Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

"The book of tides" by Angela Readman (Nine Arches Press, 2016)

Poems from over 25 magazines ("Magma" and "The Rialto" amongst them) and some prize-winners, so it's surprising that in the acknowledgements she writes "These small acts of support made me come back to poetry when I had decided to quit". It's refreshing to see that even accomplished poets have self doubt.

Many of the poems involve more than one person - persona and parent or lover; persona and animal; I/You. She likes to use steel at lot, also birds, bees, nets, fish and fishermen. Much of the symbolism clusters around the Fisherman (male, salt sweat, sperm) and Selkies, mermaids or caught fish (female, shiny). Fishermen get caught too.

I needed to read most of the poems more than once, partly because there are many one-offs. "To kill a robin" has a "Lammas Hireling" feel to it - myth plus dialect. "Beatrix Potter's Bed" and "Joan of Arc" deal with historical characters. "What the Sindy House Taught Me" is great fun - "There will be doors you cannot open,/ views printed to the windows endlessly". I could go on, though rather than tackle the other poems individually, I'll try to work through some themes. The result will be even less like a review than usual. I hope that the length of these notes will counter the impression that I'm critical of the style. There's much to absorb, and the image clusters are so close to "making sense" that I feel I should persevere.

Prose

The pieces range widely over the poetry/prose continuum. That said, the line/stanza breaks seem pretty much irrelevant in these pieces. I like "The Museum of Water" - it's one of several poems (e.g. "The House the Wanted to be a Boat") where aspects of Land and Sea are exchanged. Set out in couplets, it begins with "There is nothing we keep to remember/ but water", then lists some items in the collection - "Our tears don't look like much, barely fill// a hotel pot of jam ... beads of cold showers,/ the blood of a snowman that melted so fast". Lists allow continuity (a prose feature) and juxtaposition (a putative poetry feature). For a while, texts in the form of [shopping] lists were sent to poetry magazines because there was no alternative, but now there are more outlets for short texts, so I think "The Museum of Water" could appear in either classification. Ditto for "The Fisher Daughter", which is a list of Dos and Don'ts.

"The Woman who could not say love" concerns a woman who darns a man's coat pocket so that he could feel the ruck if his hands were cold. That's the plot of the piece, the affecting factor that could have been part of a short story. The linguistic glitter is that she writes her love with "a needle held to the window, looping an apostrophe of sunlight to his coat". This piece feels rather like prose with poetic accessories.

In contrast, "The Herring Lass and the Soap" (and the majority of the other poems) more intricately fuses description and imagery.

Similes

There are many of these - some short, some extended. "The Loss Adjusters" shows the variety

  • "a man climbs out of bed, creaks on a tie and tucks a flask of milk into a satchel like a doctor arriving too late" - I don't really get that
  • "the house waits for someone to adjust our losses simply as a corset" - I don't really get that. When I've seen corsets adjusted in films it seems painful and exploitative - is that the intention here? "the house" introduces further complications
  • "Footfall soft as wing-skin" - is wing-skin soft?
  • "smile like a doorstep"
  • "cursive [writing] stingy as spooled twine"

Structural variety

Some poems have rather centrifugal content held together by the title. There is of course nothing wrong with this lack of organic unity. Indeed, I'm more envious of these than the other poems because when I write drafts in this style I have trouble holding my nerve as I re-write.

  • "At Six Stone, I Think of Feeding the Birds" begins with the persona in bed, then imagines being a hostess presenting china bowls, then being filled up by the scent of hair, then imagines being a church - "your voice ... moves like a pigeon locked in a vestibule" - I like the ending.
  • "The Long April of Electra" has scattered elements: "I've learnt to whistle like a God breathing prophecies into chimney pots ... The daffodils I place by her bed all April are yellow horses".

Poeticalising

Occasionally, poems seem to try too hard to sound poetical.

  • "Kissing the Man with the Beard of Bees begins with "There's small life in the sugar bowl./ The waitress parts grains with a spoon, lifts// insect and bowl to the door and pours/ a pale storm into the cracked cup of the day". I don't see what this straining language adds.
  • "The Woman with No Name" has a niggly word exchange - "Mother/ veined to my underwear, stitched to my calves"

Riddles

Faced with a phrase I don't understand I have a determined but limited approach. I tend to read the poem to the end (because an explanation might come later) then read the phrase again. Sometimes phrases sound good without me feeling I need to "understand" them. But (and in this I suspect I'm different to many readers) if I still don't get it, I tend not to ignore it as if it weren't there, but treat it as a defect of sorts. Perhaps the poet gambled that an obscure phrase would work for some people and not others. In such situations the poet might say "if you don't get it, don't worry about it", but why shouldn't I treat it as a bad phrase which could wreck the poem? Suppose nobody gets the line?

