Sydney Jewish Museum
25 October 2020

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN:

My old Hebrew student, Roddy Meagher QC, once opened an exhibition of paintings by the Australian artist, Rod Milgate. In doing so, he spoke of the poetic qualities of Milgate’s paintings, and then wanted to explain what he meant by suggesting that a painting might be ‘poetic’. Roddy said, “By poetry, I mean the power to discern in mundane and quotidian objects the emotional intensity of things, the power which T.S. Eliot described as the portrayal of tough truths with a light lyric grace.” He quoted the following passage from Eliot:

The experience of a poem is the experience both of a moment and of a lifetime. It is very much like our intenser experiences of other human beings. There is a first, or an early moment which is unique, of shock and surprise, even of terror (Ego dominus tuus); a moment which can never be forgotten, but which is never repeated integrally; and yet which would become destitute of significance if it did not survive in a larger whole of experience; which survives inside a deeper and a calmer feeling. The majority of poems one outgrows and outlives, as one outgrows and outlives the majority of human passions: Dante’s is one of those which one can only just hope to grow up to at the end of life.

Today, when launching And I Shall Live, I am reminded of this passage. Some of the poems in the collection are, I think, ones that I, at least, shall not outgrow. Dealing, as they do, with the Holocaust, they speak of experiences that one can only just hope to grow up to at the end of life. Indeed, the poetess, Betyna Bock, though not yet at the end of her life, has spent a lifetime growing up to them. In these poems, she evokes those early moments of her life that are unique—the shock, surprise, and terror experienced by a child of Holocaust survivors. She has been determined that those moments should not become destitute of significance. She has not repeated them in her poems, but she has ensured that they survive in a larger whole of experience. Reading these poems, one is led to the conclusion that the shock, surprise, and terror now survive inside a deeper and a calmer feeling.

We are launching the collection today at the Sydney Jewish Museum, which has, as one of its primary objectives, the task of preserving the memory of the Holocaust. There is no shortage of shock, surprise, and terror in the experience of remembering the Holocaust. These poems add another dimension to that experience. They remind us that such painful memories can not only survive, but can survive inside a deeper and a calmer feeling.

The museum’s second objective is to document the history of the Jewish people in Australia. The last time I spoke here, I spoke to this objective. I was discussing my family memoir, The Aunt’s Mirrors, in which I investigated the meaningfulness of family experience. That was a reflection on the life of a Jewish family that had come to Australia from Poland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and so was spared the horrors of the Holocaust. I tried to give expression in my book to what it was that has given meaningfulness to the experience of my family since it came to Australia.

I have known Betyna’s family for most of my life. Their family experience has been very different from mine. In a quite different way, this book seeks to capture the meaningfulness of that family experience; the meaningfulness of family life lived in the shadow of the Holocaust.

I’d like to think that I am qualified to discuss these poems not only for these reasons, however, but also because my research in philosophy speaks to these poems. In Art’s Emotions, I discuss what it is about the emotional experience of art that is valuable. I argue that art offers us a special, more complete, experience of emotion than we have in our ordinary lives. This special experience of emotion is important because it is only through such experiences that we can be fully emotionally reconciled to the world that we inhabit. I think this is relevant to the poems in And I shall Live, because they offer the experiences through which we can more fully engage with some profound emotions.

I do not propose to rehearse all of my arguments here, but I should like to mention briefly the work of the Oxford philosopher, R. G. Collingwood, who died just before the Second World War. In The Principles of Art, he offers us an account of what art is. He believes art is a matter of giving expression to emotion. He is emphatic, however, that the expression of emotion is not the arousal of emotion. It is a matter of comprehending how we feel.

Ordinarily, we experience feelings that are incomprehensible to us. These feelings only become comprehensible when we give form to them. This is not a matter of labelling them. It is a matter of finding an appropriate form for them. This, Collingwood believes, is the business of the artist. Through manipulating the artistic medium, be it paint, clay, melodies and chords, or words, the artist struggles to create something—a work of art—that gives expression to the artist’s incomprehensible feelings. When the artist succeeds, the feelings take form through the work of art, and become something comprehensible, which Collingwood calls emotion. He believes that it is through the process of creating the work of art that the artist comprehends her own emotions. He also believes that when anyone else experiences the work of art, that person undergoes the same experience of the work of art as the artist does. In this way, any of us can comprehend the artist’s emotions through the experience of the artistic medium.

