Poetry Shelf review: Tim Grgec’s All Tito’s Children

All Tito’s Children, Tim Grgec, Victoria University Press, 2021

i.    History has never been an exact science. It is simply an
       emphasis of fact: figures moving in and out of view with
       a preoccupied smoothness, the way dates and events go
       missing like memories treading just above the surface.
ii.    One cannot be certain of anything except for what one
       sees with one’s own eyes. 

 

from ‘The Company We Keep’

In the 1970s I had a friend whose parents fled Hungary two decades earlier. I was studying history at secondary school, but standing in a basement with hanging salamis, bottles of moonshine, and the mother who had never become fluent in English, made history more real than any school lesson. I was standing in a recreated Hungarian pocket, and it was far more moving than history lessons on the unification of Italy or the Austria-Hungarian Empire. In my awkward teens I discovered that history is more than facts and figures, warped universalisations, crippling hierarchies and even more crippling erasures. History is the braided story of individuals, of daily lives, as much as it is the story of despots, political boundaries, the visible privileged.

When I lived in London in the 1980s, the African National Congress, Amnesty International, and the Women’s Rights Movements, got me reassessing the word freedom. In 2021 it seems just as important because people are still fleeing oppressive regimes, are still imprisoned for impossible-to-discern crimes, are still fighting for freedom from domestic abuse. And yes, the concept of personal freedom is a minefield because, within the bounds of freedom, there are things we ought not do and there are things we should do.

Tim Grgec’s stunning debut collection All Tito’s Children returned me to the Hungarian basement of my teenage years and to questions of freedom.

I am haunted by this remarkable book, by this poetry that is quiet, thoughtful, essential. The poems shift between the point-of-view of Elizabeta and Stjepan, two siblings from Kotoriba, a small Yugoslavian village. Their country is under the communist leadership of Josip Broz Tito, and his voice is a chilling presence. The siblings play a game of truth and lies (guess which statement is the lie) as the country itself grapples with an unreliable leader. Spot the truth, discern the lies. There is nearby conflict, unrest, farmers hiding crops, there is daily life going on. There is daily life going on. Who is Tito? Who is the person? There is mounting dissatisfaction and the seeds of doubt.

The collection has its genesis in autobiography: Tim’s grandparents fled from Yugoslavia to Aotearoa as refugees in the 1950s. He has read and researched, and he has the family stories passed down. The poetry is strengthened by the marriage of piquant detail and pulsating gap. We don’t know everything. We are drawn to the physical (the mechanical broadcasts, the rows of crops under the heat of the sun). The muted questions and covert gestures of dissidence. How this book haunts. How this book haunts when people are still oppressed, still need to care for families, plant crops, write and speak.

This is what struck: the land is a constant. Contested yes, stolen yes, and where we stand yes; in our imaginations, in our bones and hearts, across generations. Our now endangered skies, sea, terra firma, have been a constant over centuries of change and conflict and exile. I don’t quite know how to articulate this but the word ‘wonder’ keeps arising. Questions and awe. Questions and awe. In this sequence of haunting dislocation that compels some people to leave as refugees, there are exquisite flashes of wonder. Where the power and the beauty of the land, that beloved homeland, transcend everything. Just for a moment, and in that contemplative brilliance, there resides fleeting hope. Tim’s ability to craft a line with such simplicity, such fluency, beams at you, amplifies the effect of wonder as you read. How I love this book. How this is such a perfect book to read in our own uneven times, where everything comes into question, where freedom is a tested concept, where we need to do better caring for the dispossessed. I hold this book to my heart knowing the best way to seduce you is with Tim’s words, not mine.

An old woman washing clothes on the Mura:
Why would you question that? she asks.
She knows everything about the flat rocks at the river’s edge,
the washed sky, at first foggy then red—the sun slipping
through its own lining. I watch her every movement,
rinsing and wringing, rinsing again. If I look away
I won’t have to imagine who will wear them—
the same family story—
or if she is retrieving
the stray handkerchief floating downstream,
set free from its basket
               like a piece of torn cloud.

 

from ‘Elizabeta’s Tiny Seeds’

 

Tim Grgec has master’s degrees in English literature and creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington, where he was the 2018 recipient of the Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. His work has appeared in Landfall, The Spinoff, NZ Books, Mimicry, Sweet Mammalian, Turbine and Starling. All Tito’s Children is his first book.

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf: Tim reads from All Tito’s Children

interview with Lynn Freeman, Standing Room Only, RNZ National

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