It is a great pleasure to be invited to speak briefly at the launch of Nora Krouk's book of poetry “Skin for Comfort”.
This is a book which gathers poetry written not over six months or two years but over more than twenty years - moving, powerful poetry that gathers a life and many other interwoven lives into its texture.
It also gathers a great stretch of the twentieth century with its horrors, its wars, its violence, its lies.
I have heard and admired Nora's poetry for a long time.
To finally see it in print, to read this carefully arranged collection, is a great privilege. My congratulations and thanks to Nora for this.
There are many things to say about this book.
Perhaps one way to start is at the beginning. “Georgian Jottings”, the first poem, tells me that Georgians are wonderful people: aware, full of life, valuing friendship, gallant lovers [galánt], devoted sons - and then, well then there is Beria and Stalin.
The first poem sets a tone of double awareness, there is a doubleness to everything.
Alongside the joy and richness of life is the devastation of history, alongside humour and present friendships lie pain, regret, guilt, and knowledge of those who didn't survive.
The apparent first-glance slightness of “Georgian Jottings” also tells me something about the tone of this collection - it does not thunder or roar or make grandiose statements - it goes about its business quietly, addressing the reader in clear terms, trusting the power of understatement, of a long held and meditated pain that can speak to the pain in others.
This is no average book of poems but one that lives in a double perspective.
These poems come to us steeped in one of the deepest traditions of world poetry - Russian poetry. Russian poetry, from what I understand of it - reading the Cyrilic script but not reading Russian - is rhymed, ordered, broad and generous in its connection to all the aspects of lived life, plentiful and rich in its sounds and innuendoes, delighting in humour alongside sadness, probably less addicted to metaphors, similes and strangeness than much English-language poetry, possibly more readily and totally human than much twentieth century English-language poetry.
Maybe in our own tradition the divorce between high and low art has been more draconian, often at the expense of leaving high-art poetry a fairly narrow slice of life to talk about. Often I suspect within twentieth century English-language poetry we avoid the clichéd simply by not writing about anything that might involve the risk of a cliché - love, loss, pain, the great sweep of what history has done to so many lives.
To turn to the great Russian tradition is, it seems to me, to confront a poetry that has never made that trade-off.
For me the poet that most comes to mind reading Nora Krouk's poetry is Anna Akhmatova, one of the great geniuses of all poetry.
For Akhmatova, as for Nora Krouk, the purpose of poetry is to deal with one's own life, with those things that are most unbearable in one's life, and by extension to speak for that enormous number of one's people who had no chance to speak.
I recall the opening lines from Akhmatova's “Requiem”. Akhmatova was waiting in a queue with many other women, mothers and wives, waiting outside the prison for news of her son - she writes:
Then a woman with blue lips who was standing behind me and who, of course, had never in her life heard my name before, awoke from the torpor normal to us all and breathed a question in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said:
Then something like a smile slipped across what had once been her face.
This is to be no poetry of artifice, of clever effects or merely cerebral modernity. It is the function of poetry as conscience, as memorial, as an immensely inward reflection of both pain and guilt that simultaneously speaks for others. Krouk like Akhmatova belongs to that deeply serious, deeply humane tradition of poetry. It is also a tradition that clings to the multiplicity of what we are, however difficult it is to register that in poetry or in any writing.
Krouk's poetry also resembles Akhmatova's, I believe, stylistically. It does not hunger for startling images or shock effects. It does not pile up anecdotal information to create its verisimilitude.
It works often invisibly, with the single image, with a quiet reversal of the expected. It favours an edge of black humour, an enormous miniature precision even as it sketches its enormous canvas of tragedies.
Reading Nora Krouk's poetry I often felt there was a rhyme there but when I look back it isn't rhyming. It seems to have the ordered paralleling, the little twists of humour that rhyme often sharpens, that perhaps a long history of reading rhymed Russian poetry develops.
And, like Akhmatova's poetry, Nora Krouk's poetry is full of people, of the lived diversity of life. And it takes in its full hands its responsibility to be there with the fate of all those who might be one's people - Russian, Jewish, Australian, those who sit with their guilts in comfortable houses in New York, Los Angeles or Sydney, those who perished in the century's twin holocausts - the slaughter camps of Stalin and Hitler - those women who huddle together at night fearing a knock at the door, women tearing apart piece by piece an English typewriter, terrified at what will happen if it is ever found in their apartment, terrified of the noise they are making destroying it. (As over and over in this book, the story is true.)
Gathering this past together, uniting these interlinking stories, is the voice of the poet, Nora Krouk, a voice that speaks with great compassion and a troubled sensitive conscience that wants to understand. There are many stories here - the story of Leo, the story of the mangled typewriter, the story of the shop-aholic Geta, the many simultaneous existences we hold together.
It requires an enormous instinctive artistry to tell this story without mawkishness or cliché, without underselling what happened or ending up with something that never reaches beyond oneself and one's own history. I think the precision and artistry of the great Russian tradition has guided Nora in this work. Sparse, laconic, bitter - think of these closing lines from the poem “Russians are not ashamed”:
There were no eulogies for the dead
fifty years on. Glasnost permitting
glorious clichés fertilized by fresh grief
moan over the lost generations.
There are many favourite poems - “You cannot grieve”, “I died yesterday on a Tel Aviv bus”, “Skin for comfort”, “She writes a memoir”, “In the night as a switched-off heater” to name a few. One which brings out the force of brevity and understatement is “In the balance”:
Another I love for its humour and sardonic edge is “She writes a memoir”.
Samples of some of these poems are on the IP publishing website.
- Peter Boyle, November 2004