Nora Krouk’s work draws from a distinctive
cultural background with a wry, ironic tone. She writes about people
who have lived through many of the horrors of the twentieth century – the
Holocaust, Stalinist persecutions, and suicide bombings. Her poems also,
however, celebrate the survivors, those for whom a new hat or dress is
more important than politics. And above all they celebrate life, the
power of love and the joy of poetry.
– Elizabeth Webby, University of Sydney
With great sensitivity and compassion Nora Krouk faces and speaks of the personal demons of her Russian-Jewish background. Meeting evil and the moral dilemmas of action in times of violence and persecution, Krouk maintains a clear humane gaze. There is much understatement and delicacy in this book which makes us realise that every history is always also a private history and family history. To read this finely written collection of poems is both to become morally involved with the world and to experience the high price of witnessing:
She wipes the table
rubs over the sticky stains
watches his face shut tight:
listening to the pain.
– Peter Boyle
Nora Krouk’s poetry book Skin for Comfort was winner of the Interactive Press Picks for 2004. Given Krouk’s Russian-Jewish background, the title is especially poignant. Her private and family history, as revealed through the poems, is representative of a wide sweep of twentieth century inhumanity, including the Holocaust and Stalinist persecutions. Links are made to modern-day atrocities with chilling effect:
Consider the Gulf
had Hitler won
they would be pushing
the Auschwitz ashes
Had Stalin lived
into another decade,
annihilation of the cosmopolites
would have succeeded.
Had the Pacific War
of Harbin camps
would have been rewarded,
but Hiroshima happened,
— an overwhelming sense
of collective guilt.
Guilt flourishes in the paddy fields
of our hearts - the ride.
Peace and atonement. Now,
at any price.
Consider the Gulf…
Simply to consider, and perhaps reassess is what Skin for Comfort asks us to do. In “Yesterday” the past is relived:
This time we have called
They publish books with the victims’ names
They’re still on “B”
although we are told
in two days they will find Father
Efim and I dream collective dreams
He saves his Father Stops them in time
They’re still in China He wakes with a smile
— not all is lost;
But I descend to the permafrost of the frozen bones
the mincer grinds
step back over the blood-sticky floor
to the edge of the walls’ congealed terror
back to the improbable signed confessions
back to the USSR ’37.
As Krouk says in the poem “You Cannot Grieve”, ‘pain has so many faces.’
Section 3, “So Now What We Are”, allows us to enter the poet’s modern-day world with its tribulations and specific griefs, conveyed with humour and wry irony. Infidelities are revealed, and in “Done the ‘Obscene’ Thing: Aged” skin becomes a disappointment. The following poem is emblematic:
In the Night As a Switched-Off Heater
still ticks, clocks are stilled
and the bedroom air gathers momentum
poetry without words moves invisible waves
washes over the shoals, over
the stranded boats, over regrets and hopes
going nowhere Poetry or distress?
Grief or a heart condition?
Stumbling rendition of Chopin’s rain
interpretation of shadows that last X-ray:
heart calcified though the blood still simmers.
This also demonstrates a favourite technique of Krouk’s, to have the title as the first line of the poem, allowing an enjambment, a flow-on effect. The spoken voice is omnipresent and the reader gains a strong sense of the poet. In “My Friend Valery”, her disjunctive style is delightfully summed up and exemplified:
I send my friend some poems
from Sydney. Usually Russian,
but lately English. My new creations
depend on space:
space between words,
to define a place
space between objects
or you and I…
I’ve sent off poems
and — presto — reply:
What’s all this??
The stammering lines,
pouring wild waterfalls,
piles of loose words…
stopping just there…
slicing right through,
telling the reader
what to do…?
In Spanish they use
exclamation and question marks
TWICE: in front and at the
end of the sentence.
?And so what are these: ???
First you abandon the rhyme
and now punctuation!
What’s to become of you?
Commas, commas, where are
Links are established in this collection. Poems call to and recall each other across time and distance. “Christmas ’47” brings good memories, harks back to “N’aimez Que Moi. No River is Safe…” is more sombre, reminding us that ‘History pulls no punches’:
No river is safe, yet my Father said
don’t panic and you will not drown.
He trusted the buoyancy of water,
that amniotic fluid of life.
He trusted life, after rape and loss,
after the firing squads of his youth,
he knows some eternal truths. I reach
for him, but he pales and fades into
that haze where the rivers flow.
The postscript to “Family Tree” encapsulates the attitudes of an older generation:
A family tree?
We burn all timber
for heating. It
saved our lives.
These are survivors. What, then, is their skin for comfort? It beings in the poem “She Touches Luminous Wood” (‘Now they know/ - touching saves babies’ lives/ This - skin to skin’), reaches its culmination in the poem that gives the book its title.
from Skin for Comfort
She says: They’re sending me
Russian books and reviews of biographies.
Published in the U.S. and France. Now.
Revolution happened three generations
ago, but there’s renewed weeping -
‘Russia…Rossiyia…’ And it gets to me.
Poets, who took their country into exile.
Exiles, whose luggage was Russia.
She says: ‘I, too, once wept over
a world I had never known…’
New migrants are trying Australian
skin for comfort. She is Australian.
Sorting herself out.
This is a compelling and important book. While not denying memories of a harrowing and soul-destroying past, it celebrates attention to life, to family and friendships, to the resurgent spirit of joy:
from Bar Mitzvah, 22 February 1997
I say let boys bar mitzvah, mothers wear hats
even as Deng’s ashes are scattered
— Margaret Bradstock, Five Bells
This haunting poetry collection has six chapters entitled
The Plot Fails; You Cannot Grieve; So
Now What We Are; Leo; The Smoke Grass;
and Memoir—all reflecting Nora Krouk’s own emotional journey.
As a Jewish person brought up in northern China with strong Russian influences, the author is understandably concerned with the Russian persecution of Jews.
Her poems reflect the broader issues but come back again and again to her own family tragedies with a haunting sensitivity. Her poems have an easy narrative style taking us deep into her world and under her skin.
Skin for Comfort is set in wartime Russia, the Middle East and modern Australia and so will appeal to readers interested in these geographical, historical and cultural contexts. However Nora’s poetry is also very personal and accessible to all readers seeking emotional depth.
Nora Krouk’s mastery of the English
language is reflected in the flawless construction of her poetry. She is
fluent in German, French, Spanish, Russian and English and seems to switch
effortlessly from one language to another. For instance, Nora has worked
as a Russian language journalist in Shanghai and also as an English language
journalist in Hong Kong!
In 1993 her poetry entry won the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Jean Stone Award. Nora lives in Sydney and her family includes two sons (one now deceased), three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.