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Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Book of Unknown Americans


Unknown Americans

I don’t need anyone’s pity. My life has been what it has been. It’s not a wonderful story, but it’s mine. – Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans




How to tell a story: Well, you begin at the beginning and work your way towards the end. Easy. Few stories, however, are as straightforward as they first appear. On the surface The Book of Unknown Americans tells a simple enough story: Arturo Rivera relocates his family from Mexico to the United States so his fifteen-year-old daughter, who sustained a brain injury whilst helping him out on his construction site, can go to a special school.

We had been planning our life here for so long. Filling out papers, hoping, praying, waiting. We had all of our dreams pinned on this place, but the pin was thin and delicate and it was too soon to tell whether it was stronger than it looked or whether, in the end, it wasn’t going to hold much of anything at all.

When they arrive in Delaware (where Cristina Henríquez was born) the girl, Maribel, meets Mayor Toro whose family is from Panama and are well-settled in the States now and it’s love at first sight. Of course the course of true love never runs smoothly and so as life throws obstacle after obstacle in front of them the big question is: Will they beat the odds? It has all the makings of a fairly decent YA novel and, indeed, this is a book that will appeal to a wide age range but it’s better than that. In an interview Cristina talks about the origins of the book:

The novel actually started as a short story told from Mayor’s point of view. Mayor is an outsider in some ways—the kids at school tease him for being a nerd and for being a Pan, which is their slur for Panamanian (and which was the slur used against me when I was in high school); he’s uncoordinated, which makes him a disappointment to his father, who has dreams of him being a soccer star; he only has one real friend; he’s never been with a girl. I thought it would be interesting to pair him with a someone, Maribel, who is an outsider in her own ways, ways very different from his. She’s new to the United States, she doesn’t speak English, and … she has recently suffered a brain injury, which has completely removed her from any normal teenage experience. What might two people like that find in each other? What might they give each other? The fact that it’s a first love for both of them only ups the ante—Mayor feels with absolute conviction that he would do anything for Maribel, but when he does attempt a grand gesture, it’s terribly misguided. The consequences of that gesture alter the fates of all the characters.

What makes the book rise head and shoulders above most love stories is the storytelling because rather than opt for your bog-standard omniscient narrator Cristina has two first-person narrators: Mayor and Alma, Maribel’s mother and so we get to see events from two separate (and very different) perspectives which is unusual and takes a little getting used to at first because you expect the narrative to move chronologically from chapter to chapter and it doesn’t always; sometimes we step back and relive events from the other person’s point of view. But here’s the clever bit: every third chapter the narration is handed over to someone else completely. In chapter 3 it’s Rafael Toro; in chapter 6, Benny Quinto; chapter 9, Gustavo Milhojas; chapter 12, Quisqueya Solís; chapter 18, Nelia Zafón; chapter 24, Micho Alvarez and finally the last word goes to Arturo Rivera himself. This gives the novel the feel of a documentary. The ‘camera’ shifts and they each get a few pages to tell their story before we go back to our love story. It’s a novel and refreshing way of providing us with the bigger picture. And it works. It’s like having half a dozen short stories interspersed throughout the novel. Clever and effective.

I have to wonder what The Book of Unknown Brits would read like. We know—mainly from TV dramas—that in America most of the low-paid jobs go to ethnic minorities. Most New York City taxi drivers, for example, are Indian, Middle Eastern or African these days; if they decided to remake Taxi it would be a very different show. In Scotland 96% of the population is white. In the USA the non-Hispanic White percentage was 63% in 2012 and non-Hispanic Whites are the still the majority in forty-six states; Hawaii, New Mexico, California, Texas, and the District of Columbia are, however, the exceptions. These five jurisdictions have "minority majorities", i.e. minority groups are the majority populations. As a kid I was only ever aware of two ethnic minorities, the Chinese and the Indians (who all worked in restaurants) and that was it. I was a teenager before I met my first black man and even he wasn’t especially black. Now things are changing. The number of foreign-born citizens working in the UK has increased from 2.9 million in 1993 to more than 6 million in 2012.

There was a significant jump in the number of foreign-born workers in the UK during 2006, which coincides with the opening of UK labour markets to workers from the A8 countries … in mid-2004. – Dr Cinzia Rienzo, ‘Migrants in the UK Market: An Overview’, The Migration Observatory, 28 September 2013

flukys-polish-sausageI wonder how different their stories would be to the ones in Cristina’s book. Probably not very. I’ve included these details about the UK because I imagine this book is far more relevant to us here than it ever has been before. Instead of Mexicans we have Poles, instead of Venezuelans we have Romanians, instead of Puerto Ricans we have Estonians, instead of Guatemalans we have Latvians, instead of Nicaraguans we have Bulgarians, instead of Columbians we have Hungarians, instead of Panamanians we have Slovakians, and instead of Paraguayans we have Czechs. What do we know of any of these cultures? Oh, we have new weird-looking sausages in Tesco—must try those.

Of course we’re not bigoted—being bigoted is bad—but we are ignorant. There’s a scene in The Book of Unknown Americans that really hits the nail on the head:

        We rode the bus to midnight Mass with the Riveras, although Enrique sat all the way in the back, plugged in to his iPod, so it was basically like he wasn’t even there. The bus driver tuned the radio to the all-Christmas-music station, and when “Feliz Navidad” came on, I guess since we were the only people on the bus, he raised the volume and shouted back at us, “Here you go! A little piece of home for you!”
        Under his breath, my dad said, “Every year the same thing. If it’s in Spanish, it’s a piece of home. Well, I never heard this song until I came to the United States.”
         “And every year, you complain,” my mom said.
         “You like this song?”
         “No.”
         “It’s like how everyone thinks I like tacos. We don’t even eat tacos in Panamá!” my dad said.
         “That’s right. We eat chicken and rice,” my mom said.
         “And seafood. Corvina as fresh as God makes it.”

‘Feliz Navidad’ is a Christmas song written in 1970 by the Puerto Rican singer-songwriter José Feliciano. Oh, wait, I know José Feliciano but how many other Puerto Ricans can you name? It’s like Nelia Zafón says:

Rita MorenoThe world already had its Rita Moreno, I guess, and there was only room for one Boricua at a time. That’s how it works. Americans can handle one person from anywhere. They had Desi Arnaz from Cuba. And Tin-Tan from México. And Rita Moreno from Puerto Rico. But as soon as there are too many of us, they throw up their hands. No, no, no! We were only just curious. We are not actually interested in you people.

I guess José Feliciano took over after Rita Moreno retired. I suppose Ricky Martin will be up next.

This is a surprisingly-optimistic novel. I didn’t expect it to be. I thought it would be all about oppression and prejudice and, yes, there’s some of that here but since the story is told entirely from the point of view of immigrants it’s flavoured by their world view. This line jumped out at me:

Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or of longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And the condition: if only I can get to that place.

Are all immigrants inveterate optimists at heart? It would seem so if this book is to be believed and I found that a little hard to swallow. It smacked a little of propaganda. In every community there’s always someone who’s going to let the side down and yet I didn’t see anyone here who wasn’t fundamentally law-abiding, decent and hardworking which, I agree, most people are. Like Nelia Zafón. This is how her story begins:

I am Boricua loud and proud, born and raised in Puerto Rico until I told my mami in 1964, the year I turned seventeen, that I wanted to live in New York City and dance on Broadway. My mami put up one hell of a fight. You are only seventeen! You don’t have any money! ¡Estás más perdido que un juey bizco! All of that. But I had a dream that I was going to be the next Rita Moreno. I was going to be a star. I told my mami, You can look for me in the movies! And I left.

