When I opened Raine’s submission for review, I had recently read a review of a book by an Oxbridge graduate of Romany descent describing his travels round the country in a caravan, visiting the sites associated with his Romany traveller ancestors. I had also been reading poems by David Morley some of which also concern Romany life and language. As soon as I saw that this collection linked to that reading, I was ‘hooked’.
Raine explains that the title of the collection, ‘Apple Water’ is an old Gypsy term for the county of Herefordshire where her Romany family picked fruit and vegetables – they also completed seasonal work picking hops in Kent. This slim volume of poems and short prose pieces is the poet’s testament to her family history, and a record of a disappearing way of life.
Many of the poems have been inspired by actual events, often giving details of how the family lived and what they did to earn money. This can perhaps be best seen in the poem ‘To be a Romany’:
Let me tell yer what it was like to be a Romany in the old days.
We lived in vardo’s, made love and fought in ‘em.
We picked ‘ops, fruit and veg until our backs were sore.
We made pegs and sold ‘em along the drom.
Then there were the gillies we sang until our voices were ‘oarse.
The boards we laid down in the beer shop so we could step dance.
The ‘erbs we picked to mend our body and spirit.
The drabo’s passed down.
Tea leaves left in a cup to read.
Cards spread on the table awaiting the dukkerer.
Chavies brought up to rokker the Romani.
We ‘elped each other out no matter what.
We cooked on the yog, rabbit stew, hotchiwitchi and Joey Grey.
When one of ours died, we’d sit up all night.
We’d drink mesci or whiskey, sing some of the old songs,
the next day the vardo’s and covels were burnt.
There was tottin’, raggin’, sellin’ the loolladi.
We worshipped the ground that we walked on,
the fresh air, green spaces, the lungo drom,
meetin’ up with friends, getting’ the grai ready for travelling
and finding the next atchin tan.
All this and more.
I’ll tell you what it was like to be a Romany in the old days.
It was bloody kushti.
Raine uses Romani language (jib) here but she also provides a helpful glossary at the foot of the page to explain these unfamiliar words to the reader:
Vardo’s – wagons; Drom – road; Gillies – songs; Drabo’s – spells and potions; Dukkerer – fortune teller; Chavies – children; Rokker – speak; Yog – fire; Hotchiwitchi – hedgehog; Mesci – tea; Covels – belongings; Gorgio – non Romany; Kushti – good; Totting – dealing in junk/scrap; Ragging – selling old clothes; Loolladi – flowers; The Lungo drom – the long road; Grai – horses; Atchin tan – stopping place.
She continues to provide these helpful glossaries throughout the collection. I found them fascinating, and I appreciated the way that they had been added at the bottom of the relevant page rather than in notes at the end of the book.
Other poems provide personal stories from the poet’s family history, introducing the reader to ‘me mum’ and ‘me dad’; we learn that ‘dad’ does not approve of ‘royal town’ and that he ‘wouldn’t go there, not if yer paid ‘im’; we are told of other family members such as ‘cousin Louie, she’s a didikai/ and goes to school in London’. ‘Aunt Ria’ sleeps with her gold sovereigns, her chains, bracelets and rings in an embroidered bag under her mattress, ‘as the gold warms itself/longing for her soft skin/and light.’ The poet paints pictures of the women, including the mother, describing her clothes ‘her old red apron,/with the Spanish dancer on the front’, her hair-styles ‘her bal in plaits’, and her jewellery ‘her gold hoops’. We learn that ‘dad’ has a ‘gold tooth’, and see their relationship:
At the end of a long day
She would stand on top of an apple crate,
Comb his hair, kiss his neck tasting of salt.
He would pick her up,
Swing her high, low
These snapshots in words are illustrated by black and white family photographs, giving the reader further insights into the way of life, and reinforcing the sense of the characters as real men and women. There are recipes in the mix, as in ‘Hotchiwitchi’ which tells how to cook a hedgehog, and there are anecdotes about family members, as in ‘In the Back Yard at Winslow Way’.
As the poems build up, the Romany words and ‘found’ words which the poet has used to add authenticity to her portrayal of the life of the Travelling people and help to bring the characters to life for the reader begin to have another effect – the sounds of these unfamiliar words at times seem incantatory, almost magical, probably because of their alliterative or onomatopoeic sounds. Raine says she has ‘woven’ this language into the collection not only ‘to honour these folk but to create new and innovative forms of poetry, combining both the old and new’.
A slim volume this might be, but it has earned well-deserved praise in a number of reviews.
‘The old language in a modern contemporary voice. I loved the poems.’ Frances Reilly, Welsh Romani Poet and Filmmaker.
‘These poems transport the soul to a vivid place, a real time.’ Lillian Howan, author of ‘The Charm Buyers.’
‘Raine Geoghegan catches the spirit of things; she is a poet who is deeply attuned to the voices of both past and present.’ James Simpson, Poet, Jerwood/Arvon award winner with two poetry collections, Hunting the Wren and The Untenanted Room.