Sunday, 2 November 2014

Viking Ship Museum

Burial Mound
There has been a ship on the rim of the horizon all morning. The crowds have gathered; some moan, others stand silent. As the sun starts to drop towards the waterline, a group of men row out towards the bobbing wreck. There is disquiet among the spectators, the ship is in rags, wraith-like against the dying light. It will soon cross over.
Creative response to the Viking Ship Museum

Bygdøy Peninsular, Tuesday 28th October 2014
Last week I visited Oslo. It’s my third visit to Norway’s capital since a close friend took up residence there. One of the ways I justified taking time out of my university reading week was by visiting the Viking Ship Museum. Since reading the Prose Edda I have been absorbed by the sagas and the people who wrote them, so we trekked out to the pretty Bygdøy peninsular thumbing the Oslo Fjord. The ships are housed in a cruciform building. As you walk inside, you're taken aback by the immediacy and the enormity of the Oseberg burial ship. It looms over you as you buy your ticket.

The cross shape acts as four antechambers containing the three Viking burial ships (Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune) and much of the content discovered inside them.
Oseberg Ship 
The Oseberg ship is housed in the nave of the building and has an ornate bow and stern and images of sea-serpents carved into the main body. The Gokstad ship and the remains of the two larger vessels live in the north transept, the Tune ship and three smaller craft in the chancel, and the sledges, various textiles and other artefacts in the south transept. There are long galleries for people to see inside all three ships. The space has an acoustic, that invokes the song-like metre of the Norwegian language. 

The museum has preserved sledges, ornate bridals, boots, buckets for blueberries, troughs for rye flour and cooking equipment that were buried with the occupants of the ships. The peacock feathers and the boots were the most surprising and intriguing of the archaeological finds. 

The museum made no secret of the fact that many of the archaeological finds discovered in the Oseberg dig are endangered due to the original conservation method of using hot alum. They are finely varnished on the outside and rotting on the inside. There's an article on the Viking Ship Museum website if you're interested called Can the Oseberg Viking finds be Saved? It would be sad to see these last material links to Viking culture disintegrate. 

first five photographs by Ka Man Mak

A Shell to the Ear

I recently had the opportunity to go to the North Cornwall Book Festival as part of a group of journalists. There are a lot of book festivals springing up at the moment, this one is only in it's second year and subsequently has an intimate feel to it. I wrote my article in the children's play room, amid a chaos of toys and books. Throughout the day the family and their literary guests rambled in and out of the kitchen opposite the makeshift news room.  
I had the job of filing a report on a poetry reading by Lavinia Greenlaw. Greenlaw's book about William Morris's Icelandic journals is a much-loved volume called Questions of Travel. 
If you would like to read my contribution you can find it on the SWJFalmouth, North Cornwall Book Festival blog; Like Lime Through Feathers.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Norroway Over The Foam

Recently, I stumbled across this queer little travel account of Norway from the Peeps at Many Lands series. I found it in the second hand bookshop hidden away in the Lanhydrock stable block. I was attracted by the Norway connection and pulled it out not expecting much. However, I was charmed by the cover, so I flicked through and discovered that there were lots of illustrated plates among some entertainingly colonial prose by A.F. Mockler-Ferryman. The landscapes are more skilfully drawn but there’s something strangely crude and engrossing in the pictures of people.
 They're by Nico Jungman who was a popular Anglo-Dutch painter at the turn of the 19th/20th Century. He was also involved in another book called Norway, a longer work written by his wife Beatrice and illustrated by himself. There’s a wonderful image of Jungman painting in the first chapter. This paragraph encapsulates a brilliant reflection of adoration and irony for her artist husband. 

"In Trondhjem it rained all day and all night, and the inhabitants cheerfully told us that it was always so. Nico, however, painted in the rain, enveloped in mackintoshes and encompassed by umbrellas, and was much disgusted to find that he attracted no attention at all. Accustomed as I am to be an object of inquisitive interest to the inhabitants of small Dutch towns, I was rather relieved to be taken so absolutely for granted in Norway, in spots unfrequented even by ardent fishermen."*

I’d love to find a copy. Both books are available at Project Gutenberg with all the illustrations.

These are a handful of my favourite Jungman illustrations. They’re strange works, relying heavily on the contemporary trend of Volks art.  I think the writing and the art offer an interesting insight into the outsider dilemma that people documenting foreign lands face. How do you avoid cliché and generalisation when looking, so briefly, into the snow globe?  

