Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss

“Our willingness to believe the news is, in many cases, not entirely innocent.”

In my weaker moments, those moments when I have desired nothing so much as the comforting thud of an enveloped book arriving through my letterbox, I have come perilously close to signing up to a subscription with Fitzcarraldo Editions, a publishing house for which I have a deep admiration despite having not read any of their books. Some time ago I must have signed up for their newsletter, and now and again an e-mail thuds comfortingly into my inbox and I read it with an indecent level of covetousness, lingering over the description of the latest book which, invariably, suggests immediate purchase is necessary. There’s just something about the kind of books that Fitzcarraldo publish that resonates like a harp in my soul. And despite all of this, despite my finger lingering over the 12 month subscription button on more than one occasion, despite a back catalogue filled with books like Second-hand Time, Pond and Zone all of which I would read in a heartbeat, I’ve never yet succumbed, though the temptation is like the promise of a hit of something craved and perhaps it is this temptation alone, the delicious thrill of it, which has held me back all along. Because a temptation fulfilled is less fun, in many ways, than one which continues to offer the anticipation of fulfilment, and in this way I continue to dangle that subscription just out of reach though the back catalogue, it seems, is perhaps still a temptation too far which is how Notes From No Man’s Land landed on my doormat.

Notes From No Man’s Land is a series of essays concerned with the issue of race in America, identity politics (though Biss admits she doesn’t entirely understand what this is) and the disparity in the way the actions of white Americans are perceived compared to the black community. Yet that description itself is a whole lot less complex than the book itself is, and offers a certainty which Biss doesn’t grant through the essays. Because Biss is a questioner, a questioner and an observer and a wonderer and with her eyes open she sees injustice and inaccuracy and disparity wherever she looks. Starting with the question of race is in itself a complex point, as Biss explains with uncustomary absolutism – “There is no biological basis for what we call race, meaning that most human variation occurs within individual “races” rather than between them. Race is a social fiction. But it is also, for now at least, a social fact. We may be remarkably genetically similar, but we are not all, culturally speaking, the same.” – Biss begins in an unusual place, the invention of the telephone and, more specifically, the telephone pole. Here she explains the history of the development of the telephone, the wires that connect us and the extraordinary fact that we are all connected, and the way in which the march of the telephone pole was restricted and resisted by those whose property they crossed. This exploration morphs into the use of the telephone pole as a vehicle for lynching black men, black men accused of, whether or not convicted of, harassing white women, or of stealing white people’s property or murdering white people. It’s a powerful parallel: the technology which is designed to connect us being used to rip communities apart. As Biss reflects, things are not innocent.

From there Biss explores different stories of prejudice and damage to the black community, formed from her interactions in New York, California and the Midwest and the various jobs she has performed and stories she has explored. Each of the essays interleaves Biss’s experiences with some horrifying story which would be unbelievable if they weren’t true. Stories of the heavy-handedness of Child Protection Services who routinely strip black children from their families, stories of ‘integration’ which mean tolerance of a small number of ethnic minorities in an area, stories of the way the media report, or more truthfully mis-report, events which happen in predominantly black areas, like the reporting after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, as she reflects on here:

“Unlike the reports of violence, many of the reports of looting in New Orleans were, in fact, substantiated. There were witnesses and photographs. But, again, the story – that blacks are thieves – was already in circulation before the events took place. The facts of the reports may have been true, but the motives driving the reporting, and the motives behind the public fascination with the story, were based on old lies about who steals from whom in this country. And it was evident from the strange enthusiasm, the eagerness, with which the reports of looting were met that readers were not interested so much in the looting as they were in how well it supported their sickest suspicions of black people. Our willingness to believe the news is, in many cases, not entirely innocent.”

But it is both the complexity and over-simplification of stories which absorb Biss. She examines the way stories are structured and how we use them to reinforce power or disempower others, to reassure ourselves and to confirm our existing views and fears. In particular, she reflects on both diversity efforts and the way in which white fear is spun and reinforced to perpetuate prejudice and conflict in a very powerful essay called No Man’s Land:

 “My cousin recently travelled to South Africa, where someone with her background would typically be considered neither white nor black but coloured, a distinct racial group in South Africa. Her skin is light enough that she was most often taken to be white, which was something she was prepared for, having travelled in other parts of Africa. But she was not prepared for what it meant to be white in South Africa, which was to be reminded, at every possible opportunity, that she was not safe and she must be afraid. And she was not prepared for how seductive that fear would become, how omnipresent it would be, so she spent most of her time there in taxis, and in hotels, and in “safe” places where she was surrounded by white people. When she returned home she told me, “I realised that is what white people do to each other – they cultivate each other’s fear. It’s very violent.””

In a time when the rhetoric tells the white communities in both the UK and US to fear the ‘radical Muslim’ this narrative seems as prevalent as ever, and I’m drawn to the recognition of all those times I’ve heard people, white people generally, complain that black or Asian communities do not ‘integrate’ by which they mean they do not give up their non-white culture and live, often, in communities in which ethnic minority groups dominate, largely because the white community move out. And we talk of ‘gentrification’ to mean areas in which there is a white, often middle-class resurgence, and we fail to talk about the failure of the rich to integrate or the ways in which the white community, through this fear, fail to role-model integration by taking taxis and avoiding certain areas because there are ‘gangs’ which is, often, another way of saying ethnic or black communities. The stories we tell ourselves, as Biss recognises, are often fictions or, at the very least, nothing more than perspectives and the most powerful narratives are the ones which are told by the most powerful people with the greatest reach and we should, as she suggests, be wary of them. As she reflects:

“I would realise later that going to the beach in San Diego is like going to Wall Street in New York. It is not only a centre of elite commerce – it is a place where the city’s imagination of itself resides. And I would begin to understand that the city of San Diego imagines its beaches white by telling itself the same story over and over, which is also how some of us, when we read The New York Times, convince ourselves that this is The News.”

