All these reviews are listed in order. Just scroll down to find them. – A Short History of Synchronised Breathing / Memorandum / The End of Days / The Muslims Are Coming! / The Half-Life of Fathers / Some Circular Walks In Sussex / The Love of God is Stained / Electronic Literature Collection #2 / Loose Ends / Altered Egos.
A Short History of Synchronised Breathing – by Vanessa Gebbie
Far from being an easy option, short story writing is possibly the hardest form of all to master. It’s been described as far more challenging than writing a novel, by writers as diverse as Haruki Murakami and Sarah Hall. Unlike a novel, where there are hundreds of pages available to develop a setting and a narrative, the short story has only a few pages in which to construct a believable world and make the point of the piece.
And what worlds Vanessa Gebbie constructs! In this collection of twenty-one stories we are transported to widely different locations – from rural Ireland to China, from Brighton to Prague, or from a dustily realistic Paris during the Occupation to a distant time in a fantasy city ‘at the foot of the tallest mountain in the world’. In between we are introduced to Lucille’s beard and Catherine Bigorneaux’s buttocks …
But something odd is happening in every one of them. Something out of place, unexpected, occasionally magical. Reading these stories is like rediscovering the magical realism of Borges, the sheer strangeness of his pieces from ‘Labyrinths’. The collection reminds me, too, of Kafka’s short stories, and in fact several of them take place in Prague.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that Gebbie is copying, or writing pastiche – simply that her vision evokes (for this reader at least) the same feelings of the limitless possibilities of human experience that those other two writers produce. The rhythm of her writing helps, too. Short, concise sentences. Lots of them, carrying the narrative forward in staccato bursts. Producing an effect like Hemingway at his best.
Actually, if we’re looking for comparisons, then the title story, ‘A Short History of Synchronised Breathing’, could easily have been written by Jonathan Swift as an updated companion to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. The sort of literary connection that features in Borges, of course …
Gebbie is a writing teacher as well as a writer, and poet, herself. She’s also very funny, and several of these stories take a very wry look at the techniques of the Creative Writing world. One piece plays with First, Second and Third Person writing conventions; fairly arcane stuff, but this author manages to turn it into a ghost story – what might have been a yawn becomes a gasp of surprise.
So what are they about, these short stories? Although the situations vary widely, they are about the human condition – about love, and loss, and memory, and need. Some are quite erotic, some are very sad. In every case, though, she makes the setting so believable that we slip into the narrative without any sense of jarring.
In piece after piece, her style is so unforced that my initial feeling was – ‘But this is so obvious and easy, I could write this’. That would be followed a few lines later by the realisation that it only looks easy – the writing style is limpidly clear and direct, cut to the bone with no distracting ornamentation, and the characters are vividly sketched by a true artist. Plus, the sheer inventive imagination of the plots and settings left me reeling. In this collection the reader has no idea what is coming next.
Gebbie’s recent poetry (Memorandum – Poems for the Fallen) is concerned with the lives and feelings of soldiers who died in the First World War. She’s adept at constructing a person’s existence in just a few lines, and she carries that skill into these stories. In ‘Wei-Ch’I’, a Chinese husband recalls his wife’s unhappiness –
He found himself recalling Mei’s voice the other night, over dinner:
‘My husband. I have something to tell you.’
And her quiet life-litany. A marriage agreed to for money. A lack.
So much information, so much pain, in so few lines. And in this story, as in a number of the others, there could be several possibilities of what has in fact occurred. Gebbie doesn’t spoon-feed her readers; she treats us as adults, making us work to tease the meaning out of the narrative. Rather like poetry, I suppose.
This piece was published as an Amazon review of ‘A Short History of Synchronised Breathing’
Memorandum. poems for the fallen – by Vanessa Gebbie
Let’s start with some lines from ‘Unknowns’ –
There is no such thing as alone
when you’ve walked the stone ranks,
paused to read, reflect, remember.
You can not leave these places
on your own. The unknowns leave with you,
walk in that silence alongside,
Vanessa Gebbie has walked the ranks of gravestones in military cemeteries in France and Belgium, and she has paused to read the names on war memorials in Britain as well as on the battlefields of the Western Front. Like many people, she went there to honour the sacrifice that these men made – her own grandfather and father fought in (and survived) the First and Second World Wars – but Gebbie has a special talent, and she has been able to make some of them live again for us, on the page. I’ve only the space here to mention a few, but I hope these examples give you some sense of the range of Gebbie’s subject matter – and of her art.
In ‘Blindfold’, it’s someone listed on the Roll of Honour of railway employees at Waterloo Station. A man who left the Great War blinded. Gebbie lets us see him years later, back on the railway –
He still knows his locomotives
by their sounds, their pitch
blind, and also suffering the mental trauma of shell-shock.
… and the wind that bites along
platform five, bringing with it
the stink of fresh-dug
onions, is mustard
Ash-faced, he howls
“Run!” blunders in his dark …
The artistry of these poems shows clearly here, where Gebbie has put that single word – gas – on a line of its own. And was mustard gas how he lost his sight? We want to know more about him. See how the poet has made the man – just a name rendered in bronze on a stone plaque – come alive for us.
For ‘The Soldiers’ ragged choir, St Pancras New Church’, she has considered the Roll of Honour memorial for the 19th London Regiment. It’s inside the church, and one of the soldiers, whose name is on the Roll, is speaking to us –
They keep us behind locked doors now
in a darkened hallway so different
to the old drill hall up the road
There, we were spot lit
Men doffed their caps,
Pointed us out, “There’s Smithy
Nice bloke. Fine tenor voice”.
Here, we keep smart, snap to attention
when the doors unlock to let people in.
Attitudes have obviously changed, over the decades. Gebbie’s sensitivity lets us hear them, comrades still, holding to their standards of military discipline –
… We post sentries
at the keyhole, listening for visitors,
parade for them, doing our best
But we hardly get a look. No caps off now
as they rush past, up to the gallery …
Voices echoing, unheard, round the empty church. So many …
We have roll call every evening,
The numbers don’t change,
One thousand and seventy, every time.
Most of the poems in this collection are quite short; few of them longer than a single page, so the images that she creates are direct and powerful. The poet uses the symbolic forms of the carved stone memorials, or the cast bronze lettering listing the names of the fallen, as cues to trigger some kind of reconstruction of lives extinguished around a century ago.
One of the few longer poems here is ‘The passing of Ezekiel Parkes’. His name is on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, at Thiepval. A miner turned sapper, he lies in impenetrable chalk beneath La Boiselle. Gebbie opens the poem with Parkes as a boy, seeing the sea for the first time –
… It stretched too far without
stopping, broke at his feet in a great white tide
that flooded his boots …
His profession defined his role in the war –
… Little training for miners
exchanging coal walls for chalk
But the pay was alright
tunnels under German lines …
But Ezekiel Parkes was killed in an underground detonation –
A German mine went up
Blew our own
No time for pain. A solid flood
hard white breakers
and so the circle is closed, as the poet returns us to the opening images of Ezekiel Parkes’ life. And gives living, breathing resurrection to a simple carved name.
Gebbie can let us eavesdrop on a mother’s anguish of the loss of a son, but as a poet she is adept at ‘pattern recognition’. She can draw out the connections among different objects and relics from the conflict, to demonstrate some underlying moral or truth.
In ‘Questions for Sgt James McEachnie’ we meet a 23year old Scot, wounded in France, who died back in England and whose grave is in the military section of a Brighton cemetery. The poem gives us his last moments –
Did you hear her speak your name
just now, into her heart?
Did you feel the coin
on your eye, the mirror
at your mouth?
