canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Laike and Nahum: A Poem in Two Voices
by Ruth Panofsky
Inanna Publications and Education Inc., 2007

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

There is a haunting quality to the story of Laim and Nahum, Panofsky’s grandparents, as told by Panofsky. The narrative is clear but with no pulled punches. She doesn’t embroider facts, rather letting them speak for themselves, laying out the highlights of Laike and Nahum’s story with clean language and a keen eye.

The story moves through immigration, the sweatshops of Montreal, poverty, and the death of a child, without blinking at the austerities. Leaving the homeland is the thread that runs continuously through the poems with memories from the birth country woven into the customs of the new. The difficulties of settling into the new country with new language and new customs to be assimilated are touched on without pathos but a sense of dignity and deep humanity, acknowledging the experiences and uniting them through poetry to all who have gone through it.

Avoid the greenhorn
Father inveighs
settled émigré
he shuns you
as he shuns
his former self
newly Canadian
he wants more
for his daughter
than the stern Bolshevik
who courts her
with awkward grace

(#7, p.8)

The tension in the father comes through in the use of ‘inveighs’, in his refusal to be reminded of his own status as a new Canadian.

Panofsky never overstates the situation, never goes beyond the line that would take her into sentimentality. She is succinct, leaving the reader wanting more, more details of the sweatshops. But she draws a sketch and moves on:

White shirt after white shirt
starched and pressed
the scorching iron
heavy in your hand
steam searing your face

did you cross oceans
for so little?

(#10, p.12)

Panofsky reveals how Nahum and Laike fled from apartments without paying the rent and how their daughter was shamed by her teacher. The poverty and pain of the Depression years when all they could do was survive and feed their children is delineated with a contrasting elegance of language.

Hannah goes to school
in Jacob’s shirt
and the teacher jeers
how shameful
what disgrace

Hannah’s stone cold heart

(#9, p.45)

The reader is caught in the moment, drawn into the child’s embarrassment and hurt, the sense of her withdrawal from her mother, a theme which runs through the latter part of the poetry.

Underlying the cleanly told story of a marriage, children, and human pain, is remembrance of the past, and the contrasts with their current lives. Panofsky weaves the immigration and its memories, into the present day, giving a richness to the tapestry of Laike and Nahum’s lives, in uncomplicated and polished poetry, with not a word out of place. She gives us a story richly Canadian, deeply felt, and to be treasured.

Joanna M. Weston

A SUMMER FATHER - poetry - Frontenac House
2006 ISBN: 1-89718105-1 $15.95
THOSE BLUE SHOES for ages 7-12





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