forty

Above all other considerations, this is simply an extraordinary document, a piece of history we are lucky to be able to access.

As well as being a fine novelist – Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston was also an anthropologist in the early decades of twentieth century. In 1927 she was sent from New York to Mobile, Alabama to meet the last known survivor of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to trade with the US. He was known as Cudjo Lewis, although his name was Kossola. He had been brought from Africa a teenager, in 1860, and was enslaved for five and a half years, until Union soldiers turned up one day to tell them they were all free to go…that they had nowhere to go and not a penny to their name seemed of no importance to either the soldiers or the government.

Hurston lets him speak, which some days he is more inclined to do than others, and he tells straight forward stories of his youth in Nigeria, life in the small kingdom, the hierarchies and customs of the place how he was captured and his days in the compound (the Barracoon of the title), weeks on the ship, and finally his time in the US. At other times he is cranky and will barely tolerate Hurston’s company, while again, at other times he speaks in rambling analogies or morality tales from his homeland. Always his speech is represented as heard by Hurston, so there is a deal of phonetic spelling to overcome, but once you hit that groove it is easy enough to follow.

The document is fantastic, the story of course is horrific, but to hear it directly from the mouth of a victim is a vital and sobering experience. It is not a long read. The introductions and foreword by Deborah G Plant, Alice Walker and Hurston herself, all add greatly to the understanding and emotional resonance.

In terms of importance it is in the first rank.

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thirty eight

First published in 2004, so before the incendiary ‘Citizen’, and I suspect this edition rides a little on the tail of that comet, ‘Don’t let me be lonely’ deports itself in a similar vein. It is episodic reportage; highly concentrated monologues; you might even say, distilled. As to whether it qualifies in some people’s minds as poetry, probably not. Does that matter, probably not.

Like ‘Citizen’, it is visceral, it is urgent and it is heartfelt. But it feels somehow less focussed. It is angry or shocked about several different things and has telling comments to make on many of them. Perhaps the overarching theme is how, in this crowded non-stop world of 24/7 access, there are still millions of fellow humans who experience, prolonged and profound spells of aloneness, a lack of meaningful connection.

‘You explain to the ambulance attendant that you had a momentary lapse of happily’

Her mother loses a child, her father loses his mother and ‘is broken’, a friend dies of breast cancer after a misdiagnosis some years before. And alongside her sadness at loss, there is its sibling, forgetting.

‘In the night I watch television to help me fall asleep, or I watch television because I cannot sleep…some nights I count the commercials for antidepressants…’

She is prescribed sleeping tablets. Then the dose is raised.

She notes the game in the British Museum that asks Yes/No questions, you have to answer ‘correctly’ to progress: the correct answer to the question, ‘We’re you terribly upset and did you find yourself weeping when Princess Diana died?’ Is apparently not ‘no’. Meditations on the state of elections in the US, the lack of repentance shown by Timothy McVeigh, depression, the efficacy of drugs prescribed to contain depression, ‘the liver’, an argument about Coetzee’s novel ‘Disgrace’, the deaths in a car crash of her brother in law and her sisters children…all follow.

The repeated phrase, ‘define loneliness’, haunts the chapters/poems.

And inevitably given the date of publication there is a piece, a strong piece, about the Twin Towers. How rain, three days after the attack, didn’t clear the smoke. There is a rank smell in the air. There are rows of photos of the missing taped to the sides of buildings. Followed by Hegel on the use of death by the state, ‘…a threat to keep citizens in line. The minute you stop fearing death you are not controlled by governments.’ And how this takes us through terrorists those embodiments of ‘the state beyond…of freedom’ to Antigone.

Before finally riffing on Celan’s assertion that there is no difference between a handshake and a poem: both contain the statement ‘l am here.’

thirty nine

If ever there was a book of two halves, it is this one. The first half is a ferocious howl mixing the modern with the world of Greek Mythology, the second deals with Benson’s domestic, personal and family life, including several visceral and beautiful poems around pregnancy, birth and observations of her daughters.