All classic symbolism of the rites and rituals for the dead, with his final thoughts being of his mother. And then over the page, in the next poem, ‘Scrying’, Gebbie summons up the mother again, this time grieving a second time, for her younger son. John McEachnie is buried in La Neuville British Cemetery. He died aged nineteen.
This poem deals with the desperate need of the bereaved to make some kind of contact with their dead relatives, the inevitable failure, and the dubious (and costly) culture of séances and spiritualism that proliferated –
No amount of faith could summon up
your sons. No John. No James. Neither one.
No backward glance, no wave
Your cash running out, you make yourself
a scrying mirror, pore over candle-lit water bowls,
half-afeared that they will appear, your boys
The poet is, above all, a consummate wordsmith. The poems themselves are beautifully constructed, and her line and verse structures support and amplify the images that she creates. ‘The quarryman and the fusilier’ is a reflection on the Fusiliers’ Memorial in High Holborn, and it’s a dialogue between two meanings of the word ‘shell’. It’s also, of course, about the unbelievably different worlds of Peace and War. Here’s some of it –
I tell him the shells in our stone
make for excellent memorials,
a colour between cream and grey,
beautiful but hard as old Harry.
I tell him what a fragment of shell
can do to a man. Take off the side
of his head in a second, cauterising
as it goes. Seen it, many times.
Like ‘shell’, the word ‘attack’ can have several meanings.
As I said above; attitudes have changed over time, and ‘Attack’ reflects on the vandalism of war memorials, damaging their structure, but not their significance –
Bronze, when molten,
every name, every rank
and every number.
Bronze, when stolen,
leaves its imprint
on stone, unweathered
patches, the shape
I’m not going to quote from ‘The specials – poem for seven voices’, as I want you to come completely fresh to something which is really quite extraordinary. It’s set in a Great War cemetery in France, and the title mentions seven voices, so I might tell you that it evokes for me the voices of the drowned sailors at the beginning of ‘Under Milk Wood’. Vanessa Gebbie is Welsh, like Dylan Thomas, and she has the same ear for the richness of language. I’ve read this poem many times, and I’ve also seen it performed by a group of seven readers. It’s humbling to listen to, and unforgettable.
‘Memorandum’ itself, the title poem of the collection, talks about walking the battlefields of the Somme. Scene of unimaginable slaughter, thousands of men blown apart by high explosive and scything iron shell splinters. As in many of these poems, Gebbie allows us to use our imagination to reconstruct the events from tiny clues that remain, and to tiptoe right up to the edge of the horror –
consider too the root-clung residue,
the iron motes too small
to call harvest, and paler
fragments, too painful to name.
This piece was published as an Amazon review of ‘Memorandum’
The End of Days – by Jenny Erpenbeck
If you want to get a real taste of what Europe in the Twentieth Century was like, then you have to read Jenny Erpenbeck. She’s German, born in East Berlin in 1967 – six years after the Berlin Wall was constructed to divide East from West, and she was twenty-two when she saw it collapse, along with the DDR, in 1989.
So she’s primarily interested in Germany, and what the century was like for German people; but to tell that story she has to include the countries (Austria, Russia, France, America among others) who were players in the World Wars and revolutions that convulsed the continent. But like many great artists, Erpenbeck approaches something huge and complex by letting us examine something small – a building, perhaps, or one person’s life.
I first discovered the writer though ‘Visitation’ (2010), her novel about a villa built next to the lake at Brandenberg, near Berlin. The entire story of the building, from its construction to its eventual demolition; but in fact, of course, the story of the people who live there – their lives, their loves and their dealings with others: fellow Germans, Jews, Russians and of course the working classes. There’s an enigmatic figure of The Gardener, who keeps the house running but is, by definition, nameless and faceless.
In ‘The End of Days’, history is illuminated for us by an Austrian woman, born to a Jewish mother in a Galician village, who moves to Vienna in the ruins of Austria after the first World War, becomes a Communist and flees to Moscow after Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, then eventually returns to the communist DDR as an acclaimed writer and playwright, where she eventually dies.
Or maybe she doesn’t. Fate has so many branches and false starts that she could easily have died at many points along her life’s journey. She suffers cot death at a few months old – but maybe she doesn’t, and the novel restarts in that alternative universe where she didn’t die, and we go on to see her as a young girl. Many years (and possibilities) later she slips on the stairs of her apartment and Erpenbeck tells us – ‘If she’d gone downstairs just five minutes later, she’d have missed the entrance to the underworld, which would have trundled on its way, offering its open hole to someone else instead’.
So it’s a novel about European history, and about the fickleness of fate. But you should read it most of all for the way Erpenbeck gets right under the skin of the times. Vienna, defeated capital of Austria-Hungary, with – ‘the intensity of women fighting over bread in front of the Anker bakery – the old ones are often stronger than the younger ones, though they are so much closer to dying’.
Then later, in another possible branch, in Stalin’s Moscow, where her husband has been arrested as a Trotskyist and her fate hinges on how the relevant committee will view her past – ‘I understand that Comrade H has been living for approximately three years together with his wife, Comrade H, in Moscow. He met her before this, but three years ago is when they entered into wedlock. Did Comrade H question other comrades with regard to his wife’s earlier life, or was she his only source of information?’. Pages of transcripts like this bring out the Kafkaesque terror of those times, where every fact and statement can be interpreted at least three ways.
And then when she’s ninety, in a retirement home, and the nurses are kindly and there’s no abuse or mistreatment, but – ‘Between 8:30 and 9:30, after the breakfast has been cleared away, it isn’t worth having yourself wheeled back to your room. You sit where you are. At 9:30 everyone in wheelchairs goes to the exercise room, where the fingers, hands, feet and heads of those who can no longer get up, or at least not on their own, are worked over, and at 11:00 it’s back to the day room. From11:00 until 11:30 everyone sits there. The TV s on. On the wall is a large clock. Some are asleep in their wheelchairs, wrapped in blankets.’
For me, it’s the large clock on the wall that brings out the awfulness of that existence.
Is that worse than the terror of the NKVD banging on your door at four in the morning, or a freezing Vienna where a young woman’s body can be bought for two pounds of butter and some candles?
Jenny Erpenbeck can feed you the twentieth century – skin, flesh, fat and bones. I gulped the book down in three sittings.
This piece was published as an Amazon review of ‘The End of Days’
The Muslims Are Coming! – by Arun Kundnani
“Don’t know much about History, don’t know much Biology …”
Sam Cooke’s lyrics to ‘Wonderful World’ should really have been used as the epigraph for Arun Kundnani’s overview of the ‘war on terror’. Instead he’s given us Walter Benjamin – ‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule.’ True, no doubt, but a rather stiff and formal way of describing what’s happening.
‘The Muslims Are Coming!’ is written in an academic and formal style, almost as if it started life as a thesis, and this makes the book quite heavy going. Which is a great pity, as it’s the most relevant and insightful analysis of Islamophobia that I’ve seen – a tiny island of sanity in an ocean of blinkered prejudice.
“Don’t know much about History”. There are two main strands to Kundnani’s book; the first being European and American people’s almost total ignorance of the history of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and of Islam, and of the West’s dealings with these regions, first as imperialists and later as neocolonialists.
Britain, France, Belgium and Holland all had nineteenth century empires, with colonies in Africa and Asia. In the case of Britain and France, they acquired additional ‘Mandate’ colonies from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1. It was the Anglo-French ‘Sykes-Picot Agreement’ that carved up the Middle East into its current geography, and Foreign Office mandarins like Gertrude Bell drew up the borders of present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
As these empires withered away after World War 2, and colonised countries gained independence, many of their population relocated to what they saw as the ‘mother country’ in search of work or education, while the mother countries themselves were in need of cheap labour to rebuild after the war. A significant British response was blindly racist – ‘no coloureds’ notices on boarding houses, race riots in Notting Hill, and chants of “Paki” in the street. Kundnani cites a Sri Lankan writer, A. Sivanandan, pointing out the truth of the situation with the slogan – “We are here because you were there”.
