Reading, a diary

March 21, 2015

I’ve been re-reading Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary in preparation for my workshop at the Guardian’s Reading for Pleasure conference.

reading diary

Here, Manguel responds to the news that his neighbour Barbara, died the night before:

I am furious at the taking away of things, at these brutal changes. And the older I get, the faster changes happen: friends disappear, landscapes clutter. I want my friends to be there always, I want the places I like to stay the same. I want there to be certain fixed points on the universe on which I can count. I don’t want to keep missing voices, faces, names…

He looks for consolation the book he is rereading, The Wind in the Willows, and finds it in an account of Mole finding his old house again.
But if there is no home we recognise, no friends around us, where do we find consolation?

The past 2 months I have been training as a Living Words artist. There are four of us training and we are all writers. But rather than documenting our experience and choosing how to tell it, we are scribes for the people we work with, who are experiencing dementia. We are learning how to receive and hold their words, their experience of life at present and return it to them in a book. Often they recognise themselves in the pages, even if they don’t remember saying these things. I have been working with A and we are coming to the end of this project. I read her book with her and ask her how it feels to read her words in the book. Beautiful, she says.
You can read our blogs about the process here.

In The Myth of Alzheimer’s, Peter J Whitehouse M.D., Ph.D., disputes the current notion that Alzheimer’s is a slow death, and suggests, what if we approach it as a process of brain ageing, albeit accelerated?

By changing the way we think about Alzheimer’s, we change the story we tell about our ageing brains. That matters because stories surround us, shape us, serve as the building blocks of our lives, and weave us into our human communities.

He changes the lens through which we look at Alzheimer’s and other dementias:

Aging is a project, a work of existential art, a story that one continues to write until one can write it not more – it does not end when one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by a doctor. The stigma of AD is powerful. But it should not restrict persons whose brains are ageing from finding meaningful roles for themselves.

I think about A and G’s Living Words books, the stories they have told of themselves and their experience of life at present. In these stories there is sadness and pleasure, loneliness and consolation. They are telling their stories, their truth, in their own words.

The same week I was putting together A’s book, trying to stand back from the words and their arrangement, I was also looking over the final proofs of my collection. As I write this, The Art of Scratching is on its way to the printer. You can get an inkling of it on the Bloodaxe website here.

My publisher N is very understanding. He hasn’t complained about all the small changes: commas removed here, a word changed there, the sequencing adjusted. It’s a slightly longer book than originally planned so I was able to replace a poem with 2 new ones and look again at the sequencing. I notice the way poems speak to each other from opposite pages, and how earlier poems suggest possible meanings in those that follow them. I’m happy with it – the small world of my book.

Between Sandy Bay and the Dumps

September 14, 2014

In Kerry one day in August I sat in the sand dunes between Sandy Bay and the Dumps, a breathtaking stretch of beach frequented by surfers, reading Ulysses in the sun and wind. I read this, about a boy called Sargent:

“Ugly and futile: lean neck and tangled hair and a stain of ink, a snail’s bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him under foot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only thing in life? His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode. She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled under foot and had gone, scarcely having been.”

Long-intimidated by this book, I found it to be an unexpected pleasure – lush, poetic, technically thrilling, moving. Like poetry, it doesn’t always reveal its full meaning at first reading, and perhaps not ever, entirely, It’s enough to let the words and image wash over the thinking brain.

Parent-love is something I think of often, and surely most of us do, as parents or children or both? It struck me when I saw King Lear at the Globe last month, how un-dated it seemed, relating to life today as it did to audiences 400 years ago. Having given everything to his two daughters who professed to love him most, Lear, played by Joseph Marcell, discovers their duplicity and  pleads with Regan:

“Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary; on my knees I beg
That you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food…”

She doesn’t of course – she dismisses him cruelly, judging him past usefulness. It made me think of all the people in homes for the elderly, judged to be past usefulness or too much work.

