Archives for category: Literature

The Argentinian poet Juan Gelman died on January 14, at the age of 83.

In an attempt to escape Tsarist Russia, Gelman’s Jewish family emigrated to Buenos Aires in the early 1900s, where Juan was born in 1930.

Gelman wrote poetry from an early age, but earned his living as a journalist. He played an active role in the Communist party and was a political militant. Following a coup by a military dictatorship in 1975, Gelman’s son and daughter-in-law ‘disappeared’ during a raid. Gelman’s son’s remains were found in 1990 in a cement filled barrel.

Gelman wrote of the event, which was to haunt the rest of his life:

on August 25, 1976

my son marcelo ariel and

his pregnant wife claudia

were kidnapped in

buenos aires by a 

military commando,

like in tens of thousands

of other cases, the military

dictatorship never officially

acknowledged these who 

“disappeared,” it referred to

“those absent forever.”

until i see their bodies

or their killers, i’ll never

give them up for dead.

The following poem is from Gelman’s 1980 collection If Gently:

Alone

you’re alone / my country / without

the comrades you lock up and destroy / you hear

them slowly being emptied of the love

they have left / they loosen their grip

on their turn to die / dream they’re being dreamed / quieted /

they’ll never see other faces growing /

leaning out / continued / in this sun /

some day in the sun of justice

Dark Times Filled With Light

The Selected Works of Juan Gelman

Translated by Hardie St. Martin

I love this poem, which begins:

‘I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.’

”She has a lump on her – her breast, like a gull’s egg.”

”Your mother has a cancer.”

‘He was silent. The whole room was full of the silence and the weight of what she had said lay upon him.’

In Black Sheep, Evie has noticed her mother-in-law Alice’s increasing fatigue and weight loss – ‘Alice looked as if the tiredness had settled in the marrow of her bones.’ Not content with her husband’s diagnosis of ‘ailing somehow’, Evie challenges Alice to share what she suspects her mother-in-law has been suffering from, and which she has hitherto been hiding:

‘The swelling was the size of an apricot, pushing against the skin.’

What particularly moves me about this passage, is how both women immediately, and silently, acknowledge the significance of the swelling. Reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s kingdoms of the ill and of the well, with a very narrow gap between the two, the chapter ends poignantly, and tenderly:

‘She put her hand on the other woman’s arm and rested it there, and so they stood, both silent, as if they were staring into the depths of the same river but from opposite banks.’

CQ

‘I probably set out to pay homage to Lucile, to give her a coffin made of paper – for these seem the most beautiful of all to me – and a destiny as a character. But I know too that I am using my writing as a way of looking for the origin of her suffering…’

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Lucile is the narrator’s mother, who commits suicide at the age of 61. From the first page, we are catapulted into the heartbreaking theme that overshadows the book:

‘My mother was blue, a pale blue mixed with the colour of ashes. Strangely, when I found her at home that January morning, her hands were darker than her face. Her knuckles looked as though they had been splashed with ink.

My mother had been dead for several days.’

The book is an exploration of Lucile’s life, a childhood overshadowed (and ‘disappeared’) by death, and an adult existence (for at times it reads as such, a non-being in the world), which was interrupted and disrupted by manic depression. It is also the story of what it was like for the narrator and her sister growing up in such an environment:

‘I am writing about Lucile through the eyes of a child who grew up too fast, writing about the mystery she always was to me, simultaneously so present and so distant, and who, after I was ten, never hugged me again.’

Shortly after discovering her mother’s dead body, the narrator, a writer, decided on perhaps the most intuitive way for her to confront and to explore the demons in her past and in her mother’s:

‘And then, like dozens of authors before me, I attempted to write my mother.’

‘Initially, once I had finally accepted that I would write this book after a long, silent negotiation with myself, I thought I would have no difficulty introducing fiction and no qualms about filling in the gaps…Instead of which, I am unable to alter anything…Unable to free myself completely from reality, I am involuntarily producing fiction; I’m looking for an angle which will allow me to come closer and closer still; I’m looking for a place which is neither truth nor fable, but both at once.’

Although the writing resulted in a ‘setting free’ of sorts, through the process ‘I grew a little further from Lucile in wanting to get closer to her.’

There are many serious and tragic themes throughout the book, including abuse, anorexia, and loss, both physical as the result of death through accidents and suicides, but also profound loss within enduring relationships.

Lucile seemed to gradually and progressively retreat from the world. A diagnosis of cancer provided the final challenge she could not face. The sentiments expressed in her final letter reminded me of an e.e.cummings phrase ‘Unbeing dead isn’t being alive’.

‘Lucile died the way she wanted to: while still alive.’

