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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

Extending the Range of Pejoratives: Howard Jacobson’s Pussy

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Written in “a fury of disbelief” during the weeks that followed the unlikely election of Donald Trump, Howard Jacobson’s latest novel Pussy dramatizes the education and rise to power of Prince Fracassus, heir to the Duchy of Origen, until he begins to preside over the Republic of Urbs-Ludus.

The plotline is minimal but engrossing thanks to Jacobson’s spirited, arch tone and the seemingly effortless elegance of his style. Before he becomes the hero-villain-rapscallion of the story, we are given to witness Fracassus as a feisty little brat. It comes as no surprise that his parents have spared the brains and spoiled the child. Fracassus spends his golden childhood guzzling reality TV shows and casting himself in the role of Emperor Nero.

Perceiving finally that their son is growing into a self-centred vulgarian, the Duke and Duchess worry that Fracassus will be unfit for power. To avert this unseemly outcome, they hire Professor Probrius, a former University lecturer who has fallen prey to the rising tide of political correctness in the duchy.

Some of the most delightful satire in Jacobson’s novel is written at the expense of the current trend for PC. During the Great Purge of the Illuminati, Probrius is debarred from teaching at University because he is so eminent in his field that a body of students complains that they are “distressed by the perceived distance between his attainments and their own”. He is found guilty by a Thumb Court of “cognitive condescension” and abruptly fired from tenure. It’s a highly amusing take on the current spread of student revolts against the intellectual challenges of dialectical thinking through debate and disagreement in both America and Britain.

Fracassus’s other appointed tutor is Dr Cobalt, chosen for her icy manners by the Grand Duke himself to rein his son in and prepare him for the dignified and clear-minded exercise of power. The prince’s two mentors attempt to expand his miniscule vocabulary and shepherd him towards more behavioural subtlety, with sometimes baffling results. Fracassus is no easy pupil, having what Probrius calls “Tourette’s, without the Tourette’s”. The syndrome the child Fracassus is afflicted with actually seems closer to coprolalia, the compulsive utterance of inappropriate or obscene words.

Over time, Probrius manages to expand Fracassus’s vocabulary to include words like “classy”, which he begins to use on practically every occasion that pleases him with increasing relish. Jacobson occasionally lets slip some of his own lexical knowledge and rhetoric into Fracassus’s later utterances, almost inadvertently it seems, since he is at pains throughout the novel to underscore Fracassus’s stupidity.

For a writer with so much verbal and intellectual panache, it must have been a strain to depict Fracassus’s impoverished mindscape. Anthony Burgess, another vastly knowledgeable wordsmith, succeeded in limiting his vocabulary to parody the debasement of contemporary culture for the space of an entire novel in One Hand Clapping (1961), a task which Jacobson would no doubt find excruciating, given his unstoppable love of the rhapsodic phrase.

It’s been argued that Trump is so excessive, such a living caricature himself, that he is beyond parody, but Jacobson manages to up the ante with skill and panache. His comic fairy-tale rendering of Trump as a child is hilarious and deeply engaging, providing what Jacobson in interview has called “the comforts of satire”.

Jacobson’s mental and physical caricature of Trump (“His natural movement is a forward projection of a sort I’ve only seen on a bewildered primate”) is entertainingly illustrated by Chris Riddell’s silhouettes of Trump in diapers trailing a Barbie doll or an over-long tie between his legs.

While Jacobson is adept at showing how Trump has managed to appeal to the values of Dumbocracy, it was arguably a little bit of an easy way out to dumb Trump himself down. Dismaying as it is, Trump succeeded in getting to the White House largely through his cynical ability to sense the Zeitgeist and claptrap the ordinary working class man accordingly. The most alarming thing about him is that he is crafty, adaptable and intuitive.

By Erik Martiny


Howard Jacobson, Pussy, Jonathan Cape, £12.38 (208 pages)

 

Bram Bogart at the Saatchi Gallery

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Bram Bogart at the Saatchi Gallery

SALON, Saatchi Gallery’s commercial exhibition space, launched earlier this year with a fascinating show by the post-war Japanese artist, Tsuyoshi Maekawa, and in keeping with its policy of staging museum standard exhibitions by historically important artists, it is now presenting the work of the Dutch-born Belgian artist Bram Bogart (1921 – 2012).

Staged in collaboration with Mayfair’s Vigo Gallery, the show is entitled Witte de Witte,and is made up of nine rare monochrome or near monochrome works executed between 1952 and 2006, which, taken as a group, illustrate the artist’s dramatic and unique contribution to the canon of modernist painting.

Bogart is an artist associated with thickly physical colour – the works for which he is best known are rendered in bright, primary colours, reflecting the enduring influence of both Vincent van Gogh’s painterly idiom and Piet Mondrian’s compositional experimentation on his practice. The nine paintings in Witte de Witte, however, demonstrate a sense of tonal restraint and maturity of practice. Presenting work from the breadth of Bogart’s oeuvre, the exhibition strips back his practice to its elements, and demonstrates Bogart’s technical development and achievement over a more than fifty-year period.

