Jeremy Wikeley reviews Vevel’s Violin by Jacqueline Saphra (Nine Arches Press, 2023)
In the introduction to Passionate Renewal: Jewish Poetry in Britain Since 1945, published in 2001, editor Peter Lawson tells us that two poets refused to appear in the anthology because they did not wish to be labelled ‘Jewish’ poets, one writing that she was “an English poet with Jewish forbears”. I think about this a lot. I quite admire their pluck – their commitment to being anthologised as poets per se, or not at all. Personally, I wouldn’t want to do without anthologies like this. Passionate Renewal introduced me to the possibility of a poetry which was distinctly British and also distinctly Jewish. Perhaps more importantly, I was introduced to poets I had not come across before, such as the enigmatic Scottish poet A. C. Jacobs, and others, such as Dannie Abse and Ruth Fainlight, who perhaps should have been more familiar to me than they were.
There is always a degree of compromise involved in any collective identity. I often wish those compromises were discussed more openly than they are, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t sometimes necessary, or even liberating, to make them. This, after all, is what a tradition is. Passionate Renewal, as Lawson wrote at the time, was not an argument for “some sort of particularist, hermetic” literature. He only wanted to “illustrate poetic traditions and practises in which British Jewish poets are not marginalised”.
Many of the key themes in Jacqueline Saphra’s new collection – the experience of the Jewish diaspora in Britain, and German and Eastern European Jews in particular, the unspeakable losses of the Shoah (often literally unspeakable because, as Saphra puts it, “the records are silent”), and a complicated and predominantly secular attitude to religion and identity – would not be out of place in Passionate Renewal. Many of the poets featured in the anthology came to England as refugees after the Second World War. Although Saphra is from a later generation, this history is no less real for her. Vevel’s Violin opens with a quote from the Pirkei Avot, a collection of Rabbinic maxims:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated
to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
For Saphra, history, and her family’s history in particular, is also bound up with more recent events in Britain and around the world – the resurgence of anti-semitism, the war in Ukraine and the migrant crisis. In a recent article for Poetry Birmingham, she defends poetry’s usefulness as activism – “writing this warring world”, as she puts it in one of the poems in this collection.
For Saphra, history, and her family’s history in particular, is bound up with more recent events in Britain and around the world – the resurgence of anti-semitism, the war in Ukraine and the migrant crisis
Sometimes I felt the political poems were a little heavy handed. Reading ‘Tank Taunt’ (“I hope you like to burn, tank”), I was reminded of Jon Stallworthy’s ‘A Poem about Poems About the Vietnam War’: “in love and war / dispatches from the front are all”. I am not sure I agree with that in a literal sense, and I don’t think Saphra would agree either. Poets must be able to address politics, perhaps must if they want to be taken seriously. But how to do it? The tank is not in the room, and talking to it only makes that more apparent. More effective – wise and terrible, in the proper sense of that last word – is ‘War Games’, with its image of despair as the “parcel / we pass amongst us”, one which grows heavier as we each add our own “small and pointless contribution”:
We leave despair
in the centre
of the circle and stare at it.
It does nothing.
It is not ashamed.
It stares right back at us
from one huge screaming eye.
Vevel’s Violin is deeply concerned with the suppression, forgetting and recovery of speech, song and prayer. Words have tastes, especially the word ‘Jew’. The tongue is a constant motif, from the “secret salt” of the salmon ends bought from Cohen’s “singing on the tongue” to half-remembered prayers “rolling” off it. Saphra’s work is fundamentally social, part of an ongoing, heartfelt conversation with her friends and family:
When will they come for us, my friend?
Can you hear the trains? I hear them
in my sleep, rattling continents, heaving
and breathing along the tracks of my veins
riding my blood. There is no silencing them.