Back to Ulysses: what put me off for so long, more than its difficulty – though I confess I am lazy when tired or overwhelmed, and resort to easy-to-read crime or feel-good novels which often leave me unsatisfied by their predictability or cliched writing… another dead girl in an attic? … where was I? Oh yes – the length of Ulysses!  933 pages in Bill’s Penguin edition.  It’s a big commitment when there is so little time to read.
It will be far more rewarding than a desperate encounter, I know… but it languishes under my bedside table, along with Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book (which is wonderful but I keep putting down and then can’t remember who is who so have to go back), Taboo by Fouzia Saeed about the red-light area of Lahore (humane and illuminating), Toast by Nigel Slater and Love Over Holland by Alexander McCall Smith – the latter two bought from Oxfam in a desire for comfort. The Iliad is also there gathering dust (shame on me) and the Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt which I’ve been meaning to investigate since I picked it up on Spencer Road where someone had piled up dozens of books on the pavement. It was the first decent book I had got from this pop-up ‘help-yourself’ experience my daughter calls ‘Crazy for Joy’, though I did once get an elegant wrought-iron chair and a heavy wood sun-lounger on wheels (the sort you get poolside in fancy hotels) which I lugged home and wrestled through the front door and out the back door only to find that it took up the whole back yard and you had climb over it to get past.  I eventually put the lounger back outside my front door, back to Crazy for Joy where it found a new home.

My thoughts and this blog are all over the place, I know. That’s the state of my mind after the school holidays whose lack of structure, though glorious in some ways, does my head in. I can’t think straight over the holidays and when thinking is 95% domestic, it’s extremely frustrating as well. Oh, the relief when the kids get back to school and we get some structure back into the days, so I can build scaffolding for time to write and time to think, as well as for the work that pays, and for drumming up more paid work…
Bear with me, please. I am going to resist the urge to go back and edit this post into coherence, because this is how it is.

What is this all about? Structure. I’m consumed by the need for it – in my life but more importantly, in my play. I haven’t got the hang of structure – of a skeleton for the play that will allow it to stand up and move without falling over. More than that, to run, to dance, and sometimes just stay still. I find I am looking for structure in everything I read and see – yesterday I saw Two Days, One Night with Marion Cotillard, and found it profound and so elegantly put-together, with such beautiful bones that I will need to see it again and take notes.

p.s. if you have the key to structure, or can tell me where to find it, please write.

I am no longer young. What of it?

May 15, 2014

I feel far from poetry lately, so I visited Louise Gluck:

Morning quivers in the thorns; above the budded snowdrops
caked with dew like little virgins, the azalea bush
ejects its first leaves, and it is spring again.
The willow waits its turn, the coast
is coated with a faint green fuzz, anticipating
mold. Only I
do not collaborate, having
flowered earlier. I am no longer young. What
of it? Summer approaches, and the long
decaying days of autumn when I shall begin
the great poems of my middle period.
[from To Autumn, Poems 1962-2012]

Summer is approaching – the weather today is warm, sweater-less. But according to the numbers, I am in the autumn of my life.
Why is it so hard to say this? We grow, we grow older.
I have always loved autumn, which somehow holds more promise than Spring. It’s cozier, more thrilling. Perhaps I’m still programmed for the academic calendars where September is the beginning of something. Or perhaps I forget I’m no longer in Canada, where autumn is crisp and bright, red and gold.

Where are the great poems of my middle period? Or even the good ones. Or any ones? They won’t come while I’m worrying about money or my digital profile – i.e. can I keep not being on twitter? Why do we want or need to be so visible? Is it because there’s so much out there – so much chatter and ideas and images – that a person needs to keep jumping up to be seen and acknowledged?

I returned to Louise Gluck and found Swans:

You were both quiet, looking out over the water.
It was not now; it was years ago,
before you were married.
The sky above the sea had turned
the odd pale peach color of early evening
from which the sea withdrew, bearing
its carved boats: your bodies were like that.
But her face was raised to you,
against the dull waves, simplified
by passion. Then you raised your hand…
[from Swans]

I want that quiet, and the water, and the pale peach sky.
Swans speaks from the ’80s, when there were no phones capturing the view, no messages pinging into them.
There was only him and her at that moment, and the water and the sky. Until the swans came.

I don’t want to turn back the clock – I like it here. I just want to slow down and find some quiet. And then the poems might come. And the play might find its equilibrium and sense of purpose.

Life feels too busy to think or read enough. What’s the solution? More time? Fewer distractions?
How do other writers manage finances and other commitments (like family) and still make time to write?
How do you do it?

