Marcelle Freiman: Spirit Level; Peter Skrzynecki: Travelling Among the Stars

Spirit Level (Waratah NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2021, 67pp.)
Travelling Among the Stars (Np: Vagabond, 2022, 208pp.)

It’s a fact well-known that the advances in medical science in the last half-century have enabled those who have access to them to live longer and healthier lives than those of previous generations. This seems all to the good but I wonder whether many have pondered the effect that this has had on creativity, on poetry specifically. Since poets are now likely to survive longer, how does this affect their own sense of the shape of their writing lives? (And for that matter, since critics survive longer too, how does that affect their engagement with “the literature of their times” since the “times” might well be getting towards three-quarters of a century.) I don’t think it’s simply a matter of what has always happened being mathematically extended (or distended). There may well be tangible changes that occur when poets get into their seventies assuming that the inner life continues to grow and change and the creative impetus survives. One of these changes might well relate to memories which, I think it could be argued, alter in quality, significance and insistence as writer approach the deeper recesses of age. Marcelle Freiman’s and Peter Skrzynecki’s recent books come from writers now in their seventies – late seventies in Skrzynecki’s case – and they are both very much books built on memories, exploring the fact that memories are far more complex things than the simple word suggests. When the life of the poet has also been marked early on by the experience of migration with its imposition of a double identity, memories have an extra edge although it could be argued that the memories of everyone who reaches their seventies are memories of a childhood so far in the past that it might just as well be “another country”. A past where, as Brook Emery says in a poem in his selected, “We used to eat Chiko Rolls, Sargents Pies, / Pluto Pups, Polly Waffles, Rainbow Balls . . .” could seem nearly as unfamiliar and exotic to a poet of the third decade of the twenty-first century as a foreign country of origin like South Africa.

Which is a good point at which to look at the poetry of Marcelle Freiman. Spirit Level is her third book – she is hardly a prolific poet – and, like the other two – Monkey’s Wedding and White Lines (Vertical) – is a book dominated by memories of a South African childhood of the apartheid era. To make matters more complex, her grandparents, on both sides, were themselves migrants from Latvia and Lithuania. The striking cover of this new book alludes to this by showing an extraordinary photograph of Freiman’s mother as a child in Lithuania. It’s alluded to in a three-part poem called “The Mother Poems”:

My mother sits in her armchair – by her side
photographs and a document assembled in a frame:
1931 a Lithuanian passport: the handwritten words identify
my grandmother Chana b. 1903 and Mina b.1926.
Alongside, a snapshot in a forest of birches - 
a satchel on her shoulder, the child looks straight at the camera,
her heart-shaped face, a half-smile,
the shine of a clear lake through the trees . . .

Photographs like this, a way of embedding and preserving a fragment of a past, have only been known as a mass phenomenon since the beginning of last century and can act as triggers of memory or, as here, something that extends our responses back beyond the time of our own consciousness as a marker of the memories of those who went before.

Freiman is a more complex poet than simply a purveyor of migration memories and her work is especially concerned with the visual arts, the poems often responding to, or taking as a starting point, paintings, especially contemporary Australian paintings. But the theme of memory is an important one and its importance is established in the first poem of her first book in which a sun-shower in the garden in Sydney generates, willy-nilly, a childhood memory:

. . . . . 
I remember -
another sunshower in November
called a “monkey’s wedding” in Africa -
the picture leaps charged by rain in sunlight
and eyes transformed to childhood
imagine a red sky and monkeys. . .

Here, right at the beginning, we meet the idea of memories not as something indulgently cherished and polished but as something that calls from the past to the present, insisting on being registered. Spirit Level emphasises this by having as an epigraph a quote from David Malouf, himself an expert in the complex phenomenon of memory: “The world not as it was, or as we were, but as we find ourselves again in its presence”, stressing that memory is a way of living in the present rather than moving ourselves into our pasts. And the first poem, “Still”, might even be imagined to be a revisiting of “Monkey’s Wedding” in that it replaces a sunshower with a dry landscape and a fascination with the content of a memory by a fascination with the precise requirements on the mental plane which will allow such memories to emerge:

there is a stillness I require
no rain drumming the surfaces of things.
now, there is no quiescent water
rather a dry crackle of grasses, a sunset in Africa
yellow-brown and moving soft as hair.
only the child’s eye can see
a memory like this. . .