Born in Delft, the Netherlands, Bogart originally trained at a local technical school as a house-painter. After the end of World War Two, he settled in Paris where he became one of the founding members of Art Informel, a group of abstract painters who focused on expression and intuition rather than geometrics. Bogart first worked towards an all-white picture in a series of semi-representational paintings he completed in the South of France in the late 1940s. These works were a response to the light and dust of the Mediterranean, and also the chalkiness of local buildings. Using techniques learnt in his youth, Bogart approximated the walls’ rough matte finish by mixing poster paint to his oils and letting the paint peel off to suggest exposure to the elements.

One of the earliest works in the exhibition, Differentes (1954) demonstrates the ever-increasing weight of material, a tendency toward thicker impasto and a more aggressive facture that would become Bogart’s mature style. Meanwhile, Signes sur Blanc / Witte Tekens (1952), while smaller is scale is no less dramatic.

Bram Bogart, Differentes, 1954, oil on canvas.
Photo Vigo Gallery

This work symbolises the beginning of Bogart’s experiment with monochrome. Made primarily in shades of white and grey, the piece alludes to a hint of muted Parisian blue. Despite the lightness of colour, one can feel the weight of the painting visually, as materials have been layered one on top of the other to create three-dimensional structure. Its surface is dashed and dotted with indentations of knots, crosses and lines, marks that are paradoxically both highly structured and organic in nature.

In 1961, Bogart relocated to Belgium with his wife Leni, coinciding with the development of a new resolution of gesture and material in his painting. Friends with Lucio Fontana – with whom he shared the desire to expand the structural boundaries of modern painting – during this time Bogart also met Willem de Kooning, and his paintings acknowledged the all-over structure and expansive scale associated with American Abstract Expressionism. Like Jackson Pollock, after 1960, Bogart painted on the floor, using a mix of oil, siccative, powdered chalk, varnish, and raw pigment applied to heavy wooden supports to ‘build’ his works. When viewed upright, Bogart’s slab-like pictures hold themselves together in way that actively denies gravity.

Bram Bogart, Sunday Mornings, 2007, mixed media. Photo Vigo Gallery

Bram Bogart, Variété, 1961, mixed media. Photo Vigo Gallery

A painting from this period, Variété (1961), is a bold conflation of sculptural relief and painting, of excessive dripping paint and heavily applied concrete. The work maintains, however, the scale of painting and the restrictions of a square or rectangular support.

A much later work, Sunday Morning (2007), appears comparatively more serene. Its soft peaks of white paint applied in Bogart’s characteristic impasto are juxtaposed with smooth, even layers of the same colour. When asked in an interview to recall the motivation for his monochromatic works, Bogart described them in terms of respite from colour. As he replied: ‘At that time, making a painting in one colour, whether white, black or brown gave me a form of restfulness in relation to the other paintings.’ Vacated of chromatic distraction, Bogart’s monochromes are both indulgent – reveling in the matter of paint – and refined. As a whole, Witte de Witte evidences Bogart’s more nuanced approach to postwar painting, and as such is a welcome contribution to his appreciation.

By Amani Noor Iqbal


 Witte de Witte, Saatchi Gallery, closes September 10th, 2017

 

Book Launch at Enitharmon: Stephen Romer and Alan Jenkins

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The light, bright space of Enitharmon bookshop in Bloomsbury was filled with jostlings and murmurings as more and more people tried to fit into the crowded gallery space. A double book launch was underway. Stephen Romer was here to celebrate his anticipated Set Thy Love In Order: New & Selected Poems, accompanied by Alan Jenkins and his soon-to-be-published White Nights, which will be available in the US.

Alan introduced the evening, calling attention to the ‘beautiful volumes of poetry, and beautiful livres d’artiste’ that surrounded us, his peppering of French a preview into much of the evening’s francophone flavour. He offers thanks to Stephen Stuart-Smith, Enitharmon’s director, for hosting the launch of two books that are not in fact published by the press – although Alan’s earlier Enitharmon collection Marine, written in collaboration with John Kinsella, was on display – and praises the ‘resplendent’ Set Thy Love In Order. Rather than read for a long time, Alan explains, he and Stephen will ‘do two little sets of poems each. I’ll read for a little while, Stephen will read for a little while, I’ll read for an even littler while, so you don’t have the opportunity to start finding either of our voices monotonous’. And afterwards, he promises, there will be ‘more wine!’

White Nights, Alan notes, is a book that has taken ‘more than the usual temerity’ to publish. It centres on translations from French literature, although there are also poems written after Italian and Spanish writers. Some of these are poems that Alan has been ‘working on or thinking about for a great many years’, and when he was invited by the US publisher Stanley Moss to bring out a book, he thought of these translations. ‘I’m not going to start an argument about translation’, Alan declares, before noting simply that the poems he has chosen to work with are not ‘obscure’ and, in many cases, have been much translated in the past. He is, therefore, indebted to these earlier versions. The poems are ‘mostly love poems, or after love poems, or failed love poems, or longing love poems – and they’re all poems that I’ve loved since first reading them’. Some of these first encounters occurred when Alan was a student, aged nineteen, and his translation work often stretches back to this time.

