Monday, December 21, 2009

More Wintry Victoriana

The first stanza of my childhood favourite (the sentimental animal portraits in stanzas 2 and 3 have aged less well ;) and some photos taken from my front door this afternoon.

Snow in the Suburbs
Thomas Hardy

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upwards, when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Scattering Largesse, or, On the Abundance of New Victorian YA Novels

It must be nearly Xmas, because my mind is full of words like gaslamp, orphanage and tippet, the Victoriana of a clammy, fogbound English winter evening offset by a roaring fire, oranges in stockings, reading aloud, white-nightdressed children saying their prayers to smiling maidservants, and -- oh wait, that's a BBC fantasy world. Dickens has a lot to answer for; or rather, the cosily familiar bewhiskered chap that we've made of him and his rosy-cheeked, cheery orphans. Which is unfathomable, given how grim the subject matter of his books really is. Somehow even grinding poverty and tuberculosis look glamorous on TV, and all the social campaigning becomes just a pebble in the story's shoe. Maybe that's "universal appeal" or maybe it's dumbing down, but what I remember most about reading Dickens as a kid (another example of UA/DD) is that his stories awakened a profound sense of injustice that no happy ending could set aright. So Oliver found a family, but what about all the other orphans?

*All* the other orphans. All that Victorian and Edwardian improving kids' lit was full of Oliver Twists and Jane Eyres: Tom the chimney sweep and Huck Finn the runaway; Rebecca and Anne, the feisty adoptees; Frances Hodgson Burnett's Sara Crewe and Mary Lennox, orphaned by India. Each of them offers the same fantasy for young readers, I think: of escaping one's family to have adventures (boarding school novels offer this in miniature) and being reunited with them at the end. A version of Freud's fort-da game. It is pretty strange, though, that children would love books about being bereft or abandoned: think of Peter Pan. Families, particularly the Victorian-Edwardian middle-class family, come across as stultifying and oppressive places from which one must fly, often in order to form an alternative family, first of friends (the Artful Dodger's gang, the girls at school) and then with more generous parental figures. That's why the end of Huck Finn is so disquieting: there's no sense that Huck's lot in life has been improved, no learning and growing.

And that disquiet also marks the end of Meg Rosoff's The Bride's Farewell, a hauntingly strange book that sticks in the corners of my memory. Mary Hoffman points out that Rosoff's fourth novel "has been widely compared with Hardy," whose grimness exceeds even Dickens', especially when it comes to the oppressive, hypocritical and fissive nature of the nuclear family. Pell, the main character, is an elective orphan: she runs away from what, in any other cod-Victorian novel, would be the blissful conclusion, "Reader, I married him." Not Pell. She leaves behind the dim but persistent farm boy who has pressured her into a practical marriage that will keep her bound to her chaotic family, and takes her slightly supernatural awareness of horses and her lean strength on the road to look for work. Like many heroines of recent historical YA novels (as I've discussed elsewhere), Pell dresses as a boy for protection, although Rosoff -- who created Finn, a brilliant trans character, in What I Was -- plays hintingly with the eroticism and politics of transvestism, whereas in other novels it's an ornamentation that proves the heroine's un-girly bravery.

Bookwitch has said that she feels that Rosoff's female protagonists are more convincing than her male protagonists. I wonder if that's because bold girls are more plausible and welcome today than dreamy, passive boys. What Rosoff's protagonists have in common, across gender, is that they often verge on disappearance through disguise: Daisy, in How I Live Now, is starving herself into absence, while the narrator of What I Was slips out of school as often as possible to avoid bullying, and becomes almost invisible. Pell is no different, losing herself first in the myth of her anonymous boyhood and then almost in the earth itself as she searches for her lost brother. Pell is an awesome creation, and her coming to self is a genuine unfolding, even though as readers we spend most of the book in her perspective. There are choices that Pell makes -- and turns the story takes -- that I find mysterious, even after a few reads. Pell is what Tove Jansson might call a "true deceiver," honest and straightforward to the point that she tumbles headlong into depths.

Pell's headstrong faith in herself forms, Rosoff suggests, in response to her appalling, loveless and oppressive family (her father is a drunken itinerant preacher, her mother little more than a wetnurse and servant). Hetty Feather, another neo-Victorian protagonist, shares Pell's determination, but her outspoken confidence seems to arise, in Jacqueline Wilson's hands, from her brief time in a foster family -- as large, poor and chaotic as Pell's, but full of care, if not love. Wilson is, of course, the modern mistress of the orphan: her Tracy Beaker novels have made millions of readers aware of what it's like to go through the care system in contemporary Britain. Hetty, inspired by Wilson's tenure as a Fellow of the Foundling Museum, is of a piece with Dickens' resilient and resourceful children, and the adults who variously try to silence her and encourage her also have a Dickensian charm.

Especially, for me, the wonderful Miss Smith, a children's rights campaigner, an early feminist, one of the many courageous women who fought to end the workhouse system. She appears as a dea ex machina in the final chapters to rescue Hetty from life as a child flower seller -- nowhere near as glamorous as Eliza Doolittle would have us believe -- with its explicit overtones of prostitution. Like Rosoff, Wilson pulls no punches concerning the additional dangers faced by female adventurers: Hetty is, albeit briefly, a runaway from the workhouse, and meets both kindness and extreme creepiness on London's streets. Unlike Pell, though, Hetty not only defends herself and others, but finds her way to a happy ending that plays with, without indulging, the sentimentality of Victorian literature (there's also a tremendous scene in which Hetty is locked in the attic by the matron; unlike Jane Eyre, Hetty gets through the night with comfort from her vivid imagination and a kindly kitchen girl, Ida).

Wilson's ending works because the novel neither caricatures cruel figures as Dickens does, nor creates an unwarranted chain of co-incidences: in fact, Hetty's first hope of maternal love, with the brilliantly-realised circus performer Madame Adeline, is a complete and scarring failure. Wilson's generosity and abounding love for her feisty heroine is balanced by a pragmatic assessment of human nature that Hetty shares, witness her understanding about her foster brother Jem's piecrust promises. There's something charming in the balance, and in the provisional and open ending of the novel, which answers that "what about the other orphans?" question through the work of Miss Smith. Hetty, you feel, will grow up to become a campaigning novelist, too. It's less certain what will happen to the girls at the end of Wishing for Tomorrow, Hilary McKay's sequel to A Little Princess (my favourite childhood read), but like Wilson, McKay offers a suggestive open ending that's much larger than the fate of any one girl -- which is the drive of the whole book. Rather than follow Sara Crewe into her new life of luxury, McKay takes up the perspective of one of A Little Princess' losers.

Perhaps it goes without saying that YA writers take the side of the underdog -- the universal experience of the child, for whom the playground is the world of danger, threat, prohibition, bullying, incomprehensible social interactions and powerlessness writ small. But McKay is a particular champion of the different and the dreamers. None of the Casson family are exactly normal (whatever that is, and in their own estimation, I should add), but Permanent Rose -- an force of nature unstoppable by even dyslexia, tigers, New York or divorce -- is one of my favourite voices around. Things just seem to happen around Rose, crazy things that she has accidentally set in motion through her desire to see everyone around her happy. McKay imports some of Rose's unintentional crazy-making and sharp observational skills to Wishing for Tomorrow, where they are divided between the two girls Sara deserted when she moved next door to the Indian gentleman's: the academically-hopeless Ermengarde, who narrates the book, and Lottie, who has grown up from a fit-pitcher to a thoroughly bossy and brilliant girl.

McKay's generous eye for the source of character's bad behaviour even takes in Burnett's two bullies: Lavinia and Miss Minchin. Lavinia, who is actually a wonderful chorus in A Little Princess, constantly commenting on Sara in order to preserve the status quo, is here set free from her mother's voice and revealed as a scholar frustrated by the lack of opportunity for women. It's an utterly believable portrayal of a girl pulling up her bluestocking, one of many historically accurate touches that McKay brings to the fantastical London of Burnett's imagination. As in Hetty Feather, the hierarchies and lines of power are much less rigid than Victorian novels suggest, nodding forward to the great social justice movements of the twentieth century (which, of course, were prompted by campaigning writers like Dickens and Hardy). No-nonsense Epping girl Alice, who replaces Becky as the maid of all work, is a particularly fine character: hard-headed and extremely capable, she more or less runs the school and the girls love her for her kindness.

