Definitions and differences

I’ve been reading one of the books I got for Christmas: The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams. It’s like the Lindt chocolate shop for word-nerds! I told my daughter about mountweazels, made-up words inserted into dictionaries to serve as copyright-infringement traps. She misremembered the word as “snout-wurzel”, which I have since decided is a disparaging term for a dipsomaniac old man with a nose like a wizened turnip.

On being asked if she has a favourite word, Eley Williams expressed a fondness for “pamphlet”. I currently consider it one of the more triggering words in the English language. Eley Williams thinks it almost onamatopoiec, the breeze of fingers riffling through a slender volume. I am less socially appropriate. I suspect “pamphlet” to be a species of broken wind. Not the great florid rambunctiousness of fully letting rip but a muffled half-squeak of minor embarrassment: “Pardon me, I’ve just released a pamphlet.”

What, then, is one to call a poem from said pamphlet? I have one in the Dialect anthology, available here, anyway.

I am still not writing. What is the term for a non-writing writer? “A monster courting insanity”, if Kafka is to be believed. I cannot make myself write. I cannot force myself to power through a visceral aversion. I certainly cannot shame myself into doing so. It’s far from ideal, I realise that. But I sense that it will come back, provided I am not too insistent.

In the meantime, I am keeping my hand moving across the page in my sketchbook. This week I have taken a deep dive into Nicholas Wilton’s free Art2Life workshops. I have been exploring the concept of differences through the principles of design and value (whilst getting significant mileage out of the metaphors, to boot). Understand these, he says, and the majority of your (artistic!) problems are solved. And so I contentedly fill pages with shade and tone and the marvels of monochrome. Next up is, inevitably, colour. I’m a little apprehensive. This is the point, in previous courses I’ve done, that I get overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities available. But at the moment this feels like one challenge I am actually equal to. Mark me, then, daimons of the polychromaton, ye denizens of Pantonium; I have my eye on you.

What’s Hecuba to me?

Or I to Hecuba? I wrote last time that I was revisiting, and enjoying, Virgil’s Aeneid. On Saturday morning I took a break from my usual exercise routine and did an hour of Latin before breakfast instead. Or rather, I intended an hour but stopped after 40 minutes. God, it’s hard work! I have to read verrrry slowwwly: that’s quite enough for one day. Now, where’s my porridge and mug of English Breakfast?

All lies, of course. The truth of the matter is I put Virgil down because Aeneas’ telling of the fall of Troy was upsetting me. How many times have I read or heard that story? How many versions have I watched? I only picked up the Aeneid because Dante led me back to it and I am currently feeding a fascination with his Divine Comedy. I thought I was returning to my Latin A-Level text: a nicely gratifying intellectual exercise. Damn it, Virgil, I was not expecting to be emotionally affected by your 2000-year-old hexameters! I feel ambushed. I feel ridiculous. And quietly jubilant that words, that poems, have this power – even in a work I assumed familiarity had rendered inert.

My own words appear to have gone into early hibernation. Checking my notebook, I am reassured on confirming that my writing does indeed tend to go underground at this time of year. It is not a worry, then, yet (though I must take care over other early warning signs of depression I have noted) but it is still a far from pleasant state to be in.

I have returned to my recently neglected sketchbook. Wanting to keep things simple, and not overwhelm myself with limitless possibilities, I have been focusing on pen and ink sketches of stuff around the house. Well, if the pen won’t write, perhaps it can still be persuaded to draw!

I picked up a pear to eat with my porridge this morning and actually said, “Oh, hello: it’s you!” when I recognised it as one of the three I drew yesterday. So the act of giving my attention to the contents of the fruitbowl has transformed them from ‘it’ to ‘you’. Hecuba… pears… where is this going? I don’t know. I have no answers, but that’s fine as long as I am still making responses to things.

Writing is for life, not just for Swanwick

“What do you do?”
“I write.”
“Oh! So you actually make a living from your writing?”
“I make a life from it.”
“But it puts food on the table.”
“Tea, perhaps. Ink.”

What do you do? Even at a writing school this is the question I am invariably asked by new acquaintances, before they ask my name. As if even here people must be sorted according to, and validated by, a recognised economic activity. If that is so, I am in-valid. Do I believe that? Sometimes, yes. (Keeping me hungry, sleep-deprived and in fear of the shared air we’re breathing certainly fosters that belief.) Amongst writers it’s beyond depressing: I mean, where’s the imagination? Where’s the curiosity?

What do you do?
I sit alone in a small room, gazing at the sky, muttering rags and tatters of phrases.
What do you do?
I spend hours in the company of people I know do not exist. (And, while we are on the subject, I struggle to accept the belief that the people in Tescos are more real.)
What do you do?
I am told “No” a lot. I wrestle constantly with the Great Doubt (and occasionally with the Great Faith.)
What do you do?
I walk the path of failure. Even the best poem is a muffled echo of what I originally heard, a distorted reflection of what I saw. And if it were any better, it would replace that “revelation” with itself; a small neat murder, the way a memory is supplanted by the story one makes of it afterwards.
What do you do?
I persevere.

***

From writing to reading. Perhaps it is the pull of the tide of the new school year, but I’ve been compelled to acquire a bilingual edition of Virgil’s Aeneid  thirty years after Book 2 was my Latin A-Level set text. I’m reading a handful of pages each day. It has rapidly become something I look forward to. Of course, it is gratifying to discover that I’ve “still got it” (with the help of a vocab. list and quick glances at the, distinctly archaic, English translation when I get stuck), but the necessity of reading slowly rather than racing along at my usual clip is leading to a richer experience of the story. Juno is angry and attempts to shipwreck Aeneas. Who cares, right? But Juno is really feckin’ pissed off over repeated slights upon emotional wounds and I don’t blame her. Aeneas has been through ten years of war, his homeland has been destroyed, his people murdered or forced into slavery; he would rather share their fate than be in this boat breaking apart in a storm in the Mediterranean.

What was I saying about people I know do not exist?

Actually, it is Dante’s doing. Last year I read his Divine Comedy (in translation) for the second time after a gap of thirty years. And less than a year later, I find myself reading him again, scribbling copious notes and responses. I do not pretend to understand what is driving me. I don’t especially need to know. I trust that it will become clear enough in time: for now I’m just following my nose.

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: December 2018

For the third month in a row, I have stuck to my self-imposed book-buying ban. I did have a good Christmas book haul, though!

Highlights

Sea Summit: Poems by Yi Lu, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. I love this book (or, at least, I love the half of it that’s in English)! At first glance a direct descendant of traditional pastoral poetry, it soon reveals that passively consuming nature (and pretty poems about it) is not an option. Rusty iron girders have a place alongside the birds and flowers and all demand that the reader, no less than Yi Lu herself (with her remarkable porosity) be an active participant. Yes, our actions affect the natural world but so are we changed in our trajectories by the appearance, if we only notice it, of a bird.

Disappointments

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. Stuff and nonsense! Had I not been reading this for the #ShakespeareReadAlong on Litsy, I would have bailed out long before the final act. Leontes, King of Sicilia, has a ridiculous hissy fit and thereby causes heedless death and suffering to the people who should be under his protection. Polixenes, his erstwhile best friend and King of Bohemia, has a hissy fit of his own which makes everything right in the end, if you can overlook said death and suffering. Powerful men indulging in behaviour that would shame the kids splashing about in the water corner at playgroup: just what we need! And as for that ending?! Nope! I liked Paulina. I loved the language. And that is all.