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!”

Time And The Swede

A while ago, on Facebook, I stumbled across this photograph of my old Swedish friend Agnetha Fältskog, taken from the first Abba Greatest Hits album of 1975. If you look closely, you will see that inserted into her hand is a copy of her last solo album, A, released in 2013. Both albums, both images, separated by thirty-eight years, stand, in a way, like chronological bookends of a linear journey. Of her linear journey, along that particular period of her life. In between, of course, much has changed. For better, or for worse. Such is life.

image

I like to think that the photoshopping artist, whoever he or she may be, has, like I, a penchant for both history and continuity, similarly casting an appreciative eye over the progressive journey, yet, also, being cut to the quick by the unstoppable, winnowing effect of time itself.

There is a song on Agnetha’s last album called I Was A Flower. I think some of the lines could also be addressed to Time itself:

I was a flower

Now look what you have done

You’ve made my colours fade

Too close to the sun

Once I was innocent

Beautiful, life had just begun

I was a flower

Now look what you have done

There are some other lines of this song that my daughter sings over and over, like kids do:

But now you walk right through me

Like I’m an empty ghost

Now, when I need you the most

My daughter: a young girl, blossoming and full of life, whiling away her time singing of empty ghosts.

Two chronological bookends of a linear journey, being winnowed along the way.

Damn you, Time. Damn you.