A CROSS AND A STAR: MEMOIRS OF A JEWISH GIRL IN CHILIE
Poets seem to have a knack with memoir. There’s already something very baring about much contemporary poetry that is similar to what many memorably brave and direct memoirs possess. There’s also something even more immediate about translation. Works translated into English often have a stunning directness, which can owe itself to the difficulty of effectively bringing the idioms and cadences of another language into our own. These tendencies, like any elements of writing, can be effective and they can also be overused. In Marjorie Agosin’s A CROSS AND A STAR: MEMOIRS OF A JEWISH GIRL IN CHILIE, they are both. Luckily, the effectiveness of the writing outweighs the repetitiveness of certain phrases and elements.
The brevity of the book, 179 pages which include 30 pages of photographs, serves it well. Agosin is writing in the voice of her mother, so the book becomes a sort of autobiography by association, and as such the stories are simple and powerful. If the book had been any longer, the simplicity of its thematic basis, and the overly-direct style of the translated prose, would have begun working against it. As it is, the collection effectively evokes the beauty and wonder of Chile, the destructive power of hatred in the lives of one family, and the power of people who choose to help, rather than hurt, each other.
The tales in the collection span decades, and many have survived only due to oral storytelling traditions by which Agosin’s predecessors maintained their connections with each other even in the face of the overwhelming tragedies of the Holocaust. Most evocative are the stories dealing with specifics of lives torn apart by having to leave everything behind in order to avoid being taken to concentration camps; the details of these stories, the choices made by these individuals, are compelling. Agosin’s accounts, too, of the mixture of beauty, fear, peace and isolation that came from living at the southern tip of the world amidst Nazis and natives is fascinating. The only places where the narrative falters is in the repetition of accounts of verbal abuse which the Agosin’s mother endured. There are only so many times you can be told that she was called “dirty Jew” or “Christ killer” before those moments have lost their power amid the lush prose and captivating details of the rest of the book.
One of the most striking aspects of the memoir is the way in which it seems to flow back and forth between pure realism and a kind of “Magic Realism.” This is in keeping with the events of the book, taking place at the bottom of the world, as well as the ways in which people can alter their perceptions of reality to deal with incredible adversity. Since the narrator is recalling childhood for the bulk of the book, simple desires are often stated with great grandeur, such as Agosin’s mother’s wish for the beauty and safety of a Catholic guardian angel. Much of the narrative’s power comes from the unaffected wants and needs of a girl growing-up surrounded by a mixture of overwhelming hatred and beauty, societal spurning and familial love. It is a mixture that works well .
This book is an effective, and highly readable collection of survival tales that sing of natural beauty and spiritual strength, of the wonder of children and the resolve of adults, and of the incredible value of memory and language.
Natasha Trethewey’s debut book of poetry tells the story labor, hard daily labor, in this case the hard daily labor of black men and women. It is startling in its ability to be both precise and lyrical. While the subject is black labor, the everyday obsessions and actions seem to make the poems universal.
In “Housekeeping”, Trethewwey writes, ” We mourn the broken things, chair legs / wrenched from their seats, … / My mother irons, singing, lost in reverie. / I mark the pages of a mail-order catalog, / listen for passing cars. / All day we watch / for the mail, some news from a distant place.” Even the poems that have a decidedly black experience as a basis, such as “White Lies”, about the author being punished by her mother for pretending to be something other than what she was, are beautiful in their ability to touch on common experience .
With stroke quotes from Yusef Komunyakaa and Rita Dove, Trethewey doesn’t’ need anyone else to tout her work, but I am pleased to do so here.
FULL MOON BOAT
From his opening poem, “The Return” to the closing poem, “Rows of Buddhas, Receding” you are aware of Fred Marchant’s light touch. Marchant was one of the first Marine officers to be honorable discharged as a conscientious objector during the Viet Nam war and his poems speak of violence and resistance of violence. They are meditative poems that speak about taking action for what you believe in and the effect that inaction takes on the world around you.