This approach to reading seems to favour conservatism and safe writing. I look upon it more as a plea for reader-friendly writing. After all, the poet can use notes either in the book or online.

The obscurity of a poem can be heterogeneous. Ends of poems are prone to phrases that are enigmatic, tempting the reader to reach beyond the rational poem. Sometimes there's sudden lucidity amongst centrifugal forces, almost as if the poem started with a lyrical fragment that the poet wanted to extend without making the result too linear.

  • "Featherweight" is rich and strange throughout.
  • "My Father Snaps off Mermaids like Porn" contains "Dad swipes an arc of sun to the window" (i.e. Dad starts to clean the window); "The nailbrush on the ledge concedes like a kid with a Mohawk parted for church" (I like the image but why "on the ledge"? Why "concedes"?) "I stare at blood on my legs, a join-the-dots of my life./ Because it's not for us, Son, this merman stuff" (I thought the scene was a tool-hut or fish-gutting hut that hadn't been visited for a while. Perhaps the father's discouraging the son from following his profession. But why is "Son" capitalised? Surely it's not a religious reference. And I don't get the title)
  • "When we don't talk about the weather" ends with "The breakers foam with boy spit, carry bones/ ashore. Bladderwrack wraps lost lips in a bow,/ sea snails scrawl apologies all over blue tongues". "spit", "lips" and "tongues" associated with "mouth" but I can't see why. I presume "bow" is a knot rather than the front of a boat.
  • "Our Names in Pebbles" contains "The barrels are always gone, old men roll/ home, fires in whiskers, breath bobbing/ for kisses their wives have yet to learn" - have the old men rolled the barrels home? What are fires in whiskers? In another poem there's "Whiskers fiery as a streak of fawn// in overgrown orchards", so perhaps it just means they have ginger moustaches? What does "breath bobbing" mean? Is it like apple bobbing (hence the barrels)? I doubt it.
  • "Lady with a Goose on her Head" has "No one carries a still wing as well as the lady with a goose on her head ... infinite stories webbed to her lips ... Only one thing is clear: she has a goose. It won't leave./ It flies so completely in the air she wraps around herself.". She might be a widow or spinster. "Goosed" has a few slang meanings, none of which help me here. Perhaps I should just let it be surreal.
  • "The Religion of Mermaids" - "There's nothing to pray to, but the rain skinny-dipping/ on my legs, fusing into one drop where they meet. I thought that's how love was." I like the poem but how does rain skinny-dip? I presume that the subject of the verb "meet" is "my legs" not the raindrops otherwise there's redundancy. I presume it's no coincidence that the start of the first quote echoes the start of "The Museum of Water" - "There is nothing we keep to remember/ but water".
  • "Backendish" - "Mother kicks her sandals under the stairs/ and scrolls on canary socks". "canary socks" means "yellow socks"? She uncurls the rolled-up socks like a scroll before putting them on?
  • "Backendish" - "This is your last chance to sit outside ... the rag bag spilling/ your mother's previous lives on the rug.// Even now, with so few red leaves on the ash/ you know you'll lose count" - it's autumn. Are the spilling clothes supposed to correspond in some way to the leaves? Are the few remaining red leaves supposed to symbolise forthcoming periods? Why "ash"? Lose count of what?
  • "The Woman Who Could Not Say Goodbye" ends with "The horizon is/ a closed ballroom where days of the week refuse to dance" - In what sense is the horizon like a ballroom? Has the ballroom closed down or is it locked up? Why "of the week"? "weekdays" are non-weekend days, but aren't "days of the week" all of the days?
  • "Rose Petal Jelly" - "She holds a sunset and lets it fall// through her sieve. Briefly, the windows/ fill with a rosetint. Our used jars/ become churches we smash with a spoon " - I can see that the jamjar might be an internalised sunset, and that the sunset is externalised jelly. However, given that jars can only be smashed with heavy spoons anyway, what's the rest about? That home/family life is stronger than hollow, institutionalised religion?
  • "Confession of a Selkie" - "You'd never know unless you saw us peel an egg, roll/ the soft boil, that we love you only as a sea-cow sleeps:/ one fin paddling always, partly drifting, half awake " A dictionary says that "Selkies are said to live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land." I've seen the one-fin-flapping behaviour on animal documentaries, but that doesn't help me here. A soft-boiled egg (I presume that's what "the soft boil" is) might have the flabby mass of a seal, but how does that illustrate that love isn't 100%?
  • "The Poet's Last Will and Testament" - "I leave you the art of snails on walls, slow as palm readers/ stroking life and love to hand". I like the comparison of snails to a palm reader's finger, but I can't see how it fits into the wider context. Not for the first time, within a slightly puzzling image there's smaller imagery that I like, which makes me keep searching.

