Carol Ann Duffy’s Feminine Gospels

Carol Ann Duffy, Feminine Gospels (2002, Picador 2017)

gospels.jpgThis book is on the curriculum in UK schools, and that is definitely a good thing: its wholehearted focus on female experience is a welcome corrective to the existing gender imbalance. The surreal, shaggy-dog story form of most of the poems – a shopping woman accumulates huge quantities of stuff, goes broke and eventually metamorphoses into a shop; a character named Beauty becomes a series of celebrated women, from Helen of Troy to Diana Spencer; one girl’s unstoppable giggling in class infects the whole school, leading eventually to the school closing its doors as all its teachers leave to follow their dreams – provides plenty of scope for classroom dissection and discussion. And there’s much joy to be had in the way the words sound and work on the page.

I’d better give a warning to any students who stumble on my blog looking for help with an assignment. I’m a seventy-something man from Australia who likes to read and to write something about everything I read. I would probably fail the A Levels.

I’ll stick to my rules and single out just one poem. There is handful of wonderful, memorable and readily memorisable lyrics at the end of the book, of which I especially liked the love poem ‘White Writing’ and the elegiac ‘Death and the Moon’. But the poem that struck me most forcefully on second reading is ‘History’, not actually a tall-story poem, but a close relative. You can read the whole thing here – it’s not long.

The poem begins with a picture of an old woman ‘not a tooth / in her head, half dead … smelling of pee’. who is a personification of History. There follows a list of events she has witnessed, and from a particular Eurocentric/Christian sample of world history:

She’d seen them ease him down
from the Cross, his mother gasping
for breath, as though his death
was a difficult birth, the soldiers spitting,
spears in the earth;

——————————been there
when the fisherman swore he was back
from the dead; seen the basilicas rise
in Jerusalem, Constantinople, Sicily; watched
for a hundred years as the air of Rome
turned into stone;

——————————witnessed the wars,
the bloody crusades, knew them by date
and by name

I love ‘the air of Rome / turned into stone’ as a way of capturing the transformation of the fluid, liberatory Jesus movement into a hard, authoritarian institution, and then the way that transformation segues to the wars and crusades.

There’s a bit of a leap in the next bit:

Bannockburn, Passchendaele,
Babi Yar, Vietnam.

These are not crusades, three of them aren’t even wars. Bannockburn (1314) was an important victory against the English for Duffy’s native Scotland, and the rest are emblematic moments of violence in the 20th century: the battle of Passchendaele (1917) of the First World War (and incidentally the subject of Paul Ham’s book that won the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction this year); the massacre of Babi Yar (1941), the Second World War and the Holocaust; and the Vietnam War (1955–1975), known in Vietnam as the American War, a dominating feature of the first 20 years of Duffy’s life. If the poem had been written a few years later, it might well have included George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the rise of Isis.

The slide from religion to mass violence is then repeated in the next section, this time in relation to the suffering of individuals: the old woman has witnessed the deaths of martyrs and of murderers, and then ‘the dictator strutting on stuttering film’. Finally, in a heartbreaking return to the Holocaust, she has seen

——————————how the children waved
their little hands from the trains.

 So far, so rich in possibilities for classroom explication and discussion! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Then the poem ends like this, and it’s the ending that makes me love it:

—————————————————-She woke again,
cold, in the dark,

——————————in the empty house.
Bricks through the window now, thieves
in the night. When they rang on her bell
there was nobody there; fresh graffiti sprayed
on her door, shit wrapped in a newspaper posted
onto the floor.