I think Collingwood’s approach to art goes some way towards explaining the value of the poems in And I Shall Live. These are poems in which the poetess struggles to comprehend otherwise incomprehensible feelings that she has experienced as the child of Holocaust survivors. And when any of us reads the poems, we are able to undergo the same experience. The value of the poems is not that they help us to give labels to the feelings experienced by the child of Holocaust survivors. The value lies in the way in which the poems give form to these feelings, and, in doing so, enable all of us to comprehend powerful—but otherwise mysterious—emotions that are a central part of the memory of the Holocaust.

The poems in this volume are grouped into six sections:

  • Poems About My Mother Nora
  • Poems About My Father Karel
  • Prague Poems
  • Holocaust Poems
  • Childhood Poems
  • Family Poems

I find some of the Poems About My Mother Nora particularly arresting for the way in which they demonstrate the power to discern in mundane objects the emotional intensity of things. In these poems, mundane objects become the vehicles for giving expression to the tough truths of Holocaust survivors with a light lyric grace that many of us could never imagine possible. Consider the significance of the saltshaker in the following poem.

Nora at Meal Time

My family ate a normal dinner
like every other family,
while you boiled over
with a caustic curse.
You were sitting sullen
in your pale blue floppy
digger’s hat
and dark sunglasses.
A protection against
the radiation of electricity
and my roast chicken.
Poison, poison,
you may as well eat leather
.”

Before you consumed
your evening concoction of overripe bananas
and finely chopped raw carrots,
you bang your tiny saltshaker
of kelp powder on the table.
A precious talisman
against indigestion.

I quietly swallowed
the golden
crisp skinned chicken,
peppered with your
toxic comments.
Yet all the while
I just wanted to shake you
into conformity.

What appeals to me about this poem is the way that the saltshaker acquires so many layers of meaning. The daughter is trying to cook a ‘normal’ family meal, which her mother cannot appreciate. Nora boils over with bitterness. She seems to need to protect herself from her daughter’s cooking; cooking that is an expression of care and concern for her family. So Nora produces the saltshaker containing the kelp powder that protects her. We can almost hear her banging of the saltshaker on the table innocently enough to get some out, and we can hear how quietly her daughter eats the food she has prepared for her family, the flavour of which has been spoilt by her mother’s bitterness. The poem ends with her wanting to join her mother in ‘shaking’, but in this case it is to shake her mother into conformity, rather than to shake kelp seasoning onto the food. The mundane saltshaker is now loaded with meaning. It seems that this is about wanting her mother to be more ‘normal’. But I think what she really wants is for her mother to give up the need to protect herself from her daughter’s care. She wants to share in the shaking, but this cannot be: we are left at the end with one woman shaking to protect herself, and the other desiring to shake her mother out of the need to protect herself.

The sense of estrangement is even more pronounced in the following poem.

Nora at the Opera

As the conductor
lifts his baton
to begin the overture,
I sit next to you
as you accompany the orchestra
by scrunching
a brown paper bag
full of pistachio nuts
and celery sticks.

Overjoyed to hear
your favourite aria,
you hum in tune
and tap your foot.
Madame Butterfly
swells on top C,
as your red plastic
overcoat rustles.

I suppress an urge
to scream.

During the finale,
you provide
a supporting act
when your handbag drops,
spilling out pistachio shells
and dollar coins.

I pick up your handbag,
button up your overcoat,
and grab your wrist
a little too tightly.

The curtain comes down.

