January Reading Summary

So what has my first month of reading freedom brought me? By freedom, I mean of course not having to read any books for review, following my own whims and jumping into rabbit holes. There was only one book that I had already promised to review, and that was the controversial story of child killers The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts. But other than that, I was free as a bird or a butterfly, so which flowers have I alighted on?

11 books, no less, and some of these were massive 500+ books, so great in terms of quantity, but also of quality.

First and foremost, January has got me obsessed with Romanian playwright, novelist and essayist Mihail Sebastian. I read his polemical novel about being Jewish in Romania, his essay in response to the outrage he experienced upon publication of that novel, and his diaries which pick up the story from where he left it off in the novel. I am also now rereading his novels and trying to get hold of his plays (in Romanian, of course, but some of his work has been translated into English, with more forthcoming).

Traditional uniform of Hungarian Hussars.

I’ve become equally absorbed with the work of Miklos Banffy, as I read the second and third books in his Transylvanian trilogy after a year’s break following the first volume. I was so reluctant to reemerge into the real world after bathing in that beautiful description of a vanished world, although I was slightly disappointed that the story stops with the outbreak of the war (and Balint’s family all gaily setting off as Hussars in the army). I will be reviewing the trilogy shortly for my #EU27Project, and beware! It might end up being a bit of a mammoth post.

The third obsession this month has been poets talking about poetry, where they find inspiration, the craft of poetry, what a poet’s role is in society etc. I’ve started with Denise Levertov and Maxine Kumin, but have a few others planned for next month.

Idyllic landscape of Rwanda today, hiding the scars of yesterday, from Africa.com

I read a lot of women this month too. In addition to the two poets, I also read Scholastique Mukasonga’s remarkable account of a rapidly disappearing traditional way of Tutsi life in Rwanda just prior to the genocide The Barefoot Woman. Another woman’s account of war was Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls, a very different book, not based on personal experience, more shouty than understated.

I’ve also read Jana Benova‘s Seeing People Off, a Slovakian entry to my #EU27Project. I still have to write the full review of this short, snappy novel, a series of vignettes offering an often hilarious, satirical account of post-Communist life in the artistic milieu in Bratislava.

Another short but biting satire was Fernando Sdrigotti’s Shitstorm, forcing us to take a good hard look at ourselves and how we conduct our lives and debates online, moving quickly onto the next scandal that we can be indignant about, without really being fully implicated. I can’t help but wonder what Sebastian would have made of it all. I think this may become my theme when looking at any present-day news: ‘What would Orwell and Sebastian say about this?’, although Sebastian, with his gentler, more forgiving approach, is perhaps closer to me in spirit.

So much happier now that I’m following my own interests in reading, with no qualms about abandoning books that promise to be average or not quite captivating. This month I didn’t finish The Binding for example, a new book just out which sounded great in concept, but failed to set my heart alight. I’m sure it will do well commercially though, it has The Miniaturist success written all over it.

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Maxine Kumin on Poetry

At first sight, Maxine Kumin is not the obvious poet that would appeal to me. Calm, contained, not really confessional or overtly feminist, she writes lovingly observed nature poems, depicting life in New England, her horses, her garden. Yet there is something there, in that deliberate simplicity, a real warmth beneath the coolness, that makes me feel like I am drinking delicious fresh spring water when I read her. In the Poets on Poetry series that I am currently slightly obsessed with, she has some brilliant insights into her own poetic work and that of others (she was famously great friends with Anne Sexton, who’s a very different type of poet).

I often go in search of one thing and come back with another. Yes, there is a definite spin-off from one poem to another, because in the process of narrowing in on a subject a lot of peripheral i deas occur which then struggle to announce themselves. Some of them insist on becoming poems.

Writing a poem, she insists, is ‘at least to some extent a mysical process’. When a poem is ready to be written, she gets ‘a real prickle at the base of my neck’. She doesn’t think things through before writing, just scribbles things down, because she is often startled and perplexed at what is building. ‘The whole process of writing the poem is a process of elucidation’.

You begin with the chaos of impressions and feelings, this aura that overtakes you, that forces you to write. And, in the process of writing, as you marshal your arguments… your metaphors really, as you pound and hammer the poem into shape and into form, the order – the marvellous infomring order emerges from it… You feel, to that degree, reborn.

Of course, there are a lot of things that fall by the wayside in the process, what she calls the ‘bone pile – all the little snippets that failed and the aborted poems and stuff’. She tells poets to never throw any of that away, because later in life you might come back to it and find something that you couldn’t deal with earlier.

