A WONDERFUL GESTURE

By the end of September 1984, I had made my peace with Carol Rumens, the poetry editor of the Literary Review, who had left because of her strong disapproval of Roald Dahl’s review of God Cried [see my blog 3 September, 2010]. I was utterly moved when I discovered that a poem she had written about the Arab-Jewish conflict was dedicated to me. It appeared in the New Statesman in their issue of 30 September. The poem, which was a cry for peace, was so beautifully worded and full of sympathy for both Jews and Arabs, that it deserves today, as it did then, as large an audience as it can reach. It is as relevant now as it was at the time and I am proud to include it in full.

Carol Rumens
A NEW SONG
(for Naim Attallah)

‘Thou feedest them with the bread of tears, and givest them tears to drink in great measure.’ (Psalm 80)

Silence of old Europe
Not even the Shofar
Can utter: Maidenek,
Mauthausen, Babi Yar –

Death of the innocent being
Our speciality,
Let us add Lebanon’s breaking
Sob to the litany.

So many now to mourn for,
Where can the psalmist start?
Only from where his home is
And his untidy heart.

We pluck our first allegiance
With a curled baby-hand
And peer between its fingers
To see our promised land:

Yours on a hillside clouded
With olives; mine a cot
In a London postal district,
Its trees long spilled as soot.

On a late wartime morning
In Northern Europe, my
First breath seems implicated
In yells of victory.
But it’s the quieter voices
That keep on trying to rhyme,
Telling me almost nothing
But filling me with shame.

Germany in the thirties
And half my family tree
Bent to an SS microscope’s
Mock genealogy.

Duly pronounced untainted
For his Aryan bride,
My uncle says it’s proven,
There are no Jews on his side.

Ancient, unsummoned, shameless,
The burdens of prejudice –
All through my London childhood
Adults with kindly eyes

And sharp throw-away phrases
Like bits of shopfront glass
(Grandfather: ‘He’s a schneider’ –
Frowning and treadling fast.)

Later, the flickering movie:
Greyish, diaphanous
Horrors that stared and whispered,
‘God has forgotten us.’

Oh, if our unborn children
Must go like us to flame,
Will you consent in silence
Or gasp and burn with them?

It is so late in the century
And still the favourite beast
Whines in the concrete bunker.
And still the trucks roll east

And east and east through whited
Snowfields of the mind
Towards the dark encampment;
Still the Siberian wind

Blows across Prague and Warsaw,
The voices in our head
Baying for a scapegoat:
Historians gone mad,

Thugs on a street corner,
The righteous Gentile who
Pins Lebanon like a yellow star
To the coat of every Jew.

Silences of old Europe,
Be broken; let us seek
The judgement of the silenced
And ask how they would speak.

Then let the street musician
Crouched in the cruel sun
Play for each passing, stateless
Child of Babylon

Conciliatory harmonies
Against the human grain,
A slow psalm of two nations
Mourning a common pain –

Hebrew and Arabic mingling
Their single-rooted vine,
Olives and roses falling
To sweeten Palestine.

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