An African-American woman once told me about a research project in which she interviewed Black women in the US who were leaders in a range of fields. Among other things, she asked her subjects what internal obstacles they’d had to overcome to take leadership. Almost every one of them, she told me, had referred unprompted to the legacy of slavery. For someone like me – white, male, middle class, Australian – the US history of slavery was something belonging to the distant past. Not for those women.
The Love Songs of W E B Du Bois, a door-stopper of a novel at nearly 800 pages, has reminded me of that conversation. It tells the story of a young woman, Ailey, who grows up in a small town in Georgia in the second half of the 20th century, goes to a local college and eventually becomes a history scholar. Ailey’s story is inseparable from the stories of her family going back two generations – she is close, for example to her great uncle Root, a fair-skinned African-American who made it in academia when few Black people did; and we follow the tragic loss to addiction of her beloved older sister Lydia.
Then there are the ‘Songs’. These are sections interspersed among the chapters of the 20th century story, in which different, older stories are told in an almost shamanic voice. The Songs begin with the Native Americans who lived in the place where Ailey’s family town was to be built, and take us through the horrors of genocidal dispossession, and then the story of slavery as if unfolded in that place. As you read, you really want to believe that the author is indulging in Hanya Yanagihara–style suffering- spectacular, but this reader at least was convinced that the narratives were grounded in research.
There’s no mystery about the relationship between the narrative threads. They are both connected to the same place in rural Georgia. But when, thanks to Ailey’s historical research, they come together explicitly, the emotional effect is huge. Faulkner’s line, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ may have become a commonplace, but this book bring is vividly, viscerally home.
I’m not sure why W E B Du Bois is in the title. The great scholar and early advocate of civil rights for African Americans is definitely a presence. Each chapter is prefaced by a quotation from him, and each of the quotations is profoundly insightful about racism in the USA and elsewhere. Uncle Root met the great man in his youth. Characters discuss his writings. But he’s not a character, and I can’t see how the ‘Songs’ can be attributed to him – unless perhaps Honoré Fanonne Jeffers is implying that her own deep immersion in Georgian Black culture and history is due in some large degree to his influence.
It’s a good book to have read when Georgia is again in the news, and not in a good way, when Critical Race Theory is being attacked by legislators who, probably not knowing anything about it, are concerned that it will make white children suffer. This book is a graphic reminder where the much greater suffering has been, and still is. It’s also a riveting read.
Dementia is becoming a major theme of story-telling in the 21st century. I can think of four excellent movies without even trying, the most recent being Everybody’s Oma, which I’ve seen at the Sydney Film Festival since reading Book of Mother. In poetry, Hawaiian poet Susan M Schultz’s Dementia Blog (2008), among other things, vividly evokes the social life of a dementia ward.
The Book of Mother is a substantial addition to this writing. The back cover blurb describes it well – it reads, in part:
This book is an intimate encounter with dementia as lived experience. Words are an important way into the world and when we begin to lose them we find ourselves with fewer tools and fewer familiar signs to go by. Phrases lost and tip-of-the-tongue half-forgettings – loose threads like these belong to the everyday business of knowing who we are. They are also the nuts and bolts of Kit Kelen’s poetry. A long play record of memory and its tricks, one comes to and from Book of Mother with always some questions about who is talking to whom, about when we are where, about whether we wake or dream.
There are a number of poems about lost keys – emblematic of dementia’s multitude of minor frustrations, for both sufferer and carers/relatives – whose titles are almost enough: ‘the keys are gone again’, ‘no one else has put them anywhere mum’, ‘you have hidden them’.
