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Sept. 14, 2012

Honoring life in art, words


In reviewing the book My Czernowitz by Zvi Yavetz in Haaretz in March 2008, writer Aharon Appelfeld highlights a chapter on the city’s poets, citing early 20th-century poet, translator and critic Alfred Sperber, whose home, notes Appelfeld, “was the meeting place of the two most famous poets to grow up in the city: Rosa Auslander and Paul Celan.

“Of poetry, Sperber said: A poem is nothing but talk of something that never was, a hope for the realization of something that cannot be realized and the embodiment of the secret by the word echoing in the well of silence. This highly charged statement has its echoes not only in the work of Celan and Auslander but also in the poems of Emmanuel Weissglas, Alfred Kittner, Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger and others.”

To that list, we can add Isa Milman.

Milman, who lives in Victoria, is a poet and visual artist. Her paintings and prints are found in collections in Canada, the United States, Europe and Israel, and her writing has been published in various reviews and anthologies. She is the author of Between the Doorposts (Ekstasis Editions, 2004) and Prairie Kaddish (Coteau Books Inc., 2008), both of which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry. Her most recent collection, Something Small to Carry Home (Quattro Books Inc., 2012), is dedicated to the Kramerovnas and is introduced with a citation that Milman attributes to “Charles Wright, 2004, quoting John Berryman, 1968, quoting Kierkegaard, circa 1850, who in turn quotes Johann Hamann, circa 1780.” It reads:

There are two voices, and the first says, “Write!”
And the second voice says, “For Whom?”
“For the dead whom though didst love.”
“Will they read me?”
“Aye, for they return as posterity.”

Explained Milman, in an e-mail interview with the Independent: “The Kramerovnas are the Kramer sisters, my mother and her sisters, all deceased now, except Sonia, who has severe dementia. The five sisters (no brothers) were known in their community, Kostopol, for their intelligence and beauty. I love the quote because it expresses that imperative, that need to write, no matter what, while giving the reason why this need is so great. I so much wanted to share these latest poems with my mother and my aunts, but how? It speaks to me about the cycle of life and how words live on after you’re gone so, in a sense, you live on through your words, and most of my words are about those I’ve loved in my time on earth, the living and the dead.”

Milman is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1949, and immigrated with her family to Boston in 1950. She lived briefly in San Francisco and Paris, but stayed in Montreal, where she arrived in 1975, for 21 years. While living there, she earned a master’s of rehabilitation science from McGill University, and taught occupational therapy for a decade. She came to Victoria in 1996.

“Going backwards, what brought me to Victoria was my husband’s desire to return to B.C.,” said Milman. “We met in Montreal, where we both had lived for over 20 years, but he grew up in Vancouver, and his grandparents were from Victoria – he’s a rarity. Our reasons for leaving Montreal were economic and political. It was a year after the last referendum, and we’d had enough. I never felt fully accepted in Quebec, and really got tired of being identified by the language I spoke and the tribe I came from. My husband couldn’t get a job, even though he’d been the publisher of the Montreal Gazette for nearly a decade (that’s what brought him to Montreal in the first place). Victoria has been a very good move for us – hard to believe it’s already 16 years that we’re here.

“As for what brought me to Montreal and Canada,” continued Milman, “it was meeting another man and falling in love. In 1974, I was on my way to Paris to work in a theatre company, and had just spent the summer at UCLA, in a movement/dance therapy program. I planned a holiday after, and rode the train across Canada from Vancouver, ending up in Montreal. A chance meeting there changed my life. I did go to Paris for the year as I had planned, but chose to move to Canada after that, and marry this man. It was a disastrous marriage, but we had three children, a daughter and, 14 months later, twin sons (one of whom just got married). I met Robert five years after leaving that marriage, and we’ve been together very happily for 23 years.”

In the acknowledgements of Something Small to Carry Home, Milman notes, “Many of these poems were written in retreat with Patrick Lane and the Glenairley poetry community.” To the Independent, she described the poetry world in Victoria as “so rich and very inclusive,” and highlighted her friend, Wendy Morton, “who’s done more for poetry in Canada than any other poet I can think of. She initiated Random Acts of Poetry across Canada [in which Milman has participated], was the Poet of the Skies for WestJet for several years, and now she’s doing incredible work with survivors of residential schools and First Nations students in B.C.

“As for the Jewish community,” added Milman, “I’ve been a member of Congregation Emanu-El since moving here, and I feel a deep connection with the place and the people there. Now, I’m chair of the Jewish Arts Festival 2013, for our big 150th anniversary year.

“Victoria is a relatively small place, so you get to know lots of people in intersecting circles. My work at VEPC [Victoria Epilepsy and Parkinson’s Centre] was a catalyst for meeting many people through the programs and education we offered. I’m also engaged with UVic, through the writing department in the fine arts faculty, where I taught a community-based writing/practicum course recently, and the German and Slavic studies department, where I’m connected with the I-Witness Holocaust Field School program and a couple of professors who teach Holocaust literature. All this focus on writing has taken me away from the visual arts, so now I’m trying to lean back into art-making. I’m very inspired by fibre, textile, paper, prints, collage, photography, mixed media. I’m busier than ever.”

