Category Archives: poetry

The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

I loved reading this book. Previously I had read and hugely enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It was a great pleasure to settle down with her new novel for hours at a time. But I have been puzzled about how to present it on this blog. It is so full of ideas, of writing skill, of adventurousness, of themes that resonate with our predicaments at the moment that I haven’t known where to start. 

The Book of Form & Emptiness

Perhaps a good place to start is with the story, for the narrative drive is strong in this book, despite everything else she gives us. Benny Oh is twelve when his father dies, killed by a rubbish truck in the alley behind his house. Benny lives in a city near the Pacific coast of the US. Locations in this novel are vague, unlike the timeframe: Trump’s election as President features, for example. But we are never given the name of the city Benny inhabits.

Benny’s father was a Korean-Japanese jazz clarinettist. His mother is Annabelle, who works as a scissors woman, clipping newspapers for a media organisation. Benny is mixed race, and one theme of the novel is how he negotiates this in present day America. 

Grief overcomes mother and son. Benny hears voices, or rather voices speak to Benny, things speak to Benny, but he resists them. The scissors that tell him to stab his teacher, for example, he can only resist by stabbing himself. This reaction brings Benny to the attention of his school’s mental health services.

The significance of things, what they mean to us, their existence, their connection to the environmental problems of our world, these are also important themes of this novel. Annabelle becomes something of a hoarder, packing her news clippings in plastic bags, keeping Kenji’s shirts to make a memory quilt, storing her craft materials in the bath until the flat is stuffed with things and the only tidy space is Benny’s bedroom.

Then a little book, Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life, jumps into her shopping trolley one day, and leads her, and us, into a different world of ideas about things, especially domestic possessions. Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest. 

Meanwhile Benny’s behaviour having attracted the attention of child psychiatrists, means he spends time in a Pedpsych ward where he meets the Alef (see Jorge Luis Borges’s short story) who is following in the path of the Fluxus avant-garde art movement. I looked that one up too. One of the Alef’s messages takes Benny to the Library, where much of this novel is located. Here he meets the B-Man who is a Slavic poet in a wheelchair, the small librarian, and even Ruth Ozeki who is typing away in a remote corner of the library. 

An older woman sat in the other [carrel], typing very fast on her laptop computer. She looked to be in her fifties or sixties, part Asian like him, maybe, with black-framed glasses and gray-streaked hair. She must have sensed his presence, because she lifted her head and looked at him, and all the while her fingers typed on, never pausing. (141-2)

And now a word about one of the narrators

Some of the story is told by an omniscient narrator, where it concerns Annabelle’s actions, or slips into the concerns of the doctors, or librarians, or retells the life of the Zen Buddhist priest Aikon, who wrote Tidy Magic.

But Benny’s story is told to him by his Book. Benny introduces it:

Shhh … Listen!
That’s my Book, and it’s talking to you. Can you hear it?
It’s okay if you can’t, though. It’s not your fault. Things speak all the time, but if your ears aren’t attuned, you have to learn to listen.
You can start by using your eyes because eyes are easy. Look at all the things around you. What do you see? A book, obviously, and obviously the book is speaking to you, so try something more challenging.  … (3)

And the Book continues to tell Benny’s story, from Kenji’s death to the final pages which are a collaboration between Benny and his narrator some 500 pages later.

The novel is full of ideas about books, quotations from Walter Benjamin, including the story of his final, lost book as he fled from the Nazis to Spain; about the physicality of ‘real’ books; about writing and the writer (think the woman in the carrel in the library) and the reader; and about finding one’s feet in a shifting and dangerous world.

For example, Slavoj, the Slavic bottle-man ,who is writing an epic poem called Earth, tells Benny about writing poetry:

“Let me tell you something about poetry, young schoolboy. Poetry is a problem of form and emptiness. Ze moment I put one word onto an empty page, I haf created a problem for myself. Ze poem that emerges is form, trying to find a solution to my problem.”: He sighed. “In ze end, of course, there are no solutions. Only more problems, but this is a good thing. Without problems, there would be no poems.” (276-7)

We have taken in some jazz, some theories of poetry, the randomness of Fluxus, ideas about connectedness, and the ecological dangers we have created for ourselves. And I haven’t even mentioned the crows.

Ruth Ozeki has explained her title by reference to impermanence and interconnection in this interview extract:

The phrase “form and emptiness” comes from the Heart Sutra, one of the core Mahayana Buddhist texts. The line we chant is “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Emptiness, in this sense, refers to impermanence, and the way all things, all beings, are impermanent and exist in a perpetual state of interdependent flux, or dependent co-arising. None of us—human beings, animals, insects, books, stones, trees—has a fixed, essential self or identity independent of everything and everyone else, and this sense of interconnectedness is, I think, what Benny comes to appreciate in the novel. His relationship with his mother. His relationships with his friends. His relationship with his book. [From the Lion’s Roar, Buddhist Wisdom for our Time, an interview with Nancy Chu. September 2021]

There is so much in this book, so many ideas, such a call for the recognition and importance of difference and connection that I would like to encourage readers to pick it up and enjoy it as I did. This generous novel seems to be bursting out of its pages. 

Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki: WikiCommons LMU Library: 2016

Born in 1956, Ruth Ozeki was brought up in Connecticut. Like Benny she has mixed parentage. She has worked in film and has now published four award-winning novels and a short memoir. Since 2010 has been a Zen Buddhist priest. She teaches creative writing at Smith College.

The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki published in 2021, by Canongate. 546pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Related post

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (November 2013)

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Bookword in Naples

For months and months now I have been feeling restless, wanting to get away, away from Covid, from daily life, from staying at home and making soup (as a friend said). Since March 2020 I had spent just 4 nights from home, when I visited my sister in Cumbria. I enjoyed that very much, but by the New Year I wanted more. I am not claiming any specialness in these feelings. Readers of this blog may well have had similar emotions.

So earlier this year I booked myself onto a cultural tour of the ancient world around Naples. I imagined that it would either be cancelled or postponed, but in the event neither happened, and at the end of April, I took my Covid Pass, my clothes for warmer places and my masks and flew to Naples.

The tour focused on Greek and Roman archaeology around the Bay of Naples: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum and its temples, Pozzuoli Amphitheatre, and, where Pliny the elder died, Castellammare dell Stabia. Dominating the bay was Mount Vesuvius. 

Forum, Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

For as long as I knew about it, I had wanted to visit Pompeii, and was in awe of the volcano and its eruptions. The one that buried Pompeii in ash and pumice happened in AD79. More recently it erupted during the Second World War. We were assured that it always gave warnings of any impending eruption, but it is acknowledged to be active. So, we climbed up it and looked into its crater, and found a steaming vent, which was a little alarming, but the worst that we experienced.

For this post on Bookword I present some books and poems that relate to Naples.

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard

Told with her trademark verve and questioning style, she reveals the daily life of those who lived in the town before the eruption, casting a critical eye on the archaeological evidence and what people have made of it. It’s a very readable guide. It’s very much more than a guidebook, more an introduction for an intelligent reader who doesn’t want to be fobbed off with the myths that surround the ruins. 

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard, published by Profile Books in 2008. 360pp

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This is a novel about two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s, narrated by one of them. The Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first volume, has been very successful. The attraction, I believe, is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

Readers of the post on this novel in December 2021 will know that I am not a huge fan and you can see my original comments in full here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag

Another novel, this one by the renowned intellectual Susan Sontag, published in 1962. It is a long time since I read it, possibly more than 20 years, and my copy seems to have disappeared from my shelves, probably in a ruthless cull to send it on to other readers through Oxfam.

I remember that it concerned the triangle, possibly the ménage à trois, of William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, his beautiful wife Emma, and her lover Admiral Lord Nelson. William Hamilton studied volcanoes, and perhaps is one of those few men whose is famous because of his wife.

Although praised by eminent critics for its literary qualities, I’m afraid that my memory of this book has largely escaped.

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag, available as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Pompeii by Robert Harris

And this third novel I might read following my visit. It’s set in the town if its title at the time of the eruption and was recommended by Richard E Grant in his BBC programme Write around the World.

The story follows a water engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, who has arrived in Pompeii to deal with the problem of the failing water supply. He gets caught up in a corrupt plot, an assassination attempt, love for Corelia, and of course the eruption. 

Pompeii by Robert Harris, published in 2003, and available in paperback.

In the footsteps of Shelley:

It is said that Percy Bysshe Shelley loved this area, but he wrote Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples. Poor man, his dejection outweighed the wonders of the place:


Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,

You can find the full poem here.

And Primo Levi made connections to other deadly events:

Primo Levi was imprisoned in Auschwitz as an Italian Jew during the Second World War. He survived the Holocaust, but his writings reveal the damage done. A poem he wrote is translated from the Italian as Girl of Pompeii or Girl-child of Pompeii. The poem links the plaster cast body of a fleeing child at Pompeii with the Holocaust, through Anne Frank and the Atom Bomb, through a schoolgirl in Hiroshima. 

Since the anguish of each belongs to us all
We’re still living yours, scrawny little girl …

You can find several translations of this poem on the internet.

A fresco in Castellammare

I feel restored by my trip to Italy and by the literary connections made there. I might even reread Virgil’s Aeneid. 

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More Gallimaufry: another achievement for the writing group

This week we celebrate the publication of More Gallimaufry by presenting a copy to Totnes Library. ‘We’ are the Totnes Library Writers Group. More Gallimaufry is the second published collection of our writing. Everything, even the editing, was collaborative. I asked my fellow editors to say something about their experiences 

Carole Ellis said

Delight came in many forms. There was the huge privilege of reading the work of so many talented writers. So much talent within our group! Being able to discuss the work and consider with them even a tiny part of their final contribution – the placing of a comma – was a true delight. There was also delight and privilege in working with my co-editors. We had a winning blend of determination and humour and it was great to discover how two people I really respect work. There was also the immense satisfaction of seeing an idea – “what about doing another book?” –  become an object of such beauty. Nothing beats holding your own book – fresh off the press. Such a magical moment.