So far, History has been imagined as a feeble, weary old woman, worn down by the burden of witnessing the horrors of the Christian era, and especially of the twentieth century. The reader thinks he (in my case) gets it. But now it turns out it’s more than that: she is being actively harassed and humiliated. It’s hard to pin these final lines down to a specific allegorical meaning. The old woman is a personification of History, but who are the thugs who are attacking her, and what is signified by the bell, the graffiti and the shit through the letterbox? In a way it doesn’t matter: the sudden, visceral power of the final image takes the poem to a whole different level.* It’s no longer asking for polite applause, but doing what we always hope poetry will do, changing the way we see and feel about the world, or at least helping us to see and feel with more clarity and precision. It makes me want to leap up and shout, ‘That’s what the Trumps and Duttons and Bolts and Devines and Kennys are doing with their lies and half-truths: they ring History’s doorbell and run away before she can answer. And they shove shit through her letterbox!’

Thanks, Carol Ann.
———
* This could be an idiosyncratic response on my part, due to my mother-in-law having dog shit pushed into her letterbox during the American/Vietnam war. But it is my response.

Nadeem Aslam’s Golden Legend

Nadeem Aslam, The Golden Legend (Faber & Faber 2017)

legend.jpgThis novel includes the standard disclaimer. It is a work of fiction: not only are all its characters, events and organisations creations of the author, but not even any resemblance to persons, events or organisations is intended.

I’m sure that’s technically correct, but the book’s power derives from the pervasive sense that the Pakistan in which its characters live is at heart an accurate representation of the actual Pakistan, that the terrible world of murderous religious intolerance, both of the Muslim majority against the tiny Christian minority, and of militant Islamists against both Christians and other Muslims, is not too far from reality. Certainly the events that have disastrous impacts on all the main characters have close parallels in the real world: US drone attacks that maim children and worse, sexual violence resulting in death virtually ignored by the authorities, behind the scenes machinations that enable crimes committed by US diplomats to go unpunished, the atrocities committed by Indian military in Kashmir, suicide bombings..

What the book does is make these forces painfully real by showing how they work in the lives of a small group of people. By contrast, there are characters for whom Islam is a sustaining and life affirming force, in particular a gentle imam, who always carries a set of beads in one hand and a bulky ‘book of sins’ in the other. One of the beads gives delight to the children of his village – Christian as well as Muslim – because it contains a tiny image of a holy Muslin shrine and a magnifying lens through which to look at it. And there is a book compiled by the father of one of the characters, nearly a thousand pages long, that is

an acknowledgement and celebration of the countless ideas and thoughts that had travelled over the ages from one part of the planet to another. It outlined and examined how disparate events in the history of the world had influenced each other, the hidden or forgotten contributions that one set of humans had made towards the happiness and knowledge of another. Traditions and histories had always mingled, and nothing in the East or the West was ever pure.

The book is destroyed by a man from the Pakistani military, and the main characters spend the rest of the book reassembling its pages and sewing them back together with gold thread, reading excerpts as they do so. Through this device the horrors of the current sectarianism are interspersed with reminders that, for example, Dante had ‘in all probability’ read of Muhammad’s journey to Paradise and Hell before he wrote The Divine Comedy, and that over centuries the relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim worlds have been mutually respectful, cooperative and productive.

And through all this there’s a love story, a chase, poignant family stories.

Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (Fourth Estate 2002)

belcanto.jpgThe logical book to read after Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty would have been Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. But travellers can’t always be choosers, and Bel Canto was in our luggage.

I knew nothing about the book except the little Ann Patchett said about it in Truth and Beauty, namely that it was her breakthrough book. I hadn’t even read the back cover blurb. If you plan to read it, I recommend that you do likewise. I’ll try to give as little way as possible in this blog post.

As the book opens, a world famous opera singer has just finished singing and, members of the audience believe, her accompanist has risen to kiss her, when all the lights in the room, including candles, are extinguished. The performance is in the home of the vice president of a small unnamed Latin American country, part of a birthday dinner for a Japanese businessman, a prospective investor in the country. The sudden darkness is caused by a group of guerrillas who are there to kidnap the country’s president. A hostage situation ensues.