*Norway, Beatrice Jungman, 1905, Project Gutenberg 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Jim Causley’s Cyprus Well at Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival

The presence of a folk singer at a poetry festival might raise a conservative eyebrow or two but for me it was a good and happy moment, one well worth making the journey onto the moor. I was especially pleased, as a Folkster, to finally see Jim Causley live. There was a happy atmosphere among the small but comfortable crowd. It was the last evening of the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival and Causley played material from his new album Cyprus Well. The album is a selection of Charles Causley poems set to music by Jim Causley, a distant relative of the poet.
The album’s premise and process was described with charm, and you felt an eager participant in the music. Jim Causley’s introductions to the songs were generous and allowed unfamiliar names or phrases to become accessible to people who may not have known the poems or the poet’s life. He regaled us with what it was like to live and collaborate in Charles Causley’s house in Launceston, Cyprus Well, where the album was recorded on Causley’s un-tuned piano. The image of the folk musicians inhabiting Cyprus Well, which has been empty for ten years, is a beguiling one. In particular, I enjoyed the idea of singer Julie Murphy capturing Launceston church bells and surrounding bird song on her phone. This sound effect opens the song ‘Angel Hill’ and is an interesting added layer of understanding.
Many of Charles Causley’s poems were written in ballad form and are perfect for being converted into folk songs. Their upbeat rhythms and recurring choruses give a bouncy jollity to ambiguous lyrics. There are several examples of this in folk music; ruined maids abandoned by roguish lovers (Ramble Away) and men waiting for the hangman (Prickleye Bush)  are usually accompanied by upbeat rhythms and sing-along choruses. In the pop world, the likes of Belle and Sebastian and Beautiful South have a similarly bathetic style. You’ll be tapping along, oblivious, until you catch just a snippet of the story. 
Jim Causley’s musical settings bring a fresh insight to a poet who is both well-known and under-appreciated.  Jim Causley’s lower register has a depth and richness worthy of our surrounding moorland. He and his musical partner, Lukas Drinkwater, bantered and engaged with the audience. There’s a rare kindness present in the elder Causley and perpetuated by the younger. Eloquent and warm, Jim Causley was excellent company for the evening.
Try and catch Jim and Lukas sometime this year if you can, it’s something really special live.  
Images from Jim Causley's official website.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Attic

I no longer feel at home in my parent's house. The curves of the new facade and balustrade are unfamiliar.  My old room at the top of the house seems closer, the ceilings lower; foreign boxes have started to creep across the lines. The space is halved and things left behind are now piled and ignored in the furthest corner. There’s a bed neatly made, waiting for guests, and my old chest; the drawers full of secrets, rejected then hoarded, netted penance dragged above the waterfall. The other corner is full of boxes of books and a rack of polythene-sealed coats.    
      I sit below the skylight, a kitten scratching the fraying fibres of my jumper. I push her away and pull out a pine drawer stuffed full of old notebooks, poems that rhyme, stories that don’t end or end too soon in a misty swoon. The drawer below reveals another relic; a red ponytail, curled up like a weasel on a bed of moth-eaten, canary-yellow dress. I touch the hair and wonder what made me keep such an item. The pressure of my fingertips begins to unbind the hair from its elastic band and they start to split like little electric copper wires. I close the drawer.
     Under the bed is a world of shoes and photographs; old shoes with bitten soles, curling laces and ripped fabric and albums of faces, landscapes, rabbit hutches hidden in paper and plastic cases. It’s dusty under the bed so I pull open the sky light and let the room fill with the sound of bird song and motorway ballad.
     Along the outside of my room are two antechambers. Behind the prefab walls are more things, older relics- sewing machines, cuddly toys, dinner services- waiting like an impatient mother-in-law to find a new purpose, a reprisal of their original form. Then the husk of a wasp nest, perfectly preserved in a chemical death.
     It seems fitting that not only is the room full of my cast-offs but also the strange un-keepings of several generations; familial clutter and inherited sentiment. Objects abandoned by death and emigration. The only thing of real value to me is the glossy painted Russian doll that reminds me of my grandmother. She has the same black hair and kindly smile.
That endless entity has long since been appropriated to a glass cabinet downstairs. The hope is that feeling and memory can be caught between glass panes but her embroidered scarf and pretty painted face conceal the impenetrable kernel within.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Punk God Rowing Towards God

