and she says ‘hey, how u doing?’

and I smile ‘fine’ into the phone

if she’d Skyped, I’d not have answered

cos then she would have known

that I am lying on the bedroom floor

a starfish on a rug

glass of wine, stinging eyes

desperate for a hug

that I worry I’m not coping

that I feel like throwing up 

that cannot keep up with my work

that I’m frightened when it’s night
I ask her how she’s doing

‘Oh,’ she says, ‘I’m fine

Fine, Holly McNish 

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“In other versions I am a ghost or a doctor. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.”

Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers 

“At night I dream about my replacement mourner, a woman. She has lost her mother years before and because she is already grieving she just continues attending funerals for a price. Like a wet nurse, the pre-requisite is a state of ‘already grief.'”

Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Claudia Rankine – Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Full of surprise and humour and melancholy, this is a beautiful book that offers insight after insight.

Even to try to characterise what Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is about risks over-simplifying a complex and subtle piece of writing – mis-representing as about this or that. There’s so much more to it than any one thing. But it’s main theme, it seems to me, is how people – who are fundamentally defined by their relation to and perceptions by others – can live in an individualised culture where sharing and emotion are bottled up and replaced by TV and pills. 

This is done through short vignettes, anecdotes and aphorisms about racism, TV, friends, traumas, drugs, movies – modern American life. They are readable and light, but the messages they convey – the ideas they express – are big.

There is no formal structure to her book as far as I can see, but what she often does is introduce a concept through an anecdote or story or two. Then perhaps clarify that concept with reference to a quote – Hegel gets a few mentions in this book. And then she’ll tell more stories or anecdotes to give perspectives on it or to amplify it.

I love the way she starts so many of the vignettes with ‘Or’, using them as ways to explain or bring alive an idea, gently circling it, exploring it from different angles, gradually moving the ideas and the book along. And I love the way it’s hard to see any parts of this in isolation – you could read them as single pages but you get so much more when you read page after page of her gentle insights. A remarkable and rare book.

“This week the indie channel is playing and replaying Spaghetti Westerns. Always someone gets shot or pierced through the heart with an arrow, and just before he dies he says, I am not going to make it? Where? Not going to make it where? On some level maybe the phrase simply means not going to make it into the next day, hour, minute, or perhaps the next second. Occasionally, you can imagine, it means he is not going to make it to Carson City or Texas or somewhere else out west or to Mexico if he is on the run. On another levels always implicit is the sense that it means he is not going to make it to his own death. Perhaps in the back of all our minds is the life expectancy of our generation. Perhaps this expectation lingers there alongside the hours of sleep one should get or the number of times one is meant to chew food – eight hours, twenty chews, seventy-six years. We are all heading there and not to have that birthday is to not to have made it.”

Claudia Rankine, Don’t let me be lonely

 

Everyday surrealism in Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars

There is something captivating about a book of poems that begins with a sperm whale explaining that he is “attracted to the policies of the Green Party on paper but once inside the voting booth my hand is guided by an unseen force”, who has a brother, Jeff, that “owns a camping and outdoor clothing shop in the Lake District” and who notes, simply, “I keep no pets.”

The sperm whale is bluntly accurate, too, in why he was ‘christened’ with this name:

“The first people to open me up thought my head was full of sperm, but they were men, and had lived without women for weeks, and were far from home. Stuff comes blurting out.”

From The Delegates which tells of two Professors skipping the Conference of Advanced Criminology to go shoplifting, to The Experience, in which the narrator Terry finds himself out grave robbing with Richard Dawkins, Seeing Stars is a fantastic book of vignettes, poems, micro stories, none more than two pages long.

What form of writing this is exactly I’m not sure, but it packs a significant punch, making surprising contrasts and surreal yarns in order to reveal the ridiculousness of aspects of life which sometimes go unnoticed or unquestioned.

