Raymond Antrobus: To Sweeten Bitter (poetry review)

Author picture from raymondantrobus.com

It was poignant and entirely appropriate to dwell in the poetry pamphlet To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus on Father’s Day (published by Outspoken Press). For this is a very personal exploration of the father/son relationship, a more ambiguous one than we are used to reading about in the standard gushing outbursts of sentiment on this day.

Then, waking up to yet more tragic news, this time about a terrorist attack on Muslims in London, this slim volume of poetry remains appropriate, for it has a resonance well beyond the personal. This is also poetry about finding one’s cultural identity, about trying to belong and being found wanting, about never quite fitting in, never knowing how to describe one’s self, trying to come to terms with one’s heritage.

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.

Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British…

In school I fought a boy in the lunch hall – Jamaican.

At home, told Dad I hate dem, all dem Jamaicans – I’m British.

He laughed, said you cannot love sugar and hate your sweetness…

In Look, There’s a Black Man, Touch Him the poet captures not only his father’s experience of coming to England, but touches on broader issues of immigration and race, people ‘turn me away for showing up the wrong colour’. The men in Scratched Light miss their home and communities, struggle to share their bewilderment and loneliness with others who have been displaced, perhaps even build a transient community of the lost and grieving in the shadow of the Southbank security guards. Not all of the poems are wistful, however. There is humour but also drama and menace in Miami Airport, with the staccato questioning by the border guards: ‘why didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?’

Yet when the Jamaican British son returns to the land of his father, he feels just as unsettled and unwanted. He tries to shake off the tourist image. He falls for the misguided idea that following roads marked on a map (with ridiculous English names) will help in Jamaica, where ‘the road itself rebelled and gave up making way for those who’ve forgotten what swung in this wind’. The guilt of the Empire is even stronger in the more overtly political poem Two Days and Two Nights in Kisumu, Kenya, where the poet has gone to teach poetry but fears that English is not the right language with which to approach these children for

our language has not come from the future,

it has crawled from a cave

and rowed to so many shores

that we speak in crashed waves and trade winds.

Ultimately, however, the personal poems are the most powerful in this anything but straightforward account of a father’s legacy, a father lost to dementia quite a few years before death. The collection starts and ends on the hospital bed, with a heart giving out, a son holding hands with a father who has not always been there for him, trying to find forgiveness in his heart. This is a recognisable situation for so many, that there is a danger of reverting to hackneyed sentiments, but Antrobus injects freshness and real grittiness into it. Dementia ‘simplified a complicated man’, confers warmth where perhaps there was none initially. Sometimes the expression of pain is uncomplicated, as in the simple but not at all simplistic short poem When He Died:

I told no one

how old he was

in case

his death

seemed too

inevitable…

More often, there are complicated and contradictory strands of feeling woven in. The title poem To Sweeten Bitter describes the paradox lying at the very heart of this relationship, the deeper grooves a father makes in our lives, the years of hurt and misunderstanding and the attempt to sugarcoat situations. The later poems are clearer in describing an absent father, an abusive father, the threats and shaming he stooped to, that forgiveness was only possible because ‘he promised me one day he was going to die.’ There is also recognition of a mother’s sacrifice, compensating for an absent father. In What Is Possible, we find the touching image of her sitting up all night to thread jewellery to sell in the market, with only the TV for company, while her son complains about the TV disturbing him. Yet as he lies in his bed, he dreams he will fly and grow too big for his bed, he understands the safety and security that his mother has given him, the feeling that all possibilities are still open to him.

The video below is the poet performing his own Sestina for My Father, which is not in the present volume, but deserves to be mentioned alongside it.

Yet this slender book reminds us that, for all the imperfections, for all of the pain, instead of yearning for the father we wish we’d had, we should attempt to understand and forgive the one we were given. Whether present or absent, they shape us far more than we can imagine or accept

where someone I love is the shape

of the missing thing.

 

 

 

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And Now for Something Completely Different…

Two very different books for a change (and a break from my usual crime or other gruelling subjects): memoirs and poetry.

www.wien.gv.at
http://www.wien.gv.at

Hilde Spiel was a highly versatile Austrian writer and journalist (from a highly integrated Jewish family), who fled to London in 1936 (after the assassination of her beloved university lecturer Moritz Schlick). Her diary of her trip to Vienna in 1946 as a correspondent for the British Armed Forces was originally written in English but was later edited and published in German as ‘Rückkehr nach Wien (Return to Vienna).

This is a very poignant and thoughtful report of a city changed beyond recognition by bombs and defeat… and yet unchanged in many ways (some good, some bad). [All translations my own.]

I must learn everything anew. The cold mouldy stone smell of Viennese houses… the unrelenting stare of the housekeeper… the suspicious, unfriendly smile that was there before the Nazis and will always be there.

hilde spielSpiel refrains from sentimentality. She is clear-sighted and precise in her description of everyday heroism and cowardice, of opportunism and the complicated relationship between the victorious Allies and the local population. She talks to a Count and Countess, who now live in their crumbling little palace in the Russian Sector. They tell her about the day the Russian army descended upon their property, camped in their garden with fifty horses, shattered all their crystal and raped their female servants. The author understands their feeling of helplessness, but cannot help thinking:

Nevertheless, the two of them have lived for seven years side by side with barbarians. Only… their own barbarians were smooth-tongued, able to converse politely about Goethe and Mozart, with good table manners, agreeable hosts and guests, polished, elegant and thoroughly European. Yet they did far worse things behind prison walls and camp fences than the rape of helpless women. It’s only when the barbarians take on their eastern, unvarnished and shameless form that the Count and Countess realise the degeneration of the present day.

This trip is of course also an opportunity for self-reflection. To what extent can we ever go home to that place where we have been happy in the past, when we have changed and the place too has changed in a different way? Who wins in the battle between heart and mind? How much of our true selves do we have to hide or abandon when we become immigrants and have to abide by the rules and cultural mores of our adopted country?

 

I fear that my centre of gravity is somewhere above the skies of Europe, drifting in a cloud above England, Austria, Italy, France, simultaneously attracted and repelled, never really coming down in any of these places… I will have to test again and again where my true home is.

returnViennaSpiel once said that she could never have worked without England, but she couldn’t live without Vienna. Yet, even as she enjoys a few musical performances at the temporarily re-housed Vienna Opera, she wonders:

Is there anything in this city still alive and contemporary, something I can admire unreservedly, that is not soaked up in the past like a sponge …?

Bonus tidbit of information that I discovered while reading the book is that Hilde Spiel spent the first ten years of her childhood on the street next to the one where I spent mine and had a similar near-Catholic experience in the very same little parish church (which is featured on the cover of the English language edition of her book).

For an additional book review and information on how to get hold of this fascinating book, see here.

 

 

sonnetsThe second book is a collection of 101 Sonnets published by Faber and Faber.  Poet, writer and musician Don Paterson curates this eclectic collection of one of the best-loved and most popular verse forms in the Western world, often with witty asides about each poem. For instance, about Elizabeth Daryush’s Still Life:

The best breakfast every described, though the end of the poem you want to go at it with a cricket bat. It’s hard to know exactly where the poet stand on all this, but we can perhaps sense her disapproval in the pampered insularity of the scene. I hope.

I had no idea there were so much breadth and variety of modern sonnets, from Seamus Heaney’s beautifully controlled ‘The Skylight’ to Elizabeth Bishop’s unconventional two-stress lines to Douglas Dunn’s blissful description of a summer of ‘Modern Love’. A volume to treasure and dip into, again and again. (And yes, that explains my own two recent sonnet attempts.)