The Punk God Rowing Toward Prayer
6th floor Mordovia, I’m being moved, don’t know where.
All I see is hospital lights. The glare above.
Blood trickling down my left leg.
This isn’t what happens.
Somewhere between me and the lights are two guards,
one smoking, dropping ash that I cannot feel as it burns away my clothes.
“Dad? Dad?”
My grandmother appears with an icebox.
“This is God’s, love, he might need it back.”
I try to reach up for it. What would He need it for? I don’t ask. She’s always right.
Rasping, writhing, reaching up for the divine icebox.
“Not good for PR this”
I’m being moved, and I don’t know where.
I don’t know where and I don’t know who knows.
My legs are stained – blood - more is coming.
The hospital lights have intensified and Grandma’s gone.
The baby’s dissolving, they say; whatever you took worked.
I didn’t take anything.
It wasn’t there yesterday.
The dog gave us fire.  Some of us feed our families by the flame and others feed
our families to God.
6th floor Mordovia, the screaming one has gone.
Lying on a hospital bed, drip leads,
icebox at the end of the bed.
I’m being moved and I don’t know where.
Lists of the persecuted, found all over the world. Monuments built.
But we keep on burning.
The prison hygiene room is overflowing with the flood water.
All have been moved to the sixth floor.
No feet to get wet!
They can’t cope with the disease.
Tight budgets.
A woman with her fingers sewn together and buttons for eyes
smiles down at me. Her over-locked fingers playing a tune, it’s hard to catch every note she strikes when there is no piano.
 “Prometheus’s hygiene isn’t up for question,
when he’s free, he’ll light the cod fish that
jump in his face with his teeth, spilling angry red blood.”
My love, my love, my love.
Song singing somewhere.
The hygiene room is closed, so none of us are hygienic.
We all stand in the 6th floor corridor waiting to be fed.
If the floods keep rising we’ll have to move to the 8th. There is no 7th.
It got washed away.              
My legs are blood-stained in the hospital.
No one bothers to clean them.                       
Nausea strains against this swaddling coyote skin.
Why won’t they wash me?
            Give the fire back dog! Or I’ll tell God what you’ve done.
They don’t know what I mean.
They’ve hidden it.
The guard says, “There never was no baby!”
He’s dissolved. They took my freedom and now they’ve taken the baby!
“You just take that Icebox, lovey, and we’ll see what happens”
Grandma wearing her
Youth cap. “It’s the Fire-god month.” She sings, words drizzling from her bloated mouth.
The screaming one has gone again.
I’m in the trenches with the soldiers. The freezing soldiers,
wrapped in thinning issue blankets. They’re waiting for the Germans.
I can see how their livers are puckered with alcohol and frostbite.
I can see their burned-out boiled egg hearts, melting with the fire-snow.
One of them shouts at me, snow in his moustache.
“No women, no women!”
You can’t hide in the memorials, they can still see you from every which-way angle.
The prisoners are dancing in the corridors, their sewn-through fingers moving lithely, intertwined
with the hidden music. They’re wearing rabbit masks
and they’re happy. Happy, like when we picked through all the
mouldy potatoes and had to scratch the starch out from under our skin. Our rabbit faces
bleeding into our gruel.
                                                                                    The rabbit didn’t catch the fire, it set
                                                                                    its tail on fire.
                                                            That’s why its tip is frazzled.
          .                                That’s what Grandma said anyway, through a mouth full of pins.   
“Here, have this,” says the pin-mouthed demon, “It’s your baby.”
I cradle my leg and weep for joy.
The rabbit faces all gathering around and cooing.
“It’s your baby, it’s your baby.” They moon chant.
Little longing; my leg swathed in the amputee’s bloodied cloth.
The Guards push through the rabbit faces who complain in quiet whispers and disappear holding their noses, frightened, shamed, off to their flooded burrows.                        
Dad died with a rabbit face too.
His body all crinkled with fear and pain, all the life in him swollen and still.
Limp whiskers. God for God. Boiling labour.
They stripped him naked and threw him in the burrow.
Is that the way the baby died too?                                                                

The first three stanzas appeared in With 21, edited by Rupert Loydell

Monday, 5 May 2014

Inside the Cacophany

In an academic environment increasingly dependent on the goodwill of a reluctant government I couldn't help feeling it was apt to share this extract from Charles Bernstein's The Consequence of Innovation. The chapter is on the nature of poetics and is an interesting read. Even if it's not something you want to do a degree in,  liberal arts and humanities are likely to be something that you have at some point in your life actively engaged in. They allow us to explore beyond our material self, think critically and engage with the world and become part of a universal discourse. Successive governments haven't wanted the majority to be a part of that discourse so they have done their best to cripple arts funding and teaching. 

