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Sheenagh Pugh
Considering how long most of us (and I mean poets, who tend to be non-drivers) spend waiting for and travelling on public transport, it's a wonder it doesn't generate more poems, at least in the UK. I suppose there are a few train poems, though nowhere near as many as in the US, where trains seem to be regarded as romantic rather than utilitarian, but buses are woefully under-represented; the only well-known poet I can call to mind offhand who wrote interestingly on and about buses is Louis MacNeice.

His buses (and trains) tended to be urban. The ones in this pamphlet (another pleasingly designed, well-produced publication from Calder Valley Poetry) are rural, set in the Calder Valley that gives said press its name. Not all the 24 poems are specifically set on, or waiting for, transport, but a lot are, and this does two things to the collection. It emphasises the sense of transience in a collection already haunted by mortality – "returning to our rest we remain in transmission" - and it affects the poet's and reader's way of seeing. This is a poetry of moments: things and people glimpsed in passing or experienced for a set period of time, and about which we can speculate but never be certain. Even the form, each poem confined to 12 lines, suggests a limited, though intense, experience in a confined space.

The eye (and the I) in these poems is forever looking in from outside; lights are seen in windows but we can only guess, rather than know exactly, what goes on behind them:
                                                  people
behind rows of small windows take tablets,
set the clock, do what they usually do.

The imprecision of that " do what they usually do" is entirely deliberate, a refusal to invent. Right from the start, these poems, undefined by titles, tantalise the reader with ambiguities, infinite possibilities that will never become certainties, things we think we have seen but are not sure or must then reassess. The opening of the first:
Red flicker through the trees. The last minibus
leaves from the station
takes us off-balance from the first two words. It is natural to read them as noun-verb, but then their number would not agree; we read "red flicker" expecting "red flickers" and must then go back and see adjective-noun rather than noun-verb. And hardly have we got our head round that, when the innocent-looking real verb "leaves", in the next sentence, returns our minds inevitably to the trees and turns verb into noun, singular into plural, the red flicker of the lights into autumn leaves falling…

This sort of ambiguity and uncertainty can in fact only be got via great sureness and precision in the use of language, a feature of the whole pamphlet. The way, on a journey, an unrecognised bit of landscape turns into a familiar one is beautifully captured:
Bits of fence and house-front left and right telling us
where we are, which is increasingly not a nowhere.
The metaphorical aspect of the "journey" is always mercifully understated, and we are never allowed to forget that whatever figurative connotations a "bright chariot" may have, it is also a bus lit up at night-time.

Because of the perspective of these poems, features which might normally irritate the reader need instead to be accepted, notably the partial communication of personal information. When "Michael/gets off at his cancelled pub", any reader except perhaps Michael and his friends will be baffled: in what sense cancelled? Licence revoked? Change of use? Is it an event that's been cancelled (but then why alight there?). We cannot know exactly what "cancelled" means, nor indeed whether it matters to an understanding of this poem, and normally that might be a problem, the kind of insiderish non-communication that excludes the general reader. But in a way, this is the whole point of these poems: the universe we are passing through is full of just such information and we are not given anywhere near long enough to fathom it, rather like the goods trains in these memorable lines:
To arrive, to stay, to become old, to learn
the details, the stone paths strung over the hills,
the football fields below. Goods trains passing through.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a 25-poem pamphlet (nicely produced by Calder Valley Poetry) with a definite scheme running beneath it. Though it becomes fairly evident as you read (and there are notes to help where it doesn't), I think an explanation is needed before I review it, because poems that are part of a narrative can't entirely be considered as stand-alones.

The first poem, "Zwillinge", sets up a myth; an Ur-woman bears twins, which are brought up apart in a sort of experiment, one with love and care and the other in neglect and abuse, with the results that might be expected: one grows up idealistic and well-intentioned, the other violent and depraved. Through the rest of the cycle, some poems concentrate on the "good" twin, some on the evil one, while others are more general commentaries on the history and nature of violence in the human condition. In the last poem the twins come together in an enterprise, at least so the notes say, for I don't think anyone could deduce it from the poem; we'll come back to that presently.

The idea of experiments on twins of course has Nazi echoes, but the cycle is careful throughout not to tie its mythology down to any one historical event, and the whole idea of twinhood is more archetypal than that. It is clear that in some sense the twins are always one, representations of the different sides of man's nature, at once reaching for the light and haunted by darkness, animal in nature yet striving with some success for rationality. It's also of course true in a literal sense that children brought up with bad role models and few opportunities are very liable to replicate the faults of those who acted as their parents. In Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, Ernest Pontifex gives up his children for adoption precisely because he fears he will be as bad a parent as his father and grandfather and wants to break the cycle. In more recent times, during the furore over the murdered child Peter Connelly ("Baby P"), who figures in this book, some pundit or other was criticised for saying that had the angelic-looking toddler lived and grown up in that environment, he would have become as violent as the adults who were his role models. This was self-evidently true; indeed these adults themselves were the product of just such homes, but nobody wanted to believe that smiling blond toddlers can turn into monsters (or, rather, that monsters were once blond toddlers capable of being saved).

It will be seen, then, that this poem cycle has some very interesting, thought-provoking ideas at the back of it. And its technique of never tying itself down to events, of assimilating specific events from different times and places in history, serves it well. In "The Death Dealer of Kovno", the Lithuanians who carried out an anti-semitic atrocity in 1941 are likened to a group of schoolchildren who carry out a bullying attack on a classmate in 1978, while in "Inyenzi" the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 is invoked in a poem about how what's sometimes termed the underclass in Britain is regarded by the media and society. It might seem at first that the larger atrocities are being devalued by comparison with the smaller, but this would be to miss the point, which is that the one can lead on to the other. "Inyenzi" means cockroaches, and is one of the terms used to dehumanise the Tutsi and make it easier for their killers to act as they did: they were deliberately turned into the "other". In this context, the language used of our own citizens in the poem is intentionally disturbing, because we see it doing essentially the same thing:
They were repulsive
some grotesquely corpulent
others skeletal on crack;
Special Brew faces shrunk reptilian,
They were toothless and hairless,
pimpled in blackheads and shiny with pus.

Nevertheless
they seemed to find each other attractive
and they mated continually and without compunction.
"Inyenzi" is a very powerful poem, one that could stand alone provided the reference in the title is not missed, and uncomfortably reminiscent of some of the language used in certain sections of print and online media. It is also one of the poems that might go to justify the contention in the notes that "the central argument of Werewolf is that state power can relatively easily induce and coerce humans into participating in violence, murder and genocide".

It is certainly the central argument of the "non-twin" poems, ie those that don't deal with the myth of the good and evil twins. I'm not sure, myself, that it is the central theme of the "twin" poems. These seem to me to deal far more with man's intrinsic nature than with his reaction to any political or any other circumstance. The "evil twin" poems, as one would expect, harp on the vein of violence that is inborn in man as in any naturally predatory animal. Both these and the peripheral poems mostly work, like "Inyenzi", by blending instances and peoples from different times and places – in "Spurn", the possibility of a death camp on the Humber estuary is envisaged, with sardonically observed and all too credible results:
In towns and cities, where once was blight,
now were parks and orchards.

Income tax was slashed.

