Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Twelve moons

I put Mary Oliver's 'Wild Geese' on my 101 books list, but 'Twelve Moons' was the one that the library had so I requested it anyway. It has loitered in the living room for a couple of weeks being read intermittently. 

At first glance they are quite nature-y poems, but paying closer attention on subsequent perambulations through the collection revealed a wider variety of themes; bears, snakes, wolves, bats and raccoons populate her woods, both threatening and familiar, and a selection of mysterious characters punctuate the list of titles, but all with strong links to the wilder side of life, and based around the twelve poems with moon references. She manages to encapsulate an intriguing tiny story into each poem, they are never mere descriptions.
The snake appears repeatedly, alive:"A black snake, / Coiled in the sun, flutters / Its forked tongue and lied/ Like a stroke of oil over / The path." (Looking for Mushrooms), dead: "Now he lies looped and useless / as an old bicycle tyre" (The Black Snake), and asleep: "they sleep in their cold cauldron: a flickering broth / six months below simmer." (Snakes in Winter). In Strawberry Moon a great aunt is seduced and hides (or is hidden) in shame: "At sixty-one, she took in boarders, / washed their dishes, / made their beds, / spoke whatever had to be spoken, / and no more." A staid piano teacher with a house full of "knick-knacks" becomes something else as she plays: "her eyes luminous and wilful, / her pinned hair falling down - / forgetting, the house, the neat green yard, / she fled in that lick of flame all tedious bond" (Music Lessons).  In Lil a child takes bread to an elderly hermit neighbour: "She thanked me, in a voice / sweet as a bell, while behind her / oh the clutter, the dirt! the smell of her lonely meditations!" And an invented relative, Aunt Leaf, a flight of fancy: "While she,  / old twist of feathers and birch bark, / would walk in circles wide as rain and then / float back / scattering the rags of twilight / on fluttering moth wings". 
The moons do not appear cyclical, just ever present with a kind of watchfulness, observing and, at times, apparently governing what goes on below. So many ways to see the moon: "round and full and milk-white / as a woman's breast" (Flower Moon), "The moon steps lower, / quietly changing / her luminous mask, brushing / everything as she passes / with her slow hands / and soft lips" (Harvest Moon), "you turn in your bed / to watch the moon rise, and once more / see what a small coin it is / against the darkness" (Beaver Moon), "The moon / sinks like the dime that buys nothing anymore." (Neutralities)
The cold, winter, and darkness predominate, nighttime envelops the reader with its dreams and ghosts, but we encounter death as a natural part of life: Here in 'For Eleanor' who is dying of cancer: "Probably, sooner or later, it will snow. / The white flakes will fly over the hillsides / Smoothing out everything, settling / Calm as a sheet over a tired body" but also tragically, one poem beginning "When somewhere life / breaks like a pane of glass" and ending "and somewhere, for someone, life / is becoming moment by moment / unbearable." (Beaver Moon - the Suicide of a Friend). The poems are lyrical without being florid and the descriptions are more quiet and understated. Often the woods become a character in themselves, with intentions and desires. I sent a letter to Monkey containing the poem 'Sleeping in the Woods', it seemed apposite to their current rehearsals for Midsummer Night's Dream: "I thought the earth / remembered me, she / took me back so tenderly, arranging / her dark skirts, her pockets / full of lichens and seeds."

I enjoyed last week listening to this lovely interview over on Brainpickings (probably where I first heard of her), and the more I have flicked back and forth through this little volume of poems the more I like her. It is always a mistake to borrow poetry from the library, for I just get attached to it and then have to return it. I loved the idea of 'an inscrutable presence' so I leave you with this one:

The Lamps

Eight o'clock, no later,
You light the lamps,

The big one by the large window,
The small one on your desk.