Other quotable parts

Less demanding are

  • "Hallelujah for 50ft Women" - "lasses who ... stepped outside the fitting rooms of their Mother's eyes ... a milkman's moon spotting sequins on her skirt ... her sunburnt neighbours,/ faces pink as the contents of a bubblegum machine ... There's no weapon// she can drop. She has none but herself ... Let us be ants on her palm, lifted to meet her eye"
  • "If I Let You Film Me..." ends with "There will always be somewhere you can arrange me// simply as flowers. Be the vase. If I let you film me,/ one day we'll see love when we've forgotten how it's done"
  • "The Religion of Mermaids" - "If I search,/ I can find the tide in all things, really, let the steam/ on the windows weep on my behalf"
  • "Clay Baby" - "This is the day girls like us are born, truly, conceived/ in a song that has no words yet hummed by any river,// a child watching clay dry, fingers poking our eyes/ in our faces, the gouge of our mouths cracked in the sun"

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

"The More Things Change" by Jim Murdoch (fandango virtual, 2017)

Spoiler Alert!

James Henry Valentine "had never happened upon anything of any real value in this life, least of all the secret to true happiness" (p.5). "James had never found himself either ... The trouble was Jim was never exactly sure what he was meant to be on the lookout for or beating himself up over" (p.6). Later he says "I think I figured out fairly early on that there was no me to find, that if I wanted to "find myself" I would need to invent myself" (p.178).

He's an English teacher, a loner, a budding writer. When 40 he talks to a strange man in the park then returns home to find he has a wife who he's known for over 20 years. He has grown children too. He has to reconstruct his new past from the evidence available. He takes 5 years to do so. The book he writes about it ("Memoirs of a Made-up Man") is a success but his wife leaves him 5 years later. He never really connects with his children. The follow-up short-story collection "The Man Who Wrestled Angels" fails, though the individual stories did ok in magazines. Finally, after a gap of years he meets the man (God) again. God points out that "Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. With himself. Such is the guiding principle of existentialism" (p.295). There's a final, satisfying twist at the end involving a rake.

That's the plot. I'll now look at a few of the devices.

Extended analogies

There are several of them. For example there's "A sphere passing through a three-dimensional space appears in the distance as a speck ... Similarly a man moving through life may be perceived as an embryo, an infant ... It was the world that had changed about him" (p.9). The analogy sometime follows the statement it's illustrating - i.e. It's show and tell. There are also mixed metaphors. Take for example "Pleasure was an aside and rather surprised each of them when it did catch them unawares. It was like an attractive hitchhiker who might catch their eye but, while they were wrestling with their consciences, the moment would slip from grasp and there would be no turning back" (p.12). Note that we're given a fairly literal description, then we're given an analogy. The "no turning back" ending is apt, but not the "slip from grasp". An alternative style would be "Pleasure was like an attractive hitchhiker who might catch their eye but, while they were wrestling with their consciences, the moment would pass and there would be no turning back".

Sometimes figures of speech rather than clustering around a single analogy arrive like London buses - "the son proved a harder nut to crack. His poker face was no mere affectation either. The man seemed incapable of a knee-jerk reaction" (p.13)

Aphorisms

There are several of these too, including

  • "Jim was forty and had been since he was thirty" (p.14)
  • "Meaning is a symptom of action" (p.36)
  • "Feelings are like spots - you shouldn't pick at them or they get all infected and scabby" (p.49)
  • "The past is like yeast" (p.127)
  • "Pity is like guilt: both are binding agents, tying things together that would really rather be apart" (p.168)

They work well. Some of them are extended towards being analogies.