Needless to say her dreams don’t come true, at least not the ones she had when she was seventeen:

I worked like crazy. I practiced dancing until my feet bled and my knees felt like water balloons. I rubbed Vicks into my cracked heels and took so many hot baths I lost count. I went to a voice coach and sang until my throat was raw. I killed myself, but it never happened for me.

[…]

But I’m a fighter. You get me against the ropes and I will swing so hard—bam! So I thought, well, if I’m not going to find it, then there’s only one other option: I will create it.

She decides to go it alone, to set up her own theatre company. Hence the move from New York: “taxes for new businesses were lowest in Delaware”.

Now, twenty years later, I still run the Parish Theatre. We do just one production a week. I act in them sometimes, but the real pleasure for me now is giving roles to other actors, watching them perform, especially the young ones.

[…]

A few months ago I met a man who came to the theatre. He’s younger than me, a gringo, an attorney, so young and handsome. ¡Cielos! We have almost nothing in common, but somehow we’re a good fit with each other. He makes me laugh. How can I explain it? He has a spirit. I’m fifty-three years old with wrinkles on my hands. I’ve never been married in my life, and now this. You never know what life will bring. Dios sabe lo que hace. But that’s what makes it so exciting, no? That’s what keeps me going. The possibility.

This is typical of the attitude of everyone in the book. They don’t want something for nothing. They’re willing to work even if that work involves being on their feet for ten hours at a time picking mushrooms out of dirt in a dark warehouse (which is what Arturo ends up doing). Benny Quinto flips burgers. Gustavo Milhojas has two jobs, cleaning bathrooms and movie theatres. Rafael Toro is a line cook at a diner until her loses it and ends up delivering papers in the mornings. José Mercado was a navy man but now his eyes are bad and his wife has to read to him.

These are people like you and me. Impossible for a Scot like me not to recall the words of Robert Burns:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

No one in this novel is rich; they all live in honest poverty doing the jobs no one else wants to do. And the same goes for the immigrant workers in the UK. But we’re not comfortable with them. As Micho Alvarez says:

We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?

Micho is a Mexican. The Mexicans look down on Guatemalans; they believe they’re stupid. I wonder who the Guatemalans look down on. (Apparently Spanish-speaking Guatemalans look down on the indigenous Mayan population. Thank you Google.)

The story of Mayor and Maribel is sweet. They’re both likeable characters, especially Maribel as she struggles to find herself again. We never learn exactly what’s wrong with her—doctors rarely know—but she’s was quite a character before the accident and it’s nice to see that character begin to reassert itself. Mayor’s a bit of an innocent which is perhaps why he’s attracted to Maribel in the first place and he’s as awkward as any sixteen-year-old boy I’ve known. They’re both well fleshed-out; in fact there’s hardly anyone in the book—anyone of the immigrants that is—who’s doesn’t spring to life off the page. What the book is not, however, is a soapbox. You don’t feel as if every character is a thinly-veiled Cristina Henríquez thumping on her tub. In this interview she addressed the issue:

It would be naïve of me to say I wrote a book just about immigrants and there’s nothing political about it. As has been pointed out to me in the past, it’s political to have the last name that I have. There’s nothing that’s not political.

But I wasn’t trying to take a stance one way or another, and I hopefully wasn’t betraying my own political opinions about immigration. The characters weren’t like a mouthpiece in any way, though. I really wanted to fictionalize it, imagine their lives and tell the human stories.

Someone asked me recently why I write fiction, and why I wrote this story as fiction. Why not just write a political treatise about what I really do think? Part of it has to do with the reception that it will get from readers. If you put something out there that’s overtly political and didactic, it turns so many people off. But to say that this is a love story, and a story about parents who are protecting their daughter — it’s so many things, but it also happens to be about the lives of immigrants. I think that makes it a lot more palatable. If you put it in fiction, they’re more likely to read it and perhaps think about it. The highest praise I’ve gotten so far is that somebody living in Delaware told me, after they read my book, they were driving down Kirkwood, which is where the families all live. She was looking at the families waiting at the bus stop, and she saw them differently. That’s my job. That’s my goal.

Of course it’s the 21st century and so there’s a website to go with the book: The Unknown American Project where others get an opportunity to have their say. Here the author writes:

One of my hopes for The Book of Unknown Americans was that it might tell stories people don't usually hear. And now, another hope: that we will all tell our #UnknownAmerican stories. Where did you or your family come from? What is your life like now? We'll create a chorus and make our voices known.

There weren’t many entries when I first checked but here’s how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story begins:

ChimamandaI left Nigeria to go to university in the United States [when] I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

I enjoyed this book. The writing is clear and unpretentious and suits its subject matter. On the whole, as I’ve said, it’s a little tame but that’s really my only criticism of it. And I say that even when someone gets murdered. But it does what I’m sure the author intended it to do: it opens our eyes. What we make of what we’ve seen is another thing. This book won’t change the world but I would like to see it introduced into schools because it has much to say that people who are going to shape our future need to hear.

***

628x471Cristina Henríquez’s previous books are The World in Half and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection.

Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and AGNI along with the anthology This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers.

She was featured in Virginia Quarterly Review as one of “Fiction’s New Luminaries,” has been a guest on National Public Radio, and is a recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, a grant started by Sandra Cisneros in honour of her father.

Cristina earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has lived in at least seven states and is now based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and young daughter.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Slight Trick of the Mind


A Slight Trick of the Mind
“I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone’



“I have no understanding of love,” he said miserably. “I have never made claim that I do.” So says the protagonist of Mitch Cullin’s new novel. And yet this is a book all about love. Well, loves. Different kinds. But let’s start with one of my loves: Sherlock Holmes. I’m a big fan. I’ve watched everything that’s ever been televised since I was a kid from Basil Rathbone on including the spoofs like Without a Clue although the man I think of as my first Holmes is actually Peter Cushing and although his characterisation may not be on a par with Jeremy Brett’s—surely the definitive performance—you never forget your first Holmes. I’ve enjoyed the recent spate of adaptations, modernisations and reimaginings, too—if you’ve never seen Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary I urge you to check out the show if only for Lucy Liu’s wonderfully-understated Joan Watson—but oddly enough I haven’t actually read any of the original novels or short stories. Kept meaning to but never quite got round to it. So when Canongate let me know that they were publishing a new Sherlock Holmes novel I thought it was time to rectify that omission. I read very little about the book beforehand. I knew it was set in 1947, Holmes is now ninety-three, retired, living on the southern slope of the Sussex Downs and, as you might expect of any ninety-three-year-old man, struggling with his memory.