In these times of ‘fake news’, of 24/7 coverage of events like the Manchester and London attacks by the mainstream media who simultaneously barely report the bombings in Afghanistan or Iran, we would do well to remember that these are some of the stories but not all of the stories, and that there are other stories which demand both our outrage and attention and which we will never see, not because they don’t exist but because they don’t reinforce the narrative that those in power want us to hear. And what Biss does, in this powerful collection of essays, is remind us to listen, because she listens, and not just listen but really think about what these stories are telling us, because narrative is rarely simple and listening is really hard and now and again we need to be reminded of that. I was glad to receive this timely reminded, through a series of essays which are intelligent and balanced and generous, at times amusing but always thought-provoking. And Biss shows a kind of mental flexibility which is both admirable and inspiring and I found myself wishing we could all be so willing to examine the issues we face with such honesty and humility and so penetratingly. I’m glad that my moment of weakness led me to these extraordinary essays and that my faith in Fitzcarraldo was not misplaced. I think that back catalogue might turn out to be too tempting after all.

Posted in essays, non-fiction, race | 5 Comments

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

“It’s only since I’ve slowed down that the forest around me has come to life.”

Image result for the wall marlen haushofer

Yet again I abandoned a book this week, this is becoming a disturbingly regular habit (okay, it’s twice). This time it was Jessica J Lee’s Turning, a book which, on the surface, should have been bang in my reading zone: a memoir about a woman who embarks on a life-changing challenge, to swim 52 lakes in Germany, but which just failed to deliver for me. Too much hinting and too little substance; too little swimming too, bizarrely. And a mind impatient for something different, my mind. Impatient, as it often is. So instead I decided to attempt to confront my growing dissatisfaction with fiction and return to a book which couldn’t fail to hold my attention: Marlen Haushofer’s marvellous The Wall. And yes, it is cheating. It’s a long time since I read any new fiction, but reading familiar fiction at least keeps my hand in and retains the possibility that some new fiction might yet appear, successfully, in my future.

For those that haven’t encountered it (and why haven’t you?) The Wall is the account of one woman trapped in an alpine valley by a mysterious force, which she describes as ‘the wall’. She has visited her friend’s hunting lodge in the valley many times before, and this time was intended to be no different. Her friend, Hugo, whose lodge it is, and his wife Luise go out to the village for the evening. Our protagonist (unnamed) stays behind at the lodge. At some time in the evening Hugo’s dog, Lynx, returns but Hugo and Luise do not. The protagonist goes to bed and when she wakes in the morning her friends have still not returned. Finding this strange she sets out towards the village only to encounter the wall. It is invisible, she doesn’t know what it is, but it creates an impenetrable barrier around the valley. Whilst investigating the scope of the phenomenon, she discovers death on the other side of the wall. Whatever has happened, it appears to have been deadly and she can find no route out of her valley. She and Lynx return to the hunting lodge and begin what becomes a long, relentless trudge to survive.

Aside from Lynx she discovers a cow, who she names Bella, and a cat and together they become a family. There appear to be no other humans in the valley. What follows is both simple and deceptively complex. Our protagonist becomes focused on survival, both for herself and for the animals who she is sure will perish without her. Bella is pregnant, as is the cat and new life brings both hope and responsibility, the promise and devastation of loss. She describes days spent sawing wood, scything the meadows, collecting berries and milking Bella, she suffers exhaustion and anxieties, her days are a trial in just keeping going and whilst nothing really ‘happens’ in the book – there is little drama and few events beyond the weather – the story remains intense and gripping. She reflects on both her old life and the new, there is a sense that she is only, by being trapped, starting to become and inhabit herself. She examines her old life and finds it wanting, as she describes here:

“On that long walk back I thought about my former life and found in unsatisfactory in all respects. I had achieved little that I had wanted, and everything I had achieved I had ceased to want. That’s probably how it was for everybody else, too. It’s something we never talked about, when we used to talk. I don’t think I shall have the opportunity to talk to other people about it again now. So I shall have to presume it was so. Back then, walking back into my valley, it still hadn’t quite dawned on me that my former life had come to a sudden end; I knew it, that is, but only in my head, so I didn’t believe it. It’s only when knowledge about something slowly spreads to the whole body that you truly know. I know too that I, like every living thing, will have to die someday, but my hands, my feet and my guts still don’t know it, which is why death seems so unreal.”

So whilst her new life is tough, it is a daily slog just to get through the days and she is prone to disease and illness, to infirmity growing in her body through exertion and malnutrition, she is also fulfilled and, perhaps, for the first time able to be herself rather than the person that ‘society’ both demanded and expected her to be; or perhaps it is truer to say that she no longer allows herself to be influenced into becoming something other than what she is, because there is no longer anyone to influence her. This lack of influence is both a boon and a detriment. She ceases to understand what it means to be ‘human’, without companionship she forgets how to interact, she suffers from depressions and anxieties and has no one to share the burden, yet she does not crave the conflict that would come with another human being. She cannot explain her desire to survive beyond her responsibilities towards the animals, though she clearly has a desire to survive.