It is unclear from the book, and from interviews with the author, to what extent the story is autobiographical. It appears to be a combination of both fact and fiction. It matters little. This is a deeply affecting novel, and one which made me consider the stories into which we are all born, and the extent to which they can be rewritten.

CQ

I was so delighted to hear that Sinead Morrissey won the TS Eliot Poetry Prize last night. I have admired her work for some years, and every new poem she creates continues to impress and to move me.

Tonight, I read one of my favourites for my teenage daughter. My daughter’s parents are, like Morrissey’s, divorced, and the poem in question considers the legacy of this, as well as the visceral reality of what we are all products of.

Genetics

My father’s in my fingers, but my mother’s in my palms.

I life them up and look at them in pleasure —

I know my parents made me by my hands.

They may have been repelled to separate lands,

to separate hemispheres, may sleep with other lovers,

but in me they touch where fingers link to palms.

With nothing left of their togetherness but friends

who quarry for their image by a river,

at least I know their marriage by my hands.

I shape a chapel where a steeple stands.

And when I turn it over,

my father’s by my fingers, my mother’s by my palms

demure before a priest reciting psalms.

My body is their marriage register.

I re-enact their wedding with my hands.

So take me with you, take up the skin’s demands

for mirroring in bodies of the future.

I’ll bequeath my fingers, if you bequeath your palms.

We know our parents make us by our hands.

Sinead Morrissey

This poem, from the current issue of the The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2014/01/06/140106po_poem_twitchell), moved me:

Roadkill

I want to see things as they are

without me. Why, I don’t know.

As a kid I always looked

at roadkill close up, and poked

a stick into it. I want to look at death

with eyes like my own baby eyes,

not yet blinded by knowledge.

I told this to my friend the monk,

and he said, Want, want, want.

Chase Twichell

It reminded me of Philip Larkin, and his poem The Mower, which has a similar impact every time I read it:

The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found

A hedgehog jammed against up the blades,

Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.

Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world,

Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.

The first day after a death, the new absence

Is always the same. We should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind

While there is still time.

Philip Larkin

CQ

The fact of dementia is inescapable, as its incidence threatens to reach epidemic proportions in the not too distant future.

Thus, unsurprisingly, dementia as a theme is increasingly prevalent in the arts, including literature, theatre and the visual arts. I discussed the artist William Utermohlen in a previous post, and the impact of dementia on his life and creativity (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/art-and-alzheimers/). I have also experienced wonderful theatre that has focused on the subject, such as Tamsin Oglesby’s Really Old, Like Forty Five (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/dementia1/), and Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/dementia-autobiographer/).

A few years ago I came across a short story by Alice Munro, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1999 (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2013/10/21/131021fi_fiction_munro). The story was later adapted for the film Away from Her (2006), which was directed by Sarah Polley.

The short story concerns Grant and Fiona, who have been married for many years, and do not have any children. When Fiona was 70, Grant started to notice little yellow notes stuck all over the house. The notes were detailed and included prompts on where to locate household items as well as aids for remembering what her daily schedule should be. Fiona then started to call Grant from town when she could not remember how to get home. Fiona herself comments:

“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” she said. “I expect I’m just losing my mind.”

The forgetfulness and memory loss get worse. Eventually, the time arrives for Fiona to move to institutional care at Meadowlake, where she creates her own and not unhappy life, separate and detached from Grant. The story is a profoundly moving and sad portrayal of love and of loss.

Today I read a more recent short story by Munro from her collection Dear Life. In In Sight of the Lake (reminiscent of Meadowlake in the earlier story), Nancy’s story slowly unfollows as one also of dementia, or of a ‘mind problem’ as she herself sees it, although then correcting herself: “It isn’t mind. It’s just memory.”

In Sight of the Lake is a more obtuse and enigmatic piece than The Bear Came Over the Mountain, and it only really reveals itself at its denouement. Nonetheless, it is every bit as moving and as touching as its thematic predecessor, and leaves much to consider about the far-reaching and tragic impact of dementia, a condition that perhaps few of us may ultimately escape.

CQ

The Irish poet died on Christmas Eve 2012. He would have been 60 on New Years Day 2014.

It thus feels appropriate today, on the last day of 2013 and the eve of the day of the poet’s birth, to share one of his poems, and one of my absolute favourites.

Life

Life gives

us something

to live for:

we will do

whatever it takes

to make it last.

Kill in just wars

for its survival.

Wolf fast-food

during half-term breaks.

Wash down

chemical cocktails,

as prescribed.

Soak up

hospital radiation.

Prey on kidneys

at roadside pile-ups.

Take heart

from anything

that might

conceivably grant it

a new lease.

We would give

a right hand

to prolong it.

Cannot imagine

living without it.

