Lily hugged her bundle close to her chest. The lane was crowded, and she was being jostled and pushed. If she wasn’t careful it would be damaged. Elbows sharp, she shoved her way towards a doorway. The brick walls that lined the lane were four storeys high, casting the street into deep shadow. Lily leant against the wall and took a breath. That smell! Of sewers and rotting vegetables, overlaid with the tang of soy sauce and something sweet she couldn’t identify. A man stumbled into her. He backed off, bowing and smiling. His feet were bare and his jacket faded and worn. A rickshaw pushed through the crowds, the driver shouting hoarsely for space. He was gaunt, but the sinews on his arms were so prominent he reminded Lily of an anatomical drawing. Except he had skin. His passenger was a European woman wearing a long silk coat the colour of raspberries and a wide brimmed hat embellished with an ostrich feather. She was fanning herself against the heat. She saw Lily. The woman’s eyes slid over her without a pause, as they did over the outstretched hand of the opium addict and the piles of rags that covered the sleeping beggar.
Lily had had a coat exactly that colour. She was wearing it the day she burst into the drawing room of her parent’s Viennese town house, to tell her father the good news.
“You must come with us,” she had begged her father.
“How can I?” he’d said, pacing up and down. “And why should I go? This is my home.”
Her mother had wanted to join them. She was frightened. She read the news from Germany. But she couldn’t – wouldn’t – leave her husband and he had refused to listen.
“They won’t touch me, I am an important member of the community, they will remember that. And where you’re going….” Lily’s father shook his head. “I’m not sure that it is preferable.”
“Please don’t listen to him,” Lily’s husband Otto had held her hands tightly. Otto had been pushing for them to leave for months. By the time that Lily agreed there were few opportunities left. They had queued for hours outside the Embassies and Consulates of country after country, but everywhere the diplomats shook their heads. They were very sorry, they said, but the quotas were full. It was only China that was letting in the Jews. Lily and Otto had hugged and kissed and cried tears of relief when they got their visas.
“We’re on our way,” Lily told her father. “To the Paris of the East! To Shanghai!”
From where she was standing Lily didn’t think that Shanghai was much like Paris. Well, not the Paris that she knew anyway. It was crowded and filthy, alien and frightening. Her legs were swollen and her head was beginning to swim in the heat. She mustn’t stay slumped against the wall. If she sank down onto the ground she might never get up. She must carry on. Wearily, she braced her shoulders, stepped back into the crowd, and headed out of the alley.
Otto had fallen sick on the ship. They were steaming through the Red Sea when he first came down with a fever. Lily sold her ruby pendant to pay the doctor, but Otto continued to deteriorate. By the time they docked in Shanghai the only piece of jewellery Lily had left was her wedding ring. Otto was weak but he managed to walk down the gangplank. He said he felt safe for the first time for years. She wasn’t so sure.
When Lily arrived at Hongkou Road it was already crowded. The street was lined with tiny shops selling everything from wooden spoons to red silk wedding outfits. On the pavements in front of the shops were stalls, often just a sheet on the ground displaying one or two carefully laid out items. Lily picked her way past. Here was a silver teapot with an ivory handle. There was a mahogany box in the shape of a grand piano, which, if you pressed a button, played Strauss’s Blue Danube. Next to it were seven silver forks, their handles inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Here was an entire dinner service of Dresden china, including two soup tureens and twelve coffee cups, their handles noodle-thin. Lily paused. How had someone managed to transport a dinner service all the way from Europe, unbroken? She glanced at the woman standing beside the sheet. She was older than Lily, in her forties. Her shoes were expensive, but scuffed and Lily knew she would feel every piece of grit through the soles. Her face was lined, her hair covered with a scarf, her eyes – Lily couldn’t look at her eyes. She hurried on.
Lily found a space between a man selling a carriage clock and a pair of brown brogues and a woman whose fur stoles were attracting interest from a couple of giggling sing-sing girls. Lily unwrapped her bundle, put the cloth on the pavement and laid the case down carefully. She unclipped the clasp and
pushed up the lid. The violin gleamed. The strings were taut, the bridge in place, the cat gut bow lay ready next to the body. Lily traced the swirls on the violin’s waist. She could hear its warm, rich tone. It was a late 19th century Thibouville-Lamy. She loved it.
“Nice,” the seller of the carriage clock said as he pinched out his cigarette. “What are you asking for it?”
“What will you offer?” said Lily.
The man laughed.
“I don’t want a violin. Wish I did, I could have bought enough to equip ten orchestras.” He laughed again and shook his head. “Good luck to you.”
Lily was numb. The violin was the only thing of value they had left to sell. Otto was searching for a job in a workshop or factory, but competition was fierce. Keeping the violin was sentimental, soft. So what if she missed her violin like a lost limb if it was far from her. When they got on their feet she could buy another one. Right now what they needed was fresh food and private space. They were in a camp with fifty people to a room, sleeping in bunk beds and eating soup at communal tables. Otto needed cleanliness and fresh food if he had any chance of getting back his strength.
She couldn’t stay here, Lily thought, not next to this man with his cynicism and his ugly brown shoes. She clicked the violin case shut and picked up her cloth. The man touched his hat to her and she nodded, as she walked away.
The last time she’d cried had been at the station in Vienna. Otto was on the train with their suitcases. The journey to Genoa was still possible, who knew for how long. The ship was leaving in three days.
“You’ll be back in a year or so. When this madness has passed,” her father had said and he’d smiled as he kissed her. Her mother’s face crumpled. Lily hugged her and hugged her, feeling her birdlike frame shaking with tears.
“Follow us,” whispered Lily, “Come with us.”
Her mother shook her head, as she kissed her goodbye.
Lily tried to be positive as she searched for a new site. She needed to be able to convey the beauty of the violin, to be able to sell. She didn’t feel like selling. She felt like a heavy dark mass was sitting on her shoulders, sinking deep inside her and enveloping her mind.
“Breathe,” she thought. “Breathe.”
This time, instead of the reek of Shanghai she smelt … sugar. Coffee. Cinnamon. She smelt … Vienna. And there, amongst the aluminium pans and incense shops, she saw it. Café Rudolf. She drew close to the windows. There was a tray of Apfelstrudel. Of Kardinalschnitte oozing with cream. There were wedges of Esterhazytorte with its thin layers, bright pink Punschkrapfen and slices of dark chocolate Sachertorte, of course there was Sachertorte. The door opened. The smells made Lily feel faint. She walked in.
It was as though she was at home. The décor, the flowers, the food, even the pictures of the Austrian Alps, all were Vienna. Every table was full, the faces familiar, she could understand the chatter, she could read the newspaper headlines –
A waiter with curly hair and melting eyes approached her.
“A table, ma’am?”
“I can’t… I haven’t ….” She hung her head. She had no money. Not even for a coffee.
“Perhaps, ma’am, you might play for us instead?”
The waiter gestured to the violin case.
“Oh – no – I couldn’t, I’m not – I haven’t played since -”
But then she thought, why not? She was used to playing in public. Not in cafes of course, but in the Conservatoire, for small select concerts. She opened the case and took out the violin. She fitted it to her shoulder. It felt natural. She felt whole. With a few twists she tuned the instrument. Then she began.
She started with the Blue Danube. It had been in her head since she had walked past the music box. As she found the notes, she saw the winter balls in Vienna, the ladies in long silk dresses and glittering jewellery, the men dapper in white tie. They were swirling as they waltzed, round and round under chandeliers flashing with candles and cut glass.
The audience was rapt, tapping their feet and swaying.
Lily played on. From Strauss, she moved into music that was darker and wilder, without the polish of a waxed moustache and the smoothness of a well fed cheek. She thought of her Vienna, of all she had left behind, of her father and mother and their faces as the train pulled out of the station, the faces she knew she would never see again. She playing the yearning music from the east, the music of heartbreak that they played in the shtetls when they gathered in the squares, the laments that make the skin crawl and the hairs on the back of the neck rise up. The music that warns that the soldiers are coming, because there are always soldiers coming.
She played the music of one who is far far away and who might never see the place she called home again.
When she put her bow down, every man and woman in the café stood up and cheered. Many had tears streaming down their faces. They too felt her yearning. They too longed for home.
Lily took a moment to remember where she was.
The waiter handed her a hat, winked and pushed her towards his customers.
They smiled and reached into their pockets.
“Wonderful my dear,” “Heartbreaking,” “Beautiful,” “The sound of home” they said as the coins filled the hat. And “When will you play for us again?”
When Lily left the café her feet took up a rhythm, one two three, one two three. She had a purse full of money, a job and most important, she had hope. She gave the man with the carriage clock a cheery little wave as she waltzed her way home along the Shanghai street.
Give Away – M.E. Proctor
Mamma has always had a love for other people’s possessions.
I know because she told me. Not in those words exactly and not for many years, but I had long figured it out by the time she confessed.
I’m not exactly truthful here.
I hadn’t figured everything out.
For years, I thought I was living with a saint, and what a pain in the behind that was. Father Joseph in his Sunday sermons and the weekly catechism class regularly praised the virtue of charity. He relished telling us the story of Saint Martin cutting his cloak to give half to a naked beggar. I could have told him that Mamma didn’t cut clothes in half, she gave them whole. I could have told him of my favorite blue dress, the one with the white collar that made me look like Alice in the old Disney movie. “Oh, it matches the color of her eyes,” people crowed, to my utter delight. I had found the dress on my bed one Sunday morning. A present, Mamma said. I wore it for a few weeks and then it disappeared. It wasn’t in the laundry basket or the washing machine, it was totally and forever gone.
Mamma said: “I gave it away.”
“Why?” I said. “I love that dress.”
“Because it didn’t belong to you.”
“And now it belongs to somebody else, is that it?” At twelve, I already had a sharp tongue and a keen sense of the transient nature of material goods. You could say, I had been well-trained.
Because the dress wasn’t the first object that appeared in my life one day and was gone the next. A doll with bright green eyes and a purple velvet dress had shared by bed for a while, a brown teddy bear with white patches on the ears and the paws was my favorite for a couple of weeks, a yellow bicycle came and went, then a blue one with a wire basket in front, and a pair of cute mary janes lasted about ten days. Many other so-called gifts made cameo appearances. I won’t list them all, you get my drift. In Mamma’s house, material goods were temporary.
“Things don’t matter, Shannon,” Mamma said. “It’s what’s in your heart that counts.”
As a teenager, buffeted by constant peer pressure, Mamma’s decision to live our lives on a higher moral plane didn’t strike me as a worthy philosophical choice. I didn’t get why she was constantly giving our stuff away. It would have been easier if she didn’t give us things to begin with. I was in a constant down, frustrated to the point of almost running away a couple of times. The lack of material resources held me back. I didn’t even have enough cash for a bus ticket. None of us in Mamma’s foster home had any pocket money. I had a feeling she didn’t want us to buy anything. If we did, she would probably give that away too. You could say I became interested in Zen Buddhism as a defense mechanism. Sitting down to meditate – on my misery mostly! It wasn’t a good premise but it got better after a while – kept me from completely losing it. It was also a way for me to prove Mamma wrong.
It isn’t the heart that matters, Mamma, it’s the mind.
When the cops came to our house, I realized it was neither. It was the fingers.
Mamma’s sticky fingers.
The cops didn’t find anything, not that time, and not the next time or the one after that. Getting rid of the mary janes before they left an indelible foot print was a smart strategy. The other kids living in Mamma’s house didn’t have a clue why the police came knocking. They had been bounced from one foster home to the next and all they knew was fear. Fear of being moved again, fear of losing brothers and sisters again, and mostly fear of losing Mamma, the only solid and loving anchor they’d ever had. I was older, I understood what she did, what she had been doing for years. I was torn between dismay – Mamma is a common thief! – and admiration for her boldness. She took things, not for their monetary value, but because she knew her kids would enjoy them. For a short time, but still, the joy was there, and she knew the pleasure lasted longer in memory because it was so brief.
She also couldn’t help herself.
Eventually, the inevitable happened. Mamma ended up in court because she was lax on the donations front. A PlayStation tripped her up. She was fostering Liam and Dennis at the time, vivacious thirteen-year-olds who had way too much fun with the gizmo. Her heart wasn’t tough enough to take the games from them. I was finishing law school by then and I wished I had been further along to be able to represent her in court. Anyway, her public defender did a good job; she got rapped over the knuckles, ordered to go to counseling, and was slapped with a fine and probation. The problem is it messed her up; she was like these highly talented athletes who stumble and struggle to regain their balance, and the more they struggle, the worse it gets. Mamma got the yips.
I went to talk to her. I tried to lift her up. This wasn’t the end of the world; if she wanted something for the kids, she could buy it. She wasn’t destitute. My arguments were wasted. You see, if she couldn’t take anymore, she couldn’t give. Her whole reason for being was pulled from under her.
She never fully recovered.
Her doctor called me with the bad news. Mamma was in the hospital. She had suffered a stroke. I wanted to know if there was brain damage.
“At her age, most machine parts are worn out,” the doctor said. “She asked for you, Shannon. You’re her shining success, you know.”
That was an exaggeration. Mamma had fostered dozens of kids. Some had done better than others, but none of them had taken the wrong fork in the road. She was a compulsive thief and a remarkable woman. She knew a thing or two about quirks and human foibles. She was ideally suited to fix broken souls.
Seeing her thin and shriveled body on the narrow hospital bed gave me a shock. I’d always known her so strong. Curtains were pulled around her to shield her from the sufferer in the other bed. When I suggested moving her to a private room, the doctor said that it didn’t matter. She could be gone in a day, maybe she would last the week but it was doubtful.
“What about the boys, Liam and Dennis?” I said.
“They were here yesterday. They’ve been placed with a family in town. Good people, I know them. And I told social services that I wanted them to be kept together.”
He gave me the address and I promised to check on the kids.
Mamma was sleeping and I didn’t wake her up. I sat by the side of the bed and watched her. She looked much older than I remembered. I had never known her as a young woman. She was in her sixties when I came to her house, as a baby. She always said I was the exception and special because she saw me taking my first steps, like a real mother. She didn’t have to uproot bad habits. I had no scars or bruises that needed tending, like the other kids. She had me from the very beginning. And she was the only mother I ever knew.
“Shannon,” she muttered.
The stroke had frozen the right side of her face and her smile was lopsided. It looked like she was commenting on the irony in the world. It was an illusion. Mamma was remarkable but she had absolutely no sense of humor.
“I’m here,” I said. “You don’t have to talk. It’s good just to sit with you.”
She sighed. “Things you have to know,” she said. “I’m not a good person.”
“That is nonsense. You’re the best person I know. I’ve seen what you did for the kids, all these years. Nobody could have done a better job, Mamma.”
“I took things from people,” she muttered. “Lots of things.”
“Material things, unimportant things, worldly possessions. Replaceable things. I didn’t always like to hear you say that but I remember every word. And you gave everything away to people who were more in need than we were,” I said. “I used to be upset when you gave away the things I loved. I’m not anymore.” I could smile about it now.
“That’s because I only took what I loved,” she said. Her voice was a whisper.
I couldn’t imagine her loving a PlayStation, but she knew the boys would be over the moon with delight. I understood what she meant.
“Of course,” I said. “Why would you take something you hate?”
“I loved you at first sight,” she said. That lopsided smile again. “You’re the only thing I took that I never gave away.”
I long to find the thread that will help me unravel, to bring me back to the beginning of myself. Within the crevices of my brain, forfeiting my thoughts, dementia has burrowed deep. I have vanished alongside the untold secrets and mysteries of my life, lost to the shadow of all things. Hiding from myself, I wait to be found.
Every night the same dream resurrects me from arms of sleep. Standing alone on a beach, I am shrouded in a dull sea mist. On both sides of the shore, dark sinewy limbs of jagged cliff rocks stretch out to welcome the ocean into the bosom of the beach. Monstrous waves arrive at my feet to thunderous applause announcing the arrival of an impending storm on the horizon. Mottled along the shoreline are pebbles, driftwood, and seashells, spitted out from the foaming crests of exhausted waves. As I traverse across the strand, seventy-six years of ageing ripens my bones. At random, I gather pebbles, hiding them deep within the pockets of my skirt until I can hold no more.
Weighed down from life rather than pebbles, I fall to my knees spreading the contents of what I have collected before me. With great care, I spell out the numbers three and seven in the sand. Ruminating on each stone as it passes through my frail fingers, I know it is important for me to remember these numbers, but I don’t know why.
Sitting back on my bare heels, I stare outwards at the vast grey horizon. A lock of silver hair dances upon my cheekbone, as the sea breeze gains momentum. Coming from across the headlands, I can taste rain on my lips. I sense I have been here before, an obscure memory shifting through the passages of time. Lost and confused, I have nowhere to go, and no one to go to. Panic sears through me. Circling around are millions of grains of sand that sweep into the rising winds. I feel as if the circumference of my life is closing in around me.
Dusk seeps over the black cliffs enveloping the beach. Sinister in presence, the cliffs appear to surge closer as darkness suffocates my mind. I try to make logic out of why I am here. Rain begins to fall upon the labyrinth of my face. As I rise to my feet, the tide begins to pull into its clutches the pattern of pebbles I have arranged. Calling out the numbers, I weave amongst the waves searching for them. I do not notice the sea taunting at my skirt. Currents swirl around my ankles, pulling me under. Wrestling with forces of nature, I try to overpower it with my feeble body. Summoning all of my strength, I surge above the surface of the water gasping for air. A piercing golden beam of light shines upon my face, as a voice resonates from across the bay.
When I open my eyes, a face is looking down at me I feel I should know. No longer in the water, I am drowning amongst sheets, tearing at the bed clothes. The face belongs to a lady who reassures me I am safe. With a tone of familiarity, she tells me her name is Elizabeth. Relief washes over me as each one of my breathes slows down to a crawl. I stare at her, searching her face for clues as to how I know her. A curtain of tears falls across my eyes, clouding the space between us. Elizabeth touches my cheek. In the upfolds of her lips is a warmth that softens the edges of my confusion. I want to give her the recognition that she sees in me, but I don’t know how. I don’t know anything anymore. All I know is that Elizabeth sees me, not the broken pieces of myself.
Once Elizabeth helps me to sit up on the bed, she hands me a notebook and pen. I leaf through the pages. Line after line in tumbledown writing are the numbers three and seven. I try to speak, but only ghosts of words I once knew echo across the room. The tangled knots of conversations that were the first signs of my illness, have been replaced by incoherent ramblings. Wearing my days inside out, I live in a vacuum. Shadows lurk in the empty spaces where my memories used to be. The pen begins to move across the page as I find myself writing the numbers, row after row. For the first time I feel in control.
Elizabeth moves around the room with a sense of purpose I can trust. As my eyes follow her, I become distracted by a painting on the wall behind her. It is the beach in my dreams, only this beach is bathed in calm seas and a cinnamon sunset. Images puncture through the hinterland of my memories. I hear the laughter of a young child, the taste of salt air on my lips. There are sandcastles and picnic blankets, beach balls and seashells. I feel the strong grasp of an arm around my waist. I can smell him. I turn to nuzzle into the nook of his neck and then…nothing. I am back in the room. Breaking my state is a sterile fluorescent light above my head that Elizabeth has just turned on. I cry out in frustration; with a voice I do not recognize but leaves my body regardless. Unfazed, Elizabeth moves to my bedside, soothing me as if she has been here a thousand times before.
What is to become of me? Change has pursued time vigorously over recent weeks. Across the floors of my mind memories lie, resembling shattered pieces of a broken mirror. In those shards of reflection, I see images of who I once was. Isolated and lost to an alien world, my entire body has fallen through the cracks in my mind. Folding in on myself, I am disappearing from this world.
Fingers of dawn curl around the corner of the curtains, turning the page over on a new day. The smell of breakfast traps the hunger pangs in my stomach as Elizabeth places a tray on the table in front of me. Putting the notebook to one side, I pick up a spoon. My mind goes blank. What do I do next? I sit in a pool of hopelessness as the seconds pass me by. Loneliness ripples around me. My cheeks flush, my heart aches. I don’t know what to do. Tears flow deeper and heavier. Travelling further into the emptiness of myself, I sink into a sadness from where there is no return. Easing my withered body against the pillows behind me, I close my eyes to the world. My body is raging against the dying light of my mind. Spiralling into darkness, I am forgotten. I am no longer who I am supposed to be. I have become unremarkable.
A sigh leaves my body taking my lungs with it. I am no longer comfortable in life. There is a quiet unease within me as how to cope. I feel a hand in mine. Elizabeth sits beside me. The tray has disappeared and in its place a picture frame. Her eyes are swimming in despair, their rims rusting with weariness. Pangs of guilt prick at my subconscious. In the picture before me are three people, a man, woman, and child. Splinters of awareness fracture though the fog of thoughts which envelops me. I rub my finger across the image of a family full of love and laughter. Recollections come flooding back. A child’s laugh, an arm around my waist, sandcastles, the beach. Several times I glance between Elizabeth and the child in the picture. Through the glass on the picture frame, I trace freckles across her face. The same smile, the same eyes. A hardness inside me begins to soften. It is Elizabeth, my Elizabeth. Dropping the picture on my lap, I place my hands on either side of her face, pulling her forehead towards me to meet mine. It is my turn to wipe away her tears, to ease my daughters torment. At last, it is my turn to see her.
