August – Christa Wolf (translated by Katy Derbyshire)

August

My second review of a book titled “August” for Women In Translation month, this one from Germany and Christa Wolf, beautifully and eloquently translated by Katy Derbyshire, whose translation work I have come across before when reading the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlisted “Bricks and Mortar” by Clemens Meyer.

As the publisher, Seagull Books tells us:

August is Christa Wolf’s last piece of fiction, written in a single sitting as an anniversary gift to her husband. In it, she revisits her stay at a tuberculosis hospital in the winter of 1946, a real life event that was the inspiration for the closing scenes of her 1976 novel Patterns of Childhood. This time, however, her fictional perspective is very different. The story unfolds through the eyes of August, a young patient who has lost both his parents to the war. He adores an older girl, Lilo, a rebellious teenager who controls the wards. Sixty years later, August reflects on his life and the things that she taught him.

This is a beautifully presented book, as are all of the Seagull Books titles, as Tristan Foster pointed out in a recent review of Georg Trakl’s “Sebastian Dreaming” at Asymptote Journal.

It is not possible to discuss a Seagull book without discussing Seagull Books. Since 1982, this Kolkata publishing house has been salvaging literature which time may have otherwise cast aside. Not only do they pluck from obscurity, they also present literature with a seriousness and gravitas befitting an era preceding our sales-obsessed one. Their books are less consumer goods than they are artefacts: house designer Sunandini Banerjee’s sensitivity and skill result in hardbacks with covers that bloom like rainforest flowers.

“August” is no exception to this observation. The only criticism I have is that it is a very (very) short book, a short story of 74 pages, and the text populating only half of each page, and once you are immersed in Christa Wolf’s work you feel like reading more. Maybe the book could have contained a few short stories.

Stunningly stark, the haunting loneliness of being hospitalised and ostracised from such a young age, is conveyed through the simple prose, you feel as though each word was perfectly chosen;

August doesn’t like the outskirts of cities. The huge, ugly shopping centres with their oversized carparks. The car showrooms outbidding each other’s advertising claims. The fast-food restaurants that August never sets foot inside. He usually brings his own sandwiches along, although they’re not as lovingly made when Trude was alive. He’s not hungry yet. He has to concentrate on the motorway near the city, which gets more and more crowded with every year, on the building sites that never end, only change position. On the traffic jams they cause, which makes the journey longer. August keeps his cool. He never gets impatient. You have the patience of an angel, Trude used to tell him. He never loses his temper. His workmates appreciate that. Sometimes, he knows, they think he’s a bit boring. Come on, say something for a change, they used to nudge him in the beginning when they sat together in their lunch break. But what did he have to say? He had no reason to complain about his wife. No separation to report on. No arguments with the children to moan about. They didn’t have any children. It has simply turned out that way. There’s been no need to talk to Trude about it first. They wanted for nothing. And when Trude died two years ago he certainly couldn’t talk to anyone about it.

A simple life told through a simple tale, I am (yet again) reminded of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize Shortlisted “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler (translated by Charlotte Collins), however in this case the simplicity of a simple life is barer.

Dipping into familiar territory of an unreliable memory, the ageing process and the march of time, the simplicity of August’s life still shows through as emotionally complex, and fraught with ignorance:

…there was a good reason why God gave us the power to forget.

Simple, a work that can be read in a single sitting, and given it was written in a single sitting it is probably the preferred way to approach this book, but also very moving and touching, it makes a great introductory work into Christa Wolf’s oeuvre, even if it contains her only male protagonist, and it is her last written piece!!!

Kudos to Seagull Books for bringing this work to the attention of English language readers, a “women in translation” writer we should be discussing more often.

August – Romina Paula (translated by Jennifer Croft)

August

Since 2014 I have actively participated in “Women In Translation Month” an event set up and pursued in earnest by Meytal Radzinski at http://biblibio.blogspot.co.uk – since 2014 I have seen a massive increase in interest in the month, an understanding of the limited amount of translated fiction by female writers but interestingly enough there hasn’t been a shift in the number of books being published, it still hovers around the poor 30% of all translated fiction.

Given August is “Women In Translation Month” I thought it was a good idea to read and review two translated books titled “August” written by women.

First up today is Romina Paula’s book, from Argentina, originally titled “Agusto”, translated by Jennifer Croft and published by Feminist Press.

This is a first person narrative primarily addressed to a dead girl, our narrator in her early twenties leaving Buenos Aires and returning to rural Patagonia, to meet the family of her childhood friend and plan the scattering of her ashes, her friend having committed suicide a number of years beforehand.

The opening is haunting and deeply personal as our neurotic protagonist, Emilia, questions her return, explores her relationships and reflects on the events that have led to this “homecoming”;

Before leaving town the bus makes a stop in Liniers. The seat I chose isn’t bad, all things considered. It has a number of pros: it’s upstairs, more or less in the middle. There’s no one next to me. The only little con, which I do detect immediately, is that right exactly where my part of the window is there’s a divider – I mean, the window, the glass, is bisected smack-dab where my face is. This is bad because the view will not be optimal, although I still think I did okay, in terms of safety it’s a good thing because it’s a divider that could absorb a blow, you know, if it ever came to that. It’s a divider that isn’t glass at least. So I reconcile myself to that metal/rubber strip standing between me and the landscape.

Romina Paula uses the dairy like style to explore the inner machinations of our protagonist’s fears, and her “coming of age” as she both physically and mentally lets go of Buenos Aires and all that the city contains. Whilst the art of writing itself is also explored the presented book is more aligned to the narcissism of our narrator as she begins to question her relationship with her current boyfriend (who has remained in Buenos Aires) and her past relationships in Patagonia.