At this point, the reading is interrupted as yet more people attempt to squeeze into the white interior of Enitharmon. There are clatterings of glasses, chatterings, offerings and refusals of chairs, until the room is stilled once more and Alan begins his reading with ‘Christ in the Olive Grove’. The poem is ‘designated after Gérard de Nerval, but it’s actually a much reduced version of his sequence of sonnets – I’ve translated just three of the sonnets’, Alan explains. His reading is slow and deliberate, with an occasional conversational lilt, and he stands with the book resting lightly in his hands, leaning casually against the bookcase behind him. Afterwards, he reads a compact poem based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘La Pipe’, answering requests from the audience for the page number. The mini-reading ends with ‘Classical Walpurgisnacht’, a poem based on a work by Paul Verlaine, but suggestive to Alan of Jules Laforgue. ‘I’m challenged and fascinated by this poem’, he says.

While the audience applauds, Alan deftly changes place with Stephen. Without pause, Stephen launches into a vervy performance of his poem ‘In the Sun’:

In the sun on my bed after swimming
In the sun and in the vast reflection of the sun on the sea
……….Under my window
And in the reflections and the reflection of the reflection
Of the sun and the suns on the sea
………..In the mirrors,
After the swim, the coffee, the ideas,
………..Naked in the sun on my light-flooded bed
………..Naked – alone – mad –
………………….Me!

‘That’s Valéry’, Stephen says with a bashful smile. He moves from images of a ‘light-flooded bed’ to a comment on the ‘flood of warmth I get from seeing all these lovely friends and colleagues here tonight’. Both Stephen and Alan are participating in the T. S. Eliot International Summer School running in Bloomsbury in the same week – many of the school’s students and scholars are in attendance at the reading – and Stephen notes that the title of his book is ‘not innocent’ in regard to Eliot. ‘La relations entre les sexes’, an Eliotic theme, is also of importance to him, he says, echoing Alan’s earlier sprinklings of French language. Stephen then reads ‘Resolve’ from his 1986 collection Idols, calling attention to the poem’s Laforguian references. His reading is dramatic, and it is clear that he enjoys his material. This is followed by ‘Primavera’, a poem that also flirts with French, containing both French and Italian terms as well as a reference to ‘spring in every language’.

After a further chair shuffle, Alan and Stephen once again exchange places. Alan also alludes to the T. S. Eliot School, recalling his opening lecture which addressed Eliot’s debt to Laforgue. The American poet was ‘completely taken over – ravished’ by Laforgue, Alan notes, in what was a ‘tremendous surrendering of his own selfhood’. ‘I felt something akin to that when I first read Laforgue’, he professes, ‘but of course I read Laforgue through Eliot’s eyes, or through Eliot’s sensibility’. Since then, he has worked on translations of Laforgue’s later poems, the Derniers Vers. ‘Winter Coming On’ is a version of the French poet’s ‘L’Hiver qui vient’, and ‘at the more faithful end’ of Alan’s translations:

Feelings under embargo! Freight and Cargo, Middle East!
Oh, the rain falling, and the night falling,
Oh, the wind! Oh, que c’est triste
Hallowe’en, Christmas and New Year –
All my chimneys – factory-chimneys – drizzled on; too drear…

You can’t sit down, all the benches are soaked;
Trust me, it’s over till next year.
The benches are all soaked, the woods mildewed, rust-choked,
And the hunt is calling…

And you, clouds come beetling up from the Channel coast:
You’ve spoiled our last Sunday for us. Toast.

Stephen finishes the evening with further French-inflected poems, including ‘Arbbre de Bhoneur’, written for his son, and ‘Yellow Studio’, which he liltingly interrupts to declare the page number for the keen reader-listeners among the audience. As the reading ends, listeners weave like fish in a crowded sea to the piles of books at the back of the gallery space, energised by their encounter with multiple languages, versions of poems, and ways of performing.

Suzannah V. Evans


Book Launch at Enitharmon: Stephen Romer and Alan Jenkins
Enitharmon Editions, 10 Bury Place, Bloomsbury, 12 July 2017

 

Quotidian Queerness

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Hannah Gluckstein, Gluck, 1942. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery.

The great strength of this exhibition is its demonstration of the ubiquitous nature of queer art and culture. Timed to remind us that it is only fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality following the Wolfenden Report ten years earlier, Clare Barlow’s curatorship is generously broad in its cultural reach and deep in its historical references. The exhibition in fact distinguishes itself by drawing attention to the multiplicity of meanings embraced by ‘queerness’. ‘Queer’ has in the past been a slang term for homosexual and has also been a term of abuse. More recently ‘queer’ has become an umbrella term for all marginal and marginalised sexual identities while ‘queer theory’ is concerned with all kinds of unstable sites of engagement. Such fluidity presents the curator with a range of difficulties, not just in representing what queer might mean now, but also in selecting art works to embody something as ethereal as a disregard for dominant systems. After all, an exhibition must present something. More than many exhibitions then, the audience is subtly challenged to consider both the prevalence and the disruptions of queer art in British cultural history of this period and beyond. By interpreting queer expression broadly, the exhibition makes the point that queer art is significant to all our histories.

Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. Courtesy: Tate.

