Tuesday 23 March 2021

Review by Kathleen Bell of "Travellers" by Michelene Wandor

Travellers by Michelene Wandor is a thin book with great depth. The eleven poems within repay many re-readings. They suit this time. When we’re urged by politicians and the media to take single, simple views about almost everything, these poems offer complexity and multiple perspectives. Even 'Beached,' at two pages the shortest poem in the book, keeps shifting viewpoint ranging from the texture of cowrie shells 'fine ridged, oval' to the surfer 'haloed spiderman red / by the sinking sun' and the 'crow-black verger' sweeping sand from the cathedral nave.

Other poems are more complex still. 'The Clock of Heaven: a Fugue' begins with a Marc Chagall painting but reaches back through time to John Harrison, inventor of the marine chronometer. It travels across seas too, taking us on a voyage where 'winds whistle and sing,' listing luxuries associated with colonialism and plunder – 'cloves gold silver pearls / diamonds calico ebony,' pausing to hear Harrison play the viola da gamba, before whirling out into the expanse of space where 'the earth is a cog in the clockwork universe.'

Shifts of power play out in the Biblical story and handed-down tales of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Even in the opening sensual encounter there are warnings of a future in which 'women’s voices and / instruments will be banned' – a prohibition later lifted. In the final section a family of Ethiopian Jews, now outlawed, encounter the poet in Regent’s Park where 'isn’t it strange' one woman says to her, 'how we live / such different lives.'

'Travellers' and 'Two Men' explore, obliquely, hundred-year-old roots of today’s Middle East conflicts. The 'Travellers,' Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence, meet in the desert. Both have found happier selves in Arabia: 'he has quitted his English self / in England she is just a woman, an empty jar / here she is in linen and khaki.' But for all this, their first loyalty lies with their own government. 'The British will break their promises' the poem’s commentary reminds us. 'They have sold the same camel twice.' The 'Two Men' are Khalil al-Sakakini and Alter Levine, both poets, imprisoned together in 1917 because 'the word "guest" is sacred from Jordan to Euphrates.' There is some common ground but also crucially different hopes for a future in the same land. Finally free, 'they take down the tent and depart.'

About the reviewer
Kathleen Bell's new poetry pamphlet Do You Know How Kind I Am? will be published shortly by Leafe Press. A book-length collection, Disappearances, is scheduled for publication by Shoestring in the autumn. Until last year Kathleen taught Creative Writing at De Montfort University. She lives in the East Midlands.

You can read more about Travellers by Michelene Wandor, and an extract from it, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

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