They are not to see by - 
It is still twilight out over the sand,

The scrub oaks and cranberries, 
Even the small birds have not settled

For sleep yet, out of reach
Of prowling foxes. No,

You light the lamps because
You are alone in your small house

And the wicks spluttering gold
Are like two visitors with good stories

They will tell slowly, in soft voices,
While the air outside turns quietly

A grainy and luminous blue.
You wish it would never change - 

But of course the darkness keeps
Its appointment. Each evening,

An inscrutable presence, it has the final word
Outside every door.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

"Duck Everyone, Play Dead"

I acquired a few books on my visit to mum and dad, some from their shelves and some from a charity shop trawl in Newton Abbott (an excellent place for charity shops if you are ever down that way). There were a couple, like Golden Notebook and Cold Comfort Farm from my 101 books challenge list that I knew mum would have, though she announced that she dislikes Doris Lessing despite having most of her books. I am most pleased with Fried Green Tomatoes that I found for 99p.

On the journey down to Devon I consumed with relish 'Man at the Helm' by Nina Stibbe. I started it a week or so ago over breakfast and was laughing out loud, and continued to do so on the train. It is narrated by ten-year-old Lizzy who gives us the tale of her and her sister's attempts to find a new man for their mother after the breakup of her marriage leaves them in somewhat reduced circumstances and she takes to consuming pills and hiding in bed. I liked the nostalgia trip because it is set in the 70's so many of the experiences she relates were very familiar. ("My sister and I started going to London on our own on the train, with a bit of cash and a Whizzer and Chips for me, and whatever book my sister was reading at the time" (p.63)).

Quite how they get away with writing letters on their mother's behalf I'm not sure but they manage to conspire to get various men into the house so that they can be charmed by her youth and beauty (she is, fortunately, young and beautiful). However most of them are already married. In the meantime they have to contend with a hostile village community and a lack of their former housekeeper Mrs Lunt, their mother being constitutionally unsuited to housework means that the domestic neglect quickly becomes dire. To make herself feel better their mother vents her anger at their father, and the world in general by writing plays that they then act out for her; they become an ongoing and significant feature of the story:

"To begin with, after the split, I thought I was quite glad to be rid of him. But actually, I missed him - his dinnertime appearances being better than nothing and his mild disapproval suddenly seemed quite important. And hearing about his love affair - which we did via a short play-act our mother wrote recalling her discovery of it - my opinion of him changed. It was exciting and unexpected. He was flesh and blood all of a sudden, whereas before he'd seemed like a dusty old statue, to be driven around and avoided." (p.7-8)

"Sometimes the play writing would ward of misery and she'd bounce around with staging ideas and on those days we hated the play because it was those days she'd beg us to enact it when we'd rather be watching Dick Emery. Other times, she didn't have the energy to write (usually because she'd not started early enough and was too drunk) and on these days we longed for the play." (p.29)

"We followed our mother downstairs and huddled together on the chesterfield at the chilly end of the kitchen and discussed the parade and the fancy dress competition. Our mother wasn't going out after all: she was writing a one-act play called The Female Vixen about the wife of a huntsman who tames a wild fox just to prove she can and is then stuck with a tame fox that can't ever be returned to the wild and gets addicted to Shredded Wheat. Which sounded quite exciting." (p.35-6)

I loved the very matter of fact style, which did come across very effectively as the voice of a slightly precocious child. It is partly the way that children do not have artificial politeness or avoid subjects that adults would, she just tells it like it is. The portrait of conservative village life is just wonderful, witty and captures the attitudes of the time so well. This is a nice one, when the local funfair has been cancelled due to a domestic dispute and attempted suicide (I like the way 'the village' becomes like a character itself):

"That was the things about this village: you couldn't do anything without a whole bunch of people knowing about it. You couldn't even jump into a canal to drown yourself without people queuing up to jump in and drag you out. The village was furious about the shooting, not only because of the cancellation of the fair but because it ended up on the Nine O'Clock News read by Richard Baker and put the village in a bad light. The village blamed the wife for being provocative and wanting too many material things when the poor husband was only on an overlocker's wage in spite of living on a farm." (p.112)

Things go from bad to worse as their mother hides from the financial problems (created mainly I felt by owning four ponies, but exacerbated by her naivety and an exploitative boyfriend) and they end up moving house to the new estate outside the village and their mother gives in and gets a job. It turns out to be the making of her. Even though the premise seems a bit suspicious, the idea that she is 'disapproved of' by the village for being a divorcee and that only having a husband will make them socially acceptable (I guess reflecting the attitude of the time) but she makes the point at the end that it's not about not needing a man at the helm but that coping alone is hard and having someone to worry about you and help and support you makes life better. As much as it is about their mother's struggles it is also about Lizzy and her growing up, so one last one that summed up for me something I certainly experienced at that age, and to some extend continue to find about being a woman. Her friend Melody starts carrying around a handbag (an item that I hold in deep contempt):