From the pre-Raphaelite paintings of Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) to Health and Strength magazine, from Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) to Danny La Rue (1927-2009), and from a prison cell door to a box of buttons, a myriad of artists, movements and symbolic artefacts, represent our queer culture. This diversity is important, as important as the contemporary linguistic grappling for definitive ways to name all manner of relationships: queer, homosexual, lesbian, homophile, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual, intersex and asexual, witnessed by the growing list of initials LGBTQIA+ as a growing label which attempts to include and define all non-heterosexuals. However, this exhibition argues back against restrictive terminology, and gives us pause to reflect on these contemporary naming practices, which we also apply retrospectively, sometimes revealing the inadequacies of labels in capturing the range of human experience. Labels are inadequate in describing the painting by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) of Charles Rickets and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints (1920), where the subjects are depicted in cosily matching Dominican monk robes, complete with encoded symbols of peacock feather and bat, or the adoption of ‘Michael Field’ as the joint pseudonym of Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913) and Katharine Harris Bradley (1846-1914), or the polite distance between two teams, male and female, playing at opposite ends of the painting in The Bowlers by William Blake Richmond (1842-1921). Behind such images, just as in other radical social movements like the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 1980s, lies much playfulness and wit, making points about surface perception and latent meaning, using humour to awaken our senses.

Negotiating queer history has long raised the question of private and public personas and the issue of celebrity and anonymity. The exhibition certainly nods towards those artists and writers, sometimes already known, and now canonised in queer histories too, such as Oscar Wilde, represented by both his wedding portrait by Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington (1854-1920), and Wilde’s now well-travelled prison door from his time in Reading prison. Important movements, such as the Bloomsbury Group are represented through the paintings of Duncan Grant, and the sexologists and campaigners through portraits of Havelock Elis, Edward Carpenter and others. Contemporary celebrity artists, already ‘out’ are here too, with work by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and David Hockey (b.1937) (who also had a major exhibition of his work at Tate Britain earlier this year). And the notion of celebrity queerness is reframed through the theatrical presence too, an already–important site of gender exploration and alternative sexualities, both on and off the stage, since Shakespeare and before. A whole room is devoted to the transgressive and camp performativity of stage, its trappings, expectations and knowing double-gendered performances, featuring a pink wig and diamante tiara worn by Jimmy Slater, and Noel Coward’s pink dressing gown.

There are difficult histories too, with uncomfortable questions raised about sexual tourism. For whilst Soho may have been viewed as the epicentre of British homosexuality, so places less open to scrutiny attracted others. Wilhelm von Gloeden’s (1856-1931) photography of Sicilian boys, and the men who travelled there, indicate more troubled aspects of potentially predatory behaviour as young boys posed for money. Relatedly, John Minton’s (1917-57) painting in a naïve, vernacular style of a ‘Cornish Boy at a Window’ also raises questions about Londo-centric sexual scenes.

Henry Scott Tuke, The Critics, 1927. Courtesy: Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK).

Yet the treasures of this exhibition lie in the unexpected and the moving. Clare Atwood’s (1866-1962) painting of John Gielgud’s Room, 1933, is an uninhabited domestic pageant to chintz-swathed femininity, and in Robert Medley’s (1905-94) Summer Eclogue No 1: Cyclists, 1950, can be discerned a distance of unarticulated desire, obscured by class removal. The cultural reach extends to print media too, this being so very important to sensitive individuals seeking reassurance and role models. Reading lists and literary sections of magazines such as Arena Three, the first British lesbian magazine (although not mentioned in this exhibition) had an important social function from early on, offering readers and members comfort, hope and reassurance. Magazines such as Man’s World and MAN-ifique! are represented here with posed images of bodybuilders.

Little about ‘Queer British Art’ is sensational or sexually explicit (apart perhaps from Aubrey Beardsley’s famous and amusing erect penises of course), and overall the exhibition is sensitively human and interestingly varied, with frequent focus on the domestic, intimate and private sensitivities. And what could be more human (and British) than the prank of stealing library books, recrafting the pictures on the covers, replacing the books and then waiting to see other borrowers’ reactions! This vitrine of re-collaged books by Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton is laugh-out-loud funny. And yet, tragically, their imprisonment for this ‘crime’ led to their deaths. This evidence of such human spirit combined with such sadness, epitomises the tragicomic history of much queer cultural production. This celebration of showmanship and sensitivity, of creative potential and mournful loss comes in from the margins to become the shared history of all our lives, everyday.

By Laurel Forster


Queer British Art 1861-1967, Tate Britain, 5 April – 1 October 2017

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

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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What do we think of when we think of myths? For children, myths are something unquestionable and magical. They present a world removed from our own, a sacred place where Gods and Goddesses control the events of ordinary people’s lives, and heroes and villains fight the dramatic battles of good versus evil. For this reason, the word ‘myth’ usually conjures up a sense of fiction, a grandiose narrative about individuals far superior to us performing incredible feats. What we fail to remember that those same myths were a religion to the societies they originated from. With hindsight, the stories of Zeus and Mount Olympus may seem fantastic, yet they were regarded in the same way that the holy texts of contemporary religions are. Indeed, we have our own myths which form part of our everyday reality; inherited fictions which underpin our identity, and have grown out of arbitrary social structures. Our religions, political affiliations, views about gender and ideas about ourselves are all based on myth, narratives which we have grown up being told are ‘the truth’.

Hot Milk is a glimpse into the lives of Sofia Papastergadis and her mother, Rose, as their family drama is played out against the backdrop of Almeria in Spain, once one of the largest Muslim fortresses in the Mediterranean and now a popular tourist destination. They come to Spain so Rose can be treated by an eccentric specialist called Dr Gomez as she has a mysterious illness which affects her ability to walk. Sofia has terminated her PhD in anthropology (in which she was studying cultural memory) to look after her mother in their Hackney home, thus winding up working in an artisan coffee shop and feeling like she is in limbo. To add to this, the sudden trip to visit Dr Gomez throws Sofia’s identity into a permanent crisis.