Learning came with the realisation that hard choices had to be made. The whole Covid-19 outbreak gave us time to focus and decide what we wanted – whether we wanted to continue and that really honed our determination. I learned that there comes a point at which one has to say ‘enough’. But that point is moveable! Even with a sales team nipping at your ankles, changes may still be needed in pursuit of perfection but at the same time perfection is not possible. There will always be that one mistake that slips through – and you have to accept that. That’s a learning curve.

From Pat Fletcher

Editing Collaboration

The invitation to be part of the editing team was an open one to the whole group. To be honest, part of me thought the invitation wasn’t for me at all, but somewhere, entwined within was the allure of promise and possibility – and I’m a sucker for both!

The whole process was much more than I could have possibly imagined. The scariest bit though was the thought of editing other writers’ work. There’s me with no editing experience, other than my own work, reviewing, assessing and discussing their art! As it turned out, they were gorgeous and for the most part appreciated someone else taking time over their work. It was through this I was encouraged to contribute some work of my own. I love this group.

Covid hit during the early stages of the process, but we carried on writing. As keeper of the content, I gained early insight into the variety and quality of the work. I was well-impressed. Over six months in, and we decided to meet to assess where we were with it all and where to go from there. That we were going to continue became a no-brainer. The getting together in person sparked something else: requests for more content became more focussed. All systems were go and what had been eleven contributors soon rose to 21.

Then we came to the task of preparing the content for print. I volunteered to have a go at the design, quickly becoming unstuck due to lack of time (and experience) to do the hard yards of putting the content in order, typesetting and pagination. Caroline and Carole rallied round and the decision was made to outsource. Palpable relief! From then on it was all steam ahead as we strove for perfection. Just as one thing was resolved, something else came to the fore – all change! At one point I cringed at the thought of finding something else, but the job had to be done – and well. All anomalies and doubts were aired, shared and cleared – some more comfortably than others (she writes as she remembers both the cringy and sparky ones). The strangest experience happened when it came to sending the final format to the printers. Part of me just didn’t want to let it go! 

Collecting the copies was a dream come true. What began as an idea floated around the group was finally real. And now it’s over to the sales team. 

Printer’s Proof

Caroline writes

And I am very proud of More Gallimaufry for many different reasons.

The cover

The appearance of this collection is very attractive. More than one of our writers are artists. The cover is fittingly called Devon Landscape and is the work of Fiona Green. She also provided the cover for Gallimaufry our first volume. 

Covid-19, lockdowns and the writers’ group

Our group thrives on active participation, this mostly in our fortnightly meetings, some of which are workshops, other involve reading our writing to others for feedback, and sometimes we explore a theme, such as structure, or pick a topic to write on together. 

In September 2019 we had organised a day’s writing festival for writers in Totnes called WRITE NOW TOTNES! It had been very successful and we planned some more activities with the surplus funds we had. 

Lockdown in March 2020 stopped us in our tracks. We managed to get regular meetings going again on zoom after several months, but some writers were not able to join, or chose not to use this method of meeting. 

We had had a schedule planned for the anthology, and the three volunteer editors had started to collect submissions when it all stalled. When we managed to meet again in the autumn of 2020, outdoors, with masks and overlooking the beautiful Dart river we made an important decision.

We had lost more than six months, but by shifting our schedule on a year, replacing all those 2020 dates with 2021, we could still produce a good volume and in time for the Christmas market. 

And that’s what we did. It was a wonderful moment when Pat, who collected all the writing together, informed us that we had work from 21 writers. Not only had we survived lockdown with our regular workshops and meetings, but we had 21 people interested enough to provide short stories, memoir and poems for our second anthology.

Editing

Pat and Carole have described our labours as we edited More Gallimaufry. We got professional assistance with the design of the cover, proofreading and having already commissioned a designer to work on the cover, she relieved us of the difficulties of typesetting as well

And then we set about chasing the last mistake. It seemed that we were nearing the end when we decided that poems spread over two pages should start on an even page, so that they could be read without turning the page. This required a large amount of reordering, and yet another revision of the contents page. 

Eventually, through our collaborative efforts it was all done, and the printer received instructions to print 200 copies.

Collaboration

This has been a collaborative project: the decision to embark on a second collection; the title; the cover; none of this was the work of one person, and often involved discussion in the meetings. 

A few days ago we collected the boxes of copies from the printers and handed them over to the Sales and Promotion team. This group have arranged the launch at the library, a sales event in the High Street, and promoting and selling the book through many outlets.

