Associate Editor Ilona Yusuf continues her musical theme for the year by reminiscing about her mother's empathy for tone and timbre.
I am in a chair in front of my mother, who has finally finished the long labour of dressing, in these final months of her life. Much of her morning is spent resting on the lounge sofa; in the afternoon she climbs very very slowly up the stairs and emerges in the evening after a long toilette. She is painfully thin, her face wan and drawn, but she is neatly dressed in a green shalwar kameez, a printed silk scarf at her neck, a touch of blue eyeshadow on her eyelids, a little face powder, lipstick. These things she does not forget, although much else seems to be gone, or infrequently remembered. She is seated on the bed with her back against the wall. Getting ready to go out for dinner has tired her, but my father likes to eat out, and wants us to come downstairs.
Wait, she says. Let’s sit for a while. And then she begins to recite, soft but clear, rhythmic, smooth, almost as if saying it to herself.
Tempus erat quo prima quies mortalibus aegris incipit et dono divum gratissima serpit.
in somnis, ecce, ante oculos maestissimus Hector visus adesse mihi largosque effundere fletus, raptatus bigis ut quondam, aterque cruento pulvere perque pedes traiectus lora tumentis. ei mihi, qualis erat, quantum mutatus ab illo
Hectore qui redit exuvias indutus Achilli vel Danaum Phrygios iaculatus puppibus ignis! squalentem barbam et concretos sanguine crinis vulneraque illa gerens, quae circum plurima muros accepit patrios.
She repeats the sequence. That’s Latin, you know, she says.
Yes, mum, I say gruffly.
Then she says, Do you still write poetry?
I am startled. This question has come after a long time. Failing health, at times my mother’s, at times my father’s, has filled our time together with practicalities. Or my father wants to drive to the old city, through the narrow streets they both love, which I have learned to navigate skillfully to his directions. All this sometimes leaves me frayed.
Because it comes so suddenly, because I am exhausted and adrift, I don’t know what to say.
Not really nowadays, I answer, a little grudgingly. Then, Sometimes. I don’t have much time to write.
You should show your parents your poetry. I’d like to read it, she offers.
This last decade has been so fraught with violence that my poems reflected the strife. When I showed them to my mother a few years ago, she read them quietly; then, putting the pages aside she said, in her voice just a hint of a question, a wondering, they’re very different. From what you wrote before.
Alright, I said, I’ll show you some of the new ones next time. Now let’s go down, Dad’s waiting.
Did she remember what the passage meant, I wondered later when I looked up the translation. Did those lines suggest parallels with ordinary life, her own life? Or was it just a chance passage that washed up on the shore of failing memory?
It was the hour when first sleep begins for weary mortals, and steals over them as the sweetest gift of the gods. See, in dream, before my eyes, Hector seemed to stand there, saddest of all and pouring out great tears, torn by the chariot, as once he was, black with bloody dust and his swollen feet pierced by the thongs. Ah, how he looked! How changed he was from that Hector who returned wearing Achilles’s armour, or who set Trojan flames to the Greek ships! His beard was ragged, his hair matted with blood, bearing those many wounds he received dragged around the walls of his city. And I seemed to weep myself, calling out to him, and speaking to him in words of sorrow…
Suddenly there’s a lump in my throat. Because I know that all I understand of rhythm and music in poetry comes from my mother. I have no formal training in technique, or form, or metre. Poetry came from the sound of words, syllables, the express quality, the weight of each word.
Simple words, she would say. You don’t need difficult ones.
But music came before all of this.
Mid morning, during summer holidays, my mother would make coffee and we would play records. Rock or pop or country music were emphatically disapproved of. But there were Chopin, Smetana, Dvorak, Beethoven, Strauss, Khaczaturian, Shostakovich. There was the music of rebellion, Mikis Theodorakis. There was Pakistani folk music: an extended cassette collection of melodies painstakingly compiled by Uxi Mufti. There were Polish folk songs, now my only tie with the language that I never mastered.
Mark the time, my mother would say. And she would set the tone by tapping it out with the front of her foot. I would make excuses, want to escape, but she was insistent. Here, mark the time. Like this. Her foot arced vigorously up and down. Fast, slow. DUM dum-dum, DA da-da. Come on, do it. Let me see.
And there it was. An intuitive measuring of line. Length, stresses, enjambment.
Picture detail: A pre-WW2 family picnic on a farm near the town of Zelow (central Poland). My grandmother (extreme left) holds the fiddle; my mother is seated on the ground in front of her
My mother and her mother were refugees, taken by the Nazis from a village in central Poland to Germany where my grandmother worked the fields on a farm. They lost everything. But there are photographs of prewar life. Many of these mostly tiny compositions offer up clues to the subjects’ personalities. A great-uncle, my mother said, had a library and wrote poetry. My grandmother played the fiddle. When they were together they played music.
Music and poetry, passed on through marking time.