But all this is lost on the average European. ‘Pakis’ are an ‘ethnic problem’ in Bradford or Luton, while North Africans from ex-colonies like Algeria are corralled into the banlieue sink estates on the periphery of Paris or Marseilles. The waning of Empire has meant a gradual loss of national wealth and prosperity, especially for the white working class, and increased competition for jobs and resources with people of a different skin colour, different culture, different religion …
And then came September 11.
America’s Muslims come from two main origins. Kundnani tells us that Henry Ford began recruiting Palestinians, Yemenis and Lebanese to work in his car factories in 1913, and by the 1970s there were thousands of Arab Americans, in later decades an increasing proportion of them Muslim, working in places like Dearborn and Detroit. ‘Like black workers, they were singled out for worse conditions in an attempt to divide the workforce along ethnic lines and undermine industrial labor organising’. America’s black population has a significant Muslim element too, their slave ancestors having been transported from predominantly Muslim areas of West Africa.
September 11. The author quotes the Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah – “It’s so weird. Before 9/11, I am just a white guy, living a typical white guy’s life. All my friends had names like Monica, Chandler, Joey and Ross . . . I go to bed on September tenth white, wake up September eleventh, I am an Arab.”
“Why do they hate us?”, the Pakistani-American writer Mohsin Hamid was asked by Americans in the Mid-West, people who saw themselves as peaceful citizens and good neighbours. He tried to explain about America’s foreign policy, with the CIA’s arming and training of Afghan mujaheddin to fight the Russians as part of its cold war stance, and the huge shipments of arms to Pakistan which destabilised the entire region.
He could also have cited America’s unconditional support for Israel in its oppression of the Palestinians, and its propping up of repressive regimes throughout the Middle East. Or the 1953 coup in Iran that toppled the prime minister Mosaddeq and brought the pro-American Shah to power – and eventually led to the islamicisation of the country under Ayatollah Khomeini. All these events have led to virulent opposition to America, but his questioners had hardly any memory of any of them – they ‘don’t know much about History.’
And it suits the American government that their citizens don’t know any of this history, just as it is in the interest of the British government to downplay memories of the Suez invasion and their imperial role in Egypt, as well as the colonial rule in Kenya, Aden, India and Pakistan and all the rest. Contemporary history is treated this way too – Britain and America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are branded as ‘foreign’, ‘overseas’ – nothing to do with our lives ‘here’.
So terrorist attacks have to be portrayed as taking place in some kind of political vacuum. Kundnani tells us that, after the killing of fusileer Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013, ‘it remained taboo to suggest any connection between the killing of a British soldier on the streets of London and the killings by British soldiers in the villages of Helmland.’ Even though one of the killers himself stated clearly – “The only reason we killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. … It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
“Don’t know much Biology” is the second strand of the book. ‘An eye for an eye’ acknowledges the biology – the primate emotions and human nature – the very human need for revenge or justice against those who hurt our family or our tribe. But once politics are taken out of the equation, and it’s no longer admissible to examine connections between military oppression in one part of the world, and resistance and solidarity in another, then it becomes necessary to seek obscure ‘religious’, ‘ideological’ or ‘psychological’ reasons to explain terrorism.
Kundnani tells us that – ‘in the aftermath of 9/11, public discussion of the causes of terrorism was largely curtailed, on the assumption that there could be no explanatory account of terrorism beyond the evil mind-set of the perpetrators’. He sees parallels with an earlier imperial conflict – ‘Mau Mau rebels captured in the 1950s by the British Army in colonial Kenya were examined by the psychiatrist J.C. Carothers, who claimed to find “hard scientific evidence” demonstrating that the uprising was “not political but psycho-pathological”, a conclusion which conveniently validated the need for continuing colonial government.’
Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist from Martinique who joined the Algerian anticolonial struggle, had noted: “Colonial domination, because it is total and tends to oversimplify, very soon manages to disrupt in spectacular fashion the cultural life of a conquered people.” Kundnani extrapolates from this – ‘for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan, the answer was to be found in turning Islam into a form of identity politics’. These organisations use Islam as a rallying call against what they perceive as Western oppression and their own corrupt governments.
So terrorist activities are never explained as being the only way that the almost powerless can fight back against the possessors of overwhelming military force – improvised explosive devices against tanks, helicopter gunships and armed pilotless drones. It’s always portrayed as the expression of some ‘evil’, or a ‘radicalisation’, or as a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Muslims and the West. The book goes into great detail about the construction by Western policymakers and intellectuals of the bogeyman of a ‘totalitarian Islam’, bent solely on violent Jihad.
One illustration the author gives of this is an influential ‘Atlantic Monthly’ article by Bernard Lewis, ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’. ‘Muslims and the West, Lewis says, are in a deeply rooted conflict that is not linked to a set of political issues such as racism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, or Western backing for Middle Eastern autocrats, but must be understood as a product of Islamic culture itself and its unique structural problem with modernity’.
Kundnani divides the Western response to Islam into ‘Culturalists’, for whom the problem is Islam itself and the Qur’an, a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ existing since the Crusades; and ‘Reformists’, who identify a late twentieth century ‘political perversion’ of traditional Islam. Both responses see Islam as a social and a security problem, though, and have constructed models of how individual Muslims become ‘radicalised’ into violent terror activities.
Once you have a model for radicalisation, it can be further defined as a ‘cultural-psychological’ progression. This progression can be broken down into a series of stages of social or theological alienation of vulnerable individuals, or of a psychological weakness which can be exploited as the individual is ‘groomed’ towards a violent interpretation of Islam by more radical associates or leaders. So the fight against terrorism becomes a process of spotting indicators of ‘stages of alienation’ in individual members of a community.
But all of this involves treating the indigenous Muslim community as a separate entity to the population as a whole. The community is seen simply through the lens of ‘Terror’ – as a pool in which potential jihadists are swimming, terrorists who must be identified as early in the radicalisation process as possible. In the eyes of security agencies this justifies mass surveillance and the use of informers, sting operations, wiretapping and government access to Internet traffic. The book compares the methods and the scale of intelligence gathering to the East German Stazi.
‘The Muslims Are Coming!’ highlights many examples of both the ‘hearts and minds’ and the ‘counterterrorism’ approaches to a problem which might actually be largely illusory or self-created. In the UK since 2008, a Home Office project known as Channel, part of the Preventing Violent Extremism programme PREVENT, has kept thousands of young Muslims under surveillance, keeping tabs through family members, youth clubs and cultural organisations and mosques. Around £20 million a year in Channel money has funded sports and arts facilities around the country, to help provide locations where young Muslims can take part in non-religious activities, but also where it is easier for police and youth workers to keep them under observation. All the data on activities, religious commitment and social networks are fed back to the police, intelligence agencies and MI6.
Among US examples, Kundnani cites numerous instances of FBI ‘sting’ operations, where FBI officers themselves led vulnerable or naïve people into terrorist acts that they clearly would not have attempted on their own. He also shows how the 2008 departure of a group of teenage Somali-Americans to fight in Somalia was treated as a major terrorist problem. Their community was put under intense investigation and surveillance, but at no point, not even at a hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security, ‘was a single mention made of the political context of the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, which was clearly an important part of why some Somali-Americans volunteered to join the insurgency’.