During my teenage years Buenos Aires symbolized both everything I wanted most and everything I detested. On the one hand I pictured it as ugly, jammed full of people all in a rush all the time. A clusterfuck of cars and taxis and buses and noises and people, and people, and people. In fact that wasn’t altogether unfounded: we had gone on a trip there, just once, with Dad, to do some paperwork, some paperwork he had to go and do in Buenos Aires, and we stayed at our aunt’s place, his sister’s, who was living there. Here. No, now it’s there. And the memory I have of that trip, I don’t know, I must have been about five years old, is of crossing Libertador in Retiro (now I know where it is, in my memory it was just a big avenue), and trying to get to the other side around everybody’s legs, through all those legs, hundreds coming towards us, ready to trample me, like a stampede; it was get across of die trying, and at the same time not lose Dad’s hand, not let yourself get tricked by some other hand and end up who knew where. That crossing generated an extreme mixture of terror and adrenaline in me; the terror, the adrenaline, sufficient for me to insist to my father that we go again, more than once, cross that forest of legs in motion, all furious, all enormous, all going in the opposite direction. You might say that image illustrated quite well the configuration of Buenos Aires, in my head: that excitement, that fear of losing, of being lost, of dying, literally trampled/crushed, and, nonetheless, the challenge, the challenge of avoiding it, of surviving all those knees wrapped up in suits, in stockings, of beating those heels. Those soles, those purses and briefcases, and making it – unscathed and holding on to someone’s hand – to the other side. Not that I think about it, my perception of Buenos Aires hasn’t changed all that much, it’s just that in this version my knees are at the same level as the rest of them, and my head is much higher, and some part, some little part, of the city, meanwhile, now belongs to me, as little as it is.

As Emilia goes through various stages of grief, excessive sleeping an example, she also presents, in her “journal” the plight of a mouse which has invade her home in the city as well as details of various horrific mass murderers, as a reader you begin to question her attitude to death, her genuine concern for her childhood friend’s demise, this juxtaposition forcing you to shift your views. We learn of her mother’s leaving, abandonment, when she was young, the childhood imaginings of where she had disappeared to, kidnapped, trapped behind the Iron Curtain?

And as the story progresses further, the novel becomes a “road movie” of sorts (there are a number of references to movies throughout, “Reality Bites” an example), when Emilia finds a novel way of getting back to Buenos Aires without using the bus.

The internal, rather than the external, journey of our protagonist becomes the main focus as she slowly unravels.

It would seem to be more mixed up than that: it would appear that no one knows exactly who loves whom, if indeed anybody loves anyone, if indeed anyone understands, knows, or has a clear idea of what it is to love, or of what love is. Which is horrific…

As Emilia begins her journey home even the format, presentation, of the tale changes, dialogue begins to contain quotation marks and follows the expected rules, the internalisation begins to broaden and contains existentialist discussions, our narrator is starting to conform.

Although entertaining, and starting with a great premise that leads the reader right into the life of Emilia, I did find this book to be a somewhat shallow work, a hollow piece, where the internal voice of the narrator became too obsessive and overbearing. Similar, only slightly, to the Chilean “Camanchaca” by Diego Zúñiga (translated in Megan McDowell) a coming of age story, linked to a road trip, a work I reviewed back in April, or a teenage immature version of Clarice Lispector’s “Near to the Wild Heart”, without the ingenuity,  grace, method or the style. Whilst “August” throws out a range of existentialist ideas, it fails to deliver any real punch on any of them, however that may be the point!!!

Our Dead World – Liliana Colanzi (translated by Jessica Sequeira)

Our-Dead-World-COVERLatin American fiction has always had a connection to the bizarre, from numerous countries you can find dark horror tales, bleak speculative narratives containing the stuff of nightmares, bodies, zombies, all blended with the everyday. Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, César Aira a few names that spring to mind, however it is not only the male writers who explore these dark depths, as Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi has proven with her short story collection “Our Dead World”.

This is the first Bolivian fiction I have encountered and even my massive reference guide “Latin American Women Writers: An Encyclopaedia” has no entries for Bolivia, therefore it was a revelation when reading a number of the stories, the ones that contained cultural references, but more on that later. According to census data quoted at Wikipedia, “There are approximately three dozen native groups totalling approximately half of the Bolivian population – the largest proportion of indigenous people in Latin America.”, and this melting-pot and indigenous theme runs throughout Liliana Colanzi’s book. Although the nuances and slight references would obviously be lost on most readers, myself included, where our understanding of Bolivian culture is virtually non-existent.

A collection that contains eight short stories, we have the mystical, the metaphysical, a collection of dark tales blended with local folklore, references to Aztec human sacrifice, the afterlife…

I remembered the story my nana Elsa told me once, about an uncle the devil possessed in body and soul. Elsa’s uncle sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a house for his mother, an old lady. The devil gave him powers. He could wake up anywhere in the world just by wishing it, and also knew how to do tricks. Want to eat? he would ask my nana, and put a stone in an empty burlap bag. When Elsa opened the bad, she’d find it bursting with white or sweet potatoes. Want to see a viper? he’d ask, and throw his belt on the ground. As soon as it touched the earth it turned into a snake that fled slithering from the room. One day he died from a sudden illness. When his relatives lifted the casket to take it away, the realized it was light as a husk. They opened it and found only a few small black stones inside. The story gave me nightmares, and Mama threatened to throw Elsa out of the house if she kept making up nonsense.

This story, “Alfredito”, blends the spiritual (the visitation of ghosts), the human (“beginning to decompose and feed the worms”) and the everyday mundane (childhood recollections).