 “The greatest benefit of the university is not that it trains students for anything in particular, nor that it imbues in them a particular set of ideas, but that it is a place for open-ended research that can just as well lead nowhere as somewhere, that is wasteful and inefficient by short­ term socioeconomic standards but is practically a steal as a long-term research and development investment in democracy, freedom, and creativity – without which we won't have much of an economic future or the one we have won't be worth the flesh it's imprinted on... We cannot make education more efficient without making it more deficient.” ~ Charles Bernstein, The Consequence of Innovation p. 53

Graffiti on the wall of a bus stop in Penryn, Cornwall.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic:

An Arctic Alphapet
There I am, holed up in a frozen land, listening for the ice to creek and the wind to howl in that intimate and foreboding way, with only these cards for company. I spread them out before me and enjoy the feel of the Greenlandic words on the tip of my tongue and the feel of my English-driven brain turning them over and over trying to fit them with the translations. I smooth my finger over images of icebergs - vistas floating by; and I’ll find a home for the night in their glow.

In the morning I’ll wake and clutch them to me in their aqua blue envelope and look out across miles and miles of ice and feel they are my only true guide on this mapless journey. I, as journeyman, can look to these cards when I feel hopeless, snow blind, unskilled at my work and wandering lost in the imagined landscape and know that people with beautiful words had been here long before me, understood it more than me. 

This place, only half-remembered,     with its cold and its ice, searing into flesh. Some memory of it as origin; ice as beginning,                                          ape carved of glaciers,                     and now very likely ending too.  

This is creative response in the guise of a review. All images belong to Nancy Campbell and are from How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic:An Arctic Alphabet. 
You can buy a copy of Nancy Campbell’s beautiful book from Miel. If you’re going to buy one beautiful item then this should be it.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Sharing the Crocus

or Virginia’s Conceit

Virginia Woolf’s "The Patron and the Crocus" revolves around a central conceit. Woolf has one strong idea, that of the first crocus seen growing in Kensington Gardens and the proliferation of the experience of seeing that crocus. The essay in The Common Reader (a volume full of wonderful, neat and insightful essays by Woolf) uses the metaphorical conceit of the crocus to expand ideas concerning readership and guardianship of writing. She creates the character of an ideal patron to whom one writes of the crocus and its first emergence. By patron, she means someone to whom your writing is directed, as well as someone partially influencing the process.
     Woolf talks about the different types of patron sharing the crocus. I ought to explain that for Woolf the crocus is imperfect until shared. At this point, the crocus becomes art. That artifice can be applied simply by turning the experience into collective personal myth. 
      The first potential patron she introduces is the newspaper man. He’ll offer you money and fame – maybe he’s wearing spats or maybe he’s reclining in a big leather chair at a big mahogany desk smoking an even bigger cigar. He’s flash and generous but Woolf’s not convinced. She asks whether there is enough crocus to grace “every breakfast table from John o’Groats to the Land’s End” and we feel sure that he’s not our man when faced with her prediction of the frivolously obscure fate of “journalism”. 
     Woolf states “to know who to write for is to know how to write”. Right, we’d better find this chap then, Ginny! Ah, he’s illusive, changing “from age to age”. Typical. One might recognise him only by the twinkle in his eye, the crocus in his buttonhole or his saffron-stained fingers.
     Woolf is introducing us to the reader as patron of the arts. Of course, we’re familiar with the death of the author, birth of the reader concept. It’s first year undergraduate material but at the time of writing it was still breaking ground. Thus Woolf’s common reader is born. A person, such as Woolf perhaps, who is interested in good, long-lasting writing that will improve, inspire and please her. The crocus must be transposed rather than bunched into a posy. The latter is sure to wither whereas the former might thrive if the soil is warm and the roots are strong. 
     I like a good extended metaphor and Woolf is excellent at them. It feels pleasingly versatile, stretched like vellum holding the five pages of content together. For me, the answer to what is good writing can be fluidly argued through the idea of the crocus and it ties in with another of Woolf’s essays in the same volume, “The Modern Essay”, in which she argues that one of the best qualities of fiction and essay writing is that we should be able to return to the text and relive it the uncountable number of times our perspective and situation changes, just as a bulb renews itself so do we as readers.