The inner thoughts of jaded but intelligent animals is not a major device in the book but one that works well. Like this from The Last Panda:

“Unprecedented economic growth in my native country has brought mochaccino and broadband to where there was nothing but misery and disease, yet with the loss of habitat the inevitable consequence; even the glade I was born in is now a thirty-storey apartment block with valet parking and a nail salon.”

The panda, not surprisingly, is nostalgic for better times, like so many others, adds:

“The sixties did it for everyone, I mean EVERYONE, and what people fail to grasp about Chairman Mao was despite the drab-looking suits and systematic violations of basic human rights he liked a good tune as much as the next man.”

“What happens formally in Citizen, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Plot is an obsessive circling of the subject. Many positions are inhabited relative to a line of enquiry. It’s like one of those mirrored rooms where the spectator sees the same thing repeated in different variations and from different angles.

“Didn’t feel it the first time? Here it is again. We don’t get there by saying it once. It’s not about telling the story, it’s about creating the feeling of knowing the story through the accumulation of the recurring moment.

Claudia Rankine interviewed in the Paris Review, Winter 2016.

Race and rage in Citizen by Claudia Rankine

This is a powerful reflection on the everyday experience of racism in contemporary America and it’s psychological and emotional impact.

At its core, I think, is the idea that daily acts of racism – sometimes subtle, sometimes less so – pervade interactions between people and these inevitably and understandably build up into occasional acts of rage by those who experience constant racial discrimination.

The subtle racism is highlighted through poetry, essays and short insightful vignettes covering everything from stop and search on the streets of Ferguson to professorial conversations at elite universities. 

One of the strongest pieces is a lyrical essay on Serena Williams who has experienced spoken and unspoken racism through her career, despite being perhaps the most successful ever female tennis player.

The essay is set against Zora Neal Hurston’s phrase: ‘I feel most coloured when thrown against a sharp white background.’ Tennis, surely the whitest sport there is, exemplifies the significance of this insight, as Rankin’s essay shows.

This sense of eruptions of rage is brought to life in a small section of quotes from the likes of Franz Fanon and Zinidan Zidan. The latter , a French Algerian, famously ended the final football match of his successful career by head butting another player after he made a racist insult about Zidan’s mother. In the context of Citizen, his action can be understood as an act of uncontrolled rage that appears occasionally among those who experience continuous racial discrimination.

Citizen is also a book that allows you to make connections to other things – to the concept of displacement in psychoanalysis, that of ressentiment in Nietzsche, as well as films about resistance to colonisation like the Battle of Algiers. And it makes you realise how art can reveal feelings that are hidden or misunderstood.

The honest melancholy of Sian Hughes’s The Missing

This is poetry unadorned and raw. It hardly feels like you’re reading verse, so different is Sian Hughes’ collection The Missing from common views of poetry as flowery or difficult.

Rather than dealing in similes and metaphors, Hughes’ writing is direct, almost prose-like if it weren’t so effective. In just a few short lines of everyday language she can nail descriptions and encapsulate emotions.

Like the evocative Fireworks on Ward 4C, so vivid you can picture the scene and almost feel the disappointed desire and sadness in the room:

The lights are out in the playroom
where gathered at the windows
on flimsy metal legs a small crowd
of saline drips and monitors
send out quiet illuminations
in response to the distant trees.

Only the rockets reach us here.
A series of explosions at ground level
do no more than colour the sky dark green
as we wait for the next high-pitched yell
to descend into a whining thump
and a spray of pink and yellow stars.

The themes of the collection are around the death of a child, grief, soured and dysfunctional relationships. Many of the poems have glimmers of humour, but what is strongest throughout is an honest melancholy.

This, from the most famous poem in the collection, The Send-Off, for example, which documents the death of a baby:

No, you don’t need a bottle, cuddle,
special rabbit, teddy, bit of cloth.

You don’t even need to close your eyes.
They were born that way, sealed shut.

