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Monday, 19 September 2011

Julith Jedamus on Tara Bergin's 'The Undertaker's Tale of the Notebook Measuring 1 x 2 cm'

The Undertaker’s Tale of the Notebook Measuring 1 x 2 cm by Tara Bergin
For forty years I have had in my possession: 
A notebook, morocco-bound and blue in colour
which was so small it could be covered over by a thumb.
I found it at the bottom of her
apron pocket;

And for forty years I have had in my throat
the rotten apple of Mordovia
which for forty years
I could not swallow;

And I have held in my possession
the year Nineteen-Forty-
a year too small for her
to write in.
from New Poetries V © Tara Bergin

‘The Undertaker’s Tale’ is a powerful poem and a conundrum. Its ambiguities are part of its strength. We are given a date (‘1941’) and a place (the ‘rotten apple of Mordovia’) that suggest the former owner of the blue notebook may have been a victim of Stalinist or Nazi terror—a deportee to the Gulag, a prisoner in a concentration camp, or an accidental victim of the terrible upheavals of that year.
What is conveyed, very clearly though elliptically, is the enormity of the woman’s suffering, and the vivid contrast between this and the smallness of her notebook, and of the year which we presume to have been her last. And we wonder: was the notebook small so that it could be concealed? Was it a form of samizdat—a private record that the woman hoped might be discovered and preserved, as indeed it appears to have been? Or is this a false assumption?

The poem begins with three lines in (rough) iambic pentameter, but this regularity soon dissipates, until we arrive at a line of a single stress and syllable word: ‘one.’ It is as if the poet had decided that a traditional form was inadequate to convey the events to which she alludes. I was reminded of Geoffery Hill’s sonnet ‘September Song,’ an indictment of the calculations that led to the Holocaust (‘Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented/terror, so many routine cries’) that forsakes the form’s conventions of rhyme and meter (‘I have made/an elegy for myself it/is true’) as being inappropriate to the horrors that are suggested.

We are left, in Bergin’s poem, with a single object upon which all meaning is brought to bear – rather like the shawl in Cynthia Ozick’s masterful story of the murder of an infant in a Nazi concentration camp. The smallness of the notebook is, we realise, in inverse proportion to its significance. ‘Small’ has many connotations in Bergin’s poem: spatial (the size of the notebook, or perhaps the size of the cell or room in which its owner was confined), temporal (the shortness of the last year of the woman’s life) and ethical (the moral vacuity that has presumably led to her death).

We realise, too, that the narrator of the poem is morally compromised. How did he come to possess the notebook? The fact that he found it in the woman’s apron seems to suggest that she did not surrender it voluntarily. Yet why an undertaker? This subverts our expectations. Surely no undertaker would be called upon to attend to a corpse in a camp. Had he more sinister reasons? Or have we been misled?

The undertaker has obviously been changed by his finding of the notebook: he has kept it for forty years, and is unable to part from it, or from the guilt which it seems to have induced. Has the notebook, then, served the woman’s purpose? Does it exert a moral pressure on the reader, as it does on the man who obtained it?

Bergin offers us a tale that is as enticing as it is incomplete. We come to believe wholly in the existence of the vanished woman, despite (or perhaps because of) the distance that the poet imposes between her and our experience. As Akhmatova’s Christ declares in Requiem, ‘Weep not for me, Mother. I am alive in my grave.’

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