Monthly Archives: April 2018

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.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Vintage 2013)

wyld.jpgMy copy of All the Birds, Singing announces on the cover that it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2014. As I read the first chapter, which is set in a generic British countryside, I wondered about that prize, given the insistence in past years that the Miles Franklin winner had to be set in Australia. The first paragraph of the second chapter put my questioning to rest:

We are a week from the end of the job in Boodarie. I’m in the shower at the side of the tractor shed watching the thumb-sized redback that’s always sat at the top of the shower head. She hasn’t moved at all except to raise a leg when I turn on the tap, like the water’s too cold for her.

Then, as if Boodarie and the redback aren’t enough to signal that we are now in rural Australia, the next paragraph lays it on thick:

The day has been a long and hot one – the tip of March, and under the crust of the galvo roof the air in the shearing shed has been thick like soup, flies bloating about in it. […] The first stars are bright needles, and in the old Moreton Bay fig that hangs over the tractor shed and drops nuts on the roof while I sleep, a currawong and a white galah are having it out; I can hear the blood-thick bleat of them. A flying fox goes overhead and just like that the smell of the place changes and night has settled in the air.

The novel continues in alternate chapters. On an unnamed British island, the protagonist has a small sheep farm, and someone or something is killing her sheep. In Australia, some years earlier, she is a lone woman shearer, with a dark secret in her past. On the island, she has to deal with a series of men who refuse to take her story of a sheepkiller seriously. In Australia, the telling moves back in time through a series of unfortunate incidents, mostly involving physical and sexual abuse by men.

It’s a good read, but I have to tell you that if, like me, you prefer a book that sets up a mystery to arrive at a solution to that mystery, you will want, like me, to throw this one across the room when you reach the final pages.

All the Birds, Singing is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Beverley Farmer’s This Water

Beverley Farmer, This Water (Giramondo 2017)

5tales.jpgThis Water is Beverley Farmer’s tenth book. Her first, the novel Alone, was published in 1980. Her short story collection Milk won the Christina Stead Prise for Fiction in 1984. She was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in the 1990s, and in 2009 she received the Patrick White Award, given each year in November to an Australian writer ‘who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition’.

As Alexis Wright said in her acceptance speech for this year’s Stella Prize, ‘any book is nothing less than a monumental achievement’. To have written book after book as Beverley Farmer has done, with just enough recognition from those who bestow cultural credibility, is beyond monumental.

I haven’t read any of her earlier work, apart from an essay or perhaps two in the late lamented Heat, but I suspect that This Water represents something like a Late Style. There’s something about its five stories that signals a grand indifference to fashion or indeed to how any reader might judge them. They are:

  • ‘A Ring of Gold’, which features an old white woman living alone (though surrounded by other people) in coastal Victoria, long after the death of her husband and her only sustaining relationships being in memory and with the natural world. I thought of this as a kind of Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, only deliberately leaving out the art-making
  • ‘This Water’ and ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’, two tales in the mode of Celtic stories of princesses and curses. Unlike the magnificent tellings of such stories for young readers by the late Ruth Manning Sanders, or for that matter Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swans’, these – especially the second, much longer one – leave their folk origins to tell challenging adult tales (adult in the sense of grappling with difficult ideas)
  • ‘Tongue of Blood’, a monologue from a figure from Ancient Greek tragedy
  • ‘The Ice Bride’, the longest of the tales. With motifs and structural elements from fairy tales – especially “Bluebeard’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and perhaps a gender-reversed ‘The Snow Queen’ – this is a deeply creepy, dream-like fantasy. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, and I imagine that this is infinitely better written, but the abject dependence of the female protagonist on her ‘Lord’ made me think of that book.

None of the characters in any of the tales has a name.

I can’t say I loved the book, but it’s beautifully written, uncompromising in its commitment to exploring aspects of women’s experience, and strong enough that when ‘light year’ is referred to as a measure of time (‘Our dreams are like the stars. What we see is light years ago.’) my irritation was forgotten within a couple of pages. If you plan to read just one of the stories, I recommend ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’.

This Water is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that my copy is a gift from Giramondo.

Nos ossos

I had hoped to write about the Moving Hearts Project in London as it happened, but it turns out need recollection time to do that sort of thing, and that sort of time has been in short supply. Other kinds of blogging, including brief notes about my reading and perhaps a little translation, don’t have quite the same needs.

Today we visited the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) attached to the Church of São Francisco in Evora, Portugal. The chapel was built in the 17th century, with walls and pillars covered with thousands of human bones, including skulls. It’s beautiful in an inner-city tattoo kind of way, but very creepy, especially when you realise that the bones were dug up from cemeteries connected to the church. The makers, however unthinkingly disrespectful to the graves they robbed, had pious intentions. The chapel is meant as an over-the-top memento mori.

A poem by Padre António da Ascenção Teles, a local parish priest in the mid 19th century, is displayed in the chapel to help us tourists understand the pious intent. (I’ve also included it, in Portuguese, at the end of this post.) It’s a sonnet, so how could I resist having a bash at a version (helped of course, since I don’t speak or read Portuguese, by the literal, non-rhyming English version also on display in the chapel, which you can see here). My title is the message carved in the stone over the entrance to the chapel.

Nos ossos qui aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos /
We bones who are here are waiting for yours

Where are you rushing to, sightseer?
Stop now. Ignore the guidebook’s patter.
Nothing that’s in there can matter
more than the sight you see right here.

Billions have gone, no longer breathing,
and you’ll end pretty much the same.
Ignore this? That would be a shame.
For every life, death is a key thing.

Shopping, selfies, news with noddies,
tweets of Trump and deeds of Dutton:
who remembers we’re all bodies?

Just look. These walls, though they’re bizarre,
can reset your attention button.
Stop now. Remember what you are.

The original, by Fr. António da Ascenção Teles:

Aonde vais, caminhante, acelerado?
Pára…não prossigas mais avante;
Negócio, não tens mais importante,
Do que este, à tua vista apresentado.

Recorda quantos desta vida têm passado,
Reflecte em que terás fim semelhante,
Que para meditar causa é bastante
Terem todos mais nisto parado.

Pondera, que influido d’essa sorte,
Entre negociações do mundo tantas,
Tão pouco consideras na morte;

Porém, se os olhos aqui levantas,
Pára … porque em negócio deste porte,
Quanto mais tu parares, mais adiantas.