Excerpts from a reading journal completed as part of the MA in creative writing at the IIML
Hello, I begin June with a general update! It is pretty clear from all of the above that I have a lot of questions about writing, especially about the climate, many of them ethical, all of them unhelpful to the extent that I just angst over them rather than write. But I have had a breakthrough! Local girl uses brain! I have realised writing is simply a way of representing the world. This includes representation of its problems. So, it is enough to critically instantiate the issues, rather than feeling like I must personally solve all problems ever. I don’t know how it took me half a year to figure this one out, but it did. I think now of Dostoevsky’s characterisation of novels as being about the “accursed questions” rather than answers.
THE ALBERTINE WORKOUT — ANNE CARSON
Something I really admire about Anne Carson is her rigorous structures. This is something that I know I have more than a little difficulty emulating, though. Still, what is she really doing in The Albertine Workout, beyond numbering her sections? This reading journal has shown that I am very impressed when people number their sections. I think, wow, if only I too could have such clarity of mind.
I think the sparsity of Carson also contributes to her sense of control; the language is never flowery. Still, I quite like flowery, fire-y earthly ooze for my subject, but Carson does have a lot to teach me about economy. Or, in the wise words of David Byrne, Say something once, why say it again? Actually, considering I had already used the word economy, maybe I didn’t also need the quote. Oh dear. Anyway, the factual tone in Carson pleases me a lot:
23. Albertine’s face is sweet and beautiful from the front but from
the side has a hook-nosed aspect that fills Marcel with horror. He
would take her face in his hands and reposition it.
This sparse factualness is both clear and murky at once somehow, leaving much in mystery, but shining a light simply. I think I need such places of exposition too, places that don’t overdetermine, but nonetheless explain. I also like the idea that sometimes facts don’t diminish the sense of mystery, they enhance it.
I can be sparse too, in my own way—watch me drop those copulas.
THAT WINTER THE WOLF CAME — JULIANA SPAHR
Another effective mix of poetry and personal essay (prose poems?). Spahr puts the issue of environmental degradation at the fore of this book through her own protest experience. In fact most of it occurs in the urban (coffee shops, concrete streets), an interesting juxtaposition to the vision of wolves, and a telling one. It is very embodied, and made me think more about situating each and every poem, either very specifically or at least broadly.
It was also a slim thing, very short. It’s nice, at this point in the year, to remember that books can be short. They don’t have to do everything in the world! Or even a lot of things! They can just do one thing very well! I need a mantra reminder, or something. You are not Salman Rushdie, you are not Salman Rushdie…
Spahr resists the impulse to equate the human with the inhuman too easily:
if you were a clean long rain
do you think I could stand it?
but you are not a clean rain
and you are not pristine
YOU ARE NOT PRISTINE!!!
I also think bridging the gap between human and nonhuman is something that, when you do it, you should do slightly tongue-in-cheek, (unless you are doing it as an expression of cultural experience); half the problem is, after all, that we live in the urban and therefore struggle to fathom the natural, even while we are inextricable from and implicated within it.
Another thing I thought was clever was a moment where, (in ‘It’s All Good, It’s All Fucked’, my favourite piece, for obvious reasons), Spahr situates the act of writing within the poem itself:
One day, thinking my obsessive thoughts about Non-Revolution, I
walk into a coffee shop and sit down before my computer. By one day
I mean today. I mean right now. This is where I am now, writing this
story of the most minor of uprisings.
In situating the act of writing, Spahr reveals her inorganic reality; she does not want to immerse us in a false vision, but rather bring awareness to the contradictions and mundanities of her construction.
Poppy included the Rilke Letters to a Young Poet in her reading packet, which I missed because of Poor Time Management, but anyway. I am very grateful she included it. Writing this journal has helped me realise that writing is about the questions, rather than the answers; that the blank space I encounter when I come up against the important things is not a deterrent but a reason to write.
… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
This does seem like the point, to live everything, and to write it. To love it and live it. To write the questions, which one day could reveal themselves as the answers, to write them because you love them. And I am a Hollywood woman here, looking at some dark sticky tunnel through to an unknown end, wailing, It’s the only way! Because it does seem the only way, doesn’t it? To love the questions themselves. To write despite a complete lack of knowledge about what to do. To live despite it too.
CROW — TED HUGHES
Caw! Caw! I found a second edition copy, a little black clothbound thing, slinking in the corner of a (literally underground?!) poetry section of an Alexandra bookshop, a shop I noticed during a road-trip toilet stop and went into on a whim. Magical.
Crow was similar to Tamás’ Witch, or I suppose Witch was similar to Crow, in that it explored a vast theme or two through a central character (the titular character). Where Witch examines womanhood, Crow turns a beady eye to God and death. The conceit of having a central character to follow is tight, meaning that Hughes can basically do what he wants from there.
This makes Crow quite far-flying in subjects, as well as linguistically playful. Some of the most exciting parts, to me, were when the poems departed from Crow, panning to the wider world:
And I too am a ghost. I am the ghost
Of a great general, silent at my chess.
A million years have gone over
As I finger one piece.
The dusk waits.
The spears, the banners, wait.
(Crow Paints Himself into a Chinese Mural)
Hughes also uses capital letters, like in Witch, to convey messages or prophecies. There is a sort of booming resonance to the look of them.
There is also a lot of effective body horror in this book; that was my main impression, in fact, one of horror, like with the disembodied grin which ‘tried the face / in the electric chair’. There’s blood and limbs just flying absolutely everywhere (fitting for a carrion bird story?). Someone gets a brooch made out of her lover’s skull. Very metal, very slasher film. We are flashed ‘death’s mouldy tits’. An inverse birth occurs: ‘woman’s vulva dropped over man’s neck and tightened. Hughes seems terrified of women’s bodies especially. I am not quite sure I am built to handle this business, but I appreciate the commitment to an aesthetic, as well as the centrality of the body. (Jess said something to me about how important it is to put the body at stake in climate writing— because it is the body which is in danger, as well as the body of the earth). Still, I won’t be picking this up for a bit of light reading again. Some dark reading though? At midnight, in a crypt? Absolutely.
SELECTED POEMS 1923-1967 — JORGE LUIS BORGES
These poems bring together the personal, the political and the mythic with an ease that’s almost annoying. Borges writes without flinching. He writes like he questions the world, but not himself. He tries on personas, guises; he walks the streets of his beloved Buenos Aires, he walks the philosopher’s tightropes. He has self-respect. Maybe it was easy to have self-respect as a twentieth century man like Borges. To not feel like you had to apologise all the time, to doubt. I’m not sure. All I know is, I’ll have what he is having, and he is having dreams, vast dreams, dreams where you can flit in and out of other lives like all doors are open. In his world all things are alive. Daggers thirst for blood. A ‘piano was banging out tangos’.
But I suppose he does doubt, does Borges. He asks the questions in his poems; he is far from answers; he writes of the circle of time that so puzzled him, and so puzzles me too:
THE CYCLICAL NIGHT
They knew it, the fervent pupils of Pythagoras:
That stars and men revolve in a cycle,
That fateful atoms will bring back the vital
Gold Aphrodite, Thebans, and agoras.
It returns, the hollow dark of Anaxagoras;
In my human flesh, eternity keeps recurring
And the memory, or plan, of an endless poem beginning:
“They knew it, the fervent pupils of Pythagoras…”
He is also a lover of literally writing the questions:
What necessity is there to speak / or pretend to be someone else? (PLAINNESS)
Was the brightness burning far away a sunset or an / angel?
(SUNSET OVER VILLA ORTUZAR)
Who will tell us to whom in this house / we without knowing it have said farewell? (LIMITS)
Now is it a tree or a god there, showing through / the rusted gate?
(SUNSET OVER VILLA ORTUZAR)
Who is the sea, and who am I? (THE SEA)
I suppose he doubts well, that is the thing. He is a human man who doubts, but he does not flinch from it. He loves the questions themselves, lives them, lets the world hang open, possible, like a question mark, like a door into another life.