"It was because she couldn't perform any two-handed task while holding it, due to the hoops being too small in circumference to be slipped onto the shoulder. So, time after time, I'd be left holding it while she fiddled with her shoelace or gate latch. It wasn't as if the bag ever had anything worth carrying in it either, such as a Wagon Wheel or a penknife. I could tell this by the weight - it was, for all its stupid bucket-size, light as a feather. It was, like so many women's things, like a clumsy prop for a fancy-dress costume.
It sounds harsh, I know, but I had just realised that opting for anything sensible in the way of bags, shoes, trousers (even books and hobbies) marked you out as a tomboy (even if you weren't a tomboy as such), and although being a tomboy was thought by adults to be marvellous, it was a problem when it came to other children. Other tomboys might admire you but would often want to compete in tomboyishness, and that meant possibly having to fight them or having to jump off a roof or watch them dissect a wasp without minding.
Non-tomboys would not admire you - they'd think you were heading in the wrong direction and were either a lesbian in the making, which seemed a bad choice, or too lazy to make the effort for womanhood. I suppose they had to think these things in order to justify their own inconveniences and encumbrances. But back then it felt like a trap." (p.292-3)

Fallen leaves

"For the time being,
Words scatter ...
Are they fallen leaves?
I'm not very good at poetry, but when I read old Jiko's  poem, I saw an image in my mind of this big old  ginkgo tree in the grounds of her temple. The leaves are shaped like little green fans, and in the autumn they turn bright yellow and fall off and cover the ground, painting everything pure golden. And it occurred to me that the big old tree is a time being, and Jiko is a time being, too, and I could imagine myself searching for lost time under the tree, sifting through the golden leaves that are her scattered golden words." (p.24)

'A Tale for the Time Being' by Ruth Ozeki. Oh I so enjoyed this book. I love books that tell several stories at once, and in this one we have the story of Ruth and Oliver and a cat named Schrödinger who live in an obscure and isolated little corner of Canada, and Nao, a young Japanese girl suffering the traditional trials of adolescence, and her great-grandmother Jiko who is a buddhist nun. Also her great-uncle Haruki#1, who was a kamikaze pilot. On the beach near her home Ruth finds a plastic bag containing a diary and letters, that she believes has been washed across the Pacific following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, and she begins to read about Nao's life and becomes increasingly curious about her story and her family. Nao's father is very depressed and keeps trying to kill himself. Having recently returned to Japan from a childhood in America Nao is tormented by her classmates as an incomer, a situation that goes from bad to worse and drives her to the point of equal despair. And then she spends the summer with her great-grandmother.

This book has so much going on, so many themes and ideas. First the idea of time, and how people exist within time and how the passage of time affects us, how our experience of time is not a constant thing. She plays with the kind of language that we use when talking about time and deliberately confuses Ruth (the character), who becomes convinced that what she is reading in the diary is happening in real time.

"Time interacts with attention in funny ways.
At one extreme, when Ruth was gripped by the compulsive mania and hyper focus of an Internet search, the hours seemed to aggregate and swell like a wave, swallowing huge chinks of her day.
At the other extreme, when her attention was disengaged and fractured, she experienced time at its most granular, wherein moments hung around like particles, diffused and suspended in standing water." (p.91)

"Old Jiko's past is very far away, but even if the past happened not so long ago, like my own happy life in Sunnyvale, it's still hard to write about. That happy life seems realer than my real life now, but at the same time it's like a memory belonging to a totally different Nao Yasutani. Maybe that Nao of the past never really existed, except in the imagination of this Nao of the present, sitting here in a French maid café in Akiba Electricity Town. Or maybe it's the other way around." (p.97)

Then I was learning a great deal about Japan, a culture of which I am pretty much entirely ignorant. There are bits of conversation in Japanese with translations, which often serve to point out how hard it is to understand another language when they have an entirely different way of expressing ideas.

