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.

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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)

thirty one

Published in 1958, translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter

An elusive slip of a novel that takes the reader within the plotting that can lie behind ‘a good marriage’, mixed with superstition, possibly witchcraft and the cultural power which some people vested in the old style theatrical masks.

Yasuko is widowed at a young age when her husband is killed in a skiing accident. She responds by immediately moving in with his mother, Mieko. Two young men compete for Yasuko’s hand, despite their own friendship, but she seems bound to Mieko. The serene mother-in-law’s influence is exerted almost silently and is portrayed as something ethereal. The eerie atmosphere twists into something darker when it is revealed that the dead husband has a twin sister. She proved to have learning difficulties – in the language we use today, but was not the description back in 1950s Japan – difficulties that were blamed on violence in the womb, perpetrated by the brother. This child was sent away and raised by an ‘aunt’.

One of the suitors to Yasuko seduces her, but in the night they spend together, comes to believe that it is a different woman he is lying with. When Harume, the female twin, proves to be pregnant, despite her life of seclusion, it quickly becomes a tale of suspected witchcraft carried out by the mother-in-law and Yasuko.

The language is simple, the story slow moving, respectful of the time – as I imagine it – and the whole is unsettling. It is the sort of book that you put down and get on with everyday life only to find flashes of it moving around your consciousness at unexpected times.

thirty

Published weeks before her death, this collection carries the weight of Dunsmore’s terminal diagnosis but carries it lightly. It is impossible to read this collection without that context – for the moment, at least, that may change with time.

But it is how she tells us these things that matters: isn’t that always the way with good poetry. The universal and the daily, sit side by side with the myths of Ancient Greece and the remembered visit to “Hornsea 1952”, where “The wind blew from the east, you were always cold,/ And there was a boating lake…”

What struck me were the details and the noticing of those details, the precise choice of “absolutely the right word” noticing of these details, in this, Dunsmore’s collection reminds me of the last TV interview that Dennis Potter gave with Melvyn Bragg, swigging from a flask of liquid morphine, talking about the “blossomiest blossom” he had ever seen that Spring, which he knew would be his last. She talks about a “Mimosa – with plumes that make the sky quiver”, “The Bare Leg – the calf tightening/ The vessel of the hip cupping”, “Four cormorants, one swan – …it is flying/ Arrowlike to a fish a hundred yards off./ A lover could not be more direct” and “A Lose Curl – I have never known you easily/ hold my hand as you do now. / We sit for hours…”

Sitting anonymously, invisibly, silently at the heart of her world and noticing. And reporting. All of which is a cornerstone of good writing. Much here appears to come from time spent in a hospital bed, or hospital grounds; “The Shaft”, “Leave the door open”, “Winter Balcony with Dunnocks”, while other poems are a literal clearing of the decks “Rim – I’m getting rid, getting shot, cleansing/ Dark cupboards and fossil-deep/ Drawers…”, “Ten Books” or “On looking through the handle of a cup”. All this without wistfulness or self pity. The clear-eyed matter of factness is both admirable and salutary. As she says in the closing lines to the collection’s opening poem, “Counting Backwards”,

But you can get used to anything/ Like the anaesthetist/ Counting to himself/ Backwards, all wrong.

The edition I’m reading has an extra poem “Hold out your arms” which it states was written on 25 May 2017, hence too late for the first edition. It is a welcome note to Death, who may well have been seen a gentle lover and/or mother and finishes with Death murmuring, “We’re nearly there”.

I want to finish by quoting in full the poem, “Plane tree outside Ward 78”

The tree outside the window/ Is lost and gone,/ Billow of leaf in the summer dark,/ A buffet of rain./

I might owe this tree to morphine,/ I might wake in the morning/ To find it dissolved, paper/ Hung in water,/

Nothing to do with dreams./ I cannot sleep./ Pain is yards away/ Held off like bad weather,/

In the ward’s beautiful contentment/ Freed by opiates./ Hooked to oxygen/ We live for the moment.

twenty nine

A crackling tale of a teenage girl caught up in events she doesn’t fully understand. The language is simple and believable as the thoughts, the life view of a 15 year old, living in the back woods, well away from any metropolitan sophistication. There is an undercurrent of unease, something sinister, something she isn’t able to deal with.