Writers

The role of writer acquires a cosmic significance eventually, but even early on it attracts attention.

  • "There is a special circle of hell earmarked for writers when they sit around all day long having great ideas but with no practical means of recording them" (p.24)
  • "the real him was a writer" (p.47)
  • "What aggravated Jim was that he had no feeling of empathy for his character" (p.90)
  • "Someone should invent a new word, wroter, past tense of writer, one who who once wrote but no longer writes" (p.167)
  • "I am a writer - we are always alone" (p.225).
  • "Writers don't have real lives, they have ongoing research" (p.226)

The Craft of writing

We're given little lessons in writing

  • "you decide, purely for the benefit of the plot you understand, your protagonist needs something, fleshing out, an idiosyncrasy" (p.83)
  • "Plot Point No 1: Start the ball rolling with an event outside of the protagonist's control that initiatives a chain of events" (p.171)
  • "Now would be a good time to take stock so far. A plot needs a number of elements for it to do its job: a believable and sympathetic central character - I nominate myself for that position ... " (p.183)
  • "It's always tempting late in a book to graft in a bit of backstory to kick the feet from under your audience" (p.241)

Narratology

At first the writing's in the 3rd person. On p.25 we're asked "Have you given any thought to who I am yet? You've probably taken it for granted I'm the omniscient narrator". The main narrational elements are

  • God/Joe
  • Jim Valentine (wannabee writer. Manipulated by Joe and narrator)
  • Narrator
  • Jim Murdoch (I've never met him, but I presume he's real)

It's subsequently pointed out that "There is another thing with regards to storytelling that comes into play here and it has to do with who exactly is narrating. In some books the voice-over is never identified ... It is omniscient ... Omniscient narrators have zero invested in the outcome ... My narrators tended to be of the imperfect variety - unreliable witnesses" (p.174). Later, new elements emerge

  • On p.165 the text becomes Jim's 1st-person narrative
  • On p.222 the addressee issue is discussed. On p.240 there is "Why do we writers write? What do we get out of it and why do we need readers so? To validate who we are"
  • On p.229 Jim asks "if my life has been nothing but a work of fiction, who're the readers?". Joe answers "The angels", pointing out later that Jim isn't real, and that "Life does not imitate art ... Like is art" (p.303)

The most common mode is the monologue - raconteuring - even if two people are in discussion. Either God is lecturing Jim or the narrator is talking to the reader who can't interrupt.

Misc

  • I've never heard the phrase "loaded for bear" (p.30) before.
  • On p.181 "streaks ahead" (rather than "streets ahead") appears. I've not heard it before, though apparently it's fairly common.
  • The description of multi-dimensional time on p.85 will keep SF writers happy.
  • There are Beckettian flourishes: when the none-too-young home-help gives Jim occasional relief; on p.254 there's a passage about sharing ashes fairly amongst a family tree of offspring.
  • There are many allusions, of which I probably only picked up a few.

Summary

Character-development is a major theme, an analogy that works on 3 levels.

  • God made us
  • Authors create their characters
  • We create others and ourselves

These level can be nested and twisted. Occasionally, sometimes for comic effect, the layers are confused (metalepsis) - God creates authors who create God. At each level the creator needs readers. Because of Jim Valentine's amnesia, he has to re-create himself, but perhaps that's life's norm - "Nietzsche ... proposed the unimaginable: the God was dead (or had at least forsaken us), which would mean we are all writing ourselves" (p.261). Jim thinks his home help (who loves soap operas) is the sort of viewer who'd post cards to the characters, but he doesn't consider it that strange - aren't other people always creations of some sort? I'm sympathetic to the theme and empathize with the hero. I've recently read Maria Taylor's Instructions for making me poetry pamphlet which tackles similar issues.

When God appeared I was at first worried, for the same reason that I don't like "Q" episodes in StarTrek TNG - anything can happen. But there are few (albeit major) interventions. The novel could have excluded the God character entirely, beginning with an amnesia attack. It would have lost a level of analogy that way, but might have gained more readers.