The author mentions AIMCOP, the African Immigrant Muslim Community Outreach Program, in St Paul, Minnesota, organising sports and athletic programmes similar to Channel in the UK, and similarly set up so that ‘radicalised youth’ were to be identified, their details maintained in a database, and ‘up-to-date intelligence’ shared with other law enforcement partners. As well as the intrusion into the civil liberties of the young people concerned, and for the Muslim communities as a whole, there is the financial element to a rapidly enlarging security apparatus in both the US and UK. As Kundnani notes, in St Paul, ‘as the city’s policing budget had been cut in an era of austerity, overtime opportunities for police officers were maintained through the AIMCOP program’s federal funding.’ A great number of careers, and a great deal of profits, are being made out of the terror threat.
As I said at the start, ‘The Muslims Are Coming!’ is rather formal and academic in its presentation, but it gives in-depth coverage to the whole Islamist debate. Most importantly, the treatment steps outside the absurdity of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ paradigm, and gives some much-needed historical background to the root causes of terrorism.
A shorter version of this is published as an Amazon review of ‘The Muslims Are Coming!’
The Half-life of Fathers – by Vanessa Gebbie
Vanessa Gebbie has chosen a good name for this collection. A ‘half-life’ is the time taken for something to fall to half its original value, and the process keeps on repeating, producing an exponential decay. We’re used to seeing the word associated with radioactivity, but it can be used in other contexts – the exponential decay of gratitude, memory, love …
She’s interested in families, in how we push the elderly further and further from the forefront of our concerns; but also in the experiences of soldiers, especially those from the First World War, and how their sufferings and sacrifices are less and less easy for us to comprehend as each decade passes. The pamphlet’s cover carries this feeling through very effectively – a man’s face, the image almost faded away …
In ‘The half-life of fathers’, one of the twenty-five poems in this pamphlet, the narrator’s father is dying – Thursday lunchtime. My old soldier is barricaded Behind safety rails on his hospital bed.
But she’s somewhere else, driving while trying to remember his face, to capture something that reminds her of the man – Who, when our chimney caught fire, held me blanketed in the air to watch sparks against the night because they were beautiful
that was a long time ago, though; and now – Here I am, with something more pressing to do than watch him die.
In a similar vein, in ‘Lunch with my father’ Gebbie gives us the sadness of those whose lives are reduced to just a set of memories, and who have only one expectation left – There is ointment on my father’s eye, weeping down his cheek as he talks of his wife – my mother
He talks – of a desert war, lips cracked with dust from mining time-shadowed photographs
and talks of letters too, written long ago – in pillow-creased envelopes addressed in a young man’s hand. ‘You can read those after,’ he says, lifting his glass in something approaching a toast, that ‘after’ creating void from little.
Little. The fact that life for the old becomes shrunken, reduced by lack of mobility, illness, the loss of a spouse, and a nagging worry that they might be ‘trouble’ for the young. In ‘Ice Cream’ – To buy an ice, my aunt and I went up Gwilym Terrace then Plymouth Street
two streets only, and – We left Nan alone in her kitchen, hot and old – Bring me an ice, there’s a lovely –
hoping it wouldn’t be any trouble. Nan, who wasn’t always old … On their wedding day, my grandfather’s hands spanned her waist. He made their first married breakfast and carried it up, his feet bare on the stairs, a bracelet hidden under the bread.
But that was years ago, and when they get back she’s asleep in her chair – Who would tell her when she woke, that we hadn’t brought her an ice from the café at the end of Plymouth Street because it was too hot and from there to here was just too much?
Some of these poems are very hard to read without being close to tears. Gebbie is never mawkish, though, and she often produces imagery of stunning originality and power. In ‘Disused copper mine, Sunday’ she brings the travails of the past vividly to life while evoking the landscape of industrial decay – two lads play on the rubble-heap where children once broke quartz for bread.
And in ‘The meat-porters’ derby’, another poem set in the Great War – the dying lad weighed heavy on the shoulders of his Smithfield pals as they hefted him home across no man’s land, boots ploughing his final protest through the mud.
From her words on the page I can visualise the scene – the tracks left in the mud by the dragging boots, the lad’s arms outstretched, Christ-like across his comrades’ shoulders as they grip him by the wrists; and the word ‘pals’ evoking all the ‘pals’ regiments’ that enlisted whole groups of neighbours or colleagues together. Was there a ‘Smithfield Pals’ ?
Gebbie reminds us that the Great War wasn’t just Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon – it was mostly working men who suffered and died in the mud. Working class men like Wilfred Owen, whose description of a gas attack in ‘Dulce et decorum est’ are for me the most haunting lines to emerge from all the war-poets.
In ‘Blindfold’ she gives us the aftermath, who knows how many months later? of an ex-soldier blinded, probably by gas, still suffering the traumas of shell-shock, but trying to fit back into his old occupation as a railwayman – and the wind that bites along platform five, bringing with it the stink of fresh-dug onions, is mustard gas. Ash-faced, he howls Run! blunders in his dark To find a mask, to clang a non-existent alarm.
See how Gebbie puts ‘gas’ on a line on its own. The power and urgency in that one small word. The multiple layers of imagery triggered in the readers’ minds by those three letters.
She’s a craftsman in her construction, too. ‘The passing of Ezekiel Parkes’ is the story of a miner – Ezekiel Parkes was made for the pit. Strong as an ox. Arithmetic poor. Good for nine tons a day.
who became a sapper, digging mine tunnels under German lines. As a boy he’d seen the sea. Once. He didn’t like it – It stretched too far without stopping, broke at his feet in a great white tide that flooded his boots.
By the end of 1915 he’s on, or rather beneath, the Somme battlefield, laying explosives – A German mine went up. Blew our own. No time for pain. A solid flood, crushing barrage, hard white breakers.
So she gives us Ezekiel’s boyhood impressions, and we get the same imagery again at his death, only this time it‘s the chalk instead of the sea. Craftsmanship..
I’m not going to quote from ‘The specials – poem for seven voices’, as I want you to come completely fresh to something which is really quite extraordinary. But the title mentions seven voices, so I might tell you that it evokes the same feelings as the chorus of drowned sailors in the opening sequence of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milk Wood’. Vanessa Gebbie is Welsh, and she has the same ear for the richness of language as Thomas.
I will leave you, though, with the last lines of ‘Ezekiel Parkes’, which seem to me to bring together a number of her poems’ themes, and demonstrate the subtle power of her imagery – Across the Somme, the ghosts of trenchlines rise yearly, after harvest. Constellations muster each night, above ground and below. Countless regiments.
Some Circular Walks in Sussex – by Martin Myers
How does one define the British? Clannish, secretive, inward-looking, selfish, class-ridden, are all terms that could be used. Also – ironic, subversive and sometimes very funny. Martin Myers senses all these traits in his fellow citizens, and his academic research work on the lives of Gypsies has given him plenty of insights into how marginalised groups are perceived – and identify themselves.
‘Some Circular Walks in Sussex’ is an insider’s joke. The pamphlet looks like a walker’s guide, with the cover image a stark etching of a hilltop windmill. Open it, and on the inside cover there’s – No 23. Gorger Lane to East Island taking in the claypits
As we read through the directions we come to – At the first turning ignore the turning and continue down Gorger Lane if the lane is unblocked. Note the abandoned Crow’s nests. No one is sure why all the birds disappeared but questions were asked in the House of Lords.
Hmm. – and then further down we’re told – When you reach the claypits there are notices suggesting you should wear protective clothing. Ignore these they are designed to deter the less intrepid hiker. Instead follow the pathway and turn sharp left at the point where there is no apparent turning. This will take you back onto another well-maintained pathway. Do not feed the horses. They are unfortunately poorly and being starved to death humanely. Walk on to the gateway and pass.