The Wall is a fascinating book; it is fascinating because it comprises nothing more than the musings of a woman whose life has become a cycle of farming and walking, existing, with no possibility of anything more. Yet she is comfortable, happy even, in this life. It is a life which suits her. Her reflections on her former life, her motivations and the way she spent her time are fascinating. She is not judgemental, and yet she dismisses her former life as full of empty irrelevances, of anxieties and activities which have no meaning, particularly when compared to her new life. As she reflects here, there is a calming rhythm to life in the forest:

“I worked on peacefully and evenly, without overtaxing myself. I hadn’t managed that in the first year. I simply hadn’t found the right rhythm. But then I had very slowly learned a little more, and adapted to the forest. In the city you can live in a nervous rush for years, and while it may ruin your nerves you can put up with it for a long time. But nobody can climb mountains, plant potatoes, chop wood and scythe in a nervous rush for more than a few months. The first year, when I still hadn’t adapted myself, had been well beyond my powers, and I shall never quite recover from those excessive labours. On top of that, I had been absurdly proud of each new record I broke. Today I even walk from the house to the stable in a leisurely woodlander’s stroll. My body stays relaxed, and my eyes have time to look around. A running person can’t look around. In my previous life, my journey took me past a place where an old lady used to feed pigeons. I’ve always liked animals, and all my goodwill went out to those pigeons, now long petrified, and yet I can’t describe a single one of them. I don’t even know what colour their eyes and their beaks were. I simply don’t know, and I think that says enough about how I used to move through the city. It’s only since I’ve slowed down that the forest around me has come to life. I wouldn’t like to say that this is the only way to live, but it’s certainly the right one for me. And so many things had to happen before I could find my way here. Before, I was always on my way somewhere, always in a great rusk and furiously impatient; every time I got anywhere I would have to spend ages waiting. I might just as well have crept along. Sometimes I became quite clearly aware of my predicament, and of the demands of that world, but I wasn’t capable of breaking out of that stupid way of life.”

And in this context her musings also reveal the complexities in our own lives, the inauthenticity of at least some of what we do. Perhaps it is inevitable wherever there is ‘society’ that we must compromise some of what we are, what we want and desire, for the sake of a harmonious life, but perhaps what The Wall neatly reveals is that too many people have to sacrifice too much. That there is a beauty and meaning in a simpler life, one in which we are not reliant on variety and technologies, in which our interactions are simple and purposeful. But perhaps this is truer, still, for women whose lives – particularly in the period Haushofer was writing – were and are so proscribed, so limited and so lacking in possibility. Of course things have changed, yet women still face so much approbation when they do not match the ‘ideal’, the expectation – look at Theresa May who is accused of being ‘robotic’, not empathetic as women are meant to be; or Ariana Grande who is accused of being too sexualised, or Madonna before her and so on. Sadly the same proscription appears to also be true for young men who are increasing expected to mould their appearance, to be ‘manly’, muscular, to lack weakness or compassion, who are forced into an idealism which drives them to do terrible things and whose uncertainties are ‘solved’ with rigid discipline. Perhaps The Wall is as true now for everyone as it was for women at the time it was written, but setting political interpretations aside for a moment, it remains a true and compelling book about a person unpicking themselves from the bones of social expectation and whilst we cannot all be trapped in an invisible valley to achieve it, and most of us certainly wouldn’t want to be, the self-knowledge that she gains is accessible to all of us. Reading this wonderful book simply reminds me that self-reflection, an awareness of my own desires and needs, and a will to focus upon those things, is the best and perhaps least dramatic way to achieve it.

Posted in fiction, re-read | 6 Comments

A Sand County Almanac and sketches here and there by Aldo Leopold

“It must be a poor life that achieves freedom from fear.”

It’s been a difficult reading week, even before the events of Monday. I’ve picked books up and read a while and then put them back again, feeling restless and unsettled. And then, finally, I settled on this and when I read the line above it rippled with so many layers of meaning I had to put the book aside and think about it. What Leopold means is that we should not seek to extinguish sources of fear from our life, because a fearless life is a dead life. Imagine not having people we fear to lose, capabilities we fear to be wrested from. Imagine if life was so safe that we could never take a risk, never risk failure or joy. Leopold wasn’t thinking about terrorists, about the fear that spreads from one, incomprehensible act, but his words are true anyway. They have given me comfort in this difficult week, a week in which I have been trying to unpick connections – connections to the Manchester bombing of 1996 which destroyed my workplace, the bomb was parked outside the customer service department of my office; connections to taking my, then, 11 year old daughter to see Ariana Grande at the MEN Arena 2 years ago; connection to the dead: Georgina Callendar was studying at the same college as my son (and that word, was, is so small and yet so difficult to write here), Saffi Rose who lived just down the road – and find context and solace amongst them. I was not there, nothing has happened to me or my family and for that I am grateful. And yet I cannot help but empathise with those affected by those terrible events. And I have shed a tear or two, and the victims – including their families and loved ones – deserve my tears. I have been into Manchester and the city is strange, quiet and reflective and yet there is an undercurrent of love, kindness and consideration. It is reported in the news as ‘quiet defiance’ and yet that, too, is a simplification. I don’t read defiance in what I’ve seen and experienced. I feel a city, a set of people who relate to the city, that is wounded, that is taking the time needed to heal and to reflect of what healing means. Because whether or not it is spoken, the bomber was a Mancunian too and we have to ask ourselves why he did not feel so connected that he could not bring himself to commit such a terrible act. There are no excuses, no justifications for what has happened, but there are things we can do differently to minimise the chances in the future. It’s too early, I think, to draw any conclusions, things are still too raw and people need time to grieve and to reflect and it’s imperative that we respect that, but another line of Leopold’s gives, perhaps, a route-map for a better future: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Image result for A Sand County Almanac and sketches here and there by Aldo LeopoldThe community of land is the focus of Aldo Leopold’s book. Leopold is a famed conservationist, one of the first in the US, and his book is the template, a jumping off point, for many in the conservationist movement. The book itself is split into three sections: the first ‘a sand county almanac’ chronicles a year spent at Leopold’s farm, living in community with the local wildlife. Here Leopold focuses on the cycle of life around him, reflecting on the history of farms in the area and why his farm is considered a ‘poor’ one, and the impact of farming as an economic activity on biodiversity. This segment is a beautiful reflection of life on a small holding, encompassing such lovely passages as this:

“The wind that makes music in November corn is in a hurry. The stalks hum, the loose husks whisk skyward in half-playful swirls, and the wind hurries on.