Even Lavinia, as her thirst for knowledge is satisfied, discovers generosity, an emotional tenor that is the hallmark of McKay's good characters: not a simpering kindness to small animals, but a version of what Sara Crewe has in abundance, the act of being able to imagine the needs and feelings of others, and respond to them rather than be lost in her own misery. Pell, who has the most miserable experience of all these new young Victorians, wrestles with generosity: it's the inclination of her heart over her head that leads to her take her brother with her when she runs away, and even her instinctual suspicion is not enough to deal with an ungenerous world. Like all orphans, though, she finds her alternative family, however provisional and unconventional. It's in her care for horses and the natural world, a reciprocal nurturing, that Pell expresses her kindness, and it's that quality that draws her to the poacher, and guides us into and through her story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Freewheelin' Emily Dickinson

I went to Liverpool this weekend to see PRIMITIVE, a multi-screen installation by the fantastic filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Somehow, in the surreal and poetic logic of Apichatpong's films, it makes perfect sense that I returned with an album of Emily Dickinson's poems. While Joei, as he is known, is a contemporary Thai filmmaker with a strong interest in were-tigers, beautiful young men and diptych structures, Emily was a nineteenth-century American, daughter of a one-term Congressman, with a passion for bees, God and handmade books... but there's something that resonates in their work: an oblique quality of attention to the details that others miss (and an attendant attention to the process of making and presenting a work), an intention to work at tangents from national and globalised arts cultures while engaging with them critically, and an unfoldingness that the reader/viewer encounters in their work, which is often deceptively simple or slow in its image-making.

The album, Graphic as a Star (Fire Records, 2009), as purchased at Probe Records on Slater Street (around the corner from FACT, where the exhibition takes place), is a transhistorical collaboration with Born Heller vocalist Josephine Heller (you can hear sample tracks on her MySpace page). Heller describes her music as "religious/blues" and comments on Fire Records' site that
her craft is strongly shaped by "Tin Pan Alley on my maternal side, rock and roll on my paternal side, Western folk music by birth, art-song and classical music via my adolescent passions".
The settings for the poems certainly show all of these influences, falling into three rough groups -- swooping a capella settings reminiscent of the songs sung by the old woman in Terence Davies' film Distant Voices, Still Lives: a little bit hymn, a little bit singalong-around-the-piano, a little bit music hall, a little bit trad. ballad but more delicate than that sounds; folky, Shirley Collins or Vashti Bunyan-like numbers that whisper into your soul, with gentle guitar; and rollicking harmonica numbers that pair E.D. and Bob D. to startling effect.

You'd think that the lineage of American folk poetry would run Whitman >> Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music >> Bob Dylan. But Foster brings out both the subversive hymn-singer and the land-lover in Dickinson's poetry, especially in a hauntingly tremulous and swooning (considering the violence of the lyrics) rendition of "My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -," the very poem that Susan Howe makes central to her argument about Dickinson's deep roots in American pioneer and Puritan culture in her transcendent study My Emily Dickinson. Howe reminds us, in her reading, that poethics, poetry's role in social and political change, can be exercised in ways tender and small as well as strident and self-aggrandizing.

In his recent acceptance speech for the PEN/Pinter prize, Tony Harrison lauded the muscular poetic tradition that sees poets honoured with statues and political status. All the poets he cites are (of course?) male. Howe and Foster are attuned to what eludes Harrison: that radical freedom is to be observed in the spider as much as the soldier. Dickinson's tapestry has traditionally been regarded as one of loneliness, isolation and limited opportunities. But she is no lady of Shallot, that damning Victorian figure of artistic ambition in women. As Graphic as a Star reveals, Dickinson is as attuned to the modern as the traditional, pursuing the wilful and gorgeously different in both, always going out towards the world.
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea
Past the houses - past the headland -
Into deep Eternity -

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Novelist plans blogsplash: get involved!

I discovered this innovative litblog plan on Michelle McGrane's excellent peony moon. Like pm, DL will be hosting page 1 on March 1. Join us!

Fiona Robyn is going to blog her next novel, Thaw, starting on 1st March next year. The novel follows 32 year old Ruth's diary over three months as she decides whether or not to carry on living.

To help spread the word she's organising a Blogsplash, where blogs will publish the first page of Ruth's diary simultaneously (and a link to the blog).

She's aiming to get 1000 blogs involved (880 to go!) - if you'd be interested in joining in, email her at fiona [at] or go to her blogsplash page for more information.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Alison Croggon, Theatre

This is a classic DL strategy: a re-reading prompted by a fresh encounter. I heard Alison read last week in London at the Poetry Society and was overwhelmed by both the familiarity and utter strangeness of her poetry. I've known Alison for ten (Ancient Mariner moment... OK, it's over) years, across oceans and ether and pages and conversations. The question of "knowing" a person in their work as/because you know them in real life is for another post, though: what struck me in the sunny Studio was the way that I *felt* her work.

I remember seeing Alison read at Pembroke in February 2000, when she was the Australia Council fellow at Cambridge: she wore a leopard-print dress and high-heeled black sandals and surveyed a crowd (myself included) of ratty/dumpy/boho students and faculty dressed as much for the soul-creeping dread of the late winter fens as for the cold. But, as we came to realise, Alison's strategy against the soul-cold was to burn brighter, to be fiercer -- and in her fierceness was a lack of critical distance (irony, intellectualism, equivocation, revocation, self-denial, incomprehensible density as cover for deep feeling) that marks a lot of contemporary experimental poetry. Her reading was full of voices, like Prospero's isle, but also blushingly full of bodies, with a directness and cutting-to-the-quick that is poetry's essence -- and which I think is neglected.

Writing about apostrophe (poems that address a listener within the text via the exclamation O! or the use of the second person), critic Jonathan Culler describes it as symptomatic of "all that is most radical, embarrassing, pretentious, and mystificatory" about poetry. I love that strange combination of words (and they definitely came to mind while I was watching Jane Campion's new film Bright Star today). Poetry *is* embarrassing, not just naked but skinless, not just skinless but the act of pointing and saying: "Look, no skin! Look, blood -- meat -- pulse!" It's in that radical strategy of drawing attention to that which we do not look regard that Alison's poetry excels. "I am concerned," remarks the titular garment in "What the Glove Said," "with the skin of nearness."

The glove's exactly the object (intimate, inside-out, human-shaped) to speak metonymically for the poet. As the title of her most recent collection Theatre suggests, she brings a playwright's (and theatre critic's) eye to the drama of revelation and the honing of address. The book begins with a plangent and seemingly transparent poem about her inability to write the poem that she writes, which sets the stage for the fiercely doubting, elusive yet ever-present "I" that will declare and undercut itself throughout the book. Of the self's relation to poetry, and the writer's relation to the reader, the poem "Theatre" asks
and is this really my own damage
or a wound torn in others
that they must diagnose
through my skin?
There's no deflection here, no deferral of meaning. It's reminiscent of John Berger's Pages of the Wound, and some of the prose poems in the collection have the dense, earned slippage between allegory and political reality of Berger's novels.

Even so, the "I" struggles to come to terms with its incarnation, its necessity for the production of poetry. In "Flames," the speaker extinguishes the poem with the lines
I am ash for a beloved voice
whose irony rebukes me
, while the poem "after Arseny Tarkovsky" (which is a version or ventriloquism of the Arseny Tarkovsky poem used by his son Andrey in the film Stalker) ends with an accounting that cannot add up: "My life… My love… my soul… my thoughts… but it isn't enough." Even when the act of writing appears to offer sufficiency and expression, it's not enough:
She writes her body with the tips of her fingers but it is no longer her body. The words are not her they belong to nobody. She writes to slough off her name. She speaks to become invisible. She desires to become what she is.
No wonder Alison's first collection for Salt was called Attempts at Being.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Paranoia in Translation, or Lisbeth Salander in the Land of Green Plums

Actually, this post could equally be called Schizophrenia in Translation: the sensation that derives from reading two (very different) books concurrently to the point that they seem, if not to merge, then to be deeply intertwined (litzophrenia?). Not that I'm looking to make light of mental illness by using terms like paranoia and schizophrenia out of context, but sometimes an encounter with a book will remind me what a weird process reading actually is -- that sitting silently over some marks on woodpulp, muttering and laughing to oneself while entering into a fantastical world and often into the persona of an invented person, is a pretty wacky thing to do.

It's hard to stand outside reading as an activity: I've been doing it since literally before I can remember anything else. One of my first and only toddler memories is of putting together the blobs on a flashcard into a word. Après ça, there was no stopping me: by the time I was in infant school, I was teaching the other kids to read. I think my mindbrain has probably been so shaped by reading that it's what I am in the same way that Usain Bolt's musculature and neurons have been sculpted by running. Culturally, reading has pretty much set in for the long haul. We all (84% of UK 16-65 year olds in the UK have literacy at GCSE grade G or above) do it inadvertently from the cereal box to the end credits every day, and many of us do it advertently (a word? And if not, why not?) most days as well.