Actors who've played Holmes

I was expecting a detective novel. Probably not an unreasonable assumption. I wasn’t expecting great literature but I was okay with that. The book I read immediately prior to this was Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone which I thoroughly enjoyed and is a beautifully-written, well-constructed work of literary fiction. Any author would have a hard time following that. So you can imagine my delight when I opened up A Slight Trick of the Mind and began to read a beautifully-written, well-constructed work of literary fiction. This doesn’t mean there’s no detection in the book—this is still a Sherlock Holmes novel and the man is incapable of switching off his powers of deduction—but this is not a case, not in that sense, although there is plenty of stuff to solve if only “the confounding enigmas that were his pockets”:
[O]ften small items went in without much thought—bits of paper, broken matches, a cigar, stems of grass, an interesting stone or shell found upon the beach, those unusual things gathered during his walks—only to vanish or appear later as if by magic.
There are three storylines all containing at least one bona fide mystery to be solved:
  1. The distant past: Sherlock in his prime—and for once sans Watson—solves the mystery of where his client's wife goes during the day. Whereas the rest of the book is written in the third person we learn of this case directly from Holmes in the form of a written record entitled The Glass Armonicist.
  2. The recent past: Sherlock and a Japanese companion with whom he has been corresponding wander around Japan in search of prickly ash, a plant that allegedly increases longevity.
  3. The present: Having just returned from Japan. Sherlock resumes his normal daily routine. This thread focuses on his relationships with his housekeeper, Mrs Munro, and her fourteen-year-old son, Roger.
Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character. I know that may sound like I’m stating the obvious here so let me clarify. The ‘Sherlock Holmes’ that John Watson presented to the world through his writings is not the man we get to meet in this novel. It turns out Watson had a talent for embellishment and, on occasion, downright fabrication. When asked if he owns any copies of John’s books, Holmes responds:
Actually, I possess none—not even the flimsy paperbacks. Truthfully, I've only read a handful of the stories—and that was many years ago. I couldn't instil in John the basic difference between an induction and a deduction, so I stopped trying, and I also stopped reading his fabricated versions of the truth, because the inaccuracies drove me mad. You know, I never did call him Watson—he was John, simply John. But he really was a skilled writer, mind you—very imaginative, better with fiction than fact, I daresay.
So the man we get to meet in this novel is the real Sherlock Holmes or at least a shadow of the real Sherlock Holmes, a man who walks with two canes to steady him, although:
[H]e really required only the support of the right cane while walking; the left cane, however, had an invaluable dual purpose—to give him support should he lose hold of the right cane and find himself stooping to retrieve it, or to stand in as a quick replacement should the right cane ever become irretrievable.
Even as an old man he’s still thinking two moves ahead.

I said this was a book about loves. Let me elucidate. In 'The Adventure of the Three Garridebs', Watson is shot in an encounter with a villain and although the bullet wound proves to be “quite superficial” in itself, Watson is struck by Holmes's reaction:
It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.
That Holmes loves Watson has never been in doubt although when Holmes deduces his Japanese friend Tamiki Umezaki’s sexual orientation the man responds with this:
     “I will say your observations about me and Hensuiro aren't terribly surprising. Without being too blunt—you are a bachelor who lived with another bachelor for many years.”
     “Purely platonic, I assure you.”
     “If you say so.”
In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ Watson describes the high regard in which Holmes held Irene Adler, a retired American opera singer and actress:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler...yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
Glass ArmonicaIt seems, however, that there was another woman of whom John was to learn nothing. In The Glass Armonicist Holmes records how he solved what he calls The Case of Mrs. Ann Keller of Fortis Grove. No doubt Watson would’ve thought of a catchier title but this is Holmes’s record: accurate if uninspired. As cases go it barely tasks him so why, all these many years later, would he sit down to record it lest it be lost to him? Quite simply because of Mrs. Ann Keller of Fortis Grove and what he describes as a “common, unremarkable photograph of a married woman [with an] alluring, curious face”.

Because of Holmes’s longevity it seems that all the usual characters we’ve come to know and love have now passed on: John Watson is dead; Mrs Hudson who accompanied him to the Sussex farmhouse upon his retirement is dead; his brother Mycroft is dead and one can only assume Inspector Lestrade is dead although no mention is made of him. His relationship with Mrs Munro, the latest in a number of housekeepers he’s employed over the years, is unremarkable but the same cannot be said of his feelings towards her son:
[W]hile he rarely enjoyed the company of children, it was difficult avoiding the paternal stirrings he harboured for Mrs. Munro's son (how, he had often pondered, could that meandering woman have borne such a promising offspring?). But even at his advanced age, he found it impossible to express his true affections, especially toward a fourteen-year-old whose father had been among the British army casualties in the Balkans and whose presence, he suspected, Roger sorely missed.

[…]

“He's a good boy,” [his mother had] said when taking the job of housekeeper. “Keeps to himself, rather shy—very quiet, more like his father was. He won't be a burden on you, I promise.”
That news pleased Holmes at the time and for the longest time the two kept their distance but the boy’s fascination with Holmes’s beeyard provides unexpected common ground and by the time Holmes heads off to Japan he’s comfortable leaving his precious bees in what he regards as the safe hands of young Roger.

I don’t recall too many stories where Holmes ventures beyond the borders of the UK—obviously ‘The Final Problem’ where he tracks Moriarty to Switzerland is a notable exception—but we discover in this book that he’s actually travelled widely during his life although this is his first trip to Japan. Even in his dotage Holmes still receives a great deal of correspondence. One of Mrs Munro’s tasks is to sort his mail according to his precise instructions:
From a wicker basket placed on the library table, she took out bundles of correspondence (letters bearing foreign postmarks, small packages, large envelopes), and, as instructed to do once a week, she began sorting them into appropriate stacks based on size. […] The letters to the left, the packages in the middle, the larger envelopes on the right.

[…]

Rarely did he respond to any of it, and never did he indulge journalists, writers, or publicity seekers. Still, he usually perused every letter sent, examined the contents of every package delivered.

[…]

Sometimes these lucky letters beckoned him elsewhere: an herb garden beside a ruined abbey near Worthing, where a strange hybrid of burdock and red dock thrived; a bee farm outside of Dublin, bestowed by chance with a slightly acidic, though not unpalatable, batch of honey as a result of moisture covering the combs one particularly warm season; most recently, Shimonoseki, a Japanese town that offered specialty cuisine made from prickly ash, which, along with a diet of miso paste and fermented soybeans, seemed to afford the locals sustained longevity (the need for documentation and firsthand knowledge of such rare, possibly life-extending nourishment being the chief pursuit of his solitary years).
ArthurConanDoyle_AStudyInScarlet_annualHence his trip to Japan. On arriving, though, he soon realises that his host has an ulterior motive for his invite. The man’s father had abandoned his family some forty years earlier and the last correspondence from him included a copy of A Study in Scarlet along with a letter to his wife which Umezaki translates for Holmes:
After consulting with the great detective Sherlock Holmes here in London, I realize that it is in the best interest of all of us if I remain in England indefinitely. You will see from this book that he is, indeed, a very wise and intelligent man, and his say in this important matter should not be taken lightly. I have already made arrangements for the property and my finances to be placed in your care, until such a time as Tamiki can take over these responsibilities in adulthood.
Holmes says he can’t remember meeting the man. Has he simply forgotten or is there more going on here?

These are three disparate threads and it’s hard to imagine that Cullin could weave them together and yet he manages it. The bees help.