As a scholar evidently influenced by post-structuralist thought, Sofia is continuously probing accepted truths around her and therefore destabilising her life and her environment; What is a myth? What is a sign? What is a sigh? She strives to deconstruct social myths and does not take anything as a given. This is indeed what Levy encourages us to do through the character of Sofia – to suspend our systematic beliefs and prejudices, to question the world around us as Sofia does. In particular, Levy makes us examine female sexuality and the nature of being a functioning woman in a modern society.

Sofia’s body is deeply imprinted with both personal and cultural memories which she cannot erase. Towards the end of the novel, after a heated disagreement with her mother, Sofia escapes the clinical confines of Almeria. Defiantly, she travels to Greece, where her father is living with his young wife and new-born baby, having abandoned Sofia’s mother in London when Sofia was a child.  When she arrives in Greece, the birthplace of her estranged father, and therefore the origin of her own lost heritage, she reflects: ‘’Here I am in the birthplace of the Medusa, who left the scars of her venom and rage on my body’’. Indeed, Sofia’s body is literally covered in jellyfish stings (the word ‘Medusa’ being the Greek word for jellyfish( – the result of ignoring the red flags warning of jellyfish in the sea whilst swimming in Spain. Her body has also been metaphorically lacerated by the traumatic events in her life, especially the callous departure of her father, and his unwillingness to look after her and her mother.

This image of the Medusa recurs at Sofia’s most vulnerable moments throughout the novel. According to myth, the Medusa represents an antagonistic force; a mere gaze from her hideous physiognomy will turn a person to stone. Yet, as a trained anthropologist, Sofia is not deterred by the figure of Medusa (literal or mythic), but is interested in her full story, asking ‘I wonder what would be the Medusa’s case history?’ Medusa is, for Sofia, not to be dismissed as a monster, but a creature who we can try to understand. The accepted myth is just one interpretation of the Medusa’s true nature.

Hot Milk is haunted by the figure of Medusa; the spectre of a woman who has been punished for her femininity (turned into a monster by Athena who is jealous of her beauty) and is forced the bear the scars of her punishment. This idea resonates throughout the novel – the cruel sense of injustice and the problematic presence and effect of ‘woman’. It is the collective bodies of the women in the novel who suffer the most at the hands of men. This, however, hints at the broader problems which grow out of the mythologising of social structures.

Regardless of these entrenched structures, the female characters develop a language of their own between one another. Each is a powerful figure; an independent and forceful character, carrying their own story concerning their sexuality. With the epigraph taken from Heléne Cixous’ seminal essay The Laugh of the Medusa, Levy reminds us that Medusa is redeemed by Cixous from her persecuted identity. Calling for an emancipation of woman’s bodies, Cixous embraces a radical feminine language; a liberated, fluid form of expression. Levy’s language itself demonstrates this with a richly inter-textual style that oscillates between voices and memories, the subjective and the objective.

Reflecting this, Sofia cannot be defined by the structures around her. Her Occupation becomes ‘Monster’ when she is forced to state it in a perfunctory form for a lifeguard who takes care of her on the beach after she is stung by jellyfish. Her options are vast: is she a former PhD student turned nurse to her mother? Is she a waitress? She cannot write her whole story in one line and the easiest categorisation is to reduce herself to a ‘Monster’. Similarly with her mother, her illness cannot be rationally identified. Its abstract nature seems incomprehensible to the world but the true cause of her illness is perhaps psychosomatic. She has become paralysed by the tragedy which has overcome her life. Her bones are living tissue which carry the weight of her punishment: her husband who has left her, the daughter she was forced to raise alone who will ultimately also abandon her.

A sense of displacement lingers in this novel and Almeria itself becomes a strange refuge for damaged people, a vacation zone where ordinary rules do not exist, like Chekov’s Yalta. Common situations, assumptions and objectives take on a surreal quality – or perhaps even hyperreal – beneath the scorching Spanish sunlight. The foreign backdrop of Almeria is significant in this context. Sofia’s last name may refer to the anthropologist Nico Papastergadis who recently published a book entitled ‘The Turbulence of Migration’ which looks at the impact of migration on contemporary societies. Hot Milk reflects our globalised world – Sofia’s last name itself demonstrating the yoking of two distinct cultures which have produced a being who is removed from her paternal past. The result of globalisation is that language and myths blend in new ways to create new meanings, removed from their origins. There is no home in Hot Milk, no stable identity. Sofia and Rose experience irreversible change through their journey to Spain and the palimpsest of their identity expands further, warping and shifting beyond their original, recognisable forms.

‘If Anthropology is the study of humankind from its beginnings millions of years ago to today, I am not very good at studying myself’ muses Sofia late in the novel, after a sensuous encounter with Ingrid, her German lover. Indeed Hot Milk explores this endless mystery of human individuality and the female body; its drives and impulses, its incomprehensibility, and one of its most mysterious natural functions: motherhood.

