Monday, November 29, 2010
An odd weekend's reading: Mrs. Dalloway's Party by Virginia Woolf, a "lost classic"; and Dervla Murphy's The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba, published by Eland, one of those presses whose elegant logo remains a guarantee of a provocative read (I'm thinking also of Verso, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year). Woolf's stories, which single out and interweave different characters attending the party that closes her novel Mrs. Dalloway, is full of her customary precipitate percipience -- made all the more marked by the slenderness of each story and character, no more than (no less than: these stories are all concerned with mirrors, fabrics, shimmer) polished surfaces that reflect passionate aphorisms.
Scintillating, soul-charging -- but frivolous? The Island That Dared is about the overthrow of the bejewelled aristocratic society that Woolf eulogises in her novel. Murphy's travel writing has always been intellectually (as well as physically) intrepid, but her engagement with Cuba leads her to interweave travelogue and political history, reading moments from Cuba's various wars and revolutions into the landscape she traverses. More personal and more transparently angry than Sebald, Murphy nevertheless pursues a similar engagement between the detail of place and the layers of human interaction written into it, and from it.
I bought both books at the same time, from the same shop (the marvellous Clerkenwell Tales), along with Bluestockings and The Jewish Husband.
Amazon would no doubt have just the algorithm to understand my purchase (although would it notice the basic common denominator: all four books have female authors) and to predict (or rather, nudge me towards) future purchases. Participating in debates about the value of criticism, and of arts and humanities in general, of late, I've come to realise that there is a common critical understanding of reviewing as similar to Amazon's "If you like this..." function. And, subsequently, wondering how I feel about being a human algorithm/cultural personal shopper, which is where the idea of humanities' "value for money" as currently pitched against the government's cuts ends up -- telling us how to buy better, buy smarter, and make more things to buy.
So how to explode criticism so that it's also a critique of the marketplace in which it (inevitably) circulates? Is it enough to write outside the official circulation of paid criticism, to write subjectively, occasionally, tangentially, speculatively? What kind of connections can my mind make between the books that does not package them into handy recommended reading? What do they share (even in contradicting each other) that is sustaining and sustainable rather than a surface BOGOF marketing hook? Because, of course, there's nothing random about even the most random of reading lists: they are curated by my opportunity (educational as well as retail), language, location and history (all four are publications from the last five years), politics (gender, but also internationalism) and that more indefinable momentousness that Woolf describes so well: the way we are caught in the double web of historical time and the time of consciousness as they link to and break into each other.
Woolf, as a politically-engaged writer, endlessly rehearses and revises her arguments about the "value" of arts and critical thinking, about the social intervention of the artist, not only in her essays but through her characters as they grasp at and flutter with such moments. Murphy's travel books, which move deeper into place rather than moving ever onwards, are in themselves workings-out of Judith Butler's argument that "at global level, there can be no ethics without a sustained practice of translation -- between languages, but also between forms of media" (Frames of War).
Murphy's mingling of sense-impressions and incisive political history is not only a work of translation, but of aesthetics - a response to the particular expressions of colour, sound, joy, ecology, memory and attentive community that she encounters in Cuba. As Woolf writes: "but the root of things, what they were afraid of saying, was that happiness is dirt cheap. You can have it for nothing. Beauty." According to Jeremy Hunt, this is superficially why artists should work for free, 'paid' by the pleasure that we derive from our work. But I think Woolf's argument is more radical and tendentious than that, more in line with Murphy's encounter with Castro's Cuba: that arts can remind people that capitalism is a bizarre wrong turning in human history, a powerful and distracting illusion that stops us looking in the mirror and disallows daring; that turns impassioned writing from a conversation to a commodity and means there's no way for me to recommend that you read these books without shilling for Bertelsmann...
