‘I choose neither East nor West, For I am shaped by the North.’
Nameless Country: Selected Poems
By AC Jacobs
Published by Carcanet
Poet AC Jacobs was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Glasgow in 1937. As an adult he became a self-made migrant, a wanderer through various countries never settling down in one spot for very long. He was a Jew in Scotland, a Scot in England, and a diaspora Jew wherever he traveled, and his poetry reflects his complex identities.
I Choose Neither …
I choose neither East nor West,
For I am shaped by the North,
And my history reaches down through old maps
Of Europe, and jumbled alphabets meaning,
‘I am for ever. This my Empire stands.’
Only those I seek who say: ‘Pain is real,
And not to be put by with a shrug,
And also: ‘Love is more than a gesture’ and
‘Know what you destroy’.
But those who scrutinize and say:
‘You do not fit the pattern of my analysis’,
‘So many laws are broken here’,
‘The gods, our teachers, do not like that’,
Are those whom I want to avoid, my enemies.
To those who think my choice simple I write:
For these and for want of these
The blood of my relatives and ancestors
Ran down the gutters of empires.
It flows in me like a cold, rough sea.
‘Introduction to A Scottish Sequence’
What called me north I do not know
Entirely. Not a piper on a rock
Dirling hypnotic music through my sky,
Nor lust for whisky washed down with strong ale
Against a foggy background of bare hills,
Nor Raeburn’s beauties near ethereal
(With jeans and shorter hairstyles, nowadays)
Made me leave her in the south
Who was cool and English, and the fierce
Jewish discussions of unfathomable hate.
I am no exile from a Celtic mist
Nor wanderer from ‘the Northern lights
of Aberdeen’. To me exile is a country,
That has the face of the cities of Europe,
A slum face pocked with treacherous suburbs.
And yet looking down South Portland Street
Towards an old fashioned stretch of the River Clyde
I perceive that what I am after is mostly
Again my grandfather, that man strong in Talmud,
(And I myself in Turriff Street long ago
Was taught the dialogue of ingenious rabbis)
What kept him here for almost fifty years,
That calls, but cannot keep me here, for one?
What gave this place the look of an outpost of exile
To woo the east here in his daily prayers?
His son’s son, I cross the river into town
Looking for bejeaned models of Raeburn (or any
Other painter) or listening to neutral music.
The old man’s secret rests with him
Behind these stricken stones.
Out here in the hills you get
Quite a bit of dialect,
more than many
People would imagine.
It’s had a way
Of surviving, breaking out, whatever
Gentility may say,
beyond where education
I have an ear for it,
Scots or Yiddish,
No one’s quite sure
how to handle.
His English was smooth and graceful,
And his Hebrew better than mine
Will ever be. He talked charmingly
Of Nazareth his home town
And its centuries-old, strange customs.
But his gift for holding together
Politeness in several cultures concealed
An injury, and his voice turned
Attention to itself, by reaching
Towards tones we need never seek.
He was trying, of course, to make
The best of an impossible situation.
Meeting him that evening I was mostly silent,
Though I have access to three or four cultures, myself.
Nameless Country: Selected Poems of AC Jacobs is published by Carcanet, priced £12.99