Day 1: the birthday

The plan: to note something for each of the next 365 days. May be something, may be garbage….may not last past June.

Today by “the pond” in Reykjavik in the sun a young girl feeding bread to ducks, gulls and geese. She was earring a Barcelona football shirt with the name Camilla on the back. ¬†On her feet were purple glitter trainers.

Later we bought things from dead.

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forty eight

An interesting exercise – named after one of my favourite cafes – the basic premise being that the philosophy lecturer Meskin, would supply the poet Mort, with some recent philosophical essays on matters of mutual interest (art, tattoos, rock climbing, whether something can be ‘so bad it is good’ etc) and the poet would supply a poem in response. Each poem would then be sent to the author(s) of the original essay for a 500 word response.

There is no sense in which the poems are ‘just fillers’ or give the impression that they were rushed off: just read “Learning to eat” (which is also about falling in love) for example:

Learning to eat again/ is like learning to run/ down a mountainside,/ I mean really run, your/ legs freewheeling,/ your ribs bright spokes/ in your chest.

Or, “Christina at the Super Bowl” which starts:

She’s turning the word ‘brave’ into a highway with no speed limit/ where SUVs with bullbars juggernaut towards the light, / their tiny drivers whooping behind sunglasses…”

and quickly runs into a personal memory of being told “no one likes a show off” by a teacher quick to admonish the young poet for reading too loud in class.

With 10 original poems and responses, this is an enjoyable and thought provoking experiment which has produced the kind of book you dip into randomly and put down and come back to.

forty nine

Total impulse buy. Never heard of her. Thought she looked pretty cool – actually ‘hard as nails’ – on the cover. Loved the title. Picked it up and started in. Kept reading as I got to the check-out and then into the nearest cafe. Pretty much read in a sitting. Very “European” in that arch way that make europhobes sneer about Bunuel movies or Kundera novels. Fuck’em. This isn’t all great poetry, but when it is good, it is bold, honest and carefree. It won’t be the right thing for every mood, for every day, but when it is right it will hit the spot.

These poems rarely have titles, they don’t appear to have a formal structure – although the translators note a great deal of attention has been paid in the original Italian, to the (hendecasyllable) meter and the use of traditional techniques – and they rarely end rhyme. But they have energy, drama, coffee, cats, cigarettes and passion. A few random quotes, from different poems:

“Two hours ago I fell in love/ & trembled, & I tremble still, / & and haven’t a clue whom I should tell”

“…(I) discover that every one of my emotions/ is due to some approaching thunder”

“…swaying anorexic or bulimic/ between two mothers as always/ this one who loves me falsely/ and would deny me food/ that one who loves me falsely/ and would kill me with food,/ and me forced to choose one or the other/ starve or binge…”

I love it when impulse is proven so correct. I finish with this poem (in its entirety) that did it for me:

“Someone told me/ of course my poems/ won’t change the world.

I say yes of course/ my poems/ won’t change the world.”

forty seven

On his death bed, at a youngish age, Alexandra Bergson’s father told her three younger brothers to listen to Alexandra, to be guided by her in relation to the running of the family farm, as she was the sibling who had been most interested in learning from him, shadowing him round the place day after day. And so, for twenty years with hard work and wise investments Alexandra transformed the small dusty patch of Nebraska known as ‘the Divide’, from its unpromising beginnings, to a sprawling success. She bought up neighbouring farms as their owners gave up the struggle, sold-up and moved on; she embraced the latest techniques and technology, which she kept abreast of by studying the journals. All in all she made their land a success and the brothers, working for her, shared the fruits of this success…marrying and setting up their own house on their share of the land.

But Alexandra never married and when a childhood friend returns and she becomes romantically interested, two of the brothers try to usurp her from her place at the head of the family, unfairly downplaying her importance in their good fortune. The third and youngest brother Emil, suffers tragically for falling in love with the wrong woman on his return from travelling in Mexico.

This intragenerational strife forms the spine of this wonderfully concise and evocative novel. There are other elements: the land; the weather; the ex-pat Northern European community; the strange barefoot Bible-quoting hermit, who Alexandra takes under her wing and allows to move in to her barn from his quasi-cave hovel.

