Aug 24 2022
Poetry review – THE TALKING STICK: Pat Edwards feels moved and enriched by Raine Geoghegan’s poems of Romany life
As you enter this collection, you feel, at first, like a guest at a party where people keep breaking into a language you don’t entirely understand. Gradually you start to pick out certain words and find them vaguely familiar: “mush” (man); “kushti” (good/ lovely); ”chavies” (children). Then, as you see words used multiple times, the familiarity grows until you recognise “vardo” as wagon, “rove” as weep, “dukkering” as fortune telling. But this is perhaps a language we don’t regularly encounter. It’s not like Welsh in parts of Wales where it thrives, Spanish or French when you go on holiday. Romany language and culture feels much further away from what most of us know. However, Geoghegan is the perfect guide, gently introducing essential elements and holding the reader’s hand on a fascinating journey redolent with close family experiences and her wider heritage.
Geoghegan is comfortable in many styles, including what I think we would class as prose poetry with touches of dialect narrative, and there are haibun, tanka, lots of rhyme. Other poems are very musical, such as ‘Koring Chiriclo I – a triolet’ and ‘The Plum Pudding Girl, a Little Gypsy Song’. The deeper the reader gets immersed in the poems, the more enriching the experience of the language and lifestyle becomes. I sense an undercurrent, maybe more, caused by the fear of difference between communities. In ‘Somewhere in Apple Water Country’ a father shows his contempt for city life and even school uniform. In ‘Just One Room’ the poet draws sharp contrast between wagon (vardo) life and life in a regular house:
Once in the sitting room, Amy’s mouth opened, wide. ‘Dikka kie Alf,’ He came to the door. ‘We could fit our whole vardo in here,’ she said. ‘This is just one room.’
Earning a living and maintaining traditions are clearly important in any culture that feels itself on the margins. Fire (yog) appears to be a vital element of the Romany life – it provided heat for cooking, gave both warmth and light. Its reoccurrence in the poems is a thread as we encounter the cooking of rabbits and hedgehogs (hotchiwitchi) and join the many colourfully painted characters who sit around it drinking tea (mesci) or whiskey. I must admit, I imagined the making and selling of pegs (koshties) to be something of a myth, but it features in many of these poems and stories, as does fortune telling (dukkering) and flower selling. One tradition I was very taken with was the piercing of ears by a father, described in ‘A Richooell’, perhaps another rite of passage we associate with travelling people. “He knows that in a short while she will holler then rove (weep)”.
The gold sleepers are put through both holes. ‘There, there, my little chi.’ His wife kisses the child as she sobs, her small chest puffing up then down like a soft breeze.
Afterwards rubbing butter on the child’s ears and whiskey on her mouth, he gently announces “You’ll thank me when you’re older my gel.”
This collection also includes a few black and white photographs of family members and the eponymous talking stick (pookering kosh). These help, although none is really needed, to evoke the warmth, pride and love conveyed in the poems. Like the photographs, the poems are often a bridge or link with the recent past. In ‘I See You in the Hop Fields i.m. Phyllis Lane’, there are both references to music modern enough for some of us to remember and to Romany ways. Similarly in ‘dirty little flower girl’, we hear of the prejudice held against “us gypsy chavies” even in the lifetime of the poet, by one of her teachers at school. In ‘Chickens in a Pen’ the poet describes being driven “off the tober”, off the road, and politicians forcing a group of travellers to settle “in a ken” or house.
Of course, such prejudice goes back much further, as we are reminded in the last two poems in the collection. These poems tell of a fiddle player in Birkenau concentration camp in 1944 and of the gypsy camp at Auschwitz. As the latter poem extols, “men kek bissa: we will not forget”.
For me, whilst the story telling about Romany ways is illuminating and compelling, I feel the poet is at her best when she indulges her lyricism in poems such as ‘The Lungo Drom’. Here the opening line, “Bare, blistered feet”, conjures up great mystery and soon we meet a woman whose “hair grew long, flowing like a river”, before learning:
She drank from streams, picked heather, lavender, rosemary for healing, exchanged them for bread, kept on walking.
In the short poem ‘Strawberry Picking in Kent – Tanka’, Geoghegan so beautifully places the taste, feel and pain of a working life in the simple memory of eating a strawberry. This is gorgeous writing which displays real skill in the use of language:
She’s bent low, the sun full on her back, red juice seeping through sticky fingers. When no one is looking, she pops a berry into her mouth and savours childhood.
The value of gold as a sort of guarantee of wealth should times get hard is wonderfully shown in ‘Aunt Ria’s Gypsy Gold’, where the woman puts her earrings in a bag under the mattress at night:
she sleeps soundly as the gold warms itself longing for her soft skin and light
The ritual of washing the body of a dead loved one is tenderly conveyed in ‘a song to rest the tired dead i.m. of Celia Lane’:
she speaks quietly to her loved one as she gently cleans lifting one arm up then the other holding it placing it down carefully as if it was made of glass
As one leaves this collection, one definitely feels enriched by having lived moments of a very different culture, and by having learned new words and phrases. Above all, one is reminded of the humanity of families determined to be themselves and to support one another often against authority and bad feeling. It feels important that the poet has preserved these memories, as perhaps they have a wider significance than simply being recollections of just one extended family. They somehow represent what is important to all of us:
There are some things in life that poshes can’t buy, fresh pannis one of ‘em, but yer don’t need me to tell yer that, or do yer? poshes - money panni - water