 As an aside, I think this essay is a really good example of the high standards of writing that Woolf requests in “The Modern Essay”; a slick, intimate voicing of opinion on a timeless question.

First emerging buds. A tree peony uncovered in the border.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Record Booth Sessions #1 Shipping Song

When you live in a remote spot the internet can be a really useful portal into the world of music, theatre, film etc. I like to think of my online music experiences as similar to sitting in an old record booth, my headphones on, trying out new artists. I'd like to share some of those finds with you.
     I also like to look up old favourites and I'm always pleasantly surprised to find out that such and such has a new album or they're going on tour. I thought I would start with Lisa Knapp who I first saw seven years ago at Priddy Folk Festival. Now she's just won three Folk Awards. In the ten years since my first Priddy Folk Festival, folk music has had a meteoric surge of popularity. At sixteen it was positively antiquated and slightly pretentious of me, which at the time I thought unfair, especially in the light of the new folk revival. 
     There's nothing flashy about the folk genre. It is by design democratic and meritocratic. Folk atists are usually multi-instrumental and aware of the cultural and historical background of their canon. The best of folk has a revelatory power, revealing connections between people and places which allows it to go straight to the heart of our shared history and common human experience.  That's not to say other genres of music aren't able to do similar but I think most of the bands I can think of that don't fall into straight folk have their roots in the tradition of acoustic story-telling.
     Something I really like about Lisa Knapp is that I think she's doing something a little different. She has a traditional song and she rips it apart, like some contemporary poetry. There's a little bit of Bjork in there and we're starting to walk in surreal/ fragmented lyrics. I like the idea of collage-folk; Shipping Song could almost be an Oulipou poem. The remix included below gives the song an even further fragmented feel. I will leave you with the Pete Flood  (Bellowhead) Shipping Song remix:


Wednesday, 19 February 2014


Students used to be a revolutionary force. That was when university education didn't mean a lifetime of debt or slipping under the net. I'm happy to see some spark of protest still kindling.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Sweet Dreams Sebby

Jackie's Five Stringed Viola at the Tithe Barn Nailsea

In Iceland, women have been known to cross lava fields knitting. Jumpers and dreaming is how I’d describe this new album from Jackie Oates. A well-knitted jumper has the same creative charm as a well-constructed lullaby; love and anxiety going into each stitch and note. In the video link below Jackie is singing some material from her new album Lullabies in her favourite yarn and knitting shop in Oxford. It looks like crafting heaven to me. The album is based on the research she’s been undertaking for the Cecil Sharp museum and has all the comfort value of a good yarn shop and all the covetable technique of knitting.

I picked up my copy of Lullabies at a folk gig on Friday and asked Jackie to sign the inside to my friend’s baby boy Sebby. Sebby loves music but he isn’t so keen on sleeping so Lullabies is the perfect compromise.
     Every time I go to see Jackie, she always has lots of interesting background story to each song. I always learn something new about folklore. It’s demonstrative of how thoroughly she is involved in the folk scene. Her knowledge enriches her music. The album is full of beautiful lyrical folk songs which have been sung to children from all over Britain, Scandinavia, Australia. She uses local instruments, and in the case of the Icelandic songs she allows the original language to be sung by the folk singer Bara Grimsdottir before offering her translated verses.
     Jackie’s voice is smooth, sweet and beautifully imperfect. The melodies weave their way into your life and come back to you when you’re feeling happy, lost or insecure. Lullabies made me think about how music stays with and clings to you. My sister and I are connected by the music experienced during the transition between waking and dreaming but we’ve both taken different things from the songs my mother crooned at us as children. Those differences spring from the uniqueness of the child; the individual character of the listener.
     I found it interesting that in her descriptions of the songs, Jackie points to the idea that lullabies are not just for children but also for parents. A particular favourite of mine is the Icelandic song ‘Sofuðu Unga ástin Mín/Sofi Sofi Barnið’ which expresses the parents’ fear and protective instinct for the child. In her notes she translates a fraction of this song; “Old bones and toy box./ We should not stay awake/ through dark nights.” Fear of the unworldly - of what might come in the night - can keep adult and child awake. These words keep us conscious that sleep protects us; if we close our eyes then we may dream of some place easier and kinder. Child mortality would have worried parents more when the songs were originally dreamed up but I still see that fear in the eyes of my friends when their children are sick; the feeling of hopelessness and the need to nurture. Thus, lullabies begin to open children up to the concerns of the adult world, gently ushering them towards independence and self-sufficiency, as well as teaching them language and melody.
     The album artwork by Brad Waters illustrates the themes of the album perfectly, a girl or woman encircled; nest-like; asleep. A charm or magic circle cast by those who love us, to keep us safe.