In 160 pages it achieves far more than many book two or three times its size.

forty six

I loved the TV adaptation and I’ve wanted to read this since I saw that. It is meticulously researched and brilliantly written. And Mantel is obviously a prodigious talent. Why then did I find it so difficult to get through all 650 pages? It took me two months, which for me is a pretty much unheard of marathon. I just couldn’t get with it. Some days I read a chunk, really enjoyed it…and couldn’t bring myself to pick it up again for days that became weeks.

I guess i just don’t do historical fiction.

There’s just too much of this, too many characters, families, machinations, plots…counter-plots. Lots of other people like it. I must be wrong. I guess.

forty four

This is a slim volume, made up of brief poems (only one laps onto a second page), with short terse lines (I don’t think any reach across the page). None of this is a criticism: a pinch of chilli is enough to enrich a dish, a good malt is always taken by the sip.

The poems deal with illness, ageing, alcoholism, marriage breakdown and loss and they do so tenderly, acerbically and with enviable economy…and then there is the sudden delight of the playful ‘A Supermarket in County Derry’ written ‘after Allen Ginsberg’ in which the poet imagines stalking Seamus Heaney as he ponders ‘potatoes turnips cabbage’.

Some poems build to a savage punch at the end: these are the last three lines of ‘Distillation’ a poem of three stanzas reflecting on alcoholism being passed down the family genes and whether writing is in the same way,

‘The time he drove to church when I was fourteen/ Telling me about nihilism/ After I told him his drinking made me wish I were dead’

Or this, the final lines from ‘Parenting’, which is the childhood memory of being left in the car while her father went into the pub, having warned her against telling her mother, talking to strangers or letting off the handbrake,

‘Then he would start the car/ slur off up the hill/ I would join in when he sang/ it was safer that way’

‘Other Places’ talks about difference and travel through the realisation that, ‘l will not meet anyone I know here so will not/ have to be polite; but if I fall nobody will rush to me/ calling my name.’

While ‘Trucks and Pyramids’ carries horror from its opening lines:

‘dead boys lie in streets/ strangely relaxed…’

‘…these boys will not be buried/ with jewels or a cat…’

Noting the fathers of these boys and their ‘exuberance of grief’. Fourteen short lines, like knife thrusts.

I love poetry cut back to its sinews, showing the bones. This collection is a fine example of the ‘nothing wasted’ school of writing while being full of humanity.

forty five

Consisting of two essays originally published 9 years apart, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) and ‘Three Guineas’ (1938), are very much of a theme; the injustice of a woman’s designated place in society.

A Room…uses the vehicle of a woman wishing to create art, primarily writing, and her inability to find the time and space and peace and financial wherewithal to do this, to open a wider discussion about financial independence, the constraints of society: financial ‘freedom’ being contingent either on a wealthy and beneficent father, or husband.

She undoubtedly writes from the gentility of Edwardian middle class, some of the problems she describes would these days earn the withering epithet ‘first world problems’ and has little in common with or apparent understanding of the lives of women of the working classes, but that is not the central point, the central point is wholesale economic independence, for women, will bring emancipation. And the system is stacked against it. In a passage where she interrogated herself on the concentration on the materialistic in the essay, she counters, ‘even allowing for symbolism…that five hundred pounds a year (Woolf’s notional figure required for independence) stands for the power to contemplate, that lock on the door means the power to think for oneself…’ before going on to take a pot shot at all the poor-little rich boy, university educated poets of romance. It is a brilliant – and brilliantly argued – if somewhat eccentric essay.

Three Guineas…starts from the receipt of a letter from a learned man wringing his hands and asking Woolf ‘ How in your opinion are we to prevent war?’ Woolf essentially spend the next 120 pages saying, why would you ask me, a woman? I have no agency in this society other than through my male relatives and their position in it; I have little access to education to develop my talents, my intellect…going on to list many of the ways she and nearly all other women are kept down. And brilliantly skewering the crass ideas of patriotism. It has more anger than the earlier essay, but felt less focussed, digressing at times when tighter editing would have really helped.

