handiwork – Sara Buame

Writer and visual artist Sara Baume’s latest book ‘handiwork’ is her non-fiction debut and has been shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, along with another work from Tramp Press, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s wonderful ‘A Ghost in the Throat’.

Sara Baume won the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award for ‘SoleSearcher1’, and went on to receive the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, the Rooney Prize for Literature and an Irish Book Award for Best Newcomer in 2015. Her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Warwick Prize for Writing, the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction and the International Dublin Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

‘handiwork’ is a short contemplative work that compares the flights of migratory birds to the art of creation, both writing and sculpture, as well as her daily artistic practices:

I HAVE ALWAYS FELT a terrible responsibility for time.

The impotent urgency manifests at minimum as an internalised twitch, at maximum as the murmuring of a voice in my head, arguing that the solid form at hand is not symmetrical enough – the wrong angle, the wrong shape, the wrong stroke – causing me to carve it smaller and smaller in the name of an inconceivable perfection – to carve it away completely, back into plaster dust.

The nemesis voice never acquiesces to flow; it is always reasoning and glancing ahead into the coming weather. You could stop now, the voice murmurs, or you could get ahead for tomorrow. And then, tomorrow – you could stop now, it will murmur, or you could get ahead for tomorrow….

Like the migrant birds who, one year, find they have to go a little farther than the year before – for a superior food source, a safer resting spot, because the weather is peculiar.

And then, again, the year after, a little farther still…

This book is a collection of short pieces, with space for you to pause and contemplate each little thought. Some pages containing a single sentence.

‘INDEED, VERY FEW PEOPLE are aware’, José Saramago writes in The Cave, ‘that in each of our fingers, located somewhere between the first phalange, the mesophalange and the metaphalange, there is a tiny brain.’

Broken into fourteen sections, each introduced with an image of a single model bird from a series built by Sara Baume in the spring of 2019 and photographed in the autumn. Each made from plaster that has been carved, painted and mounted onto a length of timber dowel, and studded with a pair of glass beads. The creation of these birds, the moulding, the carving, the painting becomes the contemplation, as is the writing of this book, of exploring what it is to create. Meta-non-fiction? Auto-non-fiction?

Facts about migratory birds interject and then play with the text, the writer’s journey.

WHEN WE FIRST MOVED into this house, I assigned myself a room where I would write. I carried in a desk and tucked the swivel chair beneath it and raised a bastion of books around it. As for the other stations, they have never been formally designated. Instead, they have asserted themselves gradually, as if the walls and floors and furniture are somehow sympathetic to my preoccupations and repetitions and observances; as if this house has diligently ordered itself around my daily practices, my daily handiwork.

However, not simply a book about writing and creating, this is also an homage to the writer’s father, a man who created working equipment from scraps, a handyman, and her grandfather who diligently made wooden models, carts that she never thought much of until much later in life. As Sara Baume creates her bird sculptures she dwells on her relationship with her father, his dedication of a work area for her once she had completed her studies, and ultimately these contemplations become her writing, our reading. An acknowledgment of grieving:

He died of a cancer conjured from the fine traces of toxins that accumulated in his lungs over the course of decades; which emanated from his daily bashing, clanging, whirring and grinding, and hovered in the air of his sheds – the unwanted produce of his progress, ungraspable yet ubiquitous as the sky in a model railway.

A short but deep book, one that radiates joy as the writer’s keen observances and her connection to nature exude the poetic, the artistic and the melancholic. Another wonderful book from the small independent publisher Tramp Press, it is a joy to read these quality works from female Irish writers.

Indelicacy – Amina Cain

Portraiture, the art of depicting a person. With the advent of photography, the need to accurately record a sitter’s likeness gave way to more expressive forms, a raft of dimensions, for example psychological and emotional could be explored. Interestingly when you look at “people’s choice” award winners in National Portrait Prizes there is still a tendency to lean towards the more conservative “likeness” style works, with the expressionistic, or subtle nuances of other works being overlooked. Many times, I have seen people look at portraits in galleries, glance at the face and move on. However, if you stop, pause, and look deeply the more you may learn, it is not just the face, where is the subject looking, what are they observing, what are they wearing, clothing, jewelry, setting, tone, colour, furniture, the placement of the hands, are they holding something? There are a myriad of clues, hints that can give you a more in depth view of the sitter and the artist.

Amina Cain’s short novel ‘Indelicacy’ is primarily a portrait of the writer protagonist Vitória, but it is also a portrait that contains three other women, her hired help Solange, and her two friends Dana and Antionette.

Vitória works as a cleaner at a gallery, but she dreams of becoming a writer, she writes of the paintings she views whilst working, “The people in the painting are huddled together as if for protection, as if freezing cold.” This is a work that contains ekphrastic elements, Vitória reflects on the art works and creates an imaginative narrative, an amplification of the artwork’s meaning.

However. it is not only the artworks that she contemplates, a ultimately, writes about, it is also her own life, and that of her friends, her surroundings.

…the winter dragged itself though its January, its February, its March, with its dirty snow and frozen mud. I felt I was dragging myself through as well. I hated March more than any other month, with its promises of warmth that never came.
My writing was not unlike that. I would write, then read out loud what I had written and realise I was not any closer to a book than I had ever been. I began to hate writing, though I also still loved it.
I thought if I spent time in the country every day I would be able to write. Walk in the morning, write in the afternoon, walk again in the evening, then write again. Late at night, read, Then write again. Sleep.
One day I looked for a while at a small painting and saw something in it. A man and a boy in muted suits doing their engraving work, the background behind them completely dark. We are not meant to see anything beyond this task, their concentration on it. Yet we want to know, it is only a scrap. What is in the darkness?
This was my slogging through. Until spring came.

Eventually Vitória finds a wealthy husband, her dreams of being able to write become a reality. Now the mistress of the household she has hired help, people to clean up after her, and an uneasy relationship with Solange begins. Whilst cleaning her best friend was Antionette, with whom she loses touch, and once she has plenty of spare time she meets another friend Dana at dance classes. The female bonds are strong, and the portraits of these diverse women are slowly painted, layer by layer.

This work is even constructed like a painting, there is enough detail for you to picture the people, but the backgrounds are dark, the foregrounds light, the story very much implied in many places, you the viewer (or reader) has to create the depth in the narrative. Stop, pause, observe, why are the dishes on the table, why are the walls bare?

From then on, Dana asked to read from my notebook from time to time and then she would talk with me about what she’d read. ‘A humble sense of purpose,’ she said once, ‘and of fascination. You are fascinated by everything around you.’ On a few occasions I did let her take my notebook home, when I thought I wouldn’t need it, that it might be good for me to be without it for a while. If I found I wanted to write, I opened up the same book I had written in already and wrote there again. I had already defaced it, and I was starting to feel as if I were having a conversation with it.

A novel about writing, about female bonds and about life’s purpose, a wanderer who allows the day to day pass her by, simply observing and writing.

Astute readers would note the four character’s names, Vitória from Clarice Lispector’s ‘The Apple in the Dark’, Solange from Jean Ginet’s ‘The Maids’, Antionette from Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, and Dana from ‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler. These four works are credited in the acknowledgements and the short precise sentences did remind me of Jean Rhys’ works, with the darkness of Lispector. Passages from those works appear in the novel.

A novel that feels gothic in places, or from a Brother’s Grimm tale in others, for example her meeting her future husband and her marriage are mentioned in passing, it is peripheral to the portrait, the husband merely a player. As in the quote above “what is in the darkness?”, this novel  has many dark corner’s on the canvas, things happen there but they are not for our eyes, Amina Cain drawing our attention to people in the portrait, Vitória, Antionette, Solange and Dana.