Notably Doyle tried to kill of his creation when Holmes was at the peak of his popularity. Not that the public was having any of it. And there have been numerous writers who’ve chosen to quit while they’re ahead much to the irritation of their fans but we all know what happens when a great idea gets beaten to death. The thing is we know going into this that Holmes isn’t the man he was even if who we thought he was wasn’t who he really was. There’s a decent chance we’re going to be disappointed. And some readers have been. At time of writing 5% of the reviews on Goodreads gave the book a niggardly one star; that’s nineteen people; the average was 3.45. Valerie, who gave the book two stars, wrote:
There wasn't much that happened. There wasn't much character growth. There wasn't any action. There [were] just people talking to other people, people having thoughts, people walking around... that really sums it up, I'm sad to say. At first, it grabbed my interest because I was super curious to see where it was going with the three different timelines it was following. But then I started to suspect that it wasn't really going anywhere fascinating after all. & I was right.
She’s not wrong and if you are looking for the-Sherlock-you-know-and-love there is a good chance you will be dissatisfied. Max222 over on Amazon—he gives the book three stars—makes a valid point when he notes:
[I]s it really a Sherlock Holmes story? Not really I would argue. You see I was expecting it to be sad and moving which it is, but also to have a mystery in it—and it doesn't really. […] I realise the author is deliberately trying to show a different side to Holmes but really this could be any main protagonist. And I don't say that just because Holmes has been aged for the bulk of the novel, which is an idea I like—I just don't feel the Conan Doyle character was within these pages even aged 90.
Agreed but I’ve already addressed this. We’re told that the Holmes in the books was never the real Holmes:
I am afraid I never wore a deerstalker, or smoked the big pipe—mere embellishments by an illustrator, intended to give me distinction, I suppose, and sell magazines. I didn't get much say in the matter.
So, let’s just say for a moment, that this isn’t a Sherlock Holmes novel. Let’s just say this is a novel about some nonagenarian who happened once to work as a private eye or even as a detective in the Metropolitan Police. Would the story work? Indubitably. Holmes’s name will help sell the book but the book’s strength is that it doesn’t depend on the old guy being Holmes to work. But because he is Holmes a great deal of the groundwork is done for Cullin because all of us have some idea who Holmes is even if it is a flawed one. Whether the book is insightful is another matter. It depends on whether you expect your author to raise interesting questions and then to answer them or simply to raise interesting questions and leave you to ponder them. Mostly Cullin does the latter and I was fine with that. In a short interview over at GQ Cullin says:
[M]y version of Holmes is a highly metaphorical creation that, at the time, was used by me as a way to better understand my own father's struggle with dementia […] That said, my research and my writing of the book made every effort possible to be true in nature to Conan Doyle's character and the entire canon that contains him.
Life is a mystery and one would’ve hoped if anyone was going to ‘solve’ it, it would be Sherlock Holmes. He gives it his best shot but he really has left it too late. So, yes, this is a sad book but sadness, like love, is an emotion that comes in many shades and I’m still trying to decide what kind of sad I feel now I’ve finished it. Certainly not the disappointed kind.

The book is being filmed with Sir Ian McKellen playing the lead—an inspired (although at the same time obvious) choice I’d say—and one I’m looking forward to.

I loved this book. I’m well aware that there were a couple of times when Holmes’s dialogue wasn’t absolutely spot on but I’m not going to lop off a star for something as trivial as that. Now what we don’t want to see is a sequel. Either on the page or on the silver screen.

***

Mitch Cullin
Mitch Cullin is the author of seven novels, and one short story collection, including the novel Tideland, the film adaptation of which was directed by Terry Gilliam, and the novel-in-verse, Branches. He lives between Arcadia, California and Tokyo, Japan with his long-term partner and frequent collaborator Peter I. Chang. As a teenager he was featured in USA Today in 1984 as one of the foremost Holmes fans in the world. According to his bio on Red Room: “He continues to write novels in decreasing spurts and increasing sputters, but usually he can be found ambling around his garden in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County.”

























Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Millstone


Millstone
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones who believe in me, it were better that a millstone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:6)


Margaret Drabble has been described as “a women’s novelist” although who first tarred her with that epithet I haven’t been able to ascertain, but according to The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000 Ellen Cronan Rose has suggested that it’s nevertheless a useful label if it’s meant to indicate that “her subject was what it was like to be a woman in a world which calls woman the second sex.”[1] The term “women’s novelist” does feel like a restrictive—if not downright disparaging—term, suggesting that she’s writing both from a limited perspective and for a limited demographic. Drabble herself says that although many of her novels focus on “a specific section of women that I happen to know about, middle-class women with ambition, in other words,” she does not consciously write about women “in general terms.”[2] She says, “When I'm writing I don't think of myself wholly as a woman ... I've tried to avoid writing as a woman because it does create its own narrowness.”[3] This echoes what her peers, Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt, have said and much space has been devoted to arguing whether or not any of these three are feminist writers. I suppose there’s feminism and feminism-with-a-capital-f but either way I don’t imagine there’ll be many men out there who’ll want to read about the trials of an unmarried mother in the mid-sixties. And that would be their loss.
The second sex is an anatomy of what Drabble has called "the situation of being a woman" in a man's world. It asserts that one is not born but becomes a woman. De Beauvoir described "how woman undergoes her apprenticeship, how she experiences her situation, in what kind of universe she is confined, what modes of escape are vouchsafed her."[4]
I grew up a man in a man’s world. It still is a man’s world and I’m still a man. Things are changing, yes, but nowhere near as fast as they ought; conditioning—and there’s no better word for it—is hard to shake off. People read for lots of different reasons but one of the main reasons to do so as far as I’m concerned is so I can, for a few hours at least, get some idea what it’s like inside someone else’s head. And there’s nothing more intriguing as far as I’m concerned that a woman’s head. I grew up in a world where I was told—and accepted based on what little evidence I had—that women were not like “us”; we’d never understand them so why bother trying? Well, I don’t know about you but I don’t like not being able to get things.

A while back I read Margaret Drabble’s most recent novel, The Pure Gold Baby. It was the first of her books I’d read and I really didn’t know what she’d be like. This is how I opened my subsequent review:
I didn’t expect to like this book. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t set out with any agenda and had very few preconceptions but I still didn’t expect to like the book. I didn’t love it but I did like it and by liking it I don’t mean that I didn’t hate it; I actually enjoyed reading it; I looked forward to the next day when I could pick it up again; I wanted to know what was going to happen next; I invested something of myself in the book.
Pure Gold BabyThe thing is this was a book about motherhood and yet I still enjoyed it. So when Canongate told me they were bringing out a selection of Drabble’s back catalogue as ebooks, I jumped at the chance to read another and opted for (arguably) her most famous book, The Millstone, which just happens to be another one about motherhood. I was curious to compare the Drabble of 2014 with the Drabble of 1965. The Millstone is about an unmarried, young academic who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand and, against all odds, decides to give birth to her child and raise it herself. Not all that different from The Pure Gold Baby. At least on the surface.

The book opens:
My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice: almost, one might say, made by it. Take, for instance, the first time I tried spending a night with a man in a hotel. I was nineteen at the time, an age appropriate for such adventures, and needless to say I was not married. I am still not married, a fact of some significance, but more of that later. The name of the boy, if I remember rightly, was Hamish. I do remember rightly. I really must try not to be deprecating. Confidence, not cowardice, is the part of myself which I admire, after all.
Now I don’t know about you but the voice I heard in my head from the very start was that of a young Judy Dench and I make no apologies for pointing your mind in that direction because I cannot imagine anyone delivering these lines better; I did try replacing her with Joanna Lumley for a paragraph or two but it didn’t work. In the 1969 film version (A Touch of Love, Thank You All Very Much, US)—which Drabble herself adapted—the part went to the not-dissimilar-looking Sandy Dennis who, despite being an American, was a decent choice and about the right age; Dench would’ve been a tad old although neither actresses possessed the especially “fine A_Touch_of_Love_FilmPosterpair of legs” that Rosamund says she has and since Rosamund always speaks her mind and is ferociously-honest (at least on the printed page), if she says she has a “fine pair of legs” then they must be indeed fine. (Credit should go too to whoever cast Eleanor Bron as the best friend and Ian McKellan as the gay radio announcer).