In the marsh, long, windy waves surge across the grassy sloughs, beat against the far willows. A tree tries to argue, bare limbs waving, but there is no detaining the wind.

On the sandbar there is only wind, and the river sliding seaward. Every wisp of grass is drawing circles on the sand. I wander over the bar to a driftwood log, where I sit and listen to the universal roar, and to the tinkle of wavelets on the shore. The river is lifeless: not a duck, heron, marsh-hawk, or gull that has sought refuge from the wind.”

Leopold is, perhaps, the first writer to posit the idea that technological ‘progress’ does not necessarily bring progress, that perhaps it can take us away from the things that give life meaning and joy. He is not a blind detractor of technology – no luddite here – but rather he asks the question ‘is it worth the cost’, does the technology, the industrialisation of ecology, add benefit to the ‘community’ of the land or does it seek to allow humans merely to exploit it for commercial or economic gain. He questions entirely the way that people see land as something to be owned, to which they have a ‘right’ but not, necessarily, a ‘responsibility’. Thus he questions the extermination of predators for the gains of the hunting economy, and the extermination of mammalian ‘pests’ only to be replaced with insect ones, all of which require more chemicals, more shot, more poisons to exterminate. He questions the wisdom of governments when implementing policy which confers rights and leaves the question of responsibility open, and he questions the wisdom of ‘adulthood’ which is so focused on one aspect of life, of the ‘values’ of life, often at the expense of a richer experience:

 “When I call to mind my earliest impressions, I wonder whether the process ordinarily referred to as growing up is not actually a process of growing down; whether experience, so much touted among adults as the things children lack, is not actually a progressive dilution of the essentials by the trivialities of living.”

The second part of the book ‘sketches here and there’ are a collection of essays focused on particular habitats or locations, and the third part, perhaps the most powerful part for me, is called ‘the upshot’ and this is a more philosophical approach to the idea of conservation, the ‘upshot’ of all Leopold’s observations and musings being a kind of manifesto for a better approach to conservation. It seems that Leopold’s words have been heeded to a degree (certainly by some, if you believe how land-keeping is portrayed on Countryfile) whereby land-owners are beginning to focus more on the community of their land, retaining space for birds and wildlife, for wildflowers and native species all of which have helped to create the environment from which an economic benefit can be yielded. Yet on the other end of the scale we still see intensive farming which strips the land of every richness and, perhaps, affects the quality of the crops. It has made me think again about the value of organic farming, of producing fewer but better quality crops that sustain the viability of the land for the exploitation which is inevitable and allow the community of wildlife to flourish. Perhaps we all need less, but better quality foodstuffs. The question remains a complex one.

A Sand Country Almanac didn’t quite pack the punch of a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or a Living Mountain, but it is a lovely and important book and I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I read it this week because in a time of great incomprehensibility it has helped me shape my thoughts back to a sense of ‘community’ and the idea of cooperation as a force as necessary and as powerful as competition. Perhaps if enough of us can take that message to heart, to spread it by demonstrating it in our lived lives, we can all find a way to live as a co-operative community which meets the needs of all of its members, peaceably and respectfully and with the sanctity of life cradled at its core.

Posted in nature, philosophy | 6 Comments

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Image result for the empathy exams leslie jamisonI hadn’t planned to read this book. I have a friend who sent me a copy and as I’m trying to keep on top of any ‘new’ books I acquire (not adding to the TBR list) and as the gift of a book is ever an act of extreme kindness, I decided to read it straight away. I had no idea what to expect, it wasn’t a book that was on my radar, I hadn’t heard of the writer and I had no clue what the book was about except that it must have something to do with empathy unless the title was one of those obscure ones or a quotation lifted from something else (Tigers in Red Weather being a good example of this, I have been intrigued as to how a story could have generated from that unusual little poem by Stevens, or if it shares any connection to it at all beyond that arresting line. I don’t believe it is a story about a sailor drunk and asleep in his boots. That being said, I still haven’t read it). Long-winded aside…aside, I was very pleasantly impressed with this book and very grateful to my friend for being my friend (always) and for sending it to me.

The Empathy Exams is a series of essays exploring different aspects of empathy, the way empathy arises, how it fails, what we expect of it and what we can’t. Each essay takes a different angle on the subject, sometimes only loosely linked but always linked in some form. The book begins with a story of how Jamison has acted as a ‘medical actor’, a job which requires her to act sick so that trainee doctors can learn to elicit information to generate a diagnosis. Part of the testing involves scoring the trainees for the degree of empathy they express so that, ultimately, they can better diagnose a patient, as Jamison explains “empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard – it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.” The essay then morphs into certain events from Jamison’s life – her abortion and the discovery of a heart condition which occurred almost simultaneously – and how those events have revealed, or exposed, her own need for empathy and the tricks and tools she used to try to get it, as we all do. “I needed something from the world I didn’t know how to ask for. I needed people – Dave, a doctor, anyone – to deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible. Which is a superlative kind of empathy to seek, or to supply; an empathy that rearticulates more clearly what it’s shown.”