Pass, indeed. I can imagine this publication being picked up in a National Trust bookshop, and scanned with increasing puzzlement. Because that’s the point – you don’t get the joke because you’re outside the group. Myers’ poems are all about group identity.
In ‘The New Cosmopolitan’, it’s country living, faced with the encroachment of modern life. The narrator is presumably ‘old money’ –
Today I shot wood pigeon across the old paddock
In one line Myers pins down the man’s class, by the pigeon shooting and by that figure of speech – ‘across the old paddock‘. He’s living in a comfortable rural idyll, but
development notices stud the perimeter
and there is going to be an influx of newcomers
‘bungalows?’ ask my neighbours, the parish put its foot down at social housing, ‘and that’ they assure me ‘has to be a blessing’.
The narrator’s privileged world is changing, but he at least has some sense of where the money originally came from –
In the chambers below our house I hear the mad footfall of albino pit ponies whose descendants were abandoned as the new men of the nineteenth century gained a toehold on wealth and culture
A classic British phenomenon – the coal-owners and iron-masters using the profits of industry (“Where there’s muck, there’s brass”) to distance themselves from their roots and join another group, the ranks of the gentry, complete with a country estate…
The past intrudes into the present in a number of these poems. In ‘Preparing Walls’, the narrator has bought a house whose (deceased) previous owner’s ghost lingers throughout the rooms – his identity doesn’t want to let go …
When he kicked the bucket it was a shocker strong as an ox apparently, a steak and chips man and now the fittest body in Streatham graveyard.
As the narrator and his partner are renovating the property they each sense his presence differently –
We cross his path; protective, over warm to women his malice reserved for me, a mood in a doorway sulking not to be the man of the house, as the dirt and age nicotined into its fabric get stripped away.
It seems the previous owner was a bit slapdash at home improvements, and –
after the saw’s sudden slue the empty room filled with a smoker’s laugh turning black the window board’s not ruined just marred, sullied like a house full of botched jobs, a lack of care, a lack of skill and a mean spirit to boot.
The DIY may be botched, but the poem’s language is elegantly constructed. That mean spirit in the last line works on a number of levels, while fittest body is an oxymoron that left me gasping in admiration. Interesting choice of slue, too, deploying the lesser-used variant – maybe the poet didn’t want to see a second letter ‘w’ in the same short phrase…
So, no perfection in Martin Myers’ worldview. Most of these poems are about the grossness of human nature – how the grimy past intrudes into the present, and how we all, from every class and background, try to ignore the Hobbesian reality that life is nasty, brutish and short.
He can evoke the grey hopelessness of poor urban areas, too. In ‘Kebab Town’ it’s streets with Pound Shops and cheap fast-food outlets, greasy wrappings littering the pavements –
I was born here I will die here Kebab Town will remain here.
The kind of place where the underclass are dumped in ‘social housing’ –
The Mayor does not possess a ceremonial badge school children have never waved flags or had an unexpected day off school. Kebab Town is not like that.
But the underclass have their own pursuits, too, with the boozy aunts, in ‘Killing a Wren’ –
necking Barcardi as the men place bets on two out of shape big lads squaring up in the yard flush with Stella and looks from girls.
And in ‘Clymping Hare’, the poet evokes the social aspects of a hare coursing event at Clymping, a parish in West Sussex. Myers gives us a vivid feel of these people’s concerns and language, without resorting to direct speech (except at the poem’s opening).
“Top hare!” “Turned him! And again!”
and again and again and again and only after an hour or so admiring the dogs and catching up on Kenny and Ida and all the aunts back home …
They talk about things that affect them as an extended family group –
and Martin’s crooked fingers getting worse and Johnno’s cold sores spreading rumours and all that boohoo when Eileen was let down and God help the Dutch and the referee at the Man U game
and the poem ends –
before Aileen reached over with the flasks of tea and coffee and soup and for a small second we could warm ourselves amongst ourselves in the growl of belonging.
Yes, the ‘growl of belonging’; that shared, communal hostility to people and events outside the group, that defines and reinforces us as being inside. With names like Aileen, and ‘the aunts back home’, I wondered if this particular group was Irish – that ‘warm ourselves amongst ourselves’ evoking the ‘Ourselves Alone’ of the Sinn Féin nationalists.
National identity seems to be the subtext of ‘Sea Skaters, Neukuhren, Christmas 1938’. At first sight this poem sits oddly with the rest of the collection, but Neukuhren is the seaport of Kalinagrad, a tiny Russian exclave on the Baltic, squeezed between Poland and Lithuania. Until World War 2 it was part of Germany, but Russian forces held on to it after the War – it gives them an ice-free port in winter – and renamed it Pionerski in honour of the Soviet Young Pioneer organisation. The poem’s pre-war sea skaters are German, but –
No German names today in the register book The directories draw a blank …
Martin Myers finds the same pressing need for identity in a wide range of social groups. In the title poem, ‘Some Circular Walks in Sussex’, it’s the traditional upper-middle class professions we get to see – the military and, especially, the financial elite, who are responsible for most of our current economic and social problems.
Down below officer cadets learned lessons in power brokerage frog-marching shepherds …
Myers can do surreal, too –
At Halnaker, pension fund managers gather, stripped naked lashing the body of Hilaire to the windmill sails before taking aim, firing sovereigns, guineas, krugerrand from catapults made of gut and bone Hilaire’s cries, like his blood, whipped away in the same wind
that cuts a line of white chalk dust flush from the Downs ruin a-top and a field unploughed. We’re all done for.
That’s Hilaire Belloc, whose poem ‘Ha’nacker Mill’, written at the beginning of the last century, used the ruin of Halnaker windmill in West Sussex as a metaphor for (an earlier period of) social and moral decay. Myers uses – and acknowledges – a line of Belloc’s in his poems’ notes to illustrate the financial mindset: “Why bother to make things when you can make money?“. The mill itself looks to be the model for the illustration on the pamphlet’s cover. In Belloc’s poem –
Ha’nacker Hill is in Desolation Ruin a-top and a field unploughed
Martin Myers wears his politics very much on his sleeve in this pamphlet (‘We’re all done for’), but it’s his keen eye for different social groupings, and his very keen ear for their language, that make this collection of poems so memorable, and so timely.
The God of Love is Stained – by Tiffany Anne Tondut
‘ The writing of some men is like a vast bridge that carries you over the many things that claw and tear. ’
That’s Charles Bukowski, from the collection ‘Love is a dog from hell’. I was led to re-read some of his poems by ‘sex is a bitch from heaven’, the penultimate poem in this collection by Tiffany Anne Tondut. For me, those few lines sum up a lot of the reasons to read, or write (or indeed to review).
Tondut also references Bukowski in ‘floodlights’, the second poem in the collection, where she locates him in the second line –
‘ but then I read an almost made up poem by charles bukowski …’
Two Bukowski-inspired poems out of a collection of only eleven; pretty much bracketing the work so that we can’t miss the influence. Tondut emulates the poet’s style too, writing almost exclusively in lower-case, and she uses slashes and apostrophes to miss out letters.
