Timepiece

Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan, Faber 2018

Hannah Sullivan’s T. S. Eliot prize-winning debut collection comprises three long-form poems: You, Very Young in New York; Repeat Until Time, and The Sandpit After Rain. Her ambition in the age of the 9-second attention span is commendable. Likewise the confidence to allow the long lines of these poems their elbow room.

She says her aim with You, Very Young in New York ‘wasn’t to write a “poem” but a kind of essay in verse.’ Yet there’s plentiful poetic form on display, shape-shifting between terza rima and rhyming couplets amongst others.

She addresses her younger self in an unflinching, documentary style, capturing a particular, privileged, young life, oblivious to the luxury of ‘waiting to get older’, the impatience for things to ‘happen’ even in the expected excitement of New York.

Nothing happens. You try without success
The usual prescriptions, the usual assays on innocence.
I love you to the wrong person, I feel depressed,

… But the senses, laxly fed, are self-replenishing,
Fresh as the first time, so even the eventual

Sameness has a savour for you. Even the sting
When someone flinches at I love you
Is not unwelcome, like the ulcer on your tongue

Her self-exposure can make for uncomfortable reading. At times it resembles the kind of thing teenaged girls are warned against posting on social media, for fear it will show up years later and scupper their careers:

You are thinking of masturbating but the vibrator’s batteries are low
And the plasticine-pink stick rotates leisurely in your palm

There is a whiff of ‘too cool for school’, a passive-aggressive showing-off, which may indeed be the preserve of a privileged twenty-something:

Your psychiatrist said it would help your productivity,
But it feels like drawn-out sex on coke, like something dirty.

When she stands outside herself and considers the world of which she is a part/apart, this brittleness comes into its own and flowers into beauty:

Overripe in September they need to rest in the icebox, sitting with their bruises.
All summer you have been dreaming of Fall and its brittle confection of branches.

From peaches to novelists in Starbucks

Picking like pigeons at the tail of the morning croissant,

Shifts in tone accompany shifts in form, turning deftly from the wryly pertinent description of an ex-lover’s foreplay as ‘like someone testing the grass for a picnic’ to the bluntness of ‘trying out the bad banana taste of Durex on your tongue’.

Likewise from the height of self-absorption to what is surely a riff on T. S. Eliot’s ‘April is the cruellest month’:

Now plans have changed, it is April, and the first hot day of the year
Has exploded from nowhere. Skin is as profuse and white as funeral flowers.

Subtitled The Heraclitus Poem, Sullivan calls Repeat Until Time ‘an essay on repetition and history’. It is still personal, but there is a shift towards the philosophical. This is the hinge of the book. The theme, the familiar idea that one never steps twice in the same river, is addressed head-on in the opening lines:

1.1
The picked mosquito bites scab over, resin sap.
The bites are as itchy as ever, and the anaesthetic river
Still concentrates its cold, but the ankles are different this summer,
Less lean, veinier, slower in the river.

The poem includes within its scope pollarded trees, cats auditioning for a movie based on Poe, Henry James at the start of WW1, theories of the nature of the universe, the first atomic detonation … a potentially huge territory, but it is grounded in the particulars of the everyday:

2.1
Days may be where we live, but mornings are eternity.
They wake us, and every day waking is absurdity;
All the things you just did yesterday to do over again, eternally.

But, forever fumbling for the snooze button, the gym is there
Forever, and the teeth silt over yellow to be flossed, and there
Will be, in eternity, coffee to be brewed…

It is also the most poetically self-referential of the three poems:

3.3

Some words have also lost their pairs:
Some rhymes are only painful memories,
Recycled like family sagas at Christmas, cliches.
The almost-instincts of minor poets.

3.31
What will survive of us?
Larkin thought the answer might be ‘love’,
but couldn’t prove it.

There are intriguing ideas to consider:

1.2
When things are patternless, their fascination’s stronger.
Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer.

With the suggestion that it is this, its limitations, that lies at the heart of linguistic compulsion:

4.2

Language with its simple action words, verbs:

Language with its ‘past’ and ‘future’ and ‘present’,
Pointing to what it doesn’t know, I love you, now, babbling of unicorns.

Meanwhile (in the shadow of the detonation of the first atomic bomb)

4.4

Now nothing will ever be the same again.
And everything will be as it always was.


Historic moments are as tiresome as first nights,
All lines to fluff, after being cooped up,
The meaning eroded by gabbling in rehearsal.