At least three poems had me in tears. ‘everything will be taken from us’ is a lament that speaks to the grief that accompanies the gradual loss of a loved one to dementia. ‘she’, the longest poem in the book, celebrates the poet’s mother as an individual and as an archetype of all mothers. It begins:
who had supernatural powers
who knew what Christmas wanted
what naughtiness was and was not
she who said wait till your father gets home
she who was a step before
could spell every word there was
and we could add things up together
‘vale mum’, the final poem, is an elegy that includes this wonderful image:
like lost at the Easter show
and a voice comes over the air
says this is how it is from now
your mother – all mother – is gone
For me, the power of the book comes from the cumulative effect of poems where the language feels as if it’s falling apart, in counterpoint to a number of poems in which a very young person’s language is coming together. That is, along with poems that document his mother’s decline, Kelen gives us poems about his own dawning grasp of the world through language as a small child closely connected to his mother. That may sound like an imposed schematic, but it reads as organic: being confronted with the present situation, the mind naturally goes to the past. As a reader, I found the transition between the two kinds of poem disorientating in a way that adds charge to both.
I love this book. If I was to recommend a single poem, it would be ‘everything will be taken from us’. Sadly, it’s too long for me to quote here with a good conscience, and I can’t find it online, but if you happen on the book in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop, turn to page 75, and read this one, aloud if possible. It won’t take long, and it may inspire you to buy the whole book.
Meanwhile, here’s ‘in a waiting room’, a short poem that may give you a sense of the book’s shape-shiftiness:
This poem may take a little puzzling before it yields itself to the reader, but it’s not at heart a puzzle to be solved.
The title and first four lines are clear enough.
to make you happy
for your own good
because we love you
because I can't explain
We are in a waiting room, where someone is responding to a question, something like, ‘Why have you brought me here?’ Read in the context of this book, the lines could be spoken by the carer for a person with dementia or to a child. That is, it could be a poem about the poet’s mother, or one about a childhood memory. Or, perhaps more interestingly, it could be both. Either way, the lines give four different answers to the same question – the questioner, whether it’s a child who is unsatisfied with each successive answer, or the adult with dementia who doesn’t remember the previous answer, keeps on asking.
The next line maintains the ambiguity:
won't remember your hand was held
Anyone who has lived with or cared for someone with dementia will recognise the experience this neatly evokes. No matter how many visitors they’ve had, no matter how much hand-holding, they will still say none ever comes to see them, no one ever holds their hand. But equally the owner of the hand could be a child – in this book, the poet himself in memory – whose adult memory doesn’t include a hand being held. The omission of a pronoun at the start of the line is worth noting. Even though syntactically the line can’t be read other than, ‘[You] won’t remember’, by not giving us the ‘You’, the poem increases the shifting-sands feel.
Though I generally treasure clarity in writing, and see ambiguity as something to be avoided, it’s the double possibilities in these lines that I love. It could be either thing, which means that the two things are similar, which – in this context – suggests that when you relate to a person with dementia, your own hold on reality can begin to shift, or memories may surface of times when you were similarly dependent, confused or failing to understand. The poem takes the reader gently into that border state.
Then, there’s this:
in yellow light
smoke clouds them
or at cards
After a moment’s pause (or, to be truthful, a couple of days), I read this as a description of the waiting room. Perhaps it’s wallpaper, or a painting – of dinosaurs in a cloud of cigarette smoke, playing cards? A google of “dinosaurs playing poker” comes up with plenty of images. It’s not hard to imagine one in a doctor’s waiting room. To repeat myself, though, the pleasure here isn’t in having solved a puzzle or deciphered a cryptic set of words to settle on a clear meaning. It’s in the state of mind before the image is understood. I suppose it’s analogous to the couple of minutes when you savour a weird dream before understanding that it’s just a rehash of something banal that happened the day before. More to the point, it’s like when you have a memory in the form of a striking image, and it takes a while to make sense of it by remembering its context.
here elephants trumpet about
giraffe pokes in a head
The weirdness continues. Perhaps it’s another painting on the wall. This could be a waiting room for either a child or a person with dementia. If a child, these are the details of the waiting room that stand out as interesting, and return as memories when you’re an adult poet. If a person with dementia, they are the disturbing and disorientating features of the environment.
stood by the fire
The first two lines here give the reason the person (whose hand may or not have been held) is in the waiting room. They have stood too close to a fire. Then the phrase ‘too close’ does double work, introducing the third line: he stood too close to the fire, and he was also too close to his own beginning, that is to say, too young. And with that line, the poem’s main ambiguity is resolved. This is a childhood memory.
peg in the board where everyone fits
that was my Day at the Zoo
Oh, the elephants and giraffe weren’t in a painting after all. They were part of a board game, Day at the Zoo. This last couplet has an air of finality, like the ending of a child’s composition. Almost smugly, the mystery of the images is cleared up. The memory is reclaimed in full. The ‘your’ becomes ‘my’. Read in the context of the whole book, there’s also a sense of relief: in this case, the weirdness, the things that aren’t understood, have been resolved.