So what’s going on? Bukowski has a fairly bleak view of the human condition, but he seems basically at ease with himself and fairly tongue-in-cheek about his travails. In ‘Love is a dog from hell’ he remembers past lovers by the condoms he wore with them –
‘ my box of rubbers is getting stale. I take them them out Trojan-Enz lubricated for greater sensitivity I take them out and put three of them on
the walls of my bedroom are blue
Linda where did you go? Katherine where did you go? (and Nina went to England) ’
A Proustian moment if ever there was one … Tondut uses an almost identical structure in ‘sex is a bitch from heaven’, but in contrast to Bukowski, the characters in Tondut’s poems are all quite damaged women, and their experience of life, and sex, is intense and gut-wrenchingly honest. The narrator of this one has a number of men on the go. We learn this from the contents of her bedside waste bin, which –
‘ is blooming w / durex (extra safe) supposedly numbing sensitivity i pull two of them out
the walls of my bedroom are venus white
alex is gun smoke ollie is pale swan (but henry stayed in brighton) ’
The narrator is obsessed by colour. Alex’s semen is the light grey colour of gun smoke, Ollie’s almost white, while she tells us later that her own eyes are ‘hunter green’, the colour of Hunter wellingtons. Upmarket boots; her men obviously provide enough money that she can ‘prefer champagne’ while her bedroom is the colour of teeth whitened by Venus White – not a cheap brand.
Her bedroom may be white, but there’s a darkness at the centre of this woman –
‘ shipwrecks death, cars & duende excite me ’
Duende – emotional darkness in the psyche – what Lorca, talking about music, called ‘black sounds’ – that’s what drives her. And she has a new problem, too – those ‘durex (extra safe) supposedly numbing sensitivity’ turn out to be ‘(extra safe) supposedly’, as further down in the poem –
‘ there’s no ticking inside me just a bomb i sense something swimming up inside a canal ’
I suppose it’s an occupational hazard if one leads the life of a Holly Golightly. But these lines too are adapted from Bukowski’s poem –
‘ there is a ticking behind me but no clock I feel something crawling along the left side of my nose ’
How did Tondut’s narrator get this way? Late in the poem she talks about her father, and how –
‘ one drunk night near the death of his married life he crawled into my room crying forgive me you won’t see me again like this ’
So her parents divorced while she was still living at home, presumably not an adult. That ‘forgive me’ rings all sorts of alarm bells for me – it feels like we’re looking at some sort of sexual abuse by her father when she was a child. That might account for the parents’ divorce, and also for the narrator’s attitude to men, and what she sees as her duende. She really doesn’t like men very much. By the end of this poem they don’t even have names any more –
‘ pale swan is coming tomorrow but gun smoke is coming any minute now ’
Tondut does the same thing in ‘floodlights’, taking another Bukowski poem and incorporating a lot of the imagery and tropes into her own work. It’s not pastiche, nor really an homage, so why is she doing it so obviously? I wonder if it’s to do with a lack of self-worth or confidence in the poet. We should always be wary of reading too much of the creator into the work, but it’s significant that almost all these poems are about women with low self-esteem.
In ‘w’althamstow heights’ her narrator tells us that –
‘ a’ thought ‘e wouldn’t want me. bu’ ‘e did. ’
and puts up with violence, real S&M –
‘ ‘e brought a riding crop. a’ howled. ‘e broke me in. ’
Fine if you’re into that sort of thing. Except that this woman has made a miscalculation…
‘ a’ thought, ‘e cannot kill me. bu’ ‘e did. ’
Here she’s using apostrophes in place of missing letters, giving the reader a sense of the woman’s pronunciation, and thus where she fits into the British class structure. She has been killed in the last line of the poem, of course, so there is a second possibility – this may be a buried corpse or a ghost speaking to us, with difficult diction. A lot of Tondut’s imagery offers multiple possible readings, of which more later.
The collection is named after ‘the god of love is stained’, and this piece brings low self-worth right into the foreground. It’s a monologue, preceded by a short scene-setting –
‘zelda (early 30s) is a writer living in london. she’s joined a support group for vulnerable women. in her introductory speech, she attempts to explain her reasons for attending.’ Zelda launches into a rambling tale of failed relationships –
‘ and every time I found love it wasn’t right / just hurt hurt hurt / beat beat beat / and of course I believed that’s what I deserved …’
but she’s been emailed a photograph of a William Morris stained glass window of ‘the God of Love’. The window is stained and cracked, and she thinks that it’s symbolic of how her god of love is stained. Then she notices that the window has a girl standing next to the god
‘ but he’s never going to return her gaze, is he? no matter how long she stares. but she still exists, and that’s when it hit me, how like her i am. always looking for the god of love, never once looking for me. ’
As confessionals go, that’s pretty intense, and it’s difficult to know whether these characters are articulating the poet’s own feelings or whether she’s constructed them, like a novelist, to show us some of society’s losers. I find myself wondering if the Bukowski references are meant to give the collection some cultural prestige that the author fears it might otherwise lack.
And yet she has no need to worry – these poems have a vigour and a power that is uncommon. Her subjects are only too believable – I’ve spent a long time thinking about the narrator of ‘sex is a bitch from heaven’, looking at different layers of meaning, and the same goes for other examples in this collection.
Her use of vocabulary is subtle and multi-layered – remember the ‘durex (extra safe) supposedly numbing sensitivity‘. In ‘wanted’ she puts us into the mind of a woman who fights boredom by fantasising –
‘ on dead days like this I wish i was dillinger’s moll draped in a fox fur stole ’
See how she uses crime-related vocabulary – ‘dead’ days, a fur ‘stole’. Other words would suffice, but these choices keep us focussed on gangsters. Very sexual imagery, too, the words working on several levels –
‘ working a stick of red against my lips ’
and later –
‘ my long legs matchin the swing of his gun ’
His gun ? Hmm.
These poems are unsettling, grammatically or emotionally, but they have a power and a rawness. The rhythm of the lines made me read some of them out loud, pounding out the words in ‘way of a wanton’ –
‘ everybody wants you, loves to hate you, burning as you bloom into yards of yellow rape. breezes flirt with storms to break you swallows swoon and women fake …’
A sexual theme, and the words keep us focussed on sex – ‘wants’, ‘loves’, ‘hate’, ‘bloom’, ‘rape’, ‘flirt’, ‘swoon’, ‘fake’ …
‘The God of Love is Stained’ is not easy to read, for those with faint hearts or weak stomachs, but it’s powerful and hard to forget. Tondut gives us a lot of Bukowski’s ‘things that claw and tear’, but it’s her own vision, and her own voice, with her own remarkable use of language. Try it.
Strat Mastoris 2013 Published in an edited version by Sabotage Review www.sabotagereviews.com
Electronic Literature Collection # 2
I was given the link to Electronic Literature Collection 2 a few weeks before Christmas, and suddenly it was like having an oversized Advent Calendar on my computer screen. The home page is bright red, with a grid of over sixty boxes, each one a small window opening onto a different experience. The Christmas feeling continued as I started examining boxes to see what goodies were inside – Do I open the presents in order, or start with the brightest wrapping? Sit and play with the one I’ve just opened or rush to open another?
The e-Literature collection is remarkably wide-ranging. There are contributions by authors from Asia, North Africa, North and South America as well as Europe, and the offerings extend from simple movement games that could be played on a mobile phone to complex multi-layered documentary narratives. There’s only space here to give a taste, but the collection seems to fall into three categories:
First: Text-based – Words could always be arranged on the page to give another layer of meaning to the text (remember the mouse’s ‘tail’ from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or the experiments of e e cummings), but the parameters of ‘concrete poetry’ have been massively extended by using the new possibilities offered by computer algorithms.
‘Basho’s Frogger and Jabber’ are two pieces by Neil Hennessy that build words up out of an alphabet soup using simple rules of vocabulary and ‘the Game of Life’. Letters move around the screen randomly, joining up to form increasingly long words as they bump into complementary vowels and consonants. Order and structure appear out of a random environment by pure chance, and it’s hard not to be reminded of Darwinian evolution as ‘ate’ becomes ‘rate’, then ‘crates’ and finally ‘desecrates’.