In his opening poem, “The Return”, Marchant touches on the effect that his decision to leave the Marines had on his aunt. She had written him begging that he not leave the service as a conscientious objector, “She said Jesus could not approve, / He had smiled on America, and I owed / back some portion of what I had been given. / The airplane I flew home on, my c.o. / discharge in hand, was an empty, airborne / auditorium, another sign of the nation`s excesses.” Mixing simple narrative and startling visuals, Marchant allows the reader to slowly see where he is going thus making the journey, rather than the destination, the real joy.
THE HORSE COIN
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, London
It is time for Marcus Julius Severinus, skilled Roman soldier, to learn about governing in an occupied land. He has an excellent teacher, his father Titus Julius Aper, a commander seasoned to wisdom among the tribes of Gaul, and the perfect proving ground, Britain of 59 A.D. Despite appearances, Britain is about to explode into the rebellion of Boudica.
Marcus Severinus and his father watch in dismay as Procurator Catus sets out on a deliberately provocative course of stripping Queen Boudica’s family of their inheritance, and simultaneously Governor Paullinus denudes the territory of protective troups. They make themselves unpopular warning the government not to underestimate the Britons. Ignored, they dedicate themselves to duty and the welfare of the people close to them. Severinus and his friends and family, both Roman and Briton, are swept into the explosive release of sixteen years of resentment.
In Wales the Roman war machine is making short work of the Druidic spiritual center, while on the east coast Boudica’s massed warriors overrun Roman city centers. This could be horrific reading, and it would be if the reader had not formed such close ties with the main characters that we see events from their very personal viewpoints. Both armies will raise the hair on your neck for different reasons. Behind the rafts of soldiers out-maneuvering the defenders of island Mona, one can almost hear the confident, unstoppable march of the Empire. The gigantic British tribal horde is a force of nature; you no more want to get in its way than you would stand in front of a buffalo stampede.
THE HORSE COIN is named for a love token with a Roman symbol on one side and a British symbol on the other. Where people of two cultures are raised to respect opposite things, Wishart asks, who is at fault? Both sides are determinedly fighting for what they believe in. To the Roman conquerors, cooperation and discipline are of first importance, and the Britons on the other side of the wall value individual freedom above all. Subtly explored from the viewpoints of several characters, both Roman and Briton, this problem gives depth to a story built on a turning point of British development. The reader will find himself connecting elements of this situation with many similar ones throughout history.
Just as in life it takes the small things to make a life experience, so it is in THE HORSE COIN. When we meet the new governor, Wishart tells us much about him by describing his scent. Such a little thing as receiving a bath house towel sweeps us up in the Roman communal bathing experience. A phrase about the mud next to a drinking pool puts us behind the reeds with Briton hunter Tigirseno. We stumble and panic with the Druid Dumnocoveros as he misses his footing fleeing through a swamp. And as in real life, the little things also have larger connotations. The contrast between Albilla’s eye makeup and her saucy conversation establishes her as an appropriate mate for Severinus. When Brocomaglos kisses the desiccated head of a hero, not only do we feel the revulsion the watching Romans feel, and Brocomaglos’ reverence, we also feel the sadness of two cultures too far apart for understanding.
I loved THE HORSE COIN from the first rush of cavalry in the mist, when the author put me on horseback with Severinus. Severinus and Aper are admirable companions, men to trust and respect. I charged through the book in one evening and was too uplifted to be sleepy the next day. Following THE HORSE COIN, I read OVID, also by David Wishart. The impudent, humorous narration of detective Marcus Corvinus in OVID could hardly be more different from the straightforward personal tone of HORSE COIN, but the author’s understanding of the time shows in both books.
David Wishart’s Roman novels are not published in the United States. We are missing out on a good thing. Vivid, perceptive and warm, THE HORSE COIN has to be one of my favorite reads of this year. I have my sights set next on the author’s first book, I, VIRGIL.