The accounts were audited
and nothing was found amiss.
The ones, like "Fayasil", that do confine themselves to one historical time and place, without this constant cross-referencing, seem to me the less effective for it (though the unspoken reference to Adlestrop in the first line of "Fayasil" was pointed). And this, I think is why some of the "good twin" poems dissatisfy me a bit. The best of them is "Righteous Among the Nations", which does use the technique of cross-cutting between various folk who risk their lives for others. The last sentence, in a poem that celebrates great heroism, is a deliberate volte-face, reminding us that love for those we know can also make us fight the "other":
Greater love hath no man than this,
that he lay down his life for his friends. Strangers,
perhaps, enemies even. Maybe he'll kill for them.

But in at least three of the "good twin" poems, the idealist is confined to one context: he is a teacher. Now, if the main thing causing a child to go wrong is the home in which he's being brought up, there is a limit to what any teacher, however well-intentioned, can do to help, and these poems are indeed bleakly pessimistic, as also is "Every Child Matters", in which our idealist fosters a pair of children, but apparently too late to save them from the effects of the environment they were in before. At best, in these poems, there are tiny, temporary advances which are soon negated – a child learns to say thank you, but a few years later is joining in race riots in borstal: a girl makes some progress in class but then falls pregnant. Possibly we are meant to read the idealist's persistence as hopeful, but it would be just as easy to read this continual tale of disappointment and think, "why bother?"

I doubt if that was the intention, but the possibility is there, and made more likely by the final poem, the only one that doesn't work at all for me. In "Columblane", the note tells us, "the blessed twin's altruism and idealism leads him to join his monstrous brother in a school shooting". I'm glad the note was there, because I would never have guessed from the poem that the idealist twin was even present; there are clearly two people involved, but then there were at Columbine and neither of them was any sort of idealist. The conundrum of idealists who kill is a fascinating one; I have always wondered how doctors, in particular, can end up killing for Hitler or chucking bombs for ISIL, as they sometimes have. But I think he chose the wrong context in which to examine it. All the school shooters I have heard of have been archetypal losers, people who had a grudge against society because they weren't very good at dealing with it; certainly the Columbine shooters and Hamilton would seem to fall into that category. Of course motives are usually mixed, and there are losers who think themselves idealists; Anders Breivik probably thinks of himself as a right-wing hero, whereas to most of us he looks like a Billy No-Mates who never got over his mother's divorce. At all events, this poem doesn't convince me; the vision of suited middle-class men embracing their inner werewolf is bizarrely interesting but I could never see in it the figure of the ineffectual but well-meaning idealist he had built up from the earlier poems.

It's a pity, in a schematic collection like this, that the final poem in the narrative doesn't, for me, succeed in merging the twins as it was presumably meant to do. And I think it's also a pity that it causes the narrative to end on such an unredeemed, bleak note, which could easily be taken to be saying, "men are violent by nature and there's nothing to be done about it". Because there are, of course, idealists who make odds; for every Breivik there is, fortunately, a Nicholas Winton, but the thrust of this narrative seems to show idealists as essentially ineffectual, often hypocritical wafflers. Which no doubt some of them are, but it would be the greatest pity of all if readers reacted to the "good twin" poems with "why bother, then?"

Nevertheless, the poems in this collection which discuss individuals' propensity to violence, how they control it and how it can be exploited by the state are extremely thought-provoking and memorable, and mostly not because of their often harrowing subject matter but because of the skill with which it is handled. The jackdaw approach to history, assimilating different peoples, events and eras, brings home, as nothing else could, our essential likeness to each other, and viewing our own thoughts, words and actions through the glass of the "other" is as instructive now as it was when Euripides used the prism of the Trojan War to condemn the Athenian invasion of Melos. I don't think anyone could read "Inyengi" and not be, at least temporarily, more careful in their language, or "Spurn" and not wonder "could it happen here?"
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

Caz had a fragmented view of something impossible. Caught in the light of the torch was a huge body like a snail, boneless, fluidly rippling. Rust-orange marks striped its sides. Its flesh was an almost-transparent brown. Two pinpoint black eyes swivelled on long, slow muscles.

She swallowed a scream.

The huge moving mass streamed towards her, clogging the tunnel.

This is the sequel to At the World's End, also a Barrington Stoke book. The whole Barrington Stoke list is designed for children who have reading difficulties, to tempt them with books whose reading age is adapted to their ability but whose level of interest is suited to their actual age (this particular one is aimed at reading age 8, interest level teen). The label's remit includes the physical difficulties of dyslexia, hence the font and the off-white, non-see-through paper, but also the problems of "those who haven’t built up the reading stamina yet to manage complex language structures and non-linear plots."

Obviously this imposes constraints. It isn't just that you can't be too linguistically fancy: you can't make your plots and characters too convoluted either. These are not the kind of readers who will willingly look back and check on what they might have missed or mistaken, so you can't do much flipping between plot strands and time zones, nor play around with unreliable narration or morally complex characters who might be goodies, baddies or both by turns.

Since these are all formidable weapons in Fisher's normal armoury, you might expect her to have trouble doing without them. In fact, though, she simply gets down to it and deploys others. Linear narratives can be great page-turners, and this one is extremely pacy, culminating in what's basically a straight but very exciting race and duel. If the baddie must be unequivocally evil, he can also be very scary, and the unnamed white-haired man is all of that. And, being Fisher, she can still create surprises, as with the Giant Mutant Slugs… these monsters out of many a person's nightmare are first seen through the eyes of the protagonist Caz, who has every reason to react as she does to them, but when later we hear from a character who knows more about them… well, it would be wrong to get into spoiler territory.

Suffice it to say that this surely fulfils the remit; I can't imagine the child, reluctant reader or not, who wouldn't want to know "what happens next". When I reviewed this book's predecessor At the World's End, I hazarded a guess that there'd be a sequel, because everything seemed to point to Caz's journey not being complete. It is more so by the end of this one, but there is still a lot of narrative possibility in this ruined future world and when one of the characters says, near the end, "This is not over", I did wonder… At all events, it's great that these sort of books, by acclaimed authors, exist for children with reading problems and I'd certainly recommend them to anyone with such a child.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
"When I reached home on the last day of my accustomed life, the life I wanted, I spotted in the V of the mountains a ship newly anchored in the roads, with a few lumpy store ships I had seen the day before around it. This new ship was a sloop, fast and sleek."

The ship is the Icarus, which has arrived at St Helena in 1815, ahead of the main squadron which is bringing Napoleon Bonaparte to imprisonment there. The speaker is thirteen-year-old Betsy Balcombe, daughter of the Superintendent of Public Sales for the East India Company, who has lived most of her life on the island and will be as much a fish out of water away from it as Napoleon is on it. Betsy is based on a real person who left her memoirs, as did several other characters in the novel.

While the authorities are building the house at Longwood which will become his prison-compound, the great man lives in the Pavilion, a sort of rental cottage-cum-summerhouse in the Balcombes' garden, and Betsy becomes his friend. She is a spiky, intelligent, opinionated girl who chafes against the constraints of gender and propriety and is often her own worst enemy. The ex-Emperor, his own world shrinking around him, finds in her both a sparring partner and kindred spirit. She in turn is not immune to his personal charm, even though she can see its workings, as it were, and while she never does quite come to terms with his habit of cheating at whist, she dislikes it far less than she does the petty-minded, bureaucratic obsession with rules and regulations that characterises the island's governor, Hudson Lowe.

