A joyous prompt today over at dVerse Poets Pub: it’s all about the bounce! I apologise to Sinatra for mangling his original lyrics with my bouncier version.
Be my bouncy Valentine!
Come bounce with me, let’s jump down to the Strand-
A walk along the river, then off to dizzy Theatreland.
The audience will cheer when we stand so near.
‘Kiss, kiss!’ they will cry.
Who’s to disappoint them? Not I!
Honestly, sincerely, believe me I meant it… when I said I would start digging into my TBR pile and stop buying books this year. But accidents do happen! And this is how my week panned out…
First of all, I realised that it has been weeks since I last saw my Kindle. I have searched for it everywhere but cannot locate it. So this means no more acquisitions via Netgalley, but also no more reading of the long, long list of books I have there, including some rather pressing reviews. I would buy a new one, but I am fairly sure that the instant I order it, the old one will resurface from some cavernous depth of my house (I don’t often take it out unless I am travelling, and I have already searched my suitcase).
Secondly, I have enjoyed reviewing my first Asymptote Book Club read, Cesar Aira. A new author to me, but I enjoyed him so much that I read two other novellas by him in quick succession. He is remarkably prolific, so he might be a bit hit and miss, but so far I really like him.
Thirdly, I had a busy week at work, but it was creative, strategic work which I enjoyed, made all the better by listening to Hamilton, which I now have uploaded onto my laptop. Initially I loved all the big, obvious songs like My Shot or The Room Where It Happens, but now I am more drawn to Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story and the optimism of The Story of Tonight. ‘Raise a glass to the four of us, tomorrow there will be more of us.’
Finally, yes, OK, I admit I did get some new books this week. What?! You expect me to pile ashes on my head and put the hair shirt on? I only bought three, of which two were second-hand, and I received two more for review.
Alison Lurie: Women and Ghosts
Collection of short stories, sometimes comic, sometimes, haunting, where people’s lives are disrupted by supernatural occurrences. Not normally a fan of ghost stories, but I know that Lurie is such a keen observer of human foibles, so I think this could be good.
Jodie Hollander: My Dark Horses
A debut poetry collection that traces the troubled relationship of the poet with her mother, as well as the charms and vicissitudes of growing up in a family of obsessive musicians. I have to admit to a selfish reason for ordering this one via Waterstones: it was recommended to me by a fellow poet after she read my poems about my mother.
Paula McLain: The Paris Wife
I’ve been meaning to read this forever, ever since it came out in 2010. I really enjoyed Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, with its portrait of bohemian expat artist life in Paris in the 1920s, but that is just Hemingway’s side of the story. And, as we all know, he wasn’t really good to the women in his life.
Thomas Enger: Killed
Orenda Books shares my passion for Norway and has kindly sent me the dark, suspenseful finale of this series about crime reporter Henning Juul.
Kate Rhodes: Hell Bay
This is the start of a new series by Kate Rhodes, set on the Scilly Islands (which I now want to visit). I read a sample of it after going to the Simon & Schuster launch evening last year and have been eagerly awaiting the rest of the story ever since.
Didn’t I promise that I would write more poetry this year, whether it gets published or not? Here is a wonderful warming up exercise – participating in the Quadrille challenge over at dVerse Poets Pub. A Quadrille is a poem or flash of precisely 44 words and this time it has to include the word ‘leap’, as we bound unfettered into the New Year.
Each year I fall-
blunder blind through cold
air vents, no second
sight, no wasteful bite.
Each year the marvels glimpsed on the way down
string peacock feathers and black pearls around my skull,
unexpected bonus, befriending hearts given
too often short shrift.
Shameful to admit, but I have to do it: although I read a lot of poetry, I seldom review it on my blog. Why is that? Because I often read 1-2 poems here, 2-3 there, without a methodical approach. If I do read a whole collection by a single author or an anthology by multiple poets, I do it over a longer period of time (because I need to reread and think about it) and forget to add it to Goodreads. Besides, reviewing an entire collection is much harder than looking at a single poem. So many different themes, styles, details to consider!
So I apologise for being remiss about reviewing what is probably even more important to me than crime fiction and literature in translation. I intend to do a lot better in the coming year. Meanwhile, here are some poets I discovered or rediscovered this year, with a short quote which will hopefully intrigue you enough to want to explore them in more detail.
Rebecca Goss: Her Birth
Very moving collection of poems portraying the birth, short life, death and aftermath of the poet’s daughter Ella, who was born with a rare and incurable heart condition.