We stay like that until her tears melt like snowflakes. In the space between us lies the picture of Elizabeth, my husband Joe and I standing at the doorway to our new home. Over my shoulder, on the red brick wall to my right are the numbers three and seven. Number thirty-seven, the number of home. In that split second, I am home.
Hours stretch across the known and unknown, bleeding into one another until time has no boundaries. A dull haze obscures from my mind’s eye the comings and goings of the day. Lurking behind the corners of myself, memories are both out of sight and out of reach. During the day, a lovely lady called Elizabeth takes care of my needs with a grace and dignity that would make any mother proud. As my compass, I allow her to navigate me through the epoch of my affliction. Tethered to one another, there is a connection between us that I am at a loss to explain.
As the evening thickens, a veil of stars falls across the night sky. Elizabeth kisses my forehead, squeezes my hand, and turns off the light. Left alone, I slip into the black, where I swim in sleep, drowning in dreams. However, there is no more tearing at the sheets, no more screaming numbers upon wakening. The same dream persists in haunting me, albeit different. I find myself back on the beach, but it is calm, the shoreline empty of pebbles. The tide nips at my heels like a playful puppy. Fingers of seaweed tickle my toes as the water laps around my ankles. I wade waist deep into the curling cold waters. Feeling reckless and indifferent I take one last breath and dive deep into my disease. No longer do I fight the sea, crushing my tired bones. No light comes, no echoes from across the bay, as my lungs fill with darkness.
Everything stops. I surrender. I am free.
A Critical Examination of 21st Century Poetry
Understanding Rupi Kaur Milk and Honey – by Ada Wofford
Rupi Kaur is a bestselling author and Instagram star. Her debut book, Milk and Honey has sold 3.5 million copies, making it the best-selling collection of poetry of all time, even out selling The Odyssey. There has been a lot of discussion both about Kaur and the genre of Insta-poetry. A particularly scathing article titled, “The Cult of the Noble Amateur,” criticizes this emerging medium for its simplicity and shallowness. The author, Rebecca Watts, vents her disdain for this new breed of poet stating, “The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.”
It’s difficult not to see this situation as intellectual elitism. Just as a classically trained composer might criticize a Top 40 pop song, writers such as Watts view the work of Kaur as something trite and pedestrian, something with no substance that people may easily consume. But because Kaur’s writing is so simplistic, it begs the question: Is it poetry? A Taylor Swift song might not be intellectually challenging or sonically interesting but there’s no doubting that it is in fact music. Kaur’s writing on the other hand is not so easy to categorize. Kaur markets herself as a poet and maybe people have gone along with that title because they don’t know how else to categorize her. If Kaur’s writing isn’t poetry, what is it? And if it is poetry, why isn’t it taken seriously?
There is hardly any critical or academic writing on Milk and Honey. The one article I found, “The Technopo(e)litics of Rupi Kaur: (de)Colonial AestheTics and Spatial Narrations in the DigiFemme Age” by Sasha Kruger, is not a literary paper but an exploration of Kaur’s use of gender, sex, and race in her writings. The paper is a bit superfluous, making easy and obvious connections to various academics such as Judith Butler, Gayatri Gopinath, and Victoria M. Bañales among others. Although it’s not at all a literary analysis, there is still some relevant information. The article discusses Kaur’s use of images in her work and how they heighten the meaning of the words. Kaur refers to her work as “design poetry,” suggesting two things 1) The accompanying images are integral to the meaning and function of the work. And 2) the function of the line-endings is purely visual. This is supported by the fact that Kaur’s poetry is, “based on the spoken word” and so careful consideration of syllables, stress, rhythm, etc. is ignored (Kruger 21).
Line-endings are essential to poetry. They drive the rhythm and the syntax of the words. In the book, The Art of the Poetic Line, author James Longenbach writes, “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing” (xi). The line-endings in Milk and Honey appear to be completely arbitrary. Kaur’s poems often read like a single sentence chopped up to have the appearance of a poem. Take this poem from page 121 for example (many of Kaur’s poems do not have titles so I will refer to them by page number):
how can i write
if he took my hands
In his discussion of line-endings, Longenbach writes, “But even the arbitrary must be driven by necessity, and necessity can be judged only on a poem by poem basis: what does the language of this particular poem require at this particular juncture?” (63). If we look at the use of syllables in the above poem we get, 4, 5, 2. There’s nothing to suggest this was done purposefully or out of necessity. An examination of the use of stresses tells the same story—Nothing appears deliberate or driven by necessity. The only remaining conclusion is that the line-endings are done purely as a visual component. This is reinforced by Kaur’s deliberate choice to eschew punctuation and capitalization with no apparent meaning behind this choice, save for the previously mentioned visual component.
To gain a better understanding of Kaur’s poetry, it’s worthwhile to explore what this poem would look like if we attempted to inject some poetic elements into it, such as attention to syllables and stress. By introducing syllabic-verse the line-endings will become more meaningful:
How can I write
If when he left
My hands he took
It’s still sloppy but at least it has rhythm, purposeful use of syllables, and it no longer has that clunky enjambment at the end. The reason this is better than the alternative, “If when he left/he took my hands” is that now “he” is the second to last syllable in the last two lines. But we can still improve it:
How can I write
If when he left
My hands he kept
Now there is more information in the poem and “left” pairs nicely with “kept”, both having the same vowel sound. All three lines function as pairs of iambs now as well. As for context, it is now made clear that the narrator had given her hands at some point in the past. In the context of the entire book we can infer that she at some point gave her hands to a lover, but in the context of the original poem we are not given enough information.
The big issue with this poem, really with most of Kaur’s poems, is that it goes nowhere. It makes a singular statement, “He took my hands and now I can’t write.” And when I rearrange this to introduce rhythm into the writing it’s like hearing a melody that never resolves itself. Just as the rhythm gets established, the poem is over. It becomes obvious from this exercise that a poem this short actually suffers from the inclusion of classic poetic elements. Now, instead of having a short poem with no rhythm, we have a rhythmic poem that feels incomplete.
A few times in Milk and Honey, Kaur forgoes her pseudo-poetry and just writes in rambling prose. The use of language and lack of rhythm results in these sections reading exactly like her poems. Even her use of paragraph-endings is as arbitrary as her use of line-endings. Here is a passage from “how we make up”:
when the entire street is looking out their windows wondering what all the commotion is. and the fire trucks come rolling in to save us but they can’t distinguish whether these flames began with our anger or our passion. i will smile. throw my head back. arch my body like a mountain you want to split in half. baby lick me.
like your mouth has the gift of reading and i’m your favorite book. find your favorite page in the soft spot between my legs and read it carefully. fluently vividly don’t you dare leave a single word untouched. and i swear my ending will be so good. the last few words will come. running to your mouth. and when you’re done. take a seat. cause it’s my turn to make music with my knees pressed to the ground. (Kaur 77)
The prose sections are interesting because Kaur uses periods. She uses these much more purposely than her line-endings and paragraph-endings. For instance, the lines, “the last few words will come. running to your mouth,” uses the period very purposefully, creating a pun out of the word “come.” Although this wordplay is both obvious and a bit juvenile, it’s a subtle use of wordplay done through the employment of a line-ending; a technique Kaur tends to ignore in her poems.
Despite the introduction of more meaningful line-endings in her prose, these sections are still problematic. Kaur tends to rest on under-developing her ideas and presenting them under the guise of minimalism. When she attempts to flesh out her ideas in prose things tend to fall apart. For instance, the simile in the line, “like your mouth has the gift of reading and I’m your favorite book,” is already quite poor. The action of licking doesn’t visually translate well into the act of reading. In this context, the licking is sexual and the feeling the passage is attempting to evoke is one of passion and lust. But the act of reading is a solitary, methodical process that does not involve touching—the hands may touch the book but the eyes do all the reading from a distance. The comparison doesn’t make a lot of sense to begin with and then, to make matters worse, Kaur attempts to expand on it, making the scene less sexy and more baffling with each word. At the end, when her partner has finished, she writes, “it’s my turn to make music.” But this implies that her partner was first making music, if it’s now her turn. Kaur completely derails her own lousy simile.
It’s clear that Kaur’s writing is not attempting to emulate anything that has come before it. Her prose is rambling and confusing and her poetry eschews pretty much all poetic elements. It might be interesting if this was done deliberately, if this was an attempt at deconstructing our conception of prose and poetry, but nothing in Milk and Honey suggests this. There’s a difference between someone not playing the piano and John Cage’s 4:33. Cage’s composition is deliberate, there is an actual structure to the piece, and there is meaning behind the decisions that went into the final performance. The same can be said about abstract-expressionists. How many times have you heard someone look at a copy of a Pollock and claim that their 4-year old could create a similar painting? To the untrained eye, a Pollock might look like the random scribblings of a child but of course the two are worlds apart. Interestingly, Kaur’s writing seems to function in the opposite sense: To the untrained ear, her poems apparently sound intelligent and deep. Even more so than say Whitman or T.S. Eliot because no one is buying their books in the numbers they’re buying Kaur’s.
Though more people are interested in Milk and Honey than Leaves of Grass, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are choosing one over the other. Poetry never sold as well as it is now. This fact reinforces the idea that Kaur’s writing isn’t poetry, at least not in the sense that we are accustomed to—Kaur’s writing style lacks the self-awareness and cultural-awareness it would need to be considered a new form of writing; Kaur isn’t the Cage or Pollock of poetry. Regardless, Kaur’s writings resonate with millions of people and so it’s important that we attempt to understand why.
In The Art of Reading Poetry, Harold Bloom writes:
As you read a poem, there should be several questions in your mind. What does it mean, and how is that meaning attained? Can I judge how good it is? Has it transcended the history of its own time and the events of the poet’s life, or is it now only a period piece? (41).
These are suggestions; Bloom doesn’t go through and start answering each one but it’s an interesting template for critiquing Kaur’s work. Take the poem above from page 121, we immediately understand its meaning. It attains this meaning by being explicit, which makes for pretty boring poetry. The second question is interesting because you might shrug your shoulders and think, “Why can’t I judge how good it is? I like it or I don’t.” But that’s not what Bloom is asking, he’s asking how good is the poem, not whether or not you like it, nor is he asking whether or not it’s good. Being as it’s difficult to even categorize Kaur’s work as poetry, it seems we can’t judge how good it is—the work doesn’t appear to adhere to any self-imposed standards. The last question is easy to answer because all of Kaur’s work is highly personal, so all of her work is nothing more than a “period piece.”
Furthermore, Kaur’s poems lack variation and purposeful disruption. As James Longenbach writes in The Art of the Poetic Line:
What matters within any particular formal decorum is variation: the making of pattern along with the simultaneous disruption of pattern. [. . .]This kind of movement—the establishment of a formal decorum in which even the smallest variation from it feels thrilling—is what makes the act of reading a poem feel like the act of writing a poem. (114)
If Kaur’s writings are in fact poems, they’re not very good poems. From both a critical examination of the work and a more casual critique of the experience of reading it (via Harold Bloom’s criteria), Kaur’s writing fails to hold up as poetry. The final argument then is that Kaur’s writings are not poems but something else.
I mention above that Kaur considers her work to be “design poetry.” The problem with making up your own genre is that no one else has a basis for judging it. The closest thing we have to “design poetry” is ekphrasis, which poetryfoundation.org describes as, “‘Description’ in Greek. [. . .] a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning” (“Ekphrasis”). A paper by Lili Pâquet titled, “Selfie-Help: The Multimodal Appeal of Instagram Poetry” explores how this relates to Kaur’s style, and Instagram poetry as a whole, at length. While ekphrasis might serve as a decent description of what Kaur is attempting to accomplish in her work, I don’t believe it tells the whole story, as it’s basically just a more formal expression of Kaur’s made-up genre of “design poetry” and one that only partially applies, as it could be argued that it is not Kaur’s words that amplify and expand the meaning of her illustrations but the other way around—It is her illustrations that attempt to amplify and expand the meaning of her words.
We see this in the poem “i have been both,” in which the illustration of a hand flipping a coin heightens the meaning of the poem, which reads, “the abused/and the/abuser” (Kaur 111). The illustration informs the reader that being an abuser and being abused are two sides of the same coin. The illustration introduces a metaphor, albeit a cliché, into the piece that does not exist in the words alone.
By referring to her work as “design poetry,” Kaur makes a point to distinguish her work from belonging to the genre that is simply poetry. But, it seems she at least considers it to be connected to poetry. Another genre of writing connected to poetry is that of the aphorism. A lot of Kaur’s writing is essentially a single sentence and almost all of her writing attempts to convey some sort of wisdom or philosophy. This makes it a good contender for the genre of aphorisms. Take this famous aphorism, “Actions speak louder than words.” If you insert a line-ending and add a little illustration you would essentially have a Kaur poem. Classifying something as an aphorism though is a bit tricky. Maybe it’s more of an epigram or a proverb, maybe it’s a platitude—To make things easier, writer James Geary came up with what he calls the 5 laws of the aphorism. They are:
1 It must be brief.
2 It must be personal.
3 It must be definitive.
4 It must be philosophical.
5 It must have a twist.
Geary says that an aphorism being personal is what distinguishes it from a proverb and it being philosophical is what distinguishes it from a platitude. Let’s analyze the aphorism, “Actions speak louder than words” using Geary’s laws.
1. Yes, it’s brief. Only five words long.
2. This is a bit ambiguous. If you look at Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms, he doesn’t talk about himself explicitly, but like the aphorism above, they might function as personal advice or a personal observation. For instance, “He who stands most remote from his world is he who mirrors it best.” Not personal in the sense that Wilde is opening himself up to us but it’s still personal as it speaks to Wilde’s personal experiences and observations. Geary says that a proverb is an aphorism that’s been used so frequently that its creator has been forgotten so, it’s more about the fact that the reader knows who is saying it. So, that too contributes to what makes it personal.
3. Yes, it’s a complete, definitive thought.
4. This is a bit ambiguous but yes, it’s philosophical. It’s essentially presenting a rule to live by and much of philosophy is focused on how one ought to live.
5. The twist is in the use of the word “speak.” This is what makes the phrase interesting. The phrase, “Actions are more meaningful than words” conveys the same message but loses the twist, the play on words. It’s not nearly as interesting to hear and therefore it’s rendered forgettable.
Now, let’s analyze this poem by Kaur from page 156 of Milk and Honey:
if you were born with
the weakness to fall
you were born with
the strength to rise
1. It’s longer than our example but still quite brief. Removing the line-ends, this is a single sentence.
2. Yes, going by the criteria established above this is personal.
3. It’s a complete and definitive thought.
4. I see this as a philosophic thought. If weakness is an inherent part of our being then so is strength.
5. Barely. There is the interplay between fall and rise, it’s not really a twist as much as it’s a chiasmus.
I think this qualifies as an aphorism. It might not be a particularly clever or insightful aphorism but it seems to check off all the boxes. Rupi Kaur’s work, and most Insta-poetry, appear to be attempts at creating aphorisms and then stylizing them as poems. I only analyzed one of Kaur’s poems. Many of her poems do not meet all of Geary’s five laws but it’s obvious they are attempting to, whether or not Kaur is even aware of these laws. Take this one from page 160 for example:
it takes grace
to remain kind
in cruel situations
It’s not clever, it’s not particularly insightful, and it doesn’t have a twist, but it has that authoritative cadence to it that attempts to convince the reader that what they are reading is wise and profound.
It makes sense this style of writing would be so popular today. Most of what we read and listen to is delivered in small packages, Tweets, soundbites, text messages. While this writing may not be particularly interesting or challenging, it’s a representation of our times. And for that reason, Kaur’s work is valuable.
In the next two parts of this series we will further explore the role of technology in 21st Century poetry. We will look at the genre of alt-lit (alternative literature and no, it has nothing to do with the alt-right) as well as the history of technology influencing literature.
Bloom, Harold. The Art of Reading Poetry. Perennial, 2005.
“Ekphrasis” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 2019, www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/ekphrasis.
Kaur Rupi Milk and Honey. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
Kruger, Sasha. “The Technopo(e)Litics of Rupi Kaur: (De)Colonial AestheTics and Spatial Narrations in the DigiFemme Age.” Ada New Media, 22 May 2017, adanewmedia.org/2017/05/issue11-kruger/.
Longenbach, James. The Art of the Poetic Line. Graywolf, 2008.
Waterstones, director. James Geary’s Five Laws of the Aphorism. Fora TV, Dailymotion, 1 Feb. 2012, www.dailymotion.com/video/xgl7mn.
Watts, Rebecca. “The Cult of the Noble Amateur .” PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine – The Cult of the Noble Amateur – Rebecca Watts – PN Review 239, Jan. 2018, www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10090.
*Note—Much of the opening paragraph is originally published in the article “Live Laugh Ugh: Fear and Loathing in the World of Instagram-Poetry” by Ada Wofford. Published in The Blue Nib.
Everyone knows exactly where they were when the little girl died.
It was a momentary intake of breath, the news. An oh-my- god instant, and then the reassuring breath out and their own lives jerked back to them, arrhythmic but safe. Sweet Jesus, isn’t that awful. Tell me all about it.
Addy in the shop, sweeping up the remainder of the tiny candy balls which had bounced, crazy, around, and got in everywhere. She’d never get them out from under that crack in the counter. “Millions” they were called, and did he not have any wit, to open the pack like that, all rough, with his teeth? Sure he should‘ve known they’d go everywhere, millions of them indeed, and here she was on hands and knees like a drudge, hoking the bits up, when the hiss of the doors let in the hot-faced runner with the news. What? Where? Oh my god, really? Sure those Blaney girls were in this morning, no time ago, right enough, and the wee older one, what was it you called her? Chelsea? Yes, counting out the money so carefully. Took ages actually, I had to call Aveen from the back to let the queue away but God love her, she had only enough and no more. And the wee one, god almighty, pulling at her other hand trying to get free. A bit wild, that wee one, Emily I think, I had to speak to her oh, maybe a fortnight ago, running around like a crow on the loose, that hair all tatty, nearly knocked the Refreshers off the counter. And sweet Jesus. Dead? God that’s desperate. That’s one pound twenty for the water love, please.
Alice at her window with her aching bones, tutting at the dust in the top corner, where she couldn’t reach it… Sure where else would she be today, waiting on that postman… Sun pinking her face on one side… giving her eyes the creaks so she had to keep shifting to see the road… And it hurt like the goodness to move anywhere… flames in the hip- OH -when she shifted at all….Miracle she got herself dressed this morning and down the stairs, really… all alone like Lazarus or that other one in the Bible… and those bloody tights laddered when you looked at them…It’s as well no one was coming to see her, the hole in them. OH- there he was, at last. That was sharp, shouldn’t have got up so fast… Could have set your watch by the last one, but this fella? Looks in a bit of a hurry all right…take your time… take your time, Mister… fair enough, but I want to get the letter in my hand, not all mixed with the special offers from the Mace…What d’you say? God save us! Dead!… Oh my god you know, I think she went right past here this morning… not an hour ago… yes, a wee girl ran on past here… and down that, that shortcut to the water… see where the bin is?… Oh yes… Cut right over there…in behind the fish factory…Oh yes… I do believe that was her, right enough… Sweet Mother of Mercy… Whatever next… Yes, skinny wee thing, should’ve been in school at that time of the day, I thought to myself… Oh aye, running away as happy as Larry, round the back there… I can’t believe it… They need to put some fences up, stop children getting in like that, sure it was only a matter of time…. The poor parents… God that’s desperate…Have you my letter there? Oh thanks now… It’s good to get it in my hands, you know, waiting for it all morning…
No, you can keep the other stuff, I’ve told the other fella, I don’t want that junk.
Carrie in the staffroom, dallying over the kettle boiling so that break would be almost over before she got into the playground. Such a nice day but it was her time of the month and if Lacey Doyle came yapping to her one more time about those bitches in P4 she’d surely slap her. Mr Allinson’s looking pale, moving slowly, getting out of his car with another man and coming towards the outer door. She’d better ask him to get onto the social worker again about those Blaney kids, another no-show from Emily this morning, and after all those interventions too. The class smelt fresher without her, that was for sure, but that was not the point. And Stephen Miller should not have mentioned the fact. Smart little bollocks. “Miss Lennon, we’ve had some terrible news, some really dreadful news, actually. God. I can’t believe it. Put the kettle on will you, this is Sergeant Keene. I’m afraid it’s, well it’s really awful, actually. I don’t know how to tell you. It’s really terrible.”
Mary Allen, on the phone. Yes Jimmy, no Jimmy, three bags full Jimmy. Just sign the release will you, till we get things moving here. Forty tonne to get out, still sitting in the warehouse on the quay behind her, and indecisive dickheads up there frigging about instead of making decisions. A snatch of movement out of the corner of the eye, a blown rag of skirt and flash of white skin. Hey! You there! Bangbangbang, irate on the windowpane. Jimmy’s head under her knuckles.