" 'Maa, so kashira,' she said, which is one of those Japanese answers that means absolutely nothing." (p.208)

There is a lot of discussion around the subject of suicide, historically the idea of ritual suicide and about how Japanese society views suicide very differently from the West, but also relating to her father, Haruki#2, and also to Haruki#1, her great-uncle, who talks through his letters and secret diary about the experience of being conscripted to be a kamikaze pilot. Letter from Haruki#1 January 1944:

"When I learned our student exemptions were terminated, I knew I would die, and I was overcome with an emotion akin to relief upon hearing the news. Finally, after these long months of waiting and not knowing, to be certain even if it was the certainty of death, felt exhilarating! the way ahead was clear, and I could stop worrying about all the silly metaphysical business of life - identity, society, individualism, totalitarianism, human will - that in university had so preoccupied and clouded my mind. In the face of certain death all those notions seemed trivial, indeed." (p.251-2)

And also simply the subtitles of how different cultures are, here a conversation between Haruki#2 and Professor Leistiko:

" 'This is why I think shame must be different from conscience. They say we Japanese are a culture of shame, so maybe we are not so good at conscience? Shame comes from outside, but conscience must be a natural feeling that comes from a deep place inside an individual person. They say we Japanese people have lived so long under the feudal system that maybe we do not have an individual self in the same way Westerners do. Maybe we cannot have a conscience without an individual self. i do not know. This is what I am worrying about.' " (p.308-9)

I am assuming it is not a coincidence that the character is named 'Nao'. She is such an interesting young woman, because she is utterly a teenager, with teenage concerns and interests, but we also watch her struggling to make sense of the world and her place in it:

"You have to get the timing just right, and even though I was scared to make a mistake in front of all those people, I think I did a pretty good job. I really like drumming. While I'm doing it, I am aware of the sixty-five moments that Jiko says are in the snap of a finger. I'm serious. When you're beating a drum, you can hear when the BOOM comes the teeniest bit too late or the teeniest bit too early, because your whole attention is focussed on the razor edge between silence and noise. Finally I achieved my goal and resolved my childhood obsession with now because that's what a drum does. When you beat a drum, you create NOW, when silence becomes a sound so enormous and alive it feels like you're breathing in the clouds and the sky, and your heart is the rain and thunder.
Jiko says that this is an example of the time being. Sound and no-sound. Thunder and silence." (p.238)

As usual too much going on for me to be able to explain why it was such a great book. Alongside the main story we have Nao's increasing curiosity about the girls who work the bar, life at the temple with Jiko, all the wonderful quirky characters in the community where Ruth an Oliver live, the vulnerability they experience by being so remote and the slightly strange subplot of the disappearing cat. This has been waiting to be posted since last week so I am just going to finish now. A wonderful book, definitely add it to your list.



Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Poetry in Devon

Hey Tor Wiki Commons
Staying with my parents for a few days, and strode up a very steep hill to admire the view from Hey Tor. In amongst the helpful guidebooks to Devon that dad leaves in the spare room for their frequent visitors I came across a copy of 'One Secret Thing' by Sharon Olds. It begins with some very graphic war poems, fitting in appropriately with our viewing of 'Touched by Auschwitz' this evening, but this one, in contrast, made me smile:

Diagnosis
By the time I was six months old, she knew something
was wrong with me. I got looks on my face
she had not seen on any child
in the family, or the extended family,
or the neighbourhood. My mother took me in
to the pediatrician with the kind hands,
a doctor with a name like a suit size for a wheel:
Hub Long. My mom did not tell him
what she thought in truth, that I was Possessed.
It was just these strange looks on my face - 
he held me up, and conversed with me,
chatting as one des with a baby, and my mother
said, She's doing it now! Look!
She's doing it now! and the doctor said,
What your daughter has
is called a sense
of humor. Ohhh, she said, and took me
back to the house where the sense would be tested
and found to be incurable.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Hunger

'Hunger' by Knut Hamsun was first published back in 1890 and is considered one of the first modernist novels. What they mean by this is a book in which nothing happens, and the entire novel is made up of the internal monologue of the main character as he struggles to make sense of his experiences. I should have read the 'afterword' first as it explains quite a bit about the writer and what he was trying to do in the novel. There are also pages and pages of notes about the translation, since the subtleties of the language is what makes such a book interesting and therefore getting the nuances as close to the original as possible is important. I confess I did not read them. It's not that I dislike books in which nothing happens. I was recently rereading my review of Austerlitz, which is similarly a tale in which nothing much happens, and I was totally engaged by it. 