Nevertheless, Levy’s novel is more than a metaphor for the persistent nature of myth. It can also be read as a strongly personal story about human relationships and the discomfort of being a young woman in the 21st century. The stinging Medusas are not only symbolic; they are part of the dangerous, foreign landscape, which Sofia suddenly finds herself in where jellyfish are not the only threat. Perhaps the biggest hazard is Ingrid, who captures Sofia’s heart. Or perhaps the danger is closer to home: is it the ‘hot milk’ of motherhood, a natural, nourishing occurrence that through the time begins to scald as a child discovers independence from the unconditional love of their mother.

We live in a world full of myths constructed in the past; sexuality, success, education, the economic crisis and our families are all subject to these narratives. A myth has the power to convince people that signs (our names, genders, religious preferences) have inherent value: that a woman must be inherently feminine due to her sex. In Hot Milk, Sofia muses how ‘we are all getting in each other’s signs’ – woman become men, daughters becomes mothers, fathers become sons. She idolises her lover Ingrid, not for the reasons men are drawn to her objective womanliness: her tall body, blonde hair, large breasts. Sofia loves her for the way she fractures the myth of womanhood: Ingrid is strong, rebellious. The duality of her sexuality are expressed in Sofia’s observation that ‘the curves of her body are female but sometimes she sounds like Matthew’. Nothing is stable or solid in this strange land that Sofia is passing through. Myths do not exist – everything exists only in the moment, beautiful exactly for what it is. The Medusa is no longer a hideous creature – she is the protective symbol on Athena’s war shield. We are returned to the epigraph: it’s up to you to break the old circuits.

by Diana Kurakina


Hcover.jpg.rendition.460.707ot Milk by Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, £12.99

Measures of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo

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Vahni Capildeo said in a 2012 interview with Zannab Sheikh that ‘poetry is a form of concentration’. Her latest collection, Measures of Expatriation, puts this principle to work. Comprised primarily of prose-poems, the book’s non-linear, associative narratives require the attention of poetry, yet float across the watery expanse of prose. This technique suffuses both the form and content of Capildeo’s work, an aesthetic approach the poet calls ‘room-with-exposed-brickwork’, lacking a sense of polish, intentionally shirking (traditional) narrative, and rejecting what is studied and exact, coherent and whole. The epigraph of the poem ‘All Your Horses’ captures this book’s overall method: ‘As if no thought beyond immediate transferral: mind to paper’.

Formerly an OED lexicographer, Capildeo’s Oxford DPhil in Old Norse and Old English inform her poetry, which tends toward alliterative and consonantal sound patterning. Fiercely intellectual, her writing plays with the alignment and disjunction of ‘meaning’ as it pushes against the backdrop of lived experience. The core prose-poems, ‘Fire & Darkness: And Also / No Join / Like’, ‘The Book of Dreams/Livre de Cauchemars’, ‘Seven Nights in Transit’, ‘All Your Houses’ and the ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’, each present a new avenue into the concepts of identity, nation, (dis)connection, and isolation. To borrow the poet’s words, Capildeo takes ‘trodden paths but also many turnings’ (‘Too Solid Flesh’).

The book itself is divided into seven sections, or ‘measures’, which primarily grapple with the way the language of identity ‘places a shaping pressure upon our territories of habitation and voyage’, specifically in terms of the discourse surrounding expatriates, refugees, migrants, and exiles (‘Five Measures of Expatriation’). She rightfully problematizes this discourse by drawing from her experience as a British Trinidadian, sometimes humorously:

That was when I began finding out how widespread pigeon phobia is in the south of England; as inconvenient in its way as the well-diagnosed lizard phobia in the Caribbean.

and sometimes very pointedly:

How was it that till questioned, till displaced in the attempt to answer, I had scarcely thought of myself as having a country, or indeed as having left a country.

What is most admirable about this work is that Capildeo does not shy away from the true statement;

…some third-generation immigrant families briefly fought according to the lines of what had not been a division. In lands far away, current events were indirectly regenerating or inventing this part of Trinidad’s past also… (‘Fire and Darkness: And Also/No Join/Like’).

She confronts the ever-pervasive and reverberating powers of colonialism. A natural correlative of this hegemony, the twenty-first century’s chilling numbness to the atrocities of war, is addressed in the poem ‘Fire & Darkness: And Also/No Join/Like’:

televised missile fireworks were going off, white and purple. What had so upset him?…Brownskinned people with strong features and children of adorable gravity were being killed from the air…People who looked like they could be family.

Capildeo sights this as the beginning of ‘the world’s play of representations of the living’, wherein ‘we’ (the ‘brownskinned’ people) are depicted in the media as ‘the killed’. Herein lies the reason, Capildeo suggests, that ‘people on the street in the south of England have told [her] that they have no money, or have offered [her] money, when [she has] said nothing…’

This representation of “otherness”, as circulated by the twenty-first century’s countless social media and communication channels, inculcates society’s depiction of and discourse surrounding “other” cultures, often creating wide divisions between representation and reality:

that territory where a dream of the village East washes through into somewhere western, momentarily eroding the reality of both, sometimes leaving permanent alterations in its wake; somewhere like Trinidad, so Indian even if not considered so, so Western even if not called so, thumbnail of the Americas, immigrant blood opal at its base (‘Too Solid Flesh’).

Among the many themes explored in this book, Capildeo returns to the concepts of displacement, home, identity, and nation. These themes unite in the prose poem ‘Too Solid Flesh’ in which the speaker’s need to ‘acquire weight’ is directly related to the capacity for others to perceive her:

People who talked to me were unable to keep their countenance. I was not as dense as the object would need to be for them to focus on it. Their question, ‘where is she from?’ in my very presence became, ‘where is she?’

