Magdalena Ball, Bobish (Puncher & Wattmann 2023)
If you are poetry-shy or poetry-curious, Bobish maybe just the book you’re looking for. ‘Bobish’ is a version of the Yiddish word for grandmother – Bobish is a life story in verse of Magdalena Ball’s great-grandmother. It’s made up of short, self-contained poems that form a straightforward narrative thread.
The heroine, whose name became Rebecca Lieberman, left Russia in 1907, leaving her parents, her family and the world she knew. with many other Ashkenazi Jews from from the Pale of Settlement she ended up in New York City, where she worked for a time in the garment industry – including being home sick from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory on the day in 1911 when 140 workers – mostly young women – were killed in a fire. The book follows her life through a violent marriage, the two world wars, motherhood, old age, and the legacy she has left her descendants.
Everyone should have a great-granddaughter who will honour their life in this way: seeking the facts and filling the gaps with humility, empathy and grace.
I can’t think of a better way to tell you about this book than to show you a single poem. Here’s ‘Potatoes’ from pages 75–76. It’s in ‘Fish Smoker’, the third of the book’s six sections, in which Rebecca meets a fish smoker who ‘smelled of home / whispering the mother-tongue in her ear’, and marries him. ‘Potatoes’ conveys the corrosive effects of poverty and terrible working conditions. It doesn’t aim for high drama, and there’s none of the playfulness that shines in other poems, but perhaps it will give you an idea of how the verse form can evoke a scene, suggest emotion, invite the reader’s heart into the story.
Potatoes Some days it was only barley broth. Some days a few bits of squashed herring brought home from the bottom of the barrel, his legs purple from standing in ice water all day. She arrived at the apartment before him, her hands shaking as she cut up what food she could find, cabbage mostly, purchased cheap from the vegetable peddler, fit only for stewing. If there was bread, it was so hard she needed a hammer to break it. Dizzy, hair spilling from her combs she would tuck it behind the ears ignoring the migraine that began in the morning at the sewing machine, all day at the machine with no breaks, fingers throbbing. It was not the life she'd dreamt of, curled under a thin blanket during the Russian winter. The streets here were not paved with gold, after all. Tomorrow there might be windows that opened hot running water, a proper flushing toilet, potatoes. These were her new dreams. She tried, without success, to sweep away the grime that encrusted the floor to wash the smells of rotting cabbage and smoked fish from her clothing. The scent followed her to work, where her sewing machine kept going until the bell rang and she never drank water because the door to the toilet was broken and the toilet was so dirty she feared becoming ill by using it. She bent over, her young back hunched as she leaned into the machine trying to forget the pain that followed her like a faithful dog the rest of her life, and she got used to it. She never told him about the way her body continuously hurt, carried her pain silently into the shared space no one wanted to call home.
The last poem in the book, ‘What Remains’, begins with a question and answer:
How far back can you go? You can never go back.
This answer is obviously true if we’re talking about time, and in reference to the migrant experience, as in this poem, it’s heartbreakingly true. I was going to say that in this book Magdalena Ball has done a mammoth job of going back in imagination to Rebecca’s life. Then I realised that ‘What Remains’ has a different way of seeing what has happened in the book. It hasn’t so much gone back in time as captured what remains. Here are its final lines, the final lines of the book:
Magic is a gift not held solely in fading photographs. It lingers, like your voice humming a Yiddish song winding through the double helix of your children, filling the air everywhere.
I’m grateful to the author for my copy of Bobish.
This sounds brilliant!
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