From there she goes on to explore empathy from another angle when she spends some time at a conference for people suffering from Morgellons disease, a condition which is believed by the medical community to be a kind of delusion in which people believe their skin is infected with parasites but for which there is (or may be) no evidence. Here Jamison explores the (understandable) need for people to be believed, to believe that the symptoms they’re experiencing a real – and by real this means generated via an external cause, something which has been done to them or an agent acting upon them. This reminded me strongly of Suzanne O’Sullivan’s It’s All in Your Head which explored another condition apparently without external cause, and the experiences of the sufferers were similar in many respects. Jamison both shows the pain of the sufferers, and their needs and their hopes, as well as her own response to them, her attempts to be empathetic and the ways in which this succeeds or fails.

Further essays explore the efforts of poets living in the crime zones of Mexico, a series of essays called “Pain Tours” which cover the way in which the pain of others is explored as entertainment or some kind of spectacle – visiting the silver mines of Cerro Rico, a tour of the hood, interventionist television shows (and, one could argue, crime fiction!); and in the second section the way art elicits or explores aspects of pain which references Frida Kahlo, Joan Didion, James Agee. There are essays on the bad reputation of excessive sentiment, extreme running races, a friend in prison. But it was, for me, the final two essays which really stood out. The first of these is called Lost Boys and it explores a series of documentaries called Paradise Lost which focuses on the conviction of three boys for the murder of three other boys, a conviction which was later overturned. It is a powerful piece which examines the issue from the perspective of the victims, the victims’ families, the convicted boys, the documentary makers (and the way they will elicit a particular view through clever editing, something which anyone who listened to the podcast Serial will, perhaps, understand), the police. Jamison considers why it is that we somehow need a simple narrative, that we require cause and effect which in the case of crime more specifically equates to motive and how in the absence of motive we resort to even simpler (or arguably more complex) narratives like ‘evil’ or ‘satanism’. In this short essay she shows the infinite complexity of such a subject, how we want to make it simple but it is never simple.

The last essay called A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain is similarly powerful, exploring the complexity of female pain as spectacle, as a source of attraction, the reality of pain being something experienced, and the many ways in which it is responded to. She explores this through a series of ‘wounds’, each wound being a kind of pain or a response to pain experienced by women; things like anorexia (though anorexia and other kinds of eating disorder are a growing issue for young boys too), like periods, like the way in which female pain is dismissed both by men and by women and, perhaps more disturbingly, by doctors or the officiating community. In Wound 7, Jamison makes reference to the TV show Girls and how it reflects the female reaction to the idea of the ‘wounded’, frail woman:

“These girls aren’t wounded so much as post-wounded, and I see their sisters everywhere. They’re over it. I am not a melodramatic person. God help the woman who is. What I’ll call “post-wounded” isn’t a shift in deep feeling (we understand these women still hurt) but a shift away from wounded affect – these women are aware that “woundedness” is overdone and overrated. They are wary of melodrama so they stay numb or clever instead. Post-wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurts too much. The post-wounded woman conducts herself as if pre-empting certain accusations: don’t cry too loud, don’t play victim, don’t act the old role all over again. Don’t ask for pain meds you don’t need; don’t give those doctors another reason to doubt the other women on their examination tables.”

It is a narrative I recognise, the idea that expressing pain is ‘melodramatic’ and that hiding it is the way to move past pain, to excessively hide it. I’ve been there, I’ve been impatient with friends in pain or, perhaps, who I have perceived as being excessively in pain, and I suspect I am not alone in that either. Subtly, and relentlessly, Jamison makes a case for feeling, for women to express their feelings not because the idea of a ‘frail’ or ‘wounded’ woman is appealing (I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s essay on the subject of Poe’s fiction here, which involved a repeated image of the pale, slender, ghostly woman that may also have been representative of both his mother and step-mother) but because it is simply what they feel, that they should not be quashed by accusations of melodrama. It made me think about what it is about the pain of others which makes people, and I include myself in this, so uncomfortable – think about the reactionism to feminist claims of rape culture, or men’s rights activists demanding a role for fathers in their children’s lives. The idea that my pain > your pain means that one person must give whilst the other always takes, I wonder how much this is at root of so many of our difficulties in understanding the griefs of others and, perhaps, doing something about it. I don’t know any answers, but Jamison’s book certainly got me thinking.

This book made for a fascinating interruption from my expected reading schedule. It is thought-provoking, beautifully written and soulfully honest. Jamison lays out her own pain and the pain of others, not as a spectacle but as a request for understanding and empathy. Because if we give empathy, we’re more likely to receive it, and surely this has always got to be better than the alternative?

Posted in essays, non-fiction | 4 Comments

Upstream by Mary Oliver

Image result for upstream mary oliver“And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness – the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books – can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

Mary Oliver is probably most famous for her poetry which is celebratory, rapturous and reverential and which is some of the most lovely poetry I’ve ever read and suffers, if suffer is the right word, from lacking negativity and glitz and for its humane and generous spirit. Which is another way of saying that despite her Pulitzer Prize there are elements of the poetic establishment which don’t take her very seriously. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry which is centred, rooted in the natural world, in which she explores the life of snakes and starfish and owls and in so doing reveals something truthful and majestic about human life and human experience, so you can imagine my absolute pleasure when I discovered that she also had a collection of essays, Upstream, which equally celebrated and explored and glorified the natural world. Amongst other things. Upstream is one of the few books I’ve bought this year, in total I’ve bought only three (for myself, I have gifted others. A birthday, without books, is birthday not worth having) and one of them was another copy of a book I already owned (though a beautiful one) and the other was a mistake. But I digress.

