I was on a deserted promontory, looking out to sea, and some words from Tomas Tranströmer’s long poem, Baltics, came to me:
I looked at the sky and at the earth and straight ahead
and since then I’ve been writing a long letter to the dead
on a typewriter with no ribbon just a horizon line
so the words knock in vain and nothing sticks.
There a few things in this poem that I can relate to. For instance, speaking of his grandmother:
I remember her. I would press close to her
and at the moment of death (the moment of crossing?) she sent out a
so that I-a five year old-understood what happened
half an hour before they rang.
The same thing happened to me with my grandmother, although I was eighteen years old at the time, feeling the presentiment at two o’clock in the morning. We got the call around eight o’clock when her son, my uncle, found her, dead in bed as he took her usual morning brew in to her. We were later told that she had died at around two.
The poem continues:
Her I remember. But on the next brown photo
the unknown man-
dated by his clothes to the middle of last century.
A man around thirty: the vigorous eyebrows,
the face looking straight into my eyes
and whispering: ‘here I am’.
But who ‘I’ am
there’s no one any more who remembers. No one.
Among my family history material I have many such photographs, frustrating, maddening, unidentifiable. Of people who exist now only as anonymous phantoms, suggesting a link, offering connections, but withholding their secret confirmation for eternity.
And there is one final connection. The poet ends by speaking of the old Jewish cemetery in Prague:
where the dead live more packed than they were in life, the stones
So much love encircled! The tiles with their lichen-script in an unknown
are the stones in the ghetto cemetery of the archipelago folk, the stones
raised and tumbled.-
The hovel is lit up
with all those who were driven by a certain wave, by a certain wind
right out here to their fates.
I discovered Tranströmer’s poem a number of years after I had visited that cemetery, speaking of it in my own poem Prague, Late November, which has featured on this blog. It begins:
A crystal cold
upon the city of towers,
upon the Jewish remnants
of an age-old struggle
keeling and succumbing
in the dawn and the dusk.
Hurdling prostrate beggars
we bridge the rolling river,
crawling for solace
to our procured holes,
tasting the cuisine
with the blood and the dust.
How did I end up in that cemetery on a freezing, cold November day? My wife took the kids to school one wet, Monday morning. When she got back she said to me: “Guess what? When I passed the travel agents on the way back I saw something advertised in the window. So I went in-and we are going to Prague next month.”
From then on, whenever she offered to do the school run, I would say “No-I will take the kids. We can’t afford for you to take them!”