JOANNA EZEKIEL: SAFE PASSAGE
White Leaf Press
PO Box 734
ISBN 978 9551932 1 7
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This page last updated: 14th December 2007.
|JOANNA EZEKIEL: SAFE PASSAGE
SAFE PASSAGE is Joanna Ezekiel's second poetry booklet. This slim collection contains fifteen poems, one poem per page, apart from two longer poems.
This is a journey through space and time: reshaped, re-aligned, clarified, distorted even, by the power of the imagination and in the service of a particularized reality that art creates. The journey inevitably leads to exploration of self.
It is a journey across cultures as Ezekiel writes from a Jewish background, as we see in LIVING IN BETHNALL GREEN, where the writer visits the town that her great-grandmother fled to from Kiev:
Here, my footsteps echo, my back straightens. I walk tall, give daily thanks for this, her hard-won safe passage.In these poems wistful candour and repetition create a sense of timelessness and the use of words like "shul", gelfite", "Shabbat", "kosher" and "Partition" simply and directly evoke the Jewish background to many of the poems. Again in the beautiful poem IN THE CALLIGRAPHY AND PAINTING ROOM, although the poet would rather
. . .stand in the cool white space between watercolour and brushworked lettersshe lives among
. . . the high walls and corridors of white noise of my life in London.The disenchanted voice reminds us what it was like,
to be stepping off that ferry at the edge of Britain.Mostly, however, the poems offer in tight syntax and skilful rhythms a direct confrontation with her sometimes painful subject matter.
Many of the most moving and compelling poems in SAFE PASSAGE deal with the experience of recalling the past. In the wonderful poem GRANDFATHER, the poet delves into family history:
In 1914, at twentthree years old, my grandfather decides to join up, it might be Isaac or Morrie from shul who nudges my grandfather in the queue.Often in Ezekiel's poems she remembers the past with a wry humour, as in RADIO, where she recalls where she was "when I heard John Lennon had been killed", while in CANDLES the expansive joy of being "allowed / to light the Shabbat candles" and to "chant in puzzled thanks" are allied, only to turn sour, as
. . . wax tears weep the outline of India onto the white lace tablecloth, both flames bouncing sideways, up, sideways, up, as if punched, each heart a steady bruise.Ezekiel's poetry has enough irony, enough sense of what it is doing, to avoid sentimentality. It has an awareness of family and the past — DAD IS BUILDING:
hard HB pencils he sharpens with a knife almost to four corners— that is deadly serious. The constant evocations of childhood and the past, with all their distortions, the appeals to family history, invite us to read Ezekiel with a sense of being a part of this time, as in the poem UNCLE ALEC AND ELIJAH:
Closer to God than the rest of our family, my Uncle Alec would speak to Elijah at shul, each year, asking a favour.The creation of a profound sense of the social mores of family, the connectedness and the character portraits that accompany poems about grandparents, father and uncle, gives the reader a strange contemplation of the passage of time. However, there are poems in another vein. A more serious poem, SHELTERS, creates a sense of the working life of the poet:
To act as the teacher, the meetings, the jargon, the fixed breaks, the judgements. A blaze of demands from children, parents, staff smoke through each evening, curl and uncurl in my head.There are also poems of a more frivolous nature. THE MERMAIDS OF ATLANTIS SPEAK, for example, plays around with the idea of being a mermaid dominated by a strong male presence:
Our father Neptune banged his stave three times: the notes our throats made, long as ropes, pulled the city under — if we'd refused, we'd have been sent to try our luck on land.This is a pleasurable poem, and we could wish for more of this humour in the collection.
But it would be wrong to give the impression that Ezekiel writes only about her family and the past, just as it is also wrong to suggest that these two important preoccupations could be separated out from the works. The immediate wrench one experiences when reading Ezekiel's poetry derives from the way in which the voice seems always to listen to and register bodily experience. Her range and treatment of her subjects in this slim volume are impressive, covering both the history of her Jewish family, intense childhood recollections, her journey through life, and more besides. Some of the most memorable poems, such as the haunting poems THIS LONG JOURNEY and THE BRIGHTON TRAIN, deal with her experiences of putting herself "in the past tense" and pouring "over the words on the page".
Nature emerges in two of the final three poems: FIRST DAY IN LERWICK and GANNETS ON NOSS. Nature is not to Ezekiel simply the physical, although this emerges in the poems as vivid, energetic and powerful. Rather it is the source of images and symbols which exhilarate the mind and feed the imagination, as in GANNETS ON NOSS:
From a distance, the gannets are statues, posing in rows along the cliff-ledges. The stone of the cliff-face as calm as the entrance to a temple.The final poem, THE NIGHT BEFORE YOUR BEST MAN'S SPEECH, returns to a more humorous theme:
Tonight, shy and pacing, you practise your speech. Now you are repeating it to yourself —The compressed energy and an unswerving courage to tell the truth about her own family history marks many of Ezekiel's poems with a sharp edge — a kind of elegiac journey that leaves the reader wanting to know more.
|reviewer: Patricia Prime.