For me, the delight has been in the buoyancy of the writers group despite the limitations of the last 20 months. And while I don’t want to read it all again for some time, it was a huge pleasure to participate in the creation of a beautiful volume of excellent writing.

Thanks to Pat and Carole for all the fun, creativity and tolerance and for their contribution to this blog.

Carole, Caroline and Pat, slightly hysterical at the printers

If you are interested in acquiring a copy please contact me by email (lodgecm@gmail.com) or find the details of how on the Totnes Library Writers Facebook page. ISBN: 978 1 9996286 1 11

You can read about our first published volume (2015) Gallimaufry here.

Our first collection

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Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Rereading this novel from 1976, I was reminded of how important books were in the women’s movement of the time – now rebranded as Second Wave Feminism. I found that the future world created by Marge Piercy was impressive and influential. It was the possibility of this or other futures that I remembered from my first reading, so much so that I had forgotten Consuela’s struggles with the mental health system of New York that carried the plot. I remembered Consuela visiting the brave new world, and her surprise at what she found and was shown. It was an effective vehicle for describing a different way of life. 

Now I have reread the novel, 45 years after its first publication, I can see that Marge Piercy was also suggesting that the way in which women were being treated in 1976 was laying the foundation for the dystopian futures that Consuela also visits. In those futures, sexual subservience, enforced by controlling women’s minds, was enabled by the experiments in which Connie was unwittingly and unwillingly enrolled. 

 

Woman on the Edge of Time

Consuela is a Mexican-American living in New York in the ‘70s. She is assaulted by her niece’s pimp and ends up in an asylum, where she had been incarcerated after a previous breakdown. This time she has just been tidied away, except that she might be useful in an experiment that one of the doctors is undertaking. Desperate to escape, when Consuela is contacted by Luciente she willingly goes with her into the future, returning now and again. At first, we do not realise that Luciente’s community called Mattapoisett hopes that Connie can stop the programme that she is about to be put on. From time to time she passes over to visit Luciente and her friends and learns more about the feminist-socialist community being developed.

Connie is identified as suitable for a new treatment for violent patients: implanting neurotransmitters to control behaviour. She is unable to resist becoming part of this programme, despite an escape attempt.

On two occasions Connie travels to the future but fails to arrive at the Mattapoisett of her friends, instead joining them in a war they are losing against robotic weaponry and on the second occasion finding a woman who has been physically enhanced and is controlled by sophisticated neurotransmitters to be a sex save, confined in a managed and artificial environment. 

Eventually Connie is due for her final fitting at the New York Neuro-Psychiatric Institute. Her ability to control her behaviour is about to be removed, and if she cannot prevent it, the community of Mattapoisett will not be able to establish itself. Their destinies have become entwined.

Reading Woman on the Edge of Time for the first time

It is one of the greatest gifts of good fiction, that the reader can be shown a different world, a different way that things can be. Marge Piercy has said that she wanted to show readers that there were choices about the future, that it did not roll out with inevitability. Science Fiction is especially good at this.

For me it was the idea that people did not need to live in a world where everything was defined by gender: two examples: the language can be changed (per/person instead of she or he is used in this book); Connie is not initially aware that Luciente is a woman because she doesn’t dress or move like one. More significantly, with the use of artificial pregnancy and birth, gender-based roles in society have been removed and in Marge Piercy’s imagined community persons are free to follow what they are good at. Furthermore, the community is organised for the benefit of all. It is not only feminist and socialist but also ecologically organised to care for a much-damaged earth. 

This vision of different possible futures was what I took away from this book on my first reading. It was powerful. It was not inevitable that we would march into such a destructive future. But we perhaps we have all the same. 

The future from the past

Some of her ideas have turned out to be well-founded. For example, everyone wears a ‘kenner’ on their wrists, familiar to Star Trek fans as ‘communicators’ and to Ursula le Guin readers as ‘ansibles’. We call them cell phones or mobile phones. And from time to time in Mattapoisett many people meet on one screen in a prediction that looks a lot like zooming.

Sadly, the treatment of women from ethnic minorities remains a subject of concern four decades on. There is much in the novel about how women, especially Mexican or Latino and also Puerto Rican women were treated in the ‘70s, and how women who wanted to take some control over their lives were often defeated by the men in their communities, using violence, incarceration and drugs. 

I have been asking myself how I initially came across this book. I think it must have been a combination of things: I was very fond of Marge Piercy’s poetry in the early ‘70s and would have been attracted to her fiction. Perhaps I was offered the book by the Feminist Press Book Club. My first edition was certainly published by them, now with its glue failing, and the pages all brown. Perhaps it was reviewed in Spare Rib, or I heard about it by word of mouth, or from my consciousness raising group.