There were passages when the conjecturing went on too long for me. On p.206-233 for example, nothing much happens and I struggled. But perhaps I'm supposed to. A character admits - "Granted, I am prone to rambling and beating around bushes" (p.245). What kept me reading through these passages were the aphorisms, analogies, references, and writing tips, and I was keen to see how the story would end.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

"Narcopolis" by Jeet Thayil (Faber and Faber, 2012)

Dimple was castrated before he was 10. In Bombay during the 70s she worked in a brothel, and got into drugs. She lived for 10 years downstairs from her drug-den boss and his family - she was his mistress. Life became more difficult when heroin took over from pipe-smoking ("This is the new thing, brown powder, garad heroin with the compliments of the Pakistani government", p.142), ("Garad, you know what it means in Urdu? Waste", p.199) and when Muslim/Hindu battles begin. Dimple switches religion, ending up Christian to go into Rehab. In the final section we jump forward years. Most of the main characters have gone.

There's a long interlude about the life of Mr Lee that I could have done without. On p.196 there are instructions on how a wife set on fire by her husband can get herself reincarnated as his next child. Monsoon scenes seem hallucinatory. There are lyric sections, serious sections, and several dreams. Quotable passages include -

  • Colour is a way of speaking, not seeing. Poets need colour, and musicians too. But painters shouldn't forget it. Colour, if you don't mind me saying, is a crutch, like the necessity of God. For some nineteenth-century European painters, the absence of God was as intolerable as the absence of colour. They used the entire spectrum for every negligible little thing (p.34)
  • Only the rich can afford surprise and or irony. The rich crave meaning. The first thing they ask when faced with eternity, and in fact the last thing, is: excuse me, what does this mean? The poor don't ask questions, or they don't ask irrelevant questions. They can't afford to. All they can afford is hunger and ghosts (p.39)

Other reviews

  • Kevin Rushby ( There is a subplot about a murderer that doesn't add much to the story, and a dud note is struck when Dimple starts to opine on Baudelaire and Cocteau. ... Narcopolis is a blistering debut)
  • Salil Tripathi (The most striking section is in the middle, when Thayil introduces us to Lee, the elderly Chinese man who gives his pipes to Dimple)
  • Stuart Evers (Centred on Rashid’s squalid drug shack, this portmanteau novel picks up strands, weaves them with others, journeys to Mao’s China, only to drop us back, mesmerised, right where we began. ... The literature of drugs can be both wearisome and curiously smug: low-life glamour exulted with florid prose and cod-spiritual awakenings.)
  • thebookbag (On the surface of the book, it's very much about addiction, to narcotics but also to sex and alcohol, but at a deeper level it's also a using drugs as a huge metaphor for the changes in India over the period from the simplicity of opium, and the long-standing historical links between China and India, to the more damaging modern narcotics of heroin from Pakistan which has a more violent and damaging impact on its users. India remains a melting pot of religion, cultures and wealth throughout but Thayil is suggesting that it is the more modern influences that have made it more damaging and violent.)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

"Addlands" by Tom Bullough (Granta, 2016)

It begins in 1941. Subsequent section are at roughly 5 year intervals, ending in 2011. I like the 1947 section the most (saving sheep from snow) and the 1976 section where Naomi appears, introducing a clash of cultures. Each winter takes its toll. The book's immersive, rural, the main character (who takes a pet crow around with him) hardly leaving his land, though his son (the offspring of a brief relationship with a woman who becomes a poet) travels the world before returning. Feuds last for decades, complicated by paternity doubts. Animal sounds are always ready to be interpreted. The occasional word of dialect didn't trouble me. The period detail sounded convincing -

  • "Oliver put his hot-water bottle on the draining board for his mother to empty for the washing" (p.20)
  • "put a brun on the fire and warm yourself up. Fodder the geese, if you're after a job" (p.22)
  • "He slipped the clips round the ankles of his uniform trousers then lifted his bicycle from the wall of the toilet block, flipping the dynamo onto the back wheel" (p.72)
  • "It was normally the geese that heralded a visitor: the geese then the dogs, which refined their cries with calls of greeting or warning" (p.75)
  • "The harrier was falling over Llanbedr Hill, vanishing behind the horizon to rise again in a tumult of silver, as if bouncing on a hidden trampoline" (p.97)
  • "The oak in the Oak Piece bore leaves in such numbers that it was only when Oliver climbed the gate into the Funnon Field and passed into its shadow that he could see against the high, hot sun some memory of its whorling skeleton ... A vapour trail passed straight through its crown, like an arrow through a cowboy's hat" (p.143)
  • "They did not speak. There was nothing to say. They moved around each other here like they always moved, like those spangled dancers he would see sometimes on the telly in the Awlman's Arms - certain of their purpose, their place in the space, following the music of the year" (p.182)

I liked it. The portrait of Oliver followed no tidy template, and the symbolism wasn't too heavy-handed.