There is a single poem prologue of sorts, ‘Ace of Bass’, about the ‘summer the hormones poured into me’ and although the ‘sex wasn’t there yet’, ‘it was coming/ and we were running towards it/ it’s gorgeous euphoric mist’.

Part one, is a Sarah Kane monologue raging against the many and various trespasses of the Greek gods, principally, Zeus. The page barely contains its anger, it shifts shape, font, capitalisation and in ‘transformation: Cyane’ circles in on itself. Zeus is tasered, on parole, fitted with an ankle band before delivering his view of the rapes he has committed. A targeted victim runs, she takes drugs, he comes to the safe house…then comes the forensics. This intense section finishes with a female voice telling us ‘I am still afraid.’ It is an incredible piece, when read as one, not simply for the vision and the realisation but for the anger sustained through out.

Part two, is necessarily I would think on the poet’s behalf, a different thing, in a different register. What is unavoidable, is the conclusion that Benson is drawing the link between the lives of women today and in particular her hopes and fears for her young daughters and the unending violence (and blaming) against women personified in Zeus and the myths that hold him.

There is loss in the opening poem, ‘Dear Comrade of the Boarding House’, in ‘Almond Blossom’ she trusts ‘that spring will be a green havoc/ as the trees burst their slums’, other nature is present in sparrows, bats, a toad and a fly. ‘Song for the Rabbit Man’ is that wonderful thing, a beautiful poem on a subject most would recoil from (and in that it prepares the reader for ‘Placenta’), the butcher skinning rabbits.

‘Back at his shop he eases each corpse/ out of its coat like a lover,// tender to all the weeping cisterns of the body,’

‘The buck’s lean meat/ with its dark placental taste of roots,/ is iron on the tongue,/ a quick thing gone, beginning.’

The following 20 pages with their 16 poems are conception, pregnancy, birth, ‘afterbirth’ and ‘placenta’ followed by the early years, there really isn’t enough room or patience (of any reader of this) to go through the many and various outstanding ideas and lines here…but they are wonderful even to someone for whom none of this is a possible part of life.

The final poem of the book ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’ is superb. The domestic idyll of a mother cooking, with the kitchen door open onto the garden, half an eye on the young girls playing there, when the elder child runs in having been spooked by the roar of the approaching jet, causing mum to hurry out to the younger, not wanting to hurry because that will startle her, but wanting to rush nonetheless…then comes the fighter overhead with its

‘metallic, grinding scream/ like the sky is being chainsawed open,/ and the baby’s face drops to a square of pure fear,/ she tips forward and flattens her body to the ground…’

She tries to soothe the child telling her it’s alright, ‘but it’s never all right now’ and finishes with a universal plea for mercy in a world where there’s,

‘always some woman is running to catch up her children’

thirty six

As nonsensical as it may be to conclude in January that you have probably already read your favourite novel of the year, that is what I’m doing. This thing is superb, whichever angle you come at it from. It is a worthy winner of the things it has already won and will be a worthy winner of whatever other plaudits come its way.

It is set in Northern Ireland apparently in the 1980s, probably in Belfast. But nothing is named, not even the people, and therein lies a large part of the genius that helps it to work. This most serious of histories has some pitch black absurdism at its heart that just shouldn’t be there, but these are people as well as characters in a ‘situation’ and people get through with humour and so it is quite correct for this to be there.

The ‘maybe-boyfriend’ of the ‘maybe-girlfriend’ in their nearly one year ‘maybe-relationship’, third sister and third brother-in-law, not to mention the Milkman of the title – an apparent pseudonym for a paramilitary leader and the only name he goes by, despite the fact that everyone seems to know his real identity – not to be confused with Real Milkman, who is really a milkman. The 18 year old narrator, lives among ‘the renouncer’ community, which in a display of mass irony, refuses to allow this young woman the right or the voice to renounce everyone’s stated belief that she is having an affair with the ‘Milkman’. She isn’t. But when everyone steps aside in the chippy to let her to the front of the queue and she gets her chips ‘on the house’, she can’t see any way to fight against it.

