Michael Bartholomew-Biggs reviews
Second Exile by Aleš Machácek & Jane Kirwan (Rockingham, 2010)
This is a most unusual book which, in fewer than 90 pages, presents a vivid personal memoir of life in communist Czechoslovakia. The narrative is interspersed with poems capturing and heightening the frustrations, anxieties and sense of unreality of the time.
Aleš Machácek was born in 1946 and grew up through the post-war years of communism in Czechoslovakia. He gives a cool but chilling account of the complexity and unpredictability of ordinary life in a totalitarian state, telling his story in a way which is convincing, disturbing and occasionally funny. Jane Kirwan’s tight and economical poems beautifully complement the narrative, sometimes amplifying and engaging with it and sometimes standing back to be almost forensically analytical.
Of course, the book does not attempt to give a systematic history. Characters come and go in a slightly puzzling way against a background of events that English readers may not be very familiar with. There are some helpful explanatory notes but the real strength of the book is not in the detail but in the impression it leaves of life under a dysfunctional system. Although Aleš’s first language is not English, he writes in an easy conversational and slightly deadpan style. This tendency towards understatement is most effective as he describes the arbitrary injustices of a system which imprisoned him and then continued to make his life difficult after his release. Most of the explicit anger in the book is to be found in Jane’s poetry (of which more later).
The slippery nature of “facts” in the Soviet era comes across in Aleš’s use of expressions like So I sort of lie and which is sort of true; and also in his matter-of-fact acceptance of the pervasiveness of corruption, including the need to cheat to pass university entrance examinations. The way in which state paranoia can trickle down to everyday life is conveyed by casual mention that people should tell ‘the authorities’ or your caretaker if anyone comes to stay. Then they would lock up people who let someone sleep in their flat… The state prosecutor’s frighteningly surreal logic regards possession of a forbidden book published in 1918 as proof that since 1918 you’ve been conspiring against the State. In spite of this background of insecurity and irrationality Aleš, even as a thirteen-year-old, seems to show an unusual ability to subvert officialdom. On a school hop-picking trip, a prize is offered for the biggest individual harvest; it is only Aleš who realizes that if he and a friend combine their crop they are sure to share the prize.
The story becomes grimmer when Aleš is arrested and imprisoned for three and a half years for distributing Western books. His description of working conditions in the prison factory should make his readers think twice before using the word ‘pressure’ in relation to their own employment. He has twenty seconds to perform the basic repetitive task he is assigned and until the short breaks [every four hours] I don’t have time to lift my arm and pick up my jar of tea. Things do improve however: after six months I manage to get the extra second to take a drink. The resourcefulness of prisoners in making small comforts out of scraps and leftovers is reminiscent of episodes from the Colditz story.
Matters do not greatly improve when Aleš is released. In spite of being a qualified engineer he is now only able to get menial or dangerous jobs. Eventually he makes his way to London and starts work as a builder. One day someone introduces me to her neighbour who needs a gate fixing. The gate continues to be hopeless but for many years the neighbour listens to my stories and steals them for some poems. Thus it is that Jane Kirwan makes her first appearance in the story.
Jane’s poems respond to Aleš’s experiences with an intensity which reflects the fact that she is his partner in life as well as his co-author. She gives a cinematic quality to the early post-war times of intrigue and confusion: sometimes it is film noir
The meeting is at night, the man waits
for her in a doorway in Nádražní,
collar up, hat tipped, names in his purse
and he thinks he’ll be trusted.
and sometimes it is a failed comedy
Downstairs they’re not rolling in the aisles,
no one laughs as the small man slides
on goose-fat, lands on the squawking pig.
In contrast to Aleš’s edgy and unsettled growing up, Jane admits that she herself had a relatively sheltered childhood and only saw Mr Holmes / in brown overalls; and reflects that knowing what you knew might have speeded up // this slow accumulation / of calm. She imagines being interrogated and praying you will be able to summon up facts rotting on a shelf with a forgotten tin of cat food. She uses images of slow-moving, careful-stepping water birds like flamingos and cranes to convey the need to tread carefully through the most trivial aspects of life under communism – what’s so hard about translating fudge?
At times, the poems stand back as bitter commentary and accusation. She points the finger at The Man With The Rubber Stamps who took uncertainty and made it truth / with the full weight of his shoulders; and she condemns the StB (secret police) because they skinned the frog, pinned it out and then:
left it twitching
made many notes on how it would react
to pain of different kinds.
They didn’t name it that of course.
They called it an investigation.
Only occasionally does Jane seem to imagine herself into the story, as in the tender and beautiful poem Lásko which accompanies the account of Aleš’s release from prison
The moss is growing up to the gate
please call me if you are coming. I will go to the bridge
and meet you
but I might miss you.