In the same sequence, Capildeo wryly examines how gender shapes identity as well as the perception of identity:

Armed Forces man…had the kindness to ignore the others at the dinner table, in order to explain to me how I might acquire density: essentially, I was the same as any woman, if we could put aside the intellect. Abruptly he took on the aspect of a pegged grapefruit of which one quarter had been eaten. His head not only disappeared; it also came apart.

However, not all forms of expatriation explored in this book are strictly cultural or political. Capildeo develops what it means to be released, or to leave, an arduous relationship, which often feels as though it could have been lifted from a diary:

‘I love you,’ he wouldn’t say: it was against his philosophy; I-love-you didn’t mean what it meant, plus the verray construction of the phrase caused bad-old-concrete-lawman-vandal-verbal-mildew-upon-the-grape-harvest-and-war-for-rare-minerals-required-to-manufacture-communication-devices damage; saying I love you damaged love, subject and object (‘I Love You’).              

This creates an alluring air of intimacy, however, ocasionally the prose weighs down the beauty of the image—‘a heart splintered into a rose of frost’—and, on occasion, the lyrical brilliance of Capildeo’s work is overshadowed by her blocks of prose.

Yet, as demonstrated, Capildeo’s prose inhabits a world of interiors, which, through the medium of prose-poetry, she so freely and artfully renders for the reader, imbuing the movement of the language—the long, sinuous syntax—with the feeling that it expresses:

…the unique transformation of love lays out a courtyard for friendship that perhaps wanted a lesser space, perhaps wanted only a bench in the shade, perhaps has become an exile beyond welcome who turns away bewildered by plenitude.

Her more ‘conceptual’ work (see ‘Inhuman Triumphs’ and ‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’) experiments with the use of rejected words or phrases—the things that get crossed out, rephrased or reinterpreted—harnessing their capacity to unhinge or reconstrue sense and the process of sense-making:

Turned over a new leaf to indict science silence/siloed whiteness witness; was a portal, no paper;/near as Narnia, fell in…’ (‘Sycrax Whoops’).

She also achieves this effect through the juxtaposition of languages, such as:

Expatriate. Non depaysee, sin saber por que nip or que se yo, unhoused free condition. I arrive at the theme, which surely is a citation.

In this way, the theme and content achieve renewable acts of noticing. Here Capildeo exercises the belief that ‘the morality of pure disconnectedness makes the easy poetry of analogy impossible’, and throughout the whole book, to again borrow the author’s words, she attempts to prosaically render ‘a pointilliste vision given an order of dismissal’ (‘Too Solid Felsh’).

This approach, however, can be extremely alienating for a reader. The line ‘I tried to maintain a sense of direction…I could/not see with whom, but we had to keep up’ adequately summarises the effect of a first read (‘The Book of Dreams/Livre de Cauchemars’).

To assess this book properly, one must either have an authoritative grasp on the nature and aesthetic of prose-poetry, or a predilection for post-modern verse. Finding myself sympathetic to neither of these conditions, there is still much I can admire in Capildeo’s work. In fact, the first poem, ‘Handfast’ showcases Capildeo’s rather underrepresented lyricism: her extraordinary gift for capturing both a visual and emotional complex:

Come here, here, here:
if it’s a tree you’d sulk in, I am pine;
if earth, I’m risen terracotta;
if it’s all to air you’d turn, turn to me.
You are flying inside me.

There are also vivid moments of wisdom in her writing:

 …being here is returning to being here and returning surely is about leaving, so this above all is the place that makes me feel alive-and-dead, it is a birthplace (‘Seven Nights in Transit’).

Throughout the book I admire Capildeo’s attention to detail, the simplicity of her observations, and her quirky and unique ways of thinking:

Because I am superstitious, I am stringing a series of lights between this and anything else that happens’ (‘Too Solid Flesh’).

However, more often than not, context and deixis run about the page like watercolour. Interpreting these streams of thought can be, for a reader, a labour-intensive and disorienting procedure. For instance, in the poem ‘Cities in Step’, Capildeo’s writing slips through time, tone, and topic fluidly, yet gives very little of itself away:

…we were playing on the beach
and found oil
and looking at
the map’s edge
we’d often drawn
in schoolroom pencil
where. grown-up, we’d
come to play
suddenly the air
filled with technologized
wings…

The fractured nature of Capildeo’s writing has been aptly described by Rod Menghan as being ‘brought up hard against an unmoveable rock’. However, I must admit that I do not share the same enthusiasm for such a sensation. Poetry should move us but not batter us. The pleasure I get from (prose-)poetry stems from the act of following, one pond-stone behind, the path of the writer, trusting in their leap. When the reader miscalculates, however, or when the solid stone is suddenly transformed into a post-modern mirage, the result is sometimes refreshing, but more often than not, disorienting.

However, I am grateful to Capildeo for brining such a timely issue to literature’s often austere and highfalutin form, particularly in light of recent changes to the UK’s visa and immigration policies. Issues of place, identity, and nation need to be addressed, both in poetry and in society, as more people, whether immigrant, expatriate, exile, or migrant, become at once displaced by the expansion of a ‘global society’ and marginalised by it.