As with numerous adult stories of despair we also have the rational correlation back to childhood images, in one case a pig being slaughtered, in another a mother burning the family history, these events are bleak and “do permanent harm”. As a reader you feel as though our narrator, our writer, is exploring her own inner demons and is revealing them along with her depressive, angst ridden, nihilist views;

But how could I tell the others about the Wave/ At Cornell nobody believes in anything. Many hours are wasted discussing ideas, theorizing ethics and aesthetics, speedwalking to avoid the flash of others’ looks, organizing symposiums and colloquiums, but people wouldn’t recognize and angel if it blew in their faces. That’s how things are. The Wave arrives on campus at night on tiptoe and sweeps away seven students, and all the doctors can think to do is fill your pockets with Trazodone or give you a lamp with ultraviolet light.

As mentioned local folklore is woven through the fabric of these stories; “The Collas even had a name for the bearer of bad omens: Q’encha.” One of the short narratives, “Story with Bird” uses the stories of the indigenous Ayoreos collected testimonies taken from anthropologist Lucas Bessire’s “Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life”;

I don’t know what story to tell. I don’t know what I’ll say, I don’t know. I don’t know my story.

the plight of the natives relayed to us, as their past is enveloped by progress and their lives fall apart, so does our story, it disintegrates in front of your eyes.

There was a water tank. Full. A white man. So fat, wearing a red shirt. We waited. Trembling. Blood in the water. Lots of blood. We didn’t sleep. We ran. Crying, we ran. Tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack

A modern day Latin American Edgar Allen Poe, these are creepy tales, the stuff of nightmares, for example, the tale “Cannibal”, the opening line reading “The day we arrive in Paris the police confirm the cannibal is hiding in the city.”, will their paths cross? A tense story where the undercurrent of evil is lurking forever in the background.

I would be interested to know if the stories in this collection are arranged in sequential order, as they were written, as the further you read the more experimental and quirky the works become,. Is this effect simply the progression and development of Liliana Colanzi as a writer or is the arrangement part of the overall effect of disintegration, decay, a descent into chaos? Graffiti from the back of toilet doors is quoted, including the striking though and even the passing of time, everything is reduced to noise…

At times this did feel like an uneven collection, however the experimental form can lend itself to this type of criticism, some of the stories less accessible than others. I am glad I have discovered a work from Bolivia, and for it to be via a female writer is an extra joy, a worthy inclusion to my long list of “Women In Translation” reads.

Breaking the Days – Jill Jones PLUS bonus poet interview

BreakingTheDaysToday’s post is longer than usual; however I urge you to read the interview, you will not be disappointed,

Adelaide based Australian poet Jill Jones has just released a new collection of poems titled “Brink”, however as part of my reading of the 2017 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry I read her 2015 collection “Breaking The Days”. As I have been featuring recently interviews with Australian poets, I approached Jill Jones about her earlier book and she was extremely generous giving her time and an extensive in-depth interview follows my few short thoughts on her book.

A collection that contains forty-five single page poems, closing with a fifteen sectioned sequence “The plover in the poem and what meaning does not mean”. The book opens with “Lose Your Grip” where the unreliability of memory, “if you forget what you forgot”, and ageing shimmer throughout, with a core message of enjoying the moment, the “pleasure”. “Telltale” continues the theme:

The past might be connected to
pines, matchboxes
indistinguishable songs

As does “Evidence”;

The past is something a prisoner
might want to forget, or maybe
it uncovers, but what?

Through measured and stark poetics a number of seemingly insignificant observations are questioned, “appliances/pieces of a house”, and “Any life is accumulation/things, hair, fat, disequilibrium/traces where the drugs went on their way”, and “Even the fridge sings”, these examples across three different poems. But the collection is not insignificant, it is an appeal for the reader to dwell, to notice, to dissect and analyse and to enjoy the present,

Cold is colder

Feedback isn’t really food
thanks isn’t hope
feet are also traffic
stars are predictable, if also
and concurrently, untrue.

Political debate is no more stupid
on one day or another day
there’s always an excuse to
mention breasts.

Trains can bring out
the worst in people
noise is always noise
(there’s always noise)
traditions were once
revolutions.

I actually like writing, when I like it
the temperature takes it time.

Choice is kin to boredom
cold is colder than it looks
talking to yourself really helps.

If only I could stop dreaming about poems.

The seasonal, the weather, creep into most poems, in a lot of ways decay, “Some bug is eating the violets”, but the one constant is the weather, the sun, it contrasts with the ephemeral shopping malls, with material goods. Clouds and birds, themes we often see in poetry occur throughout, welcome visitors to the page, again a call to slow down, live in the present moment.

Touching on the political, “Email is record” a plea to address climate change, as well as being a collection that questions the reader, if you could observe your life as art, “if you were more open/would it make a difference?” Thoughtful ruminations where you need to abide and contemplate the poems, deeper works than the stark lines imply.

Recently I have been exploring more experimental poetic works and it was a breath of fresh air to read Jill Jones’ book, whilst not “traditional” the rhythm and cadence of these works left a lingering foggy feeling, a collection to be revisited, a collection to be read outdoors (in all types of weather), poems that you finish and return immediately to the beginning to gain further depth. A worthwhile addition to the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Award and I very much look forward to reading Jill Jones’ new collection “Brink”.

As always, I am indebted to the honesty and openness of the poet in giving me their time as well as contemplating my questions. Based on recent email exchanges I do know that a few of the interviewees have found the “unpicking” of their works an interesting exercise in itself and I am grateful that all of them have been so approachable.

This interview is presented (as always) unedited, hopefully it helps readers of poetry understand the art a little more, demystifies the process and gives the reader another level of understanding of their work. In the case of “Breaking the Days” I hope you read the interview and then seek out the book from “Whitmore Press Poetry”, you will not be disappointed.

Here’s the interview

Q. You challenge the reader, in the first poem, “Lose your grip”, to let go and live in the present, “fall into its pleasure/every time”. Was this a conscious decision to ask the reader, throughout your collection, to dwell?