I came to the conclusion that the book should have been entitled 'Pride' rather than 'Hunger', because it is more about him being proud than being hungry, in fact he is mostly hungry because he is too proud. A nameless young man is scraping a living writing articles, but gradually, inexorably, drifting into destitution, and rather than get a job that he considers beneath him he struggles on, living from hand to mouth, being hungry most of the time, pawning all his possessions until he has only the clothes he stands up in. He gives money away randomly when he has some, or fritters it extravagantly. Much of the time he is too ashamed to ask for help, but then he will randomly approach people on the flimsiest of acquaintance. As he gets more hungry his behaviour becomes erratic and chaotic; he makes up lies to cover for his weird behaviour and sometimes actively rejects offers of assistance. The shame of being poor consumes him and he goes to extraordinary lengths to pretend that he is somehow respectable, everything about the way he is forced to live leaves him crushed by humiliation. Here he gives in and shows up at the police station to get a bed for the night:

" 'Name?' the officer on duty asked.
'Tangen - Andreas Tangen.'
I don't know why I lied. My thoughts fluttered about in disarray and gave me more fanciful notions that I could handle. I hit upon this far-fetched name on the spur of the moment and tossed it out without any ulterior motive. I lied unnecessarily.
'Occupation?'
Now he was forcing me to the wall. Hmmm! I thought first of turning myself into a tinsmith but didn't dare; I had given myself a name not borne by each and every tinsmith, and besides I was wearing glasses. Then it came into my head to be foolhardy - I took a step forward and said, firmly and solemnly, 'Journalist.'
The officer on duty gave a start before writing it down, and I stood before the counter with the lofty air of a homeless cabinet minister." (p.70)

But the night in the cells is so disturbing that he never repeats it:

"My nervous state had got out of hand, and however hard I tried to fight it, it was no use. A prey to the quirkiest fantasies, there I sat shushing myself, humming lullabies, perspiring with the effort to calm myself down. I stared out into the darkness - and never in my born days had I seen such a darkness. There was no doubt that here I found myself before a special kind of darkness, a desperate element with no one had previously been aware of. The most ludicrous ideas filled my mind, and every little thing frightened me. I am greatly absorbed by the tiny hole in the wall by my bed, a nail hole I came across, a mark in the masonry. I feel it, blow into it, and try to guess its depth. That was no innocent hole, not by any means; it was a very intricate and mysterious hole that I had to beware of. Obsessed by the thought of this hole, quite beside myself with curiosity and fear, I finally had to get out of bed and find my half-penknife to measure its depth, so I could assure myself that it didn't go all the way into the next cell." (p.72)

It sometimes feels as if it is as much the social isolation as the hunger that sends him crazy. When you live too long inside your own head things take on a disproportionate significance. Here is the office of the local newspaper editor:

"I looked about me in the small office: busts, lithographs, clippings, and an immense wastebasket that looked as though it could swallow a man whole. I felt sad at the sight of this huge maw, these dragon's jaws which were always open, always ready to receive fresh scrapped writings - fresh blasted hopes." (p.110)

All the time he pretends to people that everything is fine, both friends and random strangers. He gets his foot run over and crushed, but he is too proud and just pretends that he is fine. He feels ashamed when he has nothing to give when he sees other people in need, but seems unable to accept that he is in the same position. He lurches from crisis to crisis, never taking any real decisions but allowing himself to be carried on the tide of random events. He appears to have a quite fatalistic attitude, arguing to himself that there is nothing else he can do but accept his inevitable demise. But at the same time you can see that the shame is not imaginary, people around him are judging him for his poverty, blaming him, no wonder he thinks so poorly of himself. I found myself just so irritated with him, and now realise that I was doing just that, blaming his poverty on his poor decisions, while having read  the book you could see how his hunger and deprivation made him almost literally incapable of making rational decisions. I have never been that poor but it is not such a huge leap of the imagination to understand how poverty becomes a downward spiral; he realises that his appearance is now so scruffy and neglected that he will find it hard to persuade anyone to give him a job, and he has no resources to fall back on, no possessions and then not even a place to live. With stories filling the newspapers today about people forced into destitution by benefit sanctions you are left feeling that rather than being an in depth psychological study of human misery this book instead foreshadows the social divide that is currently affecting our society. Not much food, but lots of food for thought. 

