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Review | Burning Woman by Lucy H. Pearce

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Designed to teach, inspire and empower generations of women who suffer from a deep internal burning; Burning Woman is a non-fictional, controversial exploration into how shame and guilt permeates the female identity. A book that gets to the very heart of a universal feminine affliction.

Published in 2016, Lucy H. Pearce’s Burning Woman is one of her seven books which specialise in exploring the field of the feminine. Despite being published just over two years ago, the timeless book remains relevant for generations of women past, present and future. As a writer, Lucy guides women to reconnect and harness their intuitive yet deeply suppressed female power. Her tone fits perfectly with Womancraft Publishing’s overall ethos – to celebrate “paradigm shifting books by women for women”.

Before venturing further into the contents of the book, it would seem an injustice to not speak on the beautiful and captivating cover art by Robin Lea Quinlivan. Titled ‘Waiting to Fly’, the artwork encapsulates the books pivotal theme of lifting oneself from restraints. We witness a rising phoenix, illustrated with vibrant oranges, reds and yellows – perfectly preparing the reader for the novels contents.

Burning Woman is separated into twelve chapters flowing seamlessly into eachother. Without revealing too much; the book begins by defining the Burning Woman archetype, leading to how femininity is scorned and suppressed by patriarchal power, until finally offering insight as to how we can build a positive relationship with our feminine essences. Each chapter concludes with exercises for those who feel inspired, or perhaps experimental, and wish to take their reading experience further. The book is a manual on how to cultivate, nurture and release the innate power in our feminine roots, without it being destructive.

Though the novel centres around femininity, it would be misguided to assume that men are excluded from Burning Woman. Lucy gives space to the male perspective in her third chapter titled ‘The Masculine Dark’, with its subsections ‘The Dark Arts of The Patriarchy’, ‘Fear’ and ‘Shame’. Lucy reminds readers that feminine exists within the masculine, as depicted by the Chinese Ying and Yang, or Carl Jung’s Anima and Animus. The feminine essence innate to men undergoes the same burning from shame and guilt that constitutes a woman’s existence in patriarchy.

As the nature of the book is an investigation into the relationship between feminine power and shame; Lucy draws upon many spiritual and intellectual speakers alongside her own experiences, to give a detailed and thorough perspective. The book offers a comforting community of men and women who challenge patriarchal conventions, including psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Activist Leymah Gbowee, and Author/psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estes of Women Who Run with the Wolves. Thus, Burning Woman satisfies our appetite for resistance, which, prior to reading, we may not know we had.

It comes as no surprise that the book received the Nautilus Silver Award in 2017 in the woman’s section, as well as being an Amazon bestseller. Spoken in the first person (sometimes plural for affect), Lucy’s tone is engaging and informal; ironically fiery at times, and extremely stripped back as she delves into the deep and existential topic of the female identity. Though the opening suffers with a somewhat slow and repetitive start, Lucy makes up for this as the narrative quickly builds momentum.

Lucy’s fifth chapter titled ‘The Feminine Dark’ is a particular favourite of mine. With the subsections ‘Initiations into Darkness’, ‘Journeys to the Underworld’, ‘Going Dark’, ‘Womb Space – Feminine Heart of Darkness’, ‘The Unconscious’, and ‘Dreams and Visions’, this chapter gets to the root of female suffering. One of her faster-paced sections, Lucy explores the negative influence of patriarchal attitudes; re-defining our dark selves which we are taught to fear as transformative.

It is difficult to fully articulate the experience of reading Burning Woman. Beautiful words by a beautiful soul; Lucy H. Pearce takes the reader on a journey of unlocking and empowering the hidden and oppressed parts of the female psyche. I like to view the book as a gateway; an introduction into the grand and complex world of the feminine unconscious, and its archetypes. The beginning of the journey to understanding one’s self.

For those who enjoy Lucy’s exploration of feminine, Burning Woman’s sister book titled Medicine Woman: Reclaiming the Soul of Healing is scheduled to be released this October.

Burning WomanLucy H. Pearce, Womancraft Publishing, pp. 240, £10.99.

Words by Briony Willis

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Review | Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue

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This year has truly brought to the fiction scene some of the most stunning and powerful female characters. From the extreme – such as My Absolute Darling’s Turtle Alveston – to the proudly millennial – such as Sally Rooney’s characters – there is now an abundance of female leads holding up a mirror to today’s society, reflecting many, often as of yet unarticulated observations and feelings.

In her debut novel, Caroline O’Donoghue has decided to tackle some of the most relevant issues concerning young women of the twenty-first century: gender imbalance at the workplace, career versus personal life, growing degrees of separation from friends and family, and grappling with adulthood in an era that demands that girls become women at an increasingly young age.

Jane Peters is a 26-year-old young woman living in London. She has worked for an advertising agency for around two years – largely unnoticed – and has been in a happy relationship with her boyfriend, Max. We meet her when all this is about to change. After embarking on a romantic relationship with her married, much older and more senior colleague, Clem, everything Jane knew begins to crumble. As her career advances, Jane cannot help but wonder whether this is solely due to her involvement with Clem – and as the relationship inevitably deteriorates, some darker secrets begin to surface. Jane will be tried both physically and mentally before she can emerge on the other side.

Promising Young Women starts out very promising indeed. The initial plot direction – that of a young woman having to balance her love life and her career, especially when the two are confined to the same space – is common enough for readers to be able to understand and sympathise. It has all the ingredients to become a solidly romantic story. O’Donoghue also gives Jane’s friendly relationships stage time: her best friend, Darla feels spiteful and jealous as Jane advances up the career ladder, and her co-worker, Becky, is desperately trying to make a friend out of Jane as her childhood friends all drift towards husbands and babies. It is really in this first half of the book that the ’promising’ angle is explored, and where O’Donoghue succeeds in creating a realistic world for many London-living women of age 25 and up.

In addition to her working life, Jane also runs an online agony aunt blog, where she anonymously dishes out life advice to those willing to listen. This is where she really thrives, although as is often the case, she is unable to take her own advice. There is context to this throughout the book: growing up with an absent father, Jane becomes the pillar of moral and emotional support for her mother until she later remarries. O’Donoghue does not let the absent father issues become a cliché, however, and her sharp language veers towards the satirical when Jane decides to unload her past onto Clem in what is deemed (at the time) a romantic moment. The entire book is written in an engaging and often satirical voice, which only occasionally suffers from over-explaining or repetition.

As the book proceeds to explore further Jane’s workplace affair, things become quite muddled, and take a turn for the dramatic. Introducing magical realism and thriller-esque elements, the novel veers towards a mix of genres where no single thread can really emerge as dominating. The original realist viewpoint is lost to what feels more like commercial women’s fiction. Characterisation suffers greatly – apart from Jane, none of the characters are truly explored, leaving them feeling somewhat shallow and one-dimensional. Jane often does not read like a 26-year-old. Clem is pictured as a villain; Becky, the loyal supporter, and Deb, an older co-worker as the mentor figure. There is no real spectrum between black and white characters.

How Do You Like Me Now by Holly Bournepublished earlier this year, is comparable to O’Donoghue’s novel in that it also actively aims to tackle early adulthood; but while Promising Young Women regularly skips between genres in the second, more fast-paced half of the novel (bringing the book to a thriller conclusion and abandoning its original, realistic tone), Bourne sticks to painting a convincing picture. Saying this however, it would of course be detrimental to expect the same thing of two contemporary writers, both fine writers who each demand different expectations, and are both enjoyable in their own way.