The first poem is always important, yes. And the book is very much made around the idea of a continuous present – if not in the strict Steinian sense of that. But the thought behind ‘lose your grip’ could be as much directed to myself as to a reader. I’m always interested in ideas of what is ‘the present’, which is always becoming the past. That is, how do we grasp the ‘now’? Although presumably we do sense that ‘now’ is the only place we are, continually. I think I need to let go a lot more, in many ways, and get out a bit more. Writing, living. A sentence from Robert Duncan’s The HD Book springs to mind: “There must be currents of meaning as well as particularities of meaning”. I think my work moves within currents and particularities.

Q. You boil everything down to its essence, music becomes the smell of instruments, shivers painful cells, why this interest in minutiae?

Boiling down sounds a bit gruesome. This book was deliberately fined down, though, for sure. Still, I wouldn’t say ‘essence’. I’m not sure I believe in essences, at least in that sense. I’m interested in detail – image or sensual detail of things, as well as the details of language. It’s a way I connect to things, which can then spark off memory or reminiscence, maybe like Proust’s madeleine. Or it’s simply that there’s often one aspect of experiencing something that’s uppermost, that comes first, that leads you in. A smell, a taste, some sound. It’s also a form of materialism, in a sense. There’s also the part that stands for the whole (synecdoche, metonymy, I guess).

And do I always do that, boil down? I also use generalities – for instance, sky, rain, clouds – without always being specific, or locating them. One reviewer of the book felt it wasn’t specifically located – I know, a slightly different issue – and I found that interesting, and bemusing. It wasn’t a criticism, just how he felt it. To my mind the book is very located in where I live now, in Adelaide (with one or two exceptions of older poems originally written in my Sydney years). But I don’t add in street names (I do mention West Beach, however) or obvious landmarks so, sure, it could be anywhere, but there are Adelaide effects in there – the hills, the gulf, level crossings, provinciality, bad drivers, endless festivals – I do want my poems to seem as though they occur in a real, specific place where specific bodies and other entities exist and feel as though they are ‘real’. Even if my writing may seem at times syntactically complex, or linguistically intricate, or conceptual (these are things people have said to me about my work, by the way, not just how I might think of it). This book is less like that than some of my others, deliberately so. The new book, Brink, is more a big mix of detail and dislocation, images and word play, a lot of play, actually.

A lot of the poems in Breaking the Days originated from brief daily notes I posted on Facebook (I no longer post on FB) or as lines/ideas in an actual daily paper diary I kept around 2014 and early 2015 (again, I no longer do this). So, I wanted the book to have a sense of the quick (in its various senses) and the daily. Thus, a present thinginess. Also, apart from the final poem sequence (which is, in fact, a series of short fragments, ie daily notes), I wanted each poem to be no longer than a page. It took a bit of wrangling and rejection to get it to that. If Whitmore Press’s book design had been other than it was, ie if the pages and/or type had been larger or smaller, it would have changed some of the choices and, therefore, arrangements of the poems in the book. I have absolutely no problem with the design, it’s absolutely fine, but every book has its particular size, design, feel, and the way the poems fit into that is important to me.

Q. I used a quote in a recent question to poet Holly Isemonger, and given the cover of your book uses the word “unsettling”, I’d like to recycle that question for yourself. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, in his latest novel, “The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Your work is described as “unsettling”, do you think that’s a harsh or fair assessment?

Haha, I was the one who wrote the cover blurb. I’ve never had a publisher write one for me, at least not so far. Most poets, I suspect, are in the same boat. You have to write yr own publicity and, mostly, schlepp yr own stuff around the place. So, I think it’s a fair assessment. I’d rather be unsettling than anodyne. The world is unsettled, even in its settlement. We surely see and hear and taste that every day. Besides, all is change, if I can get a bit Heraclitian for a moment, so nothing can settle. Even in stillness, bodies move, minutely, and internally it’s a continual flux. Unsettling, resettling. And in a very literal sense, I suffer from a form of vertigo (it’s an inner ear problem), so I’m always potentially off-balance. A bit ironic for a Libran, eh!

Q. The poem “Email is record” although a plea to Governments to stop global warming, is a resignation that they won’t listen, is this a defeatist attitude?

I once worked in Government bureaucracies as a public servant, and at times close-ish (more –ish than close, but nonetheless) to Parliamentary decision-making. I don’t ever think you can shrug off the cynicism that kind of experience engenders. Sadly, it’s a cynicism that’s also realistic. Especially these days, when the ‘government’ bit doesn’t actually seem to happen. It’s as though parliamentarians have forgotten that word ‘govern’. Instead, there’s a lot of bully-boy tactics, social media screeching or preening, one-up-personship, and simply noise.

I admire those activists and lobbyists who try to influence politicians about global warming or any number of other issues that need attention. Some times things get done but I realise it’s usually due to trade-offs (you win some …, etc), or being in the right place at the right time, or out-and-out push-and-shove, or blackmail. That’s politics as it’s ever been done, for sure, but at the moment I think it’s more toxic. That’s simply being a realist rather than being resigned. Though, essentially, I think we are defeated on climate change. I see no point in pretending otherwise. The only things that can be done now are adjustments – the climate has changed, and it won’t go back, or not for a long, long time. There can be/should be/is, however, a big salvage operation or series of them, that one hopes, might delay the magnitude of the disaster. Don’t know if it will save all the islands in the Pacific, or Miami or Bangladesh, or the beaches of Adelaide, let alone the poles, but there’s plenty to do and should be supported by politicians but they let petty point-scoring or religious manias or personal inadequacies over-ride community good, you know, the government thing. For instance, the Federal Government’s ridiculous blathering about power issues in South Australia – most of it lies and none of it constructive nor having any relationship to reality, the lived reality of individuals, nor the needs of communities, nor the environment. ‘Clean coal’ – please, spare me!