An interesting title, as the work itself feels delicate, it also has very different covers for the US and UK editions. The FSG cover for the United State’s market a glaring “wallpaper” style design, an abstract portrait? The UK cover a dark portrait by Gerard ter Borch (1617-81) titled ‘Margaretha van Haexbergen’. Visually I prefer the US cover, however based on content the UK seems to match better.

Short, precise and intriguing an ekphrastic novel constructed like a painting, a worthy contender for the 2021 Rathbone’s Folio Prize, for which it is shortlisted, worth hunting down.

Men and Apparitions – Lynne Tillman

Ezekiel Stark, a skeptic in his field, was promising. He studied small groups or areas of cultural concerns – family photographs, the basis of images, men. His dissertation pubbed by a university press, his gig in acadoomia was upped to associate professor. He walked the halls of academe, walked the line, talked the talk, and went by the book. He was a good enough colleague, if sometimes too aggressive when he thought he was right. He always seemed preoccupied. Sometimes he partied. Sometimes he was a hermit. He did his version of field work. He wrote papers, articles, books, he made a splash, and then he floated.

Late in the “novel” ‘Men and Apparitions’ the protagonist, who has been writing fragments, short experiences and expositions, writes three third person sketches of himself, one is above and the other two contain spoilers so I’ll not present them here. Here’s my attempt at Ezekiel Stark’s story:

Ezekiel Stark, a boring, mundane academic, who takes anti-depressants, and excrutiatingly mansplains page after page after page on the totally disinteresting subject of ethnography [the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures], more specifically the study of old family photos. He is a narcissistic, misogynistic, bore of a human. He never parties, he just whines about the fact that his best friend ran off with his wife and talks about his fractured relationship with his mother, his father, his elder brother (who is more successful than him), his younger sister (who chose from an early age to remain silent), his aunt, his ancestors and any other relative he can blame for his shitty position. Ezekiel wonders if it was the rise of feminism in the 60’s/70’s that has brought on this crap life and writes a field study “Men in Quotes” which appears at the end of this book. It is no wonder Ezekiel is single, who could be enamored to such a self-centered bore of a human?

‘Men and Apparitions’ is close to four-hundred pages in length, with ‘The Spectator’ describing it as “mansplaining littered with tedious verbal tics, which is oddly compelling to read”, which is a perfect description. Unlike ethnography “photographs can create images, but they are not images per se, they are things, a physical object”, this novel is a slow feeding of images, semi-stories, a peeling back of layers, slowly (very slowly) the picture comes into focus.

Some have said that our being absorbed in images is the sine qua non for our inevitable self- and other-destruction. Some have said that narcissism, shown by our avidity for images, turned us inward, into inner-bounded psyches, away from the natural order and from a necessary empathy, both underlying our immense species failure and so on. Interiority – an illusion as great as Narcissus found the river/mirror to be.
Narcissism is part of the natural order.

These “chapters”, they read more like diary entries but are not marked as such, are random, disconnected mind explosions of Ezekiel. However, they do reveal learnings, about our protagonist, ourselves and our place in the world:

It was late for the morning, and I lay in bed like a drugged person, and that’s when the idea aced me. It flashed. It hit me, I’d look after the lost, care for the unwanted. Image detritus. I’d turn into a finder of the unwanted. Homeless photographs, the exilic.
I hunted the streets, sidewalks, under tables in restaurants (in winter, found gloves everywhere); the floors in clubs and bars; now in digital time, there’s way less. What people throw out tells an untold story. (I’m not a garbologist). There’s still purging among over inflated consumers of tech. Get rid of stuff and buy the new, so material shows up, photos left in a book, books tossed out everywhere; I’ve found thumb drives too. Meanwhile, garbage trucks drop cartons and garbage collectors run wild in the streets. The streets overflow with rejection.

Silence is also a theme throughout, the silence of his little sister who refuses to speak, his wife (“the silence grew”), his aunt who ignores him, his strange belief that he can make himself invisible, like Mr. Percy a praying mantis he used to visit in the yard when he was a child, the animosity between him and his older brother, the silence between them:

Little Sister prepared me for the silence required in thinking, writing, reading. I don’t blame her for what happened between me and Maggie [his wife]. Silence became an intangible obstacle. She has to deal with it, hers, all the time. Don’t know how she does it.

Always the academic, our protagonist quotes others’ texts throughout, here Clifford Geertz a famous ethnographer, talking about anthropologists and photographs:

They marginalize what is central. What is needed, or anyway must serve, is tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales: mini-narratives with the narrator in them.

Here’s our novel, a series of tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales and mini-narratives with the narrator in them. An ethnographer creating a cultural artefact that he can then digest, explore, study.

Fifty pages into this book I was willing to hurl it against the wall, the voice didn’t sound like any male I’d ever come across, the “just kidding” and “ only joking” at the end of lines, the tedious academic style, however I became slightly intrigued by this most annoying and unreliable narrator, and within another fifty pages I was strangely curious as to his fate.

At 397 pages this is overly long and I found the closing field study “Men in Quotes” completely off putting, an imaginary set of responses, by nameless “new men” subjects, to questions about the impact of feminism on their lives. Again, I do not know a single male (and I’ve known plenty) who would answer these questions in that manner. Interestingly in the acknowledgements Lynne Tillman thanks “all of the men who responded so generously and intelligently to Zeke’s questions”, so if they are actual responses then the circles that the author moves in are far far removed from the circles I move in. Not every man I know answers with academic twaddle!!!

Initially this began as a “did not finish”, slowly grew to a “I wonder what will happen next” and petered out to a “I’ve only 100 pages to go may as well finish it” book. I can imagine others liking it, just like I can imagine that I’ve completely missed the point, however I can’t see it making the shortlist of the Republic of Consciousness Prize – the reason I read it, it’s on the longlist. Next up my sixth title from the longlist, ‘Lote’ by Shola von Reinhold.

The Appointment – Katharina Volckmer

Have you ever looked in the mirror and not liked what is reflected back at you? ‘The Appointment (Or, The Story of a Cock)’ by Katharina Volckmer is one unsettling work about a person who is uncomfortable with everything about their life. Our single unemployed female, German narrator, is unhappy about being unemployed, being female, being German, being single, she is unsettled about everything in her past and her present. Can a change settle these old debts and secure a better future?

Written as a single 96-page monologue, our German narrator is being examined by Dr Seligman and during this examination, whilst he’s down there, between her thighs, she unburdens intimate and perverse details of her life.

Your assistant told me that you are very thorough and that this will take a while, especially the photos, so I don’t want you to worry, because I still think the reasons for my discharge from work were misconstrued and it’s unfair to say that I have anger issues. I was angry that day, of course – it was before I had started taking my hormones – but to get suspended like that when they have no idea what it’s like for people like me. And I don’t think that threatening to staple a co-worker’s ear to their desk whilst waving a stapler around can really count as violence. Not with those staplers, anyway. I doubt they have every tried to staple through human flesh and into a solid desk with one of those stiff little plastic things. I was probably more at risk of losing my eyesight from an errant staple, but of course that didn’t matter to them. And you don’t need to think that they had ever provided us with safety glasses, heaven knows how many casualties will be caused by all that cheap stationery. But now I don’t feel sorry anymore; let them all be poisoned from chewing on those horrible pens that turn all handwriting into a lament. Because the worst thing was not losing my job – in the city you starve either way – but that they made me see a therapist called Jason, for otherwise they would have pressed charges. Can you imagine being serious with a therapist called Jason, Dr Seligman?