Assure me I will be ripe
and stretching, my belly full
but still have space
for her first days, last days.
Assure me I will keep her toes
accurate as maths, her smell
precise, her voice heard above the birds.
Assure me that I will not howl her name
during birth, that I will place
newborn fingers in my mouth,
taste only newness.
Then, I will consider another.
Polly Atkin: Basic Nest Architecture
Beautifully observed details of nature, parallels drawn to human life, and to those concepts of home, belonging, nesting, which have always preoccupied me.
I am not a tree, my roots
blanketed by rock, my roots tunnelled under
the weight of the lake bed, my roots knotted rock
in the puzzle of a dry stone wall. Unthink
that sinking. Unthink that tether. Take
this light – that sweet, that loving yellow,
the mist erasing the horizon as though
there is nothing beyond the lip of the valley,
its kiss – could anyone turn from it now?
Gillian Allnutt: Blackthorn
Feminist Christian poetry might seem like an unexpected combination, but wonderful in Allnutt’s capable hands.
My father came home from the burning of Belsen
with bits of it under his skin and the bowl of his heart in his hands
that would never be the same again, not ever his own again.
Because of that burning down.
And, in his pocket, proudly, the souvenir spoon.
Of light tin, slowly, the bowl of it has worn down.
Barely is it a spoon.
The best of my life has been stirring the Bisto in.
And was Jerusalem.
Of my father in me there has been no burning down.
Andrew McMillan: Physical
Both lustful and tender, a paean to physical love in all its vulnerability, simplicity and complexity.
I had forgotten that loving could feel so calming
telling you that your body was beautiful sighing out
the brittle disappointments from the bones
having no judgement of what the body
may want to be doing where the breath may fall
My father had four children
and three sugars in his coffee
and every birthday he bought me
a dictionary which got thicker
and thicker and because his word
is not dead, I carry it like sugar
on a silver spoon
up the Mobay hills in Jamaica […]
I looked at my hand
holding this ivory knife
and thought about how hard it was
to accept my father
for who he was
and where he came from
how easy it is now to spill
sugar on the table before
it is poured into my cup.
Immanuel Mifsud (from a collection of Poems from Malta)
Go, my son, follow your open eyes.
Go seek that country you’ll never find.
Go unite shores, parted by vast expanses of water.
You’ll go on walking hurt, wounded by love,
and many will seduce you but none will love you […]
Because you’re nothing but a whiff of sad wind;
You only need to spread your arms out,
Open your eyes wide, take a breath… and fly.
Deryn Rees-Jones: Burying the Wren
These poems spoke to me a lot this year: about trying to escape the confines – and seduction – of grief, about finding joy in small things.
It was the only blessing that I asked you for,
of leaving me unnoticed –
like the earth might tree seeds or a rouged leaf
in its fall.
Instead, you give me nothing,
catch me inside your coat
to see if you can catch my breath,
Such a pleasure and privilege to be back in Geneva this past weekend for a poetry workshop and masterclass with Kathleen Jamie, organised by the Geneva Writers Group!
I discovered Kathleen Jamie when I was reading Melissa Harrison and Amy Liptrot and wanted to know about more authors who wrote really thoughtful non-fiction about nature. Several of you, my dear readers and blogging friends, suggested Kathleen Jamie and I was captivated by her quiet yet very precise style. Then I discovered her poetry – and it became apparent to me why she was so observant of the world around her.
So, when I heard that Geneva Writers Group was inviting her over for a poetry masterclass, I was the first to apply. And it lived up to all of my expectations (as well as being a great opportunity to go back to my beloved mountains and lake, and see dear friends again).
In person, Kathleen Jamie is as quiet, modest, unshowy yet crystal-sharp as you would expect from her writing. The first day was for a large audience, so it was more of a classroom type environment (not her preferred way of working). However, we are a lively group, the very opposite of quiet, so we all joined in, even those who are not poets.
Nature poetry, Kathleen argued, is all about letting the animal or natural object be – it’s writing around nature rather than writing about it. It’s about the poet dumping the ego, the need to show off, the need to draw attention to oneself and one’s problems. I loved her wry humour: ‘Poets often go off on a silly flight of fancy but forget about the close, careful observation.’ Since this is exactly what I am aiming at now in my own poetry, to move from the confessional rant to a more measured, considered, slant approach, it was the right workshop at the right time.