There are two remarkable achievements in this novel, and the first is the character of Betsy. Keneally has done singularly well to get so far inside a teenage girl's head and make her so believable. Whether she is provoking Napoleon with awkward questions, getting involved in pointless arguments with her family and obstinately refusing to get out of them, or locking a loathed rival in the lavatory, she is very real and, even at her worst, oddly sympathetic. It is only too credible that Napoleon, a man who seems to have missed out on childhood, should be so eager to join her in child's play and develop a sense of mischief which hitherto has had less harmless outlets.

The other achievement is the realisation of St Helena. On a human level it is a tiny place with a small, closed society, yet one with defined strata – European incomers, those born on the island, known as yamstocks, and imported slaves. Geographically it looks forbidding to Betsy at first: looming inhospitable rock as if, to quote one character, God hated bays. Yet when they penetrate to the interior she finds her new home "a vale of orchards and roses", and even among the steep escarpments waterfalls fall into heart-shaped bowls of rock. This outwardly forbidding landscape with hidden possibilities resembles Betsy's own character in some ways, and her sense of loss on leaving it is very easy to identify with.

In fact, this brings me to my only doubt about the novel: I am not sure it starts and ends in the right places; certainly it is far more alive on St Helena than in England and Australia. The first chapter, "After the Island", one of those prologues set after the story's events, is a really slow start; I struggled to feel at all involved with it. What it does in the way of introducing the family, and relating Napoleon's death, could be done elsewhere and I think myself the story would be the better for beginning with the family's move to St Helena. As for the end, I can see why he wanted to follow the family to Australia, which is after all where he and his audience live, but again I am not sure the Australian scenes add much. It's one of those novels that don't so much end as come to a stop, at what feels like a fairly random point. Its true end, it seems to me, is when Betsy leaves St Helena, which is both the home of her spirit and the place where the most momentous encounter of her life occurred.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
26 April 2016 @ 11:19 am
Here's a question on which I'd appreciate the views of my hist fic-writing friends. What do you think of anachronism or near-anachronism used as a deliberate technique to lessen the reader's distance from the material? I'm re-reading The Last English King by Julian Rathbone and in the author's note he points out that "occasionally characters, and even the narrator, let slip quotations or near quotations of later writers or make oblique reference to later times. Some will find this irritating. For reasons I find difficult to explain, it amuses me and may amuse others. But it also serves a more serious purpose - to place the few years spanned by this book in a continuum which leads forward as well as back." Nothing new under the sun, in other words. This is an example of what he means: the year is 1069 or thereabouts and his protagonist, a Saxon Englishman called Walt, has just arrived at the town of Nicaea with his companion, a Frisian ex-monk called Quint:
There was a small crowd near the gate happy to be entertained by a couple of mountebanks, one who ate flames and spewed them back again, another who twanged away at a tuneless lute and wailed nasally above the noise he extracted from it. A sad ditty about how the answer to everything was blowing in the breeze. None of this was to Quint's liking.
Now in the first place he was right about being amused: I nearly had a coffee moment. But it did sort of work the other way too; I could see what he meant about the continuum and for a moment I was very much there with Quint (and sharing his musical tastes).

I had a somewhat similar reaction on reading Andrew Drummond's hilarious novel Volapük, set at the end of the 19th century, when I came across the character of Sir Thomas Urquhart, a real person who, were he still living at the time of the novel, would have been some 200 years old. Volapük is about the creation, use and misuse of language, and the impossible Sir Thomas merely emphasises the timelessness of its theme.

I haven't noticed this very much in historical fiction, but maybe I haven't been reading enough of the right stuff. Is it a more common technique than I thought? And do my hist fic friends use it themselves?
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Generally I choose new books to review on the blog. This time I'm reviewing a book published 18 years ago, quite simply because it's still one of the ones I read most often.

Stevie Davies is a noted novelist, but this is a history book, dealing indeed with the same period that inspired one of her best novels, Impassioned Clay. It is fascinating for a writer to see how she transmutes fact into fiction, but you don't need to be a writer to find this particular period of history absorbing. The subtitle is "Women of the English Revolution: 1640-1660". That twenty years, in fact, when the world turned upside down, when kings could be unkinged, and indeed un-headed, when a country was trying to find a different way to function, and when for a glorious couple of decades, before England relapsed into forelock-tugging mode, nobody knew his or her place.

His or her, for though Cromwell's government was no less inimical to women's rights than Charles's had been, it was a time when the voiceless in general found their voice, and no section of society was more voiceless than women. A married woman, feme coverte in law, had no legal existence, her identity being "covered" by her husband's. Even fewer women could vote than men, and a man without a vote could at least make his voice heard in other ways without much risk of some of the penalties that attended women's speaking. When the Leveller women petitioned Parliament in the 1640s and 50s, their petitions were refused simply on the ground that they were women, and politics was not their concern; they had best, the Serjeant-at-Arms advised, "return to your own business, your housewifery".

But these women were the likes of Katharine Chidley, pamphleteer and disputant, who was not about to be silenced or sidelined so easily:
"Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men?"
There are many glorious voices in this book, and they aren't all female, for this is not a men-versus-women sort of book, and many men are praised in it. Men in advance of the time, like Daniel Rogers and George Fox, were encouraging women to speak out, even to preach. Daniel Rogers's marriage manual, Matrimonial Honour, would have looked radical centuries later:
"She is always in grief & that for thee, & by thy means; what day, week, month is she free through the year, breeding, bearing, watching her babes. […] She had need to be eased of all that is easable, because she cannot be eased of the rest. Get her asleep, if thou can, but awake her not, till she please."
Less radical men, like the diarist Ralph Josselin, were doing their best to be decent husbands in a society which they dimly perceived was very unequal and in many ways unfair to their partners. There are some moving stories of marriages: the Josselins, growing apart as they lose child after child, John and Elizabeth Lilburne becoming embittered not only with Parliament but with each other.

Some of the women who found their voices most powerfully at this time were Quakers, and their fortitude and daring are both inspiring and terrifying. Barbara Blaugdone, schoolteacher, forsakes her middle-class comforts and sleeps in ditches, an itinerant preacher. Mary Fisher travels to Turkey to convert the Sultan – he was bemused but civil, unlike the privileged but ungentlemanly students of Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, who threw stones at her. Mary Dyer, reprieved at the last moment on a scaffold in Massachusetts, promptly returns to the job and is executed.

And there's Anna Trapnel, Fifth Monarchist prophetess, writer of execrable poetry and blessed with a voice that can out-sing and out-shout any heckler. Anna arguably has kangaroos in the top paddock, but listen to her answering the magistrate who questions her motives in travelling from London to Cornwall (an enterprise that could easily get one labelled a vagabond or troublemaker; governments have always liked to limit movement):
"But why did you come into this country?"
"Why might not I come here, as well as into another country?"
"But you have no lands, nor livings, nor acquaintance to come to in this country."
"What though I had not? I am a single person, and why may I not be with my friends anywhere?"
"I understand you are not married."
"Then, having no hindrance, why may not I go where I please, if the Lord so will?"
It is almost impossible not to cheer. It's a sensation that is repeated many times in the course of this book. Though there are sadnesses in it, in the end one is left inspired by these women who simply would not keep quiet. The book can still be found, and I'd urge anyone, not only those interested in history or feminism, to get hold of it.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
07 April 2016 @ 10:41 am
This interesting article on Emma Darwin's blog about psychic distance reminded me how often I used to use other media - like film - to get some writing technique over to students. One such technique was cutting from scene to scene. It can be enormously difficult for new writers to extricate themselves from a scene before it comes to a "natural" end, but it's something we need to be able to do if we're not to risk boring readers. TV shows, with their short timespan, do it ruthlessly (look at how The Big Bang Theory moves on straight after the laugh-line).