Maybe it's because I've been hitting the poetry like a poetaholic (with events at PoetryFilm and at Keats House for Brittle Star, and reviews due to Staple) that I contracted reading-dissociation when I switched back to novels -- and a big fat novel at that, purchased especially for a weekend of train journeys and a solo hotel stay. I'm hardly the first person to be bowled over by Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (an established fact, since half the people at PEN have been telling me to read it for at least a year), but I might be one of the least likely. After (because of? despite?) a brief (and disturbing) devotion to the work of Andrew Vacchs when I was about sixteen, and an obsessive interest in Twin Peaks and The X Files, I have never been much for thrillers, either in codex or on celluloid.

Both my parents were big with the mysteries, 'tec series and all things investigative, but my love of noir begins and mostly ends with Laura (a major influence on Twin Peaks). That's right: I don't have the hots for Hitchcock, and I've no remorse for yawning at Morse. It's a failing, I think, as a reader, to exclude a genre from your library, but Delirium's mystery/thriller shelf is entirely reserved for the splendid Sherlock Holmes, a detective I encountered almost as early as I began reading (those shadowy semi-memories of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes still give me nightmares). I've tried Rebus and Whimsy and Wallander and Dirk Gently, and no-one has ever come close to the idiosyncracy and intellect, the conviction and addiction, of Holmes (especially Jeremy Brett in the role).

But I have to confess: Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous "girl with the dragon tattoo" comes close. Despite Larsson's info-dumping, despite the financial shenanigans that make as much sense to me as Ikea self-assembly diagrams, even despite the relentless snö (and equally persistent mosquitös) that falls on all Scandi detectives, I found myself hooked until 3 am, reading with the covers drawn up to my chin -- except when I leapt out of bed to check the door was locked. I couldn't sleep until I finished the book, and then I couldn't sleep some more. If my bag hadn't been full with a print-out of my own novel (which I'd promised myself I'd edit on the train home, come hell or inconveniently located rabbis), I would have bought The Girl Who Played With Fire in WH Smith's in Manchester Piccadilly station that very morning (possibly even before breakfast at the excellent Koffee Pot).

Because here's the thing: I don't read thrillers because they *get* me. Rewatching The X Files (series 1-3 1/2) recently, I found myself almost choking on my fingernails even in episodes that I'd seen half-a-dozen times before. I suffer from what's known in my household as "narrative tension." Hell, I couldn't even watch Sense and Sensibility at the cinema without getting fahrklempt about whether Marianne would see that Alan Rickman, I mean Colonel Brandon, was infinitely superior to stupid-haired Willoughby. And I'd read the book only six months previously (I also clearly have an appallingly lax narrative memory). I'm like the goldfish in Ani Difranco's song for whom the little plastic castle / is a surprise every time. Or a terrifying shock.

It's not so much about guessing whodunit as worrying in every fibre of my being about who's going to be next and what horrible defilement will be described. Worrying, I suppose, that I'll be next. Larsson's thrillers fit very much in grim miserablist realism tradition of writers like Ian Rankin where a city like this harbours people like you living next door to psychos like him. Not so much plausible deniability as undeniable plausibility. Larsson's obsession with Ikea furniture may be a running footnote on the commercialisation of Scandi design, but it's also an arrow pointing at our own living rooms (and particularly at the Swedish airport minimalism of the hotel room where I was holed up). What with financial crashes, banker bonuses and inter-generational sexual abuse, Dragon Tattoo felt like reportage as much as fiction -- and who doesn't feel tense thinking about how the house of cards (economic, political, environmental) is about to crash down on us?

Despite the expertly-generated tension, the novel lacked two aspects that mar most thrillers for me: punitive manipulation of reader expectations (and of vulnerable female characters), and stupidity dressed up as fearlessness (goading the reader to follow the investigative character into the darkness). It also lacked any sympathy for, or glamorisation of, the killer(s), and in a way any curiosity about them. They were dead space, plausibly drawn characters exerting zero narrative fascination rather than the devilish figure who haunts so many contemporary thrillers. Coupled to that lack of interest is an abiding, energising fascination with -- and fury about -- the systems of fear that make possible sexual abuse and murder, and the silence surrounding them. Industry, politics, the law, the family, the state: these are the real abusers in Larsson's books, the facilitators who empower the bit-part players who carry out the social will, whom Salander fights against with every sinewy ounce of her 4"11 being (Kate Mosse made the point well in a Guardian review entitled (although it's lost its title online) The Man Who Liked Women). I've never encountered a mainstream fictional work that lays out as clearly the effects of state power, in particular its impact on those considered less than full agents of the state: women, children, those with (perceived or actual) disabilities, those who dissent.

OK, Larsson was no Herta Müller and contemporary Sweden is not Communist Romania, but I can't help feeling that their books have something in common -- and not just because I've been reading The Land of Green Plums this weekend as well (props to Haringey Libraries, incidentally, for having a copy of the Nobel prize-winner's book, which is incidentally out of print). It's a book so powerful that I had to return it to the library the minute I finished reading it: not just because I wanted other people to have the chance to read it, but because it felt dangerous to be carrying it, as if it were one of the banned books that the characters hide in the summer house. Or even as if it might infect me with the green plum-death or cancerous nut or the dream of the sack that variously afflict characters. It's an extremely calm nightmare of a book, where the narrative tension happens on a word-by-word level, as if the novel is in code. There's no secret who the bad guy is (the state and its agents) even as the protagonist investigates every detail of her life exhaustively to find it/him out, but almost any character could be a spy, even Elsa the white cat, creating an extraordinary atmosphere of anxiety, as in the novels of Ismail Kadare (although unlike Kadare, Müller does not see women's genitalia as both the salvation and betrayal of every man).

In both books (both of which are, of course, in translation, by Reg Keeland and Michael Hofmann repectively), the tense mood of the thriller and the anxiety of the reader act as political critiques, engendering the desire for relief through change. In both, the female protagonist is almost unbearably unknowable, courageously unpredictable, and hyper-alert to the tentacular enemy with which she battles. Or maybe I'm just hyper-alert to their similarities after my weekend of sleepless paranoia, and hyper-alert too to the possibilities of thrillers to challenge my thinking, and experimental novels to have me on the edge of my seat.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Ophelia's Mind Went Wandering, with Sovay and Lavinia

I've been humming Natalie Merchant's "Ophelia" to myself on and off for months, so it's not surprising that I picked up Lisa Klein's novel Ophelia at the library on Monday.I devoured it in a day, as blogger Lizbee suggests, and liked many aspects of its historical consciousness, particularly the idea that skull-obsessed Hamlet was on his way to Padua to study anatomy with Vesalius when his father died. Klein sets the story of the play between 1585 and 1602 -- that is, during Shakespeare's lifetime rather than in the time of the original Hamlet legend (before 1200, when Saxo Grammaticus recorded it), which gives Klein more scope to imagine Ophelia as the kind of heroine all YA historical novels must have: feisty (yet sexy), feminist (yet boy-crazy), educated (yet ill-informed about pregnancy), courageous (with a soupçon of fainting). Klein's Ophelia reads Margaret of Navarre's Heptameron, learns herbalism, resents her brother's education, avoids rape by Edmund, [spoiler] fakes her own death and does, indeed, get her to a nunnery.

Klein, who teaches Shakespeare (I'm guessing this from the acknowledgements), salts her retelling with dozens of Shakespearean -- or rather, Shakespeare in Love-ean -- devices, such as cross-dressing (all the comedies) and a fake death (Cymbeline). But the book is at its best when it takes an imaginative leap far from Shakespeare and stops trying to cram in every clever reference to the play, in the final section detailing Ophelia's life at the convent, where she meets a St. Teresa-style mystic, negotiates life among a society of women, conceals her pregnancy and faces down a bishop. Her path through doubt and faith is more convincingly of its time than her feisty arguments for equality, although possibly less captivating to a contemporary reader.

Celia Rees makes a better attempt at a similar project in Sovay. Like Klein, Rees begins with a pre-existing text, a traditional English ballad about a young woman who dresses up as a highwayman to see if the rumours of her beloved's unfaithfulness are to be believed. She stops his coach and demands the ring that was her gift, and when he refuses, knows that he's been true. Rees gives us the ballad tale in the first chapter (Sovay's betrothed, James, is more of a cad than the ballad Sovay's lover) and wonders what would happen next to a girl with that kind of courage and wildness. Taking the story out of ballad-time, Rees makes excellent use of her late eighteenth-century setting, quickly getting Sovay embroiled in the panic over the French Revolution. There are well-researched references to experimental science (Joseph Priestly), the American War of Independence, slavery, molly houses, transportation to Australia, period fashions and a judicious use of eighteenth-century fictional style.