Hamish is not who gets her pregnant. In fact some ten years flit by before that happens and as it happens it’s her first (and I suspect her last) attempt at any form of carnality—she closes her eyes throughout the whole procedure but does not think of England—although who knows what might unfold after the book’s final chapter? We don’t learn much about Rosamund’s upbringing: despite the fact her parents weren’t short of a bob or two, they were apparently committed Socialists although I don’t believe Socialists have anything particularly against sex. Drabble was brought up as a Quaker and Quakers also don’t have anything against sex in the right context. But Rosamund isn’t interested which is odd. What’s odder is that she’s not especially interested in love. (I thought all woman had romance on the brain.) She has her studies and for the most part they satisfy her. She is prone to occasional spells of loneliness and so, practical person that she is, has a number of friends, but friends she likes to keep at a distance:
It took me some time to work out what, from others, I needed most, and finally I decided, after some sad experiments, that the one thing I could not dispense with was company. After much trial and error, I managed to construct an excellent system, which combined, I considered, fairness to others, with the maximum possible benefit to myself.
This makes her seem a bit cold and calculated and I suppose she is on one level. Like most people at that time—remember the Summer of Love is still a couple of years off—she’s pretty ignorant about sex. Her male friends, however, don’t appear to be, but as they’re finding comfort elsewhere no one’s pressuring her to put out.

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘academic’? Someone who wiles her days away in the British Museum researching Elizabethan sonnet sequences? Someone who doesn’t own a TV? Someone who’s not really a part of life? I’m sure Drabble made Rosamund an academic for a good reason. She’s certainly no militant feminist. Not that she’s considered the matter and taken a stand. Rather the opposite. She’s never really been faced with issues of feminism or even femininity. She’s an intellectual, grounded, level-headed and in this context gender is academic. When she does finally get round to sex—an act where she needs to play the woman—what’s noteworthy about her chosen partner is that he is—as far as she’s aware—gay:
At the touch of my mouth, he took me in his arms and kissed me all over the face, and eventually we subsided gently together and lay there quietly. Knowing that he was queer, I was not frightened of him at all, because I thought that he would expect no more from me, and I was so moved and touched and pleased by the thought that he might like me, by the thought that he found me of interest. I was so happy for that hour that we lay there because truly I seemed to see him through the eyes of love, so irrationally valuable did he seem. I look back now with some anguish to each touch and glance, to every changing conjunction of limbs and heads and hands. I have lived it over every day for so long now that I am in danger of forgetting the true shape of how it was, because each time I go over it I wish that I had given a little more here or there, or at the very least said what was in my heart, so that he could have known how much it meant to me. But I was incapable, even when happy, of exposing myself thus far.
Why exactly he chooses to have sex with her we’ll never know. Charity? An act of kindness? Vague curiosity? Does he simply misread the signals? Rosamund wonders:
After all, I said to myself, people don’t do that to other people just because they think they ought to. Just through sheer politeness because they think they’ve been invited in to do it. People don’t work like that, I said to myself. He must have wanted it a bit, I told myself, or he wouldn’t have bothered. However kind he appears to be, he can’t be as kind as all that. He must be one of these bisexual people, I thought, or perhaps even he’s no more queer than I am promiscuous, or whatever the word is for what I pretend to be. Perhaps we appeal to each other because we’re rivals in hypocrisy.
What it isn’t, and this applies to the both of them, is love. Love is something Rosamund has a problem with. Ironic, then, that she would take as a subject Elizabethan love poets. She talks about having been in love with Hamish when she was nineteen but it’s clear that she’s just using ‘in love’ as a common expression and as indication of how the nineteen-year-old her felt she felt as opposed to how she truly felt:
When Hamish and I loved each other for a whole year without making love, I did not realize that I had set the mould of my whole life. One could find endless reasons for our abstinence – fear, virtue, ignorance, perversion – but the fact remains that the Hamish pattern was to be endlessly repeated, and with increasing velocity and lack of depth, so that eventually the idea of love ended in me almost the day that it began. Nothing succeeds, they say, like success, and certainly nothing fails like failure. I was successful in my work, so I suppose other successes were too much to hope for.
Motherhood will change all that. But first she has to get through the pregnancy and that actually takes up the bulk of a not-very-bulky book. Characteristically Rosamund views things dispassionately seeing no good reason why gravidity should get in the way of her career so doesn’t let it and makes plans to ensure that her child when born will also not get in her way. What I found interesting is the way she refers to the foetus as ‘it’ despite the fact the book’s clearly written by an older her sometime after the baby is born. Only after the birth do we discover the sex. Only then does Rosamund come face to face with love:
[The nurse] put her in my arms and I sat there looking at her, and her great wide blue eyes looked at me with seeming recognition, and what I felt it is pointless to try to describe. Love, I suppose one might call it, and the first of my life.

[…]

I used to think that love bore some relation to merit and to beauty, but now I saw that this was not so.
Having a child changes you. I’m not talking about physically because after the birth “the muscles of [her] belly snap back into place without a mark.” It changes you as a person. Unless you’re broken. Rosamund makes room for her daughter and adds the role of mother to the things she’s doing already but other than that she really does change very little; because she refuses to.
I simply did not believe that the handicap of one small illegitimate baby would make a scrap of difference to my career…
She loves the baby but only as a “small living extension” of herself, something she’s produced, like her thesis. That’s the thing about Rosamund. She’s not an everywoman; she’s a person and a flawed one. Not every woman would handle things as well as she does—not that she handles everything well, of course not (her early attempt at abortion is laughable)—and there are examples in the book of women who aren’t having such an easy time. She regains her figure but not all do:
[S]ome of the women looked as big as they had looked before. I am haunted even now by a memory of the way they walked, large and tied into shapeless dressing gowns, padding softly and stiffly, careful not to disturb the pain that still lay between the legs.
Drabble is known for her social commentary and what’s interesting is how badly the NHS come off in this novel, the crowded waiting rooms, the often insensitive nursing staff and the excessive paperwork.

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There’re times you’d mistake Rosamund for a snob and you wouldn’t be wrong. She’s lived a privileged life. She’s not royalty or anything but she’s had a cushy time of it and this is the first time she’s had to be in the company of commoners and she cannot help but be moved by it. One of the most striking moments happens when, in the antenatal clinic, a mother she’s never met before asks her to hold her sleeping baby while she visits with the midwife:
She made her way off to the midwife’s room and I sat there with this huge and monstrously heavy child sitting warm and limp upon my knee, his nose slightly running and his mouth open to breathe. I was amazed by his weight; my legs felt quite crushed under it. I also realized that he was not only warm but damp; his knitted leggings were leaking quite copiously onto my knee. I shifted him around but did not dare to move much for fear of waking him and having to put up with his playing up something shocking: I was worried about whether the damp patch would show on my coat, and hoped it would not. I sat there for a good ten minutes with this child upon my lap; it was the first time I had ever held a baby and after a while, simultaneously with preoccupations about damp on my coat, a sense of the infant crept through me, its small warmness, its wide soft cheeks, and above all its quiet, snuffly breathing. I held it tighter and closed my arms around it.
She’s still pregnant herself at this point and so this is the first time she’s ever held a baby in her arms.
 