But this is by no means a technique that was invented yesterday. "St Stephen and King Herod" is a very old ballad, and its 14th-century author certainly had not seen any films or TV shows. Yet the poem is a beautiful example of how to control pace and drama by dwelling on what really matters, moving swiftly on from what matters less and leaving much out altogether.

After the scene-setting first verse:
Stephen was a servitor
In King Herod's hall,
And served him with honour
As every king befall.
we are plunged into the middle of the action; Stephen coming from the kitchen with food for the hall. He is crossing a courtyard, which wouldn't have been uncommon at the time; kitchens smell and were kept away from the gentry's noses. Not that this is explained: we simply know it is so because otherwise this couldn't happen:
Stephen came from kitchen
With boar's head in hand.
He saw a star was fair and bright
Above Bethlem stand.
At this point we might have been treated to some sort of analysis of his feelings, but our author is more economical than that:
He cast adown the boar's head
And went into the hall.
"I forsake thee, King Herod,
And thy works all."
Now at this point I should say that it has always seemed to me that Herod, who is feasting, is certainly in a good mood and possibly slightly merry. I don't think this is over-interpretation, because his words and actions for some time are unexpectedly tolerant for a king who has just been spoken to so rudely by the kitchen-boy. Indeed his first reaction is concern for the lad's welfare:
What aileth thee, Stephen,
What is thee befall?
Lacketh anything to thee
In King Herod's hall?
Model employer, really... But Stephen, a stranger to tact, readily gets to the nub of the matter:
"Ne lacketh me nothing
In King Herod's hall,
There is one born in Bethlem
Is king of us all".
One can imagine - indeed one must, for it will not be shown - the aghast faces round the board. But the mellow Herod is still inclined to treat the whole thing as a joke: one can almost hear the guffaw in his voice.
"That is all so true, Stephen,
All so true, I know,
As the capon on this platter
Should come to life and crow."
Now for the first time we shall see a couple of lines that aren't strictly necessary to the narrative, a piece of repetition that slows the action right down for a crucial moment - the equivalent, if you like, of the filmic pause before the heroine opens the door of the locked room:
That word was not so soon said,
That word in that hall
If you're reading this aloud to an audience and pause just long enough, I promise you can have them spellbound at this point, just before you shout:
The capon crew "Christus natus est"
Among the lords all.
Mellow drunks can turn nasty in a moment, and Herod is about to do so:
"Rise up, my true tormentors,
By two and by one.
Lead Stephen forth of this town
And stone him with stone."
The final verse pans out from close-up and goes back to the dispassionate, straight narrative with which it opened:
They led out Stephen
And stoned him on the way,
And therefore is his even
On Christ's own day.
. One does, at this point, have to explain, to English students at least, that 26th December was St Stephen's Day before ever "Boxing Day" was invented. But what is hopefully self-explanatory is the way this spare, dramatic ballad chooses its details, its perspective and its cuts in the way a film might: dwelling on a scene just exactly as long as it needs, zooming into close-up on Stephen and Herod and then out again to the world they affect so much without knowing it, leaving out just about everything to do with motive and mood (we can judge what mood Herod is in at various points from what he says and does), pausing where pause can make an effect but dropping a scene when it's over with as little hesitation as Stephen drops that dish with the boar's head.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Reykjavik, 1918. The long Great War has made supplies scarce; the sky is dark and the air dusty because the volcano Katla is in the process of erupting, and the ship that has just arrived from Copenhagen, the Botnia, is carrying the germs of a deadly influenza epidemic. Well, it's a Nordic novel; you didn't expect anything too light-hearted… On the bright side, the town's two cinemas are importing a lot of the newly fashionable entertainment, films, and the 16-year-old protagonist Mani Steinn Karlsson sees all of them.

The back-cover blurb will tell you this much; what it doesn't mention, and what you might like to be prepared for, is that young Mani is by way of being a prostitute and the novel begins with a quite graphic sex scene. There will be others, but what really matters about Mani is his ability to move between the worlds of fact and fiction, living both in the world of the silent films and the drama simultaneously unfolding in real-life Reykjavik:

The projectionist's silhouette appears in the aperture.

The projector beam is switched off.

Lights come on in the wall lamps.

The young people glance around and only now does it dawn on them how many members of the audience have been taken ill: every other face is chalk-white, lips are blue, foreheads glazed with sweat, nostrils red, eyes sunken and wet.

Silence falls on the gathering.

The 1918 epidemic, and its catastrophic effects on Reykjavik, are real enough, and so are several of the book's characters, notably the English writers and film-makers Kenneth Macpherson, Robert Herring and Annie Ellerman (Bryher) who arrive on the scene near the novel's close in 1929. It is Mani himself who, though someone like him could very well have lived in that place at that time, is, according to the book's subtitle, "the boy who never was". He is a fiction fascinated by fictions, transmuting the reality around him into fictions of his own and becoming, in that odd way fictional characters have, more real than your neighbour down the street, until the moment when the author chooses to remind us with startling suddenness what he really is. It is also at this point that we discover why Sjón has written the novel at all, and it becomes clear that behind the fictional Mani stands a real person, from a later time, who was the inspiration for the novel though he never appears in it.

Much as I admire the book, I don't think some of the hyperbolical endorsements from other writers do it any favours; it may even put some readers into a "right, prove it then" frame of mind. I don't have to think Sjón "achingly brilliant" or believe that he "changes the whole map of literature" in order to find this book original and rewarding, and want to read it again. I'd leave the writing to speak for itself, if I were him:

From the long, low shed by the harbour the sounds of banging and planing can be heard, though each hammer blow and bout of sawing is so muffled and muted to the ear that it seems almost to apologise for disturbing the silence. It is here that the coffins are being made. […]

By the end of the working day the undertaker has received five new orders for coffins - and two more will await him at home.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
21 March 2016 @ 11:58 am
Well now, there's an odd thing for a writer to say. After all, like any other writer, I have cut my teeth on mantras like "verbs make language move, adjectives clog it up". And in a general sense I still believe it. When I've written a poem, I still tend to do a rough count of the verb-adjective ratio, and I expect to find it about 2:1. If it were the other way about, I'd be worried.

And yet… come with me for a moment into a creative writing workshop where a poem is being considered. The group are dissatisfied with its impact, and someone has pointed to a surplus of adjectives as the cause – sometimes several to a line. Nearly everyone agrees with this diagnosis, and I might have done too, but for the maverick mature student at the back who, when asked his opinion, murmurs "Sweet day: so cool, so calm, so bright".

He's right, of course: it isn't the number of adjectives but the choice and disposition of them. And I'm beginning to think there may be a slight difference in the way good writers choose verbs and adjectives. With a verb, the most important consideration, as often as not, is forensic accuracy: you want the verb that conveys exactly, not approximately, how a thing happened, or how someone said or did something. This is the root of the prejudice of some teachers against adverbs: the feeling that the verb should, often, not need clarifying with more words if a more exact verb had been chosen in the first place.  It's true too that verbs make fantastic shorthand, carrying whole fields of imagery within themselves; it would surely have taken Paul Henry far longer to convey in any other way the mood that comes over from two verbs here (from "The Glebelands"):

The river pedals after the sun.
The paint flakes off the trees.

