Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Yes: Far Too Soon to Say Goodbye!

As we mark the bi-centenary of the death of novelist, Jane Austen scholars still debate its cause.

Was it tuberculosis, cancer, Addison’s disease or – as most recently suggested – arsenic poisoning that killed her aged    only 41?

We’ll never know the full truth. But I reflect on this as I consider the coincidental passing of Ukrainian dissident poet, Irina Ratushinskaya as the modern writer also died far too young, aged only 63.

While the immediate cause was cancer, Ratushinskaya’s constitution had been irreversibly damaged by her incarceration in the ‘small zone’ of a labour camp in the republic of Mordovia, a ‘prison within the prison’ reserved for women deemed as particularly dangerous political criminals.

Initially deprived of paper, she wrote by scratching her work on bars of soap; memorised and erased the verses then rewrote them when paper became available before somehow smuggling them to her husband, Igor Gerashchenko who arranged their publication.

Ratushinskaya had been found guilty in April 1983 of “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime” and so given a maximum sentence of seven years in the camp followed by five years internal exile.

She was released suddenly on the orders of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who wanted to prove he was genuine about improved domestic human rights as part of his policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction).

Ratushinskaya then emigrated to the U.K., moved on  to the United States and then returned to Russia in 1998, settling in Moscow with her family, but in relative obscurity.

IRINA RATUSHINSKAYAWhile many of the best known dissidents of the period were Jewish, Ratushinskaya was a devout Christian. It seems the cruellest irony that she is now dead while contemporary Jewish heroes of the Soviet human rights movement like Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky who was released only a few months before her and Knesset Speaker, Yuli Edelstein survived to live at the acme of Israeli society.  

I conclude this short tribute with her appropriately titled piece, Too Soon to Say Goodbye.

I must point out that the date at the end of the poem implies it was written after her release:

Too soon to say goodbye,

Too soon to say forgive me,

Too soon to send us your instructions:

You know what our luck is like.

Not a door but it will be locked!

Not a net but it will be cast!

Others took to the bottle,

And others just vanished.

Only a few of us left now,

So they're firing at us point blank.

What now? We can read Dostoevsky;

Chip in roubles - for vodka,

Only a few of us left anyhow.

And we know we must fight to the death.

And we know that cruel blacksmith

Forged as out of some unknown metal,

Perhaps doubting our endurance,

Perhaps expecting us to recant.

No! Give us your instructions!

We swear to fulfil them precisely.

Too Soon to despair yet.

You ought to know our luck.

Irina Ratushinskaya

Kiev, 9 December 1986

© Natalie Wood (20 July 2017)

Monday, 3 July 2017

Restoring Miss Toyah

‘Erasure poetry’ is defined as a form of ‘found poetry’ or ‘found art’ created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem.

This piece is based largely on a feature and blog post by former BBC correspondent Andrew Whitehead, whose sympathetic research has helped to rescue the short existence  of Victoria M Sofaer, a young Baghdadi Jewish woman, from total oblivion.

V.M.SOFAER HEADSTONE


I have attempted to use an ‘erasure’ style format to echo  - metaphorize – what happened to Victoria.

Most of the words in this piece are Whitehead’s, along with some of my own.


Restoring Miss Toyah


In Chennai, once Madras,

lies a half-forgotten resting

place for the twice re-settled

residue of the town’s long-time

Jewish dead.


Here, half-faded, and one

further step removed, stands

a solitary gravestone illumined

briefly by a shaft of sunlight

sifting through the trees.


So mystery’s spotlight

shines for the moment

on ‘Miss Victoria M Sofaer’,

lying for eternity aged only

twenty-two.


Who was she?

How did she end

in Chennai? Why

did she meet her

death so young?


Baghdad beginnings had

also ended in an untimely

end when Victoria’s (‘Toyah’)

birth led to her mother,

Dina’s death.


Then in 1939, perhaps 1940,

as a second universal war

began, Toyah romanced an

Armenian man.


From different worlds,

different religions, they

met in secret and when

Toyah's family found out,

they sought to marry her to a

Jewish boy.


But she rejected all suitable

suitors and was shipped out

to India in disgrace.


Towards the close of 1942,

Toyah’s father, Menashi and

Naima, his second wife, who

was Dina’s sister and so Toyah’s

aunt, arrived in Bombay with his

daughter in tow.


There onlookers saw something

in Toyah - her face and demeanour –

that deeply perplexed them.


Her silence left an impression

of a person in shock. There

was something mysterious;

most difficult to understand.


She would not utter a word.


After some time, the three

moved on. In another

Indian city, Toyah died.

So her parents returned

to Baghdad.


Abraham, Toyah’s only surviving

half-brother, now aged 94 and

once the closest to her in the

entire family, still wonders what

caused her untimely demise.


