Rebecca Bilkau’s pamphlet “Choosing New Omens” deals with the experience of moving to a new country, Germany, with her German husband and the struggles of identity, language and sense of belonging that entails. Throughout the pamphlet there’s an awareness of history, both personal and cultural and nowhere is this more boldly confronted than in this, the first poem of the pamphlet.
It’s a poem which demonstrates many of the qualities apparent throughout the pamphlet and indeed throughout her writing generally. There’s a colloquial flow in which serious emotions and ideas are addressed with directness and passion. When she reads there’s a strong sense of engagement in her delivery which remains present on the page.
On Not Going to Bergen-Belsen
Sunday evening and bluegrass music drives us
through an everywhere and nowhere till we hit
a babel of welcome signs.
Slowly the name
translates itself into sense. An eternity of mourners
must find open doors, open language here
where fact shatters speech.
And all I can see
is a crumbling ridge of hips, not here in the car,
not on the road, but in all my pictures of this land
till I married into it.
Around the cleats
of intimately tangled dead, righteously articulate
through seven decades of doomed atonement
in this quiet country, my new shock.
I pull my hand
back from Michael’s attempted squeeze. Please
but his sentence has nowhere to go. No more
German than ten minutes ago
he’s not my husband
now, not my sweet old leftie, he’s a Roman salute
in camouflage, an explanation machine whose words
beggar vocabulary. All vocabulary.
There’s a museum
at the death camp. We should go. He should go.
My first love was a Jew. Michael owes it to him
and, suddenly, me.
My husband rests
his head on the steering wheel. He’s been guilty
as sin since before he was conceived. Has never
since he could read.
Like the wife whose own post-colonial guilt is the cringe
of history under the bloody carpet.
I put my hand in reach,
and twined in the relief of grief we search for grace
together; inarticulately grateful for the blessed irony
of winter opening times.
From the very outset the title sets the scene with the ambiguity of ‘not going there’ when how can you not once the name of the place is mentioned. Then the innocuous bluegrass music carries us towards ‘a babel of welcome signs’ (clever use of that word ‘babel’), the translation of the name of the place into ‘sense’ or its reality – the ‘cleats/ of intimately tangled dead’.
But there’s a new shock, too, the poet’s withdrawal from her husband who’s ‘been guilty/as sin since before he was conceived’. As a reader I’m totally caught up in this, the unavoidable conflict, the way the poet is plunged into heady emotions, the sudden need to generalise, apportion collective guilt, and her husband’s ‘Please’ and his helplessness before the enormity of a history he’s not responsible for but is nonetheless associated with. And as we’re being taken through this scene, there’s a return to reason and compassion which culminates in self-realisation with ‘the wife whose own post-colonial guilt…’ at which point I let out my held breath, relieved to find hands twined again.
The last stanza carries in its irony the truth that you don’t have to go all the way to arrive. Perhaps the best way of dealing with these powerful emotions is to acknowledge them, as this poem does, and move on.
For me the articulate honesty of this poem is added to by the form which reflects the see-saw of emotions and thoughts, cleverly moving this way and that through a series of linked stanzas.