Choosing New Omens, Rebecca Bilkau
Wayleave Press, 2015 £5.00
Settling and unsettling
Rebecca Bilkau, who has changed her country from England to Germany, understands how a place is never single: it’s buried under the layers of its own past and also responds to whatever people bring with them. This awareness runs through this pamphlet, connecting the poems securely but lightly. She doesn’t let it become the surface of the poems (that would be too obvious) but makes it the foundation. Like buildings, poems need good foundations.
Sunday evening and bluegrass music drives us
through an everywhere and nowhere till we hit
a babel of welcome signs.
These are the opening lines of the opening poem. The ‘place’ is universal — a car interior, two people, music (with choice defining the listeners), the ‘everywhere and nowhere’ anonymity of motorways and autobahns, the blandness of tourist ‘welcome signs’. I like ‘babel’: it combines the babble of speech with the list of separate languages, and the way they diminish the experience they are promoting. But ‘hit’? It’s so short a word you might miss it on first reading. It’s not an obvious usage, but the reverse. There’s something unsettling here that repays examination. I’ve withheld the title in order to concentrate on the lines, but the explanation was there, in plain sight — ‘On Not Going to Bergen-Belsen’.
This tension between past and present hovers around the poems, whether they are ostensibly about making a home, or looking at the landscape, or dealing with ‘the language of inarticulacy’ in a supermarket, where the speakers are refugees, speaking not German but their own language. It makes the slim pamphlet feel larger than its fifteen poems.
The final poem returns to the car, ‘Autobahned out of context’, caught between a Christmas visit and home, travelling with the radio’s soundtrack of a Sami story teller ‘who crunches through the speakers with frost holes // in her prose’ as she talks about ‘her people’.
It’s as though we can never be simply in one place at a time, as though there are multitudes around us and part of us, that we have to accept this. I’ve seen full length collections that have achieved less.
D A Prince