The doctor who had looked after

her in India felt the urge to

tell the authorities about her

serious decline and the role

her parents played.


But he did not pursue this.


The Armenian lover also felt

the need to alert the authorities

about Toyah's deplorable condition

and the role that her parents

played in her incarceration.


But he did not go through with

this idea, either.


So there was no public scandal.

Even within the Jewish

community in Baghdad,

the romance was hushed up.


No-one talked of how Toyah

had died from a broken heart.


And there is yet one more

tragic aspect to this tale:


One rare photo shows Toyah’s

three half-brothers : Elias, the oldest

and tallest; Abraham, standing beside

him and Jack, the toddler.


It was taken in 1927 when Toyah

was aged seven.


Why isn’t she there?


But she once was!

On Elias's left!


After her death, the

image was retouched

to excise her likeness.


This was to ensure there

would be no reminder of the

scandal and tragedy of her life.


Then there are unfounded rumours

of a Baghdadi Jewish custom;

that when people died all pictures

of them were destroyed.


Still, one further photo,

shot in Baghdad, probably

in the early thirties, shows

Grand mère Farha Shamash;

her husband, Saleh and Toyah’s aunt,

Khatoun Meir.


Then – finally – stands

a girl with wavy hair, peeping

out above Khatoun’s head.


This may, just may, be

Toyah Sofaer.


© Natalie Wood (04 July 2017)








Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Alwayswriteagain: Where Lovers, Lasses Count Their Losses!

Alwayswriteagain: Where Lovers, Lasses Count Their Losses!: I was more than half-way through Philip Roth ’s American Pastoral when I realised that the location of the prizewinning novel and recent ...

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Why Islam Cannot Be Modernised

Amid warnings that the fall of Aleppo may be just the start of “a bloodier phase” in Syria’s continuing civil war, I’d like to take time out to look at the work of Adunis ‘Adonis’ Asbar, universally regarded as the greatest poet presently writing in Arabic.

Image result for adonis asbar

Although he champions Palestinian rights, Asbar - known by his pen-name ‘Adonis’ - has challenged Palestinian nationalism and hopes for a political solution that respects the aspirations of Palestinians and Jews alike.

“I am among those who seek the ills of the Arabs in their own history, not outside of it,” he says.

Indeed Adonis, Syrian-born and a long-time opponent of President Bashar al-Assad, hit the international headlines earlier this year when he claimed that Islam could not be modernised.

Respected for his particular understanding of the language of the Quran, he noted: “Arabs have no more creative force. Islam does not contribute to intellectual life, it suggests no discussion. It is no longer thought. It produces no thinking, no art, no science, no vision that could change the world. This repetition is the sign of its end. The Arabs will continue to exist, but they will not make the world better.”

Now aged 86 and a Nobel Prize nominee, Adonis divides his time between France and Lebanon. His personal friends include Israeli poets, Ronny Someck and Natan Zach. Adonis and Zach have even published a joint work together and when Adonis's work was published in Hebrew in Israel in 1989, Someck wrote a tribute poem that was added to the preface.


I conclude here with a piece that was translated into English by Shawkat M Toorawa whose notes may be read at:    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/translator-notes/detail/49323.



The New Noah

1
                      

We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain, 
Our oars promises from God.   
We live—and the rest of Humanity dies.   
We travel upon the waves, fastening 
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies. 
But between Heaven and us is an opening, 
A porthole for a supplication. 

"Why, Lord, have you saved us alone 
From among all the people and creatures? 
And where are you casting us now? 
To your other Land, to our First Home? 
Into the leaves of Death, into the wind of Life? 
In us, in our arteries, flows a fear of the Sun. 
We despair of the Light, 
We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow 
In which to start Life anew. 

If only we were not that seedling of Creation, 
Of Earth and its generations, 
If only we had remained simple Clay or Ember, 
Or something in between, 
Then we would not have to see   
This World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over."

                         2

If time started anew, 
and waters submerged the face of life, 
and the earth convulsed, and that god 
rushed to me, beseeching, "Noah, save the living!" 
I would not concern myself with his request. 
I would travel upon my ark, removing   
clay and pebbles from the eyes of the dead. 
I would open the depths of their being to the flood, 
and whisper in their veins   
that we have returned from the wilderness,   
that we have emerged from the cave, 
that we have changed the sky of years, 
that we sail without giving in to our fears— 
that we do not heed the word of that god. 
Our appointment is with death.   
Our shores are a familiar and pleasing despair, 
a gelid sea of iron water that we ford   
to its very ends, undeterred, 
heedless of that god and his word, 
longing for a different, a new, lord.

Source: Poetry (April 2007)

Natalie Wood (17 December 2016)


Saturday, 3 December 2016

Being Alone –Together!

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was abroad when his predecessor Shimon Peres died.