The author clearly has an original and engaging style, and the book is helped endlessly by the wit and humour in her writing. While at times Promising Young Women can feel like a writer finding their voice, this is part of the experimental energy of reading a debut author. From what we can see from this particular debut, O’Donoghue’s literary horizons are looking very promising indeed.

Promising Young WomenCaroline O’Donoghue, Little Brown Book Group, 2018, 352pp, £16.99 (hardback)

Words by Vera Sugár.

Review | The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829 by Antonia Fraser

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In an age which has sidelined the Christian faith, the long, bitterly contested campaign to remove the serious discrimination suffered by Roman Catholics in the United Kingdom for nearly three centuries after the Reformation is seldom recalled, except by apologists for Irish nationalism. The struggle for Catholic rights lasted some fifty years, from the 1770s until 1829 when what had come to be known as Catholic emancipation was embodied in law by the Duke of Wellington in command of an obedient Tory government. Even when it was over, Catholics were often told they did not deserve their release from discriminatory laws. The 19th century Tory historian, J.A. Froude, wrote, ‘they who had never professed toleration, had no right to demand it.’

Toleration, however, gradually won the day. The first concessions in 1780 allowed Catholic priests to celebrate mass without fear of arrest and prosecution, and removed the risk of life imprisonment from those who established Catholic schools. The bar on the ownership of land, often disregarded in practice, was formally lifted. With the completion of the process of reform by Wellington, most public offices were opened to Catholics who were also given the right to vote in Britain (they already had it in Ireland), and to sit in both Houses of Parliament.

Left to their own devices, the politicians would have resolved the issue much more swiftly, but they were thwarted by two stubborn monarchs. The virtuous George III was adamant that the oath he had sworn at his coronation to uphold the Protestant faith, coupled with a blood- curdling denunciation of Roman Catholicism, made it impossible for him to permit emancipation. His dissolute successor, George IV, was no less resolute in his hostility, despite marrying a Catholic illegally and going to great lengths to charm Catholic Ireland during a wildly popular visit in 1821. Royal princes cursed emancipation in lurid terms in the House of Lords.

No one seemed particularly surprised or shocked by this display of intense Hanoverian partisanship. But though the crown’s right to determine policy was not strongly contested over these fifty years, its eventual, reluctant submission to Wellington marked an important moment in the shift of power from monarch to ministers.

In her 24th book, Antonia Fraser assembles a large cast of curious and colourful characters, much given to making outlandish remarks and fighting duels. They adorn a vivid account of a little-known historical episode, which unfolds with the verve for which the author has long been famous; at the age of 85, her vigour remains undimmed, along with her voracious appetite for research.

One of her own forebears was among the most intransigent opponents of emancipation. The 2nd Earl of Longford, head of the extreme Protestant Brunswick Club, set out on the hopeless task of trying to make his Irish Catholic tenants ‘love and venerate the Protestant religion and laws as gloriously constituted by the wisdom, and established by the blood, of our forefathers in 1688.’

It was an appeal to which many elsewhere responded enthusiastically. There was no majority for Catholic emancipation in the United Kingdom as a whole, and no threat of disorder from English Catholics. Wellington imposed emancipation everywhere because of the strength of the demand for it in the land where Longford had launched his fruitless campaign on behalf of the Protestant cause.

From 1812 onwards, a restless and eloquent nationalist leader, Daniel O’Connell, made emancipation the focal point of swelling Irish discontent. The case for economic reform, so obvious to British visitors appalled by Irish poverty, was set aside in favour of an issue that stirred even stronger feelings than the most acute hardship to be found in Western Europe. O’ Connell was described as ‘a glass in which Ireland may see herself completely reflected.’ It was in reality a distorted reflection which suited O’ Connell’s purpose of bringing Catholic Ireland under his control and demanding emancipation in recognition of his power.

Britain ended up conceding under duress in 1829 what its political elite would have happily bestowed nearly thirty years earlier at the time of the political union of Great Britain and Ireland, if the conscience of the king had not been so sorely troubled. Wellington handled the retreat in masterly fashion. He secured a sharp reduction in the size of the Irish electorate by revising the franchise to exclude most of O’Connell’s followers. He compelled O’Connell to disband the political organisation that had become the basis of his power. In England, most Catholics, loyal to a fault, felt deeply uncomfortable about achieving full civil rights as a result of Irish recalcitrance.

Antonia Fraser writes benignly about the participants on both sides of the campaign, rejoicing in the bloodless victory that was finally won. Wellington is commended for wearing down the resistance of the bloated George IV. O’Connell, the hero of the story, is forgiven for killing a fellow Irishman in a duel on the way to his triumph that enabled him to become an astute MP, observing that ‘ there is more folly and nonsense in the House than anywhere out of it’. Whig grandees are chided gently for speaking rudely about the pope.

Some rejoiced unduly in the hour of victory. In the holy city, word spread that a new saint had been canonised. Men struck their breasts and intoned, Santa Emancipatione, ora pro nobis.

BY ALISTAIR LEXDEN

The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829 by Antonia Fraser is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 

Essay | Meg Wolitzer’s #MeToo Moment by Sophie Perryer

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Meg Wolitzer must be psychic. Well before the explosive allegations against Harvey Weinstein were revealed and the #MeToo movement gathered pace, she penned The Female Persuasion, a novel about feminism, and finding your voice. 

Published on June 7th, the Female Persuasion tells the story of Greer Kadetsky’s coming-of-age, from her edifying arrival at Rutland College to her encounter with the dazzling Faith Frank, and the ensuing intergenerational friendship which shapes Greer’s experience of the world. 

This isn’t the first time that Wolitzer has tackled the bildungsroman trope; her 2014 novel The Interestings follows a group of 6 teenagers, who meet at a summer camp the year that Nixon resigns. The novel follows their divergent lives through youth and middle age; it’s a fascinating study into the enduring nature of creativity and the transience of satisfaction. 

Unlike The Interestings, though, The Female Persuasion puts the female coming-of-age experience at the heart of this novel. From the loss of her virginity to her first boyfriend, to the unsettling experience of having her breast grabbed at a college party, Greer’s story is full of moments that every millennial woman will find mirrored in her own life. Early in the novel, Greer, a shy bookworm paralysed by her inexperience, laments that she is not one of those women described as ‘spitfires’ and ‘kickass’, women with ‘fuck-you confidence’ who are ‘assured of their place in the world’. Wolitzer draws wonderful parallels between Greer and her best friend Zee, described as ‘bracingly, innately political’; her temerity acts as a foil to Greer’s timidity, which gradually wanes as the novel progresses.

When it comes to the representation of #MeToo in the novel, Wolitzer’s prescience is astounding. Not only does the description of serial groper Darren Tinsler hit awfully close to home post-Weinstein, but she also predicts the value mismatch between Second Wave and Fourth Wave feminists which has pervaded much of the #MeToo discussion. In the novel, Greer and Faith’s relationship breaks down after Greer becomes disillusioned with some of Faith’s actions, which she feels are contradictory to her feminist values, such as her sleeping with a married man, and her turning a blind eye to ethical neglectfulness on a refuge camp for trafficked women in Ecuador. 