The crab

April 10, 2014

“If a man die”, William Carlos Williams once wrote, “it is because death / has first possessed his imagination.” Death possessed the imagination of my patients that month, and my task was to repossess imagination from death. It is a task almost impossibly difficult to describe, an operation far more delicate and complex than the administration of a medicine or the performance of surgery. It was easy to repossess imagination with false promises; much harder to do so with nuanced truths… Too much “repossession” and imagination might bloat into delusion. Too little and it might asphyxiate hope altogether.
-from The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Muckherjee

I returned to this book I love, after a year of absence. It had come too close suddenly, cancer the monster, snatching at people I loved, ending their stories abruptly like pages and pages ripped from a book.

There is much comfort in the pages of this book, such hope in the many heroes, strength and kindness in Muckherjee, storyteller, modest hero.
But then the book transformed from thriller-biography to horror story… perhaps because of how I was reading it: before sleep, after watching the last 3 episodes of Breaking Bad. Suddenly it seemed the monster was at the door, in the house, looking into the childrens’ rooms, his heavy breath loud in my ears. It seems there is no escape – it will hurt us all somehow.

Cancer is my astrological sign, my son’s too. We get crabby and retreat into our shells. He shuts the door to his room and plays loud music; I retreat to a friend’s house while she’s at work, and escape into books at home.
Oh for a small space of my own, to burrow into.
I know there is no such thing as ‘safe’ while we are alive. Only quiet, love, work – welcome harbours.

In praise of simplicity

January 25, 2014

I think there is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than the absence of clutter and ornamentation – it’s about bringing order to complexity.

This are my thoughts about poetry, but not my words – they come from Jony Ive, Senior Vice President of design at Apple, talking about iOS 7.

I was thinking about clarity when reading last Saturday’s Guardian Review which featured this poem by Sinead Morrissey who won the TS Eliot Prize recently for Parallax:


was not last winter, we said, when winter
had ground it’s iron teeth in earnest: Belfast
colder than Moscow and a total lunar eclipse
hanging its Chinese lantern over the solstice.
Last winter we wore jackets into November
and lost our gloves, geraniums persisted,
our new pot-bellied stove sat unlit night
after night and inside our lungs and throats,
embedded in our cells, viruses churned out
relaxed, unkillable replicas of themselves
in the friendlier temperatures. Our son
went under. We’d lie awake, not touching,
and listening to him cough. He couldn’t walk
for weakness in the morning. Thoracic,
the passages and hallways in our house
got stopped with what we could not say –
how, on our wedding day, we’d all-at-once
felt shy to be alone together, back
from the cacophony in my tiny, quiet flat
and surrounded by flowers.

Perfectly formed, it does so much and makes it look effortless. I’m trying hard to resist buying her book and put in on my birthday wish list instead. Though the summer is a long time away and I want it desperately – not as words on a screen, but the actual book to hold in my hands, its cover a promise, with pages to linger over and turn.
Meanwhile, I have Louise Gluck’s Poems 1962-2012 (a much-awaited Christmas present). Luxuriating in its generous bulk, I’m enjoying being at the beginning. In her first book, Firstborn (1968), the poems don’t feel in any way dated – with their strange, quiet beauty, their forms a delight, they could have been written today. This is Solstice:

June’s edge. The sun
Turns kind. Birds wallow in the sob of pure air,
Crated from the coast… Un-
real. Unreal. I see the cure

Dissolving on the screen. Outside, dozing
In its sty, the neighbours’ offspring
Sucks its stuffed monster, given
Time. And now the end begins:

Packaged words. He purrs his need again.
The rest is empty. Stones, stone-
blind she totters to the lock
Through webs of diapers. It is Christmas on the clock,

A year’s precise,
Terrible ascent, climaxed in ice.

We have time. There is so much to be grateful for, such pleasure to be had. So it’s raining again and our debt is growing, worry climbing like ivy, obscuring the weak winter light… But we are alive and there are so many ways to feel happy.

In The Seagull, which I’ve been reading, the characters are also worrying about money – there isn’t enough to live on, to pay for horses to take one to the station or back home to the baby, not enough money for Treplev to have a new coat to replace his shabby one which is 3 seasons old. Chekhov’s stories and plays have that deceptive simplicity, the writing uncluttered and resonant with truth. The characters fall in and out of love, have dreams, are disappointed… Is anyone happy? Probably not – and probably happiness is not the point either, in life.
Is it foolish of us to keep pointing ourselves at happiness? We know it’s fleeting but we’re disappointed when it goes, even associate this with failure.
And if we could be happy with what we have?

In The Seagull, Nina quotes a line from Turgenev:
‘On a night like this, happy the man with a roof over his head and a warm corner to rest in.’
But of course, she wasn’t happy.