Linda/Madeleine – she goes by different names with different groups – is the only child of a couple who live in a lakeside cabin miles from the metalled road back into the nearest town. One summer, a couple move in to a vacant cabin across the lake, with their toddler, Paul. Linda starts babysitting Paul, although it is hard to tell sometimes whether she is really babysitting Paul or his young mother Patra. The husband, Leo, is an astrophysicist, a religious fundamentalist who’s life’s work appears to finding the point where religion and science can be properly reunited, is often absent. Patra, drifts about dressed mainly in a dirty t-shirt that just covers her knickers, only occasionally affecting Paul’s daily life, leaving it to Linda to feed the boy, to take him out on day long trips through the woods, or to local museums – 11 miles away by bike – all of which only seem of passing interest to the boy, who may or may not, be gifted.

Linda notes that there is an 11 year gap between Paul and herself, between herself and Patra, and again between Patra and Leo, and she seems to find some meaning in the regularity of this gap…and seeks the pattern in other areas of life.

Patra, who was a university student, which is how she met Leo, he was a lecturer on one of her courses, is nobody’s fool but seldom appears fully switched on, becomes completely pliant when Leo is back from one of his work-related absences. She is besotted, to the point where she allows Leo’s religious certainty to take over from good sense – or even medical opinion – when it comes to the health of the family.

The meditations on nature, on the the teenage girl drifting in her canoe across and around the lake are gently dreamlike; the secondary story about her classmate Lily, an ‘early developer’ and apparently beautiful in the way of some cheerleader stereotype, and whether or not this girl was seduced and raped by a teacher – whoever was the father, she became undeniably pregnant – is a constant thorn nagging away in the memory of the older Linda. Other flashes of her later life, where the adult Linda is looking back through the confusion with clearer knowledge, with hindsight, gives the story an interesting angle. As does the court room drama.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this novel; an unusual tale well told.

twenty eight

There’s lots of good stuff in this tale of disaffected, slightly lost teenagers, in some unnamed Welsh town, near the slate quarries, near the sea. The story centres around 3 or 4 of these young people, one of whom is Pigeon, his real name – although sometimes spelled Pijin – as he repeatedly tells people, a young boy who lives in a shed in his family’s garden and rarely bothers with school. The others are Cher and Iola, two young girls.

I found the opening pages difficult and fragmented. In that way that your concentration wanders, you keep needing to go back over the previous half a page to grasp what has happened. I almost gave up on it. I’m glad I didn’t because it pulls together with an appealing vigour and momentum as the story reaches a conclusion.

There’s something in this about coming of age, something about the stories kids tell each other, half truths getting tangled with very real fears, something about lies. It’s almost as if there are two or three slightly unreliable narrators cutting across each others’ memories, not quite denying them, but not verifying them either. And they get into varying degrees of trouble as bored kids in dead end places do.

The adults in the book are damaged or dangerous, either way they neither set examples or boundaries. Gwyn, the ice-cream man, may or may not, pay a heavy price for some misdemeanours, imagined, exaggerated or real. Pigeon’s Mother seems unaware, dysfunctional an almost ghostly presence in the book and in Pigeon’s life, when he comes home from a brief spell in prison, he finds the place a can-littered dusty tip and in a fit of disgust sets about cleaning the place, while ‘His mam stares at him. She stands, holding the edge of the chair and stares.’ There follows a long paragraph of Pigeon dusting, tearing down curtains, opening windows to blow fresh air through, at the end of which, ‘His mam stands holding the edge of the chair until he’s finished. He cleans around her feet, not asking her to move.’