Other reviews

  • Jem Poster (Guardian) (Bullough’s quiet insistence on the link between language and landscape crucially shapes the novel.)
  • Melissa Harrison (Financial Times) (a quiet rural novel of enormous power ... mentioning things only as they are observed by the book’s characters, to whom most things are deeply familiar and so require little description or comment. The penalty for this style is a slight loss of clarity and significance; at times it isn’t clear what has happened, where, or to whom. I found myself reading and rereading certain sections, trying to sift clues from otherwise oblique references to events)
  • Stuart Kelly (Spectator) (The novel has an elegant structural conceit. ... There are a few infelicities. Is it necessary that almost every female character, however fleeting, must have their breasts described? One character goes on to become a ‘post-pastoral’ poet, which seems more like a jibe than essential to the story. Nevertheless, at its heights the prose glimmers and shimmers. )
  • Kirkus Reviews (Bullough’s consistent use of Welsh dialect is at once colorful and something of a stumbling block ... (Bullough’s website has a glossary.) And the overall fecundity of the prose—Bullough delivers plenty of longueurs about the landscape—can swallow up his characters’ tensions)
  • David Hebblethwaite (Above all, though, what strikes me about Addlands is how the progression of the novel is oriented around the place rather than the characters)

Saturday, 11 March 2017

"Goodbye Earth and other poems" by I.A.Richards (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958

My copy has the signature of "E.E.Duncan-Jonas" (Elsie Duncan-Jones?) in it, dated "June 23, 1962". In "Proem", the introduction, it says "to a writer much of whose life has been passed in studying the difficulties poems present to even very well-qualified readers the itch to lend a helping word becomes acute ... Explanations can do little more than play with surfaces. But it is through surfaces (is it not?) that we have to attempt to go deeper"

The first poem, "Lighting Fires in Snow", has a note saying "This practical poem aims to teach a useful art". It explains how to arrange twigs "Teepee-wise or wigwam,/ So that air can follow/ The match-flame from the start: As we begin a poem/ And some may win a heart", the indentation of the lines matching the rhyme scheme. Then "twig to twig will beckon/ If lightly laid above/ Better than you can reckon." In the final stanza, we're told that "The wise poem knows its father/ And treats him not amiss;/ But Language is its mother/ To burn where it would rather/ Choose that and by-pass this".

In the 2nd poem, "The Solitary Daffodil", the persona, after a day of committee work, sees a lone daffodil. The final stanza has some allusions I recognise

So, as a lost word found can say
The never-so-well-known-before,
It welcomed me into the Day
And almost opened me a Door
Through which I may still step to be
In recollected Company.

I don't think the poetry's aged as well as William Empson's, especially when it's about poetry. Here are examples -

  • A poem's not on a page,
    Or in a reader's eye;
    Nor in a poet's mind
    Its freedom may engage.
    (p.22)
  • And I (who am Creed) reveal
    Old wounds we cannot heal,
    I (who am Rite) enact
    Our inoperable pact.
    So we who could profess
    Now but co-confess
    (p.36)
  • Rainbow
    Balanced up somehow on a ball
    That spins
    And spirals
    as it plummets,
    Newton walked to Stourbridge Fair
    And bought his prism
    (p.37)
  • Alpine sketches
    Height's on display as well;
    And depth,
    Clouded or clear,
    But sheer:
    The full forefigurement of hope and fear
    (p.40)
  • Sometimes a word is wiser much than men:
    "Faithful" e.g., "responsible" and "true."
    And words it is, not poets, make up poems.
    Our words, we say, but we are theirs too
    For words made man and may unmade again.
    (p.43)
  • Cunninger still the Verse
    When with its ruddering Rime
    From perjured Breath it wrings
    Sincerity sublime.
    You'ld think a Poet had an End
    In View in what he sings.

