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Beatitude by Larry Closs

Besides all the circumstantial similarities, I thought that Jay actually looked a little like Kerouac, the Kerouac who stared from the black-and-white photographs on the covers of his various books. Same dark hair. Same strong handsome face. Some sad soulful eyes. But there was something that went beyond the physical resemblance. Something that sprang from somewhere inside, something sensed but not seen. A tenderness.

I was very flattered to be asked by Lori from TNBBC to take part in this book tour. For one it feels good to support indie writing, but also the main subject matter of Beatitude happens to concern the ‘Beat’ poets, which is a period I do have a certain fascination with. Particularly now, as the novelty and estrangement of the Beats has faded, so their reassessment in present-day is proving to be quite interesting. Already I’ve reviewed two contrasting examples of this here on the site – Huncke by Rick Mullin and Sideways: Travels With Kafka, Hunter S. and Kerouac by Patrick O’Neill

Author Larry Closs has larger ambitions beyond simply reassessing these works. His character Harry Charity is described at one point in the book as being someone who thinks too much and indeed the story of Beatitude itself charts not only his fascination with the life of Jack Kerouac – the meaning behind his writing, the people in his life, even the kinds of typewriters he used to furiously pound out his intensely personal vision – but how he allows this near-obsession to become intertwined with his own feelings for someone he loves dearly. He pores over footnotes from the biographies of his literary heroes just as avidly as he does the stolen moments he shares with the kindly Jay. The opening scene of Harry and Jay witnessing the unveiling of a preserved work of Kerouac is comparable to pilgrims visiting a shrine. If both men share this strong devotion to the writing of Kerouac, is it not possible that this passion could translate into love for one another?

Harry works as an editor for a successful New York magazine, lives in his Upper West Side apartment with his cat Flannery and in the wake of successive occasions of heartbreak refuses to socialize with colleagues and friends. Life alone is manageable. Then he meets a new member of the design team, Jay, and following an awkward promise to join him at a party – much to the surprise of the other co-workers in the office – Harry finds himself falling for his new found friend. Their shared interest in Kerouac encourages his feelings and the two fall into an easy pattern of reminiscing about the Beats, exchanging trivia and discussing their own artistic ambitions. When Jay’s relationship with his girlfriend hits a bump, Harry dares to hope that something more lies behind the couple’s problems.

The marginalization of the Beats and their descriptions of fluid sexuality in a time when discussions of sex acts themselves were taboo – cf the Howl obscenity trial – was no doubt an aspect of their notoriety. But Harry at one point advances another theory as to what made the Beats special, arguing in a clever title-drop moment that ‘beatitude’ is what Kerouac thought was the real meaning behind the word used to describe him and his peers. “To be Beat was to be in love with life, to exist in a state of beatitude, to exist in a state of unconditional bliss.” While he knows this information, applying its wisdom to his own life takes Harry much longer. His infatuation with Jay is soon paralleled with a previous doomed love affair, revealing why Harry is so emotionally wounded when we first meet him. As he slowly but surely warms to life once more, discovering the means to not only express his feelings but his thoughts in an artistic fashion, Beatitude becomes a richer and more hopeful story about moving on.

Intimate and moving, and with its 90’s setting presenting the tail-end of the Beat generation’s presence on the public stage, Larry Closs has written an intriguing fable about people can sometimes become confused by the intensity of their passions.

Please continue to the next stage of this blog tour to Mandy of Mandythebookworm’s Blog to read Larry Closs’ article Two Roads Diverged: How the Beats did and didn’t inspire Beatitude.

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There are some cheeks that serve no purpose other than taking up space on a face. Sometimes cheeks are just palettes for makeup experiments. Often, cheeks are just things that ache, making it difficult to give pretend-smiles. But then, there are other cheeks. Cheeks that are put on the face on a human being to illuminate the mind-blowing concept of having cheeks. That must be pulled. She had such cheeks. And they asked to be pulled.

I must confess I have been prevaricating over reviewing this book for some time. I was actually intimidated by the prospect of reviewing a book that is only nine pages long. A book of short stories at that. It was only due to the efforts of Irish author Oran Ryan from Seven Towers books that I was convinced to sit down, shut up and read Inklings (Facebook fan page here).