The way that the narrative style creates a distance, an otherness about the characters and the tale itself, as though they were being viewed behind heavy glass, reminded me a little of The Wasp Factory…which cannot be anything but a good thing. But the clearer literary precursers are Niall Griffiths’ drifting student, unemployed youths in Grits and Sheepshagger…almost as if this were the early days of a handful of those characters.

twenty seven

Two words come immediately to mind, on reading and re-reading these collections, Shaw’s second and third; bravery and love.

There is an immediacy – I’m really tempted to use the word ‘attack’ here, but that wouldn’t be correct, for so many reasons – there is an immediacy, a vibrancy, a daring that it is rare to find from poems on the page. They are in your face, they nag, harass and will not you alone: all of which are good things. They have life. Guts.

I have never cared about formal structures of poems, which is not the same thing as not caring about how they look, how they are presented on the page, and I don’t know if Clare Shaw can write a good villanelle, she probably can, but I don’t care. These poems rest on the story that is laid before us, and they are mainly personal, one suspects painful, perhaps with an element of redemption at times, and on the energy, the passion with which they are told. To be this candid about your own pain, the things you have fucked up and the things others have done to you, deliberately or otherwise, and essentially to still come out swinging, to still come out with a blindingly obvious love of humanity, is inspiring.

With “Flood”, the most recent collection which draws its starting point from the recent sorry history of flooding in Shaw’s home town of Hebden Bridge, it is impossible to avoid all those flood related descriptions – overwhelm, inundate, surge – when thinking about the collection. Which is not to say this rests on cliche, or such laziness, but it is to recognise the convincing job that Shaw has made of this collection: it is of a piece, it is structurally sound and it uses that base brilliantly to branch off into other areas of life (love, mental health) while sustaining the central metaphor.

Some of the titles are wryly brilliant, giving the collection’s overall title, where else would poems that glory in names like the following comfortably sit: “instructions for coping in terrible times”; “Low lying regions inundated. Large objects begin to float”; “Major structures destroyed; terrain significantly altered”; “Catastrophic devastation; damage complete.” And while thinking about titles, the following sit back to back, “My father was no ordinary man” – “…His loins were a river…his hand was a mark/ we will all wear forever” – “My Mother was a verified miracle” – “…my mother was bread/ and my mother was broken…”

“Grabbed” is a quietly horrific account, told spare, of an assault on a young girl who had just been playing out on her bike, noting “…the flowers that she gripped throughout…” the poem that offers up the prayer that “she feels nothing at all/ no touch like murder…” It will not be coincidence that the poem “Rainhill Psychiatric Hospital 1992” follows it.

The gallows humour of “Divorce”. The swoon of the several poems that make up “Lovehearts”; “your kiss was the sentence/ I wanted to speak”; “I have never seen such stars”; new love, Shaw notes, “opens the chest/ like cold air”.

“Head On” opens with one of the great statements of rage in recent poetry. MeToo before that was a hashtag, “I do not believe in silence” is that extraordinary thing: poem as personal and political without being dogmatic or hectoring…and when heard read live, it stands the hairs on end. When reading these collections together it is interesting to compare this with the opener of “Flood”, “What do I know”, which is less sure of itself, as if the anger has mellowed and been reflected on, but still simmers in a world that is necessarily different now, now that she has made her own star.

Amongst other subjects “Head On” tackles motherhood, miscarriage and birth, starting of course with “The Lesbian Guide to Conception.” “The No Baby Poem” rings like an empty bell across the Calder valley, it is heart breaking. But the poem in this group that stopped me cold was “This isn’t”, which continues, reading on from the title,

“what mothers are meant to do. / They’re not meant to stand in the corner/ of a white room/ while their daughters are led, bewildered/ to a white couch covered in paper/”

Before going on to describe the detail of a police forensic examination of the girl, “injuries duly noted”, these mothers “want to be anywhere,/ anywhere but this.” Simple language, harrowing scene.

I could go on and on picking out individual poems in these collections, instead I’ll say buy one, buy both and if you get the opportunity to see Clare Shaw read live, take it. She is one of the few poets currently active that bridge the much debated gap between performance and page poetry: she makes a nonsense of the supposed differences, she is simply a fantastic poet.

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