A derelict church is blown up in some kind of no man’s land. The tension ratchets while everyone tries to discover whether it was ‘one of ours’ or ‘one of theirs’, or perhaps an accident. Eventually it becomes accepted that it was an old piece of munition from WWII and everything ‘returns to normal’. Maybe-boyfriend’s quiet life as a mechanic is disrupted when he acquires the parts to the super-charger of that very British car, a Bentley and his community come to believe that in doing so he has also taken in a part bearing the ‘flag from over the water’.

In this civil war that became ‘the great euphemism’ as far as English reporting was concerned, The Troubles, this book of an ordinary young woman and her family, trying to get on with their ordinary lives turns everything into euphemism and in doing so explodes it for the nonsense or hypocrisy that it was.

I was a teenager during similar years and this is a part of my country and I never knew ‘the truth’ of what was going on there, partly because of the bias in the reporting, but also, I suspect because one truth of this time doesn’t really exist, and so it becomes a ground for story tellers and poets and other interpreters – here I am reminded of the devastating last lines of another child of that place and those times, Jo Burns (no relation) from her poem ‘The Mid-Ulster Machinery Museum’ about her childhood, ‘…and every child knew the meaning of strange words/ like ‘denomination’ and ‘sectarian”. And we happily played…/ …unaware/ that most don’t look under cars before they can even drive.’

This was part of my country during my lifetime and I didn’t know this. There is a history, or a series of histories to be told here. Few will manage it with such brilliance.

thirty seven

Published by Wrecking Ball Press

Whatever expectations you have of a book with Helen Mort’s name on the front, when you pick this up, you can forget them – with the exception of expecting good writing. A book of short stories, with a broken-glass-disused-garage late-night drinking feel. The book has a sense of being a novel. It isn’t. It isn’t a unitary thing in that way. There is an emotional or experiential coherence across the tales but not a unity. There is an undercurrent that takes in bitterness but also black humour, really black humour. As if this is the script for an unfilmed episode of Black Mirror; Charlie Booker’s occasional forays into dystopian future horror.

Exire is, or appears to be, an on-line agency or ‘dating site’ except instead of finding you a date for the night, it hooks you up with someone willing to kill you. Some of the stories revisit characters, or at least signal that they do this by the repetition of the story/episode titles, each of which is someone’s name: for example, there are 6 Lornas, against 2 Gerrys, while Maureen gets a solitary page.

The book is elusive, sly and unnerving. All good qualities. It floats oddly around the streets of Leeds and even stops off briefly in my local pub. Which adds, for me at least, some surface and misleading familiarity.

It’s also about picking a scab, there’s a sense of something unsettled, something not to be left alone and an underlying violence that can manifest suddenly. I recommend it wholeheartedly and I think you’ll need to read it 2 or 3 times. It doesn’t invite you in. You knock, the door opens and you can enter if you like but you can just as easily stay outside for all the book cares. When you do go in, and you will, you’ll find an empty kitchen table, a bare light bulb hanging over it and an opened bottle of vodka sitting next to a recently drained glass.

——-

After my first read through of Exire, I closed the book, picked up a pen and wrote the following spontaneous reaction piece:

It keeps kicking me/

In the pit of my stomach/

Again and again and I ask/

It to do it again and I stay/

Up in the skull dark alone/

After midnight house/

And the effort not to cry/

Is almost beyond me this/

Infatuation of words

thirty five

It’s twenty years and a bit more since I was first introduced to Willa Cather’s writing, it showed me what a scandalous gap there was in my appreciation of first rate American novelists. For a course I was doing at the time I was required to read a couple of her Great Plains trilogy – O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia (pronounced to rhyme with pioneer) – and they were superb. Set in the 1850/1860 immigrant farming communities of Nebraska. Religion, hardship, hankering back to European ways. They sound dull as ditchwater, which is why they were the last ones on the course that I read, but they’re wonderfully human stories told through writing of the highest quality.