The poem, however, was also a take on the stupidities of media and technology (and, by implication, all of us as partakers of these) as well as politicians. I was trying to have a laugh at it all, but that maybe doesn’t come across. The references were local, it was a time when a past SA Premier was having a few public personal issues, as much as federal (it was the time of the Godwin Grech Utegate affair, in fact). Actually, I’m not sure people get my jokes (or perhaps they just ain’t that funny – note to self ).

Q. Neruda’s upbringing is said to be the blame for the domineering images of rain in his poetry. Did he influence your work or are your rain images from your upbringing or a more sinister place?

Have people really said that? How curious it is to blame poets/writers for their choices of words. It’s like blaming them for their subject matter or choice of genre. But, no, I wasn’t aware that Neruda’s childhood led him to such heinous acts and, thus, ‘no’ his writing in that regard doesn’t bear any relation to my choices. And I have no negative or sinister relationship to rain. It can be annoying even dangerous, of course, as well as welcome, and good to watch. I guess, being Australian and now living in a much drier city than Sydney, rain or the lack thereof is something you notice and worry about.

Also, thinking back to my answer to the previous question, rain is obviously weather and, thus, climate, and thus, something I’m concerned about, a preoccupation in my work. It’s why there’s also a lot of sky, clouds, and, yes, birds various, in the poems.

I realise I write less directly about specific dramas of human relationships and don’t tell stories or anecdotes as much as some other poets, or not in recent years, anyway. I’m not that kind of poet (nothing wrong with being whatever ‘kind of poet’ one thinks one is, by the way). I’m more drawn to the discursive, or the reflective, sometimes the conceptual (in a very broad sense), rather than the narrative or purely descriptive. I sometimes try to move out of those modes, so, presenting shorter poems in Breaking the Days was a little in that direction, to my mind at least.

But what I think I’m doing and what readers read me as me doing can be two quite different things, I’ve found. And that’s perfectly fine, though disconcerting. I realised this quite recently when I got at least one of the endorsements back for my new book, Brink. The comments made me realise there was an obviously sensual/sexual, relational (and strange) thing going on throughout the book that I knew was there but saw as undercurrent, rather than the kind of thing someone else would go ‘oh hey, here’s what Jonesy’s really on about this time’.

Q. The art of forgetting, an unreliable memory, “Progress is better with forgetting” is another recurring theme. Why this connection to an unreliable memory?

Memory is a preoccupation of a lot of poets, and writers in general. It’s obvious, I guess, as we all live in memory time. But most memory is unreliable, or skewed. The line you’ve quoted, however, is more about how ideas of progress focus on ‘the future’ and that involves a lot of effacing of or forgetting of the past. My old city, Sydney, is a great city of forgetting. Australian history, white settlement, is all about forgetting, forgetting it’s based on theft, rape and murder. So, it’s not so much about unreliable memory but a refusal to face it, or telling lies about it.

Also, it’s generational. My relation to events I’ve lived through, have been close to, is clearly different to my relationship to events I’d only been told about, say by my parents, or teachers, or whatever I’ve read in books, seen on TV. Of course, each generation probably thinks they ‘own’ certain experiences because they lived them, and that experience still remains ‘true’ in the body somewhere, although the specific recall can often be pretty faulty.

On another level, there is woven through the book a lot of memory, including references to very old songs and music. There are poems in the book that directly reference or even quote from music, such as Brian Eno’s Another Green World and The Beatles’ Rubber Soul (‘Nowhere in Another Green World’) or a song by an old 1960s Sydney band, Phil Jones and The Unknown Blues (in ‘Negative Theology’). So, from the obvious to the obscure. That’s not to say that’s all music I like – my tastes are very broad if slightly odd or obscure at times – simply that, for one reason or another, that music wandered in and around the poems, whether I was playing it, or it was overheard somewhere, or part of a topic of conversation in the media, or I simply had an earworm thing happen. None of that’s recent music – but newer music lurks in other of my poems, I hasten to add. I’m not stuck in the 60s and 70s.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I’ve been re-reading Marianne Moore and just got the very recent New Collected Poems which I’ve yet to truly delve into. But I was using her work with students earlier in the year and noted that they seemed quite drawn to at least one of her poems, ‘The Fish’. OK, there was also one student who hated it. But I dug out an older Selected of hers I had on the shelf and it made me think again about syllables, shape and line break, and the ways appropriation or collage has been around for so long, as well as her characteristic precision and irony.

I was also looking again at HD’s poetry, partly because there’s a link between her and Moore as well as her and DH Lawrence (whose poetry must be due for a revival!), and partly because I finally sat down with Robert Duncan’s The HD Book, and am still slowly going through its dizzying thought (vertiginous in a good way), as well as HD’s own Tribute To Freud, which covers a great many things but certainly ideas of remembering, plus it shows a different kind of Freud than the one I’d been used to, less patrician, more collaborative.

I suppose this area of reading shows I’m thinking again about modernism, as you tend to do every so often, both from a formalist perspective, from the perspective of all the connections between so many of these writers, and also, in the broadest sense, the occult or ‘magical’ perspective – of what might be magical in forms as well as symbols, masks and ideas of metamorphosis. Yeah, OK, a dangerous area, which means it’s been an old fascination of mine. Besides, I was always rotten at maths so ideas around numbers and systems in poetry, magical or not, make me challenge my innumeracy. Regarding HD, I’m interested for instance in how one of her later works, ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ as part of Trilogy, comes out of communal crisis, the very real and devastating experience of the bombing of London during World War II, yet is layered with its appeal to ancient wisdoms, a thinking through of recurrences, or a kind of palimpsest, as she stays also in the now: “though our books are a floor / of smouldering ash under our feet”. And, of course, she was working through her own personal crises using masks/personae and, at different times in her life, ideas of lyric or epic. So, yes, ‘currents of meaning’ and ‘particularities of meaning’.