With adjectives, although accuracy is still a consideration, it seems to me that we are often looking also for surprise, for the qualifier that will cause the reader to look at the object in a new or unexpected way.  This is the more important in that certain adjectives tend to attach themselves so naturally to certain nouns that they can tell us nothing we didn't already know – a pink sky may be worth remarking on, a blue sky generally not.  These expected adjective-noun combos become, in effect, clichés, and can soon kill a poem or story.

But few parts of speech can make you open your eyes wide and re-read the line like a truly unexpected adjective. Here is the 17th-century bilingual Welsh poet Morgan Llwyd, writing in English, in his long poem "1648":

Our king, queen, prince and prelates high their merry Christmas spent
With brawny hearts, while yet their dogs could Lazarus lament.

"Brawny" connotes now, as it did then, physical toughness, though back in Morgan Llwyd's day, more of its original meaning of "fleshy" or "fleshly" may have survived.  In itself it is a compliment if anything, but perhaps because of the alliteration, brawn has also long been an antonym of "brain"; it carries the hint that where there is much brawn, brain ought not to be expected in any quantity. And in British English it also carries a culinary sense: pig's head rendered down by boiling to jelly. It is therefore the last adjective you might expect to see conjoined to "heart" – an arm may be fleshy and tough and no harm done, but a heart? These aristocrats, stuffing themselves with meat at Christmas, are all flesh, nether head nor heart: their very dogs can pity the poor man at the gate but they cannot, because their hearts are toughened and their conscience rendered down to jelly.  That's a word justifying its place in the line, adjective or no.

But how then are we to explain the magic of that line of Herbert's: what is there remotely unexpected or surprising about the adjectives "sweet", "cool", "calm" and "bright", applied to a sunny morning? As Mr Carson said, it's the way you tell 'em, and in this case it is all in the way the genius Herbert has made the line move. In an 8-syllable line he has placed no fewer than three long pauses, effectively caesuras, after the words "day", "cool" and "calm", and the line is end-stopped after "bright" for good measure. There is no logical way of reading it but slowly, pausing on those words, savouring them as you would the qualities they represent if you stepped out of your door on that day. Sometimes the element of surprise is in the commonplace, if readers can be nudged into taking time to look at it afresh; sometimes too, the simplest words are genuinely the most accurate and apposite, though it may take a Herbert to arrange them in such a way that they lose their familiarity.

Anyway, there is no point in being anti-adjective, or anti-any part of speech, for the sake of it. There may be sense in using them sparingly – to continue Llywd's culinary image, as if they were the spices to the meal: a piece of writing overspiced with adjectives can become cloying, but leaving out the spice altogether may produce something deeply unmemorable.

If, of course, you are George Herbert, no rules apply.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
I don't know whether animal characters in novels are a fashionable thing, or whether I just have a particular yen for them, but I reviewed three last year – Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, which is told entirely from the viewpoint of sheep, The Sage of Waterloo by Leona Francombe, which is narrated by a rabbit, and Fishbowl by Bradley Somer, in which one of the minor characters is a goldfish called Ian. So it seemed logical to add this novel, which deals among other things with the story of Archie the talking alpaca.

There are ways and ways of using animal characters: they can be anything from their real selves to thinly disguised humans. Ian the goldfish is a sort of Greek chorus to the main action, while the sheep and rabbits in the first two novels mentioned are both trying, with different degrees of success, to be real sheep and rabbits. This novel is different, in that, as soon becomes clear, Archie's alpaca nature is barely skin deep. He and the other alpacas on the island somewhere in the Western Isles where this novel is set are very clearly representations of marginalised humans – immigrants perhaps, or Travellers, or any other kind of outsider you can think of. I suppose the advantage of the alpaca image is that it can stand for all outsiders at once.

We do not, therefore, have to ask ourselves how it is that Archie can talk to his human friends, or do various things for which hooves are not naturally adapted, particularly since he is not the only aspect of "the island" which is at right angles to reality. If a small island has an annual literary festival with serious sponsorship, huge prizes and an audience of 20,000, we are clearly in the realms of fantasy, or magic realism, and nothing else ought to surprise us, not even the festival's unusual climax.

It is the festival, or rather the short story competition at its centre, that is the pivot of the novel, and the scene where all the competitors read out their stories to the audience was, for me, where the book really came alive. I love the technique of interpolating short stories into novels, and it's a bonus when there is actually a discernible reason for it (like a musical where people have a valid excuse for singing).

One of the book's themes, in fact, is how everyone has a "story", though some are better worth listening to than others. (I'm not sure I was actually intended to end up thinking that last, because the narrator is constantly admonishing himself and us to see the potential in everyone and not be judgmental, but there it is.) A novel about a literary festival, about the telling of stories, whose first chapter heading is "If On A Summer's Night An Alpaca", is inevitably to some degree a novel about writing itself, and this is where I sometimes find it difficult to gauge the tone. It's clear enough what he is about when satirising the corruption and pretension endemic to the festival and indeed the literary world in general. We've all met the literary celebs who are so unutterably pleased with themselves, or as the narrator's neighbour puts it, "they're awfy guid tae themselves, so they are". And we have listened to the reader wittering on with a long intro and finally saying, like Summer Kelly, "So maybe I should just, like, read the story" – yeah, maybe…. There's no doubt this literary aspect of the satire will resonate with many readers who are also writers.

. But at other times it is harder to gauge exactly where the writer is standing in relation to the material. When he names a café "The Nightingale With Toothache", is he being determinedly quirky, or satirising the determinedly quirky style of writing? When the narrator says "When cycling I like to mindfully inhale the fresh air", are we meant to grin at that fashionable, affected "mindfully", or take it seriously? And Mr Hibiki, a sort of Japanese Mr Miyagi, except that his talents lie in the culinary rather than the martial arts, is so much the stock Eastern Sage With The Answer To Life, The Universe And Everything, that one would think he must be satirically meant.

But I can see how the whole thing might be read, if not quite dead straight, at least less satirically. In fact, the reviews I have read seem very divided on this issue. Myself I don't think we are ever meant to be quite sure where the writer stands in relation to his first-person but interestingly unnamed narrator. Certainly the book's other theme, which is intolerance toward difference, does not easily lend itself to a satirical reading, and maybe it is the constant interplay between these two themes that leaves readers unsure whether they should be laughing or not at any particular moment. The front-cover blurb asserts that the book will "split your sides and break your heart". Well, it didn't do either of those to me, but then I don't think it meant to. I think it's a novel constantly aware of being a fiction. The one review I really disagreed with was the one that called it "too contrived". It is indeed contrivance, skilful artifice, like any made-up world, and therein lies a great deal of its interest.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
13 March 2016 @ 03:51 pm
It isn't often you look at a writer and think how well he would have done in some more practical line of business - mostly, the poorhouse would have beckoned - but the more I read Saki, the more I realise he should have gone into the advertising/promotions industry, if only he'd outlived the trenches of the Great War (it's good that we have his last words; sad that they should have been "Put that bloody cigarette out!"). Despite (or perhaps because of) his general contempt for ordinary folk, on the evidence of stories like The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope, Cousin Teresa and Filboid Studge: The Story of a Mouse That Helped, he had a very fair idea of how to sell a product or start a trend. Look at how, in "Filboid Studge", Mark Spayley manages to sell the ailing breakfast cereal Pipenta by rebranding it as something truly revolting (the new name says it all) that one eats not as a pleasure but as a duty, "for one's health". Basically, it's All-Bran.
"Once the womenfolk discovered that it was thoroughly unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds. “You haven’t eaten your Filboid Studge!” would be screamed at the appetiteless clerk as he hurried weariedly from the breakfast-table, and his evening meal would be prefaced by a warmed-up mess which would be explained as “your Filboid Studge that you didn’t eat this morning.” Those strange fanatics who ostentatiously mortify themselves, inwardly and outwardly, with health biscuits and health garments, battened aggressively on the new food.

