The past beneath the skin
It has often been noted that “ancestry” is an interest that grows on us as we ourselves draw closer to becoming a part of history. As older generations die off, and we grow accustomed to being the older generation, with, moreover, plenty to remind us that our bodies too are ageing, it becomes more natural to see ourselves not just as individuals but as a point on a long line.
The particular heritage in this collection is Jewish, and this fact informs many of the poems, perhaps most memorably “Tracks”, in which Rose sees an elderly Jewish man boarding a train and reflects that
He will settle himself on a seat
to the sound of a whistle,
unfold a paper or open a novel
by Wiesel and exit any time
he likes. He can call the shots
on his passage; he can alight.
It is also relevant to the “godless, faithless” authorial voice’s self-questioning about who exactly she is and where on this line she belongs: one may discard a great deal about one’s heritage and still be shaped by it. Hence the Yiddish dialect words that recur throughout the poems; there is a glossary at the end, but I don’t think most readers will need it, for this is a strand of language familiar to most of us via the screen and the page if not in our own lives. In this sense it is part of our heritage too, and indeed throughout the book it is commonality rather than difference that emerges. Though the old gentleman in “Tracks” can indeed exit the actual train when he chooses, journeys in a poem can hardly help being metaphorical as well as actual, and in that sense he and the rest of us are all bound for the same inescapable terminus. The poems about bereavement, the loss of those ahead of us on the path, are universal in their relevance, perhaps especially those addressed to a still-living sister:
“Let us rejoice”, hands joined
in a chain of family and not,
spinning, kicking, other hands
dropping until it is just you and me,
clasped hands thrown into the air up
and down and up, chopping through
the song, eyes on each other, joy
and pain, all our dead here
at our backs (“Hava Nagila”)
It should be noted that “haunted by time and death” in a collection does not necessarily mean “depressing”. Rose has always been adept at leavening serious themes with humour, as in “On Redundancy”, her wry farewell to various malfunctioning bodily organs,
surplus parts that relinquish
their hold on the pith
of our anatomy grudgingly
when pared from their home.
And the missed relatives are not merely losses but presences, their place in the line anchored by lively memories of their personalities. The “jubilant man of mirrors/and romance”, the woman singing “a beat behind the radio”, with many others, both crowd and enliven these poems. An interesting motif that runs through this collection is trees. From the World Ash of Norse myth onwards, trees become images for human activity, and the last poem in the book, “This Time”, sees the narrator walking through long avenues of trees that “lead to infinity”. In one way they are emblematic of the human bloodlines with which the collection has been so concerned, but they also take things beyond the human, to an oddly reassuring timescale of centuries.