I have also slowly been working my way through CD Wright’s last book Shallcross, published posthumously. Though I believe there may be other work still to follow. She was such a loss. I have followed her work for years. Her work is earthy and embodied (all those particularities of individuals and places), yet never afraid to play amongst language, approachable yet never afraid to experiment. I love her iterations, her grit, her compassion, her love of music, the way she makes fragments really work. There’s so much to love in it.

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

What is next is happening now. As I mentioned before, I have a new book out from Five Islands Press, titled Brink. It’s longer than Breaking the Days, although the title is shorter. It’s the first time I’ve ever used just a single word for a title. I had a great time editing it with the folks from Five Islands. They challenged me about a lot of things, from spelling and grammar minutiae through to deleting and replacing poems. It was a terrific experience in thinking through poem ideas and arrangements. The book covers a lot of ecopoetic territory, as the title Brink would suggest, but it’s more than that. There’s more formal experiment as well.

I have a couple of other things in the works. One is a chapbook but I don’t know when it will be available. The publisher, I think, is aiming for later this year. It’ll contain 17 pages of poems, some previously published and a few newies, and will be launched with titles by other poets but, to be honest, I’m not sure who all those folks are yet (well, I think I have some idea about one or two, but nothing official-like). Also, I have a new full-length book definitely lined up but that won’t be out until later in 2018. I’m writing towards that now, obviously. Both of these only have working titles, so there’s not much more I can say at the moment. I know that sounds a bit vague but until things have a name I feel they’re under the surface and should stay a bit secret.

Also, the project that poet Alison Flett and I started last year – a series of chapbooks from our Little Windows press – is continuing. We have four poets lined up again, three Australians (one of them from Adelaide) and one Scots poet, but again it’s best not to make announcements until it’s all ready to go. Life has a habit of intervening in plans, even well-sorted ones. But if the plan works, we’re hoping to release these later this year. And they’ll be great, definitely. All the poets are wonderful.

I also have a couple of other ideas for my own small projects, I suppose you’d call them chapbooky type things, that I’m hoping some one or another might be interested in. They involve the more odd or playful or just weird end of the spectrum of my writing, so maybe they’ll never surface. And I’m always writing … something. I’ve been a bit dissatisfied with my recent writing so I’m trying to loosen up – hey, ‘lose your grip’ – and see if something different may start happening. Paradoxically, some of that writing involves thinking about form and constraints. Let’s just say form never settles. Let’s just say I’m busy.

 

 

 

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

Reservoir1313.

Tzameti, lines to a rondeau, chapters in The Art
of War
. Cards per suit, steps to the gallows, loaves in a
baker’s dozen. Diners at the Last Supper, gods at
Valhalla’s banquet, dismemberments of Osiris.
Studio LP’s by The Cure, lunar months every
calendar year, primary members of The Thirteen
Club. Olives, olive leaves, arrows and stars on the Great
Seal of the United States. Players in a rugby
league team; teenagers starring in 13, the Broadway
musical; letters in Bixby, Oklahoma, the city
where Scott Westerfield’s Midnighters trilogy,
gripped by this troublous number, is set. Syllables till
the broken motif of this poem. Lucky for some.
– Stuart Barnes (from “Glasshouses”, UQP, 2016)

Jon McGregor is also obsessed by the number 13 too, his latest novel taking place in a small ex-mining village that is located near Reservoir 13, a region where, on page one, a thirteen-year-old girl goes missing, the book follows the impact of this disappearance and the lives of the villagers (there could possibly be thirteen main players but my mapping couldn’t reconcile to that number) over thirteen years, using thirteen chapters, each containing thirteen sections or paragraphs.

Readers of Jon McGregor’s other works will know his ability to play with shape and form, using the written language as his tool to convey messages that go beyond the simple sentence structure and his latest work is no different.

Using a detached, snappy style, almost journalistic, the short sharp sentences reveal more than what is simply presented on the page, for example, “It was only when they saw the first children on their way to school that Will Jackson remembered he was due at his son’s mother’s house, to fetch the boy for school.” The “son’s mother’s” revealing an ex-partner, somebody removed from Will, not a character in our tale. Each sentence likewise gently crafted, giving you a melancholic and ruminative work.

Winnie’s grandchildren came to visit at the end of the month, and she took them out picking elderflowers in the old quarry by the main road, filling a bin-bag with the foamy white flower-heads and carrying it home on their shoulders. She sat them at the kitchen table and had them zesting the oranges and lemons she’d bought ready, while she picked the flower-heads clean and set them to soak overnight. By the next day they’d lost interest, and refused to leave the television when she added the sugar and fruit juice and heated it gently through. When her daughter came for the children she gave them a bottle of the cordial. IT was still warm and the light shone through it, and Winnie knew it would never be drunk. Her daughter hugged her lightly and kissed her cheek and said they’d see each other soon. The children waved from the back of the car.

The tone and structure lends a lonely air to the whole work, as each sketched character laments their own isolation, all internalised as they move in and out of each other’s orbit. The ghost of the missing girl hovering on the fringes of their world. A desperately sad work, the themes of isolation and internal turmoil bubble along, but never descend into melodrama.

Even though there is a missing child, life in the village continues, returns to “normal”;

The room emptied and the chairs were stacked away. The floor was swept and the lights turned off and Tony went back to the bar.

Throughout this reflective work the ever present changing seasons also feature, nature continues with the birth of badgers, pheasants, foxes and a myriad of birds, also revealed alongside the annual fireworks, cricket match, Mischief Day, harvest display and other recurring community events.