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
But there were poets writing about the conflict who were not impossibly remote, but held in a prison that is ostensibly US sovereign territory on a Caribbean island, poets whose rights and lives were scrutinised in detail by the press, and whose orange jumpsuits have become a visual shorthand in contemporary cinema, poets who do not fit our conventional image of war poets as noble combatants under sufferance. As they were written about, so many of those held at Guantánamo wrote: on polystyrene cups, with toothpaste, and later - as a humanitarian gift from the guards - with paper and pencils. Many of these poems were destroyed as a threat to US security, but some were smuggled out by human rights activists and lawyers, and collected in Poems from Guantánamo.
In her most recent book Frames of War, Judith Butler takes up this collection to explore two questions (well, many interwoven questions, as ever in Butler's complex thought, but two that I want to tease out): what is it that poetry can do, or does, that might make it a threat to US security; and she finds the start of a response to a larger question ("what is the self?") in her answer. Poetry records both the injurability of the body in conditions of war and torture, and its ability to survive. On the surface, both of these might challenge 'official' narratives of Guantánamo by creating sympathy for prisoners, and by providing evidence of torture.
But looking deeper, Butler argues that these poems, recording injurability and survivability, attest to the interconnected social nature of the body and self in a way that complicates the frame of war, which demands, in her words, that some lives be rendered worth less than other lives, or even not lives at all, and therefore ungrievable. So poetry, because it is shaped around recording the affect of the writer and generating affect in the reader, can restore grievability to these devalued lives with maximum impact.
But Butler also points to the nature of poems as written artefacts:
The words are carved in cups, written on paper, recorded onto a surface, in an effort to leave a mark, a trace, of a living being - a sign formed by the body, a sign that carries the life of the body. And even when what happens to a body is not survivable, the words survive to say as much. This is also poetry as evidence and as appeal, in which each word is finally meant for another. (Frames of War, 59)The materiality of these poems, their embodiment - she goes on to talk about the relationship between poetry and breath - make them part of the exchange that is the interdependence of self and other.
What Butler doesn't add is that there is a long and lasting tradition of poetry as a social art throughout the Arabic and Persian speaking worlds, of poetry as part of the weaving of community as it is performed at ceremonies and parties and in competitions. Poetry is "meant for another" in this sense as well: meant to connect backwards through references to the Qu'ran and even pre-Islamic poetry that still echoes in composition in Arabic today; and meant to connect forwards (or rather sideways, through the bars) to make a prison - an enforced atomisation - into a community where each self speaks with and answers to another, and thus each poet restores himself to grievable life, not by writing for himself, but for the others.
I think this note of cultural specificity, oriented to the shared poetics of the Qu'ran as a communal literary form, adds weight to Butler's reading of how the
poems communicate another sense of solidarity, of interconnected lives that carry on each others' words, suffer each others' tears, and form networks that pose an incendiary risk not only to national security, but to the form of global sovereignty championed by the US… As a network of transitive affects, the poems - their writing and their dissemination - are critical acts of resistance, insurgent interpretations, incendiary acts. (Frames of War, 62)
Tuesday, November 02, 2010
In a dress she had embroidered with the names of her foremothers (going back ten generations), Ehin read poems about the daughters of the sea mother and their green cows; bird-brides; and purple skies. Rather than metaphors, her poems delve into the myth-kitty -- there's no referential pomo fun and games, but an inhabiting. As Sujata Bhatt suggests in her introduction to The Scent..., this full-bodied entry into Estonian mythology and language is political, after a period in which "all those who were writing and even speaking the language of the people had to experience severe clashes and struggles with the oppressor's tongue." Bhatt quotes from the charter for a poetry festival that Ehin organised in Estonia:
Creating poetry was not just some private, personal matter for Estonians but a communal activity and shared joy of creation full of collective power.Drawing on the tradition of oral poetry to speak to an audience made of humans and the world -- and to remake that world continuously and collaboratively -- Ehin's poetry contains and continues stories passed from mother to daughter and the moss and icewater of the Estonian landscape, as well as the larger political history that has been inscribed upon it. In Ehin's poems, these things are not separate from one another, but contiguous and deeply implicated:
Together with the dusk I become
more like the white lilac
ever more summer-night nocturnal
more noctural that this rainless Seven Brothers' Day night
I fall ever deeper into the lap of night
between the back garden's nettle bushes
I don't need your fire today
today I embrace
the big pure moon
to warm myself
I become more and more evening
ever more boat-like
more girlish and young-mannish
(Translated by Ilmar Lehtpere)
In her writing about motherhood and female sexuality, there is a feminism at once pragmatic and fairy tale, in which "the life of human women / … puts fetters on the heart / … and feelings only give rise to grief." The mood is close to Björk's "Human Behaviour" and to Moominvalley (which lies not far from Finland's Estonian border): Ehin, like Björk, seems to step from the cold, clear water of otherworlds with a solidity and practicality -- and a strangeness –- that our more southerly fey folk have lost.