Speaking of Greer, it is no coincidence that the novel’s main character shares a name with arguably the most influential feminist of the 1970s, Germaine Greer, who now seems to be spending much of her time arguing with current feminists about the moment which we’re living through. Wolitzer has hesitated in directly confirming the correlation between the names, admitting instead that she ‘unconsciously’ named the character Greer after remembering seeing The Female Eunuch on her mother’s bookshelf. 

In the novel, Faith Frank is a bastion of Second Wave feminism; it feels like Germaine Greer is her real-life counterpart. Through this characterisation, Wolitzer asks the question that has troubled 21st century feminism during #MeToo so far: namely, is it possible to admire the foundational work that Second Wave feminists did to underpin the societal progress women have made over the past 30 years, without necessarily agreeing with everything that these women are saying in the present moment? After all, each generation of feminists has certain privileges, thanks to the previous generation, but they also have very different experiences of the world, and as such, have developed different attitudes. 

And this is partly why Wolitzer’s novel is so powerful – it captures a moment in time, for a certain generation of women, and enshrines #MeToo in a literary format. It is not historically and socially overarching or comprehensive because ultimately, it is a work of fiction. It succeeds in revealing the cracks in our current incarnation of feminism, in an insightful manner, and encourages us to think about the freedoms that we’re entitled to. More than anything who, the novel forces us to take a look back over the past 12 months, and see just how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. At the end of the novel, Greer bemoans that men ‘always get to set the terms’. ‘They don’t ask, they just do it’, she complains. ‘I don’t want to keep repeating this forever. I don’t want to keep having to live in the buildings they make.’ Wolitzer’s novel landed in the centre of a female revolution, which brought those buildings crumbling down. It’s our time, now, to pick up our tools, and, brick by brick, begin to rebuild. 

By Sophie Perryer.

Review | The Ink Trade by Anthony Burgess, Edited by Will Carr

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Image taken from AllEvents

 

Even though Burgess was an ‘enormously prolific journalist’, he is dominantly known for his controversial, cult classic A Clockwork Orange (1962). But you will find no Nadsat here.

This collection of journalism, edited by Will Carr, features some of Anthony Burgess’s articles from 1961 to his death in 1993. Previous collections of his work include Urgent Copy (1968) and Homage to Qwert Yuiop (1986) however, as these are now out of print, many readers are unaware of Burgess’s non-fiction. That is, until now.

The Ink Trade is comprised of an impressive sixty articles and reviews covering a range of topics from Samuel Beckett’s birthday (not Good Friday as Beckett would argue) and why Burgess writes (‘compulsion’ he simply puts). Each feature is a few pages long which makes this book the perfect companion to anyone like me, a millennial with a fleeting attention span – or so I’m told.

But, in all seriousness, The Ink Trade makes a great example of a book you can pick up and put down. You can read it anywhere and you won’t have to worry about finishing the chapter before your stop or until someone else wants the toilet.

Although short, each section is written with both substantial research and credibility yet also wit, cynicism and rhythm –  making it a pleasure to read. ‘Literature is monody, the single line, the voice unaccompanied’, he writes, almost poetically in The School of Jesuits yet, a mere twenty-five pages later, he effortlessly shifts to a comically spiteful tone: ‘The critics are having a stab at me again. Me that is, in my capacity as a novelist…Writing a book is damned difficult work, and you ought to praise any book you can’. He seems to effortlessly immortalise his voice on the page, a skill few writers can successfully do, as we picture him before us, throwing his toys out of the pram, fag in one hand and a whisky in the other.

His style of writing reminds me of other great journalists and novelists such as Hunter S. Thompson and George Orwell. They all share that nihilistic and macho persona that only writers of their generation seem to pull off.

This book contrasts greatly to his fiction. If you were to give The Ink Trade and Clockwork Orange to a reader, concealing the author’s name, they would quickly assume that they were written by two different people. That’s if they made it through the first Nadsat infested page of the 1962 black comedy.

I can only fault this book on one thing – his criticisms. I don’t agree with quite a few of them and in many cases seem hypocritical and vague. He claimed Pale Fire, Nabokov’s 1962 novel, was ‘tedious to read’ (just a tad rich coming from you Burgess) and states that Kerouac’s style of ‘dangerous leaness’ is ‘not good’. However, disliking a book for the author’s opinions is just as productive as fighting with a dead man. Hang on. That’s exactly what this is…

The Ink Trade is the perfect companion for anyone on their daily commute, especially those interested in journalism and literary criticism. It is an accessible and effortless read and I’m thankful Will Carr has given us that. If he hadn’t collated these previously unpublished materials, I would have always remembered Burgess for ‘chepooka’ and not his stinging wit.

The Ink Trade releases on the 30th May. 

By Emily Priest

Staff Picks – March 2018

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Introducing Staff Picks! Recommendations for the very best in arts, culture and literature from the staff at The London Magazine.

 

Steven O’Brien – Editor
Boneland – Alan Garner

Just finished ‘Boneland’ by Alan Garner. A hard, and yet deeply English read. Is Garner the father of Folk Realism?  

 

 

Matthew Scott – Reviews Editor
The Origins of Creativity – Edward O. Wilson

An intriguing attempt to think about artistic creativity by one of the world’s leading biologists. 

 

 

Lucy Binnersley – Assistant Editor
Ballet Flamenco Jesús Carmona – Impetus (Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells, 24th February)

Jesús Carmona is famed for his explosive and witty footwork and his ballet-infused moves translated masterfully throughout this irresistible interpretation of famous scores from Spain’s most beloved composers. A truly colourful and explosive perform by all 11 dancers and musicians.

 

Emma Quick – Marketing and Research Executive
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire is a contemporary take on Sophocles’ Antigone, examining the fraught tension that comes with being British, female and Muslim in today’s world. An urgent and pertinent novel which takes on politics, radicalisation, family and faith in a way that is both truly elegant and evocative.

 

 

Freya Pratty – Special Editorial Advisor
Another Kind of Life – Photography on the Margins (Barbican Art Gallery, 28th Feb – 27th May, from £9 – U14s go free)

This exhibition spans a huge expanse, both historically and geographically, to tell the stories of the frequently under-represented. Igor Palmin’s photographs are a particular highlight, showing images of hippies in the Russian countryside, as are Paz Errazuriz’s images of sex workers in Chile during the time of Pinochet. 

 

Bridey Heing – Special Editorial Advisor
How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future – Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

‘I’m currently reading ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. It’s as worrying as the title would suggest, but the rich context they provide gives some very reassuring contours to the daily news cycle.’

 

Alex Bryan – Intern
The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles

Bowles’ novel, turning 70 next year, is a lattice of snapshots which guides you through Post-War North Africa. A great writer and contributor to The London Magazine. 

 

Review | Rainsongs, by Sue Hubbard

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Sue Hubbard’s Rainsongs has a unique and beautiful emotive quality that shines through its delicately constructed prose in a love-letter to Ireland, memory and parenthood, taking advantage of its mature narrator to speak with resonance and depth. In a contemporary world of instant connections, Rainsongs returns to an age just prior to the boom of social media – 2007 – in an exploration of what it means to be truly alone.