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the big screen in the village hall and the sound of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ along the street. The Cooper twins were out for their first New Year, watching the fireworks from the Hunter place, their mother hurrying them back to bed as soon as the last rocket fell to earth. In the morning the snow was ankle-deep but by noon a hard rain had washed it away. The change came quickly, thick piles of snow falling in on themselves and hurtling away down drains and run-offs to the river, the river bright and loud with it and the streets left scrubbed and darkly gleaming and everywhere the first green tips of snowdrops nosing out of the soil. After the rain there was a quiet, the melting of roof-snow down drainpipes, and the calling of birds on thawing ground, and the whine of a chainsaw up in Hunter’s wood.

A novel that expertly draws on the slow passage of time, the recurring and the constants the features with the insignificance of individuality bubbling along like the local stream. I continue to remain a fan of Jon McGregor’s work, his book being one of the few novels written in English that I have read in the last twelve months, this book not changing my views on his ever-expanding oeuvre, meaning I will be searching out further new releases of his in the future.

The structure around the unlucky number “13” an interesting and haunting approach, with the “paragraphs” not forming a usual expected construction, concurrent events blending into one another as the lunar months pass, the passage of time ever present in the reading.

Longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, an award that this blog was originally established to follow, it is a book that is a worthy inclusion, and although I no longer follow the award itself it is a book that I would happily include on past shortlists. Given the style differs greatly from your standard “English Literature” fare, I believe it is a work that should go far when the winner of the 2017 award is debated.

 

Notes On Suicide – Simon Critchley

NotesOnSuicide – an opening word, on a blog post, that will either fascinate, revolt, intrigue or cause you to reel away. As regular readers of this blog would know I have visited a number of works by writers who have taken their own lives, and most recently I read and reviewed Sadegh Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl”(translated by Naveed Noori), the Iranian writer who gassed himself in his small rented apartment in 1951.

The natural flow lead me to a book that has been sitting on my shelf since its release by Fitzcarraldo Editions in September 2015, “Notes on Suicide” by the English philosopher, Simon Critchley.

This short book contains four sections, exploring the religious and national views, community views, the suicide note and finishes with a section addressing the question “What if one simply wants to die?” The publication also includes an “Afterword” by David Hume from 1777 “Of Suicide”. Interestingly enough a writer explored a number of times by Jorge Luis Borges, whose “Labyrinths” I read just prior to Sedegh Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl”.

This essay opens with a reference to Eduard Levé and his novel “Suicide”, a book he delivered to his publisher ten days before taking his own life (I reviewed the translated version here). Early in the essay the subject of honest, open discussion about suicide is approached:

We lack a language for speaking honestly about suicide because we find the topic so hard to think about, at once both deeply unpleasant and gruesomely compelling. When someone ends their own life, whether a friend, a family member or even a celebrity who we identify with – think about the confused reactions to the deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman in recent times (although I suspect we could identify stories exerting a similar effect in any year) – one of two reactions habitually follow. We wither quietly think that they were being foolish, selfish and irresponsible, or we decide their actions were caused by factors outside of their control (severe depression, chronic addiction, and so on). That is, if they acted freely in killing themselves, we implicitly condemn them: but if we declare that their actions were constrained by uncontrollable behavioural factors like depression, we remove their freedom.

Against this tendency, I want to open up a space for thinking about suicide as a free act that should not be morally reproached or quietly condemned. Suicide needs to be understood and we desperately need a more grown-up, forgiving and reflective discussion of the topic. Too often, the entire debate about suicide is dominated by rage. The surviving spouses, families and friends of someone who committed suicide meet any attempt to discuss suicide with an understandable anger. But we have to dare. We have to speak.

Yes, this is a thoughtful and incisive insight into a subject that is often avoided, or uncomfortably discussed. A work that uses historical insights to show how has society moved from “admirable” suicide to a subject that is now considered taboo? Using self-reflection and open, honest musing (whilst the writer observes the coastline), this is a personal journey, why the fear of death, what has led us there?

Perhaps the closest we come to dying is through writing, in a sense that writing is a leave-taking from life, a temporary abandonment of the world and one’s petty preoccupations in order to see things more clearly. In writing, one steps back and steps outside life in order to view it more dispassionately, both more distantly and more proximately. With a steadier eye. One can lay things to rest in writing: ghosts, hauntings, regrets, and the memories that flay us alive.

As a philosophical essay the rhetorical is never far away, throwing up a raft of questions…”But how can I be autonomous in relation to suicide? Am I not making an autonomous decision to rid myself of autonomy?” etc. This is a probing, prodding exploration into a subject we too often sweep under the carpet. Naturally the subject of depression also plays a role here, as does a study of the “suicide note”;

One always speaks to someone in a suicide note. Suicide notes are attempts at communication. They are a last and usually desperate attempt to communicate – final communications. They are also failed attempts in the sense that the writer is communicating a failure to communicate, expressing the desire to give up in one last attempt at expression. The suicidal person does not want to die alone, but wants to die with another or others, to whom the note is addressed.

The final section of this essay addressing “What if one simply wants to die?” and touches on Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kurt Cobain, Hunter S. Thomson, David Foster Wallace but returns to a more detailed study of Eduard Levé, the performance artist, photographer and writer who was used as an example to open this collection of “notes”

This is a thoughtful, maybe controversial and interesting publication, an essay that doesn’t get bogged down in melodrama, nor sensationalises a moving and controversial subject. It is only through continued discussions and questions, as posed in this essay that further debate on suicide can occur, hopefully progressing our understanding.  Yet another worthwhile release from independent publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions.

