Emma Lee finds Maria Jastrzebska’s memory-poems both personal and inclusive. At the Library of Memorieslibrary of memories Maria Jastrzebska Waterloo Press ISBN ISBN 978-1-906742-57-7 84pp, £10

The title sets up the expectation that the poems explore memory but Maria Jastrzebska expands that exploration beyond personal memoir.  In ‘FAQ’ she asks what is the point of memory, particularly memories of abuse, or even memory of a country that is no longer a homeland? In ‘Abroad’,

 I went to the port, I shouted,
we saw the tall ships, we sailed abroad!

There were no words for seal grey,
crossbone and skull white
marbled grey, only a smell of diesel
in my hair, the sting of the spray
still cold on my cheeks. Mama took
my wet clothes

                         This isn’t home,
we’re already abroad was all she said.

It’s easier for a child to adapt a new homeland than for an adult to leave behind familiarities and a mother tongue for a foreign country, even when war has prompted the move. The theme of the necessity of learning a new language and reluctance to let a mother tongue fall into disuse recurs, evidenced in ‘Ewa, your Mother, at London Zoo 1932’ where the zoo visitor has yet to realise that the strange language she hears will become a barrier:/ deeper than any moat.

Memories can be unreliable and shaped by others, ‘Lzaienki Park’ starts with the two lines You can’t remember this. But you were told/ the story so many times you see it. The purpose of the re-telling is revealed in the last two lines, so you know there was a time when he loved you./He loved you, did love you, loved you once. The repetition reinforces the sense.

There is also collective memory. ‘The Jackal is Considered by the Meeting’  tells the story of a jackal cub adopted by Verusha Girgorova’s five children in defiance of her protestations that she couldn’t afford to feed them never mind a pet as well, but the children begged,

in all the languages they knew, in their native Polish –
in best schoolbook French, in Georgian, Russian –
to let them keep it and here memory fades
and what we know is that as adults two were imprisoned,
two shot and the middle child, despite being released,
quickly developed consumption.  All five of them
dead within ten to fifteen years even though
when the revolution came – sisters and brothers –
they’d found themselves on opposite sides
at a time when it’s said jackals and people fought
for meat left on the bodies lying on every street.

Maria Jastrzebska’s skill lies in capturing the tenderness of interactions and love between people. There’s a touching sequence about a late grandmother’s horsehair sofa intermingled with memories of a horse that kicked out and left the grandmother with a scar but remained a favourite and much loved horse. ‘Ealing Hospital, 2004’, ends

If you could you’d carry her out
slipping away down the corridors
of glossy floors, pale walls.

She wouldn’t weigh much.
There’d be an apple trees, a birch
and you’d lay her under it.

Ravens would circle overhead,
but while you held her,
she’d be safe.

Although the poem is personal, that desire to keep loved ones safe is universal. And ‘At the Library of Memories’ is a universal, inclusive collection. The use of non English words – usually Polish and one poem has an Italian title – doesn’t render the poems unfamiliar because the poet uses imagery to set the tone and guides readers so sense still can be grasped.


Emma Lee’s poetry collection “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues” is available from Original Plus. She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com and also reviews for The Journal, Elsewhere and Sabotage Reviews.