This Kilt of Many Colours, David Bleiman
Dempsey & Windle, 2021 £8.00
Three things I loved about one poem
The poem ‘The Trebbler’s Tale’ had received much recognition before appearing in David Bleiman’s debut pamphlet, having won the Scots Language Society’s 2020 Sangschaw Prize and the Hugh MacDiarmid Tassie.
While I don’t claim to understand the meaning behind the Scots-Yiddish linguistics in this poem (and I’m not sure that’s expected of you*), I had an immense amount of fun reading and reciting it (this poem begs to be read out loud.)
Firstly, because of the sound it makes. The Scots-Yiddish invited me to put on my very best accent and really wrap my tongue around the rhythm of these lines, which toss and turn with the familiar yet unknown cadences of the language. Its jaunty nursery rhyme quality and rhyming couplets makes this poem accessible to the reader and adds a welcome predictability.
Dreg yer tochus frae the lochan,
scraich the rouch o the mama-loshen,
then, geopocked and gemaisled wi shmutz and wi smot,
Scots-Yiddisher mish-mosh is whit ye hae got.
Secondly, I thoroughly enjoyed poring over so many marvellous words. The poet has helpfully included notes to accompany ‘The Trebbler’s Tale’, although the translations often require further translation! Phrases include ‘mitten drinnen’ from the Scots, and equally complex and lovely lingo from the Yiddish, such as ‘chutzpadik’ (and who can forget the ‘fartoots’ and concluding ‘alter kakker’?) providing a ‘mixter-maxter’ of glorious sounds.
Thirdly, this poem appeals to me because I am in awe of the poet’s intertwining of culture, heritage and language. This is present throughout this pamphlet (as referenced in Maggie McKay’s review, below), all of which is expressed to full effect in the mixed phonetics of this marvellous poem.
*The poet says in his preface ‘The lost and learned languages, sharing a common sound world, yearn to combine, even if it involves a large dose of imagination to recreated the Scots-Yiddish of The Trebbler’s Tale.’
David Bleiman changes nostalgia from a polite turn-off to a word of wonder. He weaves a Scots-Yiddish tartan and wraps around us stories from Spain, Germany and Russia, as well as Scotland, even as he wears ‘a teuch auld Ashkenazi skin’.
His respect for ritual takes us from the Haggadah of rescue from slavery in Egypt to ‘singing with Sasha’ in an Edinburgh synagogue. And there’s a family heritage which lets us hear the cry from a burning barn in Russia, experience Bleiman’s mother’s travels as the ‘shvelbele’ (the little swallow) and feel the wild music and history of Spain and Scotland.
There are simple things here, like the carved yidl mit ’n fidl, the Jew with a fiddle (in ‘Lacquer wood fiddler’). But there are complex things, too, like the ‘duende’, referencing a talk by Federico Garcia Lorca, about spirit, the power of art, the clearing of a throat before performance in ‘Duende’.
This is nostalgia with a difference, the art of making us homesick — yes — but with such a wide understanding of the human home!
Mixter-maxter of scattered memories
David Bleiman is an acrobat of storytelling and folklore: Yiddish, Scots, and Spanish splash vibrancy through this exploration of family influences. Poignant and deftly crafted, it’s a riot of interwoven cultures, a loving celebration of diaspora experiences.
The first poem ‘Duende’ (in the section ‘Traces’) pulls us into the Spanish: the word duende itself suggests a magnetic force, the poet as enigmatic. (Wikipedia defines it as ‘a Spanish term for a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, often connected with flamenco’.) The poem is full of movement and mishaps. It tells the narrator to face the audience and ‘throw your head back and dream / of that river which gives to the sea’, for ‘it’s all in the clearing of the throat.’
Meanwhile, in the ‘Mixter-maxter’ section, ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ explores the poet’s German / Lithuanian / Jewish family influence. Through cinematic imagery, we are taken on a journey from shoebox letters through homesickness and grief to the Weimar Republic and Marlene Dietrich’s sultry voice. The narrator longs ‘to be German again’, seeks connection:
not from the ashes in the birch wood
not from the acrid smoke
but from the shifting shadows of the smoke
and the moving pools of sunlight,
wet on the clearing grass.
A mixture of Scots and Yiddish can be found at play in some poems. For example ‘The Trebbler’s Tale’ where ‘scots-Yiddisher mish-mosh is whit ye hae got’. Meanwhile, ‘Dream mash lullaby’ is a delightful, loving homage to an imagined ‘dream grandchild’. It’s infused with rich language: ‘rozhinkes mit mandeln’, ’Dreams to sell, fine dreams to sell’. And there’s
A squeeze of honey in cinnamon milk,
a washboard singing the consonants
The collection’s eponymous poem, ‘This kilt of many colours’, manages to pull everything together. Via reflections on migration during a gathering at the festival of Pesach, or Passover, it questions what is long forgotten, and what remains. Memories rest on lost customs, on Hebrew words ‘none of us can understand, / remembering one / who led us through the text’:
our warp is weft
from southern spools
through bolts of northern light