The title, “still”, referring to the mental state, also – probably deliberately – connotes a photograph, imagined as a single frame in the continuous movie of life, and, as I’ve said, it’s one of the ways in which memory is triggered. Almost the whole first section of Spirit Level is devoted to memories of a South African girlhood and they are poems which raise a lot of issues. The first of these is the question of why particular memories should occur. Guilt is obviously a powerful driver as is trauma: in a couple of her poems Freiman describes the memory of a man crying out for help while lying on the road bleeding after a bicycle accident. And in the poems of Spirit Level there are a number of reasons for memory which, like guilt and trauma, might apply to pretty well anyone. There are family memories, for example, which, considered in the cold light of age, are messages about our selves in the present since the outlines of genetic heritage are made clearer. In “The Mother Poems”, for example, the poems move backward so that they conclude with a portrait of the mother’s mother, someone who escaped the anti-semitic pogroms of Europe to settle in South Africa:

. . . . .
Through wordless nights, with steel wires
tying her to family, she made new life in the sun – my mother
a proof of it: snapshot of a young nursery-school teacher
wild-haired and free at eighteen.
Ambiguous, the losses of family not spoken,
the traces would ripple close to the frames
of my mother’s silence, beyond my limited grappling,
my vision too narrow to fathom, even now, years later
in this room.

Here the “losses of family” refers to the fate of the grandmother’s mother and sister, killed in Lithuania at the end of the war. It isn’t a trauma of immediate experience to the author but one whose “traces would ripple” – a reminder that the far past is part of our present, even if we barely know its outlines.

At a social level, a particular kind of memory forces itself into the consciousness of someone growing up in South Africa. In Freiman’s poetry it isn’t so much an issue of having lived under an oppressive, even psychotic, political regime, so much as the lack of childhood awareness of the nature of that regime, of its oppressed majority living in the townships. It’s partly an inevitable guilt reaction about a child’s insensitivity to the lives of the house’s gardener and servant. And guilt and shame are powerful impulses that drive memories into our present. But there is a poetic problem about such memories in that poetry has a strong drive to work its own magic on them, teasing out meanings, emphasising symbolic elements, slyly punning, and so on. In other words, treating these memories as material for poetry when they might be something that is trying to communicate in its own language and doesn’t want to be shepherded or translated into a free-standing poem. To me, one of the least satisfying poems in Spirit Level is “Country of my Birth – written 27 June 2013” a highly structured set of memories of South Africa interweaving the author’s own experiences with the life of Mandela then approaching its close. It’s a portrait of “a country of misery” but the attempt to work the intractable material into some sort of shape is not only a failure but I think a misguided attempt at the poetic level. Something similar could be said about “The Dam”, a much more satisfying poem built around the childhood memory of an afternoon swim at the grandparent’s place in a concrete reservoir under a windmill pumping up water from artesian levels. Unlike “Country of my Birth” there is scope for a powerful sense of the tactility of the experience:

 . . . . . 
holding the ladder, I backed in, heels pressed,
                 toes gripping the sludgy coating.

Above our heads the windpump clanked as the wind changed direction,
        its tailfin a sail, blades turning lazy and squeaking . . .

And it continues – it’s a long poem – with these powerful tactile memories before switching to an interest in why such memories arise. It describes standing in Sydney, “by a stand of ti-tree bushes and eucalyptus” and experiencing a kind of revelation of plenitude, cast very much in terms of the strata that underlie existence. The poem finishes by reverting to the memory of the afternoon swim in childhood where the windmill drew up the water that was underneath the dry South African “straw-coloured grassland”. Again, this is to make sense of the memory as a proleptic experience of a kind of grace underlying the harsh surface: the poem, early on, reminds us that this is also a country where seams of gold lie underneath. The poetic issue, I think, is one of control. To make a good poem a memory is harnessed to an intense experience of the present and the result is a satisfying poem as poem. It’s just the purist in me that worries whether the situation might not be that memories deliver their message in their own language and shouldn’t be translated and structured. It’s a poet’s problem but a significant one and it’s probably the reason why I prefer the poems of memory here, like “Greyhounds – on the plots” where there is no translating or interpreting and little apparent structuring.

