“This is what you do. You start with nothing and make whatever you can. If you lose it, you start over and try something new.” These are Marta’s words, identifying the essence of her story, its stubborn resistance, its enduring persistence and relevance. Marta is the muse for Susan Atkinson’s new sequence of poems. The work grew slowly, painfully, lovingly out of their friendship and shared revelations, into a book that Atkinson hopes will lend “a universal voice for those who shared Marta’s path.”
What is that path?
Marta is a Polish girl abruptly displaced by WWII. Political, cultural and personal circumstances propel her from Siberia to Rhodesia to England to Canada. We travel with her, witnessing a life of endless disruption and deprivation unfailingly elevated by small sobering miracles of survival.
Atkinson’s poems are finely tuned to Marta’s story. The collection begins in Poland with nursery rhyme cadences and fairy tale figures. Rapunzel, stepmothers, apples and breadcrumbs populate these early poems. They delineate the reality of parental abandonment, adroitly filtered through a child’s imagination.
In 1941 Marta is arrested and thrown into a cattle car. Psychologically precise poems drive the narrative through terror. Victims scrabble for moldy bread and drink scalding water directly from the boiler. The sight of white onions tempts starving Marta into a soldier’s arms whose taste stays on her fingers which she sucks to a sweet core, like onions (“The Night Which Will Stay”). Atkinson infuses each turn of the tale with poetic intensity. Titles are often first lines, strengthening narrative flow. Diary entries, delivered in italicized poems, mark moments of history, changes of location and emotional transitions.
Survival strategies and disaster follow one another. At the Soviet collective farm, Marta lends boys hairpins for fishing hooks so that she may later taste the soup. She cuts her slip to make delicate pocket handkerchiefs she will sell. While days also shorten, the Germans advance.
The story sweeps you along past illness, to romantic love in Africa, to the moldy moors of England where Marta’s lonely shadow-self comforts a traumatized soldier. Settling in Canada, these war-wounded two dance briefly to the music of sweet domesticity. At the boss’s party she proudly displays her delicate art of napkin sculptures, then shatters enchantment to mop up spilled burgundy “deep as blood” (“It is a Rare Occasion”).
Their only child’s abrupt death demolishes fleeting joys. Marta is inconsolable. Atkinson cradles extreme feeling in concrete language, each image more emotionally accurate than the last. Grief hangs on the clothesline in small garments waiting for a child to inhabit (“Grief”). Item by item, Atkinson builds palpable sadness and brave purpose. We see Marta molding breadcrumbs into a little girl (“Resolutions”) and doing alterations for immigrants who bring her their “broken pieces” (“Sewing Again”).
Fifty years on, the “ghost-child” still glides. Her presence is a feather of time, “minutes crawling behind her // like ribbons on a bonnet quivering” (“The Lightness of a Grackle”). Solitary Marta dreams Snow White, waking with “the breath of over-ripe apples / poisoning the dark” (“On Sleeping”).
The book ends with author, Atkinson, excavating boxes in the rain, crying over cardboard coffins, “envelopes…fanned like wings / a thousand drowned moths…aching to survive” (“After Life”).
Dramatic and clear, sensitive and highly charged, Marta illustrates the power of poetry to tell the stories that keep us human.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.