Then you turn to the next poem, ‘forget a thing and it’s gone’, and we’re back to dealing with dementia.
In an earlier version of this blog, I tried to capture things that happened with language with Mollie, who was living with us and with dementia. This extraordinary book does that with wonderful compassion and love, as well as wit, precision and, I guess the word is delight.
Shuggie Bain is the story of a boy who grows up in poverty in Glasgow, the youngest of three children. His mother, Agnes, is an alcoholic who is brutally treated by her husband, Shuggie’s father, and then abandoned by him. Once a stunning beauty, she struggles to maintain appearances as she descends into increasingly desperate poverty, alienated from other women and sexually exploited, often violently, by men. From an early age, Shuggie takes on the burden of looking after her, protecting her and trying to make things better. The downward trend is reversed at times when Agnes joins AA, finds part-time employment and has a relationship with a decent man, but there is never any doubt about how her story will end, or that she will take Shuggie down with her. Through it all, Shuggie is singled out by adults and other children as different, not a proper boy – it’s a story of growing up gay.
The Wikipedia entry on Douglas Stuart gives an account of his childhood that could easily be a plot summary of the book. It’s surely no coincidence that ‘Shuggie’ rhymes with ‘Dougie’ (though maybe not in Australian pronunciation, if ‘Shug’ is short for ‘sugar’ as in The Color Purple), and the opening line of the acknowledgements refers to the author’s mother ‘and her struggle’. So the book presents itself as a fictionalised version of the author’s own childhood. As such it’s a valiant work of imagination, wrangling terrible experience into words. I admire it, I read it compulsively, I must have been moved by the horror because when I reached the book’s one moment of genuine tenderness I felt an extraordinary sense of a weight lifting from my mind, even though I knew it was only temporary. But …
… if I hadn’t been reading it for the book group, I would have stopped at page 37, where Agnes is beaten and raped by Big Shug. Really, do I need any more images of that sort lodged in my brain? I did read on, encouraged by the fact that the book won the Booker Prize in 2020, and I’m glad I did, but I found the insistence on the misery of Agnes and every other character in the book disturbing. I can explain what I mean by way of a tiny moment fairly early on. Agnes has regained consciousness after a night of drunkenness, destruction and violence:
Agnes wrapped her lips around the cold metal tap and gulped the fluoride-heavy water, panting and gasping like a thirsty dog.
She has been beaten up, raped, and shunned. She has done appalling things in her drunken state. Now, the tone of this sentence implies, she has reached such a state of degradation that she drinks directly from a tap, and not only that, but the water has been fluoridated! Where I come from, you don’t have to be subhuman to drink fluoridated water from a cold tap. It feels as if the narrator, if not the book itself, has lost perspective, and I lose faith. It could be that this sentence is a momentary false note. After all, as Randall Jarrell said, a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it. But my uneasy sense that perhaps this was a work of Misery Porn persisted for the rest of the book, even while I engaged intensely with the characters.
Between reading the book and the Book Group meeting: I took the book, and my unease about it, seriously enough to do some counterpoint reading – that is, to read writing that deals with similar material from different points of view. Interestingly enough, the other reading led me to a better appreciation of Shuggie Bain.
1. Jimmy Barnes’s memoir Working Class Boy (link to my blog post here). The early chapters tell of a childhood in a family and community in Glasgow, where alcohol-fuelled violence is as prevalent as in Shuggie’s. Young Jimmy could easily have been one of the boys who terrorised young Shuggie.
They are different kinds of book, of course. Jimmy Barnes can expect his readers to know him as a rock star, and to read the memoir as his back story. As he tells it, the young Jimmy was able to escape from the violence at home, and he went pretty wild on drugs and alcohol himself. Writing as a grandfather, he repents the errors of his youth and writes with generosity and forgiveness of his parents.
