My father carried his mother through Yugoslavia
and Greece. Stitched into the lining of his coat
and, against regulations, she kept him company
through the days he hid in back rooms and under stairs;
suckled him on nights huddled in churchyards,
with only the chatter of his pad and key. He folded her
into his wallet, where she rubbed up against
pound notes, discharge papers, a thank-you letter
from General Tito. Around her neck, in miniature,
her brother, on a row of cultured pearls: his face
crimped by the crease of leather. His eyes give no hint
of my mother, though he has her lips. He is his pre-gassed,
pre-shot self. And I am the daughter of cousins, a woman
with no children. I think of losing her in a crowd, slipping her
into someone’s jacket, an open bag, that sagging pocket
on the train, for her to live another life, our line travelling on.
Published in the night Trotsky Came to Stay
Frieda Hughes writing in the Times:
On October3, the eve of National Poetry Day, a handful of poets will find themselves somewhat richer when the winners of the Forward Prize for poetry are announced. This week’s poem is from the book of shortlisted and commended poems. It illustrates our desire to imbue a photograph, icon or memento, with power. Whether it be the power to give us strength and purpose in the dark times, or to afflict us when our mind should be directed elsewhere but needs distraction. The bones of a family history are attached to the single photograph in this poem. As the poem is written in first person, and knowing no better, I shall assume this is the poet’s family.
A person in a photograph can be re-invented in our minds to be whatever we want them to be; after all, they’re not there to argue, especially if they’re dead. We can idolise them, keeping their image close to make us feel loved and protected in times when we feel terribly lonely or in great danger.
The poet’s father transported the image of his mother through Yugoslavia and Greece (he may have been a member of the initially outlawed Yugoslavian Communist Party) hidden in the lining of his coat in case it was lost or taken. Her memory comforted him as an adult even as she comforted him (and suckled him) as a child. She was later kept in her son’s wallet with other items of personal value; the letter from General Tito and money. The letter indicates that the father must have been somehow useful to the communist Tito in his rise to power in the 1940s.
Family associations are further extended in the photograph in a picture of the woman’s brother on the necklace she wears; a picture within a picture carried by the woman’s child who is now a man. The poet’s great-uncle (gassed and shot, a double misfortune) provides a further piece of the genetic puzzle; he is the poet’s great-uncle and grandfather, just as her grandmother is also her great-aunt, because she is the “daughter of cousins”. Which explains her reference to seeking similarities with her mother in the features of her great-uncle.
The poet has no children of her own and, therefore, the photograph has no future destination. There is no one to continue the knowledge of – or interest in – the family history. She considers slipping the photograph into the pocket or bag of a stranger, therefore giving it “another life”, passing on the baton of her history. By doing this she would be free of the responsibility and burden of this battered family heirloom. No more would she have to worry about the safety of the photograph her father treasured; what was a source of strength to him would no longer be an imposition on her. To let the image go, as if setting it free would release her too.
Monday October 1 2007