The monologue lurches from the highly amusing and razor-sharp observations to perverse and outrageous, “but I thought that it would wind him [Jason] up if I told him about my sexual fixation with our dear Führer”. The topics intentionally provoking, asking readers to contemplate subjects that are considered taboo. The guilt of being born German:

I mean, I know that as Germans we can never get away from our past and simply start growing happy flowers in our front garden – our outlook will always be something that has been raked to death and closely resembles concrete.

The guilt of not being happy with her own body, the rants about sexuality, binary tags, just as disturbing. Within a paragraph you can go from laugh out loud to a grimace.

A difficult work to review without giving away spoilers, or moving to over reaction to taboo subjects, it’s not just the Hitler references, although they have seemed to get their fair share of coverage, there is also robotic sex toys, quick oral sex in public toilets, a fluid relationship with a married man where our narrator is just used for her body, a dissection of the nuclear family.

At times disturbing, and at other times simply a person bringing up their deepest anxieties and fears. I have an impression that the monologue is being conducted under the influence of an anesthetic, an unburdening of everything that brought her to Dr Seligman’s in the first place.

God, of course, was a man too. A father who could see everything, from whom you couldn’t even hide in the toilet, and who was always angry. He probably had a penis the size of a cigarette. The kind of man who shoots lions and overtakes women in the swimming pool. It’s of course much easier to be religious when you are a man, and yet I could never understand why a single woman ever went to church, or any of the other temples, Dr Seligman, because no religion I have ever come across had anything nice to say about women. I could never understand why my mother believed in Jesus and had a secret altar will all sorts of glittering memorabilia tucked away in the corner of her bedroom. Why would she worship where they teach nothing but shame and fear, where they came up with all that crap about holy mothers and whores, where they were scared of vaginas. Because that’s really what it is all about, isn’t it? Apart from trying to find a way not to die, to carry on living somewhere in the clouds with all the people you never liked in the first place, it is a way of trying to keep the difference between people with and without cocks alive. And they talk of penis envy, but look at the lengths people have gone to to cripple and defeat vaginas, to tell women that pleasure is not for them, that there is such a thing as being good. I mean, how many women have covered pages and pages of books about cocks and they way men are supposed to dress and think and dream? How they are supposed to be some sort of fuckable mother figure with clean fingernails and plenty of tissues in their handbag. I never understood how God, who couldn’t give birth, is supposed to be the source of all life – how a man could be our creator. Unless, of course, it was what we would call arschgeburt in German, something that your ass gave birth to. Maybe that’s what this world is, Dr Seligman: something that came out of a holy man’s ass, the leftovers of broken stars and an imploding universe.

A work that challenges your notions on just about every subject you could think of, a work that provokes and prods you, a work that questions the norms and pushes at the boundaries to see how far they can be stretched before they break. But this is also an important work in that it addresses subjects that people do not want to confront, German identity, non-binary identities, sexual perversions… Katharina Volckmer has arrived with a very noisy debut.

A Lover’s Discourse – Xiaolu Guo – 2020 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

All the romantic stories are flawed.

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese born British novelist and filmmaker, her novel ‘ Village of Stone’  (translated by Cindy Carter) was shortlisted for the 2005 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (an award that merged with the Booker International Prize and was disbanded after 2015), and was nominated for the Dublin Literary Awards, other books have been nominated or won awards such as the Orange Prize for Fiction, the National Books Critics Circle Award, the Costa Book Award and the Baliey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her film ‘She, a Chinese’ premiered at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival and it won the highest honour, the Golden Leopard.

Earlier works include ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers’, inspired by Roland Barthes work and it is no accident that this novel shares a title with one of Barthes’ works. The epigraph:

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. (Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Roland Barthes)

There are a number of reviews of this work in the public domain that explain the linkages to Barthes work of the same name, so I won’t go into those details here, however I will point out one diversion from the novel’s structure that I found interesting.

Each chapter opens with a short one or two sentences of conversation, which is repeated in the chapter itself, discourse generally between the two lovers in the story. The repetition of language that we see referenced in the epigraph, however there is one chapter that uses a Barthes quote, not conversation, as the opening:

An Unknown Language

The murmuring mess of an unknown language constitutes a delicious protection…Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality. (Roland Barthes)

The unknown language around me. The murmuring mass around me. Except that this was not a murmuring mass in Japan, this was a loud mass in Italy. This language was not too foreign for you, and you could make out many words, especially from the food menus. But it was foreign for me. Even though this culture uses the same twenty-six Latin letters, just like most European languages – the same alphabet. But I didn’t come from this alphabet. I came from the non-alphabetic. I came from ideograms. I came from 50,000 characters. Each character is composed with many symbols and strokes, like a tangled forest of meanings.
Also, I didn’t feel this ‘delicious protection’ that Barthes felt. The only protection for me would be to really try to
understand the foreign language. So that I, a secondary citizen in a white European world, would not downgrade into a tertiary citizen. But I know that even if one day I could master a foreign language – one of the major European languages – I would still not become a primary citizen of the West.

This is a novel of language, a story of identity, alienation, community and exile. It is brought home by the very structure, in the West we say “North, South, East and West” in Chinese the sequence is “East, South, West and North” and in this novel the first four parts are “West, South, East, North”, displacement, sequentially awkward. The following four parts of the novel are “Down, Up, Left, Right” and whilst the parts roughly align geographically (eg. “Down” the lovers are in Australia), I feel these headings are used to highlight our protagonist’s’ inability to settle, find a home.

This is the story of a Chinese student in Britain, pre/post Brexit, completing her PhD in film, her “project” a documentary about a village and its inhabitants in southern China. A village of two-thousand uneducated workers who have transformed themselves into master copyists. (“They could now reproduce a Monet, Chagall, and da Vinci at the drop of a hat.”) She falls in love with an Australian/German, and the novel follows their journeys, discourses.

However it is not the simple love narrative that is at play here, you are immediately forced into facing the fact that, as Europeans (or in my case white colonial descendent) we have no concept of other’s lives, cultures:

‘Wednesday is a bit tight for me. But I can try,’ you said. ‘Hope the food isn’t too spicy.’
I paused for a second, and thought you must be one of those hypersensitive northern Europeans who couldn’t eat anything hot. You might even be a vegan, who eats tasteless food. No salt in your meals either, because of high blood pressure. I would find out.

This is also a novel of language, the emotional attachment we have to words, there’s numerous examples of looking at translations of words from German, or Chinese that have no similar words in English.

There has been this feeling of wu yu – wordlessness and loss of language – which had enveloped me. It reminded me of something I read in one of Barthes’s books. He described how he felt when he visited Japan. The strange signs and sounds. The miscommunication and the silence. The Japan of my world was London, and the strange signs and sounds were from Britain. In my flat, I had not spoken for some days. My flatmate had gone back to Italy to see her family. Four days, alone, in this enclosed place. I listened to the radio, there seemed to be only two types of news: Brexit and sports. Neither could I connect to, not could I participate.

Throughout there are metaphors and allegories about finding a connection to a place, here, in Italy, oak trees growing atop of Tuscan tower:

As we were leaving, I reached out my hand and touched one of the skinny oak trees, rooted on top of the tower. It trembled in the cruel wind as if it were trying to speak to me. I was disappointed by the sight of it. The tourist guide said these oaks were supposed to be old and even ancient, but in reality they were just skinny young oaks, struggling to stay rooted on top of a vicious tower. They needed real roots, real soil, real ground! I could hear their screaming and cries in the wind.

An interesting novel, where I found the concrete experiences of the protagonist struggling to understand concepts such as “referendum”, “Brexit” an enlightening exploration of displacement and alienation. The exploration of language “rubbing one language against the other” was subtle and moving. The lover’s tale? The heavy allegory? A tad overworked (allegory) or too shallow (relationship). An interesting exploration and structure for a novel, for mine one that is ultimately a disappointing whole, but then again “all romantic stories are flawed.”