Whatever, I was pleased to reread it for the 1976 Club, organised again by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, first published in 1976 and recently by Penguin in 2019. My first copy was published by the Feminist Press in UK in 1979. 417 pp

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Books that nearly didn’t make it

Writers’ manuscripts sometimes get lost, destroyed, abandoned or otherwise prevented from being published. Here is a selection of publications that nearly didn’t happen, and one that got away. 

Writers write for others to read, so the risks and efforts involved in getting their words published can be enormous. They have often suffered up to this point for their views and yet they are compelled to find a way get the book into print.

  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
  • The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta
  • My Career goes Bung by Miles Franklin
  • The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt
  • Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya
  • No Friend but the Mountain by Behrouz Boochani

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian émigré, who was a well-established novelist in France before the war. This book was written during the occupation by Germany, in 1940-41. Irene Nemirovsky was arrested in July 1942 and taken to Auschwitz and died almost immediately of typhus. Her two daughters were in hiding for the rest of the war, on the move all the time and hunted by the authorities. 

It was Denise who put it [the manuscript] into a suitcase as she and her sister fled Issy L’Evêque. She had often watched her mother writing – in tiny handwriting to save ink and paper – in a large leatherbound notebook. She took it as a memento of her mother. The suitcase accompanied Denise and Elisabeth from one precarious hiding place to another. After the war, they couldn’t bring themselves to read the notebook – having it was enough.  … Many years passed … (402. Myriam Anissimov, preface to French edition}

The manuscript of the two novellas in this unfinished suite was unopened until the late 1990s when the author’s daughter, Denise, was about to give the notebook to the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine, dedicated to documenting memories of the war.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, published in French in 2004 and translated by Sandra Smith for the English version, published in 2006 by Vintage. 403pp

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta

Buchi Emecheta followed her husband from Nigeria in 1962 to study in London. It was not a happy marriage. He burned the manuscript of her first book, apparently jealous of the attention she gave it and to hurt the writer. Not surprisingly, she decided to leave him, taking the children. She had to earn her living and continued to gain degrees and to write over the next few years. She rewrote the novel, The Bride Price, which was published by Allison & Busby, a company that promoted African writing in 1976. 

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta, first published in 1976, there is a Fontana African Fiction edition (1978). 168pp

My Career goes Bung by Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin was an outspoken Australian novelist, who became notorious on the publication of her first book, My Brilliant Career, in 1901. In it she portrayed a young woman who’s views and actions shocked the Australian public. Miles Franklin was burned by the reception of her first novel and refused to have it reprinted. My Career Goes Bung was written as the second volume of the fictional autobiography. It was completed in 1902, but fearful of its reception it was not published until the 1940s, when attitudes towards women had changed.

In the introductory To all young Australian writers – Greetings, she describes how she put the manuscript in a portmanteau, together with other papers, ‘left with someone in Chicago, USA while I went to the World War, which is now seen to have been merely practice manoeuvres for Global Armageddons’. The trunk was appropriated by someone who needed a travel bag and the papers burned as useless.

I thought My Career Goes Bung had gone with this collection, and had forgotten the copy of it which survived in an old trunk valiantly preserved all the years by my mother. (7)

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt

Charlotte Beradt was a Jewish journalist, raised in Berlin between the wars. She made a collection of dreams of the people, mostly Jewish, who lived under the Nazi regime from 1933. She collected over 300 dreams which she recorded and hid in the bindings of her own library. When even that hiding place was risky, she sent small selections with coded names to her friends abroad. Hitler became Uncle Hans, Goring was Gustav and Goebbels was Gerhardt. 

She escaped Berlin in 1939, to settle eventually in New York. Her book was first published in German in 1966, after she had retrieved the material. It has been translated into English, although it can be hard to find. She organised the 75 dreams in the book into chapters to demonstrate that waking life and dreams are linked, and that the unconscious effects of authoritarianism are noted in the collective unconscious. 

An article in the New Yorker by Mireille Juchau in 2019 describes her achievement. 

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya

Irna Ratushinskaya was a Russian dissident poet, born in 1954, who was sentenced to 7 years in a labour camp in 1983. The punishment was for writing and circulating her poetry. The conditions in prison were very harsh, and to begin with she had no paper. She wrote poems with a matchstick in the soap, and then learned them by heart. Over 250 poems were composed and eventually written in this way.

She was released from prison as Gorbachev flew to Reykjavik to meet Reagan in 1986 as gesture of goodwill. She died in 2017. This is her prison memoir.

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya, published by Vintage in 1989.

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

This powerful and horrifying book was written in Parsi while the Iranian Kurdish poet was imprisoned on Manus Island. The island was owned by Papua New Guinea, rented by the Australian government to house refugees seeking asylum in Australia. The conditions were awful and many preferred refoulement (return to their country of origin) to living in the camps. The prison camp was eventually closed because it violated human rights.