Dennis O’Driscoll

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Susan Hill’s novel, written in 1974, is a story about loss, relationships, and about how we mourn.

The acute loss central to the story results from the sudden death of Ruth’s young husband Ben. However, a more global pre-existing loss is also unmasked by the tragedy.

Ruth is devastated by Ben’s death, and inhabits a place of unremitting despair where she is untouchable by others. Reluctantly, she attends the funeral, where she resents the mourning of others:

‘She imagined the line of dark mourners mounting the stairs and peering into the coffin. As Ben. Ben. How could they? How could so many people have touched him and looked at him, unasked, since the moment of his death, when she herself had not?

But it was better. She thought, they don’t have Ben.’

‘They were forcing her to take part in some curious ritual of their own…’

My sister’s husband died a few years ago, and I can see her response to his death, and to fellow-mourners, in Ruth’s behaviour. At the time, I struggled with my sister’s reaction, as I tried to deal with both his loss from our lives and also her belief that only she was entitled to mourn this loss.

Ruth, with time, comes to realise the wide-reaching effects of Ben’s death:

‘The death of Ben Bryce had been like a stone cast into still water, and the water had become a whirlpool with Ruth sucked down into the terrible heart of it. But the waves spread out, through the countryside down to the village and beyond the village. People felt changed, as if by war or earthquake or fire, even those who lived closest to death and knew its face.’

She comes to acknowledge her behaviour at the time:

‘But she had been too wrapped up, first within the warm womb of her happiness with Ben, and then in the cold shell of grief. She had not thought of anyone.’

We read to find ourselves, and to witness experiences that resonate with our own. Thus, within In the Springtime of the Year, I found some consolation in its echoes of my sister’s reaction to her husband’s death:

‘…she had kept Ben’s death to herself, as a private thing, tried to possess it utterly and allow no one else the right to mourn…’

CQ

This book was an unexpected delight.

‘Delight’ may not be the best descriptor, as John William’s Stoner is a profoundly sad, at times even bleak read. Yet I felt enriched by the experience. It is truly one of those must-reads.

The title refers to the main protagonist, William Stoner, and the book chronicles his life. We are introduced to Stoner after his death, and from the outset we begin to have a sense of the man and of his life:

‘An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question…his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.’

An only child, Stoner’s parents were farmers. A solitary and mostly silent childhood was spent toiling the physical world of soil and land. Later, he left to study agriculture at university. A required element of the curriculum was English literature, which opened up a previously unknown world to him, one that filled him with wonder and awe. While studying, he dutifully returned home during the holidays to work on the farm. His relationship with his parents remained a largely unspoken one, and Stoner never shared his ‘other world’ with them.

‘He thought of his parents, and they were nearly as strange as the child they had borne; he felt a mixed pity for them and a distant love.’

Discovering a love for teaching, he remained at the university for the remainder of his life, although he struggled to successfully communicate the wonder he himself experienced within, with his students.

The solitary condition of his childhood persisted during his university years:

‘He had no friends, and for the first time in his life he became aware of loneliness.’

However, for a time he did have two friends, one of who commented:

‘You have the lean and hungry look, sure enough. You’re doomed.’

It was a prescient observation, as Stoner’s life proceeded to a succession of tragic episodes, and to a life defined by sadness, an inescapable sadness that he was born into. When his parents died, Stoner reflected:

‘He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been—a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.’

Any relief that Stoner did occasionally experience from the relentless doom that enveloped his life was short-lived. He married, but it was a failure on every level. They had one daughter, Grace, with whom he was initially very close, but this later evaporated. Having briefly found friendship, his closest friend was killed in the war. He had a lover with whom he had many moments of happiness, but this was poignantly relinquished.

As a result of his life experiences, Stoner mostly lived on the periphery, becoming increasingly detached, dislocated, and numb:

‘…at will, he seemed able to remove his consciousness from the body that contained it, and he observed himself as if he were an oddly familiar stranger…’

‘He felt at times that he was a kind of vegetable, and he longed for something—even pain—to pierce him, to bring him alive.’

The final section of the book, when Stoner is dying, is the most introspective and self-reflective:

‘Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be.’

Intensely self-critical, and by then utterly defeated by life, he answered his own question on why his life became what it ended up being:

‘What did you expect? he asked himself.’

He is as detached from the fact of his own dying as he has learnt to be about most things in his life:

‘He had no wish to die; but there were moments, after Grace left, when he looked forward impatiently, as one might look to the moment of a journey that one does not particularly want to take.’

The sadness that clings to Stoner’s life is almost palpable. Although unremitting – the reader is never left off the sadness hook – it is impossible to resist reading Stoner. Seduced by the prose and by William’s way of telling, the reader is willingly drawn into a life story that speaks to a universal sadness within all of us.

CQ