Clovis operates a similar reverse psychology when helping out his pal Septimus, who writes pop songs for a living but is having trouble thinking of anything new (or finding a decent set of rhymes for "Florrie"). Clovis's solution is inspired:
“How you bore me, Florrie,
With those eyes of vacant blue;
You’ll be very sorry, Florrie,
If I marry you.
Though I’m easygoin’, Florrie,
This I swear is true,
I’ll throw you down a quarry, Florrie,
If I marry you.”
Who can seriously doubt that this refreshing burst of honesty would, as Saki asserts with magnificent dismissiveness, have taken off "in Blackpool and other places where they sing"?

For Saki's other virtue in this field would have been never to overestimate his audience's intellect. The ditty that sweeps London in "Cousin Teresa" is the last word in pointless vacuity, but one can't deny the rhythm's catchy in the extreme. When its author Lucas finds himself in the honours list instead of his much worthier older brother who has been administering some far-flung bit of the Empire, we are meant to feel slightly shocked, but in fact, as the Minister observes, this is what the honours system was about then, as it is now: "It would be rather a popular move". Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie both worked in advertising for a time, but I think Saki would have made a fortune at it; he had both the necessary verbal flair and imagination and the even more necessary complete cynicism.

Shame, in so many ways, about "that bloody cigarette".
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a fascinating and thought-provoking read, but you need to be aware beforehand of what you are about to be reading. What it isn't: a parade of hilarious one-liners. What it is: a serious, academic (but quite readable) attempt to get under the skin of a particular culture by analysing not just what made it laugh, but how it laughed, how it regarded laughter and what range of vocabulary it used for this activity (her observations on the role of smiling in Roman society, and the lack of vocabulary relating to it, for instance, are quite surprising).  It isn't very often a light read, but it repays the concentration and thought that it demands.

Cicero's work, especially On the Orator, is naturally one of her most important sources, and the man himself comes over as Ancient Rome's most relentless (and often very funny) gag-merchant. In fact as an orator he was continually, and not always successfully, treading a thin line: wit could help him defeat political opponents and win law cases, but get the tone ever so slightly wrong and one could be accused of abandoning the dignity of an orator for the not dissimilar but less well-regarded trade of actor/comedian.  Modern political parallels suggest themselves, but are not insisted upon; Beard is averse to trying to explain or interpret the Romans in terms of our own culture.

Nevertheless, apparent cultural differences often turn out to be not quite so different as they first seemed. Emperor Elagabalus amusing himself by inviting to dinner eight bald men, or eight one-eyed men, or eight deaf men (in which case the dinner conversation can't have got much beyond "Pardon?") was demonstrating extreme power, as were other emperors who liked to subject their guests to cruel mockery, knowing they dared not object. But they aren't so far removed from the City slickers of our own time who find it amusing to burn ten-pound-notes in front of the homeless; both are using laughter as a power tool.  And the hapless citizens of Abdera, constantly guyed for alleged stupidity, have lived on in Gotham jokes, East Saxony jokes, Irish jokes, and will doubtless live on for ever.

People in the ancient world, doctors especially, were in fact very interested in how laughter worked physically and what caused it. Galen confessed himself baffled by this question; Pliny thought the diaphragm was involved in causing laughter, which can't help but remind one of Ken Dodd's explanation: "it starts at the chuckle muscle in the diagram, rises up past the clack, then comes out through the titter valve". We know more about the physiology now, but what actually gives us the desire to laugh is not as easy to pin down, though the kind of things we do laugh at can say much about our culture and society. That is what this book is really about.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

Ursula gasped involuntarily, imagining the stranger – desperate, violent. But then she remembered the dead man and how wretched he'd looked, the emaciated limbs brittle as tinder, not menacing at all, only sad and disgusting.

Not a lot of first novels, begun in the author's student days, get picked up by really big publishers like Bloomsbury, so this is some achievement. It's probably every young writer's dream, but those who want it to happen to them will need to come up with a real page-turner, and write it with unusual assurance and skill.

Müller has drawn on her own part-Austrian background for her story, which is hard to classify – it might be called a war story, though it is very much about the effect of war on civilians, or maybe a coming-of-age story. The protagonist, Ursula, is eight in the prologue and thirteen when the story proper begins, in 1944, which does not mean, as the unwary tend to assume, that it is a children's book; it contains some distinctly adult material. In the small community of Felddorf, ordinary people find themselves adapting to the curse of interesting times – a dictatorial regime in which anyone even slightly non-conformist is threatened, a war that brings privation, danger and the absence of loved ones, and finally the Russian occupation which notoriously turned into an orgy of rape.

In such times, people discover qualities in themselves, both good and bad, that might otherwise have gone unsuspected. The need to keep one's head down leads to acts of cowardice; the urge to protect one's friends to acts of great courage. Petty spites are paid off and altruistic risks taken. People – or most people – prove more adaptable and resilient than they guessed - the matter-of-fact, practical measures they take to cope with the daily rapes during the occupation are described with a dispassionate lack of sentimentality that is far more moving than sensationalism would have been.
They got ready for work and Ursula dressed in her ugliest clothes, concealing her figure with large shawls. She helped Dorli to push a pillow up the back of her coat to imitate a hunchback. Schosi became more cheerful – he always found this process hilarious, especially when they scooped redcurrant jam with their fingers and rubbed it over their faces as though it was a lotion. It created the look of weeping sores. He observed Ursula closely as she tied a scarf over her head in the style of an old woman and screwed up her eyes into as many wrinkles as she could; he wrinkled his eyes too and she was glad to giggle with him, to forget for a moment what the strange attire was for.

There are very few unadulterated heroes or villains. In the young nurse Eva Kuster, still capable of being redeemed by her natural compassion, we see what her older colleagues were probably like before they were brutalised by the regime – after all, it is unlikely that most of them joined the profession for the express purpose of abusing the patients. Similarly, some of the Russian soldiers are serial rapists; others decent young men like Pasha. One of the most interesting and moving characters is Herr Esterbauer, the Party member who has cheerfully gone along with Nazi policies until they threaten to affect his own senile mother and his best friend's son Schosi. He shows great courage in their defence; yet it is not certain that this belated decency can altogether redeem his past.

If I have a criticism, indeed, it would concern the character of Anton, in which there is no such light and shade. It would be fascinating to see how Nazism turns him into a monster, but in fact he seems to have been an unpleasant bundle of neuroses already, and settled in his unpleasantness. I don't dispute the possibility of such people, but they don't make very interesting literary characters, because they offer no chance of development, change or redemption. Ursula and her sister Dorli are two ordinary girls who grow up in extraordinary and difficult times, partly damaged by their experiences but also more aware of their own strengths, and it is just their ordinariness that makes us eager to follow their story; it is very easy to see through their eyes.