Lullabies album artwork by Brad Waters, ECC Records 2012 

This is a lovely, gentle and thought-provoking album. It makes us analyse our roots and pulls us back into the dream world of childhood. 

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Trees Hold All The Stories

It’s about time I posted again. I’ve been working on a review the last few weeks but essay deadlines have made it difficult to work on it solidly. In the wake of submission dates, I was distracted by a post from one of my favourite bloggers, The Girl Who Married A BearIt was about feminism and I just wanted to add some thoughts and to write about a poet I've recently been reading.
    I think one of the best ways to come to feminism is not to be afraid of it. In the conservative village I grew up in, my parents’ house seemed an enclave of radicalism. I was sheltered by their socially liberal ideas. For them, it didn't matter whether I wanted to craft with my grandmother, go to ballet classes or sit on the benches of the under ten football team. I could do all of these things. I was encouraged to read books and show an active interest in world events. I was equal in the eyes of my parents. The language of feminism was already deeply engrained in me. However, in my late teens I became averse to the word feminist. I found it difficult to equate how I felt about my own ideas of freedom and the violent determination of previous generations. The word seemed unnecessary. In the academic environment, feminism was widely seen as a truism. I have come to appreciate that the acceptance of ideas and the practise of them are not necessarily companions. Our culture is founded on patriarchy, it takes time to make the fundamental changes needed for equality. 
     I’ve become more attached to the word through a clearer understanding of the tradition and the fight. The flourishes of language that feminism can make possible is truly worthwhile. Another reason I felt I needed to contribute to the conversation was because I was truly astounded to discover that I was in a tiny minority of women in my seminar group who whole heartedly embraced the ideas of feminism. A great deal of the trouble was caused by confusion about what it actually meant to be a feminist. After some explanation, people were still divided and one student told me that feminism was simply “chicks being angry about their own inadequacy, looking for someone to blame.” Some of the girls shared the opinion that there was no need for feminism anymore. One girl, resigned, announced that women would never be equal and she didn’t see why she should be unhappy trying to make them so. I suppose this nihilism can be, to a degree, understood in the face of the imprisonment of the two Pussy Riot members and the current regressive attitudes from governments all over the world. I hope that something happens between now and the age of 26 for my classmates who stood against feminism.
     Feminism has become fragmented, like woman-ness. There is no sticking definition of what is woman, not even biological when we consider transgender. In this fragmented form, the pieces of what make us female can collide to create new hybrids of feminisms, which are constantly evolving.
     The poet Gloria Anzaldua is described as Chicana Lesbian Feminist Literature. Feminists can run the risk of becoming insular in their struggle, ignoring other plights. This was a charge directed at the Suffragette movement. Many at the time saw that these women were fighting for a very narrow stream of woman-kind, a cultural elite set apart by private education and private incomes. The sturdier and longer-lived suffrage movement, also fragmented, stood for universal suffrage.
     Anzaldua’s poetry is all of those things, but also something more. In her interview in the anthology of Innovative Women Writers she talks about extending oneself into the world and relates to the interviewer’s experience of talking to a tree and needing that dialogue to be open during times of creativity. Otherwise that creativity dries up. Anzaldua draws a brilliant balance between acknowledging that the tree is a pathway to the interviewer's creativity and discussing the possibility that the tree is in fact a different entity, she then goes on to wonder whether the tree is an extension of the woman's self and that the body of the tree and the mind of the writer are interconnected.
     Whether you believe any of that, you’ve got to admire the way she thinks, embracing all possibility and being willing to talk about it constructively.  There is a wonderful poem, called Interface, about an ethereal creature that wills herself into flesh:

What does it feel like, she asked
               to inhabit flesh,
wear blood like threads
              constantly running?*

The word feminist is important because it reminds us of the struggle and should deter us from taking regressive steps. Feminisms should be allowing us to express our gender freely, not confining us to one particular idea of woman. Freedom of mind and body are the basic rights we should be fighting for. For all.

