Oct 10 2023
Poetry review – FORGETTING MY FATHER: Diana Cant admires the truthful details which enliven Jill Abram‘s poems of love and loss
The truth about losing someone we love is that we never forget them, although sometimes we may forget to remember them. And although the title of Jill Abram’s debut pamphlet is Forgetting My Father, the theme is one of remembering, and doing so with a tender attention to detail that brings a father, and a family, to life.
Jill Abram is someone who is well-known to the poetry world, not least for her twelve-year role as Director of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, the influential London-based writers’ collective. I was therefore surprised to realise that this is her first pamphlet. It is an elegant elegy to her father, who was lost to her gradually over many years of ill-health. The poems are deceptively straightforward and unassuming, but they weave a multi-threaded garment that honours her father, in life and in death.
The first poem, “Like A Fiddler on the Roof,” sets the scene – it establishes the family’s heritage by way of the popularised version of Jewish culture, but it also alludes to Ukraine, both then and now: images collide as history repeats itself. Abram uses small, quotidian details to accurately place events, both temporal –
At Jewish youth club we all wore Rock Against Racism badges and danced to Glad To Be Gay – girls in one ring, boys in another. (“How To Belong”)
and geographical –
the bronze tortoise which I still see hiding in the hairs of the hearthrug at Woodlea, opposite the park on Wythenshawe Road. (“Inheritance”)
We are gently shown the everyday hypocrisies of ordinary people – ‘she went to shul to pray/ not to gossip or show off her new hat’, (from “We Used the Back Door”) – as the poems move into the arena of family dynamics. These are sometimes spikey and complicated as family dynamics so often are. Abram does spikey very well, as in the mischievously ambivalent “My Sister” which describes her as
a gold coin: She is precious. Her style is simple and elegant. I’d like to exchange her for something of equal value.
ending with a coffin, luxurious, ‘and with no shortage of people to carry it’. Marvellously ambiguous.
As the book proceeds, the father takes centre stage and we learn that his health and his mind are failing. The poems veer between memories of him as a father, and mentions of his current precarious state. We are given a lively sense of family interactions through a generous use of reported speech, and the edgily humorous “Marriage Vows” is shot through with poignancy, ending with ‘Mum says we’ve had the better, now’s the worse’, leaving the rest of the vows hanging painfully in the air.
Abram is mistress of the small detail, especially those evoked by watching the decline, from the bedside, of someone so loved and known which make the experience live and, I suspect, evocative for many. ‘Velcro on his shoes instead of laces’, (from “Peace-Parted Souls”) is such a telling signifier. Abram also has a knack for choosing titles, “The Longest Bereavement” and “Slow Orphaning” being cases in point.
Two poems towards the end of this pamphlet have, to my mind, a slightly different, more distanced quality. In “Rites of Passage” and “Avelut” we are left to find our own way into the material, to slow down and think for ourselves, rather than receive more explicit images. This is a welcome change of pace, mirroring, as it does, the writer’s increasing distance from the reality of death and dying, and her growing ability to inhabit the space in which to reflect and mourn.
We leave the writer imagining her father as a night fox, ‘on late patrol, checking his darling daughter is home safe.’ (“Mythos and Logos”). And we feel that she is.