Aparna Warrier‘s stories are examples of flash fiction, brief and to the point. The style really puts Polonius’ line about brevity being the soul of wit to the test. Of the selection of stories contained in Inklings, there are examples of romance, magic realism, even a poem of sorts based on the repetition of two words, ‘violence’ and ‘money’.

This is what intimidated me. How could I even begin to review something like this? As it happens, Warrier was an excellent guide to this style of writing, capturing my interest quickly and delivering a series of well-paced short narratives that still feel complete despite the length. Taking our Time opens the collection, describing a romantic infatuation with a sting in the tail. The reversal in the final line inverts the meaning of the entire piece. Immediately I began to see the advantages of flash fiction. Intoxicated by the Impossibility illustrates the insomnia-inducing extremes of obsession, followed by Who wrote The Rules? an unusual interrogation on the nature of society itself. So What? presents philosophical absurdity, while Oil on Canvas sets about explaining the capacity of art to compliment memory.

The longest story here Always, a whole page and a half long, is a seemingly simple story about a child bring a worm to show and tell in school. However, Warrier perfectly captures the lonely vulnerability of schoolroom isolation, young Priyanka finding a place among the other classmates thanks to ‘Greenie’. It is a telling preview of what the author is more capable of with a longer form.

Of course my favourite story of the bunch is The Revolt of the Coconut Trees magic realism by way of The Day of the Triffids. What I have always loved about John Wyndham’s novel is that it opens with such a funny line, proceeding to describe the invasion of earth by vegetable alien life-forms with a grim black humour. Warrier’s effort is more of an ecological fable, but also has a similar sense of humour.

Overall this is a surprisingly effective collection and a fascinating introduction to flash fiction.

My thanks to the author for my review copy.

Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked

In position for the drive,

Bone-shaken, bumped at speed,

The nurse a passenger in front, you ensconced

In her vacated corner seat, me flat on my back –

Our postures all the journey still the same,

Everything and nothing spoken,

Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast, no transport

Ever like it until then, in the sunlit cold

Of a Sunday morning ambulance

When we might, O my love, have quoted Donne

On love on hold, body and soul apart.

Seamus Heaney? Oh it’s on now. I haven’t forgiven you yet, you vino voleur, you grog guzzler – I will have my vengeance!

‘cough’

And yet – when I read the poem quoted above, titled Chanson d’Aventure one of the early entries to this collection, I could not help but remember my father back home in Ireland. That frustration with wanting to say what is on your mind, but incapable of giving expression to these thoughts due to physical infirmity. Heaney’s words are instantly evocative for me of witnessing my dad’s irritation at his condition. The poem itself refers to the writer’s own stroke in 2006 (I just wasted ten minutes searching the Irish Times website to find mention of this. A golden goose for whoever can find it for me).

I should not be surprised really. A lot of Heaney’s work conjures up images of an Ireland I know, instantly familiar and well realized here through verse. The title is take from one of the poems collected here, which is dedicated to Terence Brown and describes the action of passing ‘bags of meal‘, along a line of aid workers. In this moment the individual becomes a part of a chain of humans, united in a rare moment of communal activity. The work is true, the goal worthy, allowing the insecurities and seperateness of the individual to vanish. An annihilation of self that he suspects can only be equaled by death itself: “A letting go which will not come again/ Or it will, once. And for all.”

My favourite poem from the selection here is The Conway Stewart, a beautiful transformation of a new pen into a living creature, an ally for the poet to help in the composition of future works:

The nib uncapped,

Treating it to its first deep snorkel

In a newly opened ink-bottle,

I am also fond of An Old Refrain which contrasts the ordinary English words for countryside fauna with the local idomatic descriptors of Heaney’s Northern Irish childhood.

Where I start to look in askance at the page is the later poems referring to the Aeneid and provincial French poetry. On the one hand I admire the effort to place poetry drawing a connection between Irish countryside life with Provence, but it is not an association that comes naturally. For one the poet mentioned here Eugène Guillevic seems like a more natural companion to English masters like William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy. Peppering verse with different French words does not help the attempt at solidifying the connection between Ireland and the Continent. Ireland is part of Europe, but I feel as if this attempt to be more European only succeeds at turning a blind eye to life in my homeland. I am reminded of John Banville‘s early attempts to be a more European author:

“So I decided, with no cosmopolitan experience, to turn myself into a European novelist of ideas: Banville, the modern European master. I was young. I was reckless. There are people who tell me they think Doctor Copernicus and Kepler were my best books, but I feel now that in those novels I took a wrong direction, that I should have done something else.”