Licorice – Bridget Penney

Halloween, a perfect time to review a novel about four people making a horror movie.

Bridget Penney’s ‘Licorice’, primarily, revolves around four characters; Licorice, a “Chinese lady”, middle-aged, overstayed her visa is the co-director of the film, Pete, who lives upstairs and is organized (and has the ability to claim VAT) is made co-director, then there’s Angela a friend of Licorice’s who is playing the lead role and Roy, Angela’s ex, who is playing the Angela’s partner.

The movie they are making, unscripted of course, is about local legend Nan Kemp (played by Angela), who allegedly killed her children and fed them to her husband (played by Roy). She was executed and is buried at the local crossroads

The novel swims in and out of each of the four main character’s thoughts, with no qualifying markers letting you know whose internal monologue you are eavesdropping on, as well as having no punctuation for conversations, you’re not sure who is talking, if they’re talking at all. An “experimental” mishmash of local lore, relationships, movie making and horror. The movie feel coming through as though you’re observing a bunch of rushes, unedited, what will end up as the final product?

The backstory of Licorice, her illegal immigrant status bleeds through the movie theme:

English horror roots itself in the land, celebrating its muck and grooving on the old ultraviolence. People cling dumbly to traditions because they are things they’ve always done not because there’s anything good about them. No one makes any attempt to understand why they act the way they do. They look on anything new, anyone from outside, with fear and suspicion. Any ‘different’ element entering an English horror film has to be consumed before it can threaten their ‘way of life’

The prose rambling and frenetic:

Small tortoiseshell meadow brown gatekeeper orange tip brimstone green hairstreak wall comma common blue Adonis blue chalkhill blue small blue ringlet dingy skipper small skipper grizzled skipper marbled white my favourite one of all painted ladies migrating in huge clouds peacock red admiral and very exceptionally the duke of burgundy might dark up from just in front of your feet.

A style that may disorient a number of readers, however I took the advice of one of the characters:

The most important thing you’ve taught me Licorice is how when your surroundings are brand new and strange you should treat everything as a gift rather than a threat.

Approach the novel with this philosophy in mind and there are riches galore, yes it’s not all comfortable, however persistence will bring forth a number of horror movie tropes, if you’ve watched English horror you find yourself entering into a dream like state, déjà vu as you are sure you’ve come across this scene before.

One of the other prominent “characters” in the novel is the mill, the wind powered structure that turns wheat into flour. There are many references to the multiple strains that are put on the mill’s structural timbers, causing the body of the mill to collapse. An allegory for the relationships between the characters perhaps?

The blurb at the publisher Book Works website points to the book using “Well-worn tropes lifted from films”, three are mentioned and I’ve thought of possibly two others, originally the blurb mentioned there were “more than 25 films”, it has recently had the number edited out. As an avid movie watcher, it would be great if other readers could point me to any films they believe have been included:

  1. Irma Vep (1996) – Licorice the Maggie Cheung character, dressed in black, displaced, lusted after by all
  2. The Mask of Satan (1960) – a witch is put to death by her own brother
  3. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – improvised, hand held footage, missing footage, camping
  4. The Shuttered Room (1967) – set in a mill in Norfolk
  5. The Wicker Man (1973) – I’m not sure the linkage here, even if there is one, but the scenes in the pub and the rural setting brought it to mind as I was reading

A book about a horror story, using horror story tropes, it is the first book in the Book Works “Interstices” series. As the accompanying bookmark explains:

Interstices are very small spaces ‘standing between’ solid objects. Sometimes so minute the eye passes straight over them, yet a beam of light directed through and interstice has the potential to illuminate in an unexpected way. Interstices simultaneously divide and connect what surrounds them. They can be places for distraction, experiment and potentially radical redefinition. An interstice can also be a tiny interval of time, unaccounted for and uncountable, the transitional space at the end of a breath. On the web, interstitials are those annoying pages overlaying the content page you were expecting to reach. On the map, a border or a nobody’s land could be visualized as an interstice; whether it’s safe or dangerous will depend on who you are.

A radical experimentation of a novel from Bridget Penney, who is also the author of ‘Honeymoon with Death and Other Stories’ (1991, Polygon), and ‘Index’, published by Book Workds in 2008, the opening entry in their Semina series of experimental novels. Another of her stories is scheduled to appear in Salt publications ‘ The Best British Stories 2020’. I received my copy of this book through my subscription to the Republic of Consciousness Prize, where a monthly subscription to the Prize is rewarded with a book from a small independent press (fewer than five staff) each month. As did ‘Mr Beethoven’ by Paul Griffiths, and ‘New Passengers’ by Tine Høeg (translated by Misha Hoekstra) two other titles I’ve reviewed here recently. All books worthy contenders for the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize an award for “the best fiction published by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees”.

Off-kilter, yes but when your “surroundings are brand new and strange you should treat everything as a gift rather than a threat”.

Convalescent Conversations – Madeleine Vara (Laura Riding)

convalescentcoversations

Laura (Riding) Jackson is not a poet who I have spent much time with, and after reading this book when researching her, I was amazed that the majority of references refer to her via her relationship and collaborations with Robert Graves, not as a poet herself. As the introduction to this short novel tells us, “‘Convalescent Conversations’ was published in 1936, under her pseudonym, Madeline Vara, by Seizin Press, which she ran with Robert Graves, who was at the time both lover and collaborator; this was the same year in which Riding and Graves would flee Mallorca and Franco’s fascism.”

The introduction goes on to advise,

After marrying writer Schulyer B. Jackson in 1941, Riding officially changed her name to Laura (Riding) Jackson. We have decided to refer to the author as Riding not (Riding) Jackson in this edition for two reasons: first, to maintain fidelity to the text as it was originally published; secondly, to emphasise the radical break between the Riding of the 1930’s and the (Riding) Jackson who renounced most of her earlier work.

This is a novel presented as a series of philosophical discussions between two patients of a hospital, Eleanor and Adam, we do not know whey they are interred, which “opens their illnesses to interpretation as metaphor” (p vii). The conversations are interspersed with an Omniscient narrator, generally setting the scene and place or at times commenting on the periphery of characters moving in and out of Eleanor and Adam’s sphere, interrupting their conversations. Likely to have been viewed as experimental in the 1930’s, this novel at times is quite dated, a product of its times?

ADAM: Yes, it’s easy enough for Russians to be Communists, because they have absolutely no sense of property, their own or anybody else’s. It’s just a lack of any kind of ambition, and sitting about criticizing people who have ambitions as greedy and ruthless – and there are some quite decent ambitions. I once let my rooms to some Russians for six months when I had to be out of England. And when I took them over again – well, there are some things you can’t blame on the cat – and they didn’t even have a cat. (pgs 102-103)

However, the philosophical discussions between Eleanor and Adam, present a raft of existentialist musings on subjects such as religion, language and sex.