Although "Aase Berg's poetry is nothing short of cutting-edge," as Lisa Jarnot notes, its language play fully immersed in the challenges posed by modernism and postmodernism to the stability of meaning, the poems in Remainland come from, and with, a similar otherworldliness: one that has been turned swampy and even cyborgic in and by cosmopolitan globalisation. The continuities of ritual and rural life that Ehin draws on -- and of whose disintegration she is keenly aware -- are echoic fragments in Berg's work, which could be called science fiction to Ehin's fantasy. But I hear a resonance between the poem quoted above and Berg's "The Dark Dovre":
Now I have waited here close by in the deep nights of Dovre. I have dropped cold stones into the blue chasm. I have tried to handle metal. I have moved through the graininess of the face. With fingers I have sought you through the ashes of the facial shape. Bloody wing quills have shot out of my hand, and I have dragged dark fins through water.Daniel Sjölin writes in the introduction to the book that Berg's poetry is "an unstable, risky and asocial research process" and contrasts it to "formal completion, purity and refinement" -- but Berg's poetry, with its fingers getting dirty in the matter of matter and myth, suggests a way out of this dichotomy through what it shares with Ehin's (undoubtedly lyrical) work. Both poets have written viscerally about motherhood (the mater of materia), and they elide and elude ideas of realism and the 'voice' for a more complex, archaic form of story-singing: new Mother Geese with new lullabies to scent the dark with their shadows.
(Translated by Johannes Göransson)
Wednesday, October 06, 2010
I've recently read two completely different novels about being in between: Brigid Brophy's In Transit, published by the wonderful Dalkey Archive Press, and Sheri S. Tepper's Beauty, number 14 in the Fantasy Masterworks series. I've been curious about both authors for a while, and the books -- a puntastic fantasia upon revolutions and transitions both political and personal, and a first-person retelling of Sleeping Beauty with time-travelling fairy boots and a stark ecological message -- were purchased in similar circumstances: catching my eye in a bookstore display as I was browsing for something to read over a meal/journey. Brophy's experimental tongue-twizzlers and Tepper's clear-eyed fairy tale have nothing else in common.
Except: except they are both about being caught between. Which is maybe what all books are about -- at least, about the reader's experience of being caught between pages. (Or the characters: both novels have first person protagonists who are self-aware of their literary status). Of being caught between books with nothing to read. Of catching one book between two others.
Which brings me back to the library of libraries. To the library as the physicalisation of suspension of disbelief.
Bear with me. I haven't slept. I got home at 5 am after finishing a project that began at the British Library. After delivering it in distant Pimlico, it seemed like a good idea to hit Tate Britain, for Rachel Whiteread's Drawings. Which contains libraries. A library, specifically, but multiplied by sketches and maquettes.