I could lie in the hammock, try to read
or go back to the lake where we first met.
You might not come…
By the end of the book we feel that we have come some way towards to knowing Aleš and Jane. Hence we can feel glad that, after turbulent times, they are now able to enjoy relative calm in a life together that is split between England and the Czech republic. And yet there is a small coda included in the last few pages which should prevent British readers too easily making smug comparisons between the UK and the old eastern bloc countries. In October 2007, Jane and Aleš join an anti-Trident demonstration at Faslane and are both arrested. Jane is briefly in solitary confinement in Greenock while Aleš finds himself in a Clydebank cell with two others for 24 hours. (Of the three he is, presumably, the most seasoned gaol bird.) Paradoxically, although he admits that on this occasion he actually has broken a law, he feels innocent; yet when he was arrested in Czechoslovakia, he felt guilty even though he had actually done nothing wrong.
Second Exile is fascinating and compellingly written book; and Rockingham Press is to be congratulated on publishing it.
The Finders of London by Anna Robinson (Enitharmon, 2010)
Still•Life by Robert Vas Dias (Shearsman 2010)
This year has seen the appearance of poetry collections by two London poets who rather strongly reflect their own territories. Anna Robinson is clearly rooted south of the Thames, in the streets of Waterloo and Lower Marsh and on the bank of the river itself. Robert Vas Dias writes poems which venture further afield to Ireland, Venice and the United States but he often returns to his local North London landmarks like Upper Street and Highbury Corner (perhaps a den for well-fed urban foxes). He sometimes even allows us glimpses of his own back garden. Although the work of these two poets differs in many ways, this affection for a personal home ground is something they share. A second thing they have in common is that they have both produced impressive and enjoyable collections.
Ghosts slip in between the lines of nearly all the poems in Anna Robinson’s new book The Finders of London (Enitharmon, 2010). Some are reluctant to explain themselves; but others tell their stories as they lead us along corridors and alleyways of a forgotten London. The sense that the collection is haunted is reinforced by other small recurrences: the moon makes frequent appearances, as does “my neighbour” and a Department of Health building in Waterloo Road.
Many of the poems give a voice to “a long line of women getting wet on street corners” who have scraped a living – and sometimes met a death – in ways most modern readers will not have heard of and could scarcely imagine. The title sequence is about women who survived by collecting dog dung for the tanning yards and by scavenging in Thames mud or in the sewers underneath the river. The prose poems in “Portraits of Women” sympathetically describe Jack the Ripper’s victims and gently dignify them. (Mary Jane Kelly was “loved by many men and I am telling the truth: really loved. Even by some who paid good money.”)
Anna Robinson does well to catch the rhythms, economies and repetitions of ordinary speech. On occasions she attempts to capture the South London accent on the page, using a symbol ‘|’ to convey the glo|al stop. Although strict transcription of a dialect is a difficult business, relying on subjective judgements (since one person’s ear may be very unlike another’s), the great majority of the poems speak with authentic voices. They do sound like words of real people and yet they manage to convey much more than a real person usually does. (Samuel Beckett was another who knew how to pull off this useful trick.)
This is Anna Robinson’s first full collection (although some of the material has appeared before in a pamphlet and anthologies). It is a genuinely enthralling book, built around intriguing subject matter and clearly based on careful research (about which a few more background notes would perhaps have been helpful). But it must be emphasised that this is poetry and hence it is more than a gathering of lore and legend. The book’s poetic credentials are considerable and the writing is mature and confident. Most of the poems are unrhymed and seem fairly free – the most formal piece being a well-constructed ghazal – but there is usually an underlying structure. Short but regular-length and lightly rhythmic stanzas occur frequently; and the stanza breaks – like pauses for breath – tend to settle and hold the reader into the poem’s natural tempo.
Anna Robinson has particular poetic gifts in choice and placement of words: ear-catching small inversions (“ this being not the end”) ; an extra word slipped in to avoid a cliché (“Chest tears, bones scream Oh and God”). She makes unsettling use of repeated words in “Chimney”:
I am standing in the hall and looking at the pages of a book.
The word I am here for is ‘chimney’ and I see a tall
dark chimney rise before me. It is a house chimney.
It is on a dark town house. The house has railings,
three floors and a basement for servants and servants
come and go and I am not one of them
In her title poem she echoes nursery-rhyme with tiptoeing repetitions like
rope and bone, rope and bone, you’re not
alone you’re not alone
Can you do it,
can you bear it, can you bear not to? Can
you do it, can you bear it, can you bear not to?