This book recounts the voyages from Indonesia taken by Behrouz Boochani as he sought to escape from Iran. It continues with an account of his time in the jail, and an analysis of how the men were imprisoned and oppressed by what he calls a Kyriarchal system. This means several intersecting forms of oppression are made to work systematically and together to keep the prisoners down. These included the never-ending queues for food, toilets, telephones and the presence of the guards.  

The text was sent out of the prison by Facebook and then What’s App, to his translator, Omid Tofighian. 

Behrouz Boochani was held on Manus Island from 2013 – 2017. He was granted refugee status in New Zealand in 2020. 

The book is a powerful argument against detaining refugees, and of what has been called ‘off-shoring’, detaining asylum applicants away from the mainland. It is also a compelling description of a prison system, one that persistently dehumanises people. Remember, they were not criminals. 

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, published by Picador in 2018. 398pp. Translated from the Farsi by Omid Tofighian

And one that got away …

In 1848 the publisher of Wuthering Heights wrote to Ellis Bell (aka Emily Brontë) in anticipation of a second novel, which he was eager for the author to complete. No such manuscript has been found. Emily died later that year, her only known novel had been published the previous year.

It has been suggested that Charlotte burned the manuscript after her sister’s death, to save her reputation from another sensational novel. Whatever happened that novel is lost to us.

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Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

A few months ago, I posted my first piece on the ancient poem Beowulf, saying I would have more to say later. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves, two of which were designed for children. The post featured versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power and it is a story told by men about men for men. Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way. In her novel she gives a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and tells a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

Maggie Gee, in an article in The Author reminds us that ‘female monsters and villains have been an avenging presence in myth ever since human story-making began’. Some of them have been half animal and half human. We need them, she suggests, to counter the apologetic behaviour encouraged in women.

On to the page they stride and out across the landscape, laughing maniacally, axes in hand. The tact we try to display in real life is equalled by the dark side of our fictional monsters. [The Author Autumn 2019] 

Her own monster can be found in Blood, published in 2019. 

Maria Dahvana Headley challenges the idea of Grendel’s mother being monstrous. The avenging threat of Grendel’s mother is just that – a mother who has lost her son, ‘carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain for her heart’s loss’ (l. 1275-7). She is a much more interesting character than the tactful and conforming Willa (a version of Wealhtheow).

At the time of my first post, I was not aware of the Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf, which referred to several versions, and mentioned an upcoming translation by Maria Dahvana Headley and her novel The Mere Wife. Since then (February 2021) I have read both books by Maria Dahvana Headley, attended an on-line event with her, and listened to the podcast.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The novel is a feminist telling of part of the Beowulf story, focusing in particular on Grendel’s mother, set in a place and time which is something like present-day America. Dana Mills, a marine, was filmed being executed in a desert war but she somehow manages to return home. She is pregnant and gives birth secretly to Gren, who she sees will be categorised as an enemy to be destroyed. She finds refuge in the caves in the mountain above her former home. They had been part of a railway system, long since abandoned and forgotten. 

Herot Hall has been built over the previous settlement where Dana had been brought up. It is a gated and privileged community run and profited from by the Herot family. Willa Herot has a son and is concerned to keep up appearances for the rest of the community. 

Willa’s son Dylan is intrigued by what he sees out of his window: Gren, Dana’s son. The two boys form a secret friendship, but at her Christmas party Willa finds evidence of Gren, and Dana, watching the party from outside, sees that her son is in danger and tears through the party. The outcome is that Willa’s husband is killed. The tall, blonde, muscular chief of police – Ben Woolf (say his name) – is believed to have killed Dana by drowning her in the mere. In fact, Dana and Gren have retreated to the underground railway station inside the mountain. Later Dylan runs there too and then the hunt is on.

I really liked the way that the author used the details of the original story. The dragon that emerges from the underground lair is here represented by the restored train. The policeman is seen as a hero because he is big and golden and appears to stand between the comfort of the Herot community and danger represented by Dana and Gren. 

We see that those who define others as monsters have power and authority. They include the police, but also the important families, and the press. At play here is the destruction of the history of the US, gender struggles and the damage done by wars. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2018 by Scribe. 306pp

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

In this new translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley refutes Tolkien’s suggestion that the language used in its translation must be ‘literary and traditional’. Instead, she brings to it a modern idiom, the boastful, male fraternizing tradition of the ‘dude text’. Here’s the opening.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times. (l.1-3)

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (l.1-3)

The original Old English poem begins with the word Hwæt. Listen to the podcast for a discussion of its possible pronunciation and meaning. 

This is how the boastful Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, offering to defend the hall against Grendel. 

I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They’re asking for it, and I deal them death. [l.416- 422]

Beowulf is all male and aggression, like the hero of an action movie or a video game. 