As well as the Plains, Cather wrote a lot about the deserts, mesas and inhabitants of the borderlands of New Mexico/Texas/Arizona and Mexico. Some of her short stories about Native American settlements carved into huge cliff faces or rock plateau are beautiful and simple evocations of completely different lives and have lived on in my memory for these intervening years. All of the novels and stories set in these areas have a great empathy for the Native American tribes, their dispossession and the injustices done to them. She was well ahead of the game on this subject. And to judge from the inner sleeve notes, ‘Cather lived with the editor Edith Lewis for thirty nine years in New York until her death in 1947’, she was not one to be constrained by society’s accepted norms.

Death Comes for the Archbishop comes with a spoiler in the title: the story wends its way to the advertised end, but as with any good book, it is the manner of getting there that counts. Two young French priests are sent to New Mexico to reassert the primacy of the Catholic Church in the lives of the white American settlers, who are more moved by Protestantism, the majority poor Mexican community who are Catholic, deeply, idiosyncratically devout in a manner that can see them at odds to the more contemporaneous teachings and the local Hopi and Navajo peoples, who will allow a certain Catholic gloss to be run over their own versions of worship and belief but never to supplant them.

There are hardships, travelling, strange isolated pueblos, visions, villainy, humanity as well as unspoken, platonic, love between these two men who first met at seminary. Father Levant moves away for many years to the bleaker ministry of gold rush mining shanties in the Colorado mountains, ‘living off warmed dough and liquor’ because no one has the time or inclination to farm when there is gold to be mined. Only returning when he hears of his friend’s terminal decline and then refusing to accept that the shrivelled body he sees before him as being that of the man he knew.

It is hard to do justice to the quality of the writing, and hence the storytelling: simple, humane, precise. There isn’t a wasted word and yet at only 200 pages it does not feel compressed or hurried, quite the opposite, it is expansive, generous and when needed florid.

Do yourself a favour and read some Willa Cather.

thirty three

(the lights aren’t on the cover of the book but this is what happens with photos taken in our kitchen and I quite like the effect in this case)

A book that looks at Art, inverting the male gaze, written by a feminist icon (old school) with opinions and erudition to burn…Her stated aim in writing this, “…to reclaim for women the right to appreciate the short-lived beauty of boys.” You can see how this is going to be problematic from the outset.

On the aim, I’m not sure anyone can describe this as a “right” for anyone. And were we to accede then surely it becomes (or already is) a right for everyone to “appreciate” anyone else. Not that I’m against the appreciation of beauty, far from it but when stated in this way it becomes loaded and it becomes problematic. Which, was probably Greer’s intention.

Of course, the book itself is less dramatic and more scholarly than that back cover quote may lead you to believe/anticipate. In the introduction, Greer states that she wants to reintroduce the idea that a man can be beautiful, as apposed to the more anodyne “handsome”, which does carry some sort of understood morally upstanding approbation alongside it, she insists on the right of men to be beautiful, judged simply by the surface alone…or at least “for a part of their lives”. Her delineation of this “part of their lives” when some men are beautiful is “old enough to be capable of sexual response but not yet old enough to shave” or in more detail, “his cheeks are smooth, his body hairless, his head full-maned, his eyes clear, his manner shy and his belly flat.” A “window of opportunity” she acknowledges as “narrow” and “mostly illegal”.

One of the salient points Greer is making is that pre-19thC this nude boy was the most represented nude type in art and in life. That women and girls were clothed, or in many cases in Art, where the picture was of a female, it would often have been modelled by one of these “beautiful” boys, with the details being fudged or covered by convenient draperies, because it was much easier and more pleasing on the eye, at least according to Greer, to get the boy to do this modelling than it would have been to get a “real” female to do it.

