life wrapped in bundles
of painful joy
(from “Skies will be luminous”)
The reason I like to read poetry is the obvious one – the way poets can capture a feeling or idea in just a few carefully chosen words that are presented through a controlled rhythm. Nora Krouk fills this bill nicely!
I hadn’t heard of Krouk before this book came to my attention … but she’s been around for a while. In fact, she’s 90 years old and has been in Australia since 1975. She is the daughter of a Polish Catholic father and a Jewish mother. She was born in China, married in Shanghai and lived in Hong Kong before emigrating to Sydney. She was educated in Russian schools and has written poetry in Russian and English. She has been published internationally, and has won several awards. Phew! I don’t usually provide such detail about authors, but it seems appropriate to do so here.
The collection is organised into three sections, and the order of these sections is interesting: In memoriam, Renewals, Transitions. I like the way it moves from death, through awakenings and rebirths, to change accompanied by uncertainty. This order keeps us on our toes. It offers no easy conclusions to the challenges posed in the first section but neither does it suggest hopelessness as the reverse order might have.
The poems are, for the most part, very accessible. Elizabeth Webby is quoted on the back of the book as saying that the poems “will appeal to both those who usually read poetry and those who don’t”. I’m in the middle ground here – I like to read poetry but don’t read it often enough – and I think Webby is right. Many of the poems have stories – seemingly about people Krouk knows – and those stories speak to the ordinary things of life which, for someone of Krouk’s age, include memory, aging, loss and death. These things are explored with a sense of enquiry and some resignation, rather than with a railing and ranting. The poems move between her daily life and historical events (some of which she or her family experienced), particularly the horrors that occurred under Hitler and Stalin.
I commenced this review with two lines from a poem in the Renewals section because they encapsulate what seems to be Krouk’s philosophy: Life is not easy, she’s saying, but there is much to enjoy and wonder at. The first poem in the book is a widow’s poem. It speaks of grief, but it also introduced me to something interesting about her poetry, what Anna Kerdijk Nicholson describes on the back of the book as her “idiosyncratic rhythm and lineation”:
I don’t weep much. I read
and write even cook then
catch myself and return to you
(from “Fima (1914-2008)”)
These spaces in her lines control, force even, the rhythm for the reader. They allow us to breath, to feel the sense of the words and, in a way, they provide a more intimate, conversational tone to the work. They slow us down and prevent us from rushing through the poems.
Aging and memory, as I’ve already mentioned, are recurrent themes in the collection. Memory, though, is a pretty broad church, and Krouk explores it in its various guises – from loss of memory to remembering the (often painful) past:
They chase a name
a thought an event
It’s different for us
we have no grave
He was last seen
in the prison yard
(from “For Leon K” who died under Stalin’s regime)
But not all the poems are about challenge. There are lighter poems, and there is humour. I loved her short poem about a young smiling woman:
A smile is hovering over our street
a light funny quizzical smile
It slipped off her lips
brushed past the creamy cheek
dripped over a sunny wattle and stayed.
(from “A young woman”)
Much of her imagery is domestic, everyday. There are family dinners and bridge afternoons with friends. Jacarandas and gums, camellias and lavender feature, grounding her poetry in her Australian life. But, there are also allusions to things literary (such as Shakespeare and Tolstoy) and political/historical (as mentioned earlier), which confirm her as a poet of universal concerns. Some of her poems combine the Australian and the political – such the example below, which demonstrates that she is capable of more than a little irony:
Where do we turn Matilda Lead the dance
As promised in the anthem we advance
There are also a few specifically religious poems, but I found some of these (“Widowed a hundred times”, and “I am not envious Lord”) a little too melodramatic for my liking, while others, such as her meditation on snakes (“Snakes are much maligned”), engaged me. Poetry, as I’ve said before, is such a personal thing.
Krouk has lived long and experienced much. There are many more poems I’d love to excerpt – and maybe I will in a future post. Meanwhile, I can’t think of a better way to summarise this book than through her own words:
Under the skies luminous
(from “Skies will be luminous”)
Warming the core of things
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2011
(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)