Contemplating the birth of her child and the death of her father, The Sandpit After Rain is the most personal of the poems. It is arguably the most accessible but not for that reason so much as for the clarity of its compelling imagery:

how the foetus lolls in the womb
swelling like a wine cork left out on the counter

how he wasn’t himself
why the new waxwork lolls in the bed,
the colour of A4 rubbed with Nescafe,
the distressed colour of fake parchment;
blank, dismayed, the worn-off face
of a cloth doll a girl is bored by

Here is the realisation that ‘birth and death happen on adjacent wards’, no respecters of our notions of proper sequence, ‘that both are labour, halting and starting’.

Three Poems covers a lot of ground from ‘belly of the beast’ autobiography from the perspectives of both a young self-involved woman to a more mature one whose experience and identity is inevitably bound up with others: the loss of a father, the birth of a child. The philosophical breathing space of Repeat Until Time acts as a bridge between the two, leading to the book’s closing lines (surely with a further echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets):

A mother and the child you were.
You have been among the living twice,
And loved both times.
You have fallen in the lurid air.

There is a sense of constant movement in terms of both restless formal variation and subject, and the seeking of an ongoing forward momentum with the acknowledgement that such is largely illusory. It is a book I admire rather than love (one for the head rather than the heart, perhaps) though it repays re-reading and thinking about as there is indeed much to appreciate.

Afterword
I regret to take issue with the cover blurb’s assertion that Three Poems offers the ‘unique perspective of a brilliant, new female voice’. If Sullivan’s perspective is unique, why is it immediately generalised (and simultaneously limited) to ‘female’? Can a woman who writes not simply be called ‘writer’ or ‘poet’? It is an unfair burden of responsibility to place upon her: the implied assumption that for a woman to write is to represent all women and not only herself.

A Heaviness Inside Each Feather

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald
Jonathan Cape 2016

T S Eliot Prize shortlisted
Costa Poetry Award 2016

Backlist reader that I am, over the past year or so Alice Oswald has become my favourite contemporary poet. I appreciate never knowing where she will lead me in a poem whilst trusting that something astonishing will be revealed which will raise questions that refuse an easy answer. She is erudite and intelligent, with an instinctive eye for the visionary within the ordinary, especially with regards to the natural world and our relationship with it.

My willingness to trust her comes from a sense of her poetic integrity, the feeling that she herself is discovering the poem as she writes it: I don’t imagine her composing a killer last line and reverse-engineering the poem in order to get there. This focus on process rather than destination results in a sense of continual unfolding/enfolding. Her subject becomes the inevitable changing of mortal forms when acted upon by time, within time.

She herself has said (in BBC Radio 4’s Book Club programme) that a poem on the page is like a musical score: it is a description of a performance, with the words being punctuation for the silence (paraphrasing T S Eliot) which contributes as much as the words do. The book’s final poem, ‘Tithonus: 46 Minutes in the Life of the Dawn’, is a performance piece beginning in darkness (represented in the book by a black page). Immortal but without eternal youth, his is a voice without end: like the dawn it is constantly beginning and is gone without ever quite happening ‘but is always almost’.

The ten rhyming couplets of the opening poem, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, echo Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (‘To see a world in a grain of sand/ and heaven in a wild flower’) in their apparently simple musicality:

It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

Nothing is still. All is in constant motion and transformation:

It is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

as we move from the natural world to the human realm:

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

and back to the natural world to close:

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again.

This sense of movement/momentum prevails throughout the book: the focus is (paradoxically) fixed upon the process of becoming, rather than upon states of being. In ‘Swan’, a rotting swan lifts ‘from the plane-crash mess of her wings’ to see

how thickly the symmetrical quill points
were threaded in backwards through the leather underdress
of the heart saying…

what a waste of detail
what a heaviness inside each feather

The swan imagines herself as a bride, recalling Mary Oliver’s ‘all my life / I was a bride married to amazement’ (‘When Death Comes’).

The other side of amazement is a bewilderment that results in a fractured or dislocated articulation. Orpheus (‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’) and Tithonus are compelled to speak without ever getting out what they mean. Orpheus’ sense of self is eroding as he floats along (‘the water drinks my mind’) while in ‘Flies’

This is the day the flies fall awake mid-sentence
and lie stunned on the window sill shaking with speeches
only it isn’t speech it is trembling sections of puzzlement

Just as we are standing off at a safe distance, ‘they’ shifts without warning to ‘we’:

there is such a horrible trapped buzzing wherever we fly
it’s going to be impossible to think clearly now until next winter.