Which is not surprising: Whiteread's drawings, often on graph paper, appear at first to refer to IKEA and the industrialisation of design. The show is even organised like the store: table and chair; floor; closet; switch, window and door; beds and mattresses; ceiling; stairs; and bookshelves. Whiteread is best known for her Turner Prize-winning cast House, so this innocuous domesticity seems - and is - appropriate.
But what the bookshelves conceal/cancel in their even blankness, the books nothing but concealer fluid-spines, is possibly Whiteread's most moving work, exhibited in maquette: her Holocaust memorial. The cast of a library whose doors lead only into the impossible density of nothing. It's the opposite of Roni Horn's Library of Water, but also its companion in mourning. Whiteread's drawings in correction fluid on graph paper bridge Bridget Riley's patterned abstractions and Horn's cut up drawings: both Whiteread and Horn are fascinated by translucence and its opposite. There are Whiteread's famous resin casts -- but also a series of postcards exhibited at the Tate, where she has punched holes of various sizes into images of famous buildings and landscapes, always leaving the sky clear.
How does that relate to libraries? Light passes through the glass columns of Horn's Library of Water, but is stopped -- literally -- dead by Whiteread's Holocaust memorial. Neither of them can hold the light (or life): they can record, but not, ultimately, preserve. They cannot act, except as witnesses. They can apprehend intellectually but not physically. How can we read the bookshelf that hid/betrayed the Secret Annexe where the Franks lived in hiding? And more insistently: what do we pass through or into when we enter the door of the library, or the door that is the cover of a book? How do we register that transit (which is life)?
Monday, June 14, 2010
Jason Read, The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present
Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: the End of Capitalism or the End of the World
Paul Avrich, The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States
The British Library (socialist? capitalist? what's your take on copyright libraries?, with apologies to Le Tigre) had all three, and I whiled away a few afternoons reading them and making incomprehensible notes, but one I kept coming back to was: boys on my left side, boys on my right side, boys in the middle, and you're not here. There are small loans from the girl zone in each book: Jason Read briefly mentions gender, and some Marxist feminist writing from the 1970s; Joel Kovel asserts that the hierarchisation of the sex/gender binary is the foundational moment for both human inequality, and exclusionary thinking that divides ecology into humans and the "environment," while dismissing eco-feminism as flawed by a) goddess-worship and b) in-fighting (hello, the 1970s called, and they want their stereotypes back); and Paul Avrich, er, mentions Emma Goldman. And some female teachers, without ever exploring whether the anarchist school movement addressed the socialisation of gender in education (from the description of some of the womanising, supported-by-girlfriend teachers, not so much) -- despite the presence of Goldman and some connections to the group of leftist magazines and writer-activists charted by Nancy Berke in Women Poets on the Left.
Of course, I'm being a little flippant: all three books speak to important impulses, theories and flows that come together with various feminism(s) towards building community and overthrowing capitalism. I'm also particularly grateful for Jason Read's citation which (re)turned me to Giorgio Agamben's The Coming Community, which I read and have been quoting to friends with a worrying fervour. But I'm also not being flippant. All three books are written by white American male academics, and it seems to me that one urgent principle of social justice is a diversity of voices, not for its own sake, but because justice is best effected by listening broadly and learning widely from people who have something worth saying grounded in their particular and contrastive experience.
So these are some of the books I will be (re)reading as I travel west to California, with all the histories that that journey carries for me as a European, as an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi, as a film lover, as a teenage Beat, as a queer, as a radical, as an invader, as a polluter, as a dreamer. There's only one book of poetry (Deborah Miranda's, rooted in Esselen and Chumash ecologies) mentioned, but the list is haunted by others -- perhaps not materialising because it feels over-determined/over-determining/over-shadowing to suggest poetries. Or even poetics.
Please, please add your own: the reading of your journey, of your plans, of your dreams, because this workshop (once you get over reading about the horrors of capital and feeling like you can't go on, you must go on, you can't go on) is -- *has* to be -- radically, pragmatically utopian. I'd love to read more books about Californias: Chumash, Chicana, Depression, migrant worker, suburban, mythological, economic, as guerrilla garden, as caliphate...
