Although a generation of postwar Canadian Jewish poets points to A.M. Klein as their literary father, it might be fair to argue that there has been little true continuity between Klein's most Jewish poems and the work of his younger admirers. We recognize a playful nostalgia for Chasidic lore in Leonard Cohen's early work; Irving Layton made his way in mid-career toward poetic diatribes on the role of the Jew in modern culture; and Eli Mandel's Out of Place presents the strange mirage of an abandoned Jewish farming colony on the Saskatchewan prairies. But none of these heirs follow the example Klein offers in the bittersweet, multilingual investigations of Jewish life found in "Autobiographical", "Greeting on This Day", and "Heirloom". Readers may joyfully recognize the poems in M. J. Granatstein's recent collection, My City Lódz, as true successors to Klein's uniquely challenging example.
Granatstein opens his collection by setting the reader down in a memory world of pre-war Lodz, a world of bizarre paradox, of sweetness and slaughter, where the poet strives to measure the length and width of Polska, Polanit, Poland, Polyn.Our ethereal o jczyzna nasza, our fatherland, since Kazimierz the great.
At first the reader is lost amid the flood of unfamiliar images and words, but Granatstein manipulates these, the way he might with the view-finder of an old zoetrope, gradually bringing his characters into focus and returning to key vignettes so that they begin to resonate with familiarity. Vanished Lodz takes on a clearer shape, and as the reader gains confidence and skill in reading Granatstein's city map, it seems that the poet sets aside his rickety zoetrope in favour of more reliable techniques: "Motifs, stories, in separate/ Cinematic frames" render a world in near-photographic detail:
Below children skip rope, faces
flushed in glare of sunshine,
with total concentration.
Below Reb Doovydl's kliatshe
a magician juggles
A dozen balls
Above a circle
Of upturned faces.
Below Veronica dances . . .
Waiting with bated breath
For a chariot in
Blueing wisp of Boyadero smoke.
Kliatshe? A nag in Yiddish. Boyadero? A popular Polish song. As in Klein's poetry, the exotic and forgotten, the variety of languages calls for a running commentary (Granatstein's publisher provides footnotes), but as one becomes immersed in My City Lódz, the Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew idioms become clearer. This process of acclimatizing oneself to different languages and their emotional registers is an important aspect of the reader's immersion in the poems and the world they mean to recall.
Again like Klein, Granatstein does not find an easy link between his contemporary world and the childhood landscape he would like to conjure up. Poems that begin in a Halifax Immigration Detention House or in "Toronto-our new Canadian home", inevitably return to a "dream-country" where nostalgia is marred by violence:
At streetline at curb and gutter
a redfaced drunken Pole with his bijak in
hand hops like a giant frog pounding
away at my friend Sroolekl ben Shloyme's
head shoulders face as they
turn in a wild dance
Part of A. M. Klein's despair, it seems, derived from his sense that his poetry had not truly found an audience, that not only its uniqueness but a faltering interest in poetry more generally had given his work a kind of mute burial. It may be that in M. J. Granatstein's work Klein's voice continues to sound, strong and uncompromising, spiced with a hint of Allen Ginsberg's incantatory rhythms and Charles Olson's tough, clear images. If you reach for one book of Canadian poetry this year, let it be My City Lódz.
Norman Ravvin's latest book is a collection of stories, Sex, Skyscrapers, & Standard Yiddish (Paperplates).