Rainsongs is a book filled with characters who are alone, by circumstance and by choice. Martha Cassidy has lost her husband and only son; twice-divorced Eugene Riordan and farm devotee Paddy O’Connell eschew relationships, finding they are happier living on their own. Accounts of community, large families, childhood friendships, are all recalled, dreamlike, from a distant past. Permanent loneliness haunts the narrative as a threat, but it is from solitude that the most beautifully haunting and thoughtful reflections in the book arise. Whenever Hubbard’s varyingly anthropophobic characters do enter a social setting, such as Eugene’s New Year’s Eve party, Brendan’s funeral, or the various local pubs, bars and restaurants, other people in the crowd are sketched accurately but unflatteringly, reduced to their worst.

However, as the supplies in Martha’s cupboard dwindle at the beginning of each chapter, the unsustainability of hermitage becomes clear. Paddy ends up in hospital by attempting to pull a heifer out of a ditch alone, an impossible task. Martha, despite her disdain for the pity she detects in all her interactions, is forced to ‘stay connected’ by the PhD student who rents her top room, and even out in the country cottage in the middle of nowhere finds herself mobbed by undesired visitors, local families, Eugene. It is impossible to stay alone forever, as the monks who travelled out to the Skelligs found all those centuries ago.

Estranged from and disliking most other people, it is through writing that Hubbard’s narrator first finds community. The intertextuality of Rainsongs is established from its very beginning with opening quotes taken from Woolf, Shakespeare and Irish proverbs, which inspire and in some cases structure and speak through the novel. Martha Cassidy cannot relate to anybody around her but finds a companion in Mrs Ramsay, and notes that despite her childlessness, Virginia Woolf ‘understood’ her loss. Similarly, she finds that Shakespeare ‘understands’ the utopian promise of a desert island in his Tempest. Although this promise of utopia, as of the trip to the Skelligs, is ultimately empty, Martha discovers the possibility of human empathy and companionship through text.

Brendan, perhaps the only extrovert described in the novel and hauntingly absent, is only present through the words of his remaining diaries and letters, which open up a previously closed side of himself to his wife. This allows her to connect with him in a way she never could when he was alive, revealing his secrets, and highlighting her loneliness even when she was with him. Her burgeoning relationship with the young Colm Nolan hinges around the reading of his poetry, again providing an elsewhere non-existent insight into his true feeling. Still grieving, complicatedly, for Bruno, Martha unconsciously seeks out a boy protégé in Colm, much as Brendan did – without her knowledge – in his lifetime. In continuing his mission of getting his poetry published, she is able to complete their foreshortened joint parenthood, relating to Colm as the adult that Bruno never became. Hubbard handles the development of their relationship so sensitively that the questionable circumstances of their intimacy – the age difference, Martha’s recent widowhood and maternal void – do not cast a shadow over their relationship, rather illuminating a pure, emotional connection. It is poetry that acts as the catalyst for this, as the publication of Colm’s work, dedicated to Bruno, effects a change in Martha, allowing her to finally achieve closure. Eventually, she is able to reconsider her future, deciding to build a life teaching English to young refugees, refilling her role as teacher; the element of selfhood that she has been completely without for the first part of the novel, existing only in relation to the deceased men of her life. When she finally returns to the Skelligs, she is not alone but accompanied by her healed memories of Bruno and her newfound human connections, again effected through her language.

The subsequent self-awareness of Hubbard’s own writing as a mode of release lends it an especially powerful emotive quality. Her noted poetic style brings a unique rhythm to her prose, well suited to the romantic descriptions of the Irish countryside, but she is also a gifted storyteller. The combination of endearing details such as Paddy having used the same comb since childhood, together with eye-watering descriptions of the new-money luxury spa that Eugene plans to build and a cutting turn of phrase that sketches a couple as ‘the director of a string of local supermarkets and his heavily Botoxed wife’ bring two very different realities together at once, painting a convincing portrait of pre-recession Ireland. Politics barely surfaces, just existing in the background as Republican flags wave in pubs and children wear orange, white and green T-shirts to watch a football game; Hubbard is more interested in the everyday lives of her characters, and drinking champagne instead of Guinness becomes a motif that is aware of its own ironies. Empathy for refugees past and present targets questions of compassion and connection more than it does government quotas, and the EU is a seemingly independent fluctuating circumstance in the lives of the locals.

Hubbard’s book is about city and country, home and identity, love and loss, but it is in its traversal of the shaky balance between solitude and loneliness that it finds its unique voice, and champions the role of literature in an increasingly disconnected modern world.

Rainsongs is available online and in bookstores now.

Leah Shaya

You Must Change Your Life – The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachael Corbett

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You Must Change Your Life is an enthralling exploration of the complex relationship between two creative giants of art and literature, drawn together in Paris at the birth of a new century. Rachel Corbett has successfully melded the natural flair and élan of her own writing with exemplary research into her subject. There is always a danger the ardent biographical explorer may fatally slip into a crevasse of overkill or verbosity, not so Corbett, who sustains the reader’s interest through intellectual rigour, elegance, and above all empathy. Corbett’s work also introduces neglected names such as the important sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel and Theodore Lipps, whose pioneering work on empathy or einfühling, (‘thinking into’) fed into Rilke’s creation of a new form of poetry, articulating that essence which lies beneath the surface, as in a Rodin sculpture.

Although the story concerns the trajectory of the companionable and inspiritive yet sometimes nimbus clouded relations between Rilke and Rodin, the interweaving travails of their wives and friends decisively enrich the book, casting a less gilded light on the pair. But it is Rodin’s deleterious behaviour which proves most unsettling. Corbett focuses on the women in their orbit, in Rilke’s case the gifted painter Paula-Modersohn Becker and sculptor Clara Westhoff, (as friend and wife respectively), their fraught passage to independence alongside Rilke’s painstaking ascendency. Corbett is empathic towards these free spirits labouring to extricate themselves from the thicket of male dominated culture, yet thankfully she does not romanticise.

Corbett sketches Rodin’s advance over the desiccated terrain of reactionary criticism. We see the bullish sculptor organically immersed in his materials and more often his models, the authentic outsider, face pressed against the glass of the salons awaiting admittance. We pass through the Gates of Hell, into the Balzac and Zola intrigues, are borne on the Camille Claudel storm wave and on to his encounter with the melancholy young poet who arrives in Paris bearing the uncomfortable embryo of an impulsively initiated family life. Desperate for creative re-alignment, Rilke loiters at Meudon enduring the sculptor’s domestic maelstrom in order to access the atelier and its secrets. Mesmerised by Rodin’s physicality, ‘Rilke noted the way the sculptor would lunge at his sculptures, the floor creaking and moaning under his heavy feet. He would fix his eyes on a detail and zero in so close that his nose pressed up against the clay…’ Rodin’s proffered panacea to his disciple of ‘travailler, toujours travailler’ becomes mantra to the poet until Rilke gradually awakens to the danger of humanistic petrification if taken verbatim.

Rilke gains most, evolving through the governing prism of Rodin’s presence and Paris. Rodin, immortalised in his undisputed greatness, remains fossilised in human terms, a man who counselled ‘sedating one’s own children, should they prove distracting from the pursuit.’ Rodin’s brutal unjust sacking of Rilke as personal secretary is a watershed moment. Yet ultimately the master and one-time disciple are reconciled, and set to repolishing the now dulled treasure of their friendship when both men share a residence in the intriguing ‘lost domain’ of the legendary Hotel Biron. Rodin withdraws, snubs modernity and clinging defiantly to classicism is brashly rejected by minimalist parvenus like Brancusi. Rilke must now master fame himself, or ‘that collection of misunderstandings that gather around a name.’ Proof of his unswerving attachment to Rodin is laid bare in the acclamatory dedication he chooses, tellingly penned in French not German, for the Neue Gedichte Anderer Teil (1908) ‘À mon grand ami Auguste Rodin’.