Even that famous neologism of Ireland’s most famous literary expat James Joyce – ‘riverrun‘ – appears in the poem Colum Cille Cecinit. Joyce is literary Ireland, but how many of the Irish have read Ulysses, or even A Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man? Perhaps that is an unfair question, but it played on my mind when reading some of these poems. They seem isolated from life at home.

Yes the material is familiar to me and I do not think Seamus Heaney could fail to evoke strong memories of home and the past if he tried, but I suspect for me it is not enough.

 

Where does all that fluff

come from for heaven’s sake?

They say it’s flakes of skin.

Take care – someone might

collect it all

and make little models

of you.

I have stated before on the blog that I am reluctant to review poetry for ‘A book a day…’, because I feel it cheapens the value of it. Poems should be enjoyed in quiet reflection, the reader should take their time to let the meaning of the verses sink in. Unfortunately time is one thing I do not have. Still I have made exceptions while writing this blog for two reasons. Firstly I enjoy poetry and want to include it here, despite my misgivings; and secondly I believe modern poetry especially is something that should be celebrated more.

Linda Coggin – who according to the publisher’s bio starred in Ken Russell’s Gothic, which is such a wonderfully weird film (though not up there with his demented take on Bram Stoker‘s The Lair of the White Worm) that she is immediately awesome in my eyes – presents a short collection of poems that are drawn from ordinary life. The poems also exhibit a notable quirkiness, a welcome skew on day to day events.

The opening quote chosen above is taken from a piece titled ‘Fluff in the Ideal Home‘, which begins with a list of household objects and with each verse makes these things seem more lifelike, ending with the admonition to take care – in case of some voodoo animation coming into play.

‘Dead Man Walking’ eulogises the second hand clothing of dead men that has gone on to have new life after their owners are deceased. Once again there is this curious notion of object, ordinary items, becoming invested with the stuff of life.

Death is also ordinary, the small mercies that can be offered to the dying – ‘We made small gestures/ of comfort/ water on the lips/ morphine in the veins/‘ – but also how a life can pass out of the world without any impact. ‘Alice Dunn – an obituary‘ describes a simple existence within a small village community, that began in a house numbered four and ends two doors down at number six. The poem ends with the line ‘It must have been the gypsy in her soul.

‘Job Exchange‘ describes the roles people play in their lives, sometimes in conflicting and at times in secret.

The janitor, who was really

a poet

pushed a perambulator in iambic pentameter

In ‘Entirely Spider‘ a woman is transformed from a lonely arachnophobe to a courageous defender of her children from that same fear. Becoming a mother has taught her to appreciate the small life of the spider, who is also raising a brood. It is a wonderful little fable disguised as a poem. Not as a Friend has the poet compare herself to her own mother, trying to imagine if she had known her as a child, would they have become friends.

but I can recognize in the pictures

the shape of my mouth

the way you stand awkwardly

on one leg like I do.

So in a way I had been there

‘Lilith’ is a departure, which describes the casting out of Adam’s first wife as a liberation -

She watched soft, compliant Eve

smoothing Adam’s bed

Lilith is occasionally utilised as an anti-patriarchal symbol, her insistence on coupling with Adam on top being the reason for her rejection. Coggin has her be transformed into a bird, but feel relieved not to have to submit to Adam – and by association his male descendants.

Coggin’s poetry is both incisive and quirkily humourous. Well worth investigating.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

Is there – and this is the question, the real question – is there one girl, just one, whether she be called Bea or Eva or Djemia, who has not experienced the war? Just one who has not made war with her body, with her gentle face and moist eyes, with her mouth and teeth, with her hair? Just one who has been neither prey for the hunter, nor hunter herself? On all sides are watchful gazes, darts bristling from loop-holes. On all sides, breastplates, shields, scabbards, arrows, machine-gun barrels.