Published in 2003, and therefore it is safe to assume the subject of research reaching back several years before this, it already sounds dated, (and later patronising in a way that truly mimics the self-excusing explanations of those certain types of gentlemen who could observe female nudity “in the correct way”, by which they meant unsalacious I assume), when making claims in the introduction such as “Part of the purpose of this book is to advance women’s reclamation of their capacity for and right to visual pleasure. The nineteenth century denied women any active interest in sex, which was only to be found in degenerate types…” That troubling “right” aside, there’s not a great deal to get upset about so far, but noting the growth in popularity of male-strippers, she goes on, “…That healthy appetite should now be refined by taste. If we but lift our eyes to the beautiful images of young men that stand all about us, there is a world of complex and civilised pleasures to be had. Delight in the boy can only be sharpened by the pathos and irony of his condition of becomingess.”

“…complex and civilised pleasures…”

Over the course of the next 250 pages, replete with almost as many illustrations – often not particularly high quality – Greer ranges from Ancient Egyptian and Greek statuary through to images of Jim Morrison and Robert Plant not to mention “French Chris on Carhood” via Titian, Caravaggio, da Vinci et al, the scenery and the flesh is lush and beautiful and various, and her point is well and truly made. The main question remains, whether the point, as she set it out, was worth making in the first place.

In between the discussions of Art, with that capital “A”, there are some fascinating cultural snippets, such as Bill Bruford’s description of disco run by the National Front in Bury St Edmonds in the 1980s, in which 70 or so bare chested, skinny, sweaty white boys danced clasped together in a way that can only be described as homoerotic, while the women in the room sat to one side, not watching, smoking and chatting amongst themselves. All of which Greer aligns with Dionysian revels, states of euphoria and mindless violence.

Her central point, about reclaiming the right for women to gaze on the beauty of young men/boys, appears late in the book to be qualified against the difficulty, in our culture today, that women would meet if they were to gaze frankly, without embarrassment, on a beautiful man, making it an easier choice for them to gaze on the beauty of a boy: they are unlikely to be challenging or demanding in return. He is “in no position to object”, or put another way, “…biological maleness only takes to itself phallic activity and mastery when it assumes patriarchal power. The boy, being debarred from phallic power, is endowed simply with a responsive penis rather than a dominating phallus and can be sexualised with impunity.”

Judging by the multitude of examples of whey-faced and loose-limbed adolescents that she finds in the archives, Greer clearly has a point about the historical employment of young men as models of beauty. And of course what is acceptable to cultures changes over time. The problematic aspect of this book is that which she describes at the start as probably illegal, before going on to extol the ‘complex and civilised’ nature of the pleasures to be had.

One saving grace, as a tangent, was the introduction to me of Elizabeth Sargent’s poem, “A Young Lover”, which Greer describes as ‘a risk.’ It starts and finishes as below:

Five times a day is what he really likes

If he misses a day he becomes morose…

… and grows

A high tower of flesh Spike

Of living steel, into which the semen flows

Like tap water – nature’s loveliest sight

(At least to me) as I take happy hold

Of my young lover, my fifteen-year-old.

thirty four

Sometimes a pleasure deferred can prove to be a let down: how could you ever have been foolish enough to think that that thing would live up to the expectations you have piled on it? I deliberately didn’t buy a copy of Gaia Holmes’ third collection, where the road runs out, in advance of seeing her read from it last month in Marsden library, fully knowing that I would buy it there once she was done. I can’t explain why it felt like the right way round to do it…it just was. And it really was.

Like when a band releases a new album and then tours it, there’s the thought of being familiar with the tracks – not necessarily to sing along, mind – before going to see them. Sometimes though the first hearing sears with a fresh energy that just can’t be matched. Yes, you will miss some words and ideas but you can buy the thing and go back over what you missed.