Sovay has more compass in which to move than Ophelia, even though both of them try on male clothing for protection, freedom and anonymity. Springing from a ballad, she has no character attached apart from her fondness for "stand and deliver," and Rees' choice of era is well-matched to her fictional style, which echoes everything from Fielding to The Scarlet Pimpernel, whereas Klein's novel never quite disguises -- or works with -- its dual origin in folk tale and play. Sovay's nascent feminism is more credible than Ophelia's, given the republicanism she encounters among the supporters of the French Revolution (although it's surprising she doesn't mention Mary Wollenstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published six years before the novel opens), and her adventure has a more defined form, full of allusions to Gothic novels of the period. Rees gets a bit ensnarled in the Illuminati (it's never a good sign when they show up, frankly, and they semi-wreck Rees' bewilderingly complex The Stone Testament as well) towards the end of Act II, but switches tack to a fantastic portrayal of the final days of the Terror in Paris (which was more credible yet less expository than Sally Gardner's The Red Necklace) that ends all too soon with reader, she married him [no spoiler on which of her many suitors she chooses!] Perhaps a second Sovay novel is in the offing?

It was a non-sequel that thrilled me most in my week of literary heroines. After Powers, the third book in Ursula Le Guin's Annals of the Western Shore series, I was all revved up for the fourth (and final?) installment. Instead there appeared Lavinia, a novel about a minor character (and I mean minor, she gets maybe three lines) from Virgil's Aeneid, the dullest of all the epics. Not only that, but Lavinia's main role is to be the silent bride traded to Aeneas and mother of Rome. Yawn. But Le Guin is nothing short of a genius: as well as a detailed historical imagining of early Latium, Le Guin allows her character to take on the conundrum of being a bit player in a national myth, the slip of a poet's pen as he struggled to finish his epic. Lavinia meets -- and debates with -- the spirit of the dying Virgil at the local shrine, learning her fate both within the poem (to marry Aeneas) and in history (to be a fictional character). It's reminiscent of Christa Wolf's Medea, which begins with the novelist describing her own trip to Mycenae.

It sounds like a postmodern narrative game, which it is, but the stakes here are incredibly high: the nature of narrative itself, and particularly the role of women in much of the canon, there to provide a foil, cover or bosom for the hero. Aware of her fictionality, Lavinia nonetheless -- or perhaps even more -- relishes the materiality of her life in Latium, from the texture of lamb fleece to the scars on her husband's thighs. The richness of Lavinia's world is that which, Le Guin suggests, eluded Virgil in his focus on Aeneas, who is himself focused on his destiny. Domestic life, ritual duties, sex, friendship, hard work: these are all described with Le Guinian good sense and humour, and her telling eye for the small details that shape a culture. That's why (and I'm loathe to say this) I'm not sure that the somewhat mystical ending works. While it follows the unfinished nature of the Aeneid, it feels like a withdrawal -- not a cop-out, exactly, nor a failure, either, because it gives me chills. But a question.

Perhaps the ghostliness of the un-ending in which [spoiler] Lavinia turns into the owl that haunts the woods of Latium and flies over present Italy, which is almost impossible to imagine and yet so vivid, makes visible the chilling realisation that fictional characters do not have a life beyond the final page except what we choose to give them. Le Guin has always had a gift for unsettling the status quo, asking charmingly difficult questions about everything from pronouns to political agency (which are, of course, connected) through her carefully wrought fictions, but Lavinia is the most thorough and unsettling investigation of the nature of storytelling itself. She may not make Lavinia a circus girl or a bluestockinged suffragette, but she raises, profoundly, the question of what Lavinia -- or Ophelia, or Sovay, or even Ged -- can ever be.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What Can a Library Do?

Photo Credit: A. Burger, Courtesy of Roni Horn and Hauser & Wirth

This is a question prompted by two recent encounters: one with a film, Examined Life, and one with an installation, Vatnasafn. The encounter with the installation came first -- in driving rain and then brilliant sun, embodied and breathlessly alive -- but the encounter with the film is more recent (today in fact) and is the source of the title.

Examined Life is an attempt to show that philosophy is part of everyday life, that it has something to say about walking, shopping, listening to music, throwing away garbage and, er, boating in Central Park. Director Astra Taylor points out early on, in conversation with philosopher Avital Ronell, that philosophy is usually done in books, where an argument can unroll over 300 pages and hours or days of the reader's thought-time. So, in a sense, the film is a spoken library, embodied and kinetic and discursive: a library for the era of the Twitter attention-span, some might say, or an insightful return to orature and face-to-face communication as the transmission of thought and feeling.

I feel both: I love books -- especially long books -- but since finishing my Ph.D. I've come to wrestle with the fetishisation of footnotes and cross-referencing and polysyllabic jargon. No-one in the film talks much about books and their importance to an examined life (Cornel West gives a brilliant jazz soliloquy on the centrality of music to his examination of life) -- only one person apart from Taylor even mentions books (rather than quoting from them): Sunaura Taylor, an Oakland-based artist and disability activist who walks through the Mission District in conversation with Judith Butler, who raises Gilles Deleuze's question "what can a body do?" as a productive way of thinking about embodiment without barriers or definitions. Thinking about how she has been defined by what others perceive her as not being able to do, Taylor comments that she was alerted to the systemic oppression of disabled people by reading a book review -- although she doesn't say what book.

But the film made me think (among many other thoughts) that libraries do not just contain books -- not only in the sense that they now contain CDs, DVDs, computers, but that they have always contained bodies, at the very least the body of the librarian. We are fascinated, culturally, by what bodies do in libraries: generally what they cease doing, given the extensive genre of murders in libraries. The Dr. Who episode "Silence in the Library" gets at the reason why, encapsulated in its title: libraries *are* a kind of death, with the containment of knowledge paralleled in the silence that living, breathing bodies are supposed to assume.

It's that deathliness that haunts Roni Horn's installation in Stykkisholmur: Vatnasafn, the Library of Water, consists of twenty-four glass pillars filled with water sourced from twenty-four of Iceland's shrinking glaciers. Early viewers describe the water as being cloudy, opaque, vari-coloured, but now it's clear, the sediment having settled to the bottom of each pillar and glowing in various shades of gold refracted from the dun-coloured floor. The pillars are grouped almost like readers standing at shelves: the room in which they stand was the town's library, now fitted with huge windows that reflect in the pillars creating optical illusions and miniature cinemas of Iceland's changing weather.

The room is intensely beautiful but also sad, reminiscent of a laboratory test for water purity or the Arctic Seed Vault.That is, after all, one of the functions of libraries: to announce imminent death and loss through the work of preservation (hard not to hear the echo of conservative in conservation). One day the library may contain all that's left of Iceland's glaciers, filed neatly by location and surrounded by words for the weather that may have been altered beyond recognition -- no more hly.

This library isn't entirely without books -- there are copies of some of Horn's books and catalogues for browsing -- and it is populated, like a lot of Horn's art, by words, here scattered on the floor in tone-on-tone rubber (which, when scuffed by the rubber soles of the slippers you have to wear to avoid tracking weather onto the floor, gives off a properly Icelandic sulphurous scent). For Horn, words speak insistently of the body: on the floor she has cast, rune-like, a demotic meteorological vocabulary that, as she points out, doubles as a language of feeling: moist, sweaty, dull. So these words are also bodies, ghostly readers (of weather as well as/doubling as books), falling at the feet of the readers who still clamber up the hill and see themselves disappear and distort in the columns.

Which reminds me of a line from the Ani Difranco song "Reckoning": "the funhouse mirrors of your fears." Because reflected in the Library what I saw were my own anxieties (intensified by reading Dreamland) and our cultural anxieties, which is also a function of the library: not just to store knowledge, but to organise it in order to reflect and inflect -- to lead us to an examined life. In the film, Cornel West talks unabashedly about the almost-excessive exhilaration of the encounter in the library with a book *as if* with another person. There's something of that in Horn's Library as well (and in all of her work), that exhilaration of meeting yourself as a water spirit, as a manifestation of weather, as not there, insignificant in the timescale that forged and moved glaciers, tiny compared to the racing clouds.