Stephanie gave me this book as a gift. “Here’s a nice short one”, she said, an easy read that would not take up too much of our time during the weekend. Oh how wrong she was.

I have gobbled down some fat books well under a day. As I tell people, this is usually because I have an interest in the material. If I am having a good time reading, my speed increases. If I am having a hard time, my reading speed crawls to a halt. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying today’s book was poorly written – I do not have the courage to go up against the judges of The Nobel Prize for Literature – but it certainly belied its slim size.

This book is something very special.

For a start, from the book’s beginning the tone is quite similar to a long-form prose poem. War is described as an onrushing event, an already present eschaton, indeed the inevitable death of humanity itself that is prophesied by modernity. Bea B and her lover Monsieur X are the nominal protagonists of this book, witness to the dehumanising influence of ‘war’. The ruining of a face is revealed to be symbolic for the destruction of a cityscape. Bea B imagines herself becoming electricity and infusing a simple light-bulb with energy. War is the chaos of clashing forces, the impossible to predict outcome of humanity’s desire to destroy itself.

Le Clezio extrapolates this same desire from every innocuous element in life. Each chapter opens with a seemingly random quote from science, literature and science fiction. A particular favourite was a long quotation from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, describing a world entirely covered in artificial, man-made structures. Le Clezio shines a new light on this most anachronistic of science fiction authors, identifying a Ballardian aspect to his writing that has perhaps gone unnoticed. Ballard is largely credited as a prophet of urban nihilism and War certainly evokes a similar style. This is a comparison that, thankfully, others have noticed.

I also found his vision of the apocalypse, an absurdist eruption of meaninglessness, reminiscent of Antonin Artaud, where the apocalypse is simply a breakown in our sense of what is real, what is normal. Le Clezio mines a similar theme, such as when Bea B. finds herself involved in a ‘man hunt’, or Monsieur X’s description of events in Vietnam. That he can describe such war crimes in such a matter of fact manner once again underlines the omnispresence of horror and destruction in today’s world. So who is to say that the ‘war’, has not already begun?

I found this to be a very difficult read, but a nonetheless incredible piece of writing. Sublimated poetry, with a philosophical tone, a literary revelation.


‘If she didn’t live in a big house how could it be a question of her having rooms to spare? If she were not amply lodged you’d lack ground to approach her. Besides, a big house here, and especially in this quartier perdu, proves nothing at all: it’s perfectly consistent with a state of penury. Dilapidated old palazzi, if you’ll go out of the way for them, are to be had for five shillings a year. And as for the people who live in them – no, until you’ve explored Venice socially as much as I have, you can form no idea of their domestic desolation. They live on nothing, for they’ve nothing to live on.’

Right that’s it. I am decided. I will never travel to Venice. Only bad things happen there. As for evidence, I present you with Death in Venice; Don’t Look Now; the city’s a literary death trap! Plus I hear Venetians don’t like tourists and I look just like a tourist. Even when I am at home.

So this book’s setting earns a black mark from me, but also its author. I have had a troubled history with Henry James. I tried to read The Portrait of a Lady when I was a teenager (I believe the Nicole Kidman film had just come out). I did not make it past the second chapter. The prose just killed me, it was far too dense. I have since managed to read The Turn of the Screw (an excellent book that has been adapted into an equally excellent film - The Innocents), but that was nice and short, not long enough for James’ prose style to hurt my fragile brain.

This book is equally short and I am quite grateful for it.

The Aspern Papers is concerned with the efforts of our nameless narrator, a poetry devotee, to worm his way into the affections of two ladies who may in possession of missing material belonging to the dead poet Jeffrey Aspern. Pretending to be an innocent lodger, the narrator moves into the home of Miss Juliana Bordereau, a former lover of Aspern. Attempting to feel out how she would respond to his request for information about his literary hero, he discovers that her reserve is unaffected by his obsequious entreaties. Instead he turns to her niece, Tina, who proves more amenable to his advances.

A curious game of cat and mouse emerges, bound up in wordplay and the limits of politeness. As Miss Juliana’s health begins to fail, the narrator becomes more desperate to become the beneficiary of his literary hero’s legacy. How far is he willing to do.