New Year

January 13, 2014

Aldeburgh sunrise

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
it’s a new life….
And I’m feeling good

Welcome, bright new year.
It’s the year of the Horse in less than 3 weeks, so I consult my chinese horoscope, which says, ‘It should be a good year – health and wealth abound.’
It also says that ‘working with blood (i.e. surgery, butchery, soldiers) as well as spirituality (priests, philosophers)’ is in my favour.

I should donate more blood, network with the local butchers.

New year is as good a time as any for resolutions. Do you (gentle reader) have one?
Mine is to stretch out of my comfort zone – with work, writing, reading, and all the rest. I’m going to learn to swim properly – like Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. But without the womanizing or cheezy lines. And without the constant refrain of ‘I drank too much last night’.
Though I did.

I’m also going to read my backlog of books in translation (mostly) from and other stories. Last year they sent me Deborah Levy’s collection of short stories, Black Vodka, which I loved. I then read her novel, Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. Swimming again. Burt Lancaster said he was swimming home, from pool to pool, all the way to his house. It wasn’t a happy story, though, as far as i remember.
Back to Levy, I discover that she trained as a playwright. I found a recording of a radio documentary she wrote, called The Glass Piano about the true story of a Bavarian princess who believed she had swallowed a glass grand piano – and worried about it shattering inside her. She moved carefully, with difficulty, sideways, though the palace corridors.
As well as imagining how it would feel, to believe as the princess did, Levy talks to psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, ER consultant Dr Fiona Lecky and historian Erin Sullivan, who researched people’s understanding of sadness. She talks to Levy about the connection between melancholy and the delusion about being made of glass.

The more I discover about Levy, the more she interests me.
She says:
In my earliest twenties, I think I believed that theatre could change the world. Later, I discovered that my true interest in the theatre was that it was a place to connect with discomfort rather than prescriptions for how we might live. It took me a while to understand that when theatre uses all the languages that make it a unique form to write for (text, sound, design, lights, the spaces between actors, film and video), it is a place to make visual poetry, a place to show the human nervous system in a state of disquiet…
[Levy, Plays 1]

When asked about why she wrote in different forms (play, novel, short story, poetry, radio documentary) Levy replied that the forms chose her. Stories demand different forms.
In Pillow Talk in Europe and Other Places, she says:

“Be sure to enjoy language, experiment with ways of talking, be exuberant even when you don’t feel like it because language can make your world a better place to live.”

Beauty and the Beast

December 12, 2013

Last night I saw Beauty and the Beast at The Young Vic Theatre in London with Mat Fraser, the wonderful British disabled actor/writer as the Beast and his wife Julie Atlas Muz, American burlesque star and Miss Coney Island, as Beauty. They told their love story alongside the fairy tale with help from 2 puppeteer/slaves called Jess and John and some vegetables.
Honestly? It’s the most moving, surprising, playful production I’ve seen – I was on the edge of my seat, laughing, barking and seeing vegetables in a whole new way. Mat and Julie are naked much of the time, so it’s x-rated, but also utterly joyful. Go see it. Don’t take your mother.

From one beautiful beast to the beastliness of war.
In The Odyssey: a soldier’s road home in a recent Guardian Saturday Review, Charlotte Higgins considers what happens to soldiers when conflicts end.
They “come out of one war into another”, says David Finkel in his new book, Thank You for Your Service, on the experiences of returning soldiers.

Higgens tells us this:

According to a report published by the Department of Veteran Affairs, 22 US veterans killed themselves every day in 2010.

And in the UK more soldiers and veterans killed themselves in 2012 than died in combat in Afghanistan.

She refers to Euripides’ play, Heracles Being Mad (Heracles Mainomenos), where where the goddess Lyssa causes Heracles, recently returned from his labours and reunited with his family, to turn on his wife and children and kill them.
Lyssa represents a particular madness – combat-craziness.

According to Finkel, the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have have
created about half a million mentally wounded American veterans. That’s only the American soldiers. The tip of the iceberg.

What can we do from our safe little bubble?

All this past week, the Special AKA’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ – that joyfully righteous anthem – has been playing in my head.
My son told me they played it in his school assembly, to commemorate his death.
I’ve been thinking of this bit:

Are you so blind that you cannot see.
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear.
Are you so dumb that you cannot speak.

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