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Like and Unlike

I know the monkey blanket is finished, but my obsession continues apace and I now have 181 puffs towards a total of 600 that I am doing for my next Beekeeper Quilt. My sister Claire visited this week and we balled up some homespun and home-dyed yarn that has been lying around for several years and knitted a couple. I have been making lots of stripey ones recently so this variegated yarn is great, it saves me having to change the colours all the time. Hexipuffs will always be a 'like' post.


Also liking that I have finally made some progress on my Bute sweater. It has been in the pipeline for more than six months. The front and back are done!!! The first sleeve is underway and it feels like I might get it done just in time for the warmer weather.







On the not so 'like' side of the post is 'The hen who dreamed she could fly' by Sun-Mi Hwang. I nearly didn't bother mentioning it I was so disappointed. I picked up this book almost at random because of lovely things written about it on the cover. I paid real money for it, which is most annoying because I don't buy books that often. Lots of people seem to think it's wonderful. Sorry, not me. I realise it is an extended allegory but I did not find this to be a heartwarming tale of motherhood. I wonder if it is a cultural thing, that in Korea it is expected that mothers sacrifice themselves for their children. It was also the weird mixtures of behaviours and relationships between the 'characters'. We are back I suppose to the anthropomorphism again, if you are going to make your animals behave like people then make them behave like people, don't make it a mixture of animal and human. It's The Animals of Farthing Wood all over again (the kids loved this, I hated it!). The whole book just seemed like a vastly over extended children's story; it should have been 20 pages long and pitched at 5-7 year olds. 

Superpowers

There seems to have been a lot of hubbub around Karen Joy Fowler's 'We are All Completely Beside Ourselves', even the audiobook is in a queue and the librarian said I could only have it for a week. I used my day off to knit and listen.

SPOILER ALERT
I loved this story. I had not read any spoilers so had no idea what to expect. It is about the complexities of family bonds, but made oh so much more complicated by the presence of another species. It elicits some very profound and mixed emotional responses, because of the nature of anthropomorphism, and how people feel and react to animals that we perceive as being 'almost' human. So in a family that is raising a chimpanzee alongside their infant daughter you can imagine it is not going to be a normal childhood. The story tells a back and forth tale of the various periods of her life and her coming to terms with the disappearance of her 'twin' Fern. To add to the trauma her brother Lowell also disappears as soon as he is able, leaving Rosemary to deal with her parent's silence as best she can. As readers we are left, like Rosemary, trusting at first in the 'gone to a farm' story, and then assuming the worst of her father when she finally learns what became of Fern. 
Science has long been fascinated by the ways in which we are the same as the other apes, and the ways in which we are different. Rosemary's childhood is an experiment in observing the development of the two species side by side, where Fern grows from infancy, learns some sign language and becomes a member of the family, and comes inevitably to think of herself as a human being. When the experiment if brought abruptly to an end the consequences are both traumatic and long term for everyone involved. Having been the centre of much focussed attention for the first five years of her life Rosemary then has to adjust to being just an ordinary kid. She discovers that "kindergarten is all about learning which bits of you are welcome at school and which bits aren't": the other children sense her 'otherness' and name her 'monkey girl', a term that sticks, in her own head as much as anywhere, to define her ongoing relationship with the rest of the human race.
The book raises far more questions than it ever answers; about the use of such species in human 'experiments', about how different we are, about when humans bond with animals do animals really feel the same thing towards us. I was left slightly disconcerted. A good reaction I felt. If you have to wait in a queue for this book I promise it will be worth it.

"For years I imagined Fern's life as a Tarzan reversal, raised among humans and returned now to her own kind. I liked to think of her bringing sign language to the other apes. I liked to think that maybe she was solving crimes or something. I liked to think we had given her superpowers."

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