By Will Stone


You Must Change Your Life – The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, by Rachel Corbett (Norton New York/London, 2016), $26.95- £20.00

Review | Exhilarating Magus: Myth and Poetics in Stephen Yenser’s Stone Fruit

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Stone Fruit, Stephen Yenser’s highly anticipated third collection published by Waywiser, dazzles, delights, and enchants with its wordplay, predilection for sound effects, and linguistic brilliance. Profound and beautiful, meticulous, bristling with erudition, it sizzles with versatility and sophistication. Both modern and timeless, it resonates into past centuries, at times elliptical, at times mythic, the work of a maestro at the top of his craft.

Yenser’s debut volume, The Fire in All Things, was selected by Richard Howard to receive the 1992 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. Blue Guide, his second, was published in 2006.

The poems in Stone Fruit span wide geographic distances, from the California Joshua Desert to the Cycladic Islands in Greece, from Kansas to Massachusetts, via various locales in Los Angeles, and are to be savored, “Lost as the map, with no directions to follow / Except those of deranged Joshua trees, / And rootless, extravagant as tumbleweed.” We can hear echos of Emily Dickinson’s “Done with the Compass — / Done with the Chart!” Yenser makes for a very unusual travel guide — constantly surprising with unabashed and contagious joie de vivre — whose range is astonishing. Here we encounter personal, lyrical, and meditative, as well as political and ekphrastic poems, along with a couple of exquisite translations from Hölderlin.

The book was written in part in memory to James Merrill, who was a friend. With J. D. McClatchy, Yenser serves as co-literary executor of Merrill’s estate and co-edited Merrill’s Collected Poems, Collected Prose, Collected Novels and Plays, The Changing Light at Sandover, and Selected Poems. He is at work on Merrill’s Selected Letters.

Yenser also pays tribute to Emily Dickinson in the delightful poem “The Relic,” which relates Yenser’s visit to Amherst library, where a lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair has been preserved in box, “a casket / that opens brashly on the lock of hair: a curl of bright auburn / (“bold, like the Chestnut Burr, …”

Yenser is a mesmerizing orator to boot, providing delightful anecdotes. If you have a chance to hear him read, by all means do. He confided impishly that he was dying to touch the hair, and nobody would have known. “An urgent yearning, an awful favor / rises … I’m dying to ask it.” At the reading, he shared that maybe if you touch it, you don’t get the poem. He got the poem instead, lucky for us.

I have to admit that, being half Greek, I am partial to the poems set in the Aegean, on the islands of Sifnos and Santorini. Yenser has an affinity for Greece where he has spent quite some time. The poem “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” is a compendium of reasons why he keeps returning. It starts, tongue in cheek, with an epigraph uttered by his friend William Edinger: “I don’t know why you don’t just go over to Catalina.” The list is vast and lends itself to all sorts of puns and verbal acrobatics, starting with the rhyming opening lines: “I come here for the views. / I come because there is no news.” It keeps building, thanks to Yenser’s particular wit and stylistic precision, and growing in emotional depth to explore history and etymology.

I come to be alone. Because I am alone. Out of season. Like the
______few midges left. Adrift on a stony island no known poet
______hails from. Enisled. Outlandish as that term. (Annihiled
______is different but only by a smidge.)

To remind myself how simple things can be. Simple as the music
______of the marble figures of the harpist—and the unique
______double-reed player.

Not to mention concepts. To remind myself how when it comes
______to things like concepts, Heraclitus and Plato had all we
______would ever need. (Pythagoras I set aside for now.)

“Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” is eleven pages long. The second section — of six — is dedicated to Edward Lear, best known for such works as The Book of Nonsense, including the famous “Owl and the Pussycat”. Lear was also a landscape painter. The Gennadius Library in Athens owns two hundred of his Greek sketches and watercolours.
“…
Because even this delicate, vehicular medium meant fixity, his
______nemesis, so in hopes that glazed and scumbled oils
______could get the shifty shades right, he jotted in light pencil
______across the images descriptions, shot through with nonce
______terms and puns fleeting as pains taken, rubbed and
______faded, sometimes indecipherable, wishful notes written
______on washes disappearing before our eyes, which follow
______them, into sea, cliff, olive stand, distant temple, dovecote,
______asphodel.

‘catch gold grass’ ‘all turquoisy & Byzantine Bluesy’ ‘O
_______poopies!’ ‘very olivish’”

Yenser also pays homage to Walt Whitman: “I come here to sit at length and read some Whitman, who adored / words plain as stones, regardless of those exultant / exaltations of ‘eidolons’.” According to Merriam Webster, an eidolon is a “an unsubstantial image, a phantom.” Wikipedia describes it as “a spirit-image of a living or dead person; a shade or phantom look-alike of the human form.” Yenser’s vocabulary is so rich that I picked up several new words along the way. The book is haunted by the presence of many poets and artists, starting with the cover painting of St. Jerome by Leonardo Da Vinci, as well as by “hard men faceless and various as the stones themselves” who have labored over the years to build stone walls.

Through ingenious repetitions, the poem becomes a celebratory ritual, a prayer, whose lyricism reaches a crescendo in the last stanzas, leaving us breathless:
“…
And I am in over my head again, where it all flows, beginning with
_______the simplest language, where once some tongue-slip led to
            slime then slid along to loam and lime and then oblivion,

While even stone is hardly faster, sea creatures secreting shells
______whose limestone pressed to marble harbors streaming
______linen.

I come back because I cannot stay away. Because I cannot stay.
______Because I must.

I come back to leave. Not to leave a mark, either. To take it,
______rather. Like a vow. A vow of silence, say.

Or just a volta, the evening turn along the littoral that turns
______imaginal beneath my feet. To take it and to leave it, then.
______To leave my take—as pirates and directors have it—and to
______take my leave away.”

To read Stephen Yenser’s audacious poetry is to enter a liminal world, where music and memory mingle, and aesthetic vibrancy pulsates with rhythmic magic. The titular fruits encountered in the book are the date (in “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” and in “Post Avant Pastoral”), the blackberry and the apricot (in “Preserves”), the cherry (in Hija for Emerson’s Birthday), and the olive (in “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” and “Psalm in Sifnos”). “Stones” are a leitmotif throughout the book, present 26 times in different forms in seven of the poems (sometimes they also appear as marble as in “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” and “Old Man in a Waterfront Taverna”), and are referencing “Whitman, who adored words plain as stones,” as well as walls, the fruit of hard labor, and sculptures in graveyards:

“I come here to address not deconstruction but myself.

To address myself to the oregano (a whiff on the breeze nostalgic
______and heady as skunk) cropping up beside the ubiquitous
______retaining walls and boundary walls,

Built of the ubiquitous stone, culled from the fields, or axed
______and levered out of outcrops, sometimes faced or split,
______sometimes filled with scrabbled up rubble, fitted,
______mortarless, tight as puzzle pieces,

Built with what would now be tortuous lifting, hugging, and
_______lugging, done under the long, low sun over decades,
_______decades of decades, the stones settling in subtly, row on row,

Adamant and indistinct as the years themselves, by hard men
_______faceless and various as the stones themselves.
According to lore, the discontented among them come back at
_______night during autumn to fields pitch dark beneath the vast
broadcast of stars

To monitor their work, to make repairs to those boundaries that
_______are their bonds with this world.