It’s intriguing. The flies evidently lack the benefit of the page’s white space, its silence. And yet there is an immediacy here: not ‘thoughts about’ something. What does Oswald mean to convey by foregrounding this insect sound? And how does it relate to expression/comprehension through language, conveyed through the rhythm as much as the understanding of the meaning of words (which is, after all, a large part of poetry)? I need to live with these questions a while.

The beauty and vividness of the imagery holds everything together. Take the badger in ‘Body’ meeting with his body’s death, for instance, who

went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
trembling
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
water might keep its shape

The title Falling Awake evokes the tension between the gravity acting upon our physical being and awareness as the alert mind simultaneously takes flight. Not for her the transcendental ascension narrative: inescapably earthbound, her vision soars yet.

Reading wrap-up: April 2019

Highlights

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Published by Faber, 2018. I read the e-book, borrowed from the library on Overdrive.

Well, this is a conundrum! It’s the second of her novels that I have read and, once again, I might have expected to hate it but actually loved it. Why? I cannot abide being bludgeoned with a lecture in a novel and Kingsolver landed many a hefty didactic punch. And yet, reading her, I feel that I am in a safe pair of hands. I have yet to get to the bottom of why I will allow her to preach so. Is it because of her characters? Is it the satisfying patterning of her prose?

Alternating the chapters through two protagonists runs the risk of disrupting the story’s flow and frustrating (or at least compromising) the reader’s engagement. I quickly became engrossed in both parallel stories: contemporary Willa and 19th Century Thatcher Greenwood both learn that this house they have “inherited” and are living in is literally without foundations. In short order their lives begin to fall around their ears, with their personal catastrophes playing out within the family, the wider community and ultimately on a worldwide scale… and back to the personal again.

To be sheltered is to be safe, or to be protected from harsh realities (which itself may be a culpable privilege). To be unsheltered may be a terrifying and potentially fatal exposure to the elements. Or it could be the source of freedom.

Disappointments

Answering Back: Living Poets Reply to Poetry of the Past edited by Carol Ann Duffy. Published by Picador, 2008. I read the paperback, borrowed from the library.

Fifty contemporary poets respond to a poem of their choice: what a great idea! As with all anthologies there are hits and misses. I regret to conclude that in many cases the original poem was the stronger of the two and the smirking smart-arse school of poetry was over-represented. I found myself thinking of the Salvator Rosa self-portrait whose Latin motto (loosely!) translates as “either say something better than silence or shut the hell up”.

It is worth reading, though, for the clutch of excellent poems and it is always good to be introduced to poets I would not otherwise have read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Violent and Fragile Mystery

Human Work by Sean Borodale
Cape Poetry 2015

Feeding people, and all that entails: a time-consuming, daily task that isn’t work, that too often takes me away from the work in hand, the attentive simmering of words, such that I rarely pause to consider what may be going on a fingertip’s depth beneath the surface.

Sean Borodale wrote Human Work amidst the pots and pans (it’s easy to imagine the jam- and blood-splashed pages) but while his kitchen is the arena of this work, its subject reads as an enquiry into the nature of the heart(h) of the home, of the fundamental sustaining of our human-animal selves. What are its concerns and its communal purpose (he is feeding family and visitors, not just himself)?

The first thing to become apparent is how violent a process it is. In the opening poem, Stewed Apple, the flesh in the pan ‘bellows and blows’ and he uses the technical term, ‘flensing’: this is not so much cookery as going whaling (with Captain Ahab?).

In Making Apple Juice with Makeshift Apparatus (and what a grand metaphor that is for the making of a poem, pressing out perception from the pulp of experience with the best words one has to hand – never mind for the actual business of living!) the work is revealed to be ‘part violence, part sacrament’.

There is a simmering restlessness throughout. In Apple Jelly (ongoing), the opening line, ‘I was asking is a body ever at peace?’ finds its answer later in Elderflower Champagne: to Serve

… you undress your principles
and expose the constant of you rummaging through perception
for an exit.

Nothing holds steady. Everything is in constant transformation. Life is feeding on life and it is not a delicate business.

the eaters wait:
staring,
sat in the trees of their nerves
like rooks.

