“Imperfect Beginnings” Viv Fogel (Fly on the Wall Press) – Book Review

Viv Fogel explores her journey from childhood to motherhood through these poems. She was born in the UK and adopted by two refugee Holocaust survivors who had met and married in the UK. “Exiled” looks first at the baby’s viewpoint in part i,

Viv Fogel Imperfect Beginnings cover image and advert

“you were my whole world
safe holding and mine—
then gone.

I was alone
no roots”

This is imagined – the baby’s whole world is her mother – but this safety changes when the baby is given up for adoption. It’s not known why the baby was given up. Post Second World War there were many reasons: poverty, lack of support from a wider family, a father who didn’t return, the stigma of being an unmarried mother, widowhood, a very young woman taken advantage of. Ultimately it may not matter. Part ii looks at the adoptive parents, uprooted from a homeland as a baby is uprooted from her mother, and arriving,

“now is the waiting game:
questions papers returned
visas granted…. or delayed.

In yellow rooms you wait.
You sit watching the clock
not daring to hope.

I welcome you
rootless as I
to this bittersweet land.”

The adoptive parents face the agony of waiting to see if they will be accepted by this new country, by the agency for a baby. The “yellow rooms” suggestive of faded, dingy rooms unmaintained and uncared for. This could be a projection of the refugees’ feelings or could be the refugees take on the message of decay, the lack of priority.

Viv Fogel’s concerns do not just lie with refugees from the Second World War but also look to the present, in “Ahmad’s Pool”, where Ahmad is a pseudonym

“In halting English….. Ahmad describes his life
as a stagnant pool where nothing lives or moves.

Each night he stands in moonlight watching it shimmer,
the way light shimmers the way light becomes a dart of

a movement a silver fish! the next night there are more—
and his pool starts to breathe”

The fish become darts of hope as Ahmad is processed, able to stay and slowly create a new life. Most likely not the life he’d hoped or imagined, but a life of sorts.

“The Switch” asks if the bird whose nest has been appropriated will ever “smell out her changeling egg”? Then there’s a switch from birds to the personal,

“Cuckoo’s first call is heard on April 14th,
my birth date. Taken to another’s nest,
with name and feathers I could not keep,
I became the strange one who did not fit.

O cuck-mother—do you not miss your own?”

The adopted child knows her adoptive parents are not hers, that her roots don’t lie with them. She asks the nesting bird if she ever knows that the cuckoo is not hers, if the bird mother ever misses the offspring that was replaced with the cuckoo’s egg. In the personal viewpoint, it’s a hypothetical question. It’s not known whether the host/adoptive parents could have children. Siblings are not mentioned but it’s not clarified whether that’s because there were no siblings or they have been left out of a personal story. This adopted baby, aware that her parents are not her birth parents, is asking whether those parents would have preferred their own baby.

Later roles are reversed in “My Father Sold Cigarettes To The Nazis” dedicated to Itzaak Weinreich (1903 – 1988). The poem ends,

“I sat by his bed and fed him,

as once he fed me. I stroked his baby head,
made him smile at my jokes,
as his watery eyes were fading.

I traced his burnt-scarred arm, tapped
my fingers along numbers the same blue-grey
as his veins, longing to unlock his story.

He held my baby in his arms, just once,
a little awkward, a little shy,
a big man…..grown small.”

Here the adopted child, now an adult carer of her adoptive parent, has brought her own baby to see their grandparent. There’s still a sense of rootlessness. Although the adoptee knows what the tattooed numbers on the father’s arm represent, he has not spoken about them. The adoptee is unrooted twice: once by her birthmother and again by her adoptive parents not talking about their past. She imagines their history. In “On Not Writing the Holocaust”, “something in me remembers”

“funnels of dark smoke unfurling

a lost child’s shoe by the canal
the absence of birdsong
a field of stones and silence

many will roll their eyes Move on
so I do not write about the Holocaust
I was not there……… I was not there”