In this poem, Nora’s eccentricities are on display in a public place. The pistachio shells scrunching in a paper bag; the red plastic overcoat rustling as she moves in her seat. Mother and daughter are at the opera together. Nora is swept up in the music and is oblivious to everything else. Her daughter in embarrassed by the distracting noises her mother makes when the audience is trying to focus on the music. But there is another dimension to this. Nora is there with her daughter, but there are two relationships at play here. There is Nora’s relationship with the music, which is all consuming, and there is her relationship with her daughter, which seems to be dysfunctional: whereas the mother is enjoying the music; the daughter is embarrassed. I suspect, however, that the daughter might be feeling something more like envy or jealousy than embarrassment. Nora provides a support act for Madame Butterfly; she accompanies the orchestra. Her daughter craves the kind of relationship with her mother that Nora enjoys with the music, but that is not possible. Nora cannot engage with her daughter in the way she does with the music. She cannot lose herself in her daughter’s emotions, in the way she can lose herself in the music.

These poems expose not merely a sense of childlike helplessness, but also a desire to nurture. Yes, she wants something from her mother, but she also wants to give her mother something. It is reciprocity that she craves. This desire to help her mother put her memories in some kind of emotional order is captured in the last poem that I shall discuss.

Threads

When I was growing up
my mother was always losing
her reading glasses.

And I was always finding them
under last week’s newspapers
or next to the coffee stained
postcards from overseas.

On the cluttered dining table
she would cut out patterns.
She then wrestled with sleeves and bodices
that turned into misplaced continents.

With the rattly old Singer sewing machine
she stitched and unstitched
crushed velvet sleeves and uneven hems
into cocktail dresses for the opera.

At night she was transported
back to her pre-War Prague,
tenderly touching
the black and white sepia photographs
of her mother and sister.
Date of death unknown.

After she went to bed,
I packed away
the scissors and pins,
trying to put
her threads back together.

Again, it is in mundane objects that the poetess finds the most sublime meaning. The most she can do is to tidy up her mother’s sewing. This is as close as she can get to helping her mother order and process her memories.

In Marilynne Robinson’s third novel, Home, the prodigal son, Jack, returns, and, towards the end of the novel, his dying father tries to get him to make amends with his brother, Teddy, and to get both of them to promise to help one another. The good-for-nothing Jack says, “I just don’t see how I’m supposed to keep up my side of it. How I could help Teddy.” His father replies:

“Well, that’s what I mean about receiving help. Teddy took a world of responsibility for you, every way you’d let him do it, and it was because his happiness depended on yours. So the greatest kindness you could ever have shown him was to accept the good he intended for you. You owed him that much. And I mean spiritual help, too. Particularly spiritual help.”

Much of the novel, Home, is a meditation on Jack’s inability to accept his family’s love, and through the novel we come to comprehend his otherwise incomprehensible feelings. I think one might have offered the same advice to Nora (for quite different reasons), and these poems are the working through of the feelings; the comprehending of the emotions that allows her daughter to understand and experience this relationship more fully, more meaningfully, more deeply, and more calmly.

As Betyna explains in a comment about the poems:

In contrast to my father, my mother didn’t want to talk about the Holocaust. She wanted to protect me and to also stop herself from feeling her pain and losses. I was often very angry with her and then I felt guilty. It was only when I started to write poems about her and putting my feelings into words that I understood that my anger was my way to try to get through to her. My way to reach out to her. My way to find an intimacy with her.

I would suggest that, in this way, the poems do not merely preserve emotional memory of the Holocaust, they enable us to understand such emotional memory.

The collection’s final poem ends with a quotation from a song that Jews traditionally sing upon returning home from the synagogue of a Friday night to welcome in the sabbath. They are words that remind us that, on shabbat, the family home is a place of peace and blessing, presided over by ministering angels. That the experience of a family is one of peace and blessing is, no doubt, something with which a family of Holocaust survivors struggles for decades. These poems are, however, testimony to the fact that the shock, surprise, and terror in a family’s experience of Holocaust memories can survive inside a deeper and a calmer feeling.

This, I think, is the conclusion of the book when it ends with the words we owe to the kabbalists, those Jewish mystics of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, who wrote the words with which Betyna ends her last poem in the collection, and with which I end these remarks:

Peace Be Upon You
O Ministering Angels
Messengers of the Most High.
Blessed is the Holy One.

 

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