Get out of there you wee monkey! No don’t worry, Jimmy, just a wee girl sneaked through into the processing yard. No, yes, I did say to him and he was to get your man to call and price for a fence, both kinds. But sure. Yes. No, she’s away again. Looked like a breath of wind would’ve blown her…who the hell is looking after these wee buggers, that’s what I want to know. Should be in school, not running about here tame. I know, I know! Sure that’s all it would take, I know. God, there she is again, the wee bitch, no, she’s out of ours and into the harbour. No, no, I better go, here, and give Peter a bell. She’s no size to be out on the quay on her own. And get those shitheads up there moving will you – please…
Annie Blaney in the girls’ bedroom, picking up socks, pacing, distracted out the window by the seabirds coasting. How would he ring her with no fucken phone. Jesus Christ. Of all the days for this to happen. He was definitely going to ring. Definitely. She had this one in the bag, definitely, and then that bad wee cow Emily went and dropped the phone again, probably on purpose, dropped it right on the fireplace and smashed the bloody screen so now touchscreen wouldn’t work, the light wouldn’t even go on. She was mental. Mental.
God forgive her for saying that about one of her own. But. Someone was going to have to give them a hand with her, always screeching and crying, couldn’t even hold her long enough to get her washed, get a brush through her hair. That hair – state of it, God! Next thing will be, cut it all off. Mum would’ve cried to see the state of the grandchild running about all tats like that, always so proud of her own girls. And Chelsea so good, pity she was the picture of her da. Christ, it’s busy down at the harbour today. Jesus. Cars, people running, shouting, down there, crowd gathering, looking off the quay like they’ve dropped a fiver. Health and safety my arse. That fishery is mental. Siren now. Bit of excitement. Maybe take a walk down myself, see what’s up. Jesus, wish that phone wasn’t broke, I’d call Cathy to go down with me. Maybe that’s her now. Not like her to have come all the way up the hill though, fat bitch. Jesus, leave the doorbell on, will you.
Chelsea Blaney, sitting quiet at her desk, hating Barry Quinn. Hating him with all her bones. Aching with it but nothing to be done but glare. Called our Emily those names. Bastard. She was nearly at the gates, she nearly had Emily in the bloody school, till that Barry started. Where is she now, the wee rat? After the promise of the morning, feeding her sweets, coaxing her along like a bad puppy, one street, another, into Meadowlands, round the corner, nearly there. She hated school, wouldn’t go. Every day the same, yapping. It’s not actually that bad. Art’s the best. But that Barry Quinn. Hope his thing shrivels up and drops off. Look at his fat stupid face, can’t even keep his fat eyes straight, looking out into the corridor at somebody coming, nosey bugger. Hope Miss asks him something, the bastard. Now they’ll be round to mum again about Emily. Wee rat. She can bloody look after herself this time, mum’s not fit for chasing her either. I don’t like it, myself, running around in the quiet day like that. Done it the one time. It’s scary. Weird. Rather be in school here. I shouldn’t‘ve left her maybe. She’s not right in the head, I think. Oh! Good morrrning, Mr Allinsonnn. Yes sir, now? Will I bring me bag?
Peter Kelly, hands cold, nose cold, feet cold, counting boxes in the freezer shed. No way is he making this one, there’s just too much to do and not enough of them to do it. The sun cuts sharp across the water and slices in through the shutter door but he hasn’t frigging time to step out in it, not even for a minute, to stretch, to warm nipped hands, ease the cramp. Would murder a cup of coffee. He keeps at it, clicking the clicker. Clickety-click. 400 dead.
Something passes the doorway, flickering the sun a second, shadowing the day an instant. Bird. Clickety-click. He makes that 428. The fill of two trucks. Better get Jameson Haulage in as well. Nothing else for it. There goes the bloody margin. A screech. A bellowing. A woman’s voice wailing in over the clickety-click. Jesus Christ, WHAT? The clicker hits the floor as he swings round, sees big Mary Allen hanging out the window over the pier. Screaming and roaring and waving and pointing from under the top-hinged glass. What, for frig’s sake, what is it, woman? Where? The water? Christ.
Patrick Fitzpatrick, don’t laugh, the joke’s old, waiting for wheezing Elsie by the waters’ edge. Too fat to run, too old to want to, she waddles a little into the lacy curls and stands, pensive, looking out at god knows what, panting a little in the warm morning. The leash swings empty on his calf, no real need for it unless to hurry the old girl on a bit up the slope at the far end, stop her sniffing butts and generally making a nuisance out of herself. Fresh fish for lunch, brine and butter on bread. Yes indeed, sniffing the air like the dog, happy. One of the many benefits of living by the water, indeed, indeed. Mustn’t forget teabags on the way home. Elsie stiffens, barks shortly, lungs not up to much. What is it, old lady? A disturbance over by the fish factory. A huddle on the quay, agitated, crowding in, looking down. Nothing moving on the water, what are they looking at? Then a running figure, hollering up from the end of the quay, pulling off clothes, shouting, the rest backing off, covering mouths, eyes, distressed. A leap. No sound but a white splash, splodge, like in the comics. The water closing back, gone. The crowd bending low, urgent, strained. He’s trying to see, but there is nothing but that small crowd pressing, crying, their sharp whimpering noises carried over the water and flattening Elsie’s ears.
JP Finn, casting again into the grey oily wash of the harbour waters. No, you wouldn’t eat anything you pulled out of here, filthy spot, but sure there’s not much else to be at, and it’s good craic trying to pull a fish in, before the snap- mouthed seals snatch it off the line. The sun’s a friendly arm across his shoulders, the rope stack’s firm against his arse and things are grand for the moment. He’s got the one roll-up left but he’s keeping it for later, a thin ragged promise in his pocket. Big Pete gave him a wave when he ducked in under the barrier. Decent spud, lets him come and go. A sleek shiny head watches him casually from a little way out on the water. The nose is long like a dog’s, hiding sharp teeth and guile. A seal. I see you, you bastard, stop sniffling there. They eat the throwaway off the boats, fat as slugs but can move like the shite when they want to. Saw a thing once about them underwater, like dancers round the diver, nipping at his camera. All those fat and flippery bits sucked in and streamlined. It’s looking at something else behind me now. Oh, it’s ducked away, satin, under the water, gone. There’s a wee girl coming onto the quay, that’s why. Jesus, Peter’ll have a fit. Got something, a pack of sweets maybe, in her hand, picking one out at a time, popping it in. Tiny wee thing, dancing along. What’s she doing, all on her own down here? Shit, is she mental? She’s walking the edge of the quay like a tightrope. Hairs a rat’s nest, like bloody dreads or something. Fuck’s sake- Hey! -Foot’s slipped. Shit! I knew it, silly wee bitch. Here- Jesus – Shit – Fuck – everyone running, screaming, move! Fuck, looks deep. Fuck, that’s cold. Dark. Breath sucked out. Water brown, grey near the surface, bubbles and splash. Air. Jesus, where? Where? Can you see her? Did she come up? Did she- Where? Down again. It’s all one, down here. It’s all the one colour. Can’t see the bottom. Can’t see my hands, oh my god, this is shit. No way can I see her in this, poor wee thing. Air. Sky is so blue. Faces like moons above. Where? Has she come up yet? Has she- fuck’s sake – standing there shaking heads like a pack of sheep. Can’t feel my fingers. Ears are on fire. Spinning a frantic 360, 360, 360. Where? Slower. So cold. Shaking heads. No chance. So quick. Fuck. So quick.
And Emily Blaney, what about her? Mouth and eyes stretched, every sensation endlessly engrossing, she feels as if she’s falling, falling forever. Nothing happening quick, at all. She can sense her own thin arms drifting wide from her body, cast off from the sinking ship of herself, separate entities on their own voyages on the strong sea-muscle. It was only cold for an instant but now it’s dark, very dark and brown, and she is all alone. She is weightless for the first time. She is flying. There was a horrible, painful, burning, tearing fire in her chest for a short time, and she cried for Chelsea, but it passed quickly and now she is content to be sinking, falling, spinning with what feels like tiny bubbles tickling from the corners of her eyes, popping from her ears. She is giving up air. She is becoming water instead. There is no strong preference for either. Only the fact of herself, weighing less than a crow’s feather, down and down in the brown, the dark, the silent water, while all the noise, the hubbub, roaring and ruction throbs up above, the whole world of her village aghast, shrieking, incredulous at what she has done now. She turns slowly over in the water, and sees only blackness. She smiles into the silence.
If you were stunned by Roisin Maguire’s work then you should also read, Goodbye Mr Fox by Anne Walsh Donnelly
I stole a hen. Not a nice hen. Oh no! Not a cute hen, not a posh hen. A pure useless brown hen. Scrawny. Ugly. Scraggly.
And now he’s staring at me—balefully. I didn’t know hens could stare balefully. I didn’t know what balefully meant until the hen started staring at me.
Balefully. I’d read the word somewhere. It’s a Good Word. I looked it up on the Google. He has been staring at me balefully for the last fifteen minutes.
I know, he’s not a he, he’s a she. Hens are shes. But he’s a he in my head. Tommy. I’ll call him Tommy. He looks like a Tommy. He is a Tommy.
“Quit staring at me.”
I look away. Pretend he isn’t there. I look back. He’s still staring at me.
“Seriously, quit it. Cut it out, I rescued you.”
Well, morally I rescued you. Granny liked morals. Her beady eyes shone when she was going on about them. She was a very moral person, so she said. Her eyes shone a lot.
Legally, I stole you. Granny wouldn’t have approved. She wouldn’t have got the difference between moral and legal but I looked it up on the Google and there is a difference. I know the difference. But now I know that I could get in Big Trouble for stealing Tommy. But Tommy needed to be stolen. Try and make sense of that between morals and legals. I haven’t a notion.
That one didn’t look after you. I seen her. Every day on my way home from the shop. She’d be out rounding up her hens. She never seen you hiding in the bushes. Well, I think it was you but you all look the same. Brown, scratching, scraggly, scrawny, ugly thing. And baleful. Tommy, you were full of bale.
I’ve never liked hens. I hate the fuckers. That’s a Bad Word and I shouldn’t say it but hens are fuckers.
Granny liked hens. Well, I think she liked them. It was hard to tell with her. She didn’t like me. She was nicer to her hens than she was to me. I’m not making it up. Swear to God. She told me when I was five “I don’t like you, you’re pure useless – you should’ve been born a boy”. Not my fault—I’d no say in it.
“Only child after years of them trying,” Granny said.
I don’t know what they were trying. Then five years later the boy came along and Mammy went. She stopped breathing. You need to breathe to be alive. That’s what Daddy said.
Whatever chance I had of Granny liking me went with the birth of the ‘Blessed Child’. That’s what she called him. I called him ‘Bastard Bog Baby’. But not out loud. Bastard is a Bad Word. I looked it up on the Google. He wasn’t actually a bastard but he was a Bastard.
He was never sent to clean out the hen house. Granny saved that job for me. The Blessed Child went to school. And University. Granny said school didn’t agree with me so I stopped going. Daddy didn’t notice because I did Important Jobs around the house. That’s what Granny called them. Important Jobs. Like cleaning the hole of a hen house.
The bockety split shovel with the scratchy shaft scraping against the solid floor of the hen house, scooping up the acidy hen leavings and straw and mouldy food and slinging it into the stinking heap of ever increasing hen shit outside the shed. Shit—another Bad Word.
She never sent the Blessed Child out to collect the eggs even though I was scared of the hens. The pure useless, ugly, scrawny things pecked at me when I reached underneath them to get their eggs. A Good Morning was when the hens had gone out already and I just had to collect the eggs from the nesting box without one of the fuckers being there.
A Double Yolker. The Egg of eggs. I never got one, even though I’d collected it. Always given to the Blessed Child. Bastard Bog Baby.
It was a double shit day when there was a double yolker on a Sunday.
We used to go to Mass on Sunday. We went to Early Mass. Up out of bed and straight to Mass. Granny used to puck me when my tummy rumbled. It wasn’t my fault—Communion doesn’t fill you up. Eggs do.
We used to have a priest all the time in village. The first one I remember was a Canon. He was really old, maybe 100 years old. I don’t know his name cos everyone called him The Cannon.
One time, he called to the house and I thought Granny was going to take a fit. She went white and then red, white and red again and then let a roar out of her,
“Mick, The Cannon is here. Sacred Heart of Jesus! Holy Mary, Mother of God and sweet baby Jesus.”
Daddy came running from the yard and saw the car and blessed himself. He was in his shitty yard clothes. They always smelled no matter how often the clothes were washed.
Granny flung off her house coat and roared at me to get out of sight and then roared at the Bastard Bog Baby to ‘get his arse down here’. If the stuff she had said to Daddy wasn’t enough, roaring at the Bastard Bog Baby told me she was ‘up to high doh’. I’ve looked that up on the Google and that’s what she was.
I slipped into the house the back way and hid at the top of the stairs where I could see most things and hear everything.
The Cannon went to the front door. He didn’t know that it stuck and the person on the inside had to shout at the person on the outside to ‘give it a good kick’ as the person on the inside tugged to open the door.
The Cannon didn’t kick the door. I think Granny must have found some kind of Divine help to tug the door open from the inside. Swear to God, I’ve never seen anyone open the door from the inside without outside help. I was disappointed that The Cannon didn’t kick the door.
After Granny got the front door open to The Cannon, she was all smiles. As if he hadn’t heard the roaring. And the bad words. And the Taking of Our Lord’s Name in Vain.
Daddy wiped his hand on his trousers and held out his hand to The Cannon. The Cannon’s face was a pure picture as he said, “Thank you for the welcome”. He didn’t shake Daddy’s hand.
There was a big fuss with the good china and making tea and putting the Good Biscuits on a tray. I knew the Good Biscuits were soft. I had tried them the week before. It was a good thing that Granny didn’t notice the missing pink wafers.
The Bastard Bog Baby was left in in the room with the Cannon. He talked a load of rubbish to the Bastard Bog Baby. Turned out, he wanted him to be an Altar Boy.
Granny was made up—her Blessed Child was going to be an Alter Boy and serve The Cannon. Daddy wasn’t convinced but what Granny wanted, Granny got.
So the Bastard Bog Baby became an Altar Boy. Granny was so proud seeing him up there serving Mass. She was able to go on about it to Smiley Mrs. O’Malley and Mrs. Reilly.
The Bastard Bog Baby was even worse after that—there was no pleasing him. He even cried sometimes before going down to Mass and serving the Canon.
Because of him being an altar boy, it meant we had to be at the church fifteen minutes earlier than we needed to be. After a while he became the Head Altar Boy.
And when he got too old for that he used to read at Mass. Hah! I seen him out the back of the Church smoking fags with the other eejits and taking a piss in the graveyard.
The Cannon is dead now.
Back home after Mass for breakfast. Sundays wasn’t porridge. Granny would fry up rashers and sausages and boxty and eggs and we’d have heaps of her brown bread and butter. After, I still had to clean up the hens—they’d no notion not to shit on a Sunday.
I was sent to Smiley Mrs. O’Malley on a Friday. I liked her. She lived halfway down to the village. Granny gave me her pension book and then I called into Mrs. Reilly and then Smiley Mrs. O’Malley to collect their books and then down to the post office to collect the three pensions. On the way back Smiley Mrs. O’Malley was the first to get her pension. She had a shed that was a shop that sold everything. I didn’t like the smell in the shop. It smelled dry and dusty—old animal feed, old paper, old people and old food.
She used to give me Coke—the real stuff—and proper Tayto. The first time she gave me Coke it was in a glass bottle and she left me in the kitchen with it and a bottle opener and went to serve a customer. I’d no notion how to use a bottle opener. I thought I’d be in Big Trouble cos I’d look like I didn’t want the Coke if I hadn’t opened the bottle by the time she came back. I ended up breaking the bottle, catching it in the half-pint glass and putting the bottle in the bin so she wouldn’t know.
She gave me tins after that.
In Smiley Mrs. O’Malley’s I’d to get a stone of chlorenda for the hens. I’ve no notion to this day what it is. I’ve looked it up on the Google since but can’t find it. Then again, I’m not great on the computer or at spelling—probably me. But I know what baleful means.
Chlorenda looked like Corn Flakes. Didn’t taste like them —I tried it. Granny made me eat porridge so I’d never had Corn Flakes. For years I thought that Corn Flakes tasted like chlorenda. Until I tried Corn Flakes. They don’t taste like chlorenda. They look like it though. And a half a stone of the seedy stuff for the hens.
Smiley Mrs. O’Malley would tell me to go home. I used to look back at her smiling but looking sad at me heading a mile up the road with a stone and a half of hen food. I don’t know why she was sad. I was grand. She asked me once why Daddy didn’t come with the car to carry the hen food up the road.
Smiley Mrs. O’Malley is dead now. So is Mrs. Reilly. So is Granny.
Granny kept the hens even though Daddy gave out. What Granny wanted, Granny got. Daddy hated the hens. They were always escaping and scratching up the garden and shitting everywhere. Granny ignored him when he gave out about it. Laughed—cackled like the hens.
The baby hens were cute. Yellow and fluffy with shiny black eyes. She cooked the eggs in the range. Kind of cooked them, got the eggs to hatch out by heating them in the bottom oven. Made the baby hens breathe.
One time for dinner we had chicken cooked in soup. I thought it was chicken. Daddy told me it was chicken. Granny told me after dinner it was an old hen that had died. I got sick—all over her. She slapped me. I asked Daddy if it was true. He didn’t answer but I knew then that it was. I’ve never eaten chicken since.
Tommy’s done a shit! On the floor. I get some toilet tissue and clean it up. I’ve no chlorenda or the seedy stuff for him…I fill a bowl of water and another with Corn Flakes and put them in front of Tommy. He looks at them and then goes back to staring at me.
“Quit it. If I’ve told you once it’ll be the last time!” That’s what Granny used to say to me.
Tommy ignores me. Like I used to ignore Granny.
I don’t live at home any more. I’ve my own place since Daddy died. I work in the shop. Not the one Smiley Mrs. O’Malley had, that’s gone. The proper one in the village. I mind my own business. Daddy always said ‘say nothing and after a while say nothing at all’. So I don’t. Except when I have to cos it’d be rude not to.
I don’t say anything to the yoke with the hens even though I have plenty to say. I don’t know her name cos she doesn’t come into the shop. Too good for the likes of me. But I stole her hen.
My place is nice. A bedroom, a kitchen that’s a sitting room as well and a bathroom. And a telly all to myself. Daddy got me my place. He said ‘sure what more would you need’.
The Bastard Bog Baby lives at home. He comes to see me sometimes. I know he doesn’t want to but he does anyway. I give him tea and ginger nuts and tell him I’m grand. He doesn’t know I hate ginger nuts. I keep them specially for him.
He’s married to an awful yoke. She hates me. That’s ok because I hate her too. She’s full of notions. I went up there for dinner once and she said it was cock o van. It was chicken in soup and I didn’t eat it. The Bastard Bog Baby got all thick. I went home.
Tommy has scrunched down. His head is to the side. Still staring at me. But not balefully. I lie on the floor so I’m on the same level as him and stare back. He hasn’t touched the water or the Corn Flakes.
Sweet Baby Jesus! He’s fallen over. He’s not moving. I poke him. Nothing. He’s warm. I poke him again. Nothing. I stare at him for a bit more. Not so baleful now. I don’t think he’s breathing. I don’t know how to make him breathe.
There’s a knock on the door. It’s the Bastard Bog Baby. ‘Christ Lizzie, why have you a dead hen in here? You’re pure useless, do you know that?’
I stare at him. Balefully.
It is still unclear today what exactly triggered the chain of events which is nowadays commonly referred to as the “Battle for Time”. What we do know is how events unfolded, and considering where we are now, we can infer that nobody with the power to stop the catastrophe realised it was happening until it was too late. This document provides a quick summary of the Battle for Time in the hopes that we will one day understand why it took place and, if possible, how we might prevent a similar situation in the future.
Things were set into motion in late 2019 with the announcement that Donald Trump was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Around the same time, rumours started spreading that there had been irregularities in how the decision had been made – specifically, that the president had exerted improper influence on Time and the media conglomerate owning the magazine in order to secure his second naming.
These rumours were soon confirmed by a wave of news articles and reports which, over the course of several months, exposed an unprecedented number of shady dealings all connected to a single construction project: the Time conglomerate’s new headquarter building in Midtown, Manhattan. Most commentators took for granted that Trump had bought the title “Person of the Year” in return for abusing his powers to the conglomerate’s benefit.
What set this scandal apart from others was the sheer scope of the collusion. As the Washington Post put it, “it became difficult to find any politician in NYC who had taken no money at all” to make the project happen. The range of accusations went from “misplaced” evidence incriminating subcontractors to inexplicable exemptions from environmental regulations and all the way to mafia payments out of public coffers. And while some of these crimes were prosecuted, only the small fry were sent to prison. No-one from management was indicted, and no proof could be brought forward that President Trump had been personally involved in the affair.
