is uplifting to read a voice so steeped in recent history and yet so unbowed by experience, and I am glad that Gerard Sarnat’s powerful, incisive but above all poetic gifts have been brought to my attention.
Nick Houghton has recently completed a creative writing and English literature degree at Kingston University. His first novel, Dirty Tuesday will be completed in September 2013.