Rosamund is less of a feminist icon and more an independent woman. When she runs into the child’s father at the end of the book he says to her:
        ‘You seem to have done all right, you seem to have done as well as anyone.’
         ‘How do you mean?’ I said.
         ‘Well,’ he said, ‘by your own accounts, you’ve got a nice job, and a nice baby. What more could anyone want?’
         ‘Some people might want a nice husband too,’ I said.
         ‘But not you, surely?’ said George. ‘You never seemed to want a husband.’
         ‘No,’ I said, ‘perhaps I never did. Though I sometimes think it might be easier, to have one. It would be nice to have someone to fill in my income tax forms, for instance,’ and I pointed despairingly at the mess of papers laid out on the hearth rug.
         ‘You can’t have everything,’ said George.
         ‘No, indeed,’ I said. ‘And I have more than most people, I admit.’
For me this is what raised the book and kept my interest. Rosamund is a fascinating—although not always a sympathetic—character. That she happens to fall pregnant is neither here nor there. If she’d been faced with the task of nursing a terminally ill relative she would’ve handled things because that’s what she does. Ignorance is an inconvenience, nothing more. If you don’t know you find out. Obstacles can be worked around, even baby-shaped ones.

Rosamund is blinkered. If something (like a child) can be brought within her field of vision then good and well. But she’s not big on concessions. I found this anecdote about Drabble illuminating:
Margaret Drabble recalled how she managed to write a book about Wordsworth: "I wrote the whole thing—the re-write, that is—in the ten days when I was in hospital when my youngest child was born. I took my typewriter into hospital—I sat in the ambulance clutching it saying, 'Don't take that away.' My baby was born ten minutes after I got to hospital. And the minute I got into bed I got my typewriter and was able to get on. I had some lovely fish and chips and a nice evening's work."[5]
I can see some women being disturbed by her insouciance but there are those writers who work around real life and those who squeeze real life in where they can. Rosamund may not be a writer—Drabble was never an academic—but she is the kind of person who just gets on with stuff. I found her no less absorbing than Camus’s Meursault. When at one point the baby falls ill Rosamund, with the same dispassion and detachment with which Meursault talks about his mother, records:
For five minutes or so, I almost hoped that she might die, and thus relieve me of the corruption and the fatality of love. Ben Jonson said of his dead child, my sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy. We too easily take what the poets write as figures of speech, as pretty images, as strings of bons mots. Sometimes perhaps they speak the truth.
I said at the start of this article that this is a book about motherhood. Really it’s not and it’s not even a book about pregnancy. Pregnancy sought to entrap her—“I was in a human limit for the first time in my life, and I was going to have to learn to live inside it”—but she refuses to allow it to—having a remarkably easy time of it certainly doesn’t hurt (even labour only lasts a short time); motherhood she also hopes to bend to her will refusing even to involve her family. These are side issues though. This is a book about what it’s like to be driven. It’s an easy read—a deceptively easy read—but there’s some deep (and dark) stuff here and I’ve only touched on a fraction of it. Delusions need something to fuel them and money certainly helps. Had Rosamund grown up in Possilpark this would’ve been a completely different read.

One thing I should perhaps clarify is the fact that Rosamund, despite her failings as a person, is a good and not merely a good, but devoted mother. One of the most powerful scenes in the book—and even more so in the film—is where her child has needed to be hospitalised and the staff won’t allow her to see her. After trying to be patient and polite she’s finally had enough:

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Claire Tomalin wrote that Drabble “is one of the few modern novelists who has actually changed government policy, by what she wrote in The Millstone about visiting children in hospital”. Now, thanks in part to Drabble, mothers will never have to scream like Rosamund in order to see their babies.

In his essay on The Millstone Peter Firchow comments on an affinity between Jane Austen and Drabble
[I]t is no doubt appropriate that Drabble should have suffered, as Austen did, from a habit of mind that confounds smallness of scope with smallness of mind. [...] The work of the miniaturist, it seems, is at present in ever greater disrepute than it was a century and a half ago.[6]
Not having read any Austen—although familiar enough with her work through various screen adaptations—I can also see that Drabble has much also in common with Anita Brookner who is likewise able to portray complex psychological motivations in simple, eloquent language and who similarly has an affinity for socially repressed women; additionally neither author overstays her welcome on the page. I suspect I’ll be reading more of both.

***

NPG P1326; Dame Margaret Drabble (Lady Holroyd)Margaret Drabble was born June 5, 1939 in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England. Her father, John Frederick Drabble, was a barrister, a county court judge and a novelist. The author A.S. Byatt is her older sister.

She attended the Mount School, York, a Quaker boarding-school, and was awarded a major scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read English and received double honours. After graduation she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford during which time she understudied for Vanessa Redgrave.

In 1960 she married her first husband, actor Clive Swift, best known for his role as the henpecked husband in the BBC television comedy Keeping Up Appearances, with whom she had three children in the 1960's; they divorced in 1975. She subsequently married the biographer Michael Holroyd in the early 1980's. They live in London and also have a house in Somerset.

Her novel The Millstone won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize and she was the recipient of a Society of Author's Travelling Fellowship in the mid-1960's. She also received the James Tait Black and the E.M. Forster awards. She was awarded the CBE in 1980 and she was promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2008 Birthday Honours.
***
One last clip, an indulgence. In this scene Rosamund is in labour and has been assigned to the wrong room. The actress who plays the nurse who notices isn’t credited (not even in IMDB) but no one could’ve played her better.

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REFERENCES

[1] Dominic Head ed., The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000, p.86 . Here the quote is attributed to Ellen Cronan Rose but as she was an editor I suspect she is being misquoted. The same phrase is used by Suhasini Tapaswi in her book Feminine Sensibility in the Novels of Margaret Drabble on page 36; I’m assuming she’s referencing Rose’s book even if she’s not crediting her since The Novels of Margaret Drabble came out in 1980.
[2] Joanne V. Creighton, An Interview with Margaret Drabble’ in Dorey Schmidt ed. Margaret Drabble: Golden Realms, p.25 quoted in Lisa M Fiander Fairy Tales and the Fiction of Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt, p.11
[3] Diane Cooper-Clark, ‘Margaret Drabble: Cautious Feminist’ in Atlantic Monthly 246, November 1980 p.19 quoted in Lisa M Fiander Fairy Tales and the Fiction of Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt, p.11
[4] Suhasini Tapaswi Feminine Sensibility in the Novels of Margaret Drabble, p.33
[5] Pat Williams, 'The Sisters Drabble', The Sunday Times Magazine, 6 August 1967, pp.12-15
[6] Peter E. Firchow , 'Rosamund's Complaint: ‘Margaret Drabble's The Millstone (1966)’ in Robert K. Morris ed. Old Lines, New Forces: Essays on the Contemporary British Novel, 1960-1970, p.96

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Poetry and Zen


Zen-circle-symbol
Great Doubt, Great Awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening. – Zen proverb



I favour poems written in plain English. And short. For many years it was rare for me to write a poem that contained more than eight or nine lines. I said what I had to say and got off the page. I didn’t grow up reading this kind of poetry. I grew up on the likes of Walter de la Mare, William Wordsworth, Robert Louis Stevenson and, of course being a Scot, Robert Burns—good ol’-fashioned narrative verse where people went for walks to see the sea or alongside brooks or sat in fields looking at flowers. Poetry was always about something. It told a story. I didn’t need to be that caught up in the process. At least when I was a kid I could see no good reason to get involved and so obviously I was only reading the poems superficially but no one told me that was wrong.
 