Upstream is one of those books which sits right in the middle of what I’m currently thinking and feeling and desiring. It is a book which reflects on the powerful, nurturing and exciting ways in which the natural world, and our connection to it, can shape our lives. It is a book about art and the place of art in moving the world forward. It is about our literary friends and the way that certain books, certain writers, become ingrained in our existence such that we cannot separate ourselves from them. It is rich with observations and sensations, it is, in places, a little disturbing and it is reflective and as beautiful as Oliver’s poems are. Each essay is a nugget of something, a reminder, perhaps, of how to reconnect with ourselves and with the world around us, using all of our senses and explorative powers. It is about centring ourselves in our lives and discovering who we are through it. It is about reminding ourselves who we are and how to bring meaning to our lives.

“With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them. I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness.”

The book is split into five discreet sections, each focusing on a particular subject or essays which touch upon, or dance around, certain aspects of Oliver’s thinking. There’s a nebulousness to it, a sense that certain essays about belong in other sections but for whatever reason, maybe a vague intuition, Oliver has placed it where she has. The first section centres around her youth, influences on her youth and her discovery of the power of nature and the longing for poetry. In this she references her explorations, her love of Walt Whitman (who I have now bumped up my ‘to read’ list, having, for some time, had a copy of Leaves of Grass waiting to be read), and her discovery of poetry and her creative life. One of the essays, Power and Time, is a brilliant primer for anyone interested in developing a creative, artistic life and a powerful essay in itself. In it Oliver sets out the different aspects of herself: the child, the ordinary and regular person, and the creative artist and the way each of them shape and define her. But it is the last, the artistic soul, which dominates and which demands that she set aside ordinary and regular things so that her art can grow. As she describes:

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Sigh. I suspect there are many of us that recognise the call that we set aside so we could make dentists appointments or dinner, or arrange birthday parties or presents, or pay the bills and such things. This essay I returned to several times because it is so straightforward and so honest and so compelling in its identification of how to pursue art, if art is what you think you are capable of.

The second section is based around water – pond and the sea and the creatures that live within it. There’s an essay called Sister Turtle which I think might disturb some people for reasons I won’t go into here but which show Oliver’s behaviour towards the natural world to be consistently explorative, but explorative in a way which is, perhaps, uncommon. If that sounds mysterious and vague it is quite deliberately so. The third part focuses on particular writers: Emerson, Whitman, Poe, Wordsworth and her exploration of Poe in particular is interesting though I enjoyed her work on Emerson much more. The fourth part is more of a jumble of nature essays focusing on birds, light and building and this, too, includes a particularly powerful essay called Winter Hours in which Oliver explores the way her mind has turned to something like faith, or rather something which is not empirical knowledge or reason, and how this is shaping her interests. As she explains:

“Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude. Such interest nourishes me beyond the finest compendium of facts. In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.”

And I think this resonates with me because I feel something similar, as she says “Something in me still starves”, and I feel this too, not exactly that something is missing but that I have permitted something which I previously held to let go. I am grasping for something and in this grasping, this exploration, I am finding something which I had forgotten and I think that something is the joy and the compelling darkness of the unknown, of the excitement of questions and investigation, of plundering some uncertain depths, digging your hands into the mire, just to see what is there. And this thing, whatever it is, is connected to writing and, I think, rediscovering the version of me which is a writer. And it is all new and interesting and scary, and somehow Oliver, the great writer that she is, captures it though her capturing is as askew as the little house she builds for the sheer pleasure of it. But pleasure it is, messy and glorious and unnameable.

I am so very glad I caved and invested in a copy of Upstream. I know it is a book I will treasure for a long time to come, as I treasure my book of her poetry. And I could not write, here, about Mary Oliver and not include a poem, because it is what she is known for after all, and her poems are lovely. And maybe you’ve never read one. So just in case, here’s possibly her most famous: Wild Geese. Enjoy.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Posted in essays, nature, non-fiction, poetry | 12 Comments

When The Trees Say Nothing by Thomas Merton

“I am free, free, a wild being, and that is all I can ever really be.”

I came across the name Thomas Merton when reading Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence and it is a name I logged in my mind as one to come back to. Merton was Trappist Monk, most famous for his book The Seven Storey Mountain which describes his conversion from an ordinary, perhaps conventionally successful, life to that of a silent monk in a Trappist order. Well, kind of silent. Perhaps he exercised the power of non-speaking, but he certainly wrote prodigiously, which is good for us because it has resulted in this legacy of material to read.

When The Trees Say Nothing is a collection of Merton’s writings about nature. It appears to have been pulled together after his death, pulled from his other writings elsewhere and it is collected into themes: Seasons, Elements, Firmaments, Creatures, Festivals, Presences. Each observation is a small snippet, an observation of birds or bees or a moment caught in a thunderstorm, and Merton describes these things with simplicity and reverence, not surprising, perhaps, given his vocation. It has, as you might expect, religious overtures, but these are not overly intrusive and describe, I think, something which I might describe in a slightly different way – a moment of transcendence or connection. I think what I’m saying here is that even without a religious expectation or desire, his emotional response is recognisable and whilst I do not share his philosophy I can share his joy. It is a simple book, nothing flashy or ambitious and yet it is strangely beautiful and compelling. I found myself wondering why it is that we do not revere the kind of simplicity he describes, or the simple reverence with which he expresses it. There is space in literature for every kind of transgression or drama – crime, violence, manipulation, cruelty – yet little space, or recognition for books of simple joy and love. If more of us could live like Merton – quietly, minimally, joyfully – perhaps we would have more joy and respect in the world, perhaps we would think about poverty differently, not as material absence but an absence of contentment and connection. But these thoughts, perhaps, are too discontented in themselves to explore further. If Merton tells us anything it is that we can only fix the world by first fixing ourselves, by learning how to be filled with joy and care and love.