So why, amidst the exhilaration that reminds me what a library can do -- that it doesn't just file books no-one wants to read, but creates the possibility of a mind-expanding, time-bending encounter -- did I feel so sad? Perhaps because I was also reading Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover (I never have fewer than two books in my bag when taking long bus journeys, just in case) and something about the installation made me think of a photograph I saw in the exhibition of Annie Leibovitz' work at the National Portrait Gallery. It show Sontag in the National Library in Sarajevo in the early 90s: she is sitting on a pile of books and rubble amidst other piles and devastating, dramatic shafts of light falling through the lack of a ceiling. In the frankness of Sontag's gaze there's nothing of TS Eliot's shoring up the ruins (a line she quotes in the novel), but there's something profoundly shocking about seeing Sontag, arch-priestess of high culture, sitting amidst its quite literal ruins.

But even full of rubble, the library is still patently a library, and a familiar image in itself, one in a long line of ruined libraries stretching from Alexandria to Iraq. Part of what it does is to sort, store and conserve the chaos of its own ruin. Who doesn't have nightmares about all their books burning or getting soaked or even just falling off the shelves and becoming hopelessly disordered? As Sontag describes in The Volcano Lover, the collector wants to impose order on a chaotic world: the library is a communal extension of that. The exhilaration comes both from order and the potential of disorder, from preservation and the chance of loss, from the encounter and its disappearance into silence: the paradox of glacial water, a solid represented by its liquefied form.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Tom Chivers on Barry MacSweeney

Two great poets in conversation -- OK, Barry MacSweeney is dead, but his spirit lives on, and Tom Chivers hears it singing in the landscape of the North-East that they both share. I fell in love with MacSweeney's poetry during my undergrad and this post has sent me back to my box of chapbooks for Pearl. As Tom writes, in Pearl
Barry remembers a childhood romance with a local girl he calls “Pearl”, whose palate is cleft: she cannot speak. The “a-a-a-a-a-” in the poem becomes an agonised utterance in the powerful theatre of Barry’s live readings. The Pearl sequence is more than mere nostalgia for place. Much more. It is memory passed through the gauze of lived experience, the demons that taunted the poet’s psyche. The demons of drink that would eventually catch up with him, mouths rustling with knives. Innocence crushed. Spoilt beauty. A broken landscape, populated by ‘the turbo-mob, weird souls dreaming of car-reg / numbers and mobile phone codes’.
It's full of cracked allusions to the medieval Pearl poem written by the same poet as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. [I have some issues with the inarticulate-woman-as-landscape trope, see also Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, but Pearl is never simply an allegory, nor is she a mirror for MacSweeney's own struggles to articulate tenderness and rage, but a real person].

Tom's made a radio doc about a pilgrimage to MacSweeney's landscapes, and this is a great post about the journey on My Place Or Yours, bloghotspot for poetic psychogeography.

MacSweeney's books Wolf Tongue and The Book of Demons are published by Bloodaxe.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Inger Christensen, It

Do you have a pile of books that defeated you on first read? I do: they include One Hundred Years of Solitude, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, and Inger Christensen's It are the top of the pile, the books that spring to mind when thinking about coming back from defeat to a second attempt (I've never managed a second attempt on Orhan Pamuk, though, having read the first 100 pages of three of his books). And in the second attempt, the re-visitation of what at first seemed so alien and alienating, a special pleasure emerges -- maybe like the pleasure of very early reading, when each new word or syntax offered the same sense of encounter, confusion and illumination. What all three books share is there utterly immersive worlds, their uncompromising immediacy and idiosyncracy, so that to read each book is to invent a world.

It's pleasure accrues even more so as the book-length poem is, as Anne Carson points out in her introduction, a cosmogony and a cosmology, a brief history of time described as the power of language and the imagination. It, for Christensen, is both fear and love, and the language that they make people spill as they imagine worlds into being. Unlike Hesiod's cosmology, which wants to assert that we have fallen from a golden age, Christensen's cosmology is of its moment in 1969, a radical call that - in language, and in language's ability to set free the imagination and the body - another world is possible.

I began my re-reading with the introduction, and approached the book anew with an amazing fact in mind, communicated to Carson by translator Susanna Nied: the book was
a huge popular favourite, It was quoted by political protestors and politicians alike; lines from it appeared as graffiti around Copenhagen; some parts were set to rock music and became esoteric hits.
Which is in danger of making the book sound a bit like Julie Taymor's Across the Universe: a whimsical tour of the most crushingly obvious bits of 60's protest culture. There are definitely invocations of sexual and social abandon as the poem unfolds, but they are embedded in the most blistering, subtle, surreal, beautiful, maddening, evocative accounts of the ills of consumer capitalism and the military-industrial complex.

Probably my favourite representation of this imbrication of Christensen's surreal poetic/prophetic imagination and her social conscience comes TEXT, the third section of middle chapter LOGOS {the book is mathematically structured]. Reminiscent at once of Ursula K. Le Guin and Janet Frame, this section re-creates the world in eight stages: sand, light, water, grass, summer heat, paper, snow, beds, first as a series of decontextualised fables, then as the account of a patient in a mental hospital struggling to prove her sanity, then as instructions for protestors, and finally as a limpid and haunting image of a protest in museum, live bodies and dead cultures curling around one another. Criss-crossed by the repetition of phrases, and painstakingly creating and changing voices and contexts, this section left me at once in awe of the structural and lyrical brain behind it and exhilarated by the immediacy of political poetry without dogmatism.

I could imagine G20 protestors shouting out lines from these poems in London earlier this year -- not least because the Danish title, det, is deeply suggestive. There are several poems where Christensen deals with the spiralling asymmetries created by ideas of ownership (of bodies, of objects, of language), writing that her poetry is "all something I've borrowed from the world" (STAGE/variabilities/4), thinking about writing and readership as debt -- or gift -- relationships. This is no easy happy-clappy one-for-all culture being proposed, but a thoughtful and precise devolution of the concept of ownership that still preserves some kind of selfhood: again, echoes of Le Guin, here The Dispossessed.

Like Le Guin, Christensen is gently insistent on sexuality and human touch as the indefatigable source of resistance to power, a tenderness that admits the humour of human sexuality and finds further resistance and invention in it:
Things comply with the lovers/be-
cause the lovers comply with things

if making love is prohibited/the lovers
comply with the prohibition and call it

something else/when those in power arrive
at the scene of the crime/they see only

the dust and the toppled statues/the helpless
hands and the skulls' broken edges/the whole

illiterate passion/and smile
everything is stifled/the very process

as such is shattered/everything is ridiculous
old ruins and muteness/they do not see

all the naked demonstrators/who tenderly
press themselves against the broken marble figures (TEXTS/extensions/4)
Undoubtedly, it's my extensive geekiness that causes me to imagine this scene taking place in the wrecked museum on Caprica where Starbuck goes to retrieve the arrow in Galactica Season 2. But there is something science-fictiony about Christensen's writing...

It's not just her dealings in an ambiguous utopia, a projected world, or in the fabular. It's not just that she speculates, nor that she populates her poems with oddities and juxtapositions, although they accomplish astonishing shifts of perspective and mood that a novelist would require a full book to assert. I have to quote her Lysistrata in this context:
There are lesbian feminists
hefty flesh-worshiping matrons

Bernini figures set free
baying swans

land in a plaza during siesta
line up for a protest march

naked procession through the streets
Clytemnestra in the lead

pure provocation
So what is it that sets this apart from Adrienne Rich's testament to a similar era? That surreal shift to seeing the protestors as "Bernini figures set free" and the storied reference to "Clytemnestra in the lead"? I think it's an attitude, one that Christensen sums up in STAGE/connectivities/5:
I've tried to tell about a world that doesn't exist
in order to make it exist...

I've tried to keep the world at a distance. It's been easy.
I'm used to keeping the world at a distance. I'm alien.
But this is more than Martian poetry because its riddles are political, an attempt to use poetic (il)logic to unravel the detrimental illogics of a capitalist society.

Call it what you will: speculative fiction, utopian fiction, imaginative literature. Guardian blogs and a Nobel prize for Doris Lessing notwithstanding, it's a pretty maligned genre in the serious literary world, where realism is still the (yawn) gold standard. And, let's face it, because most SF is socially and politically conservative, repetitive nonsense (but then so is most realist literary fiction). Christensen doesn't set out to show a world we know accoutred with a few snazzy toys or filtered through a kooky outsider: she wants to re-make the world, or rather she wants us to re-make it for ourselves, to recognise the world, and the language that invents and defines it, as partial, temporary, changeable, beautiful, and funny. Because we can love it and laugh at it, the world is subject to our agency -- as we are to its, as the writer is to the reader's. That causality and interconnection is why she chooses to structure LOGOS using eight terms coined by linguist Viggo Brøndal to analyze and categorize prepositional relationships: symmetry, transitivity, continuity, connectivity, variability, extension, integrity and universality. Christensen's poetry not only encompasses, but activates them, all. And while I love her fables and braided narratives, it's her reinvention of the lyric image (decentring the individual, deprettyfying nature, being funny) that lifts me into a new relationship with language and the world.
My world is discontinuous
in relation to the world as a whole
and in relation to you
it has wings

My world is a language through water
with the shining nerves distributed
as when the sun in water randomly generously
anyway it has wings

Wings of water

And I want you to know that it has a certain effect
it has a certain tingly effect
a rejoicing in the absence of cause
Leap says the world and I fly

That's how I drown my world in the world (STAGE/variabilities/5)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lorna Goodison, Guinea Woman: New and Selected Poems

I've been reading a lot of poetry in translation recently, principally from Arc's Visible Translations series, but also from Carcanet. Maybe it's just because Guinea Woman shares a publisher with Dunya Mikhail's The War Works Hard and Inger Christensen's It (see previous and forthcoming blog posts respectively) but I found myself approaching Lorna Goodison's work as if in translation.

