Bobish by Magdalena Ball

Bobish, a biography of the author’s grandmother in verse.


Published by Puncher & Wattmann
Paperback, 154 pages
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1922571601

Though she was only fourteen years old, like many other Jews in Eastern Europe’s Pale of Settlement in 1907, Rebecca Lieberman gathered her few belongings and left for the United States. What follows is a unique and poetic story of history, war, mysticism, music, abuse, survival and transcendence against the backdrop of New York City in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.

A poetic biography based on Magdalena Ball’s grandmother, Rebecca Lieberman, who at 14 left Eastern Europe in the early 1900s to make a life in the United States. There are many resonances for me in this beautiful yet in many ways tragic work. Although most of my ancestors in the last two centuries were not Jewish, they suffered deprivations not normally witnessed in Literature nor in other media. My father, the eldest of eleven children, was incarcerated in the Stratford-upon-Avon workhouse. A town mostly known for the home of Shakespeare but filled with foreboding for many poverty-stricken families in the 1920s. My grandfather was wounded at the Khyber Pass and found it difficult to hold down regular work with a bullet lodged in his head. I really ought to take a leaf out of Magdalena Ball’s marvellous tome and gather my family’s memories and experiences before it is too late.

Wow, even the first verse, A Voice to Shatter Glass, carries my grandmother’s gift of tealeaf reading. ‘her future in tannin dreams’. With my ear to the table I too can pick up the vibrations of history and quasi predictions.

Like my father ‘…if they remember / they don’t want to talk.’

‘the doppler as they moved closer / sound increasing in pitch / like a freight train of atrocities…’

Such a wonderful prosody of verse conveying tragedy in a beautiful way. Magdalena is such an expert at the juxtaposition of sadness with hope, terror with exquisiteness.

For Rebecca – Becky – Bobish migration to the US was a fearsome, lonely (even surrounded by similar migrants) journey with a promised yet largely unknown, butterfly-stomach destination and her past versed beautifully here: ‘In the meantime, memory was Prussian Blue / a cyanotype carried like ghostly love.’

Bobish worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the early 1900s where her migrant workmates burnt to death in the 1911 fire, but she was luckily absent. Yet ‘he (her boyfriend) cannot repair’ ‘the cracks that have opened beneath her skin’. I don’t know how long, if ever, your mind can cope with loss after such a thing.  My grandmother sold her knitting to posh shops in Cheltenham to buy her family out of the workhouse. These mirrors, while cracked, increase the equivalence for me in this work.

‘Every Poem is a lie’ is my favourite if I was pressed at knitting needle point to name one. ‘Where it hurts is the point of entry, a wormhole. / There is no such thing as time. We talk of passing, / cause and effect, tag something as a beginning, arbitrarily’. So deep. And in the same poem: Bobish, a seamstress, he a fish smoker. An unlikely pairing but isn’t that often the way? ‘Low Chroma (Coney Island 1946’ would be an equal favourite if I were allowed such. Wonderful quantum imagery and I too have fooled around with ‘if humans could photosynthesise’.

This review does little justice to the riches in this work from snoring dogs, to making verse from diabetes and wandering eyes (in more ways than one.) ‘You can never go back’ and yet in a literary sense Bobish has gone back, to and fro, immortalised.

While I am to poetry as a boulder is to an eagle, I am enjoying this versed biography and know I will re-read it many times. To return to resonances, many of my Nelder ancestors migrated from Cornwall because of the terror of poverty and fearsome landowners to settle in the Americas. Thank you, Magdalena Ball, for creating this act of love from the historical bare bones of human tragedy.


Author’s blog page on Bobish

New book! Bobish | Magdalena Ball

Amazon UK link



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