‘The Mandrake Vehicles’, by Oni Buchanan, takes the opposite route, extracting letters to change meaning. A thirty-four line piece of writing has as the first line – ‘not knowing enough to shriek when (not knowing when) they’. Some letters are extracted, blooming balloon-like out of the text and disappearing, then some of the remaining letters detach themselves and trickle down to the foot of the page, forming a collection of perfectly usable words (which of course were contained in the original text). The remaining text contracts horizontally, every line undergoing the same process, giving a new first line of ‘towing no ghost, no wing, the’. The process is repeated a second time, leaving a final first line of ‘winnowing heart’. A page of text has become a short poem – which was latent in the original (the ‘art‘ in ‘heart‘ coming from the second line).
Second: Narrative – Hypertext links allow a text to be given multiple layers of access, to match the needs and interests of the reader. The linear narrative structure can be enhanced by explanatory passages or illustration, or indeed can be made completely non-linear, jumping from topic to topic as fresh information develops the reader’s understanding of the subject.
‘Voyage into the Unknown’ by Roderick Coover takes the linear route – literally, as it’s a history of the first navigation of the Colorado River, in small boats, in 1869. We move along a timeline of the journey, dotted with links that take us to diary and journal entries and geological and topographical details along the way. Near the end there are sections on how the trip was recorded in the newspapers of the time, and a fascinating juxtaposition of the engravings which appeared in those newspapers (vertiginous rock formations, dramatically lit) with actual photographs of the same terrain taken later (much flatter and less overpowering). And of course we had available the original written observations, too. We gained a remarkable insight into ‘travellers’ tales’ …
’88 Constellations of Wittgenstein’, by David Clark, is non-linear in several ways. The home page features a night sky atlas – north and south celestial hemispheres with stars and the main constellations: Orion, Ursa Major and Cassiopeia, for example, shown. Clicking on one takes the reader to some feature of the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein – mathematician, philosopher, gardener; one of the most interesting men of the twentieth century. Moving randomly through the constellations I discovered (through audio narration, photographs and videos) his writing of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, that his sister was friends with Sigmund Freud, that Alan Turing (the computer pioneer and codebreaker) had attended his Cambridge lectures, also links to Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’, the Vienna of ‘The Third Man’ and, much, much more. A mass of material that I have only begun to work through.
Third: Audio and Visual – Not audio-visual, note. The collection shows ways of using both sounds and graphics in various ways to achieve differing effects.
‘Tailspin’, by Christine Wilks, uses sounds to give us the story of a grandfather, stricken with tinnitus which cuts across communication with his children and grandchildren. As we move around the opening page we hear the children’s noise overlaid with the buzzing of his condition, and sense his frustration as he blocks all contact by refusing to use a hearing aid. On deeper levels of the programme we learn that he was an aircraft fitter in the War, and that his chronic deafness prevented him being a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain, and thus probably saved his life. Deafness as a mixed blessing.
‘Wordscapes’ and ‘Letterscapes’, by Peter Cho, use computer graphics in ways that are both beautiful and technically elegant. ‘Letterscapes’ is a gem, to my mind the best piece in the collection. The opening page features a disc of all 26 alphabet letters, slowly rotating – almost like a telescope view of a galaxy. Click on any letter and it opens up to full screen, which is where the magic begins. Each letter is given a different treatment – most seem to be hanging in space and the perspective alters as one moves the cursor over the image. ‘A’ is a simple uppercase letter suspended over a blue liquid. Move the cursor and the ‘A’ slowly turns, meeting its reflection as the letter touches the liquid and then is immersed. ‘J’ is again a yellow letter on blue, driven by the cursor but leaving an afterimage as it twists and turns. Move the mouse quickly enough and you can have your ‘J’ extended right across the screen – for a second or so. ‘W’ is made of white triangles on an orange background. Move it and the letter breaks up and reforms, like a tessellated Escher engraving. (Confession – I spent hours playing with ‘Letterscapes’.)
This collection is published by the Electronic Literature Organisation, which exists to promote the ‘reading, writing, teaching and understanding of literature as it develops in a changing digital environment’. I’m excited by the possibilities of digital technology, as demonstrated by these few examples and the rest of the collection; but for many, I have serious doubts about calling them ‘literature’.
It seems to me that the first duty of literature, in whatever medium it is expressed, is for one person (the author) to tell another person (the audience) a story. We read a poem or a book, watch a play or a film, and are moved or enlightened by the author’s thoughts. We like the piece, or we hate it, based on the interaction of our experience with that of the author. That’s why our understanding of works of literature and art alter over the years – we change, and so therefore does our relationship with each work’s creator.
But then what to make of a piece like ‘Poemas No Meio Do Caminho’ – (‘Poems In The Middle of The Road’) by Rui Torres? This piece from Brazil takes lines of poetry, floating in a beautifully rendered digital landscape, and allows the viewer to select one word at a time by clicking on it. The word changes (from a randomly generated selection of suitable alternates), and by means of some kind of relational algorithm other words in the poem change, to give other lines of poetry, whose subject matter is thus different. With sufficient lines of poetry, and every word impacting on every other available word, the possible resulting poems are numbered in the trillions.
It’s artfully done, and (I assume – the site is in Portuguese) that the new poems will have some kind of meaning, but in what sense are they written? We can project meaning onto them, but it’s not a meaning consciously intended by the author. What is meant to be our relationship vis-à-vis the computer algorithm?
But maybe that’s the point. A changing digital environment means that we are going to have to redefine a lot of relationships.
Strat Mastoris 2013 Published by Sabotage Review www.sabotagereviews.com
Loose Ends – by Bernadette Cremin
If they gave awards for books with misleading titles, Bernadette Cremin’s ‘Loose Ends’ would be up there with the winners. Loose ends are meant to be what you get when things are unfinished, or conclusions are left undecided. These twenty four poems all have endings of one sort or another, but they’re anything but ‘loose’ …
Her endings are like the barbed hook at the end of a fishing line – you run your hands along the monofilament, everything’s smooth and running freely then suddenly – Wham ! – there’s a sharp pain, blood on your hand, and you’re caught and can’t get away.
‘Black’, for example, opens with a woman who’s anything but competent –
Fumbling for keys in a black patent bag- the only one I have with matching heels. I bought them in the sales, a size too small, a little too high, half price.
which gets us a little bit exasperated at what’s obviously going to be a chavvy woman with no dress sense, but then six lines on she tells us about
the bouquets and wreaths now left to death at the head of your grave.
Ah!, so she’s newly widowed. Obviously things are all a bit much at the moment. So did she buy the black shoes for the funeral? Little domestic details are starting to concern us now, and we are given more of them as the woman clings to her dead husband’s memory in the intimate corporeal forms of
the pewter kidney-shaped lighter that I had engraved for you with love
and others, even more intimate, like
Your tobacco stained dentures, an incisor chipped on a humbug
This is starting to get just a tiny bit mawkish, as she finishes with
your stopped watch, wedding band and the St Christopher that you drove onto black ice.
Damn. I didn’t see that coming. (but then neither did he …)
That last line gives us the whole story of this woman’s tragedy, jumps us back to the first lines, and completely alters our interpretation of the poem’s title. All in three words.
Cremin does the same sort of thing with ‘Mavis’. Here, it’s a portrait of a woman known from a poetry group, that
drank tea in a room of clumsy books every second Tuesday of the month.
clucked occasional clever questions just enough to make me want to think twice.