Image result for when the trees say nothing

I realised that there is both little I can say about this book, and yet also a great deal. But I thought, too, that perhaps the best way to both describe and pay homage to Merton’s writing is by emulation. I decided to keep a Merton-esque diary alongside my week of reading, so that I, too, can learn to observe and explore and revere our beautiful world. As Merton describes: “… it is absurd to inquire after my function in the world, or whether I have one, as long as I am not first of all alive and awake.” I chose to be alive and awake for one ordinary week. This is the result.

30th April

On the way back from the cinema, on the slip road down towards the motorway, I saw a group of deer leaping across the fields. A brown flash against the brown humps of the field, turned for cultivation. They were small, females I think, and I watched them for the second they were visible, their dun bodies flecked with white, their limber leaping, a flash of graceful wildness, and I felt privileged that such wildness is still accessible even as I sped down the concrete road onto a larger concrete road where I was carried away, the moment a mere memory.

1st May

It is a bright day. The blue sky is washed white here and there with cirrus clouds and the light has turned the higher branches of the eucalyptus tree a vivid green. I see the occasional butterfly. The Mexican Orange is in bloom – bright white clusters of flowers against a light green foliage contrasted against the darker green of the recently painted fence. It is peaceful to sit in the library watching the world evolve outside. I can hear the bubbling of my wine fermenting, the faint odour of sweet alcohol like a boozy breath in the air. Outside there is birdsong, intermittent and fleeting. The garden is in shadow, but the sun’s light is vivid on the houses backing onto our garden. The bricks grow orange and ochre and on the roof there is a blackbird, all glossy and singing loud. Spring can be such light and vivid luminosity. Who needs more than this?

2nd May

The beech tree has now come fully into leaf and it is bright and green and the leaves, which drape from the white branches, dangle down like fronds of thick, green hair. The fronds dance in the wind, though the tree itself, whilst leaning at the trunk, is sturdy. This lean is a legacy of the high winds we experienced in the early days of the village, a combination of the flat landscape and the lack of anything to interrupt it, but building work has gentled the flow and the new trees planted grow straight. The tree looks as though someone has pushed it down as it grew. It is convenient for the neighbourhood cats who compete for its ownership, dominance over its branches filled with the potential of birds which they are too ungainly to catch. The bark on the trunk is gnarled and cracked, like it has been burned and what remains is the charred remnants of bark; it makes easy climbing for the be-clawed cats. I love this tree. It has grown house height, but I have known it since it was a mere sapling and it is lush and healthy and strong and it supports the birds and insects and even the bickering cats and it will be there when I am not, reaching its branches towards the stars.

3rd May

It is another gorgeous morning. The sun hangs bright and fat over the dewy fields; fields that speed by my window too fast to register; fields full of cows that would not be there if it wasn’t for the fact that we exploit them. It makes me sad to know that I will never see a field of wild cows, that the environment I love is shaped entirely by its utility to us, that the grassy hillocks exist because we desire it and the stream flows where it is most useful, that there is so little which is truly wild and that which is ekes out an existence on the fringes of all we have claimed and I think, then, of the wonder of the flash of birds’ wings, of butterflies and bees and wasps and all the flying crawling things that we ignore and so flourish until we see them as vermin and exterminate them. It is so arrogant this idea that we can own or claim anything, that we have ‘rights’ over the land. The land exists without us. It will grow over our bones, over the ashes of our bones. The glorious sun will warm it long into the future. Maybe there will be herds of wild cows after all. It is a comfort to think it is possible, even if I shall never experience it.

4th May

Another train journey, another few hours of speeding through countryside, towns, past wetlands and ploughed fields, bright acres awash with yellow flowers. I see cows, sheep, geese, a heavy-bodied heron flying in its ungainly fashion towards a body of water where it will land and transform into its usual, graceful form. Blue sky, washed white where the sun is moving towards the horizon. I enjoy the different gradations of blue, the white sweepings of cirrus clouds, a single contrail, bright and broken like a child’s attempt at drawing a line. Few trees. Dun stubble in a field not yet ready for planting. It is so quiet it is possible to imagine that I am not on a train, yet impossible to forget I am not alone.

5th May

I ‘ve been walking around Manchester thinking about Thomas Merton and how he says that we talk about the weather perhaps in order to truly feel the day and how if he hasn’t felt the day, felt like a part of it, then the day has been lost, and with the sun bright in the sky and the wind cool on my back, my hair rising like Medusa’s snakes, I feel like I have swallowed a nugget of pure truth. I realise this is what is missing from virtual space, from virtual interactions: the focus on the mind as pure reason, pure communication, by definition cuts out all of these other sensations which make it real. I can feel the blisters beginning to rise on my heels – a burning, ticklish sensation – my feet pressing against the base of my shoe with a slight grainy feeling, as though there is a layer of sand left over from a long-ago trip to the beach. My arms swing, the blood rushes to my fingers making them more sensitive except that my hands are cold. In spite of the brightness, the clear vivid blueness of the sky, it is chilly. But I don’t care. I have the one minute seventeen second brilliance of The OA main theme on repeat in my ears and I feel a sense of euphoria lifting my steps, my mouth, my mind, my eyes. I am happy. I am thinking of the power of healing, of nurturing, themes which resonate through The OA, which I finished watching for the second time yesterday, and through me. I am lifted, I am healed. I transcend, not through dance – though I can see how that would work – but through walking on this wonderful day feeling every second of it.

6th May

Clouds lie heavy in the sky today. It has been cool, thankfully. We have been painting the shed; it is therapeutic work and nice to work outside in the cool air. I watched the cat climb the buddleia and chew the grass. Paint splatters everywhere, under my nails and in my hair and the smell a little greasy and chalked. When I paint I notice little except the chill wind and the ache in my shoulder which I know will be worse later. Arm moving back and forth. The golden wood turns blue. It grows dark quickly, the clouds are a white stain on the sky but it will not rain. It hasn’t rained in some time, I’m not sure how long. The contrast in the weather is strangely welcome, though there is always something wonderful about blue skies and sunshine. I enjoy the oppressive sensation the clouds create, the threat of something dramatic.

