“This Kilt of Many Colours” David Bleiman (Dempsey and Windle) – book review

David Bleiman This Kilt of Many Colours

David Bleiman explores identity through family connections, history, place of origin and where home currently is, and language: the one you grew up speaking, lost languages and learnt languages. The poet has settled in Scotland, has a Jewish Ashkenazi background and learnt Spanish when his adult son moved to Spain. He comments that we are all a mix of identities and languages and these differences provide a commonality through a sharing of heritage or language; we can still communicate and be understood. Some of the poems incorporate phrases in Scots dialect, Yiddish or Spanish with an English glossary/translation as appropriate alongside the poem (so no flicking back and forth to notes at the end of the collection.) As an example, “Lacquer wood fiddler”, set in Moscow, “yidl mit’n fidl” translates as Jew with fiddle, ends,

“What is your melody,
my yidl mit’n fidl?
Who inscribed ‘Ayy’ on your base?
Who carved and shlepped you
from your shtetl?

My friend, you need to ask?
The klezmer I play for your ten roubles
is singing in your granny’s voice
and ‘Ayy’ is the cry that falls
from the roof of the burning barn
when the Cossacks ride out
in the morning.”

Folk tunes carry both heritage and stories, a way of keeping traditions and tales alive. So the fiddler is asked both for his tune and his heritage as well as why a word is carved on the fiddle’s base. The fiddler recognises a fellow Jew. He doesn’t explain the song, but explains the carving, the danger in being different and viewed as not belonging. This issue of where to belong is explored through a grandfather named Adolf in “Reclaim the name,”

“he learned to master many tongues:
German at high school in Lemberg,
Hebrew in his grandpa’s shul in the shtetl,
Yiddish with the girls in momme’s kitchen,
Polish bringing in the harvest on father’s farm
and facing pistols in the pogrom’s spoil,
Russian as the land changed hands,
English for banking and exile in Cape Town,
patrolling on Boyes Drive above the cliffs,
scanning the ocean for U-boats.

No grandson now can bear your name of shame”

Perhaps not handing down his name is no great loss when he’s passed on a love of languages and a curiousity in others. Language is put to the fore in the Scots dialect poem, “Why Dae A Scrieve in Scots?”

“whaur ye cam hame
is whaur A chaised tae stey;
that wirds wull wander tae a mooth
whaurivver makars staun an blether;”

It’s about choosing where home is and authenticity over using words that are perceived to indicate poetry, but sound unnatural in speech. Sometimes one has to blend in, rather than stick out, and create a sense of belonging. “Singing with Sasha in the sukkah”, is presented in two columns, one in Yiddish, one in English. It ends,

“Fun daynen shtetele From your little village
in East Noykh Fifele in the East Neuk of Fife
vest Zoomn shoyn this week tsu mir you’ll Zoom to me this week
un singsts tsu mir on consonants, and sing to me on consonants,
s’iz mir shoyn gut, ay yaba baba boy. already I feel better, ay yaba baba boy.”

A sukkah is a temporary hut-like structure to commemorate the time the Israelites were cast into the wilderness after being freed from slavery in Egypt used during the festival of Sukkot. Video conferencing software such as Zoom enables connections and shared traditions. It can also offer a sense of emerging into an uncertain future. The current pandemic has already altered life for some and for others has invited the question as to whether we want to go back to what we had before the pandemic or whether it’s time to rethink the future and emerge in a different world. That sense of do we continue or do we change is revisited in the title poem (sporadikos translates from Greek to English as scattered),

“The Poseidonians in Paestum,
remembering they were Greeks
on festive days like this,
were sad.

Not us!

We choose to be sporadikos
and wear it well–
our warp is weft
from southern spools
through bolts of northern light–
this kilt of many colours.”

The narrator has favoured making Scotland a home rather than remaining separate and yearning for a birthplace which does not stay static but also grows and evolves. How many migrants remember their own past and fail to keep up with the modernisation taking place in the country they left?

“This Kilt of Many Colours” is celebratory in tone and David Bleiman is clearly in favour of migration and multiculturalism, exploring languages inherited and newly learnt. In doing so, he focuses on what humanity has in common, that we all have a sense of heritage and tradition, ancestors who spoke other languages, and the ability to use speech for connection or to distance. Drawing from personal experience enables him to leave darker questions about prejudice and exclusion aside. Those shadows are cast out by the celebration within this collection.

“This Kilt of Many Colours” is available from Dempsey & Windle.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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