Travellers, Michelene Wandor
Arc Publications, 2021 £7.00
This pamphlet reminded me why it is important to persist in our efforts to travel and explore the travels of others. The poems range across place, art, music, history. They are often flavoured with the allure of the exotic, as in this refrain from ‘The Clock of Heaven: A Fugue’:
somewhere always cinnamon cloves gold silver pearls
diamonds calico ebony emeralds cloves diamonds gold calico
silver cinnamon the sun shines
Michelene Wandor is also a playwright and many of these poems feel like stripped-down dramatic retellings that would work on stage. I found them most powerful when they focussed on two people, set up to be dramatic rivals due to politics, religion or cultural position, who nonetheless forge quiet friendships. In ‘Two Women’ we meet Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella d’Este, both pawns in European politics who learn to wield soft power and are secretly friends:
it suits our husbands to think we are rivals, says Lucrezia
then it is our duty to continue to please them, says Isabella.
The opening poem, ‘San Miniato’ presents the speaker-poet on a course in Tuscany feeling isolated and in opposition to the Italian drama teacher. As the speaker opens up to the sensual experience of Italy (‘I am born into taste at my round table’), she gains a new sense of self, symbolised by the purchase of a leather coat, a metaphoric new skin.
I also loved the title poem, which imagines the meeting of T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell in the Iraqi desert. Bell also has put on another skin: ‘in England she is just a woman, an empty jar / here she is in linen and khaki.’ In her meeting with Lawrence she finds community, understanding and importance, despite later political betrayals.
‘Two Men’ describes how Khalil, ‘Palestinian, Christian, poet’ meets Alter, ‘American, Jewish, poet’ when they are imprisoned together, and how they teach each other their respective languages, forging friendship and a desire to work together for peace.
These interactions are human and important. I was glad to encounter them in the poems.