I've also read Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems this year, and Goodison's beautiful memoir From Harvey River, so maybe the feeling of translation stems from the *un*familiarity of hearing one story told in three, or more, ways. Family tales and figures from Jamaican history recur across the three books symphonically. Somehow, the more immersed I become in Morant Bay and nayga bikkle, the more I feel that I am on unfamiliar ground as the detail brings me up close to a world that I know only through words.

That's not to say that Goodison's poetry is alienating: not at all. It is so absorbing, such sensurround writing, that reading it has the qualities of walking through a particularly vivid dream. Or rather, that's how I want to take delight in it. I follow the rigorous yet compassionate intellect that excoriates the legacy of colonialism. I follow the narrative of family and home and love. But I want to reside in this poetry as something beyond lyric's conventional trompe l'oeil, its trick of the word. It moves (in) my body the way that watching dance does, and I've never been able to write about watching dance. I need to take up the challenge suggested by the excellent feminist poetry blog delirious hem for their August forum. They are inviting submissions to O Say Can You See: nonverbal reviews and adaptations of women's poetry.

I'd like to cook my response to Goodison's work (which is alive with food, both picked and cooked), or dance it, or paint it -- Goodison is a visual artist as well; the cover painting is her own. Her poetry urges me to reach beyond my verbal skills, the wordplay I fall back on, and find embodied, five-sense expression for the sheer joy that her work releases in me. Of course, that sounds like a get-out clause ("Miss, I can't write my essay, I'm too overwhelmed by the physical pleasures of the text") and some kind of racist echo: "Oh, this Caribbean poetry is *so* physical, not literary and intellectual like "our" writing." Which is a problem of the EuroWestern dichotomous brain: if I talk about a poetry being sensuous, physical, spiritual, colourful, sexual, edible, it's immediately in the column with "female" and "non-white", as if poems that make the reader want to dance, eat, make love, run in the rain, travel, listen to grandmothers' stories, cook, sew, or laugh are second-best.

Goodison's poem "For Love of Marpessa Dawn," about a boy who falls so madly in love with the performer who played Eurydice in Black Orpheus that he convinced himself he was going to Brazil to rescue her, speaks with a warmth that is both affective and political of the non-rational inspirations of art. "We were / willing to make that leap of faith," she writes, "For we were all misplaced beings / our true selves ripped from the world book / of myths." There are poems in this book that could make me run to Jamaica to fall in love with Aunt Rose and her honey advice. It's a poetry that makes me want to serenade beneath windows as Garth Baker intends to do in Rio.

One reason that I started writing these poetry reading notes last month was to get away from the idea that practical criticism, close reading and intellectual analysis are the only acceptable ways to approach poetry. At the same time, I wanted to be rigorous in discussing how poetry affected me emotionally, physically, imaginatively and intellectually. So how does Goodison's poetry open my mindbody up to its rhythms and images? There are a number of modes and moods in the book, including incantatory poems that draw on Rastafari. There are also a number of "writing back" poems, such as "To Mr William Wordsworth, Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland," which rework the colonial relationship between Britain and Jamaica, drawing them closer and redressing historical asymmetries in a way reminiscent of Derek Walcott's work. There are many poems that bring to life memories and family histories, like "Coir" and "In City Gardens Grow No Roses as We Know Them," rich in specific flavours and speech rhythms that prefigure the intensely immersive recall of From Harvey River. And there are tender love poems like "Domestic Incense" and "A Bed of Mint" that reach back into the traditions of pre-Islamic Arabic love poetry to engender a spiritual and located erotic.

But the poems that engage me the most in terms of wanting to *write* about them, to quote them and share them, to testify about them, are a series that run throughout the book about the poet as woman/woman as poet, and the strange practice of poetry. Sometimes witty and lighthearted -- like "The Mango of Poetry" -- and sometimes lucid and medicinal as a meditation, like "Sometimes on Days Such as This," these poems are vital and astonishing, and speak something about poetry *as* embodied practice, as lived experience, that I don't think I've heard elsewhere. Goodison reveals this as "Bringing the Wild Woman Indoors," in one of the many poems in which she writes exactly about the bodily rituals that the rest of us might gloss over as habits. She sanctifies these practices of cleansing and robing not as civilisation or religion, but as tenderness, when she envisions the freshly bathed and dressed poet greeting her wild "disheveled and weeping" self, and brings "her to live inside with [her] forever." Rather than a duality of raw and cooked, the poet casts both "starched garments of white" and a "half-hemmed dress" as poses, costumes, attitudes that do not separate but parallel the "true sister[s]."

"Some Things You Do Not Know about Me" unwinds from its disingenuous title to become a rapturous account of the act of creation, a Genesis story grounded in the details of the poet's cup "rich brown like bitter chocolate" and the evening's cooking. It's a glimpse at once intimate and universal, the poet engaged in a dervish as the poem's flow sets her dancing:
Round and round the table I go
till my wild whirling
shaves the edges off the square table,
and I'm whirling now around a round table.
I go so until I fall down,
and wherever my feet are pointed
it is there that I take the poem.
Like this one, I think now I will have to take it East,
so I will light a stick of incense
and play Bob Dylan wondering
if she might be in Tangier.
Or I just might sit quietly
and take my own self there.
There's room in this ecstasy for the domestic, for music, for tired feet -- and space, too, for the layering of "there": the poem's East, Tangier, the imagination. Above all, "there" is the body not as vehicle for possession, nor as transport system for the mind, but as the threshold for the self, which is poetry.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The War Works Hard [Al Harb Ta Malu Bi Jid], Dunya Mikhail

I've been meaning to read The War Works Hard, but in typical Delirium's Library fashion its place on the "degree of urgency" pile (thanks to Gareth Evans for the phrase, and SF Said for the concept) got shifted around as I went to a jammy new indie bookstore - Clerkenwell Tales in Exmouth Market, where the manager was busy a) selling large numbers of books and b) receiving "welcome to the 'hood" champagne from Moro (as an indie bookseller manquée, I'm not sure which is more incredible) - and got distracted. Still, there's nothing like a bracing read of John Berger's and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, one of my Clerkenwell purchases, to re-engage the mind with seriousness, poetry and war. Berger is one of the great vectors of poetry in translation to English-speaking audiences, especially poetry from Turkey and the Middle East, championing Nazim Hikmet and Mahmoud Darwish among others. In and our faces, he writes that
Poems, regardless of outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.
and our faces is a collection of meditations written for New Society and The Village Voice in the early 1980s and published in 1984. Bloomsbury reprinted it in 2005, when the metaphor of poetry on the battlefield had become overwhelmingly urgent.

That urgency is something that Carol Ann Duffy bravely tried to address this weekend with a series of commissioned poems addressing the illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, published in the Guardian Review. The article takes its title, "Exit Wounds," from the pithiest and -- to my mind -- best poem in the selection, Paul Muldoon's "Afghanistan":
It's getting dark, but not dark enough to see
An exit wound as an exit strategy.
Maybe it's the couplet's brisk echo of soundbite and spin, of rock lyric and football terrace, that makes it the most successful of the contributions for me. It's a slogan but not a simple one, with an elegance and doubledness that makes it poetry. The changes rung on the dark, and the changes of scale from wound to war, are mordant and compassionate. Its stance is fierce and observant, rather than gushing with the liberal pieties that mar almost every other contribution (with Daljit Nagra's obscene paralleling of the break-up of his marriage and the long-running wars being the nadir). Alan Jenkins' scabrous "Descent" - a pastiche of Dante's Inferno - and Carol Ann Duffy's "Big Ask" (in memory of Adrian Mitchell) both bring a wide and vivid point-of-view, using poetic traditions to structure and amplify their rage and humanity. But Mitchell's voice is sorely missed amongst this crowd, not least for his ability - like Muldoon's - to work (with and against) the voice of media and popular culture. A contribution from Michael Rosen wouldn't have gone amiss: his poem "In Gaza, children" offered a YouTube generation wake-up call earlier this year, and showed him as perhaps the only current British occasion poet with both the soapbox and the style to speak up.