At secondary school we started to delve into the mechanics of poetry. I was familiar with rhyme and rhythm already—that’s how you knew what a poem was, if it utilised these techniques—but there was more, clever stuff like alliteration and onomatopoeia. There was something else that wasn’t talked about but that I picked up on myself. Call it a moment of insight if you like—a follower of Zen might use the term ‘kenshō’—although it really was the polar opposite: a moment of uncertainty or doubt. It came to me at the end of Larkin’s poem ‘Mr Bleaney’:
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.
It’s a single sentence sixty-five words long but I don’t find it the easiest of sentences to hold in my head. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve read the poem but I still can’t recite it from memory although what I can say is that every time I read it I encounter the same sensation. It’s a feeling I’ve tried to incorporate into almost every one of my poems since first reading it over forty years ago. Less of an ‘aha moment’ and more an ‘eh? moment’.
 
At the time of this great … let’s just go with encounter because it really wasn’t any kind of revelation … I hadn’t read any Oriental poetry whatsoever. I’m sure nowadays they use haiku in primary schools routinely as a way into poetry but it was years later that I stumbled upon this style of poetry (thank you Ezra Pound) and in it I found this same frustrating lack. The poems seemed incomplete: they said something but I always got the feeling they were really saying something else. They’d lead the reader only so far and demanded he or she took those final last few steps to … ‘enlightenment’ is probably too strong a word, so let’s just go with ‘understanding’ … they demanded he or she took those final last few steps to understanding on their own. They rarely stated. They hinted.
you make the fire
and I’ll show you something wonderful:
ahowlingdog big ball of snow!

Matsuo Bashō

a dog howling
sound of footsteps
longer nights

Masaoka Shiki
There’s no question mark at the end of Larkin’s poem but it’s still a question nevertheless. I’d never been in a bedsit in my puff when I first read it and yet I empathised with the poem’s narrator lying there in his empty-in-all-the-important-ways, sarcophagal room. He was wondering about the meaning of his life. (What else would one do in a quasi-coffin?) I was wondering about the meaning of mine assuming that there are individual answers to the question and it’s not the same answer for all of us; now that would be depressing.
 
I was asked recently to explain my poetry. It’s not an easy question to answer. This was what I came up with off the cuff:
I aim to leave my readers with … the best expression I can come up with is ‘a sense of unease’ … when they reach the end of a poem, the realisation that its true meaning rests in their hands.
I didn’t spend a long time coming up with that but having done so and finding myself dissatisfied with what I’d written I’ve come back to the question.
 
A poem should take you out of your comfort zone. It should make you uncomfortable. If you’re lying in bed or maybe have been sitting in a chair reading for a long while and you become uncomfortable what do you do? You change position. That is what a good poem sets out to do, to make you change your position, your perspective, on some matter. We all bring our own baggage with us to a poem. To accommodate that poem it may be necessary to shift that baggage around a little.
 
Night_BoatA while ago I read Alan Spence’s novel Night Boat which tells the life story of Hakuin Ekaku, one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. It’s a book full of poetry and Zen. Whatever Zen is. It’s one of those many, many words we use routinely that we think we understand but struggle to explain. Dictionaries define words by using other words and every other word they use also requires defining by a similar amount of other words which, too, require defining by more and more other words. I am not sure that true understanding demands that evidence be provided of its attainment by a summation of said understanding in words. If that was the case how would any of us cope if asked to explain ‘love’ or ‘happiness’ or ‘grief’? My definition of each of these words is experiential not academic; it’s personal to me. That being the case my definitions may be flawed or limited but at least they’re mine and true to my experience of them.
 
At the same time as I was reading this book I was also submitting poems to various journals online. As always I started with the later poems—those poems that were fresh enough that I still had some emotional attachment to them and hence thought them better than most of my older stuff—but after a few days I started considering poems twenty or thirty years old—I went through a long period of not bothering to try to get my stuff published which is why I have so many unpublished—and the experience was quite different. Some I could still remember writing or at least I could remember the circumstances surrounding the poem but there were others that had no choice but to stand on their own and be judged as good or bad based on nothing bar the words on the page. If you’re a writer you’ll understand how hard it is—it’s nigh on impossible, let’s be honest about it—to look at something we’ve written with anything approaching objectivity. No poem is ever complete—Paul Valery’s quote about all poems being abandoned comes to mind here—but the worst poems are like icebergs: 90% of them are still stuck inside the poet’s head which is why when he’s reunited with the poem as far as he’s concerned it’s complete and it’s wonderful—it says exactly what he wanted it to say—and he won’t brook any criticism of it. If you don’t get it then it’s your fault because it’s perfect. It’s only when you read someone else’s poems that you start to realise how little you’ve left the readers of your own poems to work with. The trick, though, is not to cram everything in in an attempt to ensure your reader has no option but to get exactly what you were on about—that’s what prose is for—but to lead them along the garden path and then let go of their hand before they reach the gate or the fence or the swing or wherever it is you want them to end up.
 
Here’s a lovely tanka I found online. It’s by Sunil Manghani:
Across worldly maps
oceans are inscribed as words
and yet as we write
such boundaries will wash through,
how strange we think only in words
This isn’t a complex sentence—only twenty-five words compared to Larkin’s sixty-five—but it does exactly the same. It’s not a puzzle to work out but it is something to think about. Now here’s a puzzle to work out:
1179936071_A-Z-LogoTao

Sometimes you have to go
to Z
before you can get
to B
and sometimes you need
to stop
to P on the way back.


7 June 1997
It’s one of mine, a little play on words and there’s not much below the surface. It’s certainly not the most profound thing I’ve ever written and once you’ve worked it out that’s about it. It pleases me every time I read it but it doesn’t really do much more for me. The tanka on the other hand, although at first it seems like a little puzzle, is really more. It is about our reliance on language. We trust things we can define that we can trap in words. Definitions hem us in, though, like borders. A girl asks her boyfriend, “Do you love me?” and he says he does because he knows what’s good for him but what does he know? He knows he’s fond of her. He knows he finds her physically attractive. He enjoys her company; she’s got a good sense of humour and better still she laughs at his jokes. He wants to be with her and not just for the sex so maybe it is love. If the word never existed would it change how he felt? Would he suddenly not enjoy her as much simply because he didn’t have a label to pin on the relationship?
 
The ‘answer’ to the tanka is to think about it. You can’t merely read it, get it and be done with it. And that’s the case with most poetry which is why it’s such a bad fit in today’s society. No one has time to meditate. And by ‘meditate’ I don’t mean sitting around in the lotus position going, “Om”; I mean thinking deeply about stuff. That’s what meditation’s all about. What’s the point telling someone to meditate on a koan and for them to go away and think about nothing? They need to think about the koan.
 