Milman’s firsthand experiences, as a member of the Second Generation and through her work at VEPC – from where she retired in January 2011 – give her a unique perspective, and the poems in Something Small to Carry Home reflect an intimate knowledge of human nature, the importance of family and home, the value of art and beauty in our lives, and how memories can haunt, comfort or evade us. While several of the poems are addressed to specific people, Milman’s father, her mother, “To Emily Golumbia on Becoming a Bat Mitzvah,” “For Elsie on Her 90th Birthday” and “Palindrome for Tante Manya,” for example, her verses speak to a larger audience. The images and moods she creates, and which will stay with readers, are broadly understood, even if they originated from a very personal space.

“The issue of home is central to my identity, and the subject of much of my writing,” shared Milman. “So is the issue of salvaging stories as a way of remembering and honoring those who were lost to me and my family. They couldn’t tell their stories. They were erased from history, and the only way to save them, to give them voice, in my mind, was for me to try to do it for them. That’s why the ‘corpse bride’ fable is so important to me, almost as a defining fable of my life. The corpse bride is comforted by the living bride, who tells her that she will live her life for her.

“I have a phantom/fantasy home in Europe, where I’m very much drawn, while at the same time repelled, and I have different, real homes in North America, but I’ve never been able to develop deep roots. I felt very much American when growing up there, but now I identify as a Canadian, having lived here far longer than I lived in the U.S.

“As a daughter of survivors, my life is defined and described by my parents’ lives, their history,” added Milman. “I’d say that my life struggle has been to create my own life, while respecting theirs. I have tremendous respect for my parents’ accomplishments, but I must separate from their lives and accept that I have my own life, different from theirs. I’ve definitely dealt with survivor guilt, as many of my generation have. I chose a helping profession, again, as many of my generation have, as a means to tikkun olam, a tremendous need to try to contribute to healing and repair. I loved being an occupational therapist, and I loved working in mental health, and I loved teaching. Since retiring, I’ve started a small consulting practice with my sister, who’s a dance therapist: the Milman Sisters Institute. We do creative therapies like writing, art-making, dance, to help people connect with what’s meaningful and purposeful, despite disabilities. I’m writing poetry with a wonderful client who’s in the early stages of dementia. She’s always loved poetry and we’re doing a life review, while she’s still able to, and writing poems. It’s a fantastic experience for both of us.”

One of the striking aspects of Something Small to Carry Home is its wide variety of poetic styles and/or adaptions of styles. In the collection, there is a very moving poem, called “For Paul Celan and My Father: A Sestina,” to which Milman referred in response to a question about the structure of her work and her creative process, bringing this article back to Czernowitz, whose Jewish population was decimated by the Holocaust, and Celan, who committed suicide, in Paris, in 1970.

SSTCH came together in an interesting way,” explained Milman. “I had quite a few poems written over the years that didn’t fit into my first two collections, or were written after, many at my annual poetry retreat with Patrick Lane. Some were ‘occasional’ poems, written for people at special moments in their lives. I had a significant collection of poems about my mother, written at the time of her death.

“When I retired, I pulled out these poems and wondered if there was enough for a new collection that was eclectic in subject and not themed, the way Prairie Kaddish was. I’d learned of Russell Thorburn through poet friends who raved about his editing skills. He takes a macro approach to a manuscript, and looks at threads, colors, images that work together, and fashions a text almost by feel. So, I sent Russell the poems, and he was very elegant in his approach, pulling together poems that worked into groupings or sections, and discarding those that didn’t. He also suggested where the holes were, what needed filling, and thus we worked for close to a year. So, the collection is probably 50/50 old poems and new poems.

“During that time,” she continued, “I taught a writing course at UVic, and one of my students was very keen on rhyming and form poetry, so I leaned into his direction, and found myself writing sonnets and sestinas and palindromes – something I hadn’t done before. It was a wonderful experience, and I find that those form poems are some of the strongest poems in the collection. For example, I wanted to write more about Paul Celan, especially having gone back to Paris in 2010, while working on my memoir of the time I lived there (I’m still working on it). I had a remarkable two-hour meeting with the director of the institute Paul Celan at the Ecole normal superieure, and learned much about Celan that I didn’t know, intimate details of his life, and I read a lot more of Celan’s poetry. It was all a revelation, but I struggled with my poem until I discovered that the sestina form was a perfect container for me. It gave me the boundaries and structure I needed to get the story down. I wrote a stanza a day, over a week, and that was the perfect rhythm. I’m very proud of that poem, because it’s an incantation, an emotional waterfall, where the music in the repetition is as important as the images and scenes.”