Posted in nature, non-fiction, religion | 8 Comments

Decreation by Anne Carson

It’s a long time since I’ve gone out of my way to read a book of poetry (which this isn’t quite exactly, but poetry enough); Anne Carson has kind of jumped into my head, one of those mental worms that wriggles around and wriggles around until you can’t ignore it anymore. Fortunately one of the libraries I raid had two books by Carson: The Beauty of the Husband, which is pure poetry and very very good, and Decreation which is a blend of poetry, essays, opera and screenplay and other forms I can’t even name. The Beauty of the Husband is very good, but Decreation, perhaps because of its blend of different forms, is something else entirely.

The theme ‘decreation’ stems from an idea of Simone Weil’s, a way of “undo[ing] the creature in us” as a method for removing the self so that the Being can properly encounter God’s light. As Carson explains:

“Decreation us an undoing of the creature in us – the creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside of its definition.”

The idea of decreation is nebulous, intentionally so as Weil offers neither a single definition nor a clear view of how to achieve it or how to recognise it when you do, though I suspect it is something we all recognise in some way. I have experienced what I would recognise as ‘decreation’ through reading certain books, for example. A moment when my self seemed to dissipate and I was open, blank and receiving. I would not, personally, interpret this as being ‘exposed to God’s light’ as Weil does, but I think I understand what she means. But it is nebulous, and such nebulous terms are fertile territory for a wild poet’s mind. Carson explores this idea ‘decreation’ in various different forms. Decreation through sleep. Decreation through art. Decreation through madness. Decreation through eclipse (the decreation of sun and moon). Decreation through love. Decreation through exposure to God. The exploration of sleep, the way Carson explores life from the ‘sleep side’ is absolutely fascinating. In it Carson uses Woolf and Homer to explore how we decreate via sleep, how sleep enables us to enter a different state of being in which the usual forms of logic, the usual methods of dealing with the world, no longer apply. None of this is particularly surprising, but the way Carson breaks it down is. For example, in exploring Socrates dreams in the days before his death, Carson reveals:

“As if he had slept in the temple of Asklepios, Socrates emerges from his dream “seeing with both eyes.” And he does not hesitate to trust what the woman in white has let him see, though Krito dismisses it. The woman in white will turn out to be correct. Socrates is inclined to trust, and to be correct about trusting, different sources of knowledge than other philosophers do – like his crazy daimon, or the oracle of Apollo, not to say the good sentences of sleep. Socrates also puts a fair amount of faith in his own poetic imagination – his power to turn nothing into something.”

Here she shows how trusting in ‘sleep side’ or alternative sources of ‘knowledge’ is a strength in those willing to trust it, that accepting one version of reality alone is to accept a limited source of knowledge and, thus, miss the fullness of knowledge that’s available to you. Socrates may die that day or in two days time, this is irrelevant. How he approaches his death is his power, and the point, really, of Plato telling us about him at all.

Each of Carson’s explorations takes a different form, though the essays were most interesting to me and a long form poem on a work of art called Seated Figure With Red Angle by Betty Goodwin which includes such arresting lines as:

“If body is always deep but deepest at its surface.

If conditionals are of two kinds factual and contrafactual.

If you’re pushing, pushing and then it begins to pull you.

If police in that city burnt off people’s hands with a blowtorch.

If quite darkly coloured or reddish (bodies) swim there.

If afterwards she would sit the way a very old person sits, with no pants on, confused.

If you reach in, if you burrow, if you risk wiping in.

If a point that has been fed over years becomes a little bit alive.

If the seated figure started out with an idea of interrogation.

If there was a quality of very strong electric light.

If you had the idea of interrogation.

If interrogation is a desire to get information which is not given or not given freely.”

And so it goes on, exploring, burrowing, digging into the mind. There’s an abstract and a concrete element to Carson’s poetry, some of it is hard to follow but it is always rhythmic and the depth and inventiveness of it is extraordinary.

One of the things I noticed as I read was how many of Carson’s influences, the other writers she explores, were female. She cites Woolf (extensively, making me need to read The Haunted House), Dillard, Weil, Sappho and a 12th Century French mystic named Marguerite Porete who, on account of her ‘heretical’ writings, was burned at the stake. But she also references Homer, Plato (exploring Socrates), the movie director Antonioni, Keats (who appears to be a regular influence, his hand hovering over all of The Beauty of the Husband), Beckett. Her gaze is wide ranging and interrogative, and her expression controlled and yet daring. I think this is the most glaring thing about Carson’s work, its sheer daring. She observes, in the fourth part of a three part essay, that the women – Sappho, Porete and Weil – all of who sought to decreate to bring themselves closer to ‘God’ had an extraordinary sense of daring, that they had “the nerve to enter a zone of absolute spiritual daring”. Yet I would argue that Carson, too, has entered a zone of intellectual and linguistic daring into which few can follow. Hopefully, unlike her counterparts, she is not burned as a ‘fake woman’ but even if she was I do not think she would care at all. Carson is on a different plane to the rest of us, her mind dances and connects and forms beautiful works of art with words in whatever form seems most appropriate: essay, poem, opera, rhapsody. It is bewildering and exciting, incomprehensible at times but aspirationally I think repeat readings would reveal more and more if its beauty and meaning. A book to return to, which is pretty much the qualifier for me of whether poetry is good or not. Carson is good. Read her.

Posted in philosophy, poetry | 7 Comments