After almost a year the scandal finally died down, only to be resurrected on its anniversary. This time it wasn’t Trump who was named Person of the Year, it was Vladimir Putin. And like the year before, doubts were quickly cast on why exactly he had been picked. As it turned out, the Time conglomerate had just gained extensive and exclusive rights to the Russian media market. It was a multibillion-dollar deal without precedent, and business experts were unable to explain how a media company with no previous connections or business ties to Russia might have secured it – unless Putin had accepted to be named Person of the Year in return.
It was at this stage that somebody suggested for the first time that the world was witnessing a competition between the leaders of the two most powerful nations in the world, and that the prize was to be named Person of the Year most often. But the idea was brought forward by a late-night talk-show host, and no-one of notice – including herself – believed it was more than a joke.
In 2021, Trump’s strategy changed from carrot to stick. Not only did he demand publicly and repeatedly to be named Person of the Year, he also threatened to introduce legislation that would effectively put an end to the freedom of the press. And while he never drew any direct connection between these notions, the way his administration used their power to bully disfavoured news outlets made the message clear enough: Give me what I want, or else. As we all know, Time caved in and made him Person of the Year the same night Trump was re-elected president. The next day, Trump tweeted that he was now in the lead, three to two.
In early 2022, Trump stated openly that by the end of the year he planned to be recognised again as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. And while Putin never made a similar statement, he had definitely tried to influence Time’s decision of 2021, and everybody assumed he would try again. But for several months he made no recognisable effort regarding the contest. Trump, on the other hand, attacked on all fronts. He brought trade with Russia to a halt and did everything in his power to destabilise the rouble. The embargo on luxury goods was meant to turn the oligarchs against Putin, as was the ban of Russian money in American sports. Trump released a CIA dossier alleging that Putin had committed war crimes and announced in the same speech he would be pouring money into the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. There were daily reruns of “Rocky IV”.
In late November, only a few days before Time’s decision, Putin finally made his move: He sent the Red Army to invade North Korea and dispose of the communist regime in Pyongyang. A week later he was tied with Donald Trump, 3–3.
The editors of Time Magazine have defended their decision to make Putin 2022’s Person of the Year by insisting that the title is not meant to be an honour or an award, but merely the recognition of the person who has had the biggest impact on the world that year. In other words, Putin deserved the title and there was no way around naming him, even when considering that the decision might provoke Trump to do something irresponsible.
While Trump managed to keep his finger off the nukes, he definitely took the loss to heart. When he and Putin met for a summit in early 2023, his bodyguards had to hold Trump back to prevent a physical altercation. It was then when people finally understood that this time there would be no holding back between the two. The gloves were off.
There were countless petitions and pleas to stop the madness. Within 24 hours in August of 2023, more than a tenth of the world’s population took to the streets to call for both presidents to step down. The question of impeachment was brought up in U.S. congress again, but the majority of representatives shied back from handing Vladimir Putin a victory by default. Simply cancelling the Person of the Year decision was not an option, either: Trump had made it very clear that he expected Time to announce a winner by November 30th to prevent “tremendously bad things” from happening. What he meant by that exactly, nobody knew, and it made the threat all the more ominous.
The fate of the world was resting on the Time staff’s shoulders, and they were suffering for it. Within six months there were 177 cases of assault against people entering or leaving the Time-Life Building, a hostage situation involving the editor-in-chief’s children, and three assassinations of conglomerate executives. In July the complete staff vanished to an undisclosed location from where they kept producing and publishing Time magazine over encrypted internet channels. Despite being sought after by the world’s two most proficient intelligence services, they managed to keep their location secret and remained hidden until the end.
Meanwhile, the presidents were circling each other like boxers. Every move was immediately answered with a countermove. Putin banned Hollywood movies, Trump had books by Dostoyevsky burned. The United States beat Russia at the World Cup of Hockey, Putin released the hotel room tape. Russia pressured Poland into leaving NATO, Trump threw them out of the Arctic Council. Putin invaded Kazakhstan to stabilise Russia’s oil supply, the U.S. did the same with Venezuela. Slowly but surely, the competition was turning into a game of Risk, with the actual planet serving as the playing board.
November arrived, and the world was going mad. There were riots and mass panics all across the globe, a wave of mass-suicides in the Midwest, and a fistfight on the ISS. New wars were started, existing ones escalated. The majority of people expected to be dead same time next year, and nine months later there would be a worldwide surge in births. The day that Trump’s ultimatum ran out, mankind held its breath. Nobody wanted the news to break but everybody was glued to the TV. And when the headline appeared, humanity gasped as one:
Trump and Putin had disappeared.
We still do not know what happened to them. The most widely believed theory is that Ivanka Trump and Putin’s wife Lyudmila conspired with each other to have their father and husband killed. Other, more outlandish ideas evolve around the Mossad, aliens, or divine intervention. And some people have claimed that there is a small, remote Aleut island inhabited only by two hateful old men who have to depend on each other so they don’t starve – but this stretches believability way beyond the plausible, and can most probably be dismissed as a grown-up’s lullaby.
Swords swallow wheat in the north and every girl learns early how to keep rice grains dry in the pockets of her own skirt. One summer begs that there will be another, yet twenty hours can mound granite into karsts before we rub grains from our eyes as quickly as minutes from yes to please, stay. But so little stays, and we hoard the mouths at our throat.
There is need here, but the word need is wrong. Need is the rain, but there is no rain today, just a picnic in the everyday gloss of lily heads craning against still water. And then, as a sigh, there is no time for sweets melting into the tongue, and no time for counting ants in their round march after sacrifice and duty. Choices are made quicker than breath and both have their consequences. One girl keeps what was left, or she does not. Breathe in, and breathe out.
Four parts to a mantra as she collects blanket, reed basket, and dried abalones into the shallow of her chest:
The women agree that they have murdered desire every morning for one hundred and thirty-one years; the roofs sagging over these houses proves as much.
No one asks for the milk to arrive at the breakfast table, and grandmothers hide honey under our beds for the winter, where in snow, everything complains.
Spiders will watch arguments from the furry refuge of their nests, debts collected in full.
Nothing spells shame brighter than teeth-meeting-teeth in a dry kiss gone on too long.
These truths begin each week and, by noon, the sun says what she might to every winged thing brave enough to answer.
This girl, who is no bride, is forging one of two princes in the cabbage folds of her womb.
When she understands that the rabbit has died, she bends to untie her slippers and begins the meticulous work of cradling the ribbons into signs for girl and for boy. The rough silk crescent and dagger will greet her in the months to come as she passes from basin to hearth. She will make this trek in half circles until her head nestles into dried shoots, her legs arching for expulsion and arrival.
At the washing well, she considers how often she is told to marry a brown bull. She has welcomed too many rods to strike her into flame and is wasted through her want. This is known, and this is the silence that follows her as a painted dog snapping at the elk’s rump in spring. The village men insist she let the fleshy button of her ear tear into a new tongue her husband can wield when he begins to sing. But there will be no husband.
Her sister will allow only two trips to the butcher’s block and the feast is coming soon, though not for her, not for celebration, but to welcome mourning as the cousin to elation. The hand resting flat on her used thigh reminds the stomach of emptiness and emptying.
Patterns to memorize and spirals to carve into just melding iron. Hedgehogs scatter when her chisel meets its target—they know when to burrow into quills and when to leave the newly born for raptor and asp. These, too, are tasks for the growing, the weft securing what will be carried through cave and into a grotto carved by not-yet kings who knit white bamboo into crowns for the unwanted girls, the July wives. These rivers know each mountain goat by name. Where one leaps to ledge, another drowns and becomes a priestess ever gathering salt and scales.
She feeds her toenails to the crows each quarter moon, yet the rounding continues. Too late for death to mean more than itself and too late to keep mirrors hanging from tree-to-tree along the riverbank.
So instead she sits, legged tucked as cranes beneath her thin hips, and asks the brown waters to listen to her stories, to forgive her the gift she will place into the current soon enough. If she sings now, no one will remember.
She paints a tortoise shell across her widening belly. Each finger collects a thick tip to add swirl and plate to stretching skin. Yellow for the corn mother, grey for the second brother to walk down from the steppes. Kingfishers catch minnows in the bright knife of afternoon and will be back tomorrow, and all tomorrows, and will speak nothing when her boy leads the silver fish to a new kingdom.
The bottle spins less than smoothly, noisily rattles repeatedly each turn over a bump in the uneven floor. We’re too young for bottles of this kind, but sleepovers always bring at least some contraband. It stops. “Have you ever seen a dead body?” asks Jimmy, in a hushed but gleeful tone.
“I have!” shouts Stuart, not quite understanding the Holy reverence with which we’re all treating the topic. A little data collecting reveals that Stuart knows not who, when or how, and we realise it’s a lie for the prize of the attention of the two girls sitting just outside the boy’s circle. I’m one of them. A non-drinker through choice they won’t let me play, I’m allowed the privilege of watching.
“I have” says Jimmy, deadly seriously. “I’m deadly serious,” says he, no pun intended
“I killed ‘im, I did and after that I spat on him and poked ‘im in the eye.” He swigs some of… whatever it is, showing that he’s lying, or telling the truth, or just wanted to drink. I’m a little hazy on the rules. We recoil and he swells, attributing our reaction to his bravery in this grave matter.
I have. I didn’t say. I sat mostly quietly in his presence. I didn’t spit on him or poke him in the eye as that would be, well, rude. I didn’t spit on my Dad or poke him in the eye no matter how much I may have wanted to when he was alive.
He and I were both territorial fuckers. We had a house that neither of us ever learned to share, stretching and squeezing a two-bedroomed residence between us, my Mum in the middle, silently sea-sick at the constant rocking and rolling, pulling and roiling, bubbling and boiling just under the surface. Battle lines were drawn, rooms bristled when we both entered them, relatives began to stay away.
I sat by the bedside for around an hour, in companionable silence, having nearly been denied my time to speak private things by those immediate who knew us in life, knew that we’d never had kind words and felt we still needed to be separated. That time was the quietest time really. All else was relatives or forced jollity or sitting silently in a house with someone whose hostility blared through their eyes every time they looked at you, even though she said nothing, or very little. She never said the big one “I wish it had been you instead” and for this I am grateful but I felt it in every begrudged meal made for me by rote, out of habit and no real desire to feed me. I wanted service with a smile. She said “Things will never be the same again” and I didn’t see why really, didn’t see why this would change anything, wouldn’t let it change anything by learning to cook when she stopped and forcing her to go about her daily business, outcrying her at times to try and prick a maternal instinct and bring her thoughts back to the living. It wouldn’t be pricked. She said “I wish it had been me” and that was almost worse, as how do you continue to live with someone that broken without their broken pieces touching you? She said “You’re glad he’s dead, aren’t you?” and I sighed like a college professor who can’t get through to his students after the simplest breakdown of information. Relief is not glad and even glad is not bad, not evil.
She said “You don’t want to listen to me, do you?” but my listening was for the living. The sudden freedom I found in my newly spacious house led to me looking outdoors. What else could I conquer?
He came to me in dreams. A thing we never did in life, we queued in a cafeteria eyeing all the delicious meals and chatting about nothing really, waking up just before food was served, always just before the food. She wasn’t there to go-between as death mellows some folk and we didn’t need a mediator. His voice, that voice that droned through walls, that sang with the vibrato that I sneered at and then developed myself, just to see if I could; that had always told me to appreciate the scenery, made me stare at beachside sunsets until he saw the light in my eyes or whatever he sought in my face. I don’t think he ever saw it, and walked away, disappointed. He couldn’t know I had to be on my own to appreciate, that I looked back when I trailed behind, sore feet and a heavy bag just an excuse to watch my surroundings.
Travel guides. The house was full of them. Back then people got brochures from the travel agent and dreamed. He knew it was a dream, as she would never go but I wouldn’t share it with him because I didn’t see the reality of it. Other places were not for me. I was of here, of cold weather and always bring an umbrella and the number 93 bus. He toiled alone through these books, making notes, making plans and not until 18 months AD did I have my first ever flight, spurred on by seeing things. I let him borrow my eyes for The Vatican, mountain ranges beyond his humble agency-recommended Fuerteventura and Paphos. He wasn’t wrong about me at all. He just used the wrong bait. For cable cars, he borrows my eyes. Mountain peaks, he borrows my eyes. Dwindling glaciers, painted ceilings, bison lowing close not minding the idling car he borrows my eyes. I casually say to her, sometimes “I think he would have liked that place,” as I show the photos and years have smoothed her prickly hedgehog spikes, she knows I am sincere now.
I swim for him, for me, his only escape for years the cool water until he got too sick. I hated the training then, the endless timed lengths in place of fun. But I swim for me, for him, he borrows my eyes, my skin for the first shock of the water, my nose for the acrid, welcome Chlorine.
He borrows my eyes, you see, to see.
I have seen a dead body, and one sees through me.
If you thought Elizabeth McGeown – I Have Never was wonderful, you will also love Flyer by Philip Dean Brown
It was my fault. Mama always said, “Don’t leave the baby alone. Night time is pretty to look at, but don’t you go out and leave that baby alone.” I ain’t know why I always had to watch after her, but when Mama made a rule, I followed it.
There was a party in town for the Mayor’s birthday. Big Sir took Mama with him cuz she’s so pretty and he likes to show her off. She could pass for one of them Creole ladies if she made her lips red and combed out her fluffs. I couldn’t go to parties cuz I was too little and “too nappy”. I ain’t wanna go no way cuz it was a pretty night and I wanted to go look at the moon dance with the swamp.
I know I wasn’t sposed to leave the baby. But the baby was fine. She was sleepin’ so good cuz the breeze was blowin’ the chimes against the hangin’ tree, makin’ a nice noise to sleep to. She was gon’ be fine.
I kissed her sweaty forehead and snuck out of the shack. It was easy that night cuz all the white people was gone and all the niggas was sleep.
When I got outside, I heard the bugs screamin’ and followed em down to the water. Then I heard some screamin’ of another kind. They were little screams, whimpers like a puppy. It wasn’t no words, just scared yelps bouncin’ through the bayou. I thought an animal was hurt or somethin’, so I went to see what’s the matter.
Down this muddy hill, near the river, I saw a rusty cage. The little screams was coming from it. Then I saw a white man, and some rope. Another white man with a torch. Another white man with a gun.
I got closer and hid behind a willow tree, being quiet as I could. It ain’t so bad bein’ dark skinned when it’s night time cuz people don’t see you good. Then I saw what was inside the screamin’ cage. It was full of nigga babies, naked and cryin’. There was a bucket of pig fat next to it. The white man grabbed a baby girl out of the cage, greased her up, and tied the rope ‘round her neck, real tight. The moonlight made her shiny skin glow. She screamed loud as she could.
The white man threw her into the water and she tried to swim before she got too tired and drowned. I was on the other side of the tree by now to see what they was fishin’ for. The rope man just stood there, spittin’ snuff and makin’ talk with the other white men.
“Dat party prolly a lot mo’ fun den catchin’ gatas.”
“Yeah, but dis’ gon be ‘nuff tuh hol’ us ova til de next one.” I think that was the torch man.
The rope man held up a brown jug of liquor and took a big gulp. Then, outta nowhere, a giant gator came and snapped down on the rope. Hard.
“Shit!” the rope man yelled. The gun man took a shot straight into the gators head. Like a habit.
The water stilled and the gator waded until the rope man went in, opened its dead jaws, and took what was left of the baby girl out. He threw her out into the swamp.
I couldn’t hear what they was sayin’ after that. I ain’t realize that I was screamin’ now, too. I ran as fast as I could toward the shack. They didn’t chase after me, though. I turned and saw they was still just standin’ there, doin’ they business. I started screamin’ again, but nothing was comin’ out. They ain’t hear me the first time, neither.
I ran to check on the baby. But she was gone. They took her while I was gone! I ran back outside and couldn’t see nothin’ cuz my eyes was burning with scared sweat. I ain’t wanna go back down to the swamp so I just fell on the ground and cried. Then a sweet, whisper startled me.
“Chile, what you doin’ out her makin’ all that fuss for?”
It was Mama! She was holding the baby, still sweaty and sleepin’. I got up and held onto my Mama.
“I went to the swamp! You told me not to! I saw what they do to the babies.”
“Hush girl!” We went back into the shack and Mama sat me down on her lap, with the baby in her arms.
“Miss May caught you runnin’ down, so she came and took the baby to her shack.” Mama was calm, but still scary to me. I wiped my eyes and tried to catch my breath.
“I’m sorry Mama.”
“What I tell you? Don’t leave that baby alone. Now you know why, dontcha?”
Molly wishes her alive again and jumps as the door slides open.
“Hi, there,” her mother says.
“Knock next time!” Molly shouts. “You taught me that.”
“Yes,” her mother’s apologetic, looking down at her bare feet. “You forgot.”
“I didn’t think you’d need them.”
“I didn’t think there’d be a next time.”
Molly looks down, too. “I wished you alive.”
“I remember you wishing me dead a few times.”
Molly sucks in a breath. “I never meant it.”
Her mother nods. “I know.”
There’s a pause as they both look up, at each other. “How’d you get in my closet?”
“You wished me, remember.”
“I wasn’t sure it would come true. And if it did,” Molly shrugs. “I was afraid it might be a Monkey’s Paw situation. You might come back,” she shrugs again. “Flattened.”
“Well,” her mother’s arms and legs stretch into a star. “Whatever’s the opposite of flat, I’m that.”
Molly traces the outline with her eyes. “Poet and don’t know it.”
Her mother laughs, tilting her head to the side. She gazes at her like a spark in a dark room. “You know it didn’t really come true.”
Molly swallows, pressing her tongue to the roof of her mouth, to keep herself from crying. “I know.”
“You’re not the first,” her mother says. “People rarely wish for things that can happen. Wishing is for the impossible.”
“And you’re impossible?” Molly asks.
“Now,” her mother says. “But I wasn’t always.” And she’s gone.
Molly looks at the darkness, a gap carved out of the middle in the shape of her mother. She says, “How I wish wishes came true. How I wish they lasted. How I wish–” the closet door shakes. “How I wish–” it slides open an inch. “I wish–” another inch “I wish–” fingertips curl around the wood. “I–” a bare foot steps into the light. “I wish,” Molly sighs, fluttering her lashes. “I wish I might’ve said what I always felt when it mattered most.” She looks at the pink toenails. “Loud enough to be heard. Again and again. And never stopped.” They curve into the wood of her bedroom floor. “But I don’t wish you alive again. I just wish you to know. In all the world,” a tear slides into the slant of Molly’s chin as the pink toes relax. “You moved me. There was nothing I loved the way I loved you.” The tear falls, hitting the top of Molly’s own foot. “And nothing I ever will again.” The closet door shuts.
Always say, she tells the empty room. Always say and you will always know. They will always know. The room pauses, waiting. Everyone, Molly smiles and it’s sad. And then, you will never have to wonder what they know because you said. You said your whole heart. Molly wishes the room filled with all the people she’s ever known. It takes so much courage to say something twice.
We’d been to the Gate to watch Barry McGovern do his Beckett thing. A character whose proportions might’ve been dreamed up by Alberto Giacometti. McGovern’s, not Beckett’s. Then across to Conway’s for pints. This is before they shut the place down. Before the smoking-ban kicked in, and everything became euro.
Ruthie was giving it ‘What was the story with that story, anyhow?’ Throaty Monaghan accent, like everything is a big joke.
‘That malarkey about being attacked by a family of weasels.’
‘A tribe of stoats,’ sighed Johnny D, lenses flashing in my direction.
‘Are they not the same thing?’
‘Fucked if I know,’ I say.
‘I don’t get it, but. How can you guys say he’s funny?’
‘Funny? He’s fucking hilarious!’ And that is Johnny all over. Whatever Ruthie said, John D was bound to take the opposite tack. Only this time he wasn’t stirring it just for devilment. I know him on this one. But now Ruthie’s looking to me like I’m meant to adjudicate between them. Which would be grand, except for on the one hand I’m with Johnny, I always found old Sam not exactly hilarious, but funny. Droll, you know? Deadpan. And on the other hand, I have the serious hots for Ruth McArdle. I never let on. As if I needed to. She’s one smart cookie.
So I’m ‘Well he’s not exactly Billy fucking Connolly.’ Which is about the worst thing I could’ve said. Because now I’m caught between Johnny D’s antenna eyebrows twittering oh yeah? and Ruth McArdle’s not-one-bit-impressed puss, which looks like it’s had about a dozen injections of Botox it’s that immobile.
Maybe a change of tack? ‘I’m not sure he got it either. Left off writing it by all accounts. Notes from an unfinished work.’
‘Abandoned would be the mot juste, Maguire.’
‘Whatever. My point being, maybe ole Sam got bored of his stoats.’
But Ruthie’s having none of it – my sitting on the fence. ‘So is he? Pause. Hilarious?’