    So then, in what I write,
    Look! Look not for me.
    (p.46)

Is there a typo on p.viii? "But there is great if rare example"

Other reviews

  • Kirkus Review (many of them already have appeared in The New Statesman, Encounter, The Yale Review, and Audience. They are of a high calibre and skill, even if sometimes obscure. As to their obscurity, Richards has helped out his readers with an occasional explanatory note.)
  • "In his longest, best, and title poem ... In another short poem, "Harvard Yard ..." Mr Richards' considerable semantic skills are in evidence" (Herbert Feinstein, Prairie Schooner)

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

"Banipal 52" , Samuel Shimon (ed)

A magazine of Modern Arab Literature - 224 pages with many extracts from novels. The translations are excellent as far as I can tell. There are quite a few tales of culture shocks. There are many prisons and injustices. Sometimes the pieces feel like sociology and politics made more entertaining. It's a risk the writers and reviewers are aware of. In his review of a book about Khaled Mattawa, Robin Ostle writes -

  • "Certain writers are inextricably linked with political causes, and their readers and public come to expect that they remain the voice of that cause", p.180
  • "In most cases the periods of positive interaction between art and politics are of short duration, and the longer they go on, the more problematic they are likely to be", p.181

Writers know that they'll get a wider readership if they deal with atrocities. With stories set in some places it's hard for writers to avoid dealing with topics that might appear sensationalist to UK-based readers.

There are reviews of (re-printed) novels that have complex or modernist structures, but the published texts were rather traditional.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

"A short history of synchronised breathing" by Vanessa Gebbie (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2017)

These short pieces (2-15 pages long) come from BBC Radio 4, Smokelong Quarterly, and several anthologies. I'm playing safe by calling them "pieces" rather than stories because some of them step outside the story-frame. For instance, the first begins as follows

There is, in Rue Carnot, a greengrocer's that still bears the name of Claude Romerin. But this is not necessarily a story about greengrocers. This is the story of how the electrification of a small railway led to a most miraculous near-disaster. And it is a story about facts. How, in the wrong hands, they mean nothing.

Post-truth it's not, but the collection's often non-mimetic. The title story also has numerous authorial interjections - e.g.

(I am very sorry this story begins with a secondary character. The main character is also secondary, at least at the beginning)

Non-standard though several of the pieces may be, they're all accessible, set recognisably in France, the Far East, Brighton, Prague, etc. No tear-jerkers, though lots of wry humour. Whatever criteria you classify texts by (narrative distance, metafictionality, realism, essay/story, etc), you'll find texts in this book that span a range. I'll look at a few themes that emerge, then I'll consider some individual pieces.

Names

"Frank Merriman" is an ironic name for a taxi driver and "Ed" might be editing himself, but it's the very concept of naming that matters in several pieces.

  • Why could he not stay 'a waiter'? Now he has a name (p.32)
  • This woman has a name, but Ed doesn't want to think about that (p.36). What was the woman's name, this morning? What is a name anyway? (p.38)
  • "Naming Finbar" has a lot of names in it (though I don't think it's one of the best pieces)
  • "Literary Analysis" studies names. Re "Earnest" - "the last four letters spell 'nest'. Nest is synonymous with 'Bed', therefore the author was thinking of sex and sex is communicating itself subliminally to the reader via Ear 'nest'. He is serious about bed. Or seriously good in bed. ... But what of the 'Ear' of Earnest? We are meant to think of ears of corn, perhaps? Is he a country man? Or maybe he is deaf?". Later it's considered "important that THE station has no name"

Symbolism

In stories generally, symbols can be explicit or have varying depths of embeddedness. For example, a story could include the phrase "life is a maze", or the story could be set in a maze with significance attached to each decision, or the maze could be a minor (albeit synecdochal) incident in a story.

Authors often have a favoured symbolic depth. In this book however there's much variety. Symbols are contrasted with proper nouns - people's names especially. In "Literary analysis" the trick's explained - THE station. THE. Symbolic, important that THE station has no name. In "Parallax" the characters point out the effects of parallax explicitly.

Communication

Most of the characters are single - some have always been, and it's easy to see why. Though two pieces involve a Vulcan-like mind-transfer there's no love-driven meeting of minds. In "Parallax" it's clear that two people will always see the same thing differently. People can spend decades together and still not know each other. In contrast, people like those in "Taxi" who've never met can strike up a relaxed bonding.

In "Selected Advice for Strangers" people seeking company are told "They cannot fathom any more about you than you can about them". Communication is frequently via objects. The woman in "Housekeeping" tries to seduce the man she's only talked to once by leaving articles of clothing around. In the epistolary "Letters ..." the narrator "began to think of letters, and why we write them at all. I began to think about whether anyone will ever write the definitive letter, after which there will be no need to write anything. Ever.".