Each has many, many headstones, none with a name.

They did not (O, onanistic onomastician!) make names for
______themselves, those men,

But wallstones, and courses of them, since stone by stone makes
_______a wall, and walls make farming, and farming, homes.

Homes they went back to at dusk and maybe beat their women
______in, in the unbeatable heat, and maybe had hard or fearful
______sex in, as the parching meltémi lashed the night and the
______fishermen’s lashed-up boats apart,

And anyway yelled things they sometimes did not think could be
_______set down in words,

Who set these stones they harvested in place for all but ever.”

It is worthwhile noticing that St Jerome appears petrified on the cover painting, “where Leonardo’s oil turns stone / his painstakingly underpainted / saint, face anguish-lit, his man / in the moon reflecting radiance”.

The definition of a stone fruit, or drupe, is a fruit with a stone or pit inside. Inside the stone is the seed. They are named thus because the seeds keep their covering. In such a way the book reveals itself to be an ode to rebirth. “The poetry of the earth is never dead,” wrote Keats. These stones are alive and speak to us through time. “It is poetry that constitutes our deepest memoir,” confides Thomas McCarthy in Merchant Prince. Indeed, Stone Fruit, astounding and revelatory, radiates with Stephen Yenser’s intense genius. This is a mesmerizing opus by a masterful poet.

“Psalm on Sifnos,” the last poem of the collection, encapsulates the spirit of the book and closes with distilled language, also naming the tamarisk, a favorite of the god Apollo and known for hoarding light, water and nutrients (the goddess Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, bathed in a bath of tamarisk before he began his conquest), and the mastic tree, cultivated for its aromatic resin:

“One wants at last
to cede the field
to tamarisk
and mastic tree,
To olive and stone,
Stones in the fruit,
Seeds in the stone.”

Stephen Yenser’s extraordinary scholarship includes three critical books (Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell; The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill; and A Boundless Field: American Poetry at Large. He is distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he was director of Creative Writing. He curates the Hammer Poetry Readings Series at the Hammer Museum.

by Hélène Cardona


Hélène Cardona is a poet, literary translator, and actor, the recipient of numerous awards including a Hemingway Grant and the International Book Award. She is the author of three collections, most recently Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves (both from Salmon Poetry); and four translations: Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, White Pine Press), Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux, Editions du Cygne), The Birnam Wood (by José Manuel Cardona), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for the Iowa International Writing Program’s WhitmanWeb. Cardona’s work has been translated into 14 languages.

She has taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University. Publications include Washington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Dublin Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, Drunken Boat, Asymptote, The Warwick Review and elsewhere.


Stone Fruit, Stephen Yenser, The Waywiser Press, Oct 2016, 96pp, £9.99 (paperback)

Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago by Douglas Cowie

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Douglas Cowie’s most recent book, Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, is a fictionalised account of the near-two-decades-long relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren. As Cowie has pointed out, while many would automatically call what existed between Beauvoir and Algren an affair, that word’s suggestion of something secret, untoward, perhaps a little seedy makes it a poor fit to the writers’ pained but loving connection: eighteen years, the author has noted, is surely too long a commitment, and suggests too strong a bond, to be labelled, dismissively, an affair.

On a cold Chicago evening – February 1947 – Nelson Algren receives a phone call that he thinks must either have been misdirected or misdialled. The caller does not speak his language; he hangs up three times before the operator intercedes on Simone de Beauvoir’s behalf. The two writers speak, briefly. Beauvoir is visiting from France, has come to Chicago from New York, and a mutual friend has suggested that, should she wish to see the ‘real’ Chicago, Algren be her tour-guide. They meet amid the bright lights and grandeur of the Palmer House, one of Chicago’s finest hotels, where Beauvoir is staying. From here, Algren leads the way through a divine and dark comedy of shady streets and bars, prostitutes, a police-station line-up that cannot fail to make one think of the opening of The Man with the Golden Arm. Beauvoir is overwhelmed by the experience and feels faint. They return to Algren’s apartment. They have sex. Next morning, Algren makes breakfast. So begins the eighteen-year ‘marriage,’ as Algren and Beauvoir come to see it, between a ‘local Chicago youth’ and his ‘frog wife.’

Cowie’s will likely be a new name to many readers, though his first novel, Owen Noone and the Marauder (a remarkable debut about friendship, loneliness, and music) was published a little over a decade ago. He lectures in creative writing and American literature at Royal Holloway (University of London), where he has taught courses on, among others, Hemingway and the literature of Chicago (the reading list for the latter of which of course includes Algren). He considers the half-forgotten Algren – of whom many have heard but few have read; he is, for now, a little like those holiday destinations of which we finds ourselves forever saying we have always wanted to go but (still!) have never been – to be one of the great writers in English. Cowie writes with great economy and assurance, a commanding sense of purpose and narrative drive which in places remind one of the best moments in Anne Tyler. I am not sure whether Cowie would welcome this comparison, but it is meant as a compliment, for, like Tyler at her best, he avoids descending into sentimentalism’s familiar rhythms, resolutions, and clichés while being unafraid and unapologetic in his renderings – equally raw and incisive – of sentiment. (I read Owen Noone years before Tyler’s early novella A Slipping-Down Life, and my appreciation of the latter was shaped strongly by the memory of the former.) Human feeling is the basic – which is not to say easily captured – ingredient of this new novel, which works as a satisfying and coherent whole, in no small measure thanks to Cowie’s ability to balance narrative warmth with authorial cool. Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is tender without ever being mawkish.

The quick birth and slow death of a relationship makes for a simple plot, and that the relationship will not last is not the revelation or dramatic climax of the book. Its breakdown is, in fact, signalled in the prologue – which rather beautifully answers to Algren’s closing thought of Simone – in which Beauvoir, in 1981, reads of Algren’s death, and finds that she is sad but not sorry:

He’d written so many terrible things about her after her memoir […]. No, she couldn’t feel sorry or apologise. […] There’s no use apologising or feeling sorry for the dead, anyway. She could feel sad, though, she admitted to herself.

The novel’s force lies in the carefully shaped sentences and beautiful because unadorned language, from the sensitivity with which Cowie, focalising his narrative in almost equal parts through his protagonists, renders the fine grain, snags, and splinters of love, its illimitable complexities, and its decline. Late in the novel, in one of only two such passages I can identify, an omniscient voice intervenes to comment on Algren’s failure of understanding of the dynamics of love: ‘Love can’t be built on conditions,’ Algren tells himself. ‘If it is, maybe it isn’t love, after all. Nelson didn’t recognise his own conditions as conditions. But conditions are always there, in love.’ Perhaps, though, it is fair to say that after nearly eighteen years Algren does come to realise that conditions are there, on both sides, and that they are ultimately impossible to satisfy. ‘Will it be a long time before we see one another again?’ Simone asks, in late summer of 1960. ‘It will,’ Nelson replies, ‘probably.’ The adverb cannot dampen the blunt finality of the preceding clause. Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren will not meet again. In 1964, following the publication of Beauvoir’s memoir, a silence begins which, Simone realises on hearing of Algren’s passing, will last nearly as long as the relationship itself. Or perhaps it is its long-resounding, final cadence.

