In Uncle Paul’s old cine super-eight,
The Norfolk summer light an endless loop
Of clucking farmyard, jumping silent frames.
Zanna new-born, Mischa on the gate.
I’m wild with the chickens and the goats –
To star in Paul’s new cine super-eight!
Great-aunt Sylvie smoking night and day,
Grandma laughing at forgotten jokes –
In the farmyard’s clicking silent frames.
Then cut to Buba (touching ninety-eight),
All her daughters’ close-up secret hopes –
In Uncle Paul’s old cine super-eight.
In the Shtetl, snow and silence framed
The dream of Eastern-European Jews:
To reach old age in peace and health. And make
A shawl of more than simple woven prayer.
The year before he died – his tread moves
Sturdy through the farmyard’s silent frames –
Uncle Paul behind his super-eight.
Traditional form and family memory
In my first year of writing, I experimented with traditional forms, testing myself within and against the boundaries of things. Here, I wrote my first villanelle. The form is said to have originally developed from peasants’ songs (villanella) in the fields of medieval Italy, and was later popularised in France (The Making of a Poem, pp. 6-7). Famous twentieth-century examples are Dylan Thomas’ elegy ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, Auden’s ‘If I could tell you I would let you know’, and Elizabeth Bishop’s masterful, ‘One Art’ (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”). And it still exerts a pull for contemporary writers. Mark Strong and Eavan Boland point out that the villanelle contains “the absence of narrative possibility” – it “refuses to tell a story.” Instead, “the formal properties of the villanelle address the idea of loss directly” (p. 8). Ideal for a memory-poem in other words. The form uses a 19-line aba rhyme scheme and sets two alternate refrains going (here super eight and silent frames), which are brought together in the final couplet. An ending, but not the conclusion you might expect for example from a sonnet – despite the shared lyricism.
About ten years ago, my father had reels of his eldest brother Paul’s home movies translated to DVD – footage from the 1960s to the early 1980s (vignettes of old family holidays – Bournemouth, Amsterdam; a brief close-up of the 1966 World Cup England squad, celebrating). He was in the army after the War, worked in the London hotels as banqueting manager, was a part-time projectionist and keen photographer. In this poem, each stanza represents a snapshot of some of the things captured silently starting with a visit to my parents’ small-holding. Things, therefore, of great interest to us as a family – re-animated thirty years later.
I knew I wanted to write in the villanelle form, and I suppose the circular pattern of the rhyme scheme suits the threading and spooling of film; the inter-play of a robust craft and a certain light flickering within. It also seems to echo the tug and loop (even obsession) of memory itself. The poem came fairly quickly – as it were, more or less in a single take. I adapted the form in the penultimate stanza where the two refrains are in reverse order. I hope this is where the poem opens up – and perhaps starts to catch a little.
Mark Strong & Eavan Boland (Ed.), The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (2000)
Buba or Bubbe: (Yiddish, from Russian/Slavic: grandmother) – in this case, my father’s maternal grandmother; Shtetl: Jewish town in Eastern Europe before the onset of World War Two: Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish (1968)
Last month I wrote on rabbinical thinking and Leonard Cohen: https://benedictgilbert.com/2020/07/02/a-gift-and-a-theft-thinking-rabbinically-in-troubled-times/
© Benedict Gilbert 2020