‘You don’t really think we’re being anything but silly do you?’ asked Eleanor.
‘I think we’ve been as serious as tow philosophers. Didn’t Miss Kenwood say patients were fond of philosophy?’
‘You don’t really think that philosophers are serios, so you?’ asked Eleanor.
‘I’d like to know what else they are if they’re not serious. Why, it’s the only excuse they have. Take that away, and –’
‘Take that away, and they’re just talking. Like you and me. What better excuse can you ask?’
‘But there has to be an excuse for talking,’ Adam said. ‘For instance, us. The demands of common politeness.’
Eleanor seemed to regard this as an excuse for silence: was he, after all, just tiresome? It was difficult to tell with men. They weren’t naturally good talkers.
‘I don’t want to break in on any private reveries,’ said Davis, coming up later, ‘but it’s time to go back to bed. It’ll taste all the sweeter when you pick up the lost threads to-morrow.’
‘Aren’t you slightly mixing the metaphors?’ asked Adam.
‘I was never much good at keeping them separate,’ said Davis. (pgs 26-27)

The rise of Fascism and modernism is a sub-plot at play here, with numerous comments on literature, politics and current affairs being subtly drip fed throughout;

‘…It’s crime stories that have all the happy endings these days, and love stories all the tearful ones. I don’t know what’s come over the world all of a sudden.’ (p12)

Sex is also a frequent subject of conversation, between two recently introduced patients, with a backdrop of polite manners where the nurses ensure the two talking patients are placed a certain distance apart on the balcony, where polite introductions are required to promote potential romance. The liberal, and early feminist, views of Laura Riding, would surely have caused quite a stir in the 1930’s;

ADAM: But have women a secret – a real secret?
ELEANOR: Indeed they have! And they know how to keep it. They keep it so well that men think they can master it just by sleeping with them. It’s like with some mysterious island, say the Island of the Hesperides, where the golden apples grow. The apples aren’t real golden apples, merely symbols that it’s a pretty wonderful island. But Hercules kills the dragon and steals the apples and brings them home, thinking he’s conquered the secret of the island. Every man is a sort of Hercules and sex is just a tour to foreign places. He kills the dragon, brings home the fruit, and thinks he knows it all. (p37)

Outside of Adam and Eleanor’s conversations there are a handful of other characters, only one another patient the majority being nurses, and our narrators refer to them a number of times as being “simple-minded”.

Now, Mrs. Lyley was a simple-minded but not small-minded person. Many people are simple-minded because their interests do not extend beyond themselves; and we call this innocence, if they are not very active people, and egotism if they are. And both kinds we should say that they were small-minded. Not so with Mrs. Lyley. Her interests did extend beyond herself; but she did not have much confidence in her ability to help other people in their problems, her ideas were not very well organized and not many – the world would never call on her for advice, and if it did her answer would be that she had no head for dealing with other people’s affairs, having little enough for her own, which she always settled by making herself happy in the little world that fate had assigned to her. She saw life, that is, as a conglomeration of little worlds. And her interest in all the other little worlds besides her own was confined to a desire that the people living in them should be as happy as she was in hers. Her simple-mindedness, which was neither innocent nor egotistical, consisted in this desire that everyone should be happy. (p104)

A short work, running to 132 pages, this is an addition to the Ugly Duckling Presse ‘Lost Literature’ series and their work has brought a missing piece of the prolific Laura Riding’s writing back into print. Given Laura Riding renounced a lot of her earlier work, Wikipedia lists 38 collections in her “selected bibliography” with this book not being on that list, I am grateful to come across something of hers that is a little more obscure as it is a book that presents a number of themes and discussions that are ripe for further examination in other writings. An engaging, interesting and thought provoking book.

It was very interesting to mix with other people, just as conversation was interesting, but it wasn’t life. Life was something little, not big. (p105)

Eleanor and Adam’s conversations, are they big?

Aqua Spinach – Luke Beesley PLUS bonus poet interview

AquaSpinach

It is not my custom to weave any kind of fantastic plot about the figures I amuse myself in contemplating. I just see them, and their value lies purely in the fact that I can see them. Anything I might add would diminish them, because it would diminish what I term their ‘visibility’.
– Fernando Pessoa “The Book of Disquiet” opening to Fragment 125 (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” sits on my bedside table, I dip in and out of the fragments quite regularly, it is not a book one reads from cover-to-cover, a collection of artefacts that add to/take away from your daily mood. I read Fragment 125, above, soon after finishing Luke Beesley’s latest collection of poetry “Aqua Spinach” and I thought it was utterly relevant. Into my notebook it went “Use Fragment 125 opening for Luke Beesley review”.

Scrap that thought….start again.

I quite often visit the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (‘ACMI’) where they screen iconic films. Recently I’ve seen movies by Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bergman, Breton…there are so many movies to see.

Luke Beesley’s “Aqua Spinach” closes out a trilogy of books that explore the intersections between poetry, music, the visual arts and cinema. The epigraph coming from Leo Charney’s “Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift”:

In the empty moment, what you call identity ceases to be continuous,
linear, apparent.
It’s hazy and insubstantial, a jumbled, fragmented surface.
It skips around from one time to another, from one place to another.
It refuses to respect the need to keep one moment consistent and con-
tenuous with the ones that precede or follow it.
It’s a film.

And this collection of prose poems is a “jumbled, fragmented surface”, skipping “around from one time to another, from one place to another.”

Scrap that thought….start again.

“Aqua Spinach” is broken into three sections, “Ink”, “Paint” and “Film”, writing, visual arts and cinema being the points on a three pronged surrealist compass, the sixty-four poems seeping into your awareness, leaving scar tissue memories and setting off synapses of past experiences like miniature firework displays in your brain. Ah yes, the lobster telephone, I saw that at the ‘Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire” retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria back in 2009…or did I, maybe I thought I saw it? I’ve definitely seen Dalí’s collaboration with Luis Buñuel, “Un Chien Andalou”, hasn’t everyone who is into film? You know the one, the dissected eyeball, or am I thinking of “Le Voyage Dans La Lune”? No definitely not that, it was made in 1902, Georges Méliès made that, something to do with the moon and eyes…

Scrap that thought…start again.

Luke Beesley’s final instalment, following on from “Jam Sticky Vision” and “New Works on Paper”, has just been released, by Giramondo Publishing. Get your bus ticket organised as you are about to board public transport, head to work, view several exhibitions, watch a film or two, however it is all going to take place at once.

Incomprehension came to mind as I started reading this new collection of poems, I was attempting to make sense of the surreal. Once I let go and allowed the journey to just unfold, the seemingly disparate images began to build a story of an artistic life alongside mundane everyday actions. Just as watching a single star in the sky of the city, polluted with light haze, is not as magnificent as seeing the same star as part of the the Milky Way in the clear skies of the desert, it is still the same star.

A Century of Poetry in English

Over pottery in the language inherited a century of prose
and lilac Iliads. The Iliads by binoculars and binoculars by
lower lake and the century in English against the French or
Spanish soccer grace, Keatsean anticlimactic brilliance,
William-to-William, wheeled in on bright cuts and English
lessons. The sentence flosses the Armadillo mountains in the
east and the sun reaches out of atmosphere like a sneeze,
centuries. We work around the spine.

The above poem appears in the “Ink” section of the collection.

The front cover features a still from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, the 2010 Palme d’Or winning film at the Cannes Film Festival. A movie that explores past lives and is the final instalment in a multi-platform art project centred in Thailand’s northeast. The mystical use of various media and the subject matter aligns nicely with Luke Beesley’s work that uses art, objects and humans to transform. The exploration of literature, visual arts and film through small bursts of comprehension creates a hybrid questioning of absurdity in the everyday. A collection that lingers and haunts your dreams…or your reality.

Yet again, I pass on my sincere thanks to the writer for taking the time to be interviewed and Luke Beesley’s answers and engagement with my high-level questions is really appreciated.

You can buy “Aqua Spinach” direct from the publisher here (where you can also purchase the poet’s earlier books).

Q. “…dust motes float around verb in all literature, the dust motes float.” Are your thoughts dust motes?

I like that idea. Rings of Saturn Sebald-ish and dust-like. Part of what my writing process might cause, I think, is a dust-like illustration of distracted thought. But also none of the metaphors in the poems are achingly mulled over with the full weight consciousness – they swim up out of somewhere during the fast first draft and, to me, this anchors them to something deeper, or they’re easier to trust.

