Monday, 27 April 2015

W is for Williams

Turning away from the weighty tomes today's poem comes from 'Short and Sweet: 101 very short poems' edited by Simon Armitage, and is by the American poet William Carlos Williams. I love particularly poems which capture something very tiny about life, and express it exquisitely.

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

(Linking back to the A to Z Challenge

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Yellow Wallpaper, The Lighthouse and all that (not an A to Z post)

Dewey's 24 hour Read-A-Thon was a low key affair with no Monkey for company but I did have a nice long evening of uninterrupted reading, which is quite a rare thing for me. I joined a read-along of Charlotte Perkins Gilman 'The Yellow Wallpaper' but could not find any discussion of the story on the host blogs. I was expecting it to be a novella, but it is quite a brief short story, and maybe all the more intense for it. Told first person it charts a young woman's descent from a "temporary nervous depression" into the depth of psychosis. It is the kind of tale that leaves you angry and frustrated, at the treatment and attitudes that women had to endure at that time (written well over 100 years ago), but also at their seeming inability to resist them. The word 'hysteria' is used to silence women, to explain their emotions and behaviour in terms of their femaleness, something that must be kept under control.
Early on she says, of her husband: "He is very careful and loving, hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour of the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more."(p.5), and it just makes me fume; she is being patronisingly told to be a good girl and do as she is told, and she ends up feeling it is her fault that she does not want to abide by the prescribed 'treatment'. She spends so much time staring at the vile wallpaper she begins to see things in the pattern: "But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so - I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design." (p.10) The presence of this skulking figure begins to dominate here days: "Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through." (p.19) Until gradually, she herself becomes the trapped figure: "If only the top pattern could be gotten off from the under one! I mean to try it, little by little. I have found out another funny thing, but I shan't tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much. There are only two more days to get this paper off, and I believe John is beginning to notice. I don't like the look in his eyes." (p.20) It is very subtle and low key, a rising tension and suspicion of the people around her. A very disturbing and disconcerting tale. 
All the stories in the book are about women's experiences, how they manage life both with and without men. Many of them tell of women who must charm and win over reluctant husbands so that they can make something more of their lives. The next quote now comes from one entitled 'Turned' about a couple who take in a naive young woman as a servant. When the husband goes away on business the wife discovers that the girl is pregnant, and reacts angrily when she discovers the truth of the situation, but then on further intelligent reflection she makes a wonderfully argued case for the defence of the young girl who in this situation would be viewed by society as a fallen woman:
"Gerta might have done better in resisting the grocer's clerk; had, indeed, with Mrs Marroner's advice, resisted several. But where respect was due, how could she criticise? Where obedience was due, how could she refuse - with ignorance to hold her blinded - until too late?
As the older, wiser woman forced herself to understand and extenuate the girl's misdeed and foresee her ruined future, a new feeling rose in her heart, strong, clear, and overmastering; a sense of the measureless condemnation for the man who had done this thing. He knew. He understood. He could foresee and measure the consequences of his act. He appreciated to the full the innocence, the ignorance, the grateful affection, the habitual docility, of which he deliberately took advantage." (p.145-6)
I have not read all the stories yet but some very interesting insights into the early days of feminist thinking.

The other book I tackled yesterday was 'The Lighthouse' by Alison Moore, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012. (It won the McKittrick Prize, which was interestingly also won by 'Dirty Work' by Gabriel Weston, that I reviewed a few months ago.) Oh, I hated this book ... but in a good way. I hated some of the characters, which is a pretty strong reaction for me. And then I hated the fact that she left the reader in the lurch at the end, though in retrospect it was the right ending, because sometimes, like Carl, you just won't ever know what happened. 
Futh is very mundane kind of bloke, and you almost like him for it, but maybe pity is closer to what I came to feel. He is taking a walking tour in Germany, to escape the reality of separating from his wife. The sad story of his life unfolds gradually as he watch him stagger wearily through the countryside along the Rhine. He seems to inadvertently miss out on a lot of meals, this was what struck me most about the story. It seemed somehow symbolic. The parallel story of Esther, the owner of the first guesthouse he stays in, is an equally sad one; a woman trapped with a cruel man who's affection she still craves, but who has taken to tormenting him just to get his attention. And the fate of a tiny silver lighthouse hangs in the balance throughout the book. 
First is this quote, because it reminded me of something I wrote on another blog:

"The mooring ropes are dropped into the water and Futh, like a disconcerted train passenger unable to tell whether it is his or the neighbouring train which is pulling out of the station, sees the untethered land drawing away from him. The engine chugs and the water turns white between the dock and the outward bound ferry." (p.3)

In this second Esther is contemplating romantic memories of her courtship with Bernard. It is poignant, but I found her nostalgia cloying because of how hard, and how unrealistically, she clings to it:

"She still has these thing. She keeps them in the drawer of her bedside table and looks through them sometimes, putting the dry flower to her nose. She handles the envelope's contents reverently as if these were the memorabilia of a dead pop star rather than the man she married, the man she still lives with.
Bernard, she thinks, would not recall now which film they saw on their first date, might not even remember that they went to the cinema on that occasion." (p.113)