In some pieces, the most direct channel of communication is from narrator to reader, talking over the heads of the characters.

Parts

Several pieces involve objectifying, making something into a (lifeless) part so that it can be stored or exchanged. Things represent people, and sometimes things are thought to be animate in some way -

  • partial mind-swapping ("How Claude Romarin ...")
  • part of a deceased body is created in wax ("The Properties of Wax")
  • parts of a wife are spread about an apartment ("Wei-ch'i")
  • a stone baby ("Letters from ...") is put on a shelf
  • a package without an addressee is taken away in an unexplained hearse ("Gifts")
  • a person gains an additional persona ("Third Person Singular")
  • a painting represents a father ("Pavel's Grey Painting")
  • "Ed's Theory of the Soul" dissolves some differences between humans and the inanimate world.

Individual stories

  • "Were it possible to just have sustenance" - The 2nd-person persona wants some quiet time in a little Parisian café but a distressed man comes in thinking he's soon going to be the victim of a firing squad (Life/Death), three women come in, having had a good time (Living the moment), then a wigged judge plus another man come in, both with dogs which may need putting down (Judgement). The persona (whose aspects may be represented by the others) can't cope. As he leaves, the first man says "Mind. Aim straight for the heart. It is quicker that way", which is open to interpretation. It needn't be a plea. It could be a suggestion to use his mind, to aim for love, to kill all thoughts of Life/Death issues.
  • "Ed's Theory of the Soul" - Ed's walking into the sea to kill himself. A woman's just left him - "She'd said to him, his woman, that he was hopeless. Treated her like an object" (p.37). But Ed has a revelation that "there is a soul in the smallest thing" (p.37) and turns back.
  • "Taxi" - a taxi driver who's had two women (mother, then wife) desert him, picks a woman up from Brighton station who tells him to "just drive", and he does. They're last seen heading north into a new life. One of my favourite pieces.
  • In "Revisiting Luther" Letitia Hooper comes to believe that a parrot that she's looking after for a colleague is really her ex-husband. In the penultimate paragraph, "Letitia settled down on the settee with a new book, Best American Short Stories. I happen to own "The Best American Short Stories 1996" which contains "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot" by Robert Olen Butler, a story in which a woman buys a parrot, not knowing who the parrot was in a previous life. That story is told from the parrot's PoV. Like the parrot in "Revisiting Luther" he still has yearnings. Unlike Luther, he sees his ex-wife with another man.
  • "Captain Quantum's Universal Entertainment" (subtitled 'an expanding story, with no boundaries') never sags, though it's long. It's my favourite piece - a tour de force. No surprise that it's already been printed elsewhere. A reporter (with a recorder - this is the quantum world) visits a fairground, shown around by the "Most Qualified Guide to the Fairground". "Captain Quantum" is the ring-master. "The Great Maximilian" (a juggler) and "Lucille, The Incredible Shrinking Bearded Lady" are the star turns. It's their last show, and perhaps the universe's last too. The piece is replete with scientific allusions that like their quantum counterparts, flicker in and out of existence. In the extracts below I detect black holes, special relativity, space-time curvature, epicycles from a bygone age, black holes, worm-holes, and quantum vacuum
    • "Your dark, veiled hats - so attractive and mysterious, the very thing our greatest stars cannot resist"
    • "But wait. Is the story going a little fast? Let's slow it down a little. Too slow? Then speed it up by all means. It is simple enough - this is a partnership, is it not? Everything is relative."
    • "Knives ought to fly in straight lines, these do not. (Apparently)"
    • "The schnauzers also 'speak' in nursery rhymes (their Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is unforgettable, apparently), and ride penny-farthings round the perimeter"
    • "as she nears her own vanishing point"
    • "The [tunnel's] ceiling sags. You can reach up and touch it, covered as it is in half-hearted stars"
    • the spectators ... sit separated from each other by patches of darkness that seem almost elementary, full of strange possibilities"
    At the end the big stars disappear. "Just the dwarves remained with their little rakes, sadly smoothing infinite grains of sand, ready for whatever came next".

One nit-pick - the passage "in the kitchenette, Shaozu found no note. Instead, in a room in which" (p.12) has too many "in" sounds for my liking.