Her introduction on translating the poem and her interest in it, through Grendel’s mother, is a good explanation of the approach she took and the decisions she made for this new version. One of the interesting things about the text of Beowulf is that it seems to be a very adaptable text, and to have relevance to many different times. I have some thoughts about why that might be which I am saving for a future post.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2021 by Scribe. 140pp

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

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Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown

Every now and again in April- July I noticed that on Twitter Kate Clanchy had posted a poem written by a young person. So often these were beautifully crafted lines that made me stop my scrolling and wonder at the young person who had written the poem, and at Kate Clanchy the teacher who had assisted at the emergence of the poem and the poet. Like. Retweet. 

Recently a friend told me about the winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize for the book: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019). She knew I would be interested in the writing of a teacher who respected the voice of students. I told her that I was excited because that very morning I had ordered Unmute, the collection of poems written by her students.

Young Voices

I am not whimsical or romantic about young people. Twenty-five years working in urban secondary schools knocked any of that out of me. But my professional experiences also embedded in me a belief in the importance of giving young people a voice, helping them to find it, amplifying it. So what Kate Clanchy has done is quite in tune with my professional beliefs.

Let us have no talk about young people being ‘the future’. They will make their own future, as we did. It will be both worse and better than the one we created.

And no talk of the innocence of youth, because that denies the reality, the rawness of each person’s experiences at whatever age. I was headteacher of a school in Islington where one third of the population had a different mother tongue than English. And where many of those children had been refugees. Helping those young people explore their experiences, their individual biographies was a major task for the English department. It was a validation for those young people of the lives they had led up to that point. And for some it was a very fearful and dangerous and difficult childhood.

Our young students brought us face to face with their experiences and they also did what young people have done: looked at the familiar with fresh eyes. They can question accustomed responses, traditional ways of expressing ideas; they can experiment with form and language and metaphors and images. They can remind us, too, of the younger selves that we carry within us. 

Unmute

The poets met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended the weekly poetry workshops with their teacher when attending Oxford Spires Academy. Some are sixth-formers, some have moved on with their education. They sought each other’s company to make sense of the lockdown experience, together in poetry. 

And in doing that they touched many people, through the Tweets and now the book. They write about hair, masks,  loss, clapping, separation, changed perceptions and mothers among other themes. I chose the poem below as an example because it speaks to each of us of the smallness of what matters, the invisibility before Lockdown of important truths. 

Crossing

I didn’t know I’d miss waiting
at traffic lights, waiting for a burst
of colour, a static sound.
I didn’t know I’d miss noise,
crowds, the breath of rain
as it hits parched tarmac,
being near enough to hear people’s 
breath. I didn’t realise I was only
exactly alone when I was
walking home from school, or 
to the shops. I didn’t
realise it was the in-
between times that held
me together.

Linnet Drury

You can read more poems from the collection by visiting Rathbones Folio Prize. And you can buy the kindle version here. For £5.00

Proceeds from the sales of UnMute go to Asylum Welcome, which is an Oxford organisation. I have made a donation on account of quoting the poem in this review. 

Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown edited by Kate Clanchy (2020)

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The Best Books for … a lockdown

I am thoroughly fed up with newspapers, booksellers even book tweeters assuming that they know what I want to read during the lockdown. By the time this post appears it will be more than 50 days into the restrictions, and although we may still be finding them hard, we will know more about how we cope than pop psychologists with their routines of resilience. I am dubious about the idea of reading being some kind of antidote to boredom and loneliness.

We are being recommended to read long books, or comfort reads, or books about restrictions and the plague, or books that offer escapism. But we may not want this. What everyone seems to agree on is that readers are reading more, and readers have more time for more reading. But I don’t want to work through a list of long books I’ve been meaning to read forever; I don’t want books to cheer me up; or to match any low mood; or books that pander to a reduced ability to concentrate. 

During the lockdown I have enjoyed a good mixture. So here’s my list of Best Books and I invite you to add your choices too. 

Quiet books

If you haven’t read Stoner by John Williams this might be a good opportunity. The main character leads an unremarkable life, which can be described as an accumulation of failure and disappointment. But it is a life worth reading about. You can read my review here.

Barbara Pym is another writer, but very different, who writes about the small things of life, the quiet people, everyday events. I really enjoyed rereading Excellent Women, and highly recommend it to you. It was the subject of the previous post. And for a book by her in the older women in fiction series you could read Quartet in Autumn.

A thoughtful writer

An early casualty of the cancellation of all my activities was an event in Bristol at which Rebecca Solnit was due to speak. What made it even more frustrating was that this was the second time she had cancelled a visit to Bristol. I’m not taking it personally. But I want to read more from Call them by their True Names by Rebecca Solnit. This was a gift from my daughter at Christmas, being a collection of essays. And in anticipation of that cancelled event I had obtained a copy of her memoir: Recollections of My Non-Existence. I have scheduled a post on this blog on her writing for the near future.

She always provides a wider perspective on events, allowing one to understand the world in which we live in more breadth and depth. You will find several posts featuring her writing (all non-fiction).