Here’s a poem from Alan’s book:
You think you understand anything?
Unless you hear the sound of one hand
It’s all just nonsense.
May as well stretch a skin
Over a wooden koto.
It’s in the chapter entitled ‘One Hand Clapping’ which is probably the kōan most laymen have heard of even if they don’t know what a kōan is. This is what Alan’s Hakuin has to say about his poem:
Skin on a koto. Animal hide stretched taut over the beautiful paulownia wood, making the instrument impossible to play. The thought of it would cause anguish, that great ball of discomfort in the chest, rising into the throat, a good koan doing its work.
I hadn’t finished the book when I started to write this article and so you can imagine how pleased I was to discover this. If asked most people would say they meditate to ease discomfort not to exacerbate it. I see it as a distraction technique: replace one discomfort with a lesser (or at least a different) one, a manageable one, one that only requires a change in position to alleviate it.
The most important and influential teaching of Hakuin was his emphasis on, and systematization of, koan practice. Hakuin deeply believed that the most effective way for a student to achieve insight was through extensive meditation on a koan. Only with incessant investigation of his koan will a student be able to become one with the koan, and attain enlightenment. The psychological pressure and doubt that comes when one struggles with a koan is meant to create tension that leads to awakening. Hakuin called this the "great doubt", writing, "At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully." – Wikipedia
If you doubt you’re not sure. We like to be sure. Are you sure that’s what you mean?
 
Here’s one of those old poems I was talking about earlier:
Empathy

The man with the strange name
imagespassed her by
thinking strange thoughts
in a stranger's tongue.

His dark clothes caught her eye
for a moment
and then he was gone.

A feeling came and went
but she didn't know its name
and tried forgetting
what she wouldn't want to understand.


6 November 1982
To my mind this poem perfectly captures the unease I felt when I first read ‘Mr Bleaney’ and thirty-odd years later I still get that feeling. It’s all about the limitations of language. As is this one:
White Light
static_morning_v2
Did you ever think you might have
done it because you wanted to?
she said after.
No need to apologize.

Drowning inside I close my
eyes allowing such feelings
to cover me as will.

Unaware of their names I
open my mouth to the waters.


2 June 1985
This was a very significant poem for me. It became the first of the ‘Drowning Man Poems’, a series I worked on for several years. The picture of a man drowning in emotions but never dying was an image that preoccupied me for four years. This is the last of the series:
The Drowned Man

FangsHe is undead.
He comes from within
and his name is Hunger.

I bring him women
to help feed him
because their feelings are the strongest.

They give him guilt
and fear
and pain –
now there's a feeling
to sink your teeth into.


25 June 1989
I find these very uncomfortable poems because I can remember being the guy who wrote them. I’d like to think that everyone finds themselves discomforted when they read them. Poems should not be easy. That said I’m quite against “difficult poetry” so probably what I’m saying here is that poetry should not be too easy. What happens in ‘Empathy’ is not hard to follow: a man dressed in unfamiliar dark clothes passes by a young woman. They don’t even make eye contact and yet something still passes between them, something she can’t put into words, something that makes her uneasy, something she would like to shrug off but can’t.
 
What did he do in ‘White Light’? Whatever it was she doesn’t seem to mind. Why did he do it? Because he wanted to. Full stop. This was what bothered me. I was the person who did the something. It doesn’t matter what the something was which is why I’ve not specified but I was looking for a reason why I a) wanted to do it and b) did it and the only thing I could come up with was that I wanted to, that it was enough simply to want, that there didn’t have to be a reason behind everything. Maybe there is a reason behind everything—there most likely is—but we don’t always benefit from knowing what that reason is. After I’d done what I did and thought about what I’d done and why I might’ve done it what I was then faced with were a mass of conflicting emotions. It was as if… Hey, that’s a good idea for a poem, a guy drowning in emotions.
 
Neither of these poems is meant to be understood. At least not intellectually. There’s little to understand. I’m looking for an emotional commitment. I want you to feel something even if you’re not sure what exactly you’re feeling other than uneasy. It took me four years to become comfortable—or at least less uncomfortable—with doing things because I wanted to and not questioning why I might want to do them. If I felt like an ice cream I’d get an ice cream. If I felt like a hug I’d find someone to hug. That mindset is not without its problems and it did cause me problems because we’re supposed to think about stuff before we do it and not just do what we want do even if it’s only something relatively innocent as looking for a hug. After four years I’d turned—poetically at least—into an emotional vampire. That’s what ‘The Drowned Man’ is all about.
Haiku is very simply, and most difficultly, a record of what is happening at this very moment, and only this moment, right in front of and in the midst of your senses. It is the moment when what your senses are telling you pulls you totally under, so that you disappear and all that is left is the seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting of the moment. Haiku, at its best, is therefore a small satori. Sprout_LightbulbAs Basho admonishes, there should not be even a hair's breadth between the writer and his/her subject. Anything less can be interesting reading, and, if bordering on senryū, can make you smile, but a real haiku makes you gasp and the hairs, wherever you may have them, stand up.
In haiku literature it is called the "Aha" moment both for the haijin (haiku writer) and for the haiku reader, for both reading and writing haiku find the reader and writer spun out of themselves and tossed to the far ends of the universe by three small lines, and often, these days, fewer. For a haiku records a moment that contains everything that comes before it and everything that is to come after it, and if your brain suddenly being introduced to such a moment doesn't shatter all its concepts, then the haiku under consideration can only be a half-baked haiku gesture. – Naomi Wakan, ‘Haiku Is Not’, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, August 2013, Vol. 17, No. 8
I am, as I have stated numerous times, not in any way, shape or form a spiritual person. I’ve enjoyed reading Alan Spence’s book but I’ve only got it up to a point. All the visions and stuff about mountain sprits has just gone—whoosh!—over my head. For me poems can only be appreciated in one or both of two ways, intellectually or emotionally, and I think many people misuse the term ‘spiritual’ when it comes to things like the ‘Aha moment’. It’s a moment of clarity or of insight but there’s nothing mystical about it. When you read a poem like ‘Empathy’ you can meditate on it all you like, think it through, but really what I’m looking for is for you to feel it through.
 
Satori by the way refers to the experience of kenshō, seeing into one's true nature. Poetry is very much a collaborative exercise. I’m not asking you to look into my soul, rather your own which is why ‘White Light’ is presented as a template poem, a stencil for you to fill in the blanks. When have you done something simply because you wanted to? I think this is why we either bond strongly with poems or forget about them quickly. If they don’t take root in us then then shrivel up and die. There’s an expression, ‘make it your own’, and that’s what I want people to do with my poems, make them their own. I have a poem whose title escapes me at this precise moment but I think of it as ‘the Barry poem’ because when my boss at the time read it it reminded so much of her relationship with this guy called Barry that she asked for a copy of the poem and it became ‘the Barry poem’ from then on.
 
I looked up ‘sense of unease’ in Google to see what kind of poems it directed me to. Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Human Interest’ was one; Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ was another, one I knew well; then there was ‘Meeting the British’ by Paul Muldoon, ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’ by Emily Dickinson, ‘In the Sepia Sky’ by James Gillick, ‘Wanderweg’ by Sarah Lucas and ‘When Big Joan Sets Up’ by Jason Labbe. I read them all but the one that jumped out at me, the one I connected with, was this one by the Spanish poet Eli Tolaretxipi from her collection Still Life with Loops in a translation by Philip Jenkins:
Nothing happens in the way that it happens in the poem

Nothing happens in the way that it happens in the poem.
It is the same in the photograph
which only says: I was there.
Something extraordinary and ephemeral happens:
a rainbow in the dishevelled hair of the wave
a whirlpool around the feet which are sinking in the sand
black body on a surfboard.
Untimely precipitation
black signs on the white and ruled page.
I’ll leave you to meditate on it. Or maybe one of the others.
Empty polaroid
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