Author: Joan Michelson
Publisher: SPM Publications
Pages: 65 pages
Reviewer: MANDY PANNETT
Landing Stage by Joan Michelson won a well-deserved third prize in the SPM Publications Poetry Book Competition 2016. It is a highly original book which deserves to be read many times, cover to cover, to appreciate the full impact of the themes of displacement and alienation from the 1930s to the present day.
In her Preface, Joan Michelson describes the ethos that underpins the collection and asks how individuals and members of a community can live with and learn from devastating tragedy and trauma. One possibility, she suggests, is to build on feelings evoked in response to situations and images. In Landing Stage she does just that, capturing ‘individual moments caught in the crosshairs of place and time.’
The collection is divided into three sections vastly different in content and layout but which overlap in terms of theme. The first section Reportage begins with these striking lines entitled If Not I, Who?
‘With no right, I step into your life.
With an ‘Alright’, I assume my right
to cross the border of your voice.’
The thirteen poems that follow are fragments of some of these borders, echoes of their sounds.
The overall tone is laconic and detached, the style of a news report but written in the speech rhythms of individuals in different cultures trying to convey their stories through unfamiliar English. Schoolboy, Serbia, 1992 is a strong example of impact achieved through detachment: ‘We lived in a block/of flats. My friend Moamer/was killed by a grenade. My/friend Aldin was killed by a/bullet while he was sleeping.’
This extract from Syrian Mother, Berlin 2016 where a whole family waits in one room for the asylum process to be completed, is poignant in its bleakness: ‘I say/that it is better than to be in/the streets and in tents. Just/we are waiting… And I leave my parents/because they are old enough/they can’t go with us… ‘As soon as/possible I need them because/I miss them too much. I am/afraid. They are not safe. I/don’t want them to die/before I see them.’
Some of the most tragic and telling words are spoken in Syrian Woman, Lesbos, 2015 which gives an account of forty-eight people being landed from a boat: ‘So dark. We arrive with/too many dead. All refugees/think here is heaven. Here is/nothing.’
Form and style are different in Section II The Reach of War but the feelings are the same. One poem that is heartbreakingly effective is Bosnian Girl which begins with the brutal lines ‘When they had finished with her and her mother/she climbed a tree and hung herself’ and ends with the narrator’s fantasy of turning back time so that she might free the girl by unbuckling ‘the woven belt she slung around a branch./Her slim bare legs are swinging down./Feet on earth again, up she springs and runs.’
This section is rich in striking poems but possibly the one that I’ll remember most is Half an Angel. Here a woman, sixty years after the war, tries to find out about her father ‘who was never mentioned.’ To her horror she finds a photo of him in SS uniform being condemned for war crimes. The poem ends with this:
‘She finds some solace in a witness statement
that describes her father as ‘half an angel’.
He allowed caps on during roll call.
And sometimes, he kept the killer dogs in check.’
The final section of this book is called Fire Goddess and adds an element of myth and folklore to the story of Bets whose father died in an Occupation Camp while she and her mother suffered a year in solitary confinement. These poems are multi-faceted and shift between narrative, reportage, letters and the lyricism of a poem like Oranjehotel where Bets dreams that her Oma (grandmother) is singing ‘And she woke./And saw the prison walls./And heard herself singing ‘Soo – lee – ram,/the song her Oma/used to sing to her/when she was small.’
Landing Stage is one of the most powerful and effective poetry collections I have read. Joan Michelson says she hopes that ‘feelings will rise from reading these poems’. They certainly do for me.
Mandy Pannett, author of All the Invisibles</em> (SPM Publications), is the Poetry Editor of Sentinel Literary Quarterly