 

Q. You reference Apichatpong Weerasethakul”s film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in the poem “Wild Thing” and the cover image is taken from this film. The Director in an interview with the Bangkok Post says it is primarily a film about “objects and people that transform or hybridise”. Two questions here, (1) were you involved in the cover design, and (2) are your poems about “objects and people that transform or hybridise”?

1) Very big yes! The book cover is something I’m really into, as I’m sure the very patient staff at Giramondo Publishing will tell you. Whereas New Works on Paper’s key focus was the visual arts (hence a drawing for the cover) and Jam Sticky Vision’s a little more on the side of music (hence the detail from a Pavement record on the cover), this book was always tipped to the side of cinema. Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the film that has had the most transformative effect on me over the last few years. I didn’t go out of my way to reference it; it was just a big part of my imagination around the time Aqua Spinach was written. I did a whole series of drawings based on the film, too. I was fortunate to be able to track Apichatpong down, via a friend, and he was really responsive and lovely. He provided that beguiling image. I love the way the cover turned out and am grateful for Giramondo for including me in the process. (2) I guess everything’s moving and shifting in the writing, in the world, in the way we see each other. The film is mysterious and darkly aesthetic: bringing in photography, playing with formality, day-for-night filming, humour, banality, surprise – it’s the stuff of contemporary poetry. It’s the kind of film that puts me in the type of alert daydream place that is productive for writing.

 

Q. The collection is arranged into three sections, the nouns “Ink”, “Paint” and “Film”, can you talk a bit about the “Film” section, your influences by Éric Rohmer, Stanley Kubrick, Luis Buñel, Joanna Hogg for example?

Embarrassingly perhaps, I discovered Rohmer only a few years ago. I’ve since watched nearly all of his 25 or so films. It was so great to re-watch Full Moon in Paris on the big screen at MIFF. Actually, today I happen to be watching A Tale of Springtime which is one of the few films of his that I haven’t seen. I enjoy his use of colour, but I love that you spend time with a thoughtful, sensitive, hesitant, indecisive character and you gradually grow very close to them. And Rohmer will show his characters thinking while folding clothes or walking or reading or just popping back to an apartment to pick up a couple of books. He’ll show the whole sequence so that you as the viewer have time to think and you understand that the character’s mind is busy in thought while they fold or walk or read or eat or stare at a view (a view which more often confounds expectations by being either disappointing or unexpectedly interesting). Joanna Hogg, who is influenced by Rohmer, is probably – along with Apichatpong and Suwichakornpong – my favourite filmmaker of the last few years, and I’ve watched her three films over and over. I write while watching films – that dream trance they put you in – so it’s natural that they appear in my daily writing. Image-wise, I like the idea of the book springing up out of Un Chein Andalou (maybe minus the eye scene which I can’t watch, more ants, armpits, absent mouths and moth eyes). I like the following question: What has Un Chien Andalou got to do with inner-Melbourne?

The trilogy – New Work on Paper, Jam Sticky Vision, Aqua Spinach – ends with film, which goes back to the book’s epigraph. In the end, film wins, I think, concerning its relation to its influence on the moment.

 

Q. “Ink” being writing, “Paint” being art (painting) – you have an active cultural life – can you talk about some of your major influences from the poetic, painting arts?

If you went through the visual art references over the three books and took down names my obsessions at the time of writing would all be there. It’s more than the actual art, too. I like the names of artists and the way their names work in poems and how the name moves out, almost topographically, beyond the art, or rhymes visually with other names. A writer can be linked to a musician or painter via this visual rhyme.

I feel I always have a pool of artists I’m focusing on, and then those artists will lead me to others. I could probably trace this movement, via hundreds of artists, over twenty years. In my 20s it was Rothko, Coltrane, Ondaatje, Lee Ufan, Malick, Egoyan, Pavement, Silver Jews, David Brooks and Leonard Cohen. Then later it was Kelly Reichardt, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Bill Callahan, Carlos Reygadas, John Ashbery, Gerald Murnane, Helen Frankenthaler. My favourite-pool of the moment is probably Joan Mitchell, Cesar Aira, Aldous Harding, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Lydia Davis and Enrique Vila-Matas. I also just finished a forty-odd-thousand word exegesis on the enthralling and elusive writing of poet Barbara Guest, and I’m in no way willing to let go. Her ekphrastic poetry has led me to many other painters, too.

Essentially the story of Modernist painting and the innovative writers of the 20th century are significant influences.

 

Q. The poem “The Lobster” uses André Breton and surrealism as a theme. Is your work surrealist automatism at play?

Yes, the lobster is a double reference to Breton and also a contemporary artist such as filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who is trying to work today with what the surrealists offered up. Regarding automatism, it’s hard to say. My process is to write fast in pencil every day, and I’ve built up an improvisational approach by doing this for about eight years. There is a calm centre to it. I try not to think, that’s very important, but then it’s maybe, over the years, been honed to control the levels of pure automation so that I can have a poetry mode and a more narrative short-fiction mode. I like the idea of calling the writing surrealist, though.

 

Q. Individually these poems may appear incoherent, but as a whole the reader can see your day to day activities, catching a bus, in an office, reading poems, sitting on a park bench and all of the associated random thoughts that go with these activities. Can you explain a little about the timeframe where these poems were written and the writing process itself?

I feel I’m with you with this Q & A, in that we’re anticipating each other. It’s really pleasing to know that there is a shape to the book when you step back.

I’ve written a bit about my process. Perhaps I could add that the handwriting is important. I can’t read what I’ve just written – it can only be deciphered afterwards – so all my attention is focused on the associations thrown up by the what is going on around the point of the pencil. One phrase – its shape, images and sounds – leads to another, not unlike the way one author leads to another, below.

Concerning the timeframe, the poems were drafted in 2014 and a little bit in 2015 (there are one or two poems from my Barbara Guest research trip to New York and New Haven in early 2015), and edited from 2015 to 2017.

 

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and it is building up a nice reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

Hmm. I generally have about 2-3 long Modern classics on the go, on the bedside table, that I’m re-reading. And I tend to move between a number of books at the same time. I’m reading Woolf’s Jacob’s Room just because I love her writing and that novella had escaped me. I’m also reading Lydia Davis’ recent short story collection Can’t and Won’t which came out of reading her novel The End of the Story. I walked into a secondhand bookshop and saw the novel and picked it up and it helped me finish a long prose piece I was working on.

I’ve been in an Anita Brookner phase – her books are so crisply written and deceptively dark and sad. I sped through Look At Me and then A Start in Life but I’ve slowed a little to modulate the sadness. I’m now reading A Private View. I’m also reading the new Ondaatje, Warlight, but I’m disappointed with it, as I was of his last novel, in comparison with his earlier books, or I’m arguing with my younger self. Who’s changed? Him or me? His poetry and fiction were my first major writing influences, way back, and so I’m kinda sulking about this novel and only reading a few pages at a time. I guess I’m being a bit melodramatic.

I’m reviewing an Australian poetry collection, and I’m also re-reading the fabulous poetry collection Knocks by Emily Stewart. I’ve been reading Harold Brodkey’s wild and bold short fiction: The World is the Home of Love & Death and Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, and I’m always moving through Cesar Aira’s books in translation – am about to start Conversations. I’m also reading Czech novelist Michal Ajvaz’s bazaar Borges-like The Other City. Also Julio Cortázar’s expendable-chapters novel Hopscotch just arrived in the post.