We brought in an object from the natural world and tried to describe it in third person and in second person (relating to it) and observing the difference. We did close readings of nature poems with a whole range of approaches: from the very cool emotionally detached observation of a whale by Peter Reading to the personal commentary and use of a salmon as a metaphor in Ted Hughes, from the warm and intimate begging for forgiveness that Gillian Allnut addresses to a geranium to the awe-struck tribute to a cactus by James Wright.
The second day was a small group of ten and we sat and discussed the poems we had circulated beforehand. This was so valuable – Kathleen was tough but encouraging at the same time. She said it is not about editing or eliminating (even though she started folding the pages like origami to reduce the poems to the essential stanzas or lines), but rather about nurturing and bringing out the poem that is hiding sometimes inside our work. It’s like being a mother and helping the poems, like children, become what they want and need to be, rather than what we want them to become.
I learnt so much from listening to comments and reading everyone’s work. I’ll also be eternally grateful (and perhaps somewhat smug) that Kathleen liked the specific details and use of the senses in my poem. She also encouraged me to be brave about using foreign words, as she uses Scots in some of her poetry, while acknowledging that it can feel transgressive and fraught with the danger of being misunderstood.
Nordisk Books is a small independent publisher specialising in Nordic literature – trying to demonstrate that there is literary life beyond Scandi crime fiction (fun though that may be). When I heard about the launch of this book by Swedish professor of literature and feminist Ebba Witt-Brattström at Hatchards, in a translation by Kate Lambert, I just had to join in.
It is the story of the breakdown of a marriage, and it is stripped to the bare minimum: the dialogue between spouses, in short lines somewhere between prose and poetry. Prosaic verse maybe (prosaic subject, verse-like lines, the pithy a-ha moments of poetry). He said/she said alternate here, often talking past each other, not listening to each other or misunderstanding. It is based upon the author’s own acrimonious divorce, but also on her examination of feminist literature. There are so many elements there which are universal, and will sound very familiar to anyone who has ever been in a relationship with the opposite sex.
Everything I lived for
lies burning around me.
Piles of smoking ash
wherever I look.
but I don’t want therapy
only to live normally
the way I am
with my vanity
or whatever you want to call it.
If you don’t want to
be with me on the ride
any more what can I do?
I am not re-education material
not for my sake
or for anyone else’s.
This dance to the death between the couple, advancing and retreating, challenging and posing, blaming and defending, is like a complicated and furious paso doble. The dark humour of recognition is present – all the women in the audience laughed at certain phrases – but it is also quite visceral and damning, so much so that you need to stop and take a deep breath every now and then.
With this level of intensity, I was expecting Ebba to be loud and dour, but she was delightful: funny, thoughtful and feisty. And when I went to her with the book to be signed, she very sweetly wrote ‘with sisterly good luck’ when I explained the parallels to my own situation. The translator also said she found it hugely relatable but also quite painful to translate. Initially, Ebba said she had written it as a more conventional novel, but then she realised that the real ‘juicy bits’ were in the dialogue, so she left the bare bones or skeleton of the novel.
There were a few brave men who attended the event (and the publisher Duncan Lewis is a man too, so bravo to him for uncovering this book and getting it translated), but I wonder what men make of it when they read it. I hope younger men will be inspired by it to NOT become like their fathers, to learn a different way of relating to women. Anyway, it inspired me to come up with this poem:
Stone Age But Effective
The words chiselled, honed over time,
first the blunt Acheulian handaxe to thrust home the proof.
The flint-knapping tools bring to pin-point precision
an arrowhead bordered by microlith flakes
aimed precisely to inflict maximum organ damage
and blood loss. Yet he kills not just through calculation
but also with thoughtless, sloughing off scales,
absent-mindedly fondling her last open lesion
before driving home anew the blade.
I take out the bin for pocket-money. It’s only 10p, she tells me it’s all she can afford. We both hold onto the washing machine for its spin-cycle rock’n’roll. Unhung pictures have collected weeks’ worth of dust, but we vacuum – now and then – and she scrubs. She’s taught herself to program thermostats, heating, even TV, but parental locks are beyond her. So my brother chats inappropriately with Tibetan monks and louche gamesters in France late into the night. She leaves the room quickly when the Skype jingle heralds another call from our dad. She tells us she is learning so much new stuff, foists recipes upon us too exotic for our tastes. Luckily, every two weeks we relax for a couple of days with Dad’s frozen pizzas or chicken nuggets galore.
Doorbell dings. ‘We’ve noticed your patio could do with some cleaning – we kill weeds, pressure wash, spray and all.’ I don’t know why she shakes her head smiling feebly, nor why she leans quite so closely on the door she slams behind them.