Globe Artichoke

There is as much death as life in this book, to the extent of (metaphorical) murder:

Beans I kept

like a killer keeps a corpse –
in the freezer five months.

Broad Beans

Yet this prevalent death proves to be inextricable from birth, or rather from pre-birth:

Each stone opened like a wooden womb
or a small sarcophagus;
the vision – very mute nevertheless –
of the small pip, quite naked, pale:
two white foetal feet pressed sole to sole over each sought tree.

Damson Cheese in Detail (Part 1)

The further into the book one travels, the more the tenuousness of our being becomes apparent. The fragrance of Blackcurrant Leaves Steeped in Cream is ‘like the heat of a body / left in a bed’ while in Pears: to Poach (a Meal for Others)

the vapours climbed unsteady – through the existence of air,
vagrant and stray

even the line is stretched to breaking point.

I noticed that many of the lines that caught my eye were the closing phrases or stanzas of poems, which suggests that I was more taken with Borodale’s conclusions than with the reaching of them. On reflection, that would seem a fair assessment. I would also have welcomed a greater variation of tone and pace at the level of the collection as a whole. It may be concerned with the keeping of body and soul together, but it is to the mind that this book most appeals.

It’s not a comfortable collection, this, and I like it the better for that. This maintaining of our human selves – our tenuous and ultimately futile project – what a violent, bright-dark and fragile mystery it turns out to be, encountered and enacted through the ingredients we have to hand in our daily routine.

Reading wrap-up: March 2019

A month in which my book-buying ban went all to blazes.

Highlight

The Overstory by Richard Powers. Oh, this book! Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it would have been  my winner. Everyone I know who has loved it has said, “I’ll never look at trees the same way again!” I think I will never quite look at people the same way again. I don’t recall my ever being someone for whom humans are the only (or even, at times, the primary) species of interest. This book made me weep with rage, frustration and inconsolable sadness. But that’s not to say I didn’t love it. I enjoyed following the seemingly separate narratives as they came together. I felt for the characters (human and arboreal) through what came next. I appreciated having plenty to think about. It was so worth the four months I had to wait for it from the library.

Disappointment

(Not the book as a whole, which I actually enjoyed, but a particular aspect of it.) Witch Light by Susan Fletcher. Corrag is a solitary girl with a knowledge of herbs. She is also a witness to the Glencoe massacre. Put the two together and she’s set to be burnt for a witch. She is, quite simply, in love with life, however difficult and dangerous, and likewise with the natural world. I loved the vivid descriptions of her moment-to-moment experience of the Highlands. The actual love story felt superfluous, as though the author lacked confidence in Corrag as a sufficiently interesting character without having her sighing over a Jamie Fraser-alike. A disappointment, then, in a book that otherwise has much to recommend it.

Reading wrap-up: February 2019

Highlights

The most magnificent birthday book-haul I have ever received! Many of these came from friends on Litsy.

My most impactful read of the month was Finding Baba Yaga by Jane Yolen. Baba Yaga and I go back a long way. I chose to read this book one chapter at a time last thing at night, so that it could best do its work on me.

On the surface it’s a simple tale but as with all great folktales, it has resonances that grow more pronounced the longer you spend in their neighbourhood. Jane Yolen’s version has themes of female friendship, the parent/child relationship, and the power and policing of the spoken word.

The verse proved to be the ideal form for weaving together the familiar, if strange, world of Baba Yaga and the contemporary story of teenage runaway Natasha’s flight from an abusive/negligent family. I feel prose would have required too much exposition and would have seemed contrived. Poetry gives both stories the space and opportunity to encounter each other and co-exist, enriching one another in the process.

Shot through with barbs of wit and moments of real sadness, I think it’ll stick with me a while, this book.( And, on a personal note, it has shown me a potential way forward with a writing project of my own that stalled when I became afraid of it.)

Reading wrap-up: January 2019

January was a month in which, in retrospect, I could discern neither rhyme nor reason as to the criteria a book or author must meet in order to merit inclusion on various prize lists.