A slightly odd, but generous woman, who once confided that
she had three to six months left to live
On March 1st she switched off like a light bulb – no blood, no fuss, no time waiting for clocks to stop. Nice, tidy, like her poetry, edited once.
Again, those last two words give us the absolute finality of Mavis’ death, as well as an insight into the rigour and clarity of her poems. ‘Edited once’ also loops us back to – ‘make me want to think twice’, so we get a second chance to consider the writing styles of Mavis and this poem’s narrator. Quite an achievement.
All this is not to say that the collection is perfect – there are poems that (for me at least) don’t leave much of an impression. ‘The Morning After’ probably wasn’t the best choice for the first one. It’s full of the sort of comparisons
Letterboxes twitch like expectant fathers
gangs of windswept blossoms lurk in gutters like pretty terrorists.
that don’t really work, or take us very far. She seems to be trying too hard. The redeeming feature of ‘The Morning After’ is that it’s set in Brighton, and so it locates the poet in the city where she lives. It also gives us our first glimpse of the bus stops that seem to be one of Cremin’s obsessions – buses and bus journeys feature in a lot of these poems.
But then turn the page and you hit ‘Dead End’, and she’s on top form, with the sad musings of a middle aged man in a dull job in a dull office. Week after week
of feigned interest, anonymous mistakes
My fat wife is fucking the butcher
His constant, nagging memory is of a woman he met years before; presumably a holiday romance, because
I think of surfboards, the futility of regret but I miss her too much on days like this. I wonder where she lives, if she ever had kids ?
‘Futility’ is the perfect word here. A choice was made, an opportunity wasn’t taken, and the whole track of this man’s life took a different route. That was years ago, though – years in which he’s had to
pay off the mortgage, put my fat daughter through college, afford a red car.
while his wife has been constantly unfaithful with the butcher.
Interesting that the car is red. Red cars and sex – what every advertiser knows. He still feels himself to be ‘a player’, and he preens himself a little for a pretty sandwich assistant at Forfars the bakers.
He and his wife still have sex occasionally, it seems. Though
When I fuck her I think of the butcher, The pretty girl at Forfars and surfboards.
A two word ending this time, that takes us back almost to where we came in, with beautiful symmetry. But also, those last four lines together are a little gem of compression, summing up all we have learned about his unhappy marriage, his current fantasies, but mostly his long term (futile) regret.
For we care about this man. We feel for his hopeless regrets. Just as we were sorry to learn of Mavis’ death, and moved by the husband’s crash in ‘Black’. Bernadette Cremin creates believable subjects in her poems, and breathes enough life into them to make them worthy of our concern.
I was first introduced to Bernadette Cremin’s work with ‘Altered Egos’, a one-woman performance piece where she played six individual (and very different) women – women whose lives had been damaged in one way or another. She has a sure feel for the sadness that underlies a lot of lives, and she’s demonstrated that empathy again with these poems.
She has a sure feel for language too, both alliterative and symbolic. Who else could end (another) poem by defining a woman’s wrist with the words ? –
the soft inch made for a bracelet, a button or a blade –
Strat Mastoris 2012 Published by Sabotage Review www.sabotagereviews.com
Altered Egos – by Bernadette Cremin
Those of us who know the work of photographer Cindy Sherman have got used to one woman appearing in many different roles and guises. Her ‘Untitled Film Stills’ creates images that look like they are taken from Hollywood B movies, with a central female figure (Cindy herself, in makeup and wig) looking anxious or pensive, waiting for the (inevitable) trouble that will arrive in the next scene. The point of the photos is that they are just stills, silent, and we don’t know the back-story so we are drawn to imagine it for ourselves.
In Altered Egos, Bernadette Cremin takes an alternative approach. She shows us six women, each one with a different story told in her own words, and we are given the context by a stream-of-consciousness monologue as the character tells us what her life feels like. We see each woman in real time, rather than as a single still image.
Cremin herself is rather small, with an incredibly mobile face that seems to change shape when it registers different emotions. She uses costume and wigs to alter the shape of her body too, with some of her women looking much taller and slimmer than others. We first meet Trudy, tall, round-faced and blonde in a red and black striped blazer – spoilt rich girl recounting sexually predatory adventures in Barcelona as she languidly sips champagne. Then there’s a blackout and a quick change to Sophie, dark haired in a dull brown skirt and off-white jumper; body language completely defensive as she clutches her arms around herself while she tells of discovering her husband’s infidelity. She seems incredibly vulnerable, a small seated figure in a pool of light, surrounded by darkness.
This is probably the point to mention the sound. It’s an integral part of this production, flooding the Studio space with a patchwork of noises and voices suggesting context at the start of each piece and supporting the mood later. For example Sophie – as she attempts to come to terms with her betrayal, we hear her insistent inner voice out of the surrounding darkness, her Superego really, cutting through her evasions – “Oh, Sophie – head in the clouds – head in the sand …” and “a man has needs, Sophie. you should have taken care of them …”
And as Val, the final character of the six, (short hair – Cremin’s own, glasses, looks like a teacher), sits at the interview table in what must be a prison or police station, the voice of her investigator is soft but insistent out of the dark, while Val keeps her eyes down and doodles compulsively on a pad as she recounts abuse by her partner, his murder of their baby and that she eventually (“he taught me how to wait …he taught me how to hate …”) killed him.
For these are all very damaged women. After Trudy and Sophie, we meet Patsy. She seems to have suffered abuse at the hands of her uncle, and been driven to self-harm which has finally led to her hospitalisation. We see her lying on the floor curled up in a foetal position, in a hospital nightgown under a single stark hanging lamp. She remains completely still, only her eyes and mouth work as she speaks softly into a microphone which makes her voice huskier and is mixed with distorted sounds of the hospital, as experienced by the drugged-up Patsy – “sending me back to the chemical circus …”
Starting the second half Cremin gives us Tina, a wonderfully drawn chav in pink velour, with hair that seems to be made out of metal – shiny red-purple in a way that nature certainly never intended. Tina’s life revolves around booze, fags and daytime TV “get home in time to watch Jeremy Kyle – where does he find those sad bastards? …” Tina’s been all round the country – Holloway, Pentonville, the Scrubs, Lewes, Brixton, visiting her bloke Jack (who’s banged up again at the moment) – but “at least all my kids are his kids” even if the eldest “invests his dole cheque at Ladbroke’s”
She is followed by Joan, whose husband David has just died after his third stroke. Joan has suffered a lot of heartbreak but she out of all the women seems to have had a constructive relationship. In her grief, she brings up David saying – “Do not touch that impossible colour, kidnapped by the glaze in that ugly vase. If I stare long enough into that brushstroke that lifts its long neck, I can hear a violin back stroke…” A beautiful poetic image from a happy marriage, I think, making Joan’s loss keener.
For Bernadette Cremin is also a poet. A lot of the images that surface in these monologues are reworked from her poems. Some of her books were on sale afterwards and it was interesting to look through them and find the sources of something Trudy or Sophie had said. Interesting too that Cremin the sculptor of language chooses to give all the women, except one, non-serious names. Trudy, Sophie, Patsy, Tina and Val are all diminutives – short versions of proper names like Gertrude, Christine or Patricia – that we give to children, or women. The only character with a proper grown-up name is Joan, the one with the grown-up marriage.
Bernadette (not Bernie, note) has done this naming very subtly and to great effect. As a feminist writer she is interested in how women are categorised by society and also by how they perceive themselves. Her characters were mesmerising, if at times difficult to hear – her delivery was more suited to close-up TV in the style of Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ than performance in a studio space. I look forward to reading more of her poetry.
Strat Mastoris 2012 Published in New Venture Theatre Newsletter