The poems of A. C. Jacobs have a steady pulse of displacement and exile, however responsively he locates himself at different points on what he himself described as his “sequences of journeys”. Arthur Jacobs was born in 1937 in Glasgow and grew up there and in London. His parents were Orthodox Jews from Lithuania. In his twenties he spent some years in Israel, and thereafter continued to be on the move – England, Scotland, Italy, Spain – always carrying with him his sense of dislocation and his felt knowledge of the burdens of the past.
The year and place of his birth are imprinted in his writing: 1937, the year before Kristallnacht; Glasgow, where there was a vibrant Jewish community embedded in a once thriving industrial city. “I was born in a strange land”, he writes in “Alien Poem”, and describes how he feels alienated not just from his place of birth but also from the land of his parents, “other towns with trams and trees and silence”, not forgotten but not spoken of. He concludes that “strangers never grow into cities”, and also that the next generation bears the weight of a past they cannot fully access. These motifs underlie much of his writing, alongside a sympathetic, sometimes joyful, appreciation of difference.
Jacobs’ poetry is little known. He is, disappointingly, not listed in the Scottish Poetry Library’s extensive roll call of Scottish poets. Two years after his death in 1994, Anthony Rudolph’s Menard Press published a volume of collected poems and translations, but this new selection, with its stated intent of reaching a wider audience, is much to be welcomed.
These are poems that speak with directness and integrity not just of and to Jewish experience but with an understanding of exile and disconnection that will resonate with all dispersed people. But there is much more than disconnection. There is the migrant’s ability to re-invent, to span gulfs of geography and culture. The delightfully cryptic little poem “Place” sums this up:
‘Where do you come from?’
‘Where the heck’s that?’
‘A bit east of the Gorbals,
In and round the heart.’
Jacobs seems to carry with him not only all the places he has been, but also all the unseen places that have made him who he is – integration without losing the distinctiveness of separation. These multiple identities contribute greatly to the pleasure of reading his poetry. They feed his ability to link the disparate and the contradictory, as he celebrates, for example, the light and gentleness of an English spring while reminding us of “the cold diasporas / That England hardly mentions” (“N.W.2: Spring”). Or recoiling from guns on a café table in Israel, a country where guns are not “the apparatus of pageantry, / But carried to use at the sudden edge”, he reflects that “Where I was born, in that careful island, / A gun was never a thing you could meet.”
In the collection’s final section, “Place”, the country of his birth is strongly present, and it is language that confirms Jacobs’ fluid identities, his affinity with the woman who speaks a blend of Yiddish and Scots (“Dear Mr Leonard”) or with the islands drifting into “the Gaelic West” where traditional culture is almost “rubbed out” (“From Oban…”).
Jacobs was a skilled translator, particularly from Hebrew. His sensitivity to language is unassumingly precise and delicate, an expressive invitation to share in experience that is personal and particular at the same time as speaking for all who have known exile. He should be required reading for those who try to insist that migration should mean the abandonment of other places, other lives.