I mostly read what might be termed contemporary experimental fiction/short fiction, and Modernist classics. And it leads to the next question.

p.s. for more on my reading habits go here

https://southerlyjournal.com.au/2016/05/27/followed-by-patrick-modianos-dog-what-ive-been-reading-last-part/

 

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

One of the reasons why Aqua Spinach is a full stop – the end of a trilogy – is that since I finished drafting it a few years ago, I’ve mostly only been writing short fiction and fiction. Having written that, sometimes stories come back from literary journals with a note from the editor saying hey this is poetry. Anyway, I’m writing what I love to read most at the moment, and I’m really into it. Ahead of me is a lot of crouching over my terrible handwriting, trying to transcribe it to the computer, but I have more than one manuscript that is getting close to completion.

 

Milk Teeth – Rae White PLUS bonus poet interview

MilkTeeth

The Annual Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, for an unpublished manuscript, is awarded at the Brisbane Poetry Festival with the winner having their book published by University of Queensland Press and launched at the Festival the following year. I have interviewed 2015 and 2016 winners Stuart Barnes, for “Glasshouses”, and Shastra Deo, for “The Agonist” and continue the association with the Prize by interviewing 2017 winner Rae White, whose book “Milk Teeth” was launched on 3 September 2018.

Rae White is a non-binary poet, writer and zinester living in Brisbane. Their poetry collection Milk Teeth won the 2017 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and is published by the University of Queensland Press. Rae’s poem ‘what even r u?’ placed second in the 2017 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize – you can read that poem here. Rae’s poetry has been published in Australian publications such as Meanjin Quarterly, Cordite Poetry Review, Overland, and Rabbit.

Rae is the editor of #EnbyLife, a collaborative zine about non-binary experiences. They hold a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative Writing Production) from Queensland University of Technology.

Before you prepare yourself for a haunting journey encountering decay and body parts you need to crawl under your mother’s bed…

Each of your milk teeth, toddler shoe-
boxed under your mother’s bed.
You giggle, call out
her sentimentality but I’m dizzy
at dinner, preoccupied
with thoughts of tinkling
dentin slipping on my palm.
I excuse myself, lurch
into the bedroom.
My arm zigzags in the dark
touching fusty carpet before finding
the muted box compact with duct.
Pinpoint fingers remove
one creamy molar.
(from “Mother’s milk”)

This is taken from the opening poem to the collection and your “pinpoint fingers” are going to be working overtime collecting such matter as teratoma, a wand made from “the knotted dried leg of an ibis”, rusted tweezers and bones (teeth, osteopenia, “skeletons with eye sockets/for mouths”).

Most of these bodily parts undergo a transformation under Rae White’s microscope, a world of insomnia and nightmares.

Broken into six thematic sections, each with a epigraph, it is not always a dark place, there are humorous references, for example a flooded Macca’s, and nostalgic reflections. Part II primarily focusing on gender, enlightening the reader of the inherent bias in the everyday, for example the opening of the HTML poem “<title>gender options</title>” ;

<!DOCTYPE cis-centric>

<option value=”biological”>          MALE</option>
<option=”TRUE”>                            female</option>
<option=”Other”>                           404         404</not-an-option>

>>Gender not found<<

(taken from “<title>gender options</title>”)

Please note – rendering of this text is not ideal on a mobile phone.

Section IV are poems of love and sensual pleasures and section V the natural world, highlighting the broad and multi-faceted subject matter in this collection.

Engagement with other poets another highlight, the poem “under \ over” is in response to Shastra Deo’s poem “There Is a Cure”

under \ over

half awake stretch point the toes \ you shift rollicking the bed
edge phantom arm between cracked slats \ play my spine with fractured
knuckles like ice water                    trickling bone

press my skull onto mattress \ your whisper-teeth tracing pulsing neck
slide leisurely, bed screeches \ mother’s voice plump with
childhood warnings                        in my head

There Is a Cure

                The air was never sweet
here but now there’s oil

                slicked across the water,
the dark of it crawling

                four-footed into the house
I tell you not to let your feet

                dangle over the edge, because I
have found footprints

                that stop at the foot
of our four-poster bed,

                your phantom weight
crumpled in the covers.

These are only excerpts from each poem, to fully understand the response you’re going to have to invest in copies of both Rae White’s “Milk Teeth” and Shastra Deo’s “The Agonist”, the last two Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize winners to have their books published by UQP.

“Milk Teeth” is another engaging, thought provoking collection, with decay and body parts becoming glistening, with the human place in the natural world being questioned, but at the same time it can be playful, and humorous, using symbols, codes, social media posts, emails and a raft of textual techniques (for example how the poems are placed on the page) to engage, unsettle and ultimately reaffirm.

As always, I am forever grateful to the poet for their time in discussing their work. Rae White being extremely busy with the Brisbane Poetry Festival and the book launch was very generous in giving their time to discuss another brilliant addition to the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize Winners.

You can follow Rae White here https://raewhite.net/ where links to online stockists of the book are provided and you can follow them on Twitter using the handle @wings_humming

Over to the interview

Q. Nostalgia is a prominent theme, fishing, camping and the whole of section VI are examples, the poems “Sabbatical” and “Go and gone” ending with pumps pushing a “cat back with a slosh” or with trainers pushing “the gutted cormorant” it toppling “Into the water”. Is there such a thing as redemption?

I loved tying together both those poems about mobile games with similar themes of nostalgia, loneliness and, at the end, the bodies of animals and themes of morality. As for redemption, I wonder what the characters in these poems would do if given a choice? How far would the character in ‘Sabbatical’ go to have back ‘the lost days of breakneck fishing’? What lengths would a lonely fan of an augmented reality game go to in order to reconnect with kinship?

Q. You’ve shown that emails, Twitter, online dating profiles and Pokémon Go can be poetic, is there anything you don’t look at with a poetic gaze?

Probably not to be honest! My interpretation of things in life is quite reality-adjacent, where anything and everything could be mystical or memorable or have creative potential. Folks could interpret this as a side effect of my depression and mental health, but to be honest the conflation between ‘madness’ and creativity has always concerned me. If I look at the world with a poetic gaze, mentally tagging anything I could possibly use later in my work, does that make me ‘mad’ or does it simply make me a creative adult human? I believe the latter.

For example, I recently made this zine called Junk. I used words and phrases from a spam email I received to create poems and then crafted them into a zine. When people do or see something everyday, like a spam email in their inbox, it can become mundane. I like to polish the mundane, the domestic, and give things back their shine. I’m also not the only poet or creative person doing this either. For example, Zenobia Frost and Rebecca Jessen wrote a 12-poem performance based on the Bachelorette! And Holly Isemonger’s award-winning poem ‘OK Cupid’ is another great example of looking at something that perhaps wouldn’t normally be considered poetic in a poetic light.

Q. Several poems speak of the battle involved in “gender options” or of recognition, they bring home the exhaustion, the constant battle. Is writing cathartic for you?

Oh absolutely. The process of using things that have happened to me or someone I know (the misgendering, microagressions, discrimination, abuse…) is something I can angrily, exhaustingly piece together puzzle-like and massage into a poem. Once it’s complete, I feel this tremendous sense of relief and my shoulders relax. If that poem then brings something new to the non-binary conversation or acts as catharsis for someone else, then that’s even better.

Q. I’ve used this question for other poets, so pardon the repetition. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, “The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Some of your work is “unsettling”, do you think that’s a harsh or fair assessment?