All that said, it is a wonderful idea to capture these two essays together in one place: both of which will have created quite a stir in those circles at that time. It has made me think again about Woolf as a writer, given that I have often struggled with her fiction.

forty two

Simply one of the great novels of the twentieth century by one of its great novelists.

Buy it. Read it. Wallow in it. Read it again.

forty three

Sometimes there’s a book written where the idea is so brilliant and yet so blindingly obvious…that it is genius: The Silence of the Girls is The Iliad and war more generally, told from the point of view of the women/slaves captured and kept in the camp of the Greeks, mainly centring on Achilles’ camp.

The women are trophies of war, looted and handed out among the men to be used as they will. There is no attempt to dress up the brutality of their situation, the imagery and language is frank and raw. These women stay “home” while the men leave and fight their battles, push the front up to the walls of Troy and fall back again, deal with the politics and the plotting and the death of comrades in arms…and when they come back to camp, weary, injured, viciously wrathful, lustful they take it out on the women, some of whom are frighteningly young.

The story is ‘told’ mainly in the mind/thoughts of Briseis, abducted wife of King Myles. She is initially Achilles ‘prize’ before being ‘won’ by Agamemnon, in a contest seen by many of the men as unfair. Eventually she is returned to Achilles. This ‘great warrior’ has for his part, been sulking at this wrong done to him and refused to fight. A blow to the Greek army who begin to lose ground and men in his absence. Achilles most deeply explored and most touching relationship is with Patroclus a childhood friend and trusted right-hand man…indeed there are several allusions to a physical love that may exist between them. Only when his friend is killed in battle is Achilles driven to return to the fray.

Patroclus is also the only male that shows Briseis any semblance of humane treatment and as such, she too is saddened by his death. But also horrified at the deranged behaviour of Achilles in his vengeful butchering of Hector and his repeated disrespecting of Hector’s remains beneath the walls of Troy and the eyes of Hector’s father, King Priam, all of which Achilles used as the excuse not to put Patroclus on his final pyre giving him his rightful send off. The clandestine visit of Priam to Achilles, to beg for the return of his son’s body, is witnessed by Briseis. Priam extends his brave, foolhardy visit to sleep a few hours and leave at dawn. Briseis initially conceived of this as a way to smuggle herself out with the king who has been guaranteed safe passage to Troy but interestingly turns back, returning to Achilles’ house.

The writing is first rate, the story compelling and fascinating and the book heartily recommended.

forty one

This I have struggled with. I saw a cracking quote from her and by chance the next day saw this in a bookshop, had some thoughts on serendipity. Now I realise that coincidence is nothing more than coincidence.

It is divided into five sections, the first of which I shall return to, but was a pretty good start; the second was a series of minuscule poems about god, sometimes as few as four lines long, with titles like ‘The God Fit’ or ‘The God Coup’ or ‘ God’s Bouquet of Undying Love’…etcetera… I found nothing there to interest me; the next section TV Men is again broken into series…seemingly of Classical Greeks mis-spelt (Hektor and Sokrates) as if the film of Troy was made in a ‘Death Valley shoot’. The best word I can find for this section is ‘arch’, in the sense of ‘knowing’; I think I finally lost patience in section four ‘The Fall of Rome: a traveller’s guide’ which is little more than a series of epithets, numbered I-LXX, some of which were just one-liners, take V: ‘Anna Xenia will be waking now’, or XIII: ‘ A stranger makes no fissure’, or perhaps, XXXV: ‘Forgets to telephone’…

The final section consists of epigrams, some of which are reasonably engaging or amusing, others less so; ‘On Disappointments in Music: Prokofiev was ill and could not attend the performance of his First Piano Sonata played by somebody else. He listened to it on the telephone.” Is one entire entry.

The first section ‘The Glass Essay’ is 44 pages long. It ranges across topics, like visiting her mother in order that they may together visit her father, in a nursing home, an hour’s taxi ride away, as well as the end of a love affair, but always returning to musings on the Brontes, their lives, their writing, muddying their facts and their fiction in a beguiling way. On reading this section I fully expected to love the whole of the book…but in all honesty, I found little to detain me and nothing that I want to return to.

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