I have to say I actually found myself enjoying the prose of my nemesis with this book. James invests an incredible amount of psychological detail into his characters. The narrator’s treatment of Tina is quite cruel, but she is revealed to have hidden stores of strength, taking him by surprise before the story’s conclusion. Miss Juliana might be a Dickensian Miss Haversham (certainly in the narrator’s covetous eyes she is), were it not for the fact that she has lived a full life and now simply wants to be left to her memories. What right does this book thief have to plunder them?

A civilized battle of wits, with a satirical bent. Surprisingly enjoyable for me.

[...] poets scorn

The boundaried love of country, being free

Of winds, and alien lands, and distances

Vagabonds of the compass, wayfarers

Pilgrims of thought, the tongues of Pentecost

Their privilege, and in their peddler’s pack

The curious treasures of their stock-in-trade

Bossy and singular, the heritage

Of poetry and science, polished bright

Thin with the rubbing of too many hands

Last Monday Stephanie and I travelled out to Kiama to take in the sights. It was a beautiful day, the sun was causing little birds to queue up for shallow bird baths and the town itself has a lovely series of shops that stock tasty condiments, dessert sweets and some unusual jewellery. There was of course also a second-hand book shop, which I made a bee-line for.

There I picked out this book, as I have always wanted to learn more about Vita Sackville-West. All I really knew about her was that she inspired the Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Indeed she is most famous these days as Woolf’s lover, a great woman reduced to a footnote. I flipped through the book, with its water-damaged cover and dedication dated 1939 – and found on the back page a poem written by the book’s original owner.

So here’s what I am doing folks. I am going to quote the poem in full, here, so that it lives on and survives this decaying book. Just a little gesture on my part to this book lover who was inspired by Sackville-West to write his own poem -

Plus and Minus

What is a tree before the Spring?

A skeleton, a scaffolding

And yet the inner spirit grieves

At the officiousness of leaves

 

When does it most delight the age?

In January or July?

And in the sum of loveliness

How much is figure, how much dress?

George Keogh

Anyway, back to the business of reviewing.

Sackville-West long-form poem is split between the four seasons, beginning with Winter. Each seperate season is allocated it’s own canto and within each of these the perspective of an assortment of labourers, farmers and country-folk is described. The relationship between man and the land he tills is described as an alternating master/slave dialectic:

There is a bond between the men who go

From youth about the business of the earth,

And the earth they serve, their cradle and their grave

This same passage leads to what I think is the most devastatingly beautiful line in the collection:

Life’s little lantern between dark and dark

Her purpose is not to condescend to the ‘yeoman’, and ‘shepherds’ cited within their verses, but to celebrate them, frame their labour as an expression of the purpose of humanity itself. Sackville-West takes the pastoral Romantic vision of, say Wordsworth, and  injects it with the individualistic thrust of Walt Whitman. The Land is also passionately nationalistic:

An English cornfield in full harvesting

Is English as the Bible

The English weather is cited as a temperate ideal envied by ‘exiles’, in other parts of the world.

The purpose of the poet is to celebrate and promote such ideals of individuality and nationhood, but also the essential role played by ‘ordinary workers’, in sustaining humanity’s foothold on the earth. In a sense, Sackville-West is attempting to collapse the rarefied divide between upper-class literary society and the working class. High learning may be of no practical use, but the farmer, the bee-keeper and the gardener has a deeper understanding of the world than insensate Romantics:

I have not understood humanity.

But those plain things, that gospel of each year,

Made me the scholar of simplicity

The passing of the seasons is shown not just to require different activities in relation to harvesting and husbandry, but in turn causes the men who work the land to change. The fields that have been ploughed and tilled should not be mistaken for a beaten opponent. Those who work the land should respect it as an ally, a companion. Somewhere in between the free-flowing verse of pastorals and the dry concerns of farming, a middle-ground is sought, where true understanding can be found that outstrips empty talk of Nature(!).

To a contemporary reader perhaps Sackville-West‘s language seems too old-fashioned, but consider the audience she was pitching this work to. The Land received the Hawthornden Prize in 1926, so I imagine her message was heard. Of course the idealism and forward-looking culture that rose up following the ‘Great War‘, would soon be lost..

A socially conscious corrective to Romanticism, beautifully captured.

 

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