If, like me, you come to this narrative with a real siege in mind – like the one in Martin Place where two hostages were killed – you may find the subtly comic tone uncomfortable. Luckily, some way into reading the book I watched the first Die Hard movie on TV, and this turned out to be a much better context for my reading experience. Set against Bruce Willis’s heroics and Alan Rickman’s urbane, ruthless villainy, there’s something wonderful about Patchett’s focus on the unheroic, unvillainous, and mostly un-urbane relationships within the besieged building. It’s not exactly a humanised case of multiple Stockholm Syndrome, nor is it a benign reimagining of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, but it has elements of both those, as well as a meditation on the role of art, a multi-dimensional love story, a political tragedy and many other things.

It completely won me over.

Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty

Ann Patchett, Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (2004)

truth.jpgI probably wouldn’t have read this if not for the exigencies of travel. Because we both find reading books on screen unsatisfying (though the Emerging Artist can read what she calls junk), we’ve done the old fashioned thing on this trip – taken books we both wanted to read. When the EA was browsing in in a fabulous London bookshop and spotted two Ann Patchett books she hadn’t been able to find at home, they were more or less automatically added to me To Be Read list. This is the first.

It’s a memoir about Patchett’s friendship with writer Lucy Grealy. Lucy had a rare form of cancer when she was very young, and had her jaw surgically removed. A good bit of her life from then on was dominated by seemingly endless rounds of reconstructive surgery, most of it experimental and none of it completely successful. Apart from anything else, Truth and Beauty is a persuasive recommendation of Lucy’s 1994 memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which is definitely now high on my To Be Read list. Truth and Beauty is in fact much more than that: it’s the story of an intimate friendship between women; of a relationship between writers (Ann and Lucy met at the Iowa Writers’ workshop, and their careers – as a poet and a fiction writer respectively – progressed in close parallel); of a brilliant woman living with tremendous gusto, and at the same time battling the sense of unlovability and ugliness internalised from the social response to her appearance; of women friends rallying around someone crisis; and a lot more. It’s rich, passionate, intimate – especially so through the inclusion of a number of Lucy’s letters to Ann, which enable us to hear her own unmediated voice.

Lucy’s sister Suellen Grealy wrote an article for the Guardian excoriating the book soon after it was published – in 2004, two years after Lucy’s death from an accidental heroin overdose. At this distance, it’s clear that the real subject of the article is the way the family’s grief is complicated and in some ways intensified by their sister’s public profile – in a painful echo of the way Lucy herself had to deal all her life with people who felt they knew her, first because of her appearance and later for her creative achievements.

Especially in the book’s last quarter, as Lucy’s life is clearly heading for tragedy, I was reminded of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, not in any of its particulars, but in the way both books capture something about women caring for each other in crisis.

Caminho de Tiago Day 6

This was our last day, from Pescene to Tui, just across the border in Spain. Another four or fove days and we’d be in Compostella, but we’d booked our return flights too soon to do the whole thing, so reluctantly we’re no longer pelegrinos, even in name.

In this tiny chapel
Nossa Senhora de Fatima’s
church-factory wanness
belies the peasant bluntness
of her messages, and
Nossa Senhora das Neves
gives us a glimpse of
her maternal implacability.

I started on another take on the John Bunyan hymn, but ran out of time, what with eating dinner at Spanish hours (no other diners had arrived at the restaurant when we left at close to ten o’clock, but it was clear the staff were expecting an influx) and the watching Die Hard  on Spanish TV until well past midnight. SO that’s it from me as pilgrim poet. Thanks for the likes and encouraging comments.

Caminho de Tiago Day 5

Today was our most arduous walk so far, and also the one through the most beautiful environments, from Ponte de Lima to the tiny town of Paredes de Coura, where we are staying in the lovely Casa da Capela.

‘Should we pick up that sock?’ you said
and picked up a sock with a yellow
plastic peg attached. ‘Someone
will be looking for it.’
An hour and four K later
we met a young woman going the other way
and while I was thinking she looked too young
and un-Portuguese to be going to Fatima,
you called, ‘Are you looking for a sock?’
“You are my angel,’ she said.