The narrator of Shuggy Bain doesn’t have that kind of safe distance from the events he describes. The novel has a visceral immediacy. The account of Agnes’s degradation is told from a point of view not far removed from Shuggie’s own, so the reader is aligned with the helpless child bystander. If the narrator has any distance at all, I imagine it’s that of an adult Shuggie who has escaped Glasgow, and looks back in horror at what he witnessed and endured.
2. Wendy McCarthy on the ABC’s Conversations podcast describes her own response when she saw her father lying drunk in the gutter.
This boy said to me, ‘You know your father’s a drunk,’ and I said, ‘Yep,’ and just kept walking. I learnt something then: I’m not going to carry his shame.
(The link is here. The quote is at 14 minutes and 20 seconds.)
Wendy McCarthy was already at high school when that happened, and had had time to build her inner resources. Shuggie Bain is a novel about a child who didn’t have that chance, and who was caught in the vortex of his mother’s shame.
3. Kit Kelen’s Book of Mother(blog post to come). On the face of it, this poetry collection has nothing in common with Shuggie Bain. Mostly, it plunges the reader into the experience of living with the poet’s mother’s dementia. The son/poet-narrator is an adult, but the poetry captures a kind of mental vertigo that has a lot in common with the way Shuggie is drawn into his mother’s struggles. Comparing the books, I realised Shuggie isn’t just a dreadfully abused child, but he’s also a person of extraordinary heroism. When everyone else abandons Agnes or – in the case of Shuggie’s siblings – escapes her destructive gravitational pull, Shuggie stays, loving her and trying to make things better for her, until the bitter end.
After the meeting: We met in person, all but three who were respectively on the road with a theatrical production, visiting New York for major family event, and home with non-Covid sick children. As usual we ate well and eclectically. Among other things we discussed the role of table tennis for one of us in the process of retiring from regular work; the joy for another at having no income to declare as he too is in the process of hanging up his tools; and our shared relief at having a government that isn’t just about slogans, announcements and cruelty.
The Chooser kicked off conversation about the book by saying that if he’s known what it was about he wouldn’t have picked it, but he’d trusted his wife’s recommendation. I think we were unanimously glad he had, as the book provoked animated, and at times intensely personal conversation.
Many, if not most, had had to overcome initial reluctance that ranged from my own borderline prissiness to not wanting to dredge up memories of a major alcohol-related disruption in his own life.
A number of the chaps said they’d had to take breaks from reading it – one said a dull work on (I think) the energy grid was a perfect palate cleanser. One of the night’s three absentees texted that it was like Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life ‘but without the gratuitous violence etc.’ Another absentee sent us a long text part way through the evening, and encapsulated the general sentiment in his summing up: ‘In the end it was really good but hard going. I’m glad it’s over but glad I finished.’
A number of things were identified as having won us over. We agreed that it’s beautifully written – one man said he kept stopping to reread sentences for the sheer pleasure. It feels real – you believe that the author has experienced something close to Shuggie’s life. The narrative has a strong forward drive: as readers we share Shuggie’s hope that Agnes will snap out of the downward spiral, or at least we want it desperately even though we know it’s futile – and we keep turning the pages. The moments of lightness, tenderness and spirited resistance (there are more than the one I remembered) are beacons in the gloom. And we feel strongly for all the characters: Shuggie’s older brother Leekie won more than one heart, and (for me at least) Eugene, the one man who genuinely loves Agnes, tore my heart out when he became the unintentional agent of her destruction.
It’s a terrific book. Next meeting’s Chooser has been urged to choose something cheerful.
For six months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad.
I’ve been noticing how often I’m reminded of it in the rest of the day. For example, there was this clue in the Guardian cryptic crossword on 24 May:
26Across Parliament, one about to give a long account (5)
Less explicitly but more substantially, there was the 17 May episode of the ABC’s Conversations in which Richard Fidler chatted with Historian Gwynne Dyer, who says, among other things:
The view of the world as a permanent battlefield … was almost universal until just about a hundred years ago. Everybody would have agreed with that view that winners win, losers go to the wall and everybody has to be prepared to fight to defend their turf, war is natural, recurrent, you have to be good at it if you want to survive. Everybody shared that view. It was institutionalised in our societies. One of the principle responsibilities of the state was to be good at fighting wars and to be good at fighting wars was glorious.