I'd also love recommendations for films to see that might link into and light up a radical poetics -- on the California front, I love (love? hard word for a complicatedly beautiful film) The Exiles; likewise Killer of Sheep. Is there a Bay Area equivalent of Los Angeles Plays Itself? A Canyon Cinema round-up? Or a remake/retake/reup of the eco-feminist radical anti-capitalist politics of Lizzie Borden's awesome Born in Flames? Or as downright gorgeous as Jenn Reeves' 16mm eco-film-poem When It Was Blue?
Links are to publishers rather than Amazon where possible; if books are out of print, I link to a review. Please support independent publishers and booksellers. And libraries.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence
John Berger, Here is Where We Meet
For crossing the border:
Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times
Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape
Gloria Anzadúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home
Deborah A. Miranda, The Zen of La Llorona
Rebecca Solnit, The Field Guide to Getting Lost
Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others
Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World
Daniel Kane, We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry
For building community:
Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
Ruth's diary is the new novel by Fiona Robyn, called Thaw. She has decided to blog the novel in its entirety over the next few months, so you can read it for free.
Ruth's first entry is below, and you can continue reading tomorrow here.
These hands are ninety-three years old. They belong to Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. She was so frail that her grand-daughter had to carry her onto the set to take this photo. It’s a close-up. Her emaciated arms emerge from the top corners of the photo and the background is black, maybe velvet, as if we’re being protected from seeing the strings. One wrist rests on the other, and her fingers hang loose, close together, a pair of folded wings. And you can see her insides.
The bones of her knuckles bulge out of the skin, which sags like plastic that has melted in the sun and is dripping off her, wrinkling and folding. Her veins look as though they’re stuck to the outside of her hands. They’re a colour that’s difficult to describe: blue, but also silver, green; her blood runs through them, close to the surface. The book says she died shortly after they took this picture. Did she even get to see it? Maybe it was the last beautiful thing she left in the world.
I’m trying to decide whether or not I want to carry on living. I’m giving myself three months of this journal to decide. You might think that sounds melodramatic, but I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether it’s all worth it. I’ve seen the look in people’s eyes. Stiff suits travelling to work, morning after morning, on the cramped and humid tube. Tarted-up girls and gangs of boys reeking of aftershave, reeling on the pavements on a Friday night, trying to mop up the dreariness of their week with one desperate, fake-happy night. I’ve heard the weary grief in my dad’s voice.
So where do I start with all this? What do you want to know about me? I’m Ruth White, thirty-two years old, going on a hundred. I live alone with no boyfriend and no cat in a tiny flat in central London. In fact, I had a non-relationship with a man at work, Dan, for seven years. I’m sitting in my bedroom-cum-living room right now, looking up every so often at the thin rain slanting across a flat grey sky. I work in a city hospital lab as a microbiologist. My dad is an accountant and lives with his sensible second wife Julie, in a sensible second home. Mother finished dying when I was fourteen, three years after her first diagnosis. What else? What else is there?
Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. I looked at her hands for twelve minutes. It was odd describing what I was seeing in words. Usually the picture just sits inside my head and I swish it around like tasting wine. I have huge books all over my flat; books you have to take in both hands to lift. I’ve had the photo habit for years. Mother bought me my first book, black and white landscapes by Ansel Adams. When she got really ill, I used to take it to bed with me and look at it for hours, concentrating on the huge trees, the still water, the never-ending skies. I suppose it helped me think about something other than what was happening. I learned to focus on one photo at a time rather than flicking from scene to scene in search of something to hold me. If I concentrate, then everything stands still. Although I use them to escape the world, I also think they bring me closer to it. I’ve still got that book. When I take it out, I handle the pages as though they might flake into dust.
