Category Archives: Poetry

INVENTORY AT THE APPRENTICE HOUSE

                              Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire

Sixty girls in all, ages nine to eighteen, sleeping
in pairs, one room crammed with thirty beds,
not a single fire but a window overlooking the courtyard:
one water pump, three privies with a bucket holding straw.
None would grow past four foot eight; worked twelve
hours in the factory, from six a.m., six days a week,
makes seventy-two, with a break for a dollop of porridge
in the right hand and not a single penny’s wage
except for overtime (their payment guarded by the mistress
in her parlour), but room and board in lieu: a hot dinner
every night – potato and cabbage and twice a week, meat,
eked out with a bit more porridge. The factory may have shut
on Sundays, but church in the morning and church in the evening,
two miles there, two miles back is eight, then an hour
for lessons in the classroom, four long tables, eight long benches,
a sand tray, assortment of slates. Take away nine at least.
And their punishment for leaving? From three to seven days’
confinement and the forfeit of their fortune, often pennies,
sometimes pounds. When found, if a girl couldn’t beg her way
to solitary, her hair was chopped off six inches.

THE DISAPPEARING ROOM

In Mara Bergman’s first full collection, the poet travels from the tenements of New York City to the Sussex countryside, from childhood to motherhood, and beyond. Through a wide range of subjects – steelworkers and young apprentices, photographs and photograms, dolls in a local museum’s hidden collection – she writes with a keen sense of time and place. These are probing poems, seeking to discover; urgent poems that they feel they had to be written. Here are poems about love, loss, friendship, family, fitting in and, ultimately, acceptance. They are infused with joy and wonder, and provide a fresh way of looking at the world.

“Mara Bergman’s poetic voice is a subtle one, the voice of the poems based on the rhythms of ordinary (American-inflected) speech, and has an admirably “natural” or even casual feel that can be deceptive. The developments are hard to predict, the endings open, the writing itself completely free of affectation. There is a genuine search going on here – both poetic and personal. (The scope of her work ranges from intimate pieces about the death of her father when she was a child and studies of the childhood of her own children to larger meditations on displacement and belonging, the plight of the exile, the sense of an extended Jewish family that spans continents and historically inspired pieces about work, a group of poignant social pieces based on old dolls.)Mara’s work captures the vividness of the small detail and makes it resonant, taking it out into the wider world.”
– Susan Wicks

“These are fluent, communicative, unselfconscious poems, yet they display great emotional tact. Mara Bergman knows instinctively what to include and what to leave out. Her poems, with their American inflection, hold a mirror to here and there, to people, places, incidents and to the human heart. Quietly stylish, quietly risk-taking, they show just how much felt life poetry can illuminate: “And the weather of this language is calm, / endless sky.” (“Landscape”). This collection has been a long time in the making and now, to have the poems gathered together, many of them already with the feel of classics, is a delight.”
– Moniza Alvi

 “Mara Bergman’s long-awaited poetry book is a model of unflinching gaze and monumental tenderness. Dreamers, workers and artists populate these complex poems permeated by both clarity and mystery. In a New York City tenement, a tailor’s three sons sleep ‘heads side by side on the sofa’ as they ‘rest their throbbing feet on wooden chairs … dreaming their immigrant dreams in thin air.’ In Cheshire, factory girls get ‘a hot dinner every night,/ that’s seven, …’ A woman stands in a river, developing her photographs by holding them ‘under the surface of the water, night/ her darkroom and her lover.’ Bergman’s poetry is elemental, essential.”
– Suzanne Cleary

Praise for The Tailor’s Three Sons and Other New York Poems

“I was charmed, beguiled, intrigued and absorbed by turns by the poems from the winning pamphlet. Each seemed a complete act and could stand alone, but together they worked as a wonderful narrative of the past as set in a particular place.”
Amy Wack, poetry editor at Seren and judge of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition

 

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INVENTORY AT THE APPRENTICE HOUSE
Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire

Sixty girls in all, ages nine to eighteen, sleeping
in pairs, one room crammed with thirty beds,
not a single fire but a window overlooking the courtyard:
one water pump, three privies with a bucket holding straw.
None would grow past four foot eight; worked twelve
hours in the factory, from six a.m., six days a week,
makes seventy-two, with a break for a dollop of porridge
in the right hand and not a single penny’s wage
except for overtime (their payment guarded by the mistress
in her parlour), but room and board in lieu: a hot dinner
every night – potato and cabbage and twice a week, meat,
eked out with a bit more porridge. The factory may have shut
on Sundays, but church in the morning and church in the evening,
two miles there, two miles back is eight, then an hour
for lessons in the classroom, four long tables, eight long benches,
a sand tray, assortment of slates. Take away nine at least.
And their punishment for leaving? From three to seven days’
confinement and the forfeit of their fortune, often pennies,
sometimes pounds. When found, if a girl couldn’t beg her way
to solitary, her hair was chopped off six inches.

 

COMING TO ENGLAND        

After I unpacked, full of jetlag and timelag and fatigue,
I walked along Lewisham High Street for my very first
cup of English tea, the next day took the tube to Hampstead Heath

to visit Keats. Mornings I woke to the clink of milk,
and once a week the rattling rag-and-bone-man’s cart, at first
not knowing what I was hearing as it made its way down the road

along the park, our slice of country. I spoke of “Lie-ses-ter”
and “Tra-fal-gar”, went to the theatre for 50p and sat
in the heavens, queued up with the others to call home once a week,

used a hand-held shower to save water, pointed to cress
in the refectory and called it clover, laughed at
toad-in-the-hole and spotted dick. Back home at a party

someone had told me you could buy a single cigarette
at an English market, even a match, and that I couldn’t leave
New York City until I’d read Return of the Native.

 

THE BROKEN DOLL

(early 19th– century bisque doll)

Let’s put the baby together.
All the components are ready,
the pale wide forehead and dimpled chin,
a porcelain-perfect skin you want
to smooth your fingers over. Cheeks flushed –
she’s been in the sun, laughing at trees, smiling
at some little girl mum – orange lips
too old for her years, a two-toothed baby smile.
You can just make out her tongue.

Each hair of her eyebrows and lashes
is expertly painted, but let’s fix the eyes,
unlooking, unseeing, rolling like blinds.
Let’s clean out the darkness of lids.

How shall we dress her, this baby doll,
this girl? One fine-stitched dress to cover
her blue-tinged limbs and belly,
a pair of knitted socks and polished shoes
to shelter those curled, chipped toes.
A wide-brimmed hat to protect her.

CROSSING INTO TAMIL NADU

Tamilnadu_pic

Crossing into Tamil Nadu is based on a journey Mara Bergman made with her daughter in India, with the loose narrative taking a dramatic turn in the title poem

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         FLYING TO INDIA

                                  for Caroline Price
                              
It was Caroline who said that flying doesn’t scare her anymore 
             now that her life was full and she no longer felt greedy, that flying     

was joyful, a way to leave your life for a while and aim                                                            
             for something new, a chance to be spontaneous and incredibly carefree

so that by the time she turned fifty she actually loved it – dared 
             to look forward to it – and instead of the pills and the vodka

could sit back among the endless blue and immerse herself 
             in that lighthearted feeling you get when nothing much matters 

or matters so much there’s nothing left to worry about, or lose. 
             As we clear the land, the end of the wing is tipped with light 
          
so far above thick drifts of cloud, a child’s vision of heaven, 
             neither here nor there, past or future, but this 

continual present that stretches on and on, following the light 
             as we enter evening, now and earlier all in one, and like an echo 

our voices chiming, This might not be a bad way to go.  

        CROSSING INTO TAMIL NADU

 If only I hadn’t seen deer by the lake 
           and our guide hadn’t stopped, and we hadn’t started walking 
to the edge. If we hadn’t driven extra miles 
           to glimpse crocodiles, lumpy in their prehistoric sunning, 
mouths open and tongueless; if the day hadn’t dragged on and on 
           winding through plantations of tea, sandalwood, cardamom, 
our mouths dry as dirt roads; if we hadn’t stopped for drinks 
           of coconut. If only a vanload of children 
were not feeding monkeys, or one monkey hadn’t lingered 
           to grab all it could, or if you weren’t so intrigued, 
especially by the babies clinging to their mothers, 
           pointy eared, hungry eyed; if you had resisted
taking that photo, wanting so badly to capture that baby, 
           not knowing adults can be jealous, vicious – 
that they will attack. That a monkey bite can leave a hole 
           the size of a bullet’s. The hospital was far; elephants 
cause roadblocks. That to stitch an animal wound 
            is against the law in India.  

