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Imperfect Elegy for Mary Richardson

by James Graham 

Posted: 13 September 2008
Word Count: 467
Summary: From my recent visit to Jersey. I wanted to put the whole story into the poem , not into footnotes or explanations. Is it clear? Do you get the whole picture?

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Imperfect Elegy for Mary Richardson

We do not know exactly what she did. A Jewish woman,
Mary Richardson: she did not let the Jersey Field Command
deport her to be gassed. The Wannsee resolutions
did not apply to her. She must have been inspired, and had
remarkable wits about her, and a great composure. She must
have played the Taj Mahal of tricks. She ought to be as famous
as Napoleon. But we do not know. Here’s what we know.

Faced with the fascist need to write in pen and ink
the name, eye-colour, birthmarks and number of nose-hairs
of all the living, and the dead, and the soon to die,
she gave a false name and a false place of birth.
From Erica Richardson, née Olvenich, born Amsterdam,
she changed in a simple, admirable lie, to Christian Mary.
Mary Richardson, née Algernon, born New Amsterdam.

But some Nazi with an expert eye, like a bird-spotter,
thought she looked Jewish; did a bit of sleuthing.
Arrested, she was taken home to pack for shipping
to ‘a nice, respectable camp’, as the officer said.

But her greatest deed, her best ruse, is lost to us.
We know as much about it as we know about
the life and exploits of some Stone Age hunter. We know,
of course, about Hitler’s diet and the wacky pills he had
from Theodor Morell, and the tedious harangues he gave
to yawning groupies through the Berchtesgaden nights.

But as for Mary Richardson, who scored
one point against him, this

is what we know:

‘She managed to
divert the attention of
her German guards’

and escaped to the house of Albert Bedane, who had a cellar,
and he kept her safe until the end of the Hitler war.

‘There’s no record’, said the man at the Heritage Trust
(Research Department), ‘of what she actually said or did to make
the Germans look away, or move away, for long enough that when
they finally returned, or turned around, she had gone - escaped
completely.’ ‘Oh look,’ did she say? ‘There’s a sea-eagle’.
‘I have to change my clothes,’ did she say? ‘Do you mind?’

‘She managed to
divert the attention of
her German guards’

- better a blank page than this, better a silence. Words
should open dark curtains, not close them. Here’s
a great old story: not ‘Heracles sliced each Hydra head
then singed each severed neck with a burning brand
so another bunch of heads would not grow back’,
but merely: ‘Heracles managed to kill the Hydra’.

Stare all you like at the close-mouthed or deaf page
of the ‘most authoritative history of the Jews in Jersey’,
it will not tell. It seems she did not tell. ‘It was nothing,’
did she say in later years? ‘It was really nothing at all.’

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Comments by other Members

FelixBenson at 18:59 on 13 September 2008  Report this post
Hi James

I like this - and I think I understand the story of Mary just from the poem. Here she was confounding the guards not once but twice, but for us (in the face of all those records and ridiculos Nazi cataloguing of details) to have no insight into what she actually did to get away - how she managed that amazing feat...incredible. And there is this idea that the wrong people are remembered and known about, and these ordinary amazing heroes can be left in a footnote, not fully explained. It is hard not to run over and over how she did it and try and find the answer!

This line is great:
should open dark curtains, not close them.


V`yonne at 21:15 on 13 September 2008  Report this post
What a tale! Never heard of her. All the unsung should be heard of.

Florence at 14:06 on 15 September 2008  Report this post
I wonder if anyone bothered to ask her wile she was alive - 'how?' would seen like such an obvious question. How frustrating, perhaps her children know. Or perhaps it was something she simply didn't want to talk about - some people do not want to be heroes or be remembered but just live normal lives.

DJC at 10:24 on 05 October 2008  Report this post
James - it's great to be reading your poetry again, as it has a straightforwardness which is just so refreshing. I like the way it reads almost like prose until the penultimate stanza, which ties the dominant theme of the poem together. Words /
should open dark curtains, not close them
is very beautiful, and true - and appropriate for a poem in which it is language which at first tries to hide her truth, and then ultimately, as we do not have her words, her story, hides the full truth from us. If I had one suggestion, it might be to bring out the idea of language more clearly earlier in the poem. Not sure how to do this, but it would tie the opening and ending of the poem, which I think is important when looking at a longer poem of this nature. The opening line gies us this hint, but I think it could be developed further.

James Graham at 16:04 on 05 October 2008  Report this post
Thanks, Darren. I'll think about how to introduce the idea of language earlier, as this is what the poem is about as much as anything. And it does read like prose in many places - what preoccupied me in writing it was to make the facts and story clear within the poem and avoid having to tag on a paragraph of explanation. When I do this it tends to 'flatten' parts of the poem, making it read more like a prose article. It's something I'm working on.


purpletandem at 11:01 on 22 November 2008  Report this post
I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to adopt a style that is reminiscent of prose. I found it an unusual and arresting feature of the poem and I thought it suited the subject matter, though of course it wouldn't work for everything. If writing in this style, the trick, I guess, is to keep it consistent throughout, or to move gradually (or suddenly?) to a more lyrical style.


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