Overall, Measures of Expatriation successfully captures the sensation of being not only at the boundary of nations and privilege, but also the permeable border between genre, sense and syntax, interiority and exteriority. Capildeo’s work is a ‘creation [of art], but not always of a kind to be named’, which encourages the reader to interrogate and redefine the way he or she conceives of so-called clear divisions (‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’). As Capildeo remarks at the close of the book’s penultimate section, ‘there is true emotion in the full engagement of the mind’s powers’: an apt description of the intelligence and acumen that illuminate every page of this accomplished collection.

by Amanda Merritt


Meadownloadsures of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo, Carcanet, £8.99

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson

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Paterson is at his best when writing about heartbreak. “The Six,” this reviewer’s favourite piece in 40 Sonnets, speaks of a guitar picked up and played ‘like a novice / or like Orpheus,’ through which the player,

reasons out the things he’d say to her
and the song he plays is sad, because it’s now too late,
and joyous, as somewhere the heart has yet been won.

The sincerity and vulnerability of these few lines, particularly in the context of Paterson’s other more belligerent pieces, strikes a note of tenderness. 40 Sonnets is his eighth poetry collection, which illustrates his ease and ingenuity with the sonnet form. Presumably, it comes as a natural consequence of editing Faber’s 101 Sonnets (1999), and penning a new commentary on the complete sonnets of Shakespeare in 2010.

Overall, the collection indicates a sustained preoccupation with his established motifs: juxtaposition of heartfelt love poems and explicit diatribes, political comment next to personal loss, drinking and hangovers, and bitter retorts against frustrating reading audiences, as evident in “Requests”:

O tell us more about your dad,
or why your second wife went mad,
or how it was you had no choice
but to give those men a voice

go on with your brilliant proem!
Anything but read your poem.

The tone of sharp satire continues in “Apsinthion”; the title, the Greek word for ‘wormwood,’ refers to the apocalyptic star that appears in the Book of Revelation, which emerges first at the volta:

But when we heard the star would fall,
Did we choose to die like sheep?
Hell no – we were men, and blessed
To know the hour and place … I jest.
One by one we fell asleep
And that is how they found us all.

Contrasting bravado and cowardice in an American idiom is peculiar amidst the rest of Paterson’s mostly Scottish pieces, but its animosity sits comfortably alongside his poem “To Dundee City Council,” in which he makes his feelings about his hometown vividly known:

that fine baronial stair
you found cheaper to fence off than to repair,
thus adding twenty minutes to my trip
via ringroad, bombsite, rape tunnel and skip
to the library where poor folks go to die
or download porno on the free wifi.

The crude poetic tone in these poems treads the line between startling and bellicose, but is still darkly humorous, and consistently shrewd. By taking the sonnet form – which has such strong associations with canonical British literature and traditional, highbrow, poetic subjects – and repurposing it to a distinctly modern idiom, he demonstrates an astute and resourceful poetic gift.

Across this slim volume of poetry, Paterson enacts a consistent deconstruction of the sonnet form, beginning with “Here,” a sonnet composed entirely of rhyming couplets, through “At the Perty,” written in Scots and containing fourteen lines of one word each, to “The Version,” a three-page prose piece concerning poetic translation, that ends with a fantastical (and, one hopes, fictional) story about the poet being dropped by his agent, sued for plagiarism, and hunted down in his own house. The striking diversity of Paterson’s work, in just forty-four pages, is a pleasure to read.

In “The Eye,” he speaks candidly about ‘the self you slaughtered in the bliss / of her astonishing astonished kiss,’ immediately conflated with ‘the loch in starlight or the late quartet,’ the sum of which is an image of acute, heartfelt, nostalgia. Similarly, in “Radka Toneff,” a poem addressed to the Norwegian jazz singer, the speaker admits,

Radka, skylark,
you rose too far; though as it died away
I heard right through the song to what sung you.

The doubling of singer and song mirrors Paterson’s play with poet and poem. This is more formally demonstrated in “A Calling,” a poem inspired by the Actaeon myth of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the speaker looks at himself in ‘The black glass,’ which increases his uneasiness; his reflection, in both senses of the word, drives him to think of his writing as ‘ghost-dogs,’ that ‘thrash along the shore, / the dark sea at their back like the police.’ Following the Actaeon myth, then, the poems will tear the speaker apart, ‘right through the song to what sung you.’

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Don Paterson, 40 Sonnets Faber, £14.99

The epigraph to “A Calling,” taken from the Metamorphoses, reads, vellet abesse quidem, sed adest – ‘he would be absent, but present’ – a sentiment anticipated by the Antonio Porchia quotation that opens the collection: ‘Soy un habitante, pero ¿de dónde?’, ‘I am a resident, but where?’ These brief references to a greater sense of distance, or seclusion, underpins 40 Sonnets. The consistent emphasis throughout the collection on separation emerges with disarming openness in “Mercies,” the penultimate sonnet, which concerns the speaker’s dog being put down: ‘love was surely what her eyes conceded / as her stare grew hard, and one bright aerial / quit making its report back to the centre.’

40 Sonnets needs no fanfare to commend it – it stands as a powerful indication of Paterson’s strengths and ongoing poetic experimentation. Honest, unyielding, vigorous: this collection elicits and encapsulates the drunkenness of things being various.

By Éadaoín Lynch

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