The story lingers repeatedly over the final days on Futh's childhood, before his mother leaves them. Each time little details are added to the telling. It works beautifully as a repeated memory, the way you mind will go over and over significant events, searching for meaning, wishing, if only, things could have happened differently. I think it was these scenes which sucked me in the most, the mundanity of the moment, that then in hindsight takes on this huge significance:

"Futh, deciding to take a walk, stood up and ambled away. He felt his mother watching him go, but when he glanced back she was not looking at him. He wandered further, until he could no longer hear the drone of his father's voice. He was holding the perfume case which he had taken out of his mother's handbag, the silver lighthouse which his granddad had given to his father. His mother called it 'Uncle Ernst's perfume' as if she were just keeping it safe for him, but she wore it a lot of the time. Futh took the glass vial out of its case. He wanted to smell his mother's scent but he did not remove the stopper."(p.145)

And later that evening:

"That night, back in his own bed, Futh heard his mother in the shower. When she came to his room, standing by his pillow in her dressing gown, her face hanging over him like the moon in the night sky, she no longer smelled of violets or sun cream, or the oranges they had eaten on the way home. She smelled of the cigarettes she liked to smoke when she finished something." (p.148)

Smells feature significantly throughout the telling, good smells and bad ones, smells that turn bitter with the passing of time. Both the characters are yearning, Futh for his lost childhood, Esther for her lost marriage, and the crossing of their paths has fateful consequences. What an unexpectedly excellent book (not that I had low expectations, just that the story description is not very promising), easily short enough to read in one sitting, and well worth seeking out. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

V is for Vajdi

Wiki commons

I know a man
who reads all inscriptions on ancient stones
and who knows
the grammars of all languages, dead or alive,
but who cannot read
the eyes of a woman
whom he thinks he loves.

Shadab Vajdi

From the Virago Book of Love Poetry edited by Wendy Mulford.

(Linking back to the A to Z Challenge)

Friday, 24 April 2015

U is for Un

Mariusz Kubik
I returned for today's post to the Poetry Foundation website and found Ko Un, a Korean poet. He has been both a Buddhist monk and a political prisoner, and now works for peace and reunification of his homeland. 

Asking The Way

You fools who ask what god is
should ask what life is instead.
Find a port where lemon trees bloom.
Ask about places to drink in the port.
Ask about the drinkers. 
Ask about the lemon trees.
Ask and ask until nothing's left to ask.

(Linking back to the A to Z Challenge)

Thursday, 23 April 2015

T is for Thomas

T today brings you a poem from Edward Thomas. He was killed in the First World War and according to his wikipedia page he is considered a war poet, though little of his poetry concerns images of war. This poem comes from 'Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems' edited by Wendy Cope, a retired library book that I bought at a charity shop. I like it for its appreciation of the under-appreciated. 

Tall Nettles

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

(Linking back to the A to Z challenge)

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

S is for Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska is a Polish poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, one of only twelve women to receive it. I first discovered her in 'Staying Alive' and went on to buy her first collection translated into english, 'View with a Grain of Sand'. 

The End and The Beginning

After every war
someone has to tidy up.
Things won't pick
themselves up, after all.

Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides 
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by,

Someone has to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.

Someone has to lug the post
to prop the wall
someone has to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
Shirtsleeves wil be rolled
to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listening, nodding
his unsheltered head.
But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who'll find all that
a little boring.

From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.

And then Brainpickings presented me with this lovely reading just recently and so I thought I would give you a multi-sensory post today.

(Linking back to the A to Z Challenge)

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

R is for Roberts

Today's A to Z offering comes again from 'Scanning the Century' (though I think it may appear in several of the anthologies I have), and is by Michèle Roberts. I love it because it is about women's friendships.

For Sian, after thirteen years

oh, this man
what a meal he made of me
how he chewed and gobbled and sucked
in the end he spat me all out

you arrived on the dot, in the nick
of time, with your red curls flying
I was about to slip down the sink like grease
I nearly collapsed, I almost
wiped myself out like a stain
I called for you, and you came, you voyaged
fierce as a small archangel with swords and breasts
you declared the birth of a new life
in my kitchen there was an annunciation
and I was still, awed by your hair's glory

you commanded me to sing of my redemption

oh, my friend, how
you were mother for me, and how
I could let myself lean on you
comfortable as an old cloth
familiar as enamel saucepans
I was child again, pyjama'ed
in winceyette, my hair plaited, and you

listened, you soothed me like cake and milk
you listened to me for three days, and I poured
it out, I flowed all over you like wine, like oil
you touched the place where it hurt
at night, we slept together in my big bed
your shoulder eased me towards dreams

when we met, I tell you
it was a birthday party, a funeral
it was a holy communion
between women, a Visitation
it was two old she-goats butting
and nuzzling each other in the smelly fold

(Linking back to the A to Z Challenge


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