       DUST

 As we drove through the streets of Kochi my last day, 
a speck of soot, a drift of smoke, a mote of dust

flew off the road, caught in my throat. 
I tried to clear it as we spoke and yet it stuck. 

I coughed, and then again, to dislodge something 
insignificant. I took a swig of water but it dared

to hold on stronger. I had a meal down by the beach – 
a plate of rice, a hill of prawns and one tall glass 

of fresh squeezed lemonade. I watched the sun go down 
behind the Chinese fishing nets; the air grew cool, 

the night was calm and nothing moved.   
I flew eight thousand miles, resumed my life;

returned to work, slept in my bed. 
Still it burns with every word. It’s never left.

The Tailor’s Three Sons and Other New York Poems

Mara_Newest_skyline360x470

I hadn’t realized just how many poems I’d written about New York until my friend Mary suggested I gather them for this collection. My love for the city goes back to childhood and these poems were written over quite a long time. A more recent one, “The Tailor’s Three Sons”, was inspired by a visit to the Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side while others were inspired by friends and family; 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.

REVIEWS for The Tailor’s Three Sons and Other New York Poems

“These are fluent, communicative, unselfconscious poems, yet they display great emotional tact. Mara Bergman knows instinctively what to include and what to leave out. Her poems, with their American inflection, hold a mirror to here and there, to people, places, incidents and to the human heart. Quietly stylish, quietly risk-taking, they show just how much felt life poetry can illuminate.” – Moniza Alvi

“Mara Bergman’s poetic voice is a subtle one, and deserves re-reading: the voice of the poems is based on the rhythms of ordinary (American-inflected) speech and has an admirably ‘natural’ or even casual feel to it that can be deceptive. Mara is a serious artist and the poems themselves really repay scrutiny. The developments are subtle and hard to predict, the endings open, the writing itself completely free of affectation. There is a genuine search going on here – both poetic and personal. Mara’s work captures the vividness of the small detail and makes it resonant, taking it out into the wider world.”
– Susan Wicks

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THE TAILOR’S THREE SONS

Nights I can’t sleep, I think about the tailor’s
three sons and how twelve people lived and worked
in a three-room apartment meant for four when
the Lower East Side was the most crowded place

on the planet. What was it they did? The cutting or basting
or sewing, right here, the finishing or pressing over there
while the clock’s heavy ticking kept them sane, insane?
Afternoons they’d elbow through the teeming streets to catch

some air, some news, but after a long day, what else had they
to look forward to but a bowl of soup and then to sleep
on the red velvet sofa which looked, from a distance,
more lavish, and though cherished, was so narrow

it is hard to imagine enough room for even one young boy
to sit down. I think of the sons because when night came
at last, and the whirr of machines had flown out the window,
the clock’s ticking rocking like a lullaby, they would

lay down their heads side by side on the sofa,
rest their throbbing feet on wooden chairs and lie, suspended,
to sleep the sleep of the young and the exhausted,
dreaming their immigrant dreams in thin air.

First published in Poetry Review

 

GIRL WITH A PEN IN HER HAND

That Saturday I lay in bed, head throbbing,
throat on fire, my stepdad chose it
from the library, a biography

about three sisters who lived somewhere
in England. I loved to read
how they loved to write, I wanted to be

a sister like that. If it had been another day,
if I’d not had another throbbing throat…
I’m searching for it now, remembering

how I lay there turning pages
as the pain began to ease, releasing me
into winter on some windy heath.

