by A. M. Klein, edited by Gary Geddes
HeirloomA. M. Klein is a writer of culture, of collectivity, and of memory. In the poem above, Klein writes of heritage and of the paradox of connection between generations. He refers to common Jewish experience, referring to his lack of wide estates (the barring of Jews in Europe from land ownership), the importance of the learned tradition in Judaism, and the importance of the connection to his past. In "Heirloom," Klein is celebrating his faith and his family. The family Torah becomes his sacred ground; he is proud of his Jewish identity and celebrates his connection to his "noble lineage, his proud ancestry." Likewise, in his "Autobiographical" poem, he is conscious of the memory of tragedy in the collective sense of his people, and seeks to repossess and reappropriate a former term of abuse ("Jewboy") to make it instead a source of power and individual identification.
My father bequeathed me no wide estates;
No keys and ledgers were my heritage;
Only some holy books with yahrzeit dates
Writ mournfully upon a blank front page -
Books of the Baal Shem Tov, and of his wonders;
Pamphlets upon the devil and his crew;
Prayers against road demons, witches, thunders;
And sundry other tomes for a good Jew.
Beautiful: though no pictures on them, save
The scorpion crawling on a printed track;
The Virgin floating on a scriptural wave,
Square letters twinkling in the Zodiac.
The snuff left on this page, now brown and old,
The tallow stains of midnight liturgy -
These are my coat of arms, and these unfold
My noble lineage, my proud ancestry!
And my tears, too, have stained this heirloomed ground,
When reading in these treatises some weird
Miracle, I turned a leaf and found
A white hair fallen from my father's beard.
Klein also found community within the French Canadian tradition. He feels a connection to the Catholic nuns who nursed him through childhood illnesses in "For the Sisters of the Hotel Dieu," wherein he looks for memory outside his own tradition and connects compassionately with people. Medical care crosses the barriers of faith and allows for a more cosmopolitan view of social issues. In "Political Meeting," however, Klein begins to point out some of the problems with Quebecois society. The dependence upon religion he begins to see as a spectral and oppressive force over the people. Klein also sees French Nationalism as problematic in the post-WWII era; the thronging crowds emerge like those of Nazi Germany, and the focus of the poem is the scapegoating of groups like the Jews in Montreal as the source of all problems for Quebecois people. The meeting is an anti-conscription meeting, and the images of encroaching Nazism are cleverly juxtaposed against the people who don't want to go to war to fight against it. Klein suggests, as Gustafson did before him, that to deny the existence of horror is to partake in it. There is no individuality and no responsibility within the nationalist groups, and iin the last lines Klein reminds us of the roots of racism and anti-semitism in Quebec:
The whole street wears one face,But Klein didn't hate Quebec; in "Montreal," we see him relish in the cosmopolitan nature of the meeting of cultures in the city; he sees himself as shaped by the city and seems to embrace the history of the place. He is ever aware that all the landholders are immigrants, and mentions aboriginal history as still present and alive to remind the reader of that fact. Klein refers to his place in Montreal as a "seignory," not only a reminder of French history but a commentary on his own appreciation for the place; again, his ancestors could not own land in Europe, so to be able to hold land is a reminder of the possibility and opportunity of Canada.
shadowed and grim; and in the darkness rises
the body-odor of race.