Peter Skrzynecki’s Travelling Among the Stars is a book full of memories and their effects. In fact his poetry, since his third book, Immigrant Chronicle, has been located in memories of the past. These have often been deployed for their recording quality – the word “chronicle” in the title is significant here – and for their social relevance as part of the attempt to understand and celebrate the effects and achievements of post-war immigration from Europe. In a sense there is nothing new in Travelling Among the Stars but the importance of the book is that it shows us – or, at least, me – that Skrzynecki’s poetry is not a comfortable repetitive mining of a standard stock of memories but rather a poetic oeuvre built out of obsession: these are memories that don’t go away though they may derive from experiences more than half a century old.

The core memories are located around two scenes. The first is family life in Sydney starting in the fifties and then following through to his parents’ deaths. The second is his time as a recently graduated teacher in a one-teacher rural school in Jeogla on the New England Tableland. I think we first meet Skrzynecki’s father in the second poem of Immigrant Chronicle where he is memorably described as someone who “kept pace only with the Jones’s / of his own mind’s making”. From there he has gone on to make regular appearances (or the poet’s memories of him have) and probably establish himself as the most loved father in Australian literature – at least in my knowledge of Australian literature. A number of the poems of Travelling Among the Stars detail one of the distinctive problems of age. We have in our possession small objects that are “left over” from our parents’ lives: in his case, his father’s shoe-last, watch and alarm clock, in his mother’s, “small plates and cups, statues / she collected”. Their value is only as a tangible adjunct to memory (I have an ugly cigarette box that my father was given when he left his job in England before we emigrated to Australia) and this can only have a painfully short life: “Who will save them / when I am dead – my children / who have lives of their own / or their children . . .”. It’s not a problem faced by those who die young.

Memories of his first stint as a teacher occur in both There, Behind the Lids and Headwaters – earlier books than Immigrant Chronicle – and in those poems you can feel Skrzynecki struggling with modes of writing about them. Fifty years after the publication of his first book, these memories seem to have settled into a mixture of surprise and rhapsodic celebration, an almost Wordsworthian celebration not only of the natural world and its inhabitants – Skrzynecki writes very well of the local people of the area – but also of the accession of the desire and ability to write. There’s a certain paradox in the fact that what seemed at the time an exile from the comfort and love of the family home into a difficult post in an unheard-of town hours to the north should result simultaneously in illumination and a realisation of one’s talent. But perhaps it isn’t such a paradox.

My sense of the function of memory in Skrzynecki’s work over the more than half-century of his writing is that there are tensions there which are made clear in this recent book. There is no doubt that there is a process of memorialisation going on, if we define memorialisation as a gift given by the present to the past. Those in the present pay homage to those who have passed by keeping their spirits alive, to an extent at least, in memory. Any chronicling does this even if its basic aim is to understand some phenomenon of the past like post-war migration. But there is a push in the opposite direction that I think grows as we age: the past forces itself on us in memories and demands that it be heard. Feliks Skrzynecki is a slightly more active figure, for example, in the poems of this book than he was in the poems of the earlier ones. The first poem, “My Dear Father”, is a letter to the dead man, written in order to “reconnect” and is thus more of a resuscitation than a simple description would be. Most tellingly in “A Visit from My Father” we have a dream – not announced as such until later in the poem – in which the father

  arrived unexpectedly
carrying a travel bag and asked
if he could visit.
“I won’t be staying long,” he added,
almost apologetically . . .

It’s ultimately a poem about dying and the father, still carrying his bag, leaves through customs at the airport where the son can’t follow him. His final message is that “once you pass through the gates / there is nothing to be afraid of”. But though it is advice about the future, to me it reads as a case of a memory – in the form of the father – imposing itself on the present, refusing to be something passive that can be conjured up in the present when the poet feels like memorialising the past. It’s no accident that when one of the Jeogla poems, “Wollomombi Falls (2)”, speaks of the memories of the place, it does it in terms of a similar visit:

. . . . .
Fifty years and it still surprises
by coming to mind
like a relative
who arrives without notice -
a reminder of youth and identity
in a home where I boarded
and knew that I belonged.

This idea of memories as the past insisting on paying visits to the present rather than passively recreated as memorials is put well by Pasternak in his autobiography (although there is an important distinction to be made between visits and gifts). Speaking of his memories of meeting Rilke, he says, ”I am not presenting my recollections to the memory of Rilke. On the contrary, I myself received them as a gift from him”.