Rosen's committed stance, as a Jewish anti-Zionist, is perhaps what the poets assembled by Duffy lack. They have all been silent, at least publicly, until asked to go on record, and few -- if any -- appear to have a defined position. Given that contemporary British writers (Amis, McEwan) have raised swords as what Ziauddin Sardar brilliantly called the Blitcons, perhaps that's for the best -- but the poems in the Guardian use the lyric mode not to walk the battlefield tending and recording the wounded, but to frame it aesthetically, to build monuments to the writers' own grief. When Clare Shaw writers that "It Could Have Been" her child killed in Iraq, or an Iraqi child who survived in London, her universalising parallel avoids addressing her complicity, as (I presume) a British voter and taxpayer in favour of a frankly McGonogall-esque catalogue of sentimentality. It's hard to write a poem on commission about a subject as overwhelming as a war -- and what Shaw's poem, like Jo Shapcott's, tries to suggest is the insidious and omnipresent quality of these two wars that are being fought at a distance, for unclear goals. Duffy begins her article by reminding the reader that previous generations of war poets fought in wars: the current generation (of Anglo-American poets, anyway) watches war on TV. Her introduction leaves implicit the changing class histories of the military, education and poetry publishing, as well as the radical transformation of global warfare, that have created such a circumstance, and she also fails to raise the question of why these poets have not spoken out before -- and, moreover, about whether she considered seeking out Iraqi or Afghan poets living in the UK to contribute.

It's not that Iraq and Afghanistan have gone unheralded in poetry: there were multiple rapid-response anthologies (mainly from small presses and leftist poets) and Poets Against War continues to publish work online. Their poet of the month is Ibrahim Nasrallah (translated by Rick London and Omnia Amin), a Palestinian poet and journalist. Like Mikhail (whose work I will get to in a minute, promise) Nasrallah is a "war" poet by circumstance, but also by choice, whereas the poets selected by Duffy write as if they have made the difficult and negotiable choice to deign to be implicated in, and confronted by, war, as opposed to revealing, unconditionally, that it is now part of our daily lives. This stance of condescension reminds me of something Eliot Weinberger said in February 2003, when he was speaking to the “Poetry is News” conference organised by Anne Waldman and Ammiel Alcalay:
People who are poets presumably know something abut writing. So why does it never occur to them to write something other than poems? There are approximately 8000 poets registered in the Directory of American Poets—are there even four or five who have written an article against the Bush Administration?… Why must poetry magazines always be graveyards of orderly tombstones of poems?

Like Berger, Weinberger has been a vector -- as translator, essayist, journalist and speaker -- for poetry in translation, and particularly for poets who are intellectually engaged in confronting, challenging and documenting the effects of war. The phrase "war poet" contains a multitude, and Weinberger does not shy from deconstructing the narcissistic pieties of writers such as Carolyn Forché ("Reading El Salvador," Works on Paper). He could be describing most of Duffy's commissions when he writes of Forché's work that it is "written to a formula... addressed in the first person [and]... elegiac, nostalgic, melancholic, filled with references to distant, violent events. The essay ends with an excoriation that marks the very difficult and narrow line walked by any Western liberal poet looking to record the atrocities of war and our own sense of impotence and despair in the face of them:
To presume to "link arms," to declare oneself equal, with those who have endured such torment; to speak to people who will be corpses in the morning and claim that you too are digging deep into your own death - if that means anything at all - and that you have done all you could do: it is more than naïveté or audacity. It is the liberal side of colonialism... For Forché, civil war is an emblem of guilt... She is the kind of political poet produced in the age of the personal crisis.

What, then, is a poet to do? Perform a poetic version of Sacha Baron Cohen's lifestyling disguises in order to find a place from which to speak "authentically" -- because that could seem to be where I'm heading by/towards Dunya Mikhail, to say "Only an Iraqi poet can speak legitimately and convincingly about [ie: for] Iraq." It's not. Some of Mikhail's poems, such as the well-known title poem "The War Works Hard" (read it on, along with two other poems from the book) are alive with ironies and horrors embedded in detailed observation, in a kind of closeness to the subject matter. Mikhail's plangent innocences, her simple declarative style, poses a hard-won clarity: a double-edged blade that cuts reader and poet equally. In other poems, the simplicity feels reductive -- perhaps because the translation (and Elizabeth Winslow's translation is pellucid almost to the point of invisible) cannot convey the delicate and radical work that Mikhail is doing in Arabic, reworking traditions, metaphors, wordplay.

The poems are undated, so it's hard in some cases to tell what the immediate motive or root of an individual poem might be, and therefore to delve into theories as to whether the poetry loses its emphasis after Mikhail leaves Iraq for the US in 1996. But two recent poems suggest that the division isn't that simple: "Inanna" and "An Urgent Call" (addressed to Lynndie England) have a febrile immediacy, an engaged energy, that deals exactly in the territory of watching the war on TV. Inanna, widely worshipped in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), was famously considered the forerunner of Aphrodite as a goddess of love, but she was also a member of the Sumerian war pantheon. In Mikhail's poem, she speaks both love and war, and the strange relationship between the two created by new media that allow the viewer to observe the battlefield without being near enough to cross it, or to bring succour. Watching from afar, Inanna sees her "old neighbors / on the TV / running / from bombs, / sirens / and Abu Al-Tubar [a burglar and murder, nicknamed 'the hatchet man', whose rule of terror in Baghdad occurred in 1973 at the same time as the Kzar coup and threatened the control of the Ba'ath party]."

Inanna watches her "new neighbors / on the sidewalks / running / for their morning exercises." The exact physicality of the comparison works like Muldoon's neat couplet, overlaying two images rendered disparate not by scale but by location and situation. The absurdity is implicit rather than voiced, displaced into the larger absurdity of Inanna's situation "here / thinking of the relationship / between the mouse and the computer": this is the crucial turning point in the poem, from Inanna's stance as observer to her sense of implication, as she starts yelling through the screen at the looters on both sides: "Behave, you sons of the dead!" The relationship between the mouse and the computer is one that I don't think about that often, but Mikhail's Inanna suggests that it's a useful one for thinking about the relationship of the poet to the world. The computer (world) can function without the mouse, even without an operator: it goes on processing, glitching, being remotely commanded, running to programme. But the mouse (poet) may not derive her power from the computer, but certainly derives her purpose.

So poet as navigator, as pointer, as executor of actions. I've been part of some discussions recently about whether "point-and-click" politics and charity are all they are cracked up to be: does signing an online petition imply the same kind of commitment as going on a march or writing a letter? But digital democracy is ripe with potential (something Weinberger exploits by circulating his articles via listservs and email) and also as a model for a new poetics, something Juliana Spahr investigates in thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs, the finest poem I've read about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Mikhail, Spahr suggests the poet as mouse, directing the reader to this story and that, building an alternative web within the web, always on the move. A click of the mouse may not be a long walk to freedom, but as a model for "war" poetry, its questing intelligence, its ability to highlight, choose, and act has a brilliant balance of observation and agency. It can leads the reader (and poet) into the screen, into communication with the impossibly distant warriors and civilians trapped behind the glass, towards something more considered than a false alliance predicated on "It Could Have Been", something more mobile and immediate than a monument. Mikhail, in her stance as "war" poet and war goddess, is defiantly the mouse that roared.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Kill the Radio

When I read Charismatic Megafauna and could only write cascades of exclamation marks in my notebooks until they looked like Woodstock chattering away in Peanuts, I wasn't sure how to approach making my thoughts public -- until I read Linda Hutcheon's latest thoughts on reviewing and it kicked my ass into realising that reviewing is about honesty, not making people like you. Reviewers are *not* charismatic megafauna (all those large mammals that people feel kindly towards while they eat their pig sandwiches). Or if they are, they're tigers.

Here's the thing: I think that Tamsin Kendrick has a compelling voice and has parlayed her striking performance poetry into poems that work on the page: no easy thing.

And yet.

And yet, with such a compelling voice at her service, she uses it to hymn female passivity and romanticise male violence. At first I thought that this pissed me off because it's within the framework of her Christian faith and I am not a fan of organised religion. But then I was reading Lorna Goodison's Guinea Woman today and her Rastafari poems filled me with their spirited joy. Also, I stand in awe of John Donne's metaphysical turn from human to divine erotic, and especially the poem "Batter my heart, three person'd God." Kendrick has her sights on a similar metaphysical shock and awe, but there's shock value in the violence of some of her images, there's also the yawn factor in reading yet _another_ cultural text that praises the passive, waiting female who gets turned on by a beating. I wonder if she could apply her talents to examining the conjunction of sex, violence and the Church in, for example, a residential school in Canada? Or the Inquisition? She has the verbal fireworks to make it happen: but the ethical imagination? Another question.

