A Poem Of Reference

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

thought

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

packed packed.

So much love encircled! The tiles with their lichen-script in an unknown

tongue

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

falls sharp

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!”

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6 thoughts on “A Poem Of Reference

  1. Wow. Weirdly enough I just read another blogger’s post on a cemetery.
    You are definitely your family’s historian. How cool that you’re going to Prague!
    I enjoyed Tomas Tranströmer’s poem. When my grandmother’s died, I didn’t have any presentiments. My mother did, however.

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  2. I enjoy your posts so much, Andy. And I love your poem.

    When my mother passed I was with her, but my 19-year old niece who was 200 kilometres away knew instantly, before I phoned my sister to tell her the bad news.

    We also have so many old photos in our family and we can only guess at who was who. I am determined to make some easy-to-look-at family scrapbooks in my lifetime, so that future generations know who we all are…

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    • Thank you, Susan.
      I have heard so many stories like that of your niece, and like I said-I can relate to them. As for the photographs, that is a great idea. I have acquired some, in my family history research, that we cannot identify. There are some, though, who I know the identity of. Nobody else does-and that responsibility falls squarely on my shoulders.
      Stories and faces, I need to make a start on recording it all.

      Like

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