If I didn't know this was a debut novel, I should not have guessed it for one; the various narrative strands are interwoven with considerable skill and the telling has the kind of assurance that gives the reader confidence in the writer's knowledge of her material. Above all, it really is a genuine page-turner; I read 455 pages in one go because I had to know what happened next.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
We might slow the speed of darkness but it still comes anyway



He froze, waiting. The Wood across the stream seemed empty and silent, patters of rain dripping from its soaked branches. Then as if the light had changed, or something in his brain had adjusted, he saw them. Thin and spindly and elegant, their coats and dresses red and gold as the beech leaves, they leaned and lazed and laughed, that host of silver-haired, beautiful, sly creatures that ran and whispered through his dreams. Slants of wan sunlight lit their eyes, beady as starlings', their gaudy buttons and jewels, the ribbons on their coats. Their fingers were too long, their voices the buzz of bees. Some of them still had wings for arms, one a beak instead of a mouth.
Yep, the Shee are back. And the Wintercombe crowd: Piers, Maskelyne, Jake, Sarah, Wharton, Rebecca, not forgetting David and Venn, getting ever closer to being able to use the mirror as they want to. Halloween is approaching, the day of the dead, when the best chance will arise of getting Venn's dead wife back – but also the time when the Shee are at their most powerful.

But there are two new elements. For the first time, we go into the future to see the world Janus has made – or will make. This might have been predicted, but a total surprise was that we also go farther back in time than ever before and find out at last what the relevance to the story is of all those chapter epigraphs about Venn's adventure on Katra Simba.

At this stage of the tetralogy, the last thing I want to do is provide spoilers, so I must be careful what I quote or refer to. What I will warn against is expecting the kind of ending that ties everything up in neat bows, because it isn't what you will get. As befits a quartet of novels which has postulated that time doesn't really exist as such, or at least not in straight lines, the endings for the various characters are a lot more interesting and uncertain than that, and the novel's last three sentences, in particular, are very enigmatic. The title comes from a remark, late in the book, by a character I won't name: "We might slow the speed of darkness but it still comes anyway". This, I think, is the clue to the last sentence.

Now the quartet is complete, it can be seen what an ambitious, rich, sweeping piece of work it is. It makes far more demands of its readership than many adult books do, never mind YA ones, both in following its twisting plot and in absorbing and processing the complex and thought-provoking moral and intellectual questions it keeps throwing up. One of the main ones in this volume concerns what could only be called a good deed, which has dreadful results and arguably should never have been done. The whole series is also a fine example of Fisher's skill at world-building, to the point that very few will want to leave it simply because the pages have come to an end. I am already dreaming of a spin-off for Moll…
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
06 January 2016 @ 12:02 pm
Arising out of a Facebook post by the poet Jo Bell, which linked to a list of poems to try on people who think they hate poetry. I didn't know any of them (US poems mainly, I think) but it did inspire me to try to list the ones I have had success with in this line when doing classes and workshops. I'm thinking especially of those who say they can't get on with contemporary poetry, by which they usually mean the kind that doesn't rhyme.

1, Napoleon, by Miroslav Holub

Holub is a good poet for folk who think they hate poetry, because he's very direct and non-mystifying. He was a doctor, and that vocabulary and subject matter often informs his work, as in Casualty

2. 170 Chinese Poems, translated by Arthur Waley

The "170" was a famous anthology in my youth and I've never actually met anyone who disliked it. Waley was particularly fond of the poet Bai Ju-yi (once known as Po Chu-i) from the 8th-9th century, who specialised in very simple, direct language (which if course wasn't near as simple as it looks). "Remembering Golden Bells" was a poem about the death of his daughter.

3. "Everything Changes" by Bert Brecht.

This is quite a good way to get non-poetry-readers to see what can be done by playing around with syntax, and how it really isn't that difficult or frightening.

4. "Eden Rock" by Charles Causley.

You might say Causley is the compromise for those who can't get on with free verse, since he never abandoned rhyme and music, but "Eden Rock" is half-rhyme, unobtrusive, form used in a twentieth-century way. It's also very powerful and most folk of a certain age can relate to it. There are others on his page in the Poetry Archive.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
As a glance at the acknowledgements makes clear, many of these poems were written as commissions, for residencies or projects, or in response to requests for poems on particular subjects; indeed the acks page includes a section of poems "published online, as part of activist and/or literary projects". Poems with a practical purpose, then, and the order of adjectives in "activist and/or literary" might suggest that "activist" is the more important to the writer.

So I started by picking out poems that hadn't been written for any of these reasons, on the assumption that these would tell me the most about the poet's own voice and preoccupations. In "Hitting the Road with Frida Kahlo", she conflates her own road accident with that of Kahlo. I must admit, it's a title that would normally make me groan, because Frida flaming Kahlo is, like bees, Alzheimers and childhood memories, a subject that crops up far too often in contemporary poems and is beginning to be an automatic turn-off. But this is an original, individual treatment that for once establishes a genuine, intrinsic connection between author and subject and justifies its use. It's also very vividly done:

          I clamber out, broken bones grating,
Scrunching like brown sugar, fall down
To lie on the icy road, beginning my new life

The title poem updates the elegy form with wit and sharpness to the online age: it can't be an accident that the ending

                            and if I could,
I'd unfriend Death for you, report him for abuse, the troll
Who poked you, who is "following" us all, block him for good

is so painfully reminiscent of Chaucer's three young drunks setting out with their proud boast "we wol sleen this false traytour Deeth".

I really didn't need this poem's footnote on "Rip", nor the ones to "Mrs Bennet's Burden" and "Scent for a Suffragette". On the other hand I couldn't half have done with explanatory notes to "Baking Scones for Eminem" and "God is a DJ" (haven't quite got around to googling Marshall, Slim and Armin van Buuren yet). I suppose what this shows is the problem with footnotes: our readers have different areas of knowledge and ignorance and these are, more and more, generationally determined. One good reason, I think, to put them all together at the back, where readers can ignore or consult them as they wish.

The section "Poems of Pathology, Anatomy and Dealing with Death" contains some of my favourites in the collection: perhaps the subject matter sorts well with her other incarnation as a crime writer. "Keepers", juxtaposing the voices of two technicians from the nineteenth and 21st centuries whose job is to create mementos of the dead for the living, is artful and compelling (here the note was again useful for generational reasons, since I knew exactly what the Victorian mortuary photographer was up to but had never heard of a "doll re-borner"). The two poems of "Deathbed Writing Workshop", which could easily have been sentimental, are instead powerful (and the word "debridement" on which they centre is wonderful, a gift to a writer).

I'm not entirely so keen on some of the activist poems, because they strike me as too tailored to the cause. "The Sex Life of Slugs", written for an online "against rape" project, explains too much of the faintly comic process the slugs are up to, and its final lines

Meanwhile, after dark, slugs stroll
The pavements, heedless of rape

left me thinking: well yes, but they do get trodden on and salted rather a lot, so on the whole I'd still sooner be a female human. The few purely humorous poems aren't really my cup of tea either, though to be fair, "Phone Sex" sounds as if it's meant to have a tune attached, while "Lowering the Teaune" might do more for me if I had ever listened to "The Archers" (I sometimes seem to be the only person in the country who hasn't).

Mostly, though, this is a varied and entertaining collection. The medical poems, especially, are effective - it is no surprise that she has often been successful in the Hippocrates Awards.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
"I'm super excited about this getting married idea, But there's a lot about me you don't know."
"There'd better be," he said warmly.
"So it makes sense for the tips of icebergs to fall in love, without knowing anything about the bottom parts?"

