Poetry review – SIEGE AND SYMPHONY : Emma Lee reviews an eclectic collection from Myra Schneider
Siege and Symphony is Myra Schneider’s sixteenth collection which explores the climate crisis, threats to wildlife and green spaces. It also contains responses to artworks and a celebration of the human spirit. The book opens with ‘Resurgence’, which is inspired by watching workmen chop down a sycamore tree, taking four days to get to a stump which was then burnt and from the charred remains,
now a crown of spindly branches notched with buds, sturdy promises of green leaf. I'm so moved by the resolve to live in this world my heart rises to the sky as if it's a songbird.
This is a reminder that even great trees start from small roots and implies that small changes can help make a big difference. The language shifts with the poem’s mood, the thin ‘spindly’ becomes a thicker ‘sturdy’ and becomes more certain as it moves to the last line. It’s a hopeful poem to start on. Less hopeful is ‘Becoming Plastic’, which begins
The morning starts with a tiresome battle to slit and peel the skin encasing two tubs of vitamin capsules but it fits as smoothly as a seal's and I blaze with fury when my fingers can't find leverage and the sleek containers continue to cling like inseparable lovers in their see-through wrapping'
This embodies a strong suggestion the vitamins’ wrapping should be more human-friendly as well as eco-friendly. The poem ends with a dream (a grouper is an endangered fish),
A dead grouper stared from a pram which had lost all its wheels, someone screamed. I turned, was just in time to see a woman on a bed with legs parted and a midwife plucking from her womb a baby sheathed in plastic sheeting.
Micro-plastics aren’t just a threat to marine life but also to the human food chain, an invisible part of the food and drink we use. In the dream, they end up encasing a baby and it’s left for the reader to decide whether it’s a protective casing or a shroud. Either way, the poem’s focus is on how something that became an everyday convenience and seemed to solve a lot of problems is now itself a problem that humans have to find a remedy for.
A tribute to a late friend who loved language, ‘Anne’s Words’ ends
Though we met over the decades you said little about illness. When you left words on my phone saying you were well after an operation, would call after your holiday, I should have phoned, not written. Now you're wordless and I'm overcome with grief.
It’s a touching tribute with a note of regret about things that weren’t said because the speaker wasn’t aware of the whole situation. A woman’s silence also lies at the heart of ‘The Real Mrs Beeton’ where research reveals Isabella Beeton compiled her advice from other books under the guidance of her husband, who was a publisher, and also suffered
several miscarriages, bore two children who died in infancy, two who survived, died herself after the second - thanks to Mr Beeton's syphilis. Yet for years books in her name continued to appear. The matron's ghost still persists in my mind but what troubles me is Isabella. For all the thousands of pages this woman produced in her short life, the real Mrs Beeton didn't leave a single word about what she thought, felt, endured.
Initially the poem appears to be dismissive of Mrs Beeton, a woman who’d never practised what she appeared to preach; but the list of lost children and the disclosure that she worked under the close eye of her husband (who continued to produce books in her name after her death) sees the poem switch sympathy towards her. All this work produced in her name never actually reveals anything personal about its supposed author. The knowledge she was merely a vessel for her husband brings a different perspective.
The final section, which gives the collection its title, focuses on Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony performed in Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then) by an orchestra enfeebled by starvation. The situation is outlined in the opening part 1, ‘Leningrad 22 June 1941’, (where ‘he’ refers to Shostakovich)
At times he feels he's suffocating. But on this day of consternation it occurs to him that the warmonger, a killer from elsewhere, has given him a reason to release themes he's penned in his mind and write music the Leader and his underlings will applaud
Part of the sequence follows the story of the symphony and is interspersed with the poet’s listening and response to it e.g. in ‘London in 2016’,
Unstoppable feet are marching into my room. They belong to minds which a tyrant has drained of compassion but I can't resist the stomping boots.
Later, after a silence from which a flute starts,
It's as forlorn as a fallen bird, as the faces of packs of people stripped of hope. There's no weeping but grey despair's passing through the orchestra. It's heartbreaking. Sound flickers out.
Part 15 ‘Leningrad July-August 1942’, sees the hall packed and the music relayed on speakers to a crowd gathered outside, Olga Kvade, an eighteen-year-old who was in the audience, is thinking of her late father,
he'd taught her to play. She feels as if he's sitting beside her, tells herself she mustn't cry but think how proud she is of the orchestra for ignoring the shelling. Many Germans hear the symphony too – the loudspeakers carry it through the chill air to no-man's land.
There’s an irony at play: the music that unites its audience is being played during a war. The enemy can hear it too. The poem asks readers to think about the conflicting emotions and how humans have both the capacity to recreate and destroy.
Although the final sequence seems very different from the preceding poems, which are largely personal or use a personal response to a piece of artwork as an inspiration, it actually encapsulates the themes throughout the collection. Myra Schneider makes us aware of the capacity for humans either to unite and create communities or else to tear them down. It’s an apt collection for these times where humanity can save itself or let the climate crisis destroy it. Myra Schneider writes with compassion, urging readers to think about the consequences of their actions.