Mar 9 2023
Poetry review – SILVER SAMOVAR: Emma Storr is impressed by Jenny McRobert’s substantial debut collection
It’s a delight to review Jenny McRobert’s debut collection Silver Samovar. Human vulnerability is a theme that runs through the book but so do resiIience, determination and humour. Whether McRobert is exploring the trauma experienced by her grandparents or by an abused wife in Greece, each subject is treated with compassion and delicacy. I particularly enjoyed reading the description of food and drink and appreciating the emotional weight they carry. We read about a much-loved grandmother making cherry brandy for her children or slaving in other peoples’ kitchens to produce ‘trays of crisp biscuits / brandy-rich wedding cakes,’ as well as “Bakelite blintzes” for her own children. We encounter the shocking anti-semitism experienced by the narrator as a child when she brings her mother’s homemade biscuits (kichels) to a picnic party and they are rejected.
Silver Samovar is divided into three sections. The first contains poems mainly about childhood and adolescence. We meet the narrator’s father who sings “Toot Toot Tootsie” to her while he shaves. There are also two siblings, a brother and sister. In ‘Snowfall’ an ominous tone is struck when the narrator admits that when tobogganing as a child, she is afraid of ‘slipping and sliding like the white rabbit / down a hole’, whereas her sister is fearless. The poem then moves to a more recent time in Crete when the sister is clearly unwell ‘her breath a tight / question, the opaqueness of fear in her eyes’. The poem ends:
The year that it snowed she lay on crisp whiteness. She rode the slope and didn’t come back.
The transition from the past to the present is done deftly, as is the death of her sibling imagined in metaphorical terms and linking back to the image of sledging.
Many of the poems have a filmic quality, reflecting McRobert’s skill in using visual imagery. For example, in “On the Watercress Way” we see and smell a startling field of rapeseed in Spring with its ‘overripe smell’, its ‘stink’. The phrase ‘It’s like a Van Gogh has muscled in on a Constable’ immediately brings the view into focus in our imagination.
In part two of the collection with “Snowstorm”, the narrator imagines building an igloo as a haven, somewhere to hide away from modern life and especially from intrusive men on the Underground. The construction is hard work, exacting until ‘you cut the final top brick, that fits perfectly for all-round solidity.’
The need for reassurance and security is a recurring topic in Silver Samovar, reflected in other poems such as “While you are away” in which the narrator has to remind herself that her partner is absent only temporarily. Mental and physical health problems pose a threat, but both are treated with humour and equanimity. For example, in “When my demons came to tea”, the narrator deals with the annoying demon voice that drills away at her self-confidence:
and who could love that hair – like a Brillo pad with a nervous breakdown and that chin like Scafell Pike – they’d need crampons to kiss you! It paused for breath And I took my chance: I’ll bet you say that to all the girls? The others tittered.
The end of the poem is poignant. Demons can’t be abandoned or silenced completely. ‘It would come back later. / And it did.’
One of the most ambitious pieces of writing is “A place called Golgotha”, a sequence of seven poems referencing different places in the world where the narrator connects with her Jewish heritage: Madeira, Jerusalem, St Petersburg, Odessa and London. We hear of her paternal grandmother fleeing Odessa after this shocking scene:
Then Potemkin arrived, and she saw a woman hanged upside down, her dead children arranged around her head.
The narrator carries the burden of grief and suffering inside. It emerges at times when she cries and in her knowledge that many Jews were dispossessed and had to seek refuge far from their land of birth. The poem returns to Madeira in the final poem and ends:
I carry my silence back with me and lay it down with the dead… …It is enough. These dead will not be raised.
The reference to the futility of resurrection is powerful and provides partial closure to this emotional journey.
The final third of the collection comprises more recent poems. “Silver Samovar”, the poem that gives the book its title, is a touching tribute to Grandma. The samovar is the only possession she managed to bring with her while escaping from Russia. We hear Grandma’s voice for the first time:
I snatched you quickly as the city burned: you squealed steamily not to be left.
The narrator and her grandma look forward to better times:
Breaking the morning with hot lemon tea, we freed the locked-down past, seeding hope in the furrows of our brow, raised a toast to our lives.
Resilience is also evident in the two poems “Breathe” and “Not quite murder” in which the speaker reveals her encounter with breast cancer. Both poems celebrate her continuing existence. In “Breathe” a series of negative statements about her breasts lead to a positive finale when we are told that despite one breast being ‘the runt / the half-pint, scanty and scarred’, she loves this one the most because it is proof of her ability to survive and continue.
Silver Samovar is a stunning debut collection filled with rich and varied poetry exploring themes that are relevant to all of us and demonstrating McRobert’s great skill as a poet.