She also teases us with line breaks which cause meaning to wriggle away from expectation:
The dog just smiles and wags his tail, as if he’s lost
the power of speech, as if he’d never had it at all
The refrain in the final poem “Agnus” offers a tender variation on standard church liturgy “Lamb, who exalts what the world gets wrong … feel for us”. Anna Robinson goes some way towards being her own answer to this prayer: she both evokes and displays feeling for the overlooked and forgotten people she is helping us to remember.
If Anna Robinson is mostly invisible behind her cast of characters, Robert Vas Dias is – or at least lets himself appear to be – very much present in Still•Life (Shearsman 2010). (The ‘ •’ symbol is an integral part of the title just as Anna Robinson’s glottal stop sign is an essential part of some of her poems. ) Vas Dias sometimes plays with the illusion that he is writing the poem for us in real time, sharing his own changes of mind – as in “Natura Morte”
The sky, well, not the sky, the wall
then, is golden, the sun, no,
the light, hazing the objects
on the grey ground, well, a table
more like a dusty plain
It must be said that this hesitancy is not at all annoying. Indeed, when a poem is inspired by a piece of visual art (which is often the case in this collection), it is an effective way of reflecting appropriate ambiguities of interpretation. In fact, Robert Vas Dias seems to favour ambiguity – or at least to advocate open-mindedness – whether he is writing about art or not. The refrain “as if we didn’t know”, which occurs throughout “The Lascaux Variations”, illustrates his concern with how things might be (or how we might see them) if we allowed ourselves to relax our certainties. Sometimes he seems reluctant even to give us too firm a starting point for a poem – “Suppose he sees his wife’s head/as an angular oblong”. That single word “Suppose” invites the reader immediately to consider the possibility that the poem might have been different from what it is.
Vas Dias’s poetic subjects vary widely. He offers several meditations on works of art which both illuminate the image in question and also use it as a speculative jumping off point (literally in the case of “The Leap” and “Bird Man”). Most of these ekphrastic poems will appeal to readers who are not art-addicted; but in any case there are many other topics to choose from. The collection includes a poem involving the US general John Fremont and the poisonous and invasive shrub named after him; and another about a visit to the Normandy Beaches which is interwoven with fragments of eye-witness accounts of the D-Day landings. There are meditations on household objects like teapots and pencil sharpeners and descriptions of encounters with Islington’s animal life. There is also dry humour: a prose poem which begins with a deconstruction of the ticket pricing policy of East Midland Trains is a delight, as is “Domestic Ordinary” which makes a charming progress from custard to global warming. Such diverse themes are well supported by extensive notes and a preface.
Across this range of subject and tone, the poetry is well constructed and sure-footed and includes fine examples of prose poems as well as free-verse pieces, some with regular stanzas and some fairly unstructured. But Vas Dias is also interested in the shape of the poem on the page, showing a liking for an echelon layout as in “The Wilds of London”
Running I must
tell you this:
fox on the doormat
outside the front door
large fox big brush
The spacing and layout here suggest a breathlessness which suits the subject matter; but in other places the formatting becomes more unusual (and less explicable (and less easy to reproduce faithfully)). “Come to the Attention” includes the lines:
Accidents can be
denied, will be
addressed with abuse
s a n c t i o n s
dispensation procedures apply to
can be life-threatening all
(Readers who are not keen on this sort of thing will not find there is too much of it.)
In fact, “Come to the Attention” is an example of a “treated text” – a re-arrangement of found material in a USAF guide to substance abuse. A similar technique is also used in “The Taube” and “How to Save Someone Who’s Hanging from a Cliff” where it works very well to produce a worryingly vertiginous effect:
If you are not safe
you may pull him to safety: pull!
Stand on a surface to help you,
solid footing to help you,
hands to clasp, have the victim climb
as if you have solid footing. Tell him to …
that he needs to hold very still,
that you are sure will,
or a live tree.
Vas Dias can also produce similarly disorienting effects using all his own words, as in the prose-poem “Moving Bodies” which hovers around the (lack of?) meaning behind measurements of distance.
Still•Life is Robert Vas Dias’s ninth collection and it includes new poems alongside some which have been selected from other publications over the last ten years; but the book as a whole fits very well and enjoyably together. Vas Dias clearly settled on his poetic voice some time ago; but it is pleasing to be able to say that he has retained freshness and variety in using it.
To read these two collections one after the other is a rewarding experience. Both are accomplished and accessible but they present an interesting contrast. The Finders of London belongs to a tradition of narrative poetry that seeks to involve the reader in the episodes and experiences it relates; Still•Life has a more contemporary feel and seems to stand back a little from its subject matter. This is not to say that Vas Dias does not feel deeply about (some of) his material; nor is it to imply that Robinson’s work is old-fashioned. Poets may choose to write in either a “guileless” or a “knowing” vein; and we are fortunate that these two London writers have provided fresh and convincing examples of the merits of each approach.