I’m going to leave you with one of my favourite stanzas from the poem Del Otro Lado:

She looks at the Border Park fence
posts are stuck into her throat, her navel,
barbwire is shoved up her cunt.
Her body torn in two, half a woman on the other side
half a woman on this side, the right side
and she went to the North American university,
excelled in the Gringo’s tongue
learned to file in folders.
But she remembered the other half
strangled in Aztec villages, in Mayan villages, in Incan villages.*

I’ll probably write more about Anzaldua at a later stage. She’s really piqued my interest. I’m still learning but feminism and women writing is definitely going to be a recurrent theme.  

Ygdrasil watches over the valley

* Both extracts are from Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews ed. by Elizabeth A. Frist and Cynthia Hogue (USA: University of Iowa Press, 2006)


Sunday, 12 January 2014

"We dress ourselves in stories"

Rabbit Back Literature Society Review

I read this book recently, it told me about the way I think. It told me about how nothing makes sense whilst being very entertaining and not trying to tell me anything. Afterwards, I went outside and slept under the apple tree wearing my story-trimmed cape. This is the time of nonsense. The time when the stories all mix up and flirt and dance and go home with the wrong person. This is the time when Helene Cixous whispers about earth and shit and sex all being one and Eleanor Roosevelt does the Hokey Cokey to a tuneless orchestra all dressed in lavender branches. In the garden is a phantom, but he’s only there when the rain drizzles and the frost gathers in the bird bath and the sun breaks through grey storm clouds. He seeks the cool, dark-green upper reaches of the conifer trees in the summer; where the crows perch. But for now, he is spinning through the un-pruned upper reaches of the apple tree and rubbing himself against the twisted lichens, chasing the passerines as they scatter. He ignores me, my face covered in moss and only the stories visible. Only when I wake up, do I try to grab the strands of his terrified tale. ~ Me  

Set in a small Finnish town, The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a book about ghosts real and metaphorical. It’s also a brilliant dissection of the process of writing. A famous author takes nine school children she deems talented enough for her attention and teaches them how to look at the world from a writer’s point of view. Writing becomes their lives and at times their ruthless devotion appears pathological, they cannot conceive of any other career. Outside this small group are hundreds of other Rabbit Back inhabitants who write and form book groups, writing groups and fan clubs for the famous authoress Laura White and the successful writers. The Society is deemed a sure-fire way into the literary world and the rumour is that they’re looking for a tenth member.  Ella, our heroine with the lovely curving lips and defunct ovaries, becomes that tenth member, but just before she has the glory of meeting her idol, Laura White, the famous authoress disappears in a tragic and wonderfully unbelievable accident. White is the ghost of the novel; she haunts the lives of the Society members she’s scarred with years of emotional abuse. The whole town is having dreams about her Zombie body coming to call and the books that were once loved by the children of Rabbit Back are getting thrown out, to exorcise the ghost of the writer.  Ella starts to unravel the secret lives of White and the members through their own invention, The Game and you begin to see the misery, the selfishness and the dirt that goes into making these great writers. The Game hollows you out, allows the other player to steal your experiences for the purpose of writing as they “spill” everything, the truth; no embellishments; robbing you of your defences. 

Not only does the book analyse what it means to write and the psychosis behind writing but it also explores the hyper-real of invented worlds and how sometimes they take on a lifeless life of their own. This reminded me a lot of the Moomin stories. Jannson’s beautifully surreal and expressive stories are often overshadowed by the cartoons and merchandise. The woods and gardens in Rabbit Back are full of wooden carvings of sprites and beasts that hide the real sprites and beasts that lurk there.  There was a review on the dust jacket, comparing the book to Twin Peaks. It has the same uncertain horror of where it’s going to go and the mix of everyday “cup of Joe” ordinariness with the supernatural. Jääskeläinen invented the term Reaalifantasia to describe it, an off-shoot of magical realism.

Photograph by Luke Thompson