Now here’s the crux. Johnny can be really fucking annoying. When we were over in the Gate, he’d been doing that thing of the extra-loud guffaw, showing off how he got the gag and all. And Ruthie’s unimpressed-look is telling me that if I take his side of the argument it’ll smack to her of betrayal. But then, I don’t want to betray Beckett. Which I realise sounds Looney Tunes. The way I’m caught in their pincer stares, I’m not going to be let let it drop, either. It’s what you might call a nice dilemma. Bar everything else, it’s Johnny’s round. And he has no intention of moving from the table before the matter is put to bed.
‘Is he hilarious?’ I consider the flier from the Gate. ‘Can I phone a friend?’
No one budges. The pincers tighten.
Another tack, running downwind. I iron the flier flat on the wet table. That black and white photo you’ve seen a dozen times. ‘Ever strike either of you how heraldic Beckett is? Like a griffin out of a bestiary. Or a seagull, say, to Yeats’ heron. Which would make Jimmy Joyce what…an owl maybe?’
No-one bites. Now, a cartoon angel is whispering into my right ear how if I play it wrong, I’ll be stuck all night in the supercilious company of Johnathon Dowling esq. Reason is screaming to hand Ruth McArdle her little victory. Hilarious is not the mot juste where Beckett is concerned. But, not for the first time, my left ear is assailed by the seductive whisper of the Imp of the Perverse. ‘Nah,’ I say, slapping the empty glass gavel-like on the wet flier and disarticulating Beckett’s forehead. ‘He’s pretty damn funny. Dark. But yeah. Funny.’ With the result that all through the next round Ruth won’t look at me. Is all over Johnny and every inane witticism he fires out.
Fast forward a couple of hours. Ruthie’s long gone. Didn’t even wait for her last DART. And myself and Johnny D are somewhere along Capel St trying to figure out the next play of the evening. Funds are low. We’re barely into term two and what little of my grant remains in the ATM will just about stretch to the next instalment of rent, like one of those either/or duvets that either covers your head or your toes. Johnny’s tank is running on empty. Nothing beyond the shrapnel in his pocket, if the fecker can be believed.
There’s meant to be a party out in Stoneybatter, some of the IT crowd. But you don’t like to arrive out empty-handed and besides it’s only recently gone midnight. You get to an IT party early, you end up having to talk to the early-birds. And believe me, that’s not something you’d risk twice. A scoop on the way, so. Maybe Sin É, or the Cobbler.
Jump cut to pub interior. ‘Tell us this now, you,’ goes Dowling, phlegming up into an accent that’s more John B Keane than Ardal O’Hanlon, ‘would you say now, Maguire, that Ruth McArdle is hilarious now, would you say that?’
‘Leave it go Johnny would you do that for me?’ It’s about his fifth time having a pop at her. Or at me would be nearer the mark. Bad enough that I have to stand the fucker another pint. But of course he doesn’t let it go. Keeps circling about it, the way a tongue keeps touching on a sensitive tooth. And whether it’s the pints or the hour or the supercilious eyebrows, or whether it’s that I’m still mad at myself for crossing Ruthie, suddenly we’re down on the floorboards, scrapping. Rolling over cigarette butts and sputum in a forest of truncated legs amidst which his glasses have gone skittering.
He’s not much of a scrapper, Johnny. Almost at once my fingers are locking his jaw, his face all gargoyle and indignant. I’m digging my kneecaps hard into his shoulder joints. And as a dozen hands hoist me off him I taunt, ‘Would you leave it go now, would you, now, you bollox?’
Where all that came out of I do not know.
The upshot of course, not twenty minutes later I’m on my Jack Jones. He’s skedaddled like a scalded thing, hands shaking so bad it took him two goes to pick up his glasses. Last words I hear, hoarse and high-pitched, ‘You really fucked up this time Maguire.’
So I’m alone, somewhere down around Smithfield or the back of the Four Courts. Terra Incognita, and not exactly friendly at this hour. Stoneybatter, I’m thinking. That party. Only I haven’t picked up a take-out. Too bad I don’t have my guitar with me, to bang out a few chords by way of a quid pro quo. My steps are being directed by some tentative internal compass. But the orange alleyway I’ve strayed into has the melancholy of a cul de sac. Not a sinner to be seen. Not so much as a cat.
By rights I should just turn around. But no. The Imp of the Perverse, once again. ‘Maybe,’ she goads, ‘there’ll be a way through. It’s just you can’t see it yet.’ So I persevere, each streetlight shrinking the shadow before me then reeling it about until it’s stretched into a Giacometti figure. There’s no sound but my own reverberate footfall. I’ve been down this nightmare before.
End of the road. And sure enough, there it is – the opening.
It’s a narrow passage, a solitary bollard thrust up from its jaw like a yellowed tusk. I even recognise the cavity down one side. Closed in by blind walls the laneway has an evil air. Brick and concrete brambled with graffiti. Bottle shards. A honk of cardboard and stale piss. I’m about half way along when I hear the approach. A gravel voice speaking foreign. Shadows large and angular. Cue the zither music.
They’ve blocked the exit. One short, behatted. One huge as a bear. Making yours truly the eponymous Third Man.
The skinny one has a folded-up cane in the crook of one arm. Hook nose, eyelids closed but animated by the tiniest flutter. The tall one carries a huge accordion slung over one shoulder. Head as round and blank as a traffic beacon. Seeing me his mouth opens, a piano dropped down a flight of stairs. These guys, I’m thinking, have climbed out of the shallow-end of the gene-pool. ‘Gentlemen,’ I nod, making to pass.
The trouble of course, the laneway is so godawful narrow. At the best of times I’d have been hard pressed to negotiate the circumference of the giant with the accordion. Whether out of malice or ignorance, the foot-wide gap between instrument and wall is plugged by the blind man. A desiccated face, not without cunning. It’s him I address. ‘Do you mind?’
He does, it seems.
Why don’t I turn round? Why don’t I retrace my steps? It’s not too late. There’s nothing quite like sightless sockets to give you the willies. The grinning companion might’ve stepped straight out of a late Goya. So what’s holding me? All I can think, the whole scene is glazed with the giddiness of the ludicrous. Not exactly hilarious. But yeah. Funny.
Could it be they haven’t any English? Impossible to be certain in the fickle light, but there is a swarthiness about them. The snatch of language could’ve been anything – Romanian, Ukrainian, who knows, maybe even Sheltie. Or Gaelic for that matter. But it wasn’t as if my present intention wasn’t blindingly obvious. Keep it light, I think. ‘Scusi. Entschuldigung. ¡Por favor!’
‘You have maybe cigarette?’
A toll to pass. Seems fair. Only I don’t smoke. All the same I go through that pantomime of tapping every pocket from coat to breast to trouser, which is doubly pointless seeing how the guy in charge can’t see. The one who speaks. Sancho Panza’s mouth is still flashing its keyboard missing a few keys. ‘Look gents, I’d love to parley…’ My instinct is to simply push on past. But you don’t want to go laying hands on a man’s accordion, especially not a giant’s. And you can’t just barge through a blind man like he was a saloon-door. ‘You after money? You’re out of luck my friends. I’m a poor student. I haven’t a kopek.’ Which wasn’t a mile off the God’s honest.
‘You think we are thiefs,’ states the blind man, more in disgust than indignation. ‘We are no thiefs.’ And this has me wrong-footed entirely. I hadn’t meant to insult the man. Even the BFG has shut the lid on his piano grin. I’m racking my brains. That accordion. That trilby on the small guy. He’s in a cheap pin-stripe, something out of the 40s. The other’s greatcoat, unbuttoned. Had we come across them one night, busking off Wicklow St? That night we’d been upstairs in the International, the three of us. We’d gone to see Huis Clos, on Wee-klow St (Ruthie’s gag).
The way is still blocked. But I’m beginning to think that’s out of carelessness. The blind guy can’t see where he’s standing, and the man-mountain is maybe too slow to realise his girth. All of a sudden I’ve a plan. ‘Say, do you gentlemen want to come to a party?’
‘A party?’ Voice like a grating hinge.
‘Sure! Maybe you could liven it up. Blast out a few tunes.’
His mouth turns down, as though he’s literally chewing it over. ‘A few tunes?’
‘Only if you feel up to it. Hey, it’s your call.’
‘Where is this… party?’
‘Not far. You know Stoneybatter do you?’
The upshot, I set off with Little and Large. A few wrong turns. A few cocking ears at the debouchment of street and alley. It’s a bizarre odyssey. Large is a dummy for all I know, and Little is not much given to talking. I make a few wry comments, try a couple of wisecracks. Neither gives any indication they’re paying the slightest heed. At last we hear the low thrum, the smash of a bottle, the white noise of voices through an open door.
In the hallway my co-travellers are accosted by an anorexic with beard and glasses. Shane, I think his name is. It’s his gaff. ‘Look Shane, they’re with me. Ok?’ He has a superior smirk you’d love to smack. ‘Ok?’ He scans the hall for allies. Whatever, he shrugs, and subsides into the clamour of the living-room. Tea-lights. A fug of excess males. We make for the kitchen. It’s more sparsely populated. A wincing fluorescent light, unpleasantly forensic. Carnage of dips and crisps. There’s a punchbowl at low ebb in which wine-stained fruit tarnishes. I dribble the dregs into a trio of plastic cups, salvage a round of cheese and cracker. I even manage to bum a cigarette for shorty.
The few hanging out in here are the social rejects, which is saying something.
Fast forward a couple of hours. Earlier I’d clocked Ruthie’s plaid skirt and knee-high boots on the stairs, Toby Wilkins sitting real close in behind her, a guy I cannot abide. Arrogant individual. Essex. I’d melted back into the kitchen before she clocked me. When at last I made up my mind what I’d say to her en passant there was no sign of either of them. Not on the stairs, not in the front room. I’m hoping to Christ they’ve gone. The alternative, that they’re in the bedroom beside the smaller one where all the coats are dumped, is too unpalatable. It has my gut clench up any time I can’t distract it.
The party is beginning to thin. But the more it does, the more of a crowd precipitates into the kitchen. To hear the performers who, it turns out are Bosnians. Banja Luka. Been living here since things went crazy over there. When he’s not rasping out lyrics like a beardless Ronnie Drew, shorty plays something halfway between a kazoo and a harmonica which he cups in his hands. I do my best to pick out the bones of each Balkan chorus and parrot along. The crowd joins the merriment by clapping out the rhythm. Then, once in a way, the mood shifts. There’s a lament, or a love-song. The bear, it transpires, has as sweet a voice for harmonies as you could wish for. At such times shorty leaves him get on with it.
Past four. Anorexic Shane is giving a look both smug and world-weary. For my benefit, he makes a slow show of checking his watch. Which of course only encourages yours truly to keep the concert going. More and more riotously I wave my arms, cajole the listeners to join the raucous chorus, which they do. Syllables all zeds and vees which could mean anything. The bear is loving it, and waltzes his accordion about the kitchen. Each time we think it’s over he kicks it off again, to a big laugh.
Then I clock Ruthie.
She’s sat on a windowsill, having a good ole tête-à-tête with the blind man. Or she’s listening to him, enrapt. Leaning in. A dark tale of his dark land, could be. How I lost my eyes. Or maybe not, the frown she has is light, almost amused.
No sign at all of the English prick.
I’ve picked up that she’s picked up that I’m behind this intrusion of rowdiness into the party. And as she’s leaving she fires me a look. One of those looks that goes on just that second longer than it needs to. Not quite Sally O’Brien, but near enough.
And I know I’m forgiven. And that is enough for me.
The trick to Writing is…
I’m writing this on a train. I’m at the start of a three hour train journey, and I’ve brought nothing to amuse me but pen and paper. There’s my phone, of course, but it’s switched off and hidden at the bottom of my bag. Increasingly I find this the only way I can get any writing done: effective incarceration. Trains work best. Lucky Broadstairs is so flipping far from everything.
What else can induce me to commit pen to paper? Time-consuming cosmetic procedures, especially the slightly painful ones, fat-freezing, derma-rolling, have seen me produce some good stuff. Too expensive to rely on them for regular output, though. Those aggressively trendy coffee shops where everyone looks to be writing a novel and you don’t want to let the side down: they can work too, although frequently I elect instead to instagram pictures of my tea.
At home there are simply too many distractions. It’s a cliche, but a cliche because it’s true: when writing beckons the urge to clean ovens or file receipts or iron socks becomes irresistible. My husband can gauge how close I am to a deadline by how elaborate his dinners become.
Thing is, when I do sit down to write I’m usually instantly engrossed. Hours speed away as I tug sentences into my preferred shape, fight to express ideas gracefully, rhythmically. No elation equals that produced by a finely crafted piece of work. I know that, but I can never remember it before I’ve begun. Why? I’m not an idiot. And just as nothing equals the elation of a finely crafted piece, so nothing tops the dread in the pit of my guts before I first sit to craft. What on earth am I scared of, eh?
Do I fancy myself in danger of ink poisoning, death by paper cut? Course not. I’m frightened I’m about to produce rubbish. And rightly so: the first draft is always rubbish. Trick is not to be frightened by the rubbish. Allow yourself to write the biggest pile of suffocatingly stinking ordure of which you’re capable. Once you’ve got that in place you can start to shape it. Just don’t compare your first efforts to Middlemarch, or you’ll be stabbing pens through your eyeballs before you can say edit. I bet Eliot’s first efforts were lousy too. Trick is not to worry about it.
Second trick, for me, is to set a time limit. I will write for one hour, I tell myself, firmly, and set a stopwatch to make the promise real. When that hour’s up I’m usually so engrossed I don’t even notice its narky, tinny beep. I don’t know why that works. Still fear of producing rubbish, I guess, or worse, not even rubbish. This time, perhaps, nothing will come, and I’ll finally be revealed as the hopeless, talentless, posturing cock-up at core I know myself to be. This time I’ll spend an hour staring at blankness and produce nothing more than a doodled heart or a shopping list.
Actually, I do quite often start with a shopping list. The sheer physical act of moving my pen to make something inconsequential sometimes tricks my brain into relaxing. And I eat sherbet when I write. Usually I’m not allowed sweets because I worry constantly about spots and cellulite, but writing is the one allowable exception. Sherbet, parma violets and lollipops. That’s partly a motivational trick, but I wonder too if those childhood tastes and textures also work to coax my brain into a less angsty state.
Writing’s the hardest thing I do, which is some indication of how stupidly easy my life is. Hardly coal-mining, is it? But it’s the fear of being judged and found wanting that paralyses. That fear has resulted in barren decades where I’ve not produced a word, decades whose loss I now deeply regret.
I only fear to write those words I know will face examination by others. I know no greater treat than to scribble indulgently in a diary, pour out thousands of words that will face no other eyes than my own. I write my way through problems, scribble out every slight and wrong I’ve ever endured and my plans to be revenged; scrawl my ambitions and schemes for the future until my knuckles burn. The writing is easy. It’s being judged that’s excruciating.
Being part of a writing community – in whatever sense you choose to interpret that – helps hugely here. I completed an MA in creative writing which taught me nothing, honestly, nothing at all, except to say “concrete signifiers” while nodding solemnly, but it did find me a gang of chums who write and expect me to write too, who message regularly and ask awkward questions about what I’m working on currently. That’s priceless. Well, it was three grand, actually. I’m sure I could have found some writing chums cheaper: all the writers I know are perpetually skint and fully prepared to do anything for cash.
I’ve finished writing this now and I’ve still got two hours of train journey left. When will I learn? It’s a form of mental illness, this repeated refusal to believe, against all evidence, that I can produce work people will value.
Only concern yourself with what lies within your power. There’s a fine Stoic trope. More than anything I want to be respected as a writer – how I blush to admit it – but it isn’t within my capabilities to make that happen. All I can do is write as well as I can write. Tragically that involves practise. So I ignore, again and again, the deep pocket of resistance in me whispering distractions and resentment. The louder that voice shouts the closer I suspect I must be to producing something valuable.
“Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books,”Toni Morrison
18 February 1931 – 5 August 2019
It is rare for a writer to deserve the label ground-breaking pioneer, yet that’s what Toni Morrison was in a writing career that spanned 11 novels, two plays, a libretto, essays and, with her son Slade, five children’s books, for which she won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, the first African American to do so.
Toni Morrison grew up surrounded by books and stories – her father, George Wofford, passed on anecdotes he had heard growing up in the American South – and, after gaining an MA at Cornell University, she taught at Texas Southern University and then at Howard University before moving to New York to take up senior editor’s position with Random House. By this time, she had married and divorced Harold Morrison and was a single mother to two sons, Harold and Slade. Aged 12, she had changed her original first name, Chloe to Anthony, shortened to Toni. In a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine she said “It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing”. One of her best-known pieces of advice to writers is “If you don’t see yourself in a book, write it.”
Her novels were multi-layered and could be summed up as encompassing memory, trauma, spirituality, inequality, the civil rights movement, colonialism, conformity and rebellion, witnessing both the brutality of wounded women and the ancestral pain of black lives through slavery. But she did so through compelling writing, often inspired by jazz rhythms, exploring the textures of black lives with moral strength and integrity. Frequently she didn’t define her characters through their skin colour or virtue signal; her focus was the story and how it was told. Her novels showed others that they could write as they saw things. Black writers did not have to conform to a white lens or stick to tired tropes for a white readership. Writing was one area she refused to compromise. She wanted to create stories which would read long after she had passed on with a strong historical and cultural base and lyricism which would sing on even when the book was closed.
Toni Morrison was generous with advice to writers. She told students to work out when they were at their best creatively rather than worrying about creating a habit or an ideal writing routine. She was a firm believer in letting characters say their lines, the importance of capturing voice even for minor characters and not forcing them into a situation dictated by plot. Her work demonstrated her assertion that the blank spaces and what wasn’t written was just as important as the words on the page. She described the reader as if they were listening to a story on the radio: the pictures they create as just as much part of the story. She was keen that stress writers shouldn’t stick to what they know and pushed students to write from others’ viewpoints and see themselves through strangers’ eyes so they didn’t just end up writing and editing their own lives. From an editor’s perspective, she encouraged her students to read their writing as if seeing it for the first time, to recognise and fix failures rather than abandoning a story because a scene didn’t work.
The first novel of Toni Morrison’s I came across was her 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning “Beloved” when I was still a teenager. The UK city I went to school in had its own legacy of colonial slavery so reading Sethe’s story rang true and resonated. The image of the chokeberry tree of scars on Sethe’s back from whippings still is intensely powerful and captivating. Her own trauma leads her to believe her child is better off dead than re-possessed by the slave owner who had possessed Sethe becomes credible. The story becomes more powerful as Sethe’s family continue to be haunted by the murdered child to the extent where Sethe is estranged from her surviving daughter, Denver. It’s rare I read a book more than once but that’s how magical Toni Morrison’s writing still is and how her stories will continue to outlive her.
Mary Oliver Companion by Mike Griffith
She’d been working here since her daughter started grade school. She liked to keep busy plus they needed the money. Fifty-two, frail and thin. She kept her hair the same deep red it was when she was little. Glasses, a sweater, jeans. From behind you might mistake her for thirty but a life of smoking had taken its toll on her face and on her voice. She never drank and she didn’t believe in God either. She could smile when she didn’t mean it.
The animal shelter was a stout, featureless building. It sat solitary on a hump of land that grew out the side of forty-seven. Thunder of traffic groaning persistent in the background. She pulled into the cracked and pocked parking lot and sat staring at the clear morning sky, listening to the radio talk. Some village in some country she never heard of was raped and pillaged by their own army. A victim was interviewed, her interpreter had a wooden voice, “It’s like they were possessed, possessed by the Devil. They lit a house on fire. There were women being raped in front of their children. These were the men that were supposed to be protecting us. It continued for nearly two days and when it ended no one came to help. No one’s been here but you.”
She got out of her car and thought about how awful it was, how she didn’t understand the world, and entered the shelter. Joan was already there, organizing the feeds and checking messages. For some time now, the owner had been working to transition the place from a no-kill shelter to a kill shelter. At first, they all revolted. One girl even quit. But after a while they began to understand the owner’s argument for making the change, “What do you think happens to the animals we turn away?” She asked them. “You think they just go off and live happy lives somewhere else? Well, that doesn’t happen. They go off to die somewhere. They’re left out in the streets or abandoned out in the country. At least here they can die with some dignity and without pain.”
“Mornin’,” Joan said as Flora hung her pocketbook on the hook.
“Welp, today’s the day. And it ain’t gonna be me, I tell you.”
“No one’s stepped up yet?”
“Not yet. There’s rumors she’s just going to do it herself.”
“Well, if none of us are willing to do it I suppose she’ll have to.”
“You’re not going to do it either? I heard you were willing to do it.”
“I never said that. I said I didn’t know.”
“Well I could never do it. To look into those innocent eyes and jab a needle into them. And kill them. Uh-uh, I could never do it.”
The two got to working and kept busy through the better part of the morning. They did the feedings and took a few of the dogs out back to stretch their legs. Flora noticed a red tag on one of the cages.