Mother used to write a journal. When I was small, I sat by her bed in the early mornings on a hard chair and looked at her face as her pen spat out sentences in short bursts. I imagined what she might have been writing about; princesses dressed in star-patterned silk, talking horses, adventures with pirates. More likely she was writing about what she was going to cook for dinner and how irritating Dad’s snoring was.
I’ve always wanted to write my own journal, and this is my chance. Maybe my last chance. The idea is that every night for three months, I’ll take one of these heavy sheets of pure white paper, rough under my fingertips, and fill it up on both sides. If my suicide note is nearly a hundred pages long, then no-one can accuse me of not thinking it through. No-one can say; ‘It makes no sense; she was a polite, cheerful girl, had everything to live for’, before adding that I did keep myself to myself. It’ll all be here. I’m using a silver fountain pen with purple ink. A bit flamboyant for me, I know. I need these idiosyncratic rituals; they hold things in place. Like the way I make tea, squeezing the tea-bag three times, the exact amount of milk, seven stirs. My writing is small and neat; I’m striping the paper. I’m near the bottom of the page now. Only ninety-one more days to go before I’m allowed to make my decision. That’s it for today. It’s begun.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Likewise (or somehow connectedly -- my brain is still full of Xmas pudding so beware tenuous connections) the pleasure of catching up with characters as they grow up. Sally Lockhart, now a mother, a transformation that Pullman (one of those rare male authors who writes female subjectivities well -- better, I think, than male) carries off with aplomb. He even manages a short passage of third-person-slanted narration through Sally's toddler daughter Harriet. Hats off to him. Hats off, also, to Hilary McKay, who has returned to the beloved Casson family with what, fingers crossed, might be becoming a new Rose book. At the moment it's a years' worth of blog in Rose's inimitable voice. True to the theme of this post, it ends with a wonderful and seasonal post about snö (explanation for spelling forthcoming), and it's worth reading through the earlier posts (downloadable as PDFs) for Rose's frozen bedroom experience.
With the Victoriana pile dealt with (Tiger in the Well features little snow, sadly, but a hell of a lot of plot-relevant rain), the only literature snowy enough to meet the season is Scandinavian detective fiction which, legend has it, always begins with (or at least contains) the line: "There was snow." or "It was snowing." or "Snow had fallen." In Scandetectiviana, snow forms a major plot point as well as a mood message: there's always bodies stuck under the ice, or snow covering tracks (with Miss Smilla as the original, if not the best, case). So I was a little disappointed about the lack of snö (which is, of course, snow pronounced with a Muppet Show Swedish Chef accent) in the Swedish film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (of course Hollywood has optioned a remake, which is about as necessary as a remake of Let the Right One In, a film that neatly combined vampires [very Victorian] with snö). Altogether too summery, frankly, despite the rather sparkly winter opening, a witty moment involving a wood stove/MacBook juxtaposition, and proof that you can jog in the snow. I suppose to Swedes, snow is a fact of life, not a cinematic attraction.
I think it's also part of author Stieg Larsson's lighter take on the thriller: not that the Millennium Trilogy isn't replete with (knuckle-)cracking action and gory murders, but the central characters, journalist Mikael Blomqvist and hacker Lisbeth Salander, don't come with the prerequisite long dark snowfall of the soul for which the external weather is pathetic fallacy, as in Wallander (which I mainly like for the TV series' theme tune, Nostalgia by the fantabulous Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo). In fact, there was a surprising amount of laughter during the press screening. Larsson had the enviable gift (brought out by director Niels Arden Oplev) of injecting ironic humour into the human relationships that form around the grimmest of situations.
This relentlessly thrillerish trailer (walking away from explosions, lots of chase sequences and fast editing) doesn't really convey the warm, human nature of the books or film, but it does include Noomi Rapace, who plays Lisbeth Salander. Speculation that Kristen Stewart or Ellen Page could pull this role off seems ludicrous. What we need is Fairuza Balk!