I’d read a spell-binding article by Holmes (available through The High Window) giving some background to the genesis of the collection – caring for her terminally ill father, who was at the time living in a small caravan on a wind blasted Orkney island and the aftermath of his death. It is a remarkable subject, more than matched by Holmes’ fearless poetry. At the reading she explained that only about a third of the collection centred on this episode, and there are many other fine poems ranging across childhood, encounters between runners and ramblers, ‘What pylons dream of’ (power cuts, stepping into ball gowns, tickling kittens and falling into the water to make the ocean boil…amongst other things) as well as reflections on the experience and fate of those Chilean miners trapped underground for 60 odd days back in 2010. Her poetry speaks of intimate connections with, and knowledge of, the natural world around her – she is currently based in the Calder valley, where she was born – as well as connections, and sometimes the lack of connection, with people. These are fine poems, beautifully realised (special mentions to ‘Ballast’, ‘Road Salt’ and ‘Before All This’) but without doing them any disservice, it is the poems around her and her father that provide the emotional gravity holding the others steady in their orbit, while the clear-eyed honesty of the telling of this episode is what raises the whole thing above so many other collections.

From ‘Leaves’: …my father is fevered/ and godless/ My father is dying/ on an island/ with no trees./ I send him prayers./ I send him bulging sacks/ of autumn leaves.

From ‘ I belong here’: …stubbing my toes on shadows…cooking stone soup every day,/ beach combing for hope…with the cracked windows,/ the damp, your denial…grinding your tablets/ to powder at midnight,/ as the Orkney gales rock the caravan.

From ‘Hygge’: Tonight, the sea will be too wanton/ to carry a ferry…Tonight we will keep the cats in…Tonight, we will be landlocked and cosy…and I will almost forget/ that you are dying.

An outstanding poem from this collection for me is ‘Feckless’ – Google it (also the name of a poem herein) or buy the book. You won’t be disappointed.

But to finish, a few thoughts from the previously mentioned ‘Before all this’: a mighty poem of things that have been lost in our rush ‘forwards’, as some would have it.

Before all this/ there were phone calls,/ there were letters…There was ink./ there was paper./ There were crossings-out/ … We placed our faith/ in road maps/ and sometimes/ we got lost/ … We knew about patience,/ the beauty of waiting/ … We did not need an app/ for empathy or humanity…

Amen for the crossings-out and for getting lost, sometimes. A wonderful collection.

thirty two

“I had judged everything on the basis of whether it was the sensible thing to do for the convenience store, but now I’d lost that standard. There was nothing to guide me over whether an action was rational or not.”

Truly absurd, this slim novel is delivered in deadpan earnestness by the narrator, Miss Furukura, who is 36 years old and has worked part-time in the same convenience store for the last 18 years, since the day the store opened. She has seen seven managers come and go and countless shop floor colleagues, who she trains and trains and trains again in rotating the cold drinks in the fridge on the warmest days of the year – she checks the weather forecast before leaving for work, to get ahead of the game – on pushing the store’s latest promotion, on the six rules that convenience store workers should always be thinking of and of course of greeting every customer with a loud and cheery “Irasshaimase”.

She was by all accounts a peculiar child who found herself unable to pitch her behaviour at the right level, that expected by the people around her, and frequently withdrew into silence, where at least she couldn’t get answers wrong. Now everything she does is to be the best she can be to serve the store: from eating and sleeping well, to personal hygiene and grooming. She sounds ominously and hilariously close to a citizen living under the yoke of Orwell’s Big Brother.

In all those years she has not had a boyfriend, nor has she been for an interview for a different job. Her sister, married with a young child, has all but given up on her. Instead of pushing her to change anything about her life, she helps Miss Furukura to come up with simple ‘excuses’ to enable her to answer any socially awkward questions about marriage, career, even her (nonexistent) sex life: these are described as simple, so that she won’t forget them or get caught in the lie.

Then one day she arrives at work to find another new employee, a skinny, thirty something college drop out with dreadful manners. Shiraha does not last the week at the store but he creates a change in Miss Furukura. She invites him to move in, he sleeps in the bath, demands food and has no sexual interest in his host. She hands in her notice…

Written by Sayaka Murata, who the back page tells us is 38 and works part-time in a convenience store, this book is gently, mundanely, savage.

(translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

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