“Oh, that’s right. You haven’t been here since Friday. That means he’s scheduled for today.”
“You mean he’s gonna be put down?”
“Yeah, isn’t it awful?”
“Well, Leo’s been here for what? A year?”
“So, that doesn’t mean they should kill him.”
“I’m just saying it makes sense he’d be one of the first.”
“I think it’s awful.”
“Well, let’s take him outside with the others.”
“But he’s not with this group.” Joan lowered her voice to a whisper, as if the dog might over hear, “Plus, I mean, there’s not really any point in him getting any exercise, hun.”
“But it’s his last chance.”
“Well, if we get in trouble I’m blaming you.”
They took the dogs to the yard and let them loose. Clouds were starting to gather and the air was cool. The yard wasn’t so much a yard as it was a patch of dirt surrounded by chain link fence but the dogs seemed to like it all the same. The one scheduled to die had a bum hind leg. He limped outside, maybe two steps, and laid down to rest. His black fur was ruff and ashen. He let out a big yawn and plopped his head in the dirt.
“I guess that’s why nobody wants you, hey old boy?” Flora said, petting him. He raised his eyes a second to see her and turned away.
“Aw, how can you talk like that?” Joan said. She bent down and started talking to him like a baby, “How can they just kill you, handsome boy? Huh? Aw, I’m gonna miss you.” She put her arms around his head and hugged him, putting her cheek against his face.
She sprang up in disgust, “He snapped at me!” She was holding her cheek. “What’s wrong with you?” She kicked the dog in the ribs. He let out a yelp and hobbled away to lie down by the fence.
“Joan! What was that for?”
“He snapped at me!”
“He doesn’t like it when people touch his ears like that. God, how long have you worked here?”
“I didn’t kick him hard,” she went inside to wash her face. Flora followed her into the bathroom.
“You can’t do that, Joan. I don’t care if wasn’t hard.”
“Oh, what does it matter? I didn’t hurt him, Flora. God, relax. We both know what’s going to happen to him today, anyway.”
Flora stood with her arms folded, thinking.
“I just freaked out a little, ok? I’m sorry.”
“Did he break the skin?”
“What? Oh, no he didn’t even bite me,” Joan was scrubbing her cheek in the mirror. “Just got his gross slobber all over me.”
* * *
Hirah arrived shortly after noon. She wore her black hair short under her simple gray hijab. Underneath her lab coat she wore a faded tee shirt and a long brown skirt. She was twenty-some years Flora’s junior but spoke to her like it was the other way around.
“Flora, follow me into the back,” she said without a hello. She took her to a room filled with filing cabinets.
“What’s up?” Flora asked.
“What the hell has been going on back here?”
“This,” Hirah gestured around the room with her arm. “I had to pull up records for a client yesterday and it took me nearly an hour to find what I needed.” She walked around violently opening the drawers. They were carelessly stuffed with manila folders—paper sticking out, others upside-down, some even torn. “The papers I needed were spread out between three different folders, in three different drawers.”
“Joan’s supposed to be in charge of this. I’m never back here.”
“I don’t want her to come back here anymore,” Hirah said with hands on her hips. “I want you to organize all of this. You don’t have to get it all done today, but get it done.”
“I don’t even know where to start.”
“You’ll figure it out. I’ll be in my office for the next few hours and then I’ll have to start the first of the euthanizing.”
“Have you found someone to help yet?”
“No, but I didn’t really expect to. It’s not a pleasant thing.”
“I think I would like to help.”
“Really? What made you change your mind?”
“It’s not a change, I was never against helping.”
“Then what made you say yes?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you’re sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Then I’ll come get you when I’m done my paperwork.”
She left Flora alone to organize the mess. Flora stood awhile thinking. She took a folder out and stared at it. Thousands of papers with millions of letters and numbers, all the information in this room is worthless until the day you need it, she thought, every other day it just sits here forgotten. We need a system, she continued, otherwise it’s just chaos; otherwise people just do whatever they want. She thought about this, staring at the cabinets. Sleek gray steel, fluorescent light glaring off of them. She realized that a rule is only successful if people agree to follow it—really anything could be right. She began taking out folders and lying them open on the ground, trying to make sense of the task. She decided she would divide the cabinets into past and current records and the drawers into cats, dogs, and other, followed by identification numbers. Sometimes they got goats, sometimes even lizards. There was a lot to keep track of.
The work was quiet and methodical and Flora found that she almost enjoyed it. It was structure and order and black-and-white. She understood it. She went through the folders and made several piles. By the time Hirah returned for her, the room looked worse than when she left.
“Don’t tell me I made another mistake,” Hirah said.
“No, I’m just organizing everything before putting them in the cabinets. Trust me, I have a whole system worked out.”
“I’m sure Joan had a system too, doesn’t mean anything unless I understand it.”
“Well, it’s time to start. I need you to go grab Leo. He’s our first.”
“Yeah, why? You wanna adopt him?”
“No. I can’t.”
“Then go grab him.”
* * *
Flora walked down the long hall lined with steel cages. It looked like a prison. She knew it looked like a prison. But how else would you organize this many cages, she wonder. Leo was curled up on his blanket sleeping. She stared at him thinking. She was interrupted by the loud hum of the industrial air conditioner as it kicked on. Several of the dogs perked up and a few began to bark. It’s like they never get used to the damn thing, she thought. Leo didn’t stir though, she wouldn’t be saved from having to wake him. The barking quickly died down and all Flora could hear was the humming of the AC. It began to make a pattern in her ears as she stared at the sleeping animal, a low thumping in her ears. “What did you live for?” she mouthed.
She opened the cage. She was needlessly quiet about it. She stroked his head, “Get up, boy. C’mon, get up. Time to go.” The dog struggled to his tired feet and followed her down the hall.
Flora took him to the examination room but Hirah wasn’t there.
“Down here,” Hirah called.
Flora followed her voice to the very back of the building where a little room hid off to the side. “I didn’t know this was back here.”
“Yeah, I used it for storage but I don’t know…”
“How come you don’t just use the examination room?”
“I said, I don’t know.”
“I suppose you prefer to keep this separate from that?”
“Sure,” she rolled her eyes.
There were no chairs or tables in the room, just a dog bed with some blankets and a medical tray on wheels.
“Today you just watch. I’ll show you how to insert the catheter and how to do the injections. Then next time I’ll supervise while you administer.”
Flora led Leo onto the blankets and sat down alongside him stroking his head. Hirah took an electric razor off the tray and shaved off a small patch of fur.
“You need to do this so you can put in the catheter. Then you disinfect the area,” she took the catheter and slipped it into the soft skin. “You have to get it just right,” she said fiddling with it. “Can you see that?”
“Then you put in the sedative. This takes a few seconds to work. After that we put in the final injection, which completely stops the heart. Sometimes their muscles will twitch a bit but it doesn’t mean they’re still alive.”
Flora nodded her head. She stared at the needle in Hirah’s hands—they were shaking.
“Are you ok?”
“Yes,” Hirah sat there staring at the dog.
“I’m fine!” Hirah snapped. “I’m sorry, just give me a second.”
They sat in the little room not saying anything. Several minutes passed. Then Hirah put the needle down, “Flora, I know I act tough. I have to, I’m the boss. But it doesn’t mean I like doing this.”
“No, I understand. I never thought that.”
“No, I mean it doesn’t mean I’m good at it.”
Flora paused for a moment, “But you’re a vet.”
“Look, after I graduated I got a job in this big practice. When you euthanize pets at an animal hospital you don’t do it like this. You’re not alone with the animal, the owners are there. They’re crying and petting them and talking to them. It’s awful.”
“I imagine,” she was still stroking the dog’s head.
“You’d think seeing enough of that would numb you to it but it was the opposite. It wore on me. After two years I couldn’t do it anymore. That’s why I quit,” she looked around the room as if she never saw it before. “Then I didn’t know what to do and I ended up starting this place. Over time you realize you can’t save them all.” She paused for a moment. “You know a man once tried to drop his cats off at a no-kill once and was turned away cause there was no room? I read this in the paper. He literally ran them over in the parking lot with his truck because he didn’t know what to do with them.” She looked up at Flora, “Literally threw them out of his window, backed his truck up, and ran the things over!” Hirah sat there staring at the needle. “I almost don’t blame him,” she trailed off. “I forgot how hard this was,” she forced a little laugh.
“Let me do it.”
Hirah looked up, confused.
“Let me do it. The catheter’s the hard part, right? And that’s already done. Let me do it.”
“No, you don’t have to do that. I’ll get myself together, just give me a minute.”
“I want to do it,” Flora said, climbing forward and taking the needle from her. “Let me, please.”
“Ok, just right there,” she said pointing to the opening of the catheter. “Hold that firm in your hand while gently and steadily depressing the plunger.”
“Like this?” Flora slowly injected the sedative into his leg. His eyes began to droop, his tongue hung out a little.
“Now the other. Same as before.”
Flora watched the dark cloudy solution disappear into the animal. Within seconds his heart stopped. She could see herself inverted in the reflective film of his eyes, still wet with life. She thought of how easy it was to push the plunger, how easy he slipped into death. Crossed the threshold, water spilling over the lip of a glass. There was something nice in it, she thought. She wasn’t sure what was nice about it but she was sure there was something.
She found herself thinking of a TV show she once saw about these monks in Tibet or somewhere. Standing on a mountain in the snow, wrapped in gold and red. Praying and meditating and causing no harm. She thought they were wonderful but it’s easy to be a saint when that’s all you do, she remembered thinking, when you don’t have a job or a family or bills. When you don’t have a million responsibilities curving your spine into a horseshoe. It’s easy then, she thought. But something in it made her think of those monks. Maybe I just found peace, she thought, no it don’t work like that. Maybe I oughta go be one. Or maybe I’m who they’re praying for.
She placed her hand on the dog’s head and looked once more into his eyes. They were drying up now, two black wells with no bottom. “There’s nothing down there,” she said, “nothing down there.”
“What?” Hirah asked.
“Nothing, are we done?”
“We’re done with him but we have five more today. Are you up for it?”
Hirah removed the catheter and cleaned up the used materials. They struggled putting him into the bag. Another facility would deal with the cremation. She handled the other five with the same ease and grace as she did the first and the time passed quickly. Neither spoke till it was over and even then, it was just, see you tomorrow.
* * *
Flora walked out into the late afternoon and got in her car. The sky was overcast and gray. It was beginning to rain. She turned the key and the radio started talking again. This time about a woman who abandoned her kids at a child services building. Well that seems like a good place to do it, she thought. As she waited to turn onto the road she could see a dog on the other side, sniffing at some garbage. “Nikia Wallace, thirty-five, mother of two, refused to take her children with her,” the reporter said. Flora stared at the dog. It was chewing at some fast food bag. “She just refused,” an employee being interviewed said, “We told her we were closing and that if she came back tomorrow, maybe we could work something out. She started yelling in the lobby. Said she rather go to jail than take her kids back.” The dog gave up on the bag and walked towards the road. It would hesitantly stick its head out and look around at the blur of traffic. It would take a step and then walk back. It repeated this ritual several times. No one else seemed to take any notice of it. “Wallace left the building and was arrested shortly after. Later she explained to officers that her eldest, age seven, had mental health issues she could no longer afford.” The dog started to step out into the street. That woman had three choices, Flora thought, none of them good. She turned off the radio, pulled out, and drove home.
Who Needs Literature?
‘Literature is for dreamers. Pragmatists don’t need it.’ I was taken aback by this statement made by a digital-age hippie who moves to the tunes of her laptop and breathes through the techie circuitry. However, I couldn’t ignore the argument – literature isn’t a requisite to be competitive or productive in the present digital economy, the skills such as information research and data analytics are.
Does that mean literature is dying? If yes, then, why do we need to save it? Because in a world that is becoming increasingly dichotomous and cruel, literature provides us with solace and a reason to be better human beings.
Our world view is culturally limited and replete with our personal and moral biases. Literature lends us an ethical power through its narratives that delve into the human condition, human relationships and conflicts. It is through literature that we set our judgements aside and go with the characters on their journeys. We put ourselves in their shoes and strive to understand their motives. We leap beyond the cultural, geographic, racial and generational boundaries and enter a realm of empathy and compassion.
Empathy creates space for self-reflection. Literature stimulates our imagination and challenges established norms through its ambiguity, conflicts and imperfect characters. It enables us to hold space for the other and question our prejudices and judgements. I grew up understanding the world around me through the eyes of the characters brought to life by writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand Munshi and Charles Dickens. They not only told stories about truth and humanity but created characters who were strong yet morally conflicted, who challenged societal conventions and bore the burden of their human weaknesses.
In Premchand’s narratives, the good and the bad are co-dependent and more often than not, feed on each other. He portrayed real situations and dilemmas through his characters. Characters such as the orphan Hamid who buys a pair of iron tongs for his grandmother instead of sweets and toys for himself on Id, the corrupt pandit Alopideen who exhibits unexpected generosity for a defeated opponent, and Dhania who stands for her beliefs and dharma than abide by the traditional principles of the community – these show us the incredible kaleidoscope of human behaviour. In his speech called Sahitya ka Uddeshya (The Aim of Literature), Premchand asserts that literature’s purpose is to critically examine life. He believed that literature expresses truth in a mature and refined manner that evokes emotions in the minds of the readers.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winner Bengali writer, created bold characters and set them on their tumultuous journeys. His writings were way ahead of his times. Through his strong female characters like Binodini, Hemnalini and Labanya, he introduced me to the ferocity of women who were expected to be meek and docile. Tagore pulled out from the closet the sexual desires of women and shocked the society where it was considered taboo. In his novel ‘Shesher Kobita’, he questions the institution of marriage through Labanya and Amit’s love affair. Through his writings, Tagore challenged patriarchy and brought the hypocrisy in society to the forefront. His writings resonate in the present times as well.
The complicated and perfect characters in Charles Dickens novels taught me a great deal about human interactions and relationships. His precise and illuminating portrayal of human psyche stimulated me to empathize across the borders of class, nation or sex. Through Pip in Great Expectations, I learnt about values, human consciousness and the effect of social strata on an individual’s life. I have spent days musing over the conflicts that the characters created by these and other writers dealt with – I would feel their pain and get angry at the whimsicalities of the society. They would make me unsettled and force me to look at things differently. Such quality literature taught me to not generalize and pay attention to the subtleties of complicated truths. It deepened my consciousness and encouraged me to live a more thoughtful life by making me more empathetic and generous in outlook.
Through literature, we not only experience the emotions that the characters go through but also understand them. We suspend our judgemental tendencies for a while and let our empathetic imagination take over. It is in those moments that our thinking shifts from the usual course to an unchartered realm. We shed a layer and become someone else, even if for an ephemeral moment. The complex and deviating nature of the literary texts challenges us to move beyond our mental comfort zones and figure out the complicated psychological and ethical schemas that we may not face in our daily lives. It transports us to that quiet, unbiased space where our beliefs and judgements crumble and the way we look at familiar situations alters. And the more we bend our perspectives, the more flexible they become.
Literature also makes us more empathetic by telling us that we aren’t isolated. Our pain, desires and dilemmas are universal. It endows a sense of belonging to us. Reading a story is often akin to a dialogue with the character(s). Moreover, we also become a part of the zeitgeist, cosmos of the tale and we emerge out at the other end with a sense of enrichment and fulfilment. The story may be of someone who lives in another continent in different times than us but it reminds us that our struggles and dreams are shared, that we belong to and are connected with the world.
Literature brings us closer to the humanist truth. This truth and its various facets relieve us of the growing isolation and existential conundrum that pervade our lives in the current times. As the Japanese philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda said, “Literature is the very pulse of life. Those who have learned to appreciate great literature during their youth are always vital and vigorous, because the pulse of literature beats within them. Those who haven’t learned such an appreciation lack that vitality; their lives are spiritually drab and empty. Reading literature gives us an insight into the vast, deep ocean of life existing beneath the countless rolling waves.”
Literature translates life and the human condition with all their conflicts, ethics and challenges into a relatable paradigm. Literature attempts to tackle the perils that vitiate our world – intolerance towards the other, inability to empathize with those outside our tribe, loneliness and boredom. So, the only answer to who needs literature is we all do.
Does poetry matter? Is there still an urgency when it comes to reading poetry? Do we thrive on its subtle, elusive presence? Or, can we survive without it? This is an old debate that never loses ground.
Stephanie Burt’s Don’t Read Poetry, Basic Books (May 2019)is a book about how we meet and read poems, discover their joys and preconceptions, from Shakespearean sonnets and other classics, to Instagram poetry and Pokémon characters. It is also a personal journey into the inner workings of poetry and a reframing of its bounty and delight in the eyes of the reader.
Like Stephanie Burt, I am a poet, though this is not something that I say loudly to everyone. Poetry is not my daily occupation, but it is my constant preoccupation; still, I refrain from sharing it. It is not that I am ashamed of it, on the contrary, I take great pride in the poems I have written and published. But I am rather uncomfortable mentioning that my poetry comes from a place of grief.
Given my resistance and most people’s reaction to poetry, it begs the question: Where does this tendency to omit or overlook poetry in our daily interactions come from? And, why do we think of poetry as either being elitist or cryptic?
I am Romanian born but write my poetry in English. I am the first poet in my traditional family and so I am an oddity. In my everyday life, I am a translator and an educator, both more manageable in terms of a suitable job for a woman of my background, where a female poet can often be ignored or jokingly tolerated. Apart from the sexist barriers, there is still something fearful for many in the way any poetry feels or sounds and the way it threatens to displace readers and challenge them in a manner they find unsettling. Many people are put off by the expectation that poetry comes with a set of rules or a level of comprehension that they might naturally lack.
When my father first heard me speak of my poetic tribulations—the rejections, the endless revisions and re-editing and the fickleness of the muses -he was confused. It didn’t fit the image he had of me. He candidly asked me where I found the time to tend to such concerns. I was a full-time, working mother and given my domestic duties, I must have been writing at nighttime. He was worried for my health and advised me to give up this ludicrous occupation. On top of that, when he read my poems, he said they were too intellectual for his taste. This is the case for one poet and hardly applicable to all others. But it is perhaps typical of the kinds of challenges that arise on the path for anyone becoming a published poet.
What I find intriguing is the perception people have of poetry and its purpose. In the introduction to her book, Stephanie Burt speaks of how easy it is to access poetry – its brevity, its ability to be read aloud, performed, collected, memorised – and yet, few people read it. She sets out to explain why people love or hate it and in doing so, comes up with arguments for liking poetry. She speaks of connecting past poems or poets to contemporary ones and addressing the cultural diversity of the world we live in and its assortment of tastes. Credit is given to the invaluable role translation plays in making the literary world accessible to a versatile, demanding, fast-changing crowd of readers. Poetry is meant to introduce us to other people, make us empathic and willing to connect, open us up to our inner selves, build communities, ignite revolutions, feed hunger, sharpen senses, help us, at least, come to a meaningful purpose for reading it.
But the fact is, poetry lacks a definite, absolute purpose. It is often about the journey it takes us on, without any promise, or need of knowing its history or technical terms. Poetry gives readers the freedom to find their own reasons and purposes.
To Stephanie Burt, such reasons make up the chapters in her book: feelings, characters, forms, difficulty, wisdom and community, each illustrated and justified with lines of poems and comments on her own poetic tastes. Does it help to look at a poem from these different angles? I believe it might. These entry points are meant to familiarise the reader with the intricacies of poetry and its mechanism of survival and failure alike.
In his book, The Hatred of Poetry, Fitzcarraldo Editions (2011) Ben Lerner, poet and novelist, wrote about how poetry failed by not keeping the promise to solve people’s concerns related to love, isolation, death, disappointment or meaning. This speaks precisely against the very purpose of poetry and how it is within each reader to find their own purpose in poems and to fail and succeed at their own pace and taste. No poem is bound to give each reader the same thing. Language, time, personal predilections – all these might shape the perceptions of one reader, while at the same time, delight or mortify another.
In Stephanie Burt’s words – “the right poems for you may not make you more like me; they can, however, change you for the better or help you become who you want to be”. Poems carry our own enthusiasm and apprehension, give us room to pause and return, reassess our beliefs. They make us frown, smile at language choices, ponder at lines breaks and allow us to actively inhabit their landscape.
A while ago, I started reading poems out loud to my father during our coffee meetings. At first, he seemed embarrassed and laughed them off, pointing to the futility of my gesture. Then, he stopped arguing and just quietly listened. He could not understand my poems, mainly because of the language barrier. Plus, it was a dislocation in the ordinary habits of our encounters. At 65, my father fully enjoyed his coffee routine, the chosen silent moments, his need to see me as something he could wrap his mind around. Poetry didn’t fit in. It made me potent and elusive, much like poetry. In Stephanie Burt’s words, it acutely pointed to “the process of removing something from a box, or of opening a gift.” My father was forced to rename and reframe his daughter. It left him with little that was familiar, and the entire process seemed strange, dislocating.