Highlights:

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. Bright young Dellarobia Turnbow heads off up the mountain to escape from her disappointing marriage by the most banal of means and instead is stopped in her tracks by what she initially thinks is a miracle (the forest green and yet burning) but which turns out to be a disastrously misplaced migration of monarch butterflies. I loved the intelligence of this book, paired with Kingsolver’s respect and compassion for her (not terribly sympathetic, albeit understandable) characters. I enjoyed how a global topic (climate change) was grounded in the everyday struggles of an ordinary woman as out of place in her life as the migrating butterflies. Most of all, I appreciated Kingsolver’s craft. I hadn’t read her before and, while she is didactic at times, it didn’t take long for me to feel that I could trust her as a writer.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith. Winner of various prizes. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014. Comprising the stories of teenager George, grieving for her mother, and 15th Century Italian painter Francescho, two different versions of this book were released: one beginning with George and the other with Francescho. While I was initially wary of the authorial firework display (and didn’t particularly enjoy Autumn either) it remains playful and doesn’t descend into heartless cleverness. I became intrigued by thoughts of how my perceptions of the story might be different had I picked up the other version (mine had George first). There was plenty to think about altogether: art, time, grief, gender. Reading recalled vividly to mind the experience of being engrossed in Peter Ackroyd novels during my A-Levels: there is a similar theme of reality and time being less solid and linear than we tend to perceive. In a sense, I briefly got to “be both”, too!

Disappointments:

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017. Lonely Linda becomes attached to a young family across the lake but suspects that something is not right: is her need to belong stronger than her need to speak up and act on her suspicions? It had a promising theme around beliefs/thoughts and responsibility towards others (and circumstances in which the two become incompatible) and I thought Fridlund captured the sense of place, Linda’s loneliness and the horrible foreboding very well. However, when Something Happened it was all of a sentence and the rest of the book unravelled thereafter. I felt she made inferences at times that her story-craft hadn’t earned and, as a whole, the book read like two or even three novel plots stitched into one. And what the hell was that ending?! Structurally unsound: proceed with caution.

The Power by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British Writer. Girls discover that they have the power to cause electric shocks through touch. They “wake” this power in grown women and, lo and behold, men are suddenly a lot less dominant. I was curious as to where this would go and amused by the sly humour but ended up feeling bludgeoned by the escalating awfulness. It paints a dismal view of human nature: that we inevitably default to shrieking like chimps and tearing each other’s throats out. We have accepted a narrow and dysfunctional notion of what constitutes power (i.e. power over another) and the book reflects that. In short order the women are behaving in all the ways that misogynistic men/ societies currently do and, my word, does it escalate!

It’s easy to imagine there would be a backlash if such a thing were to occur and I’m not suggesting that female dominance would be all cake and cuddles but what’s presented here is a gender-reversed continuation of patriarchal norms. I’m at a loss to understand all the whooping and hollering this has occasioned. And am I the only one cringing at the obviousness of Margaret Atwood’s cover endorsement? “Electrifying! Shocking!” Really?! (How on Earth am I supposed to trust her judgement after that?) I don’t feel shocked: I feel numbed.

Reading wrap-up: November 2018

For the second month running I have stuck to my book-buying ban!

Highlights

Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw. He shares several Dartmoor stories, walking the ground of their being as he does so, and offers a lively, thoughtful and sometimes surprising commentary on them, informed by his belonging to this land. This may sound rather narrow in scope but he covers a lot of cultural ground. I found the book fascinating, exciting to read, challenging at times and at others a huge relief. I don’t want to say too much about it though. It’s still percolating. Have a listen to the man himself: drmartinshaw.com/books/scatterlings

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Evasive celebrity novelist Vida Winter invites amateur biographer Margaret Lea to stay in her Yorkshire mansion to hear her tale and write her life story. But why has Vida chosen Margaret? And what hidden connection does Margaret have to Vida’s story? This is a proper, good old-fashioned gothic novel. I watched the BBC adaptation (with Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave) a while back so knew I would enjoy the story but I wasn’t expecting Margaret to be such a bookworm! I loved all the nods to the Bronte sisters but am not quite the fan of a “proper” ending that Margaret is: I prefer things a little less neatly tied-up. (And, yes, I did have a wistful hankering after Vida Winter’s non-existent novels.)

Disappointments

Game of Thrones (Volume 1) by George R R Martin. Curiosity got the better of me: I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It’s not bad but it isn’t my cup of tea. The chaps charge about being heroic or dastardly and the women mainly get to be their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters. (I’ve been told that they “come into their own” later. Well, I would hope so: there’s only so much satisfaction to be gained from having fabulous hair.) I think I’m too much of a bolshevik to tolerate all the my-lords and my-ladies. All in all, Tyrion was the only character to hold my interest, probably because he is morally ambiguous and he thinks.