Definitely a fair and accurate assessment. I find this weird beauty in the grossness of things. At the Queensland Poetry Festival launch of Milk Teeth, a friend of mine gave me a stunning gift: a small jar containing crystals, lichen, butterfly wings and the small bones of a possum. I was both captivated and unsettled. It was utterly gorgeous but at the same time, would be something that some people might find yucky. I try to bring a similar conflicting duality like that to my work: to engage the reader through casually unsettling their expectations, asking the reader why they might find something unsettling and why. And for all those lofty goals, I also just like writing about mysterious, creepy and gory stuff because I enjoy it, and I can only hope it’s also entertaining for the reader.

Q. Besides the recent book launch, you always appear busy launching zines (in fact I have a copy of your “diary of a lavender plant” zine). Can you tell us a bit about this format of creating and how you got involved?

I got involved in making zines when I was published in Woolf Pack, a Brissie zine for women and non-binary folk. They were also the very first place to publish my poetry! From there, I decided to start making my own zines because it seemed fun, cathartic and accessible. All you need is some paper, glue, scissors and an idea, and you can make a zine! I think it’s that low barrier to entry that gave me the confidence to start getting work out there, being a part of zine fairs and stocking my work at rad places like Junky Comics (Brisbane) and Sticky Institute (Melbourne). One of the things I love about zines is how diverse and DIY they are. You can get your own voice out there and explore new ways of creating.

Q. You have a strong connection to the natural world, section V of the collection focusing on plants for example, is nature the “ultimate triumph”?

Ooh part of me hopes so! I have over 100 plants in my house and outside on my balcony, and I love watching them grow: they wrap around objects in my house, around each other, some of them close their leaves up at night to sleep. I love the idea that perhaps plants are just waiting for us to fuck up the world even more than we’ve already done, before saying enough is enough and taking over, triumphing over us. I like to explore that concept in poems like ‘Abandoned greenhouse’ and ‘EVIDENCE: house plant, Holland Park’.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and it is building up a nice reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I just finished reading Jos Charles’s feeld, which is explores trans narratives and the reclamation of language through this Chaucerian-like transliteration of English. It was utterly incredible and inspiring.

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

I’m currently working on my second poetry collection focusing on non-binary people and space: how non-binary transgender people are allocated or denied spaces in Australian society (including socially, politically, physically, digitally and linguistically), and the way in which our bodies continue to take up space despite marginalisation and violence. I’m also slowly working on a short story collection and on a couple of secret exciting projects, which I’ll hopefully be able to announce soon!

You can read some of my work, order my book and check out my upcoming events at https://raewhite.net/.

 

 

 

Double-Wolf – Brian Castro

Double-Wolf cover

Today I look at a complex book, one that has received little attention since its publication in 1991, so little attention that there is a single review at Goodreads, from somebody who obviously enjoys more straightforward fiction.

“Double-Wolf” is a novel written between parenthesis, an aside, an interruption. The complete book appears between parenthesis, but does that mean it should be dismissed?

Brian Castro’s third novel investigates the famous Sergei Konstanovitch Pankejeff, a patient of Sigmund Freud more commonly known as the Wolf Man. However, in this work he is known as Sergei Wespe, the notes advising us “Wespe, Castro’s name for the novel’s Wolf-Man, is German for wasp. Freud never named his patients when reporting his case studies.”

But it is not only Wespe who appears here, we have the obscure autodidact, living in Australia, Arthur S. Catacomb a character whose book appears in the end bibliography: “Catacomb, Arthur S. Fellow Traveller: In Praise of Freud New York: International Universities Press, 1970”, google this book and you will notice it does not exist, is even the bibliography part of Brian Castro’s fiction?

Catacomb, now down and out and dismissed in the Blue Mountains, is reflecting upon his life, a life that took in working with the Wolf-Man. Castro has taken an existing interesting tale, appropriated it for his fiction, added colourful and complex characters and handed it to the reader to interpret or simply enjoy.

The book opens in Katoomba, a town in the Blue Mountains, 100kms west of Sydney, during winter 1978;

(A misty rain is falling.
It smears the glass like somebody’s spit. Somebody talking too loud, too fast. (p 1)

This section becomes a second person narrative, “your urine streams”, “you’ll have to go out in it”, “if you stand still now”.

We then move to Vienna in 1972, and then finally to Sergei’s first-person narration, the book being a jigsaw puzzle of narrators, voices, interpretations, a musing on fiction;

He’s just attended a conference. He said to them: All writers are wankers. His advice to writers? Get a proper job. He wanted to discourage the herd. You can only speak the truth once. After that, all is paradox.
Later a middle-aged woman came up to him. ‘Mr Wespe,’ she exclaimed, ‘I really didn’t think that was
necessary.’ She took off her spectacles. ‘What about your audience?’ she scolded. ‘You never think of them.’
‘Let them eat words,’ said Wespe.
He was tired of being a curiosity and was in a particularly bad mood thinking of his Th
érèse in the hospital mortuary, turning blue, her lungs still filled with gas. (p 4)

These multiple voices are alluded to in one of the opening epigraphs;

‘Only for the egoist and the dogmatist (and maybe they’re one and the same, although I’m thinking of two different friends of mine) is there one “history” only. The rest of us live with the suspicion that there are as many histories as there are people and maybe a few more…’
(Robert Coover ‘Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?’) (p xvii)

Many histories, maybe more than there are people, but is this also referring to Sigmund Freud’s case history on the “Wolfman”, to him there was “one history”. All of this adds up to a complex book of failed psychoanalysis, a man’s misinterpreted history, recollections, being ostracised, and the fiction created by Freud, as well as fictions created by fictitious writers!

…this idea that somewhere, inside, you were ready to become a hermit, to give it all up, to melt into someone else who inhabited the wilderness, distinguishable only by your handwriting, to be nothing more than an annotation, a note, a mark of such purity and yet of such insignificance that your life would be relished as a mere postscript, an afterword…this is the vanity of the repression of self…a social consequence…the pack gives birth to the outsider. But there is only the outside: you are a ghost-writer. (p109)

In “Double-Wolf” the patient, Wespe, becomes a writer in later life, a purveyor of pulp mysteries. Although there is actually a book called “The Wolf-Man by the Wolf-Man” written by Sergius Pankejeff, edited by Muriel Gardiner with a Foreword by Anna Freud, published by Hill & Wang in the USA in 1991, in this work it is more the fiction musings of Wespe that are the attraction of Catacomb.

A novel that works on numerous levels, using 1st, 2nd and 3rd person narration, a blur of characters, a blending of histories, real and imagined, a questioning of writing and of fiction itself, this work requires re-reading and unpacking on numerous levels. In the introduction to the 2005 edition, Katherine England sums it up so much better than I could;

Double-Wolf is so rich, so complex that virtually every sentence could be annotated. There is a compulsion to draw the prospective reader’s attention to more and more that an aficionado would not want them to miss – to the passing Lacanian play with signs and signifiers, the Joycean overtones underlined with a single Latin reference to Ulysses, to the parody Nazi’s, to Castro’s beguilingly equivocal answer to the wolf dream – another moment of haunting, multi-connected stillness that forms the climax of the novel. There is no way to capture it all, except perhaps to follow the author’s advice; to dance across his work, stepping lightly back and forth between reason and intuition, picking up what appeals and simply enjoying it. There is enough interest here for a lifetime of such dances – and to inspire Castro-informed meanders into Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Borges and Lacan into the bargain. (p xv)

In his two earlier novels, “Birds of Passage” and “Pomeroy” the role of the writer, the play of different narrators and the use of various narrative techniques were all used with stunning effect, here Brian Castro takes it to an extra level, where the fictions, dreams, histories and realities all become blurred, even the bibliographies and notes are fiction (or are they?). A playful addition to his oeuvre, a book I can’t adequately describe, but one I suggest you hunt down and “dance across”.