Of course, not all poetry has to engage in critical analysis or political history. But accepting, and even lavishing seductive descriptions upon, the metaphysical and masochistic knots of violence and desire in the Christian faith (and in patriarchy) seems, to me, a dangerous thing. And that's why I was so excited to discover Dorothea Rosa Hearliany's Kill the Radio on my reading pile -- reminded that it was there by the fact that she didn't come to Ledbury this week, courtesy of the fools at the Home Office. Instead of playing broken Barbies for teenage kicks, Herliany comes out swinging with love poems that end with images of castration and devouring. She brings an askance wit to the conjunction of violence and desire, exploring the hunger of it, its oscillation between the parties in a relationship, its flow _against_ power.

And that's where her book really stands out: this is writing with no time for the status quo, including the status quo that demands a polemic poetry of resistance. There's no spelling out a political stance here. Instead, her poems re-route communication: they send "secret sex telegrams" so intimate they burn the eye, "kill the radio," write "one letter after another, not knowing your address, / and never sent them to you" ("There Are Many Paths...").In the silence and the confusion of address, they speak with an amazingly direct language, a fierce assault on political and personal hypocrisy where the suppression of (female) sexuality in the public (and private) sphere is paralleled with political suppression. Like W.S. Graham, she is as fierce with the reader as she is with her lovers, paralleled in the "you" the poem calls out. Writing about the day of Suharto's resignation, she tells the reader:
you were aware of almost nothing
in the world where you lived
your life was a brief tale
which interested no-one. ("One Day in Indonesia").

Yet this strident poet striding the streets of Yogyakarta frequently compares herself to a snail "carrying [her] restless shell from one swamp to another" ("Uncoloured Symphony"). The snail's first appearance provides a beautiful metaphor for the work of poetry. Struggling to write in "Talking Trash," the poet says:
i am like a snail with no trail to follow.
searching for the home
it carries on its back.
Yes: this is the work of poetry, looking backwards and forwards at once, quixotic and never resigned, never comfortable, seeking the perfect, unseeable grammar of the snail shell's spirals. And there are many poems in the collection that offer a snail's-eye view of the shell, its immensity seen in fragments. I love the series of letters for Nadia, Jennifer, Julia and Lorena which articulate a rare poetry of female friendship, of the erotics of the letter, "the breath of your foreign love" ("A Letter For Nadia"). I rage with the furious poem "Cardboard Houses," which ends, in the voice of the houses' dwellers, " 'we are commercial objects / turned into victims / by your conscience!' " (The poem's subtitle, "—for a third-rate movie" makes me think, irresistibly of Slumdog Millionaire).

And then there are two poems that operate in some sphere beyond for me, because they are about music: something that I don't understand at all, but something that moves me, especially when turned into language. I should add here that the translator Harry Aveling, who worked with Herliany on the poems, does a fantastic job, preserving the immediacy of the poems. His introduction also papered over my shameful ignorance of Indonesian recent history. Maybe that's one reason these two poems catch at me, because the references to Western classical music make me feel that I'm on safe(r) ground.

And yet.

Part 4 of "There Are Many Paths in the Old City of Melancholy" begins with the poet imagining "Joan Sutherland singing Mozart's Die Zauberflote / but it is a tiny woman begging for coins," an image that reminded me hallucinatorily of Tsai Ming-Liang's film I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (set on the Malaysian/Indonesian border), which was part of Peter Sellars' New Crowned Hope festival of work inspired by Mozart's late operas. An act of prescience, yes, but its uncanny force is met -- and perhaps exceeded -- by the haunting fragment 9 of "Kill the Radio":
i thought it was beethoven, reaching out:
silence had frozen around the door. the embrace
was perfect.

i was not yet asleep, but very tired.
i heard steps approaching,
they were too soft to be loneliness

the room was distant, sad: kilometers away
a car roared, half-way home.
then the silence returned - the old silence,
dancing alone.

but it was not beethoven.
That's my feeling reading Herliany: I thought it was [x] / but it was not. She leads you in, persuades you to listen, allows you to feel nuances of nuances, and then turns -- like Graham's "beast in the cage" -- and brings you into the "old silence", the chaos of making criss-crossed by silvery snail-trails of her lines. Their effect is gradual but utter. "One Day in Indonesia" is not enough for me: I want more "secret sex telegrams" and lost letters from this major poet. And I want to hear her read. Home Office, take note: this is not a woman to mess with.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Sarah Hesketh, Napoleon's Travelling Library

I've been engaged in my favourite form of work-avoidance, browsing poetry publishers' back catalogues -- in this case, Carcanet's, in order to take advantage of their 20% summer discount. Lots of titles caught my eye, but one -- Daniel Weissbort's Nietzsche's Attaché Case -- made me wonder if a new genre is emerging: poems and/or collections concerning the minutiae of the lives of famous men, the way in which these noted individuals accompanied and catalogued themselves.

Sarah Hesketh's Napoleon's Travelling Bookshelf -- published this month by the wonderful Penned in the Margins -- is not only concerned with the eminent, but it's full of curiosity as to how we catalogue, carry and discard our lives. The title poem finds Napoleon reading amidst Russian wastes, and others draw out similar moments of intense introspection and awareness against dramatic backgrounds: a mentally-ill woman struck by the "new necessity / of forever remembering the waltz" in "The Ballroom at West Riding Asylum" or friends "expecting the mutter of wings" in "Waiting for the Indiana Night Moth." Hesketh's poems often touch on moments of heightened expectation, rather than of loss or satisfaction, the moments in which we catch ourselves thinking, observe ourselves and commit the observation to memory. "Saturday Night Fly" and "Faking" both make this moment of awareness -- in the context of dressing up to go dancing, and negotiating with a lover -- glitter with specificity.

The poems themselves generate heightened expectations because of their precise and inventive titling, frequently conjuring images or whole narratives, from opener "Wild Boar of New York" to the final poem (and one of my favourites) "Suzanna Ibsen is cold." Wildness -- particularly of the snowy kind -- and femininity run quietly as themes through the book, culminating in a moving elegy for the playwright's wife that extends the genre (?) of wife poem pioneered by Carol Ann Duffy in The World's Wife.Suzanna echoes the characteristics of Ibsen's heroines -- "Ghosts / live in her bones" -- becoming an embodiment of his "large theatre-throat" in a subtle meditation on the relationship of literature to life. There's no bookshelf here where Ibsen catalogues his life -- except Suzanna herself (and her "rack of disappointment").

It's in this context of gathering that poems like "Green Song", "23 Kinds of Solitaire" and "Chaconne for Ice" fall into place. On their own, each seems like a workshop exercise working through shades, names and images. Offset by the wittily-named "The Year is 2095 and Bjorn is Planting Seeds from the Norwegian Ark," these poems of change-ringing become an enquiry into the human desire to collect, collate and preserve against an imagined future. Often, the poems appear to emerge from such acts of collecting that turn the poet's awareness to news stories, and their details, that the general reader might pass by as unimportant to the scope of history. "The Ladies of France Buy New Shoes" and "Warsaw Uprising" surface the small (and seemingly inconsequential) details of lived experience from overwhelming narrative of WWII. Poignancy is saved from mawkishness by Hesketh's ability to inhabit a real, defiant voice in each situation. Although the ladies of France walk with "the whole foot leaving the ground at once," they are grounded, earthy, worldly, and the Uprising comes to the reader in "the brack and the flail / of mudsuck and sewer-snipe."

These are ambitious -- in the sense of a large-minded writer with a strong sense of historical responsibility -- without being arrogant: it's their precision, but also their stance aslant. Hesketh gives a hint of her poetic manifesto in "Casting", which advocates not being the queen, but
the messenger
who will take the letter
that is always delivered too late.
Slipping scenes somewhere on the ship
to Norway. Lost from sight
behind the ice-mapped waves.

There's a glancing reference to Hamlet in that messenger on the ship, and therein to Eliot's Prufrock who pronounces himself "not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do." So in the apparent stance askance is also declaration of intent. No walk on the beach here, but ice-mapped waves: a colder landscape, etched as copperplate. Hesketh is a fine poet, in the calligraphic sense, a poet of blade-like enjambment and almost aphoristic lines. This, from the end of "Lillith's Lament":

I taught my children several things:
never to roost where the apples grow;
never consent to lying below.