Today’s poem is from Mara Bergman’s pamphlet The Tailor’s Three Sons & Other New York Poems, which won the 2014 Mslexia Women’s Poetry Pamphlet Competition!
The Tailor’s Three Sons & Other New York Poems, the Mslexia magazine prize-winning pamphlet published by Seren, is the fruit of author Mara Bergman’s rich memories of her childhood on Long Island and Manhattan. Now living in the UK, she looks back and assembles an appealing cast of characters for us: a grandmother who lives with precarious memories of war-torn Europe in a ‘railroad apartment’ where passing trains make ‘a whole room shake’; a cousin Sharon who makes a weekly pilgrimage to a nail salon, the bottles of nail varnish, ‘lined up like sweets’. There is the ghost of an uncle, spotted in the likeness of a man on the London-Hastings train. We meet an ‘Englishman in New York’ and experience, along with the author, ‘East 13th Street or How I Met My Husband’.
The title poem is inspired by the author’s visit to the Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side, where Bergman vividly imagines the lives of immigrants when many thousands docked in ships at Ellis Island and the Lower East Side was ‘the most crowded place on the planet’. She envisions the lives of the tailor’s three sons she learns about during a museum tour: ‘afternoons they’d elbow through the teeming streets’, come home to a bowl of soup and share a single sofa for a bed. These poems are written with a great deal of warmth and empathy and with a quietly deceptive casual tone. We can see the author, as a small ‘Girl with a Pen’ entranced by her reading a biography of Charlotte Brontë.
Mara Bergman says: ‘I am fascinated by people and their stories. Having lived in England for many years, I often think, What if… and have tried, in my writing, somehow to meld my life in England with the one I left in New York. Here are poems about people, the process of work and art, and distance, in time and place.’
Edward Hopper on Long Island
He left the neon-lit cafés and deserted stations
for a winter of snow, mounds of it,
steeped on decks through a neighbourhood
where he didn’t know a soul.
He had given up city lights, city life,
to see the sun rise from a corner of a garden,
a flock of geese pummel across clouds.
At last the chance to study the filaments
of a squirrel’s tail, the shock of red cardinal.
He’d go to bed later and later,
wake up earlier until
there was no discernible difference
between darkness and light.
Three a.m., looking out on the snow
when a plane passed over the row of split-
levels, he spotted that thin divide
where streetlight met houselight – light
on the side of a building his favourite thing.
Maybe he wasn’t so far from his life,
maybe it was then he stopped questioning
what he was doing amid the snowlight
and a pale orange glow
over the telephone wire, heat steaming.