By the time they come to say what will, in effect, be their final goodbye, both Nelson and Simone realise that while love lingers things are not and cannot be what they were. In part, this is because Algren has turned from an energetic man, cocksure and confident in his art, to one of questionable mental health and embittered by professional and connubial frustration. His decline from a figure of rather Emersonian machismo – the Algren we meet at novel’s opening is the very image of self-assurance and perfectly balanced action and intellect imagined in ‘The American Scholar’ and ‘Self-Reliance’ – is a condensed tragedy so well limned that, at times, the reading is painful. During his final visit to Beauvoir, which will be their last time together, we find Algren resentful of the time Simone spends apart from him, equally dissatisfied with their time together. For her part, Beauvoir – who at times seems very much the existential egoist, seeing her significant others as extensions of herself (as ‘traces’ and ‘fingerprints,’ as she puts it at one point) rather than as others to whom she is obligated and by whom shaped – realises by now that what she now feels for her ‘local Chicago youth,’ her ‘crocodile’ husband, is something devastating for them: pity.

She would listen to this sad man that her Chicago husband had become, and realised
that only love made his complaints tolerable. […] He thought so little of himself that
he couldn’t reach high enough to let others help him […].

[…]

Poor Nelson, poor Chicago husband, poor crocodile and local youth. Again her pity demeaned them both, demeaned their love.

 

With Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, Cowie sounds a gentle yet precisely articulated tragedy – the inability of two keen interpreters of human experience to comprehend fully, until too late, the impossible demands each makes on the other. He sounds this tragedy as if it were notes played on Harmon-muted trumpet. Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is – like all Cowie’s work, but especially Sing For life: Tin Pan Alley, the first of his paired novellas that continue the Owen Noone story – is a meticulously crafted and moving piece of work. A not-entirely-new new voice, Cowie’s has a song worth both the singing and the hearing.

By Oli Belas


Through by David Herd

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David Herd begins his new collection Through with the line:

——It is possible to be precise.

The wording– “it is possible”– is telling. Not promised, not achieved, not even desirable: possible. A Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Kent, Herd published All Just and Outwith in 2012. Here, in his third collection, Herd turns his attention to the language of public spaces and explores, in seven longform and often prosaic poems, how this can often preclude intimacy through its linguistic structures. Herd’s examination is highly conceptual in its politics, offering the reader a poetics of echoes to be interpreted. But this is an echo chamber whose effect is not fuzziness or obfuscation, rather intense focus on the practice of listening, scrutinizing and complicating how public language works; how it is discrete from and an adjunct to intimacy and how space and liminality can be considered syntactically.

The texts are freeform and collagistic, professing their own object to be:

——————————…to constitute
——A modern document, put the pieces
——Together in the open the way
——The days fall out.

And the feel of them, their texture and weight, is organic and truthful. They take in and hold up the heard world around us and make it ‘clear and unequivocal’ while recognising that the failure of memory is often in the editing and that voices and language forms cannot be portioned off. The experience is startling, the recognition being that ‘syntax/ forms like lilac’ and the process of conceptualising the modern world in poetry is complex and confusing but also rapidly paced.

This organicism and its implicit heteroglossia allows one to experience descriptions of space within the poems as something expansive and enfolding. Borders within lines become fluid as the phenomenological metaphors of place and home begin to blur. The poems explicitly encompass a ‘new geography/ Which is  a series of interruptions’. The language of separation becomes the very act of separation as ‘the fugitive lands/ Crowd under separate names’ and the poems then offer opposition to this by turning boundaries into permeable membranes, by forming syntactic connections between different language forms and conceptual ideas.

David Herd
David Herd

And though everything feels unforced– the text speaks plainly and almost parochially, lurching unabashedly through subjects and tones — Within the collages there are balletic, dextrous twists that are intensely rich but difficult to figure, as when a poem about a blackbird becomes a poem about globalisation and national borders. Herd’s lines are expressive and full of small gifts that reward careful attention.

Which is what the poetry is about: being attentive to what the world actually looks, sounds, and feels like. When Herd “assemble[s] this night/ In the present participle” he both acknowledges the act of assembly and also calls you to pay attention to it. This is a complex political act, one that inveighs against the fetishized cultural capital that poetry could be, seeing it as an opportunity to lay bare the mechanics of the poems. Insodoing Herd attempts to lay bare the mechanics of public language that temper our world: in Adorno’s phrasing, ‘the reality of artworks testifies to the possibility of the possible”.

These are intimate poems. I say intimate because they are not hectoring or florid, but quiet and patient. They call on you to look harder at the world, whilst also saying that your view is only ever occluded, written in a ‘language/ remembering itself/ partial and incomplete’, where partial and incomplete concords both with language, memory, and with the reader. The collection will leave you broiling with complex questions:

——It is a moment of
——Maximum visibility
——The bitter wind searching eagerly
——Houses for which I can vouch
——But can’t quite see
——The tree opposite
——Backed by sunlight
——Considerably disturbed
——Something has left
——The language

By Nathan Ellis


Cg5APEUWwAAml1eThrough, David Herd, Carcanet Press, 2016, £9.99

Through by David Herd

0
David Herd

David Herd begins his new collection Through with the line:

——It is possible to be precise.

The wording– “it is possible”– is telling. Not promised, not achieved, not even desirable: possible. A Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Kent, Herd published All Just and Outwith in 2012. Here, in his third collection, Herd turns his attention to the language of public spaces and explores, in seven longform and often prosaic poems, how this can often preclude intimacy through its linguistic structures. Herd’s examination is highly conceptual in its politics, offering the reader a poetics of echoes to be interpreted. But this is an echo chamber whose effect is not fuzziness or obfuscation, rather intense focus on the practice of listening, scrutinizing and complicating how public language works; how it is discrete from and an adjunct to intimacy and how space and liminality can be considered syntactically.

The texts are freeform and collagistic, professing their own object to be:

——————————…to constitute
——A modern document, put the pieces
——Together in the open the way
——The days fall out.

And the feel of them, their texture and weight, is organic and truthful. They take in and hold up the heard world around us and make it ‘clear and unequivocal’ while recognising that the failure of memory is often in the editing and that voices and language forms cannot be portioned off. The experience is startling, the recognition being that ‘syntax/ forms like lilac’ and the process of conceptualising the modern world in poetry is complex and confusing but also rapidly paced.

This organicism and its implicit heteroglossia allows one to experience descriptions of space within the poems as something expansive and enfolding. Borders within lines become fluid as the phenomenological metaphors of place and home begin to blur. The poems explicitly encompass a ‘new geography/ Which is  a series of interruptions’. The language of separation becomes the very act of separation as ‘the fugitive lands/ Crowd under separate names’ and the poems then offer opposition to this by turning boundaries into permeable membranes, by forming syntactic connections between different language forms and conceptual ideas.

And though everything feels unforced– the text speaks plainly and almost parochially, lurching unabashedly through subjects and tones — Within the collages there are balletic, dextrous twists that are intensely rich but difficult to figure, as when a poem about a blackbird becomes a poem about globalisation and national borders. Herd’s lines are expressive and full of small gifts that reward careful attention.

Which is what the poetry is about: being attentive to what the world actually looks, sounds, and feels like. When Herd “assemble[s] this night/ In the present participle” he both acknowledges the act of assembly and also calls you to pay attention to it. This is a complex political act, one that inveighs against the fetishized cultural capital that poetry could be, seeing it as an opportunity to lay bare the mechanics of the poems. Insodoing Herd attempts to lay bare the mechanics of public language that temper our world: in Adorno’s phrasing, ‘the reality of artworks testifies to the possibility of the possible”.