Her adoptive parents’ silence leaves her feeling she has no authority to write about their history because it’s not become part of hers. Even so, she’s aware of their past, of the stories not told. Where her relationship with her adoptive father seems tender, her relationship with her adoptive mother is not straightforward. “Practical UnEnglish” starts (Mutti is German for mum, Vati for dad), “Mutti claimed the Nazis butchered her so she couldn’t have babies:/ I believed her. But she should never have taken me instead./ Guilt-sick, she could not keep me safe.” This mother, “No child of mine, she hissed—with venom in her eyes./ No child of yours, I’d think, consoling myself .” Already the adopted daughter is aware that this mother is not flesh and blood and how that offers some comfort. But there are moments,

“she loved: Goethe’s Erlkönig, Shubert’s Lieder, Tauber,
the piano she made me sing to, in pink taffeta, for guests.
She sewed clothes for me, a coat even, practical, un-English.

The garden she created shone with colour. We visited Kew,
she showed me beauty and poetry in nature, and the tower
where Rapunzel remained trapped. How I longed to free her.

Her strong accent shamed me, her haunted awkwardness.
The stories she told became unbearable, seeped
with tears for those who perished, those she left behind.

She swallowed handfuls of pills in front of me,
so they sent me away, gave her ECT. And yet
she baked, her Powidltascherl and Apfelstrüdel were divine.”

The husband’s silence seems preferable. Traumatised, the adoptive mother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the poem acknowledges both sides, the cruel, undermining of confidence in the daughter and the joy of new clothes, a garden. The focus is the mother, so investigating how the daughter reacted to being “sent away” during her adoptive mother’s periods of illness are not explored here. But the repeated acts of separation loosen the bonds.
The daughter does get to meet her birthmother, in “First Meeting” which ends,

“On this no-one-else-but-us shore,
this then becomes our beginning.
The space between…. hovers…. liminal—
there are no memories to replace what was lost,
yet, emptiness longs to be filled with what it once knew—
isn’t that enough?”

There are no shared memories, but a sharing of memories created in the other’s absence. This is in contrast to the now adult adoptive daughter’s relationship with her own daughter, in “Notebook”,

“My daughter enjoys the safety of lines,
but I prefer the blank page, to dive

and spiral bird free in a cloudless sky.
She cuts paper into delicate shapes,

pastes petals, turns butterflies into collages,
begins again if there is one mistake.

I splatter words like Pollock onto clear canvas
and smudge, rub holes in paper, stain and tear.

My daughter bathes in milk, soaks in Caribb sun,
paints her nails as bright as her imagined future.”

The daughter here has the security of taking time to do things, to start again if a mistake is made. Her mother is hasty, scrawling words on paper before they disappear, focused on the moment and creating a home wherever she happens to be. Just before the UK went into lockdown as the pandemic took hold, a move, that would have fallen through if it had taken place a week later, is an opportunity to create a new home,

“The grandkids WhatsApp, show their drawings,
sing a song just learnt, report the day—
his scratch, her fall; we choose the bedtime story,
they kiss the screen, hug the phone,
butterfly kisses are blown.

In last night’s dream I wrapped a cloak
around our blue and gasping planet,
a net of light to help it breathe,
blew away dust-clouds of viral fear,
hosed clean the darkened rivers.

Next morning outside our bedroom window,
the magnolia is in second bloom,
pale pink pure perfect.”

The move seems to have given the poet space to breathe and dream. The poet has a mother’s instinct to want to care for a future for her grandchildren. The poem, and book, ends on a note of hope.

“Imperfect Beginnings” is an exploration of rootlessness both of refugees and adopted children. The poems ask difficult questions about security a sense of belonging when those roots are absent and whether it is actually possible to settle into or create somewhere that feels like home. Viv Fogel also touches on intergenerational trauma. She didn’t inherit her adoptive parents’ trauma but was very much aware of their experiences and how those experiences informed their behaviour towards her. The later poems look at founding a mother/daughter relationship without a role model to create one from and whether it is possible to break away from the negative patterns learnt from those who failed to provide safe environments for children to grow in.

“Imperfect Beginnings” is available from Fly On The Wall.

Blog tour poster. Remaining dates 2 March @LINDAHILL50HILL, 3 March @LOU_BOOKMARKS, 4 March @KENT_NJ, 5 March @SYLVIAFWRITES, 6 March @FLY_PRESS

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.