 

 

The Blind Owl – Sadegh Hedayat (translated by Naveed Noori)

BlindOwl

Early in Mathias Énard’s wonderful novel “Compass” the protagonist Franz, on a lonely night of despair, takes the thesis by his love Sarah and reads:

“There are certain wounds in life that, like leprosy, eat away at the soul in solitude and diminish it,” writes the Iranian Sadegh Hedayat at the beginning of his novel The Blind Owl: the little man with round glasses knew this better than anyone. It was one of those wounds that led him to turn the gas on high in his apartment on the rue Championnet in Paris, one evening of great solitude, an April evening, very far from Iran, very far, with as his only company a few poems by Khayyam and a sombre bottle of cognac, perhaps, or a lump of opium, or perhaps nothing, nothing at all, aside from the texts he still kept, which he carried off with him into the great gas void. (Pg 14)

Continuing with references to Proust and Kafka and reflecting upon Hedayat’s suicide the reading of Sarah’s prologue concludes:

By opening this article with Hedayat and his Blind Owl, we propose to explore this crevice, to look inside the cleft, to enter the drunkenness of those men and women who have wavered too much in alterity; we are going to take the little man by the hand to go down and observe the gnawing wounds, the drugs, the elsewheres, and explore this between-space, this bardo, this barzakh, the world between worlds into which artists and travellers fall. (p16)

The 75th Anniversary edition of Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl”, translated by Naveed Norri, has an extensive introduction by the translator, with a detailed explanation of the various texts available, the reasoning for using the “Bombay Edition” and a reference to the opening line across three translators:

Costello: “There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.”

Bashiri: “In life there are certain sores that, like a canker, gnaw at the soul in solitude and diminish it.”

Noori: “In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude –“

We now have a different version presented by Énard (I assume from a French translation of Hedayat’s Persian) and translated by Charlotte Mendell.

“The Blind Owl” opens with a frontispiece “The printing and sale (of this work) in Iran is forbidden” which has apparently resulted in a black market for Hedayat’s book and whilst bleak, dark and extreme it is not as confrontational as recent works from the region, for example “The Iraqi Christ” by Hassan Blasim.

A book narrated, in two parts, by an opium smoking painter of pencases, the slow spiralling thoughts of a man wracked with drugs, is a measured destructive piece. Peppered with dashes, as our narrator pauses, switches thoughts, it is reminiscent of a work by Edgar Allen Poe or Jorge Luis Borges. The story itself is quite simple, our reclusive narrator writes the tale we are reading, for his own shadow, a story where he sees, through a non-existent hole in his wall, “a Hindu yogi, wearing a cloak with a turban wrapped around his head, squatting underneath a cypress tree, who, with an astonished look, placed the index finger of his left hand to his lips – In front of him a damsel in a long black dress, bent over was offering him a morning glory flower – for between them there was a small stream” –  the same  image he paints on his pen case covers. The “damsel in a long black dress” then becomes the focus of our narrator’s tale, his adoration of her, and her grizzly end. The second half of the work is the same narrator writing his story – yes spiralling, labyrinthine, Borges…

From where must I begin? For all the thoughts that are presently boiling in my head are from this moment, they are without hour, minute or history – an incident from yesterday may be older and less moving than an incident from a thousand years ago.

The correlation between Énard’s novel and the themes in Hedayat’s are obvious, to readers of both novels. This work using association and metaphor that spirals out of control as you delve deeper, lost in the labyrinth of Hedayat’s subconscious. Through repetition and distortion, you cannot hope to see the truth…

He got up. I went toward the house. I went into my room and, with much effort, brought the dead’s suitcase to the edge of the door. In front of my door I saw an old and dilapidated hearse that had hitched to it two black horses, emaciated like cadavers. The hunched-over old man was sitting up on the seat and had a long whip in hand, but he never turned to look in my direction – With much effort I placed the suitcase in the carriage, which had a special space for a coffin inside of it. I got in and lay down in the coffin’s space and rested my head on its ledge so I could look at the scenery – Then I slid the suitcase on my chest and held it tightly with my two hands.
The whip sounded in the air. The horses, taking long and soft leaps, started moving with labored breaths. In the rainy weather their misty breaths looked like pipes of smoke coming out of their nostrils – their slender hooves, like fingers of a thief that had been cut off and dipped into boiling oil according to law, slowly rose up and silently touched the ground – the sound of the bells tied around their necks played a peculiar song in the damp air – a type of indescribably and reasonless comfort enveloped me from head to toe, such that the water in my stomach did not stir with the movement of the carriage – I only felt the weight of the suitcase on my chest. –

Hedayat’s long and meandering sentences, the narrator’s thoughts, marked by dashes, dwell in the darkness or the shadows. The character development is almost non existent, it is simply a tale, a revelation of our narrator, all others are in relation to him, although the story contains butchers, peddlers, “the whore” (his wife), his nanny, they are all fragments of the narcissist narrator’s mind,…

I smoked all the opium I had left so that this strange opiate could scatter all the problems and veils that were covering my eyes, all these massing, grey and distant memories – The state of being that I was desirous of arrived and it exceeded my expectation: – Slowly my thoughts became exacting, grand and magical, I entered into a state of half sleep and half unconsciousness.

Readers of Énard’s “Comapss” will note the correlation here, and I am grateful to the French writer for referencing this book in his latest, much awarded, novel, without such I would never have entered the dark world of Hedayat’s mind.

If you are after a simple narrative tale to celebrate I suggest you look elsewhere, if you are looking for a dark, bleak fable from the “East”, one filled with opiate driven dreams and metaphorical, historical references to Iran, then this is a work you will truly appreciate. Although only 78 pages it is not a quick read, if you want to fall under Hedayat’s spell and personally I read it twice to appreciate all the nuances, pauses and references.

For some reason, literature associated with suicide seems to appear quite frequently in my reading, with Edouard Levé, Osamu Dazai, Qui Miaojin, Stig Sæterbakken just a few writers, who took their own lives, that spring to mind. The theme continues with the tortured thoughts of Sadegh Hedayat, a writer worth visiting, especially for those who have appreciated Énard’s latest novel. I do have Simon Critchley’s “Notes on Suicide” on my shelves, maybe it is time to read an essay on the subject.