There’s a line from a Sexton poem: ‘The writer is essentially a crook./Out of used furniture he makes a tree.’… That is what art should do: create something natural out of all the used-up sticks and bureaus of our lives, the detritus of our lives.

She admits to being somewhat scared of free verse, that she prefers to have some constraint in poetic form, which gives you permission to be more honest with your feelings.

When I’m writing free verse, I feel as though I am in Indiana, where it’s absolutely flat and you can see the horizon 360 degrees around. You feel as if you have no eyelids, you can’t blink. I lose, I have no sense of the line.

She is surprisingly upbeat about the effect that teaching has on her poetry:

It’s very good for me. I think of it as a discipline… I feel I get as much as I give… It keeps me on my toes, probably stimulates me to write more poems than I otherwise would. I’m really very lazy by nature…. I find more ways to evade getting down to business than a centipede has legs. It’s just astonishing the things that I can suddenly decide need doing that have nothing to do with writing.

She finds her family, her community, with other writers, because it is such a solitary job that writers like to get together and moan about how terrible and lonely and difficult writing is. That aspect of the writing life certainly seems to be timeless!

But there are some interesting historical observations as well: even back then in the 1970s, she said she would not recommend poetry as a career, because it is ‘a thin living at best’. Only do it if it’s ‘an obsession, the scratching of a divine itch… nothing to do with money.’ She remembers back in the 1950s, early 1960s when editors would write to her that they could not accept any poems from her for 6 months or so, because they had already published a woman poet in the preceding month.

Above all, I appreciate her ‘kick-in-the-backside’ advice for wannabe poets and writers:

I thin there’s a real value to forcing [yourself to write]/ I do not think it hurst at all to write to assignment… Get in the habit of jotting down states of mind or weather reports. It’s habit forming and it’s good. Also, I do not think anybody becomes a writer who is not a juge reader, omnivorous and wide-ranging. You have to love words, and you have to be willing to take lots of risks with words, and be willing to write really bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff. You only grow by doing…

Three American Women Poets: Maxine Kumin, Cecilia Woloch, Sharon Olds

Maxine Kumin with her beloved horses.
Maxine Kumin with her beloved horses.

After recent events in America, I felt I needed the comfort of some thoughtful women poets, who can uplift and inspire us with their words and their lives.

Maxine Kumin: Jack and Other New Poems

Maxine Kumin has been one of my heroines from way back, when I wrote poetry the first time round, in high school. Her trademark close observation of nature life is often humorous, with just a tinge of fear and wonder at the power of nature, its bounty but also its indifference. She has sometimes been described as a ‘regional pastoral poet’, but her themes seem universal to me, although they often start from personal experiences of farming life. The poem ‘7 Caveats in May’, for instance, describes her dog chasing a bear up a tree and no patrol car being available to help, so she has to ask her neighbour to poke the bear to come down (without tearing apart the dog). The cheeky redpoll birds are described as ‘highwaymen’, intimidating ‘your year-round faithfuls away from the feeder’, yet Kumin notes with tenderness how charming they are ‘in their little red yarmulkas’.

Of course, nature always leads humans to awareness of their own mortality, especially when beloved animals (horses and dogs) die, yet leave their ghostly imprint upon us. The almost unbearable pain of farewell from her beloved old mare Broody, who had a good life, yet the indignity which follows death is always present, no matter how quiet and gentle the passing away itself is.

If only death could be

like going to the movies.

You get up afterward

and go out

saying, how was it?

Tell me, tell me, how was it?

From the Poetry Foundation website.
From the Poetry Foundation website.

Kumin must have been a delightful person to know, her poems often feel like a personal conversation, with brilliant moments of insight, yet always elegant, restrained, making you work to understand what lies below the carefully constructed and balanced surface. Yet there are personal touches too, like this charming reference to her fellow poet Stanley Kunitz:

Luck of the alphabet,

since 1961 we’ve leaned

against each other, spine

on spine, positioned thus.

Upright or slant, long may we stand

on shelves dusted or not

to be taken up by hands

that cherish us.

Of course, this being Kumin, firebrand and feminist, the poems are not just inward-looking, but expertly mix the lyrical with the political. Particularly striking is the poem ‘Women and Horses’, which asks how poetry and beauty is still possible after the experiences of Auschwitz, Vietnam, Korea, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, after the Towers’ (you can imagine which twin towers this refers to). It is an exhortation that the only way forward is to allow freedom and beauty rather than seek to constrain life, even if the result is messy.

Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables. Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest. War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder, we can never break free from the dark and degrading past. Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel as a meadow over which women and horses wander.

Cecilia Woloch: Carpathia

I’d never heard of Cecilia Woloch before but the title of this collection appealed to me, since a good part of the Carpathian mountains are in Romania. However, it turns out that the poet is referring to the Polish portion of the Carpathians, which is where her family originally came from. She instantly appealed to me, with her nomadic lifestyle and her poetry outreach work in prisons and schools, as well as collaborations with visual artists and theatres.

Growing up in rural Kentucky as one of seven children, she pens a beautifully tender ode to her parents, the love they have for each other and their family, entitled ‘Why I Believed, as a Child, That People Had Sex in Bathrooms’. Here she is on You Tube performing it.

Poets always seem to find it easier to write about sad things and troubled times, but Woloch has the knack of happiness. She captures perfectly the dizzying moments of falling in love, with the breathless listing of key moments, the repetitions, the simplicity of language:

And hadn’t you kissed the rain from my mouth?

And weren’t we gentle and awed and afraid,

knowing we’d stepped from the room of desire

into the further room of love?…

And were we not lovely, then, were we not

as lovely as thunder, and damp grass, and flame?

Her poems evoke a special kind of tenderness, a profound understanding of the less than perfect situations or humans. In the tour de force of a poem which is the pantoum Le Jardin d’Isabelle, she describes a woman being invited to the home of her lover and his wife. This is a love triangle without rancour or bitterness, although it addresses the shattering of illusions. But the language conveys so much richness, flowing, shimmering brightness, that it feels ultimately uplifting.

Sharon Olds: The Wellspring

Sharon Olds in The Daily Mail.
Sharon Olds in The Daily Mail.

I’ve admired Sharon Olds since I discovered her when she won the TS Eliot Prize (the first American to do so) for her collection ‘Stag’s Leap’, which described her abandonment and the breakdown of her marriage. There is nothing she does not address fearlessly and in a very feminine way (strong, feisty feminine way) in her poetry – family, politics, inner life, but I’d never read a whole collection by her. As the name indicates, ‘The Wellspring’ is about the female experience in its entirety: from the mother’s womb, to childhood and sexual awakening, to motherhood and learning to let go, to mature love. It’s full on instantly recognisable moments too, yet always with a surprise twist: a father smiling triumphantly at a daughter who comes last in a swimming race ‘almost without meanness’; the bonding between brother and sister both wearing braces, like a tribe sharing a sibilant language with its ‘orthodontial lisp’; love-making in narrow beds in college.

It’s a very sensual description of the body and emotions – fully-charged eroticism counterpointed with tenderness, humour and wonder at the miracle of giving birth to something so profoundly other. This is poetry which speaks directly to the emotions rather than being a tricky intellectual puzzle, which is exactly what the poet intended. I particularly liked the bittersweet feeling of no longer being needed, so eloquently described in the poem about the smashing (mercy killing) of the cow butter-dish, marking the end of motherhood.

wellspringSome critics have complained that her poetry is too accessible (while others usually complain that poetry has become too difficult and unappealing), but I think she is popular without becoming populist, and has the perfect balance between the personal and the universal. Many of her poems start off with a funny moment and then rapidly change into something far more serious and poignant, with a real wind of loneliness blowing through it, as in her poem ‘Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil’. I’ll have to share it with you in its entirety, as it would be a shame to cut off any part of it.

In the strange quiet, I realize
there’s no on else in the house. No bucktooth
mouth pulls at stainless-steel teat, no
hairy mammal runs on a treadmill–
Charlie is dead, the last of our children’s half-children.
When our daughter found him lying in the shavings, trans-
mogrified backwards from a living body
into a bolt of rodent bread
she turned her back on early motherhood
and went on single, with nothing. Crackers,
Fluffy, Pretzel, Biscuit, Charlie,
buried on the old farm we bought
where she could know nature. Well, now she knows it
and it sucks. Creatures she loved, mobile and
needy, have gone down stiff and indifferent,
she will not adopt again though she cannot
have children yet, her body like a blueprint
of the understructure for a woman’s body,
so now everything stops for a while,
now I must wait many years
to hear in this house again the faint
powerful calls of a young animal.

Sharon Olds seems to be getting more and more honest and uncompromising in her examination of the female body and ageing, according to the critics, in her latest book ‘Odes’. I feel myself attracted to it already…