These are intimate poems. I say intimate because they are not hectoring or florid, but quiet and patient. They call on you to look harder at the world, whilst also saying that your view is only ever occluded, written in a ‘language/ remembering itself/ partial and incomplete’, where partial and incomplete concords both with language, memory, and with the reader. The collection will leave you broiling with complex questions:

——It is a moment of
——Maximum visibility
——The bitter wind searching eagerly
——Houses for which I can vouch
——But can’t quite see
——The tree opposite
——Backed by sunlight
——Considerably disturbed
——Something has left
——The language

 

By Nathan Ellis


Cg5APEUWwAAml1eThrough, David Herd, Carcanet Press, 2016, £9.99

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

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The American West has always been home to grifters and thieves, dreamers and doers. It has been a destination for the misfits, for the ones who don’t quite fit and need space to plan their schemes or make their fortune. With each new generation comes a new reason to go west. In her new book, Gold Fame Citrus, author Claire Vaye Watkins imagines that enigmatic place in a dystopian future in which most of the western states have been buried by rolling sands, a blight brought on by man-made climate change. Gripping and heartbreaking, Watkins’ novel brings to life the left-behinds and stayed-behinds who populate the dangerous, sun-baked stretch that was once a place of dreams.

Luz and Ray are hiding out in a canyon, squatting in a starlet’s former mansion and surviving on ration cola and graham crackers. The drought that grips California has taken its toll, and the state has become a wasteland of holdouts and drug-addled criminals profiting off the desperation of others. Their quiet life, dedicated to little more than daily projects to keep their hands busy, is turned upside down when they meet a little girl named Ig, who they feel compelled to save from a family Luz believes is doing her harm. The three embark on a journey to escape California, a difficult task given the shut-down borders and intense scrutiny on any refugees. But instead of finding sanctuary, they discover how little has truly changed about civilization and mankind’s darkest impulses.

The people who now live in California, close by the near mythic sounding Amargosa Dune Sea – the name for the massive dune spreading in every direction across most of the Southwestern states – live in near constant danger. Threat comes from the harsh environment and the dune itself, which has buried mountains and cities in its unceasing growth across the region, but also from each other. Communities have dissolved into cultish groups loyal only to themselves, and with water and other rations at a premium there is immediate payoff for acts of violence that will likely go unpunished. The government has all but abandoned the area, rounding up those they find and detaining them in “temporary” locations. The sinister nature of this new world is communicated by Watkins with a deft hand, showing the disparities between what the government is telling people and what is happening on the ground through sly, off-hand remarks that jarringly communicate the way these people and places have been abandoned..

The world Watkins has imagined is a rich one, but she doesn’t lose much time to explaining how California ended up in the state we find it in Gold Fame Citrus. Watkins’ writing is lyrical and moving, even when laying bare the horrors of a changed world. She uses small moments to tell just how far California  has fallen, pulling headlines from old newspapers or, as below, listing in one brief paragraph the many changes that impact upon daily life.

Because sweet Jesus money was still money, and wasn’t that something to celebrate? For now, enough money could get you fresh produce and meat and dairy, even if what they called cheese was Day-Glo and came in a jar, and the fish was mostly poisoned and reeking, the beef gray, the apples blighted even in what used to be apple season, pears grimy even when you paid extra for Bartletts from Amish orchards. Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shrivelled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.

In some ways, the California imagined by Watkins feels in line with the place it holds in popular imagination, making her dystopia feel all the more real. With traditional centralised authority gone, charismatic leaders are able to rally support in the name of communal good, calling to mind the old myth of the Wild West. Brute force and a willingness to do whatever it takes to care for the group is valued over individual priorities, as Luz and Ray learn the hard way when they fall in with one such group living in harmony with the encroaching dune. A culture that celebrates those who stay, those who the dune “calls to” and “curates”, underlines the power of an identity rooted in standing against evacuation and standing for living in the supposedly symbiotic universe of the dune sea.

Gold Fame Citrus strikes the perfect balance between the familiar and the extreme, immersing the reader in a world that feels at once possible and indescribably shattering. Littered with moments that can only be described as delicately profound – “The salt rock was still in her hand somehow, but the salt fields were behind them, and Luz did not notice when they left them and so she did not get to say good-bye, and wasn’t that her shallow, selfish way?” – the novel moves much like the Amargosa itself, with gentle waves of hope and joy sneaking up to rise before the reader and slam back down to Earth. Gutting, haunting, and painfully beautiful, Watkins’ latest is an unequivocal triumph.

By Bridey Heing


51X1YANCWYL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, Quercus, £16.99

 

 

 

And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

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‘So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one.’

The opening line to Khaled Hosseini’s new novel And the Mountains Echoed mimics what sounds less like a protagonist, and more like Hosseini himself.

As an international bestselling author, with The Kite Runner made into a successful Hollywood blockbuster, it’s fair to say that Hosseini had a lot to live up to with this next book. The entire novel seemed to be a response to that hungry need his readership has for devouring his books, naturally expecting sequels to live up to the stories consumed greedily before. Having sold thirty-eight million copies of his first two novels (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns), one can only imagine the pressure to produce something worthy of such an astounding readership.

It is therefore rather appropriate for Hosseini to base a book around the idea of storytelling. Once again, the novel is set in Afghanistan, except this time the story flows through decades and different lifetimes, opening in 1952 with a father telling the story of the Div, a ‘monster’ who forces parents to give up a child, or else it will claim them all, never to be heard from again. The story of the Div acts as an allegory for the rest of the book, and (for fear of ruining it for you all) its connection to the theme of memory is delicately illustrated with heart-wrenching lyricism. This opening chapter instantly draws you in, and by the end of the novel this first story, told to children, gains a new and poignant meaning, rounding the book off on a beautifully poetic note.

This is a tale of the loss and separation of siblings, Pari and Abdullah, told through the intertwining lives of people living across the decades and the oceans, ranging from a servant in Kabul to an estranged daughter in Paris. This is a novel which tells more about crossing cultures than it does of war, which instead of being a theme seems more incidental. The two siblings spend a lifetime apart and yet throughout their lives something is unconsciously pulling them together from across continents. There is a quality of timelessness to this story, which at once seems to be both completely original and as familiar as a fairytale.

Whilst I would still recommend it to potential readers, for me it did not have the same level of impact as his previous books, and I’m sorry to say that I was not reduced to a blubbering wreck at the end (although perhaps that is more to do with my own heartlessness than to any fault of the books). It is a good book, and it is completely successful in illustrating characters and lives which seem vivid and tangible. However, for me, it wanted something. Although the book delves deeply into the hidden and inter-connected lives of the two siblings, it fails to allow you to really connect with them. So much of the book is focused on other people, that you don’t really get to know Pari and Abdullah intimately enough for you to honestly care for them as characters, in the way I think Hosseini wants you to.

Perhaps I’ve missed the point. Perhaps my own somewhat stormy relationship with my own brother is preventing me from connecting with this story. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the novel enough to stand with nose buried into the huge hardback, as I stood like a sardine against my fellow commuters during rush hour on the District line. Every day for a week. Missing my stop twice.

So it can’t have been that bad.
By Alexandra Maher

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