First published in May Day & Other Poems, Cinnamon Press

 

EAST 13TH STREET or HOW I MET MY HUSBAND

If Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Seymour had moved
out of their two-bedroom apartment with my four cousins
as planned, I never would have met Susan Silver,
who lived in their courtyard, Utopia Parkway, Queens
and grew up with Sharon and Tara, and years later
I might not have known her at university
or become best friends, lived together in that red semi
on East Street next to Feeney’s Fine Foods and Drink
with Marla, the actress who spent weekends in New York City
with a jazz musician twice her age. The three of us
ate only with chopsticks at a cable spool we used as a table,
visited Dunkin’ Donuts in the middle of the night
and found, once, a star on our receipt and won
another dozen. We lived up the street from Mary and Albert
with their parakeets Sonya and Raskolnikov, and Peter, the potter,
who borrowed my Brother typewriter to write a book
on Abstract Expressionism. I would never have heard
that Susan met an English guy that summer while camping
with her boyfriend in Vermont, that he would borrow a sleeping bag
and have to return it. She would not have rung me up
to join her in Manhattan, and I would not have said no and
she would not have cajoled me until she convinced me to go.
I would not have seen him standing in the doorway
of his friend’s apartment on East 13th Street and thought Yes.

Prizewinner in the Troubadour Poetry Competition 2012

POEMS:

THE TAILOR’S THREE SONS
GIRL WITH A PEN IN HER HAND
EAST 13TH STREET  or  HOW I MET MY HUSBAND

EAST 13TH STREET or HOW I MET MY HUSBAND

 If Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Seymour had moved
     out of their two-bedroom apartment with my four cousins
 as planned, I never would have met Susan Silver,
     who lived in their courtyard, Utopia Parkway, Queens
 and grew up with Sharon and Tara, and years later
      I might not have known her at university
 or become best friends, lived together in that red semi
      on East Street next to Feeney’s Fine Foods and Drink
 with Marla, the actress who spent weekends in New York City
      with a jazz musician twice her age. The three of us
 ate only with chopsticks at a cable spool we used as a table,
      visited Dunkin’ Donuts in the middle of the night
 and found, once, a star on our receipt and won
      another dozen. We lived up the street from Mary and Albert
 with their parakeets Sonya and Raskolnikov, and Peter, the potter,
      who borrowed my Brother typewriter to write a book
 on Abstract Expressionism. I would never have heard
     that Susan met an English guy that summer while camping
 with her boyfriend in Vermont, that he would borrow a sleeping bag
      and have to return it. She would not have rung me up
 to join her in Manhattan, and I would not have said no and
      she would not have cajoled me until she convinced me to go.
 I would not have seen him standing in the doorway
      of his friend’s apartment on East 13th Street and thought Yes.

Prizewinner in the Troubadour Poetry Competition 2012

GIRL WITH A PEN IN HER HAND

That Saturday I lay in bed, head throbbing,
throat on fire, my stepdad chose it
from the library, a biography

about three sisters who lived somewhere
in England. I loved to read
how they loved to write, I wanted to be

a sister like that. If it had been another day,
if I’d not had another throbbing throat…
I’m searching for it now, remembering

how I lay there turning pages
as the pain began to ease, releasing me
into winter on some windy heath.

First published in May Day & Other Poems, Cinnamon Press

THE TAILOR’S THREE SONS

Nights I can’t sleep, I think about the tailor’s
three sons and how twelve people lived and worked
in a three-room apartment meant for four when
the Lower East Side was the most crowded place

on the planet. What was it they did? The cutting or basting
or sewing, right here, the finishing or pressing over there
while the clock’s heavy ticking kept them sane, insane?
Afternoons they’d elbow through the teeming streets to catch

some air, some news, but after a long day, what else had they
to look forward to but a bowl of soup and then to sleep
on the red velvet sofa which looked, from a distance,
more lavish, and though cherished, was so narrow

it is hard to imagine enough room for even one young boy
to sit down. I think of the sons because when night came
at last, and the whirr of machines had flown out the window,
the clock’s ticking rocking like a lullaby, they would

lay down their heads side by side on the sofa,
rest their throbbing feet on wooden chairs and lie, suspended,
to sleep the sleep of the young and the exhausted,
dreaming their immigrant dreams in thin air.

First published in Poetry Review