You are a hard lesson to learn,
soft though you are, and transparent.

There’s a mark on your forehead –
the simple flaw that separates
the living from the dead.

It looks like I dropped you downstairs.
I didn’t. I promise. It was like this:

somebody did some counting
and when they added you up

they found one part of you didn’t match.
It’s supposed to come out even.

You’re beautiful because you’re classically trained

I’m ugly because I associate piano wire with strangulation

You’re beautiful because you stop to read the cards in newsagents’ windows about lost cats and missing dogs

I’m ugly because of what I did to that jellyfish with a lolly stick and a big stone

– Simon Armitage, You’re Beautiful

Just a brilliant opening to an entertaining, honest and acccurate poem.

 

Come on in! – Charles Bukowski

Come on in! is an evocative book of poems that conjures up a visceral sense of down-at-heel urban America.

There are themes here which won’t surprise: alcoholism, cigarettes, poverty, sex, cheap apartments, homelessness. But also reflections on being a successful writer and the contrast between the down-and-out years and the later years of Bukowski’s life.

The style of poetry is distinctively Bukowski’s: paired down language and short lines, often just a few words, are used to create strong feelings, with occasional metaphors or pieces of imagery that bring the whole thing to life. Like this:

but I cannot sleep and I sit in the kitchen

with a big black fly

that goes around and around and around

like a piece of snot grown a

heart,

– from first family

 

The comparison with the beat poets is an obvious one, but Bukowsi isn’t trying as hard as Ginsberg et al and so he impresses so much more with his simplicity. Like this, a poem that is in fact about the beats:

my opinion remains the

same: writing is done

one person

at a time

one place

at a time

and all the gatherings

of

the

flock

have very little

to do

with

anything.

 

any one of them

could have made

a decent living as a

bill collector or a

used car

salesman

 

and they still

could

make an honest living

instead of bitching about

changes of fashion and

the ways of fate.

– from the ‘Beats’

There’s something a little samey about reading these poems one after another; it is best, perhaps, to dip in and read five or so at a time. They are, though, wonderful bits of writing. Short, often vignette-like; this is poetry as its simplest, rawest, funniest, most surprising.

Grief is the thing with feathers – Max Porter

Grief is the thing with feathers is astonishing: part poem, part novel, part collection of aphorisms; it is funny, intensely sad and wise at the same time.

It’s a simple set up, describing how a father and his two young sons cope – or not – with the death of the much loved wife and mother. It alternates between the perspective of the Dad and the Boys, with short often poetic descriptions of episodes or feelings, taking them chronologically from the early days to reflections many years later.

What the approach reveals are some stark truths about loss, the often very different perceptions of the Dad and the boys of the same things, but also the closeness that the three of them feel for one another despite the hard experiences of loss they are going through.

That alone would be enough, but what gives the work an extra dimension is the appearance of a human size crow which comes to live with them after her death.

Crow is part of the father’s imagination and, it seems, represents grief. Crow is a foil, a practical joker, an ear, a guide, a protector and much more to the Dad. Crow does all those complex things that grief does and, because the feeling of grief seems so solid and tangible and immovable, the recalcitrant presence of a wild bird seems fitting.

Why a crow specifically? In part I assume because a crow, with its viciousness and wildness and blackness, is a fine representation of grief (a murder of crows is, after all, the collective noun). But also because the Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar. If I knew Hughes’ writing better I would, I guess, have seen countless references throughout Porter’s book.

And Crow is funny. The boys’ passages often lighten the mood, but not as much as crow’s. He is crude, cruel and a joker some of the time. After a few years the Dad has sex with someone for the first time since the wife died, for example. It’s a tender section, very poignant and raw, but then ends with Crow… ‘When I came down Crow was on the sofa impersonating me pumping and groaning.’

This is a short book with nearly every page containing some insight into love and loss. It is the kind of book to read more than once, to keep coming back to for more.