——

We hear the young lycra-men on bikes
from half a K away, even noisier than
the young Italian women back in town.

—–

Those who would venture to walk
on the Caminho,
let them do more than just talk
over their vino.
They need to buy good shoes,
they need to pick and choose
walking poles that let them cruise
when they are pilgrims.

Caminho de Tiago Day 4

Today was a pleasant and relatively sociable walk from Balugães to Ponte de Lima. A cool breeze made all the difference to weariness levels, or maybe we’ve become accustomed to what after all isn’t a very long walk each day – a little less than 20 kilometres. Here are my snippets.

This would be for the Danish pilgrim to say:
I bought
the three bananas
that were on
the counter
of Talha Viana

and which
you were certainly
queueing to buy

Forgive me
they were delicious
and went so well
with our meite de leites.

——

Anzac Day
in Rua 25 de Abril, Balugães
nobody notices
the dead swallow

——-

Earworms/earwords:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
valderee, valderá, valderee,
thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
valde-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah

 

 

Caminho de Tiago, Day 3

Today we walked from Barcelos to Balugâes.

Pasolini called his film The Gospel According to Matthew. If he could drop the Saint, so can I: it’s not São Tiago or Santiago from now on, just Tiago. Here’s today’s crop of call-them-poems.

A huge toad
flattened on the road
like a childhood memory.

——

No need to ask if we’re lost
or where we want to go,
just smile and point.

——

Whipper-snipping
bale-wrapping
tractor-driving
hedge-uprooting
rotary-hoeing
barrow-wheeling
bean-picking
hand-hoeing
cow-and-sheep-driving
grass-raking:
farmers working up a sweat.
Pilgrims walking one up.

——

A road sign:
a snowflake
inside a red triangle.
(The obedient snow is keeping a safe distance.)

Caminho Portuguès, Day 2

Day 2, we walked from Arco to Barcelos. There was, as a fellow caminhante said, mucho calor. (I have no idea if that is correct Portuguese, but the meaning was clear and accurate.) Today I have some found poems for you ((or stolen, if you like), some translated to the best of my ability.

If the world is a book
then those who do not travel
read only one page.
St Augustine
(Neatly written in French on a waypost.)

——

WALK
EAT
SLEEP
REPEAT
(In English on a gum tree – which were myriad)

—–

Japanese Mini Tractors for Sale
(In Portuguese on the fence of a yard containing half a dozen very small tractors)

——

A road sign:
a plump cow in silhouette
inside a red warning triangle.
(We saw no cows.
They had been warned off.)

——

Street names:
Rua de São Salvador
Rua Senhora de Imaculada Conceinçao
Rua da Cruz de São João.
Here you are what you are
in relationship to Catholicism

——

Sign

If you look closely you can see the Emerging Artist in this picture

Another road sign:
Caution
Pilgrim Traffic.

——

Find out what’s the least you can do
(What I think the Portuguese says on a little tile in Barcelos, attributed to Ferdinand Pessoa)

And tonight everything is sore.

 

 

Caminho Portuguès, Day 1

The Emerging Artist (can I still call her that?) and I are walking part of the Caminho Portuguès, from Porto to Tui (which is in Spain, but quite a way from the goal of true pilgrims, Santiago de Compostella. We are not true pilgrims: we’re not sporting scallop shells, we left our Pilgrim’s Passports in our hotel room in Porto, and we don’t anticipate spiritual experiences. But I’ll try to put up a couple of bits of verse each day. So here goes, with Day One.

I though we’d be like vermin
but sweet European birdsong
and men on bikes in lycra
wish us Bom Caminho.

——

Twang two three four
thud two three four.
Walk with a stick and
follow follow follow
follow the yellow arrów.

——

Here the eucalypts
are a virus caught from capital
but they still smell like home.

——

On these cobbled high-walled roads
cars approach like thunder.