Jul 2 2023
Poetry review – IMPERFECT BEGINNINGS: Anne Ryland is touched by the powerful and painful poetry in this collection by Viv Fogel
Viv Fogel has been publishing poetry since the 1970s. Imperfect Beginnings, her second collection, might be regarded as a distillation: there is a sense of urgent searching in the poems. Fogel was adopted as a baby by refugees who were Holocaust survivors, a complex heritage that underpins her work, alongside a diverse background as psychotherapist, artist and activist.
The book’s format is refreshingly eclectic. Poems are interspersed with quotations, journal-style entries, a photograph and even a cartoon, adding texture and spaciousness; harrowing subject matter requires room to settle, the reader needs to pause. The teasing apart of layers and a careful yet intuitive piecing together results in a collage effect. Inventive use is made of form, space and typescript.
Fogel weaves fascinating themes together deftly across five sections. There is birth and death, love and loss, compassion and cruelty, trauma and survival. Home, a persistent preoccupation, is interlinked with poems about the poet’s adoptive family, her birth family, and the family she creates in adulthood; painful legacies filter down through generations. Deeply personal experiences and wider forms of marginalization are interrogated, with poems functioning as receptacles.
The opening section explores homelessness, displacement and belonging. “Exiled”, the first poem, provides a stark introduction to Imperfect Beginnings: ‘I was alone / no roots / no ground.’ There are arresting poems about Fogel’s anonymised clients. An asylum seeker is beautifully observed in “Ahmad’s Pool”. When Ahmad stumbles ashore and falls into a volunteer’s arms, ‘she rubs his back // for a moment he is / in the arms of his mother.’ Describing his life as ‘a stagnant pool’, he watches and waits until:
a movement a silver fish! the next night there are more – and his pool starts to breathe
However, three italicised couplets tell of another refugee discovered ‘hanging from a tree, / his bag spilled open beneath him’. Topical and timeless, this is an essential poem.
In “Coracle”, a re-imagining of the Moses story, a baby in a basket drifts up-and-downstream among the reeds for years, while her mother is forever making baskets: ‘her coracles crafted to lull, braided with longing – // cradles she would not rock, lullabies she would not hum’.
For me, the second section, consisting of just five poems, represents the core of Imperfect Beginnings. “My Father Sold Cigarettes To The Nazis” is dedicated to Fogel’s father who survived persecution under Fascism by working in Berlin’s coffee houses and finally, miraculously, survived the Holocaust too. Simple and delicate description builds a vivid tribute:
My father loved to polish: wooden banisters, brass door handles, candlesticks – our boots; always polishing.
His ironic verdict on Buchenwald – ‘but Butlins it was not!’ – encapsulates an extraordinary ordinary man. The reader is not spared. We witness his memory of an officer’s polished leather belt and boots – and ‘of the baby tossed / into the air, skull / cracking beneath the boot.’ Heartbreaking episodes follow. The father tips over the kitchen table in rage. In the last stages of life, he is fed by his daughter, who touches the numbers ‘the same blue-grey / as his veins’ on his arm, and he holds his newborn grandchild.
“In Memoriam” is a haunting commemoration of family members, including those murdered in the forests of Belarus. The written words of Fogel’s grandfather are quoted:
The sun light dazzling through the trees oh! there’s a vivid blue butterfly! – we’re still waiting for our visas
Fittingly, the opposite page is empty except for the small monochrome image of a butterfly. (I longed for the butterfly to be blue …) In the poem “On Not Writing the Holocaust”, Fogel confronts the writer’s challenges and ethical responsibilities, a refrain of ‘I was not there’ gathering momentum. And yet – at the sight of ‘dense forests, barbed wire, rail-tracks, / something in me remembers – ’.
Equally hard-hitting is the middle section, where physical beatings endured by the poet at the hands of her traumatized and irrevocably damaged mother are laid bare. Domestic objects (a jug, a notebook) are imbued with resonance and the weapon employed here – a wooden butter-pat leaving ‘red welts across your calves’ – is no exception (“White”). “Practical UnEnglish” is an unflinching examination of the disconnect between mother and daughter; set against devastating details of verbal and emotional abuse is the mother’s love of music, gardening and baking. I detected not a shred of self-pity in these poems. There is an undeniable feeling of relief, though, on arriving at “First Meeting’, another bedside poem, now ‘on this no-one-else-but-us shore’ where the poet is reunited with her birth mother, a woman who hides away the awards she has won for community service.
A new generation is presented in the next section. In “Bloodstream’’, another fraught mother-daughter relationship is embodied through spaces and disjointed lines on the page. Ensuing poems suggest healing and redemption. The collection’s title is drawn from a crucial question posed in the appropriately quiet “Still Point” where the daughter leaves home:
Does it matter how imperfect the beginning? how flawed the end?
Across an engaging stitching together of generations, ‘otherness’ looms again, notably in “Spectral” when the poet is drawing her dual-heritage grandson and he yells ‘DON’T / colour me brown ’. Her pain is still raw: ‘the stench / filth and foulness / of our pasts / dark echoes that vibrate / along the timelines’.
The last section deepens further, to explore Fogel’s interest in ‘re-membering’, defined as ‘a coming back to that which once belonged, that may have been cut off from us, or dis-membered.’ For her, this is nature, and landscapes are evoked with a sensitive painterly eye:
Bridal blossom and piercing periwinkle quiver beneath the newly painted sill. (“Suffolk Spice”)
Poems are prayer-like in their active stillness. After unremitting brokenness, and the unforgettable butter pat, this comes as a blessing but ‘sometimes there is such beauty that it hurts’ (“Dawn Breaks on Ballywalter”). “The ‘L’ Word: a Poem About Love” celebrates love discovered unexpectedly and belatedly with a gentle humour.
A timely book, Imperfect Beginnings is an important addition to existing literature by second generation Holocaust survivors; the poems act as re-reminders, and they enrich us. Viv Fogel is a wise and courageous voice.
Anne Ryland’s third poetry collection, Unruled Journal, was published by Valley Press (2021). Her previous books are Autumnologist, shortlisted for The Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2006, and The Unmothering Class, a New Writing North Read Regional title. New work has appeared in journals such as Long Poem Magazine, Magma, Acume and Crannóg. She has translated poems by the German poet Hilde Domin.