Comfort Reading

I don’t usually go in for comfort reading, but there is one book that I have read in the past during times of great personal difficulty. It absorbs my attention and flatters my focus as a reader, for I know the plot so well. I enjoy reading new details, of style, comment, interaction and so forth. It is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And if the moments of personal difficulty follow too close together I will replace it with Persuasion. Neither novel comforts me because they end well for the heroine, but because they are so well crafted, such a treat for the reader.

Books I started and want to finish now

One book in this category has to be Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which won the Booker Prize. I started it a few months ago, but it was called back to the library and so now I have my own copy I can continue to read it without the threat of being parted from it. I relished Mr Loverman, partly because it is set in Hackney, a part of London which I know well. And also because the people in that novel were, as it were, known to me. I had lived among them. In addition I attended a day course at the British Museum on which Bernardine Evaristo tutored. It was a good experience. That woman has serious talent.

And another book to finish is RC Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September. This is another book that I read a chapter of and now want to get back to. It regularly receives praise on social media, and I feel I should know it. 

Poetry

I am dipping into various collections and enjoying the work of a range of poets: Kathleen Jamie and Helen Dunmore for example. 

Novels on the theme of pandemic:

Maybe I will try one or more of these:

Lockdown by Peter May 

La Peste by Albert Camus

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

The Stand by Stephen King

But probably not.

And …

I am enjoying listening to Podcasts, for the discussions about books or words. And I’m pleased that Backlisted Podcast is now in production again. These podcasts feature, as the name implies, books that are on publishers’ backlists but still deserve attention. They restarted the series in April with a look at Barbara Pym.

And I continue to read chosen books for the blog, especially the series, my book clubs and because I have them on my shelves. 

Recommended by others

Five Comfort Reads from A Life in Books blog

Lockdown Reading by Anne Goodwin on Inspired Quill

Comfort Reading on the Guardian, chosen by various writers

There are lots of good suggestions there for people who like lists of recommendations.

Best Books for …

This was my third post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first two were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020.

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the lockdown?

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Poems at War

When I began reading French literature I came across Paul Verlaine. Alphonse de Lamartine too became a favourite. I would take especial pleasure in intoning the line from Villon: Ou sont les neiges d’antan. I was in my late teens and easily moved by the dramatic declarations of doomed love. I had no idea that poetry had been used in the war until I returned to studying French after my retirement. 

The D Day Landings

Slapton Memorial

The organisation of the D Day Landings (Operation Overlord) was an amazing achievement. The engineering solutions to the problems presented by moving the combined armed forces from several nations across the sea were stunning. All this had to be coordinated with the resistance fighters in France. The deceptions to keep secret the destination of the invasion were intricate and labyrinthine. And the preparations, especially along the south coast and in the South West, were enormous. Some of these can still be seen. No one can walk along Slapton Sands without becoming aware of its role in preparing and rehearsing the troops. One poem played a small but significant part in all of this.

Chanson D’Automne by Paul Verlaine

On the 1st June 1944 soon at 6.30 in the morning, Radio Londres transmitted the first three lines of a poem by Paul Verlaine. 

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne

It means, roughly, the long sobs of the violins of autumn. It was a coded message. It was heard by many, and you can still hear it here . The sonorous vowels, sound portentous. The message was a warning to one branch of the French resistance fighters. It indicated that within the next two weeks Operation Overlord would be launched, the long-awaited invasion of France by the Allies. It was an instruction to stand by for the next three lines which would signal that they should begin sabotage activities on the railways in France. These were designed to disrupt German transport routes.

Commemorative plaque of Radio Londres in the cemetery of Asnelles, Calvados by Wayne77 via Wikicommons

The second three lines of Verlaine’s poem were broadcast in the same way four days later on 5th June. 

Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Arthur Symonds translates this as My heart is drowned/In the slow sound/Languorous and long.

This second message indicated to the French resistance that the invasion would begin within 48 hours and that they were to initiate sabotage activities on the railways immediately. The parachute landings began just hours after the message was sent out.

The broadcasts were intercepted by German forces. On hearing the three lines in the second of the messages the German Security Service reported to the German High Command, and the army was alerted that an invasion might begin within 48 hours. There had been many false alarms so the Seventh Army took no action. They were responsible for the area in Normandy where the landings were to be made.

The D Day landings began on 6th June. The German effort to respond to the invasion by redirecting troops was severely hampered by the damage from sabotage of the resistance and allied bombing to the French railway lines. 

Paul Verlaine

CHANSON D’AUTOMNE

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure.

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Paul Verlaine (1866)

Poem Codes

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) in its communications with operatives in France originally used well-established poems, but gradually they began making up rhymes which would be less easy to decipher. Some of these were rude and sexual. The most famous, which is neither rude nor sexual but moving, was probably written by Leo Marks, the codes officer, and begins

The life that I have 
Is all that I have 
And the life that I have 
Is yours

I sometimes think that literature should not serve armed conflict. It offends my pacifist instincts. But I do find myself moved by the story of Verlaine’s poem.

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