Dyer doesn’t actually mention The Iliad in the podcast, but I was gratified to see that the cover of his book, The Shortest History of War, features an image of the Trojan Horse.
Clearly, in recoiling from the violence in The Iliad I’m a product of my age: according to Dyer, the 75 years of my life have been the longest period in history in which there has been no war between great powers. (And with a lot of luck that happy circumstance may last for my whole life and beyond.)
This month’s reading began with sizzling sex between Zeus and Hera, and takes us through the bloodshed on the battlefield that resulted, both from Hera’s intervention and from Zeus’ response when he discovers her deception. Led by Hector, the Trojans reach the Greeks’ ships and set fire to one. But then the main narrative thread kicks in and, while Achilles is still sulking in his tent, he allows Patroclus to put on his armour and lead the Myrmidons into battle, like wasps whose nest has been disturbed one time too many by idle boys. (One of the first things I knew about Homer was that he used similes. Now I shake my head in awe of how brilliantly he used them!)
Then Patroclus is killed, stabbed in the back by Euphorbus then finished off – with a graphically described spear thrust – by Hector. Among so many violent deaths, the narrative pauses over this one for an exchange of oratory. Hector derides Patroclus as having foolishly done Achilles’ bidding, and then, unlike in any other Iliad death as far as I remember, Patroclus speaks to his killer:
Hector! Now is your time to glory to the skies … now the victory is yours. A gift of the son of Cronus, Zeus – Apollo too – they brought me down with all their deathless ease, they are the ones who tore the armour off my back. Even if twenty Hectors had charged against me – they’d all have died here, laid low by my spear. No, deadly fate in league with Apollo killed me. From the ranks of men, Euphorbus. You came third, and all you could do was finish off my life … One more thing – take it to heart, I urge you – you too, you won’t live long yourself, I swear. Already I see them looming up beside you – death and the strong force of fate, to bring you down at the hands of Aeacus’ great royal son … ___________________________________Achilles!
That’s a pretty strong dying speech: ‘It was the gods who killed me, not you. And if we have to acknowledge I was killed by a man, let’s acknowledge the not-so-glorious Euphorbus. You came third. And You’d better watch yourself, because my pal Achilles will do you.’
That’s pretty much the end of Book 16, but as befits a major turning point, the narrative doesn’t move on in a hurry. Now Menelaus, who hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory so far, steps up and protects Patroclus’ body from the Trojans who try to strip its armour (armour, remember that was borrowed from Achilles). In the Iliad every death matters, but this one has matters enormously. Basically it matters because it’s the thing that brings Achilles back into the battle to turn the tide, but Homer has made sure we’re emotionally affected: we’ve seen Patroclus as a mild-mannered host, a close and affectionate friend, a healer and a man who weeps at others’ suffering. Only in his final movement we see that he is also a heroic warrior. That is to say, he’s a much more rounded character than most or even all the others in the story. And now he’s dead.
I expect Euphorbus will be killed in my next day’s reading, and I wouldn’t want to be in Hector’s shoes when Achilles hears what happened.
As a card-carrying pacifist I deplore the whole thing, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Image from Belvoir websiteThis is a brilliant production of a great piece of theatre, directed by Eamon Flack, with music re-orchestrated for piano(s) by Guy Simpson, and an ingenious use of Belvoir's open stage set-up.
Not a documentary about AIDS arriving in Sydney, but it's hard to tell what it is. At least it understands that Australian governmental response to AIDS was vastly different from what happened in the USA. A Neil Blewett figure is there.
Hazem Shammas and Jessica Tovey make a great Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. His non-Angle music makes the language sing, and the stage just lights up every time she's there. Some of the early exposition was incomprehensible gabble, but judging from conversations I overheard in the foyer that didn't matter too much because most of the audience, possibly […]