My father’s reaction gave me an inkling of the readers ‘puzzlement towards poetry, and the wish to abandon it because of its unfamiliarity. It compelled them to decide upon meaning, and the more a poem blurred lines between openness and closure, the more the readers experienced a sense of disruption in expectations. My father’s lack of comfort came from gender expectations and a traditional mentality, but he still harbored a dislike towards poetry. While growing up, he read detective stories to me and never once mentioned poems. I tried to lure him into reading Romanian poems, but he refused and called it a dying literary tradition. Could people not live without poems? They offer no significant help in managing life: it is not as if they were a life skill.
I could not change my father’s way of thinking, though something in the way I read -intonation, phrasing, musicality, cadence – brought tears to his eyes. I touched his hand and told him poetry had played its little, yet essential part: it had made him ask questions and engaged his curiosity. It had captured something vital: our ability to connect, despite the differences, and cut across the artificial lines we tended to draw around ourselves. My father smiled. Poets are dreamers, he said.
In her book, Stephanie Burt speaks of difficulty and the role it plays in the relationship we are trying to build with the poems and poets we read. She references George Steiner, literary critic, who identifies four kinds of difficulty. The second one is called modal and it refers to the literal sense of a sentence that it still hard to grasp because it might be “a joke, a trial balloon, an experiment, a piece of sarcasm”. This is how it feels when we are engaged in a conversation with a person we hardly know, and we find ourselves unable to read them. Modality fails us and we struggle to understand or respond in a sensible manner, fearful of embarrassing ourselves. Likewise, poetry requires a leap of faith into poetic possibility, form and content. A departure from the known self, and into discovering new hidden depths about the unknown self, an attractive kind of difficulty.
Take the perplexing words of Chelsey Minnis:
“ Sometimes I have to throw up and pass out in order to get to the next set of time increments. Because otherwise time forms into a hard migraine like a gumball, / I want to wear fluted sleeves and become like a darling person with appropriateness all around me…It is rough to be a seafoam wench”.
Here, language is a reckoning with the world, a bewildering manner of expressing desire in a visual, active voice that struggles to render emotion. Or anything else your wicked, wrought, innocent, flirting, evasive, attentive, scattered minds can read into these lines. Poetry is here to widen the space. More necessary and immediate than ever, awaiting.
At the end of the day, my father is right. Most people will have made do without poetry. The conversation on the importance of poetry has shifted from an abstract argument on form and content toward its function of portraying urgent social issues such as religion, race, immigration. Though poetry cannot heal or provide answers to injustice or atrocities, reading and rereading a poem can be a form of survival in a world where such things are rife. Poetry is a manifestation of the human voice, a promise of resistance.
To me, poetry it is a matter of expressing my femininity and beliefs alike, a desire to reach out to a no boundaries community, an attempt to strengthen a personal relationship and mourn loss by connecting to the world. In Stephanie Burt’s words, “ The soul comes out in the poem, and continues to sing ”.
So, does poetry matter? Well yes, it matters a lot.
Where is the Godfather ? – Terry Barr
At the Hertz counter in Palermo, our agent asks if we want insurance.
“We already have it,” my friend Ali says.
“Well, it doesn’t show here. Better get it, for here is fine, but when you go to Rome…”
He shrugs. Ali turns to me.
“Yeah, I’ll put it on my card,” I say, but before I can hand the agent my American Express, he’s already charged it to Ali’s. We walk to the outdoor kiosk, where our van awaits. It will barely fit the luggage of six travelers. Worse, it is covered in dents, scrapes, and mangled chrome. My wife calls the outdoor agent over, and she spends the next ten minutes marking the damage on her guide sheet.
“How would anyone know if we caused more scrapes,” my wife asks.
The agent shrugs, smiles, and leaves us with the keys: “Prego.”
As Ali negotiates the inner Palermo streets, we understand our condition. Cars come from all directions and pass wantonly. Each vehicle is as banged up as ours. We laugh.
“You think this is bad,” Ali says. “Try driving in Tehran. There, they don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t care. No lanes, no stopping for lights. They just do whatever they want, and you have to go along.”
I won’t be driving in Tehran in this lifetime, and I’m not sure I want to in Palermo, though I am one of our licensed drivers. We’re using Ali’s i-Phone to navigate us to our hotel because the car’s GPS can’t manage to locate our van on its internal sensor. Still, we find our place without incurring damage or getting too lost. It is day one of our Italian adventure, and as soon as we check in, we head to the hotel restaurant to eat lunch during the normal siesta time. Our food is overpriced and not as good as Tito’s NY Pizza back home. Still, we eat, and then we retreat to our suites for naps, mindless of what sleeping now will mean for later.
Later comes. My wife, my daughter, Ali’s wife Fariba, their daughter, and I begin our walking tour. Ali wants more sleep and stays behind. Our wonderful concierge, Phillipe, instructs us about shopping, dining, village sights. The hotel shuttle drops us in the town center, and from there we spend the next hour watching our daughters shop in upscale “Italian” boutiques like Zara and H&M. I cannot believe I am standing, then shuffling, and then following as my daughter buys items that are made in China. Maybe they’re made in Italy, but they have that look that says, “You may buy me anywhere.”
“What am I doing here?”
My depression about leaving my dog back in South Carolina sweeps over me. As we wait for the girls to emerge from H&M, a police van screams to the curb. Two Guardia trot into the store, and though I know better, and though I have complete faith in my daughter, in my mind I see the cops returning with both girls, caught shoplifting.
But in another few minutes, the girls walk out, laughing and happy. And with packages.
We amble by cathedrals, outdoor market stalls, while bicycles nearly run us down. My wife loves negotiating with marketers, and before I know it, she’s bought sealed olives for her sister, packets of spices for our son-in-law, and a basket of figs.
“They were overpriced,” but bargaining was fun,” she says.
I am not having fun.
I wonder if the next nine days will be the same: wandering, shopping, falling prey to unscrupulous vendors, getting sideswiped by cars and bikes. I could assert my self, express my wishes, but what do I want?
I didn’t want to go on this trip, or at least part of me didn’t, so I didn’t plan. I didn’t consult any guidebook, though my therapist gave me a good one. The only thing I hoped to do, other than eat gluten-filled pasta, was to go on the Godfather Tour, something my therapist said I shouldn’t miss.
“You can see the church where Michael married his Italian wife,” my therapist said, “and the orchard where the old Don died.”
“Yes,” I thought, “I’d like that.”
In the meantime, we find an outdoor café.
“Time for a drink,” my daughter says.
The owner, or his son, or maybe just a guy who earns a living wage, helps us. We order large beers, wine spritzers, still water, and then he brings plates of olives, cheese, pancetta and prosciutto.
“He’ll charge us for the food, too,” Fariba says.
Later, another server brings us fried potatoes, more cheese. The cold beer, the perfectly spiced and salty food. I relax, not caring what this costs. Italian women lean from upper apartments. We think we see a drug deal off to the side, but this part of the village is cool, and we’re finally getting intoxicated. When the check appears, they’ve charged only for the drinks, $26 Euro.
Now this feels like some kind of home.
We walk in the wrong direction. Soon, we are hungry again, and consulting the map, we realize that we must turn around. Phillipe’s suggested café is behind us. It’s a family-owned place, Café Marisa, named for the owner. According to Phillipe, she’s been in business for decades. We have a reservation, which is good, because though it’s only eight o’clock, just barely Italian suppertime, the place is mostly full. We are shown to a round table in back, and we order large carafes of wine. I look over the menu, not knowing what I want, but then I see “Rolled Meat,” a listing that doesn’t say what kind of meat or what is rolled in it. I order nonetheless, and when it arrives, I think I’ve died. Back in Alabama, we had Italian neighbors, and this rolled meat is what I saw them serving regularly. The wine doesn’t faze me; it’s the food that gets me woozy.
After we eat, Fariba suggests we order Lemoncello. Our waiter agrees, but then lists other kinds of after dinner liqueur.
“Yes,” we say, still thinking we’re getting Lemoncello. What he brings and pours in shot glasses is something else. I down mine in one gulp, and the waiter looks at me with something new in his eyes. He pours another, and I down it again.
“Oh, he says and pours another, and then begins the chant, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh,” which is taken up by the rest of our table. I down the third drink, and he disappears, bringing back a bottle of grappa. “Ohhhhhhhhh.” I drink, and my daughter suggests that the waiter have a shot with me. He brings another glass. We ‘Ohhhhhhhh” together and drink.
In the meantime, Marisa, who has been watching us with apparent pleasure, comes over and speaks, in Italian, asking where we’re from. She hugs us all and then brings a plate of fresh Italian cookies. We take pictures. She hugs us again, and somehow, everyone manages to get me back to the hotel.
The next morning I ask about the Godfather tour. Fariba discovers that it’s a couple of hours away, doable the next day when we head to Messina. I am patient because it’s Sicily, and I know that whatever else might happen, we will eat and drink again tonight, though maybe not grappa. We stroll the alleyways trying to find a path to the beach. We ask mechanics for the way; my wife speaks French to them because in her multi-lingual mind, everyone knows everything. They try English on us and direct us to the beach. We walk single file as Vespas blow by. And there it is: blue, clear.
None of us wants to swim or even get sandy. We just watch the lapping waves and wonder. Soon, we want cappuccino. My wife keeps pointing us to houses that have half-opened doors, believing that someone will take us in, or to foggy closed doors that perhaps were open once, a long long time ago. We find “Cappucino,” only Ali orders latte and receives a glass of steamed milk. We laugh; we are laughing often now, and watch the women across the way drawing laundry in from the lines outside their windows.
Phillippe has told us of a pizzeria within blocks of our hotel, where we plan to have supper.
“It is walking distance,” he says, “but I advise you not to walk.” We are Americans, some of us transplanted, and we live by our own minds. The walk takes fifteen minutes, straight up on a narrow sidewalk beside which cars scream by.
“Whose idea was it to walk?” everyone asks.
“Mine,” I say.
The pizzeria is named Chalet du Costanza, and we laugh again, hoping it’s the inspiration for the “Seinfeld” episode where George’s father Frank travels to Sicily to find his cousin Carlo, and then once they meet, Frank says “goodbye’ and heads home again.
Chalet du Costanza is a very modern bistro, serving organic pizza. And it’s good…as good as Sidewalk Pizza in Traveler’s Rest, SC.
After, Fariba and Ali retire, their daughter, my wife, my daughter, and I venture out in the van, seeking nightlife. We drive winding mountain roads for twenty minutes, through a more posh Palermo, and find ourselves at another square near the beach, where boys are playing soccer, dogs are sitting upright on benches, and American rap music beats us to a pulp. We sit for a spell, and the doggie on my left makes me pine for my Maxie. The breeze helps me breathe. As we drive back to our hotel, getting lost only once, I think of the Mountain Brook area of Birmingham where my grandmother lived, and of tomorrow when the Godfather tour looms.
On toward Messina, but we get a late start, and stopping too often for more food and cappuccino, we decide to find our next hotel before we find the Godfather. This hotel is even better than the last, as our back door opens onto a veranda overlooking the sea. Everyone gets calm and quiet, and no one wants to return to the car for any tour of any kind. Later, we walk to the beach and skip stones into the Mediterranean. Whatever else I do in life, I will be able to say I touched the stone that landed in this ancient sea. I will also know that my stones skipped only twice, because I’ve never been proficient at skipping stones.
My wife’s stone skips four times.
Our friends retire for the night after an early supper, but my wife, daughter, and I find a rooftop café and order more food: fried eggplant, cheese, and salami, with plenty of red wine. We talk about our lives. Our daughter explains why she decided to break up with her boyfriend of ages past, and why she’s happy now with her new one. Here eyes shine and so do ours, for we’re the kind of parents whose mid-twenty-year old daughter wants to leave everyone else and go on a vacation to Italy with us.
On the next morning, we see the Godfather. Only we don’t. Life has a funny way of directing travelers to places and people that only life understands. Everyone but Ali and I hit the beach, and by checkout time, they are tired and happy, and it’s time to move, as our next destination on the mainland is a good-metered distance away.
We look for cappuccino, and our phones say towns are coming, but as we navigate them, everything is either closed for siesta, or, in one remote village by the sea, under new construction. We drift up the mountains and soon stop in the quaintest Italian village of them all. I would tell you the name, but I don’t want you spoiling it. At the café, by the mountain’s edge, we see the sea and the miles we’ve just traversed. Our waiter brings our cappuccinos and biscuits, and it’s as if everything was meant for us to be here. Now. A car stops by our van; an older woman emerges carrying bags of groceries. Only they’re not groceries, but recyclables. She walks out of our sight with two bags, and leaves the third by our left front fender. She returns and walks over to us. She speaks entirely in Italian, and we respond in what little Italian, French, Farsi, and English we know. She smiles and keeps talking. Smiles again, and then heads off somewhere, perhaps even her home.
She leaves the bag of recyclables by the left fender of our van.
We are ready to go, and so I pick the bag up, place it on the sidewalk, and we push on, hoping against retribution.
As we drive the narrow cobblestoned streets of our favorite new village, my daughter says,
“Oh, you know what we forgot?”
“It’s Ok,” I say. I’ve seen the movie five times.” Then I tease, “The one thing I asked to do…”
Fariba says that this means we’ll come back one day, especially for the Godfather tour.
Yes, I think, but we have seven days left on this trip. And it took me sixty-three years to get here. Still, I am happy. I have learned new words like “Braciole,” and toured the Mediterranean. I’ve even driven the van. And at least one waiter has toasted me and brought me home.
If you enjoyed this piece by Terry Barr you may also like Dawn Trek in the Wahiba Desert by Sandra Arnold
This Petty Pace
If tomorrow is now
where did time go?
Was I just too slow
to catch it?
I thought therefore I was
not here in the now of snow
as its ‘s’ has already melted
into slush, to expose in you
the lush roots
of a recalled, recoiled Spring
where Hopkins’ wheel
still shoots its potent bolts
and weeds are substitutes
for spokes close to the hub of it.
When we write or speak and are fully present ‘with’ the actual process of the words coming in, through . . . and out, we seem to connect somewhere − in some timeless realm − that has a component to it that seems sometimes to have a commonality with everyone/everything beyond us. Perhaps it is more that something of what life is, passes through us at that moment of inspiration — that moment of ‘breathing in’; that moment (within time) before contemplation?
Perhaps the action of thinking and writing, which certainly encompasses notions of past, and at least an ‘imagined’ present, also enables us to tilt towards (or even ‘change’) the future; after all, even past memories contain notions of what we imagined and predicted as a future at the time of their first ‘birthing’ − not to mention the subsequent multi-layered palimpsest of ever-changing contemplations of them since then, and since each infused subsequent layer? As soon as we express a thought ‘in words’ however, it is already in the past and instantaneously being reformed in a multifarious mist of memory layers − ever-changing filters. Perhaps Descartes’ words on existence “Cogito Ergo Sum” would read better as follows:
I THOUGHT, THEREFORE I WAS — I THINK, THEREFORE I AM — I WILL THINK, THEREFORE I WILL BE
Is it possible that we can ever be fully alive, or be aware of what we call existence, in only one moment or in any fixed or static notion of time or the ‘nature’ of things? It seems clear at least that we have to admit that we can’t really express existence accurately ‘in the present’ − in words!
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his Essay on Nature, said that “Nature is not fixed but fluid”
He was talking of the natural world but, in that we are all part of it, aligned to it, or one with it (perhaps we contain it or create it; or it contains or creates us − or both?) then surely it must follow that we too are ever-changing − fluid.
Is it thus that we can pour a part (or all) of ourselves into a poem, or creative piece of prose, or any creative act? Is that possible?
Maybe a part of what runs through a poet (an essence that exists on the cusp of ‘pre-thought’ and thinking) just prior to the writing of the words, is poured into, and rests in a poem. For us as writers, or as readers of another’s work, perhaps we just later find, remember, or discover it again?
Perhaps, if it is a successful poem or work of literature or of art, it will endure and we will actually be able, at least in part, to see it, live it − experience it . . . again?
Perhaps it is possible that we can travel in time not from a static A to a static B but actually through, with and ‘in’ a continuous time-realm; all as a complex but seamless fluid unity of ‘Existence’ with no beginning and no end?
Gaston Bachelard in his wonderful book ‘The Poetics of Space’ quotes poet and philosopher Noel Arnaud:
“I AM THE SPACE WHERE I AM.”
This statement, for me, rings and resonates with as much truth and authenticity as can be achieved with the blunt tool of ‘words’; after all ‘all words are ‘at best’ semi-lies: only attempts at a truth. In using words I believe that poetry, of all the literary forms, can hope to at least tilt closest to some notion of that other ‘old chestnut’ − ‘truth’.
‘Time’, like ‘space’, is also, after all, only a word, another concept, another dimension that we naively use to help try to locate ourselves in the vast and complex scheme of things; to try to pinpoint ourselves.
We seem to be an ever-moving variable within an immensely greater moving thing we call ‘existence’ which is not only spatial (as our concept of location in 3 dimensional space), but also contains ‘time’ as a 4th Dimension to it all. Perhaps many more dimensions exist not yet comprehendible to the human mind?
‘Time’, and within it ‘memory’, seems to add the kinetic energy that perhaps gives existence its feeling of aliveness.
Is it that we can’t fully realise that ‘the time machine’ has travelled, with us in it, or at least ‘some’ of us in it, into the past (or future) . . . until we are there; or until it − the poem/time machine − inspires us, or becomes us, again − in a mutual awareness?
Is it that the poem travels into the future (or the past) after it is written or read and, in that way, because we are in or ‘are’ the poem, we too travel?
Can poems possibly be infused with, or naturally contain, a mysterious ‘future implant’− a connection with others, with other links in the whole thing, that we just cannot comprehend or be aware of at the time of writing?
How or why for instance did Hopkins and his poem ‘Spring’ appear in my poem ‘This Petty Pace’ after over forty years – the last I heard or read it as a teenage schoolboy?
It is fascinating to me that a poem can potentially have such longevity − such power.
Do you think Hopkins for one minute thought he could travel in time (through or in his poem) and enter or ‘spring’ himself into my world, from what he probably thought then was his present − at two significant times of my life?
Perhaps he did? Perhaps he now does . . . perhaps he will again?
Perhaps I travelled back in time in my own ‘time machine’ to meet him?
Did we meet half way; or just align and see and hear one another momentarily on a parallel, or concentric, or overlapping, or . . . on some other ineffable path in our linked existence?
“The sensual man conforms thoughts to things;
the poet conforms things to his thoughts.
The one esteems nature as rooted and fast;
the other as fluid, and impresses his being there-on.”
R. W. Emerson
If they were able to have a ‘voice’ or have ‘just one’ opinion on their existence, ‘the senses’
(the pre-word − pre-cognition parts, of us), would probably express that they are inseparably conjoined with Nature and are in fact part of it (or that Nature is in, or part of, them).
Within the limitations of their purely sensory existence they certainly would be as authentic as they could be in that expression.
If they had the faculty of further thought and reasoning, then they may also be awakened to their inability (just like us) to ever have ‘only one’ opinion in the conscious/thinking world. Consciousness, like subconscious-ness seems to always be fluid − never static.
Everything in the universe appears to have its ‘ counter-thing’ or its ‘coloured baggage’ or its possibility of even . . . ‘not being’.
Poets know this:
“. . . all things counter, original, spare, strange;
fickle, freckled (who knows how?) . . . “
“. . . World is crazier and more of it than we think
incorrigibly plural. . . “
Louis Mc Niece
The purely sensual being, as in the animal kingdom, seems destined to be . . .
‘at one with Nature’: owning it − or being owned by it.
It is considered that a new-born baby may have something of this mode of existence, prior to the secondary (and often traumatic for many) birthing of thought/reason; a transition which is itself brokered through the medium of words and ultimately the limitations of language.
At the age of about two or three, psychologists believe that we all begin to come to the realisation (or is it a loss?) that we are not the whole of the universe − or even the hub from which it all extends. We seem to ‘forget’, or are forced to forget, our true essence.
This realization is one that is voiced potently in our first rant poems, in the language of ‘tantrum’, commonly entitled ‘The Terrible Twos’!
It would seem that most people never finish their poem and continuously rant all of their lives. Many poets simply replace their rattle and baby’s bottle and go through life holding a ‘slammer’s mike’ in one hand and a glass ‘half empty’ . . . in the other.
On first impressions, being ‘at one with Nature’ may appear to us, to be a beautiful and simple and desirable way to exist and to live − akin to our ignorant or romantic notions of wanting to live as ‘Sensual Man’ or wrongly seeing the Garden of Eden as a separate entity and not as only the middle panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych − The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Unfortunately, nature is not all a bed of roses and, even if it was, we would soon learn that kingdoms have their own dog-eat-dog hierarchies, and that sleeping dogs’ apparently fragrant beds, sometimes give lie to a painful and thorny ‘truth’.
All animals and purely sensory beings ultimately live in a Beckettian roundabout of pleasure and pain, with fear being an unavoidable component of their existence.