Jewishness is presented here from the inside and from the outside. Saphra includes a series of ‘found’ poems, reporting a conversation laden with anti-Semitic conspiracy theory which she had to sit through on a train. Another poem, simply titled ‘Jew’, runs through lists of associated words in stanzas of varying length, followed by a response in italics which begs the words to stop:
the interloper, interleaver, interbreeder, sadist bomber,
the broken glass, the kosher red, the Reb, the dross, the
shekels and the silver and the arcane script, the pointer,
the art of secular, the swastika
but why go there, don’t go there
Who are these responses from? It might be the voice of the poet, their fear of raising the subject, of alienating non-Jews, of dwelling on something ‘too grim’. It might be society. Jews are often accused of ‘going on’ about the Holocaust. ‘Anxious Jewish Poem’ instructs the poet’s Jewish friends’ to “keep your Jewish head down / and your Jewish bag well packed”.
This is difficult territory. At times, I found myself anxious about how Jewishness – British Jewishness in particular – was being portrayed. Saphra, to be clear, does not intend to exclude or dictate; she writes openly (and not a little bravely) about her own uncertain identity. But generalisations are generalisations, and they feel especially pointed when they are packaged as a theme and hooked up to forms which rely on repetition. I found myself wanting to say: Jewishness is more than history, tragedy, news, Hitler. It is a living religion. Perhaps the voice in the italics is me.
Vevel’s Violin is deeply concerned with the suppression, forgetting and recovery of speech, song and prayer. Words have tastes, especially the word ‘Jew’
The title poem of Vevel’s Violin is one of the few poems in which the poet is absent, yet in many ways it is the core of the book. The poem is in the form of a fable written ‘after’ a memoir by the Holocaust survivor Rachel Schtibel: the eponymous violin is buried under a walnut tree during the Shoah, where it lies silent, gagged like Schtibel’s childhood is “gagged / in barns and bunkers”:
When Rachel and Luci crawled out of the hole
they’d shared for two years, they had lost their voices.
After the war, the remnants of family disinterred
Vevel’s violin from underneath the walnut tree.
“It’s all we have of Vevel” said their father
but of course, nobody knew how to play it.
The fairytale-like telling contrasts, chillingly, with the dark details (“his wife was buried alive by the Gestapo”). In the end, history is cut off, and so are people, because they are the same thing. Interestingly, Saphra has written elsewhere that the final line is her own invention – Schtibel went on to learn the instrument, pushed on by her parents, who believed it was the best way of honouring Vevel’s memory. After her parents died, Schtibel found that Vevel, who she had always believed was her uncle, was in fact her birth father. His brother and sister-in-law had adopted her before the war. For a collection with so many notes, I had to do a bit of research to find this. You would have had to have read Saphra’s blog, or Schtibel’s testimony, to know that the crucial final line is a fiction (and not simply a fiction, but an inversion).
Does this fictionalisation matter? Yes and no. Saphra has her own story to tell and a right to tell it. As she writes, the buried violin becomes a metaphor for all the losses which are dealt with more directly elsewhere in the collection – lost songs, lost histories, lost people – not least because of the close relationship between violins and Jewish history (becoming a musician was one way of escaping the restrictions Jews lived under). Though it is an inversion, it is also a metaphor for Schtibel’s own story and the reality of a childhood lost to an experience for which ‘trauma’ feels like too familiar a word.
For Saphra, the burial and recovery of the violin is also a metaphor for the writing of these poems and for writing joyfully in the face of all this loss: “this is the poem where I give myself permission to make a noise.” But metaphors as powerful as this can’t be put back in the box once they are out, and for me the violin has another resonance, one which is hinted at, or even buried, in the poems in which Saphra invokes half-remembered prayers, forgotten songs and, in one case, God. It is that difficult, ongoing tension between Jewishness as history, and Jewishness as practice (like a lot of people, I sometimes say I am a ‘non-practising’ Jew). The songs and the prayers are still out there. Like an instrument, these are things which can, in theory, be learnt again, if we have somebody to encourage us, and if we want to.
Jeremy Wikeley is a writer and poet living in London. He is working on a first collection.