So  perhaps his visit and important speech to the Ukrainian Parliament marking the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre didn’t receive the international attention it deserved.

“We must not play a part in the sin of forgetting or denial … national leaders who support antisemitic, racist, or neo-Nazi ideas will not be welcomed as friends among the family of nations,” he warned.

Yevgeny.YevtushenkoMr Rivlin’s  words were a stern reminder of how the huge-scale atrocity was concealed by the Nazis and their Soviet collaborators for 21 years before being exposed by the renowned Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko in Babi Yar.  The translation below is by Benjamin Okopnik.

 

 

Babi Yar

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-“They come!”

-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”

-“They break the door!”

-“No, river ice is breaking…”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring

When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

----------------

MNissim Ezekieleanwhile, it is time to recall that poetry was among Mr Peres’s interests and soon after his passing, members of Voices Israel, the English language poetry society were reminded how he often quoted from  Acceptance by Bene Israel Indian poet, Nissim Ezekiel.

 

… I am all alone
and you are alone.
So why can’t we be
alone together …

Indeed, he quoted this fragment at the opening of the 2013 Maccabiah Games, whose words it has been observed, should resonate with every  citizen of Israel’s rainbow nation.

© Natalie Wood (03 December 2016)

Saturday, 26 November 2016

As Great Men Leave The World ….

Among the flood of tributes to the late Cuban leader, Fidel Castro has been one at The Guardian newspaper where historian Richard Gott noted:

Jos-Julin-Mart-Prez6Cuba under Fidel was a country where indigenous nationalism was at least as significant as imported socialism, and where the legend of José Martí, the patriot poet and organiser of the 19th-century struggle against Spain, was always more influential than the philosophy of Karl Marx.”

Regarded as the symbol of Cuba's bid for independence from Spain in the late 1800s, José Julián Martí Pérez may also be viewed as being in the tradition of the valiant soldier poet. One must wonder how he would have reacted on learning that whereas his work to unite the Cuban émigré community, particularly in Florida, was crucial to the success of the Cuban War of Independence, many 20th century Cubans fled back there once Castro gained power in 1959.

Although Marti is now best remembered for the poem that became the lyrics to the Cuban anthem, Guantanamera, I pause below with a few simple lines that may be more appropriate for the day of Castro’s passing.

I Wish To Leave The World

I wish to leave the world
By its natural door;
In my tomb of green leaves
They are to carry me to die.
Do not put me in the dark
To die like a traitor;
I am good, and like a good thing
I will die with my face to the sun

---------------

But the past half-week has also been one of more semi-mourning for Israel where, The Times of Israel reports, the mix of terrorist-triggered arson and wildfire blazes have caused thirty per cent more land devastation than the Carmel Forest fire of 2010.

Ordinary Israelis – Arabs along with Jews - have reacted as ever with gestures of love, sympathy and practical support for those who have had homes and businesses wrecked – and memories destroyed.

At times like these even the non-religious seek comfort in the bible and among items posted on social media has been this wonderful version of Psalm 121, attributed to King David, one of the world’s first acclaimed soldier poets. The singer is Shelly Markalov, who was aged only eight at the time of recording. You have my permission to weep. I did!

© Natalie Wood (26 November 2016)

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Living Will

This poem was first written as part of a  story and has been published in its present form by Mark Ulyseas of Live Encounters Magazine at Live Encounters Poetry Feast December 2016.

--------------

A Living Will

 

After I’m gone, say

the God I barely recognised

was indivisible.

Just One.

 

After I’ve gone, don’t

recite Kaddish. The

dying is for me.

Not Him.

Jewish.Funeral.Customs

Make the funeral short.

Let my body burn.

Should these requests be

judged thoughtless, most

perverse, let it be known

that I deserve no prayers,

praise, lies or crocodile tears.

 

What I did was wrong.

You’ll know this -

after I’ve gone.

 

Buy less milk and butter.

Turn the heating low.

Feed the cat. Cut

the kids’ hair monthly,

check their homework’s done.

Remind them they are Jewish -

after I’m gone.

 

When you make

Jack’s barmitzvah,

do invite my mum.

It’ll be good for

her to see him

wear Dad’s prayer shawl.

 

After I’m gone, carry

on as normal. Have

Janie round for tea.

I find your loving

comfortable.

Let’s not pretend.

It’s clear. She’s

a better mother

than I’d ever be.

 

After I’m gone,

pin a notice on our door.

“This woman,”

it should read,

“seemed honourable,

kind, fair; steadfast,

generous, taught her

children well.

 

“But as the final drips

of life seeped from her,

measured by the agonised

ticking of the clock, the

truth poured out.

 

“In a dream she

killed her father,

made mad her daughter,

then watched agape

as oblivion snatched

her, too.”

---------------

© Natalie Wood (19 October 2016)

 

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