John Forth examines both the poetic and the performance aspects of Sue Boyle’s new book
Report from the Judenplatz
Time & Tide Publishing
ISBN 978-1- 482-776294
Sue Boyle’s Poetry Café in Bath offers a series of workshops on the presentation of work to audiences. ‘Report from the Judenplatz’, her ‘Play for Witnesses’ was performed successfully at the recent Torbay Festival, and it seems clear that the author intends the work primarily as a performance piece. Its content is here presented twice: first as ‘nine lamentations’, and then as fragments spoken by different voices. In a foreword, the author writes of ‘the partiality of the Christian claim’ to love thy neighbour, at least in mid-twentieth century Europe. Her Smith-Doorstop Winner of 2010, ‘Too Late for the Love Hotel’, contained narratives with a sharp sting, including three of the nine lamentations that make up her recent collection – and also the fragment entitled ‘Styx’ which is spoken at the end of her play:
This river without reflection, which neither moves
Nor is affected by movement – is it water?
This medium we pass through – is it air?
Who will remember us?
Who will write our song?
It’s impossible to say how much is remembered of Alvarez in his essays of the early ’sixties, but it was reasonable to expect that his exhortation to poets in his introduction to ‘The New Poetry’ – that they make themselves immune to gentility – might become the air we breathe. In ‘Godot’, he said in another essay, the characters are reduced to the role of helpless, hopeless, impotent comic who talks and talks…to postpone for a while the silence of his own desolation. Even Larkin, in a persona rebuked by Al as being ‘dull’, owns to someone forever surprising / in himself a hunger to be more serious. It’s difficult ground, to say the least. We may say that displacement or ‘indirection’ has become as familiar as afternoon tea, that the idea of ‘unaccommodated man’, transcending heath and storm, is never too far distant. Yet we know more than ever, or we ought to, that the recitation of certain place-names is still sufficient to silence all art.
Sue Boyle’s sequence begins with a dark prose piece, ‘Ark’, which becomes machine for destruction, zeppelin and island protecting ‘the saved’. From its opening line (You could not fault the construction) through a description of sea viewed as horror-swamp, to the final ‘rumour’ of singing from the boat, runs a mix of metaphor and reportage that is chilling in its effect. Central to the concerns of the sequence is a bronze by Alfred Hrdlicka, of an elderly Viennese Jew forced to kneel and scrub the streets. Sylvia Gellburg in Miller’s ‘Broken Glass’ suffers paralysis after reading of similar events during Krystalnacht, but students of ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ (where tragedy happens in the background and the Old Masters knew it) would be unsurprised to find that the dignity or even the proper space for memorials has always been under threat, as in the title poem declaring that: this generation / sits on the names of the places that swallowed us.
The repetition and refrain of music and song are used for distancing, especially in ‘The Four Good Fortunes of Domenico’, building on its ‘Life is Beautiful’ scenario by delaying expected shock and then undercutting it. Similarly, ‘Wintering in Rome’ presents an accordionist who has set aside his usual repertoire to honour a place of a thousand absences: he is playing their music now / their wedding song, their dance, their lullaby and the second line is then repeated in reverse order for mimetic effect. The childlike form of one of the best poems, ‘Waterlilies at Schonbrunn’, is again built upon repetition – a father, a mother, a daughter, a baby said – and is one made for dramatic performance that also works on the page. The final prose poem, ‘Flown’, depicts an approaching extinction in that the idea of the angel remained in place but the living creature had vacated the husk of its former self. On hearing that it seemed as if the whole creature were made of air, we imagine we’d be forgiven for likening its near-invisibility to that of the Pope in St.Peter’s Square when the evictions took place.
Nine poems, a dramatic arrangement, the actual words of memorials and prose glosses with documentary evidence all contribute to this work. I found myself wondering two things: firstly, whether the ‘performance’ script might more properly make up section one, or even appear alone, especially since the prose ‘notes’ and commemorative words seem to belong more with this (and might even be part of the performance); and secondly whether, as poems, they would be better left to stand independently of extraneous material, as some did in the earlier pamphlet. The majority of the early poems are light-touch narratives – witty, sharp and easy on the ear. This new venture, appropriating as it does some of the darker poems, may be better served if presented even more emphatically as a performance work.
John Forth was born in Bethnal Green and recently retired from teaching English after thirty-odd years. He has published four poetry collections (Malcontents in 1994, A Ladder & Some Glasses in 1998 and The Demon’s Phenomenal Filmshow in 2013 when a collection of early work, Spirits of Another Sort, also appeared). A New & Selected is due next year from Rockingham. He has reviewed new poetry for London Magazine and his poems have appeared in a number of journals.