Reason and thought, and the words that give them voice (most successfully in poetry), are the ‘release agents’ that free us from the confines of the ‘only sensory’ world and the bonded attraction to material things: the bond and burden of ownership that the senses − in isolation − are destined to only ‘enjoy or endure’, as Rilke put it, “. . . the beauty and the terror . . .” of.
The ability to think, releases us from the despotism of the senses which could bind us to a limited notion of experience, an existence that is something that is . . . imposed ‘on’ us.
Within thought comes imagination, which then leads (all originating from the senses and memory) to expression of emotions − affection, attraction, repulsion, etc. (all of the myriad of causes & affect); and thus, what we ‘sensed’ initially as very clearly defined objects with sharp outlines and coloured and patterned surfaces, are no longer that; they become less outlined, less solid/concrete; they become blurred − less transparent and clear (and yet in a way also more clear); perhaps more aligned to the notion of spirit − something infused with a value or otherness as in the delicious awakenings in life that sometimes occur after periods of earnest looking or enquiry or . . . pain; or sometimes (just occasionally), they are gifted to us ‘out of the blue’ in a way that seems like coincidence; maybe it is synchronicity orchestrated by some other ‘energy’ outside of our comprehension?
This awakening (whatever it is), can hit us like a time-bomb that shatters all static or reason-able notions of time or existence; such that it, in its new ‘atomised adrift-ness’, is then infused as a value − another living dimension, into everything we encounter.
All of nature is then ‘fluid’ − ever changing. Its existence (and ours) depends on our ability to have an awareness of being ‘within’ time − being able to think (or exist) in past, present and future tenses simultaneously both consciously and unconsciously − or to at least to consciously keep re-contemplating and re- membering that as a possibility.
A flawed reasoning around the concept of time (at worst a static or linear notion of it) and the misconception that it is possible to consciously ‘live in the moment’, is I think, the shadow that prevents us from being able to clearly see or know that we can’t actually have ownership of anything − we can only be part of it all (or is ‘it’ part of us?).
It is not possible to own or to be consciously at one with, anyone/anything . . . even our own thoughts, memories or imagination; particularly as these too are destined to always be non-static, retrospective and reflective . . . or at least coloured by experience’s conscious and subconscious imprints. There are always compromised and fluid memories and the feelings that are attached to them.
Unlike in the animal kingdom we, as human beings, seem to exist somewhere beyond the natural world but in a way that also includes it.
It is in his nature to be supernatural;
like the time when he first flew
in a dream and wrote a poem, and instantly
knew that all poetry is non-fiction: that all
conscious and unconscious thoughts are real.
He says this with the elation that a lark has,
singing high in the blue of a summer sky
when his spirit flies and he seems as free
of friction . . . as a swift; that eats and mates
and even sleeps and dreams—on the wing
and only comes to rest to nest; to bring about
what (maybe) came first—once again: the head-
splitting dumb refrain of the chicken-and-egg
conundrum, that doesn’t really feature in the
earthy, non-down-to-earth nature of his poems.
John D. Kelly
Ownership is only another word (a ‘lie’) − a concept that could itself only be possible within the notion of a moment. Conscious living in the moment however is not possible in this wonderfully mercurial world that doesn’t seem to have a beginning or an end, or certainly − like the chicken and egg conundrum − seems to have no extremities we could ever, ‘get our heads around’. Ownership is thus not something to be desired or worth wasting time on.
The native Americans had some understanding of this.
The Australian native peoples also have some handle on this difficult stuff relating to time, place, perception, memory and existence that ‘purely conscious /rational heads’ will never ever grasp.
They have words such as alcheringa, bugari, djugurba, tjukurpa, ungud, and wongar which have been translated (albeit roughly) as meaning − ‘dreamtime’. They themselves now use this word which they in turn ‘understand’ as ‘all-at-once’ time. In this dream world they can travel along ‘song lines’ or ‘dream tracks’ that are at one with past, present and future.
Is this not similar to what happens in the act of writing or reading poetry?
Is a poem not also a living song − or part of a song line that enables us to connect into (and perhaps sing with) some notion of an ineffable otherness through and with which we can travel ‘in’ time?
Can so-called rational thought and, sometimes seemingly irrational, imagination/dreamtime and creativity be connected and brokered, within a fluid continuum of time (free from notions of ownership or stasis). . . within an ever-changing living ‘past—present—future’− through the ‘alchemic time machine’ that is poetry.
Recently on Achill Island off the west cost of Mayo, in a pub appropriately called The Annexe, I noticed a small brass plaque on the counter behind the friendly barman. The ‘poem’ on it read:
“FREE PINTS HERE TOMORROW!”
At once − out of the blue − as if by pure magic, I was looking into the mirror above it and my poet’s hat appeared on my already blurred and bald head, and I was able ‘in that moment’ (or so it now seems) to break through − beyond the joke-poem, to be there; to spend the next five minutes as if it was an eternity — surfing on a deliciously and decadently never-ending session of pints and pleasure − the ‘time machine’ having travelled me far into it all; where, in my semi-conscious/sub-conscious state, I met up with Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas and the shadow lifted, and I found true enlightenment . . . and comfort in Brendan’s words − within the syntactical blur of his slur;
“John . . . I’m not a poet with a drink problem — I’m a drinker with a writing problem!”
“Me too Brendie — me too.
Now it is your round . . . if my memory serves me well . . . or is it to be Mr. Thomas’s?”
Yes, I think that’s what I . . . will say − but not until tomorrow!
John D. Kelly
If you liked this essay by John D. Kelly you will also enjoy THE EKPHRASIS OF ABSTRACT AND MONOCHROMATIC PAINTINGS
We met the group next morning and shared the 4w drive of our guide, David, for our trip to Wadi Sareen Wildlife Reserve, about 50kms south east of Muscat where we hoped to see the Tahr. David had been in Muscat for thirty years and had seen all the changes taking place from the time when the country had no government and no infrastructure, and a sultan who was paranoid about Western influences so kept the country closed off from the rest of the world. David had been a civil engineer in the British Army and later in the Airforce and it was then that he had become interested in conservation. He still kept his sheep farm in North Wales and since he had taken over the conservation of the Tahr programme he spent his time between Wales and Oman.
He began the project in 1973 to set up a reserve for the Arabian Tahr which is found only in the Northern mountains in Oman. It is a type of primitive goat whose population is under 5,000, which makes it in danger of extinction. It is one of the rarest mammals in the world. In 1976 Peter Scott, the naturalist, visited the area and said the Tahr was the rarest animal he had ever seen. The reserve is in Jebel Al Aswad (the Black Mountain) and in Wadi Sareen. The boundaries of the reserve are 200sq km, 179km of which are mountains which rise to 2,500 metres. Bedouins moved into the area with their sheep and goats, which threatened the habitat of the Tahr, and hunting brought them almost to the verge of extinction. Because of David’s work there are now laws to prohibit hunting and the Ministry of the Environment gives money to the Bedouin tribes to keep their goats out of the area and to stop hunting, in addition to supplying them with building materials to build houses. Before this, they erected palm-leaf shelters and moved into caves in the winter.
Local tribesmen were appointed as rangers to take care of the area and the public is not allowed into the reserve without a special permit from the Diwan of the Royal Court. When this began in the 1970’s one tribe who lived high in the mountains was outraged at being told to stop hunting. The chief held a meeting in the souk (local market) and told everyone to kill all the rangers then shoot the Tahr and bring them to the souk to sell, as they had always done. He then issued David with a death threat and went after him with a rifle. David went into hiding and the tribesman was eventually found under a tree. He was summoned to the local Wali (governor) and reprimanded. He claimed he had only intended to shoot himself so he was forgiven and David was asked by the Ministry to find him a job.
On the way into the wadi we stopped at a small Bedouin village, Sayh al Qahmah, which has a population of seventy. The houses were all about twenty years old. Here, David had set up a handicrafts centre. The locals were expecting us and came out with their crafts, which were woven camel trappings. Soon we were surrounded by women and children while the men kept watch to make sure we didn’t photograph them. Some of the young men spoke good English and one told me he was studying for a Diploma in Accountancy at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. As I watched the women, dressed in traditional clothes of bright colours and leggings with embroidered cuffs, surging around us trying to sell their wares, talking non-stop, I was struck by the contrast with the new generation of English-speaking young men. One of them told me he studied in Muscat but came home every weekend. He said that although I could not photograph the women I could photograph the children. The current sultan has encouraged people to stop marrying their first cousins, but the custom is still deeply-rooted in traditional villages. Sickle-cell anaemia amongst the inhabitants is one of the problems which has been perpetuated by in-breeding.
In another village we met the local sheik, the first ranger of the reserve. He told us he had three wives and thirty eight children. We examined a traditional wolf trap made of stones. Those traps are now outlawed because the wolf is also an endangered species, but they go after the goats and sheep so the villagers trap them. The villagers all turned out to wave as our convoy of six 4w drives went past.
We travelled through the mountainous area on rough steep tracks in a landscape of spectacular beauty with grey mountains stretching jagged peaks into the sky, stopping to see the grave of the first Tahr reared in captivity in 1974. This was a young female that David had reared. He said it developed an eye infection so he took it to the eye specialist at a hospital and sat in a queue of women holding their babies while he held his Tahr. The eye specialist treated the Tahr and bandaged its eye. It recovered but died seven months later. He said he and his team learned a lot about the animals from this experience. He buried the young Tahr in a rocky grave with a flat stone over it and said he was going to place a plaque there before he left Oman for good. He referred several times to “my little Tahr in the mountains”. He also pointed out a spot where years ago he had tried to get a helicopter organised to collect a woman who had been bitten by a snake. The husband at first refused to let her go because he wanted her treated by local methods. When they contacted the RAF helicopter in Muscat they couldn’t find the one pilot who knew how to get there. No one had a map because the one map of the area had been given to someone else who couldn’t be found either. David took the woman in the back of his land rover and started driving to the hospital, but she fell into a coma and died on the way.
With this story he warned us to watch out for carpet snakes which look like vipers and are lethal. At that time of day, he said, they lay on top of flat rocks with their heads turned towards whatever approached. He warned a couple to keep an eye on their two children and not let them turn any stones over in case snakes were underneath. He said we were certain to see some as there were many in the area. We had to park the vehicles and continue up the wadi on foot, over rocks and up steep tracks, and along the remains of an old falaj, a traditional irrigation system by which water flowed through channels cut into the earth. I was very nervous, thinking about the snakes, but to my relief, we didn’t see any. We walked to the source of the water, which came out of a spring through a crack in the side of a mountain and all around it there was lush vegetation, including wild orchids. A weaver bird’s nest hung off a twig sticking out of the rock face and enormous brightly coloured dragonflies and fat bees flew around it. The acacia trees, growing in abundance in those bare mountain regions and wadis, provide the nectar for the bees. The Bedouins feed huge quantities of it to their camels to make them grow.
We clambered back down the way we had come, got into the cars and drove back down Wadi Qiyd to Wadi Sareen. Upstream we found a large shady tree under which to have our picnic lunch. It’s called the Sidr tree or Crown of Thorns. The Latin name is Ziziphus spina christi, which means Christ’s thorns. It certainly did have thorns, several of which stuck into me when I sat down. I wondered if the crown of thorns was made from that kind of tree.
After the picnic we drove up onto the Theremdi plateau. Here the mountains were in shades of rose, amber and slate. David said he had often camped there and described how the colours of the rock intensified and changed as the sun went down. We walked to the edge of the plateau and looked down dramatic buttressed cliffs to the wadi, 1,000 metres below. David told hair-raising stories about the times he had slept on mountain ledges when he was young. Although we didn’t see the Tahr, his passion for these endangered animals and his life’s mission to save them from extinction were unforgettable. It was an extraordinary day in the company of an extraordinary man.
Edward Lee -Absence Eased
My daughter lives forty-eight kilometres from me in the house I bought with her mother, the house I still own; the family home, but I have not spent more than thirty minutes in it in over a year. My daughter’s mother, my ex-partner, lives there too.
Forty-eight kilometres, not that far. A forty minute drive, if the traffic is good, sixty minutes if it isn’t. Not that far at all. Not a single hour of any day passes without me being aware that she is forty-eight kilometres from me, when once she used to be under the same roof as me and I saw her everyday, that I can not simply walk into a room and see her there. And then there are days when those forty-eight kilometres feel like a thousand kilometres, two thousand, twenty thousand. There are days when it feels as though my daughter lives on another planet, non-traversable within the one lifetime. Those days, coming with no rhyme nor reason, weigh down my heart with a force I imagine equal to the crushing pressures of the deepest parts of the sea, those lightless places where humans cannot thread without sturdily constructed submersibles. Every day I do not see my daughter is a hard day, but those crushing days bring with them a pain sharp and blinding in its ferocity; on those days I barely recognize myself as a human being, so complete and all-consuming is the pain.
The only comfort I can find on those days, beyond looking at pictures and videos of her – every electronic device I own full of both – is by speaking to her on the phone, or via Skype, but because of school and the surrounding daycare I have to wait until the late evening before I can make these calls. Even then there is no guarantee that I will get to speak to her, for a variety of reasons, some I understand, some I do not, neither set safe for me to dwell upon too much least I risk a hard anger rising in the centre of my being, coiled tightly around a helix of sadness and bitterness, and if I were to find it within myself to write about either set of reasons it would not take long for my words to disintegrate into jagged shards of vitriol and insults, which is of no use to anyone, myself included, and my daughter especially, who some day may read these words, or words I have already written or will write in the future, and there are things she does not need to know, even when she is old enough to fully process and understand them (nothing sinister, nothing untoward, simply the byproduct of the fragmenting, and subsequent personal and legal dismantling, of a long relationship, with words and finger-pointing guided more by emotions than sense).
If I were lucky, these crushing days would descend within the thirty hours I get to see her, contained within every second weekend, but seeing as I am spending that time with her, that is rarely the case. So, with no other avenue of ease available to me – and how I discovered this particular avenue I am not entirely sure, the idea seemingly appearing in my mind one hard day fully formed – I watch one of the many TV programmes she watches, programmes we used to watch together when I was a stay-at-home-dad and my life made sense. With my body shaking with a sadness I cannot endure, tears usually threatening in my eyes, if not already freely flowing, I will switch on the TV or pick up my phone and watch Teen Titans Go, The Amazing World Of Gumball, or Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, and in doing this I find myself feeling closer to my daughter, imaging her beside me, or picturing her reaction to whatever might be happening on the screen, or, if it is an episode we have both seen too get her, recalling what her reaction had been and imagining it new. I understand that this may seem pathetic. I might even conceded that I can imagine that, if I were not a father made absent, and read of some similarly afflicted father doing this to be closer to their child, I would view that man as pathetic, and if not pathetic, then feeble, weak, or even demasculinzed (all accusations, I must admit, I have levelled at myself since this absence was bestowed up me). I would probably have gone as far as telling this half-man to man up and pound on the door of his daughter’s home, demanding, insisting, to see his daughter and refusing to leave until he was able to see her (and again, I have thrown these at myself, simply ignoring the fact that the world is far from a black and white place). But, pathetic or not, it works, it gives me comfort. It eases the harshness of an absence that has effectively become another aspect of my life, an ailment almost, an illness or injury with with I have to come to terms with if I am to have any hope of living a life which is in any way productive. And it is a part of my life, a necessary and unavoidable part. I am a father, like countless fathers across the world, who sees his child far less than he would wish. This is my life, and everything else, be it writing, or try to find my way again in the dating world, or working at a job I don’t want but need so I can pay my bills, or any of the other things which fill out a life, have to revolve around it.
These programs she watches, as she gets older, I imagine they will change as they have already changed from Peppa Pig, Ben And Holly, and Barbie: Life In The Dream-house. I enjoy watching these current shows, especially Teen Titans Go, being a card-carrying comic book geek since my early teens, because unlike most of the shows that existed when I was a child, they are well made and not insulting to the intelligence of the child, not some throwaway entertainment created solely to distract a child for ‘x’ amount of minutes. They are funny, and knowing. They are fully aware that there will be adults watching them, and shape many of their jokes accordingly. When she once agains moves onto other shows I do not doubt that I too will move onto those shows, watching them to better endure the distance between us; they may be shows I do not like, like I never liked Peppa Pig or Ben And Holly, but just as I watched them, I will watch these new ones, because my daughter watches them.
On the weekends I see my daughter we will invariably do anything she wishes to do, within reason of course, though even then, wrapped so tightly as I am around her little finger, she is easily able to flash her blue puppy eyes at me and get pretty much anything she wants. Sometimes she wishes to go to a play centre or playground, other times she wishes to go to a stationary shop and buy some pens or notebooks and stickers. Occasionally I bring her to art galleries and museums, talking through each painting and piece which engages her interest. Most times we draw or read together. Always she wants to go to a toy store, because what child does not? And sometimes, she simply wishes to watch TV, and that is what we do, she sitting on me, or beside me, her legs thrown across my lap, or sometimes my head, or some such variation, always wanting to have some physical contact with me, speaking of how she herself feels about our distance without using words. We watch and we laugh and we talk and we exist, father and daughter, and my world makes some sense again.
Also By Edward Lee on The Blue Nib, Blight
Eastbound Platform 2 is a swirl of sticky air that smells of hot rubber and old breath. The Piccadilly Line map framed on the tiled wall the far side of the track reads destination Cockfosters. But it’s Gloucester Road for you today, not the end of the line. Nor Ealing Common, in itself a final destination.
Cornflower skies spool above the train as it passes through the endless expanse of Hounslow. Passengers get on board dressed in much the same fare as those fresh off flights lugging hard shell suitcases. T-shirts and shorts are uniform. London is upbeat in July. I didn’t notice that on my first trip to Ealing twenty years ago but I can remember what I wore that day: a pair of £7 Dunnes Stores black trousers and a white zip up hoodie, also from Dunnes. And then, just as now, Wimbledon was on.
Bars and eateries around the station at Gloucester Road are festooned with tennis ball décor in homage to the tournament underway nearby. The plate glass front of a cocktail bar is embellished with crystal ice buckets brimming with green neon balls. Bottles of Veuve Cliquot placed beside them wear signs offering a ‘watch the tennis with a glass of bubbly only £25’ special. You struggle to see what is so special about £25 for a glass of fizz and a free to air match. In Ealing it had been £25 for the consultation, then £380 for the rest. The rates that Provident had charged on the loan, now they were ‘special’.
Queen’s Gate soaks in sunshine; Maseratis and Porsches gleam in all manner of lavish waxes. Great pillars guarding glossy doors add whitewashed brilliance. The broad terraces lined with identical houses are swollen with warmth and wealth. In all this sunshine Imperial College doesn’t have the draw it should. You would much rather pass by and head for a stroll around Hyde Park. But there’s a conference on and that’s why you’re here. A dark haired girl locks eyes with you on the footpath. She wears a lost look, measuring up whether she can approach but you beat her to it. “Are you going to the conference?” you ask. “Yes, is this the place?” she nods towards the red-bricked wall of a building, a limp piece of paper in her hand. “Yes” you say, and you walk in together. It’s your first time having company in London. The last time you travelled alone.
Alone to Ealing, with no one to confer with for directions or whatnots. And there was no stopping passersby to query the address – that would have confirmed you as a cliché: Irish girl lost in London seeks help. You found your way like so many before. There had been red bricks in Ealing too, dark red, stained with age and weather. The property was a beautiful Victorian house on Mattock Lane: a leafy street of old worldly houses. Early morning strollers took advantage of the peace of Walpole Park as you passed it that morning. Leisurely and peaceful: the exact opposite of how you felt. The only aspect that demarked the property from the others was a small blue sign affixed beneath one of the upstairs windows. It named the its founder – Marie Stopes. That’s not exactly true, another telling feature was a small group of people huddled on the footpath outside, some holding posters, others turning their heads to fix on anyone who may have been approaching the address. Any women. Any distressed and worried women. Quite the welcoming committee. The things they said to you as you walked towards the gate never registered. You’re not sure you heard them at all, although you remember someone saying a Hail Mary. Good of them really, you needed all the support you could get. Head down, you ignored their gory posters and made your way to the front door. Behind you a mother and daughter came up the path. The daughter turned out to have an appointment at 8:30 also. She was younger than you, mid-teens probably. She spoke to the receptionist in a heavy London accent. Her skin was dark, her hair in a carnival of braids. She wore a pink tank top that showed off her flat stomach. Her Diesel jeans were embellished with pink diamantes to match. You felt fat and rural. You also felt desperately sick as you had done for weeks. Nausea that never left you. Nausea that had meant you had to leave your exams many times to spew yellow bile in the toilets. Nausea that would result in you not having done as well as you had hoped in those exams although you wouldn’t find that out until the results landed on the doormat in August.
Results that ultimately weren’t to matter. You are at the conference today and it has all been down to hard work and that inner compass guiding you towards your destination. The Londons of July 1999 and July 2019 are a world apart. Gone are the pale-faced women, worn from their red-eye flights, hiding their Gaelic tongues, pretending they have family in London so they can be discharged and return on the last cheap flight to save themselves the overnight rate in the clinic. Tonight you will stay near Earl’s Court, many miles from Mattock Lane.