This notion of people as icebergs, most of which are beneath the surface, is central to the novel. We come in at the point where Veblen, a typist and translator in her thirties, has just become engaged to Paul, a move she suspects may have been an error. Both she and he have huge issues with their families: indeed every parent in the book is more or less hopeless at the job. Several of them, as we gradually discover, have themselves been poorly parented and are passing their consequent hang-ups on to the next generation: in this respect the novel is reminiscent of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, though, as we shall see, it fights shy of his pessimistic conclusion.

Partly because of her sense of humour, McKenzie is excellent at writing about relationships without cloying sentiment or tiresome psychobabble. Her observation is acute and detailed:
…yet it was clear that your choice of mate would shape the rest of your life in ways you couldn't begin to know. One by one, things he didn't like would be jettisoned. First squirrels, then turkey meatballs, then corn, then - what next? Marriage could be a continuing exercise in disappearances.

Later, this same acute observation creates an almost unbearably moving scene when Paul, a medical researcher, is trying to get it through to the relatives of brain-damaged patients that the trial these patients are about to take part in, though it will improve knowledge of their condition, will not actually do anything to cure it. They have all been told this; they just don't want to believe it.
The people in the room began to talk, trading what they'd heard. As the volume rose, Paul shrank, his stomach bunched into a knot.
"People," he said. "This is how it is. People!"
Two young women with pale skin and knitted brows were whispering to each other, and one raised her hand.
"Our dad's here and we've read the papers," she said. "And we know that this trial is to test a device to be used within hours of brain injury. It's not designed to help people who have already suffered TBI, such as our dad and other members of this trial. Isn't that true?"
Paul said, "That was well put. Did everybody hear that?"
The room fell quiet, mown down. […]
A woman in a heavy, rust-coloured parka patched with duct tape raised her hand.
"We read the papers too. We understand all that. But for us it's better to try something than nothing. It's possible my husband could get some benefit out of this procedure, isn't it?"
More murmurs from the others. He heard someone say, "We thought so too."
He was bulging with anger at their wilful ignorance, stretching himself to hide it. He said, "I hope you'll all take the time to read the prospectus again and understand that in this trial we do not expect-" The faces, from every side of the room, were tense, wrung out. "We don't expect-" He felt the room closing in on him, every face trained on his. […] He couldn't breathe.
"We don't know what to expect until we've tried it," he blurted out suddenly, and the room lightened many degrees.

McKenzie also has a very good ear for dialogue, particularly between Veblen and her sharply drawn mother, for whom daughter's place is in the wrong. In fact the book is sharp, well-written, often funny and generally enjoyable, and if the pace sometimes slows a bit too much early on, it certainly picks up by the end. But I do have one reservation. It seems almost every new American novel I have read in the past few years is determined to achieve a happy ending, even if events up to that point make nothing seem less probable. This was the problem I had with Bradley Somer's Fishbowl. To be fair, this is not as extreme a case; it is clear, for instance, that if Veblen and her mother have achieved a modus vivendi, it largely depends on their being separated by the Atlantic. But other long-standing relationship issues are still sorted out and tied up in over-neat and fairly incredible bows. I don't know if this is because the American market demands upbeat endings, but this one didn't seem to me to have evolved naturally from the book.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
03 December 2015 @ 06:49 pm
So at the start of the year I resolved to write two book reviews a month - with one caveat, I also do author interviews, which take more work, so I decided they would also count as review posts. That would mean 24 posts over the year.

Well, I made it. I did three posts in November, two reviews plus an interview, so the one December review makes up the 24. They can all be found by hitting the tags "book reviews" and "interviews with writers" in the sidebar on the left.

For those who like statistics, the 21 books reviewed included 3 anthologies, all poetry, and 18 single-authored books. Of these, 8 were prose and 10 poetry, while 11 were by women and 7 by men. Nearly all were contemporary or near-contemporary. I included a review of the short stories of Ismat Chughtai because I'd never come across her before and thought others might not have done. Elizabeth Melville isn't contemporary either, but the selection of her work by Jamie Reid Baxter was reasonably so, and I'd been hugely impressed by it at Stanza. Of the three author interviews, two were with women (Barbara Marsh and Catherine Fisher) and one with a man (Steve Ely).

Most of the authors aren't the mega-famous type, since they get lots of reviews anyway. I did review a Louise Glück, because the reviews I'd seen didn't, to my mind, quite get to grips with one aspect of it. There was no non-fiction, which is unusual for me. But the stress on poetry was deliberate: I began doing this because writers, particularly poets are always complaining that there isn't enough of a reviewing culture and it seemed reasonable to try to actually do something about it rather than just whinge. Since I chose most of the books, it figures that the reviews are mostly positive, though I hope still critically aware. If I don't like something about a book, I'll say so. I shall keep on reviewing next year, though I won't set targets, but will still hope to do one or two a month.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


This is a short anthology of poems, commissioned from the three poets, on the theme of ageing. I bought it both because I'd read and enjoyed the work of all three before and because it's a theme becoming somewhat relevant and fascinating to me. Indeed in the last two months I have read two individual collections, by Philip Gross and Tamar Yoseloff, centring on this very theme. Each poet's work in this collection is prefaced by a short note on how they worked, which is interesting though it left me slightly puzzled. Vicki Feaver says "The poems were written in solitude. But meeting with Douglas Dunn and Diana Hendry and sharing poems and ideas gave me the encouragement I thrive on". Diana Hendry, on the other hand, speaks of "meeting, talking about and workshopping poems", which suggests rather more collaboration. Her note also mentions that the topic they were given was, specifically, "Creative Ageing", and the editorial note indicates that the brief was to "challenge the orthodoxies surrounding ageing".

I can imagine why the commission may have harped on the positive, because one obvious pitfall of this theme is that it may produce something quite morbid and depressing. But pitfalls in poetry almost always come in pairs, and while avoiding this particular Charybdis, it is possible to veer into a Scylla of relentless chirpiness. I think this is why the Dunn poems, of which I'd been expecting the most, having long loved his work, partly disappointed me. The first poem, "Thursday", is just plain not very good. Lines like

If only I could tap my old exuberance,
High spirits that I plied in days of yore;
Then maybe I would find a kind deliverance
From the curse of being such a bloody bore

may be meant as amusing (I didn't find them so, but we old grouches are hard to amuse). But it sounds just like Clive James versifying, and Dunn is so much better than that. The next couple of poems are better, but keep coming up with slick one-liners like "one chirrup absent from the dawn chorus" and "So fall off a barstool swigging your hemlock" ("The Wash") that begin to sound like a desperate determination to make a joke of everything. In his prefatory note, he mentions that he re-read that unbearably poignant scene on ageing from Henry IV Part 2: "we have heard the chimes at midnight", but found no inspiration there. I suppose it wasn't jaunty enough.

Luckily the very next poem, "Wondrous Strange", shows Dunn back at his best, not trying to come up with easy answers to what is by nature elusive:

Now it can almost be heard. But not quite
Almost. Still on the far side of nearly,
It is the melody of a floating feather.

There are some memorable poems after this, notably "Curmudgeon", with a genuinely funny and observant one-liner, "he is a virtuoso concert pessimist", that leaves the rest standing, and "The Glove Compartment", which doesn't try to mitigate loss and mortality with flippancy and is starkly moving.

Most of the Dunn poems are set in the now of ageing; Vicki Feaver, quite often, comes at the theme through memory, looking back to a youth that has departed. She is

travelling forwards at time's pace
and backwards and forwards
at the mind's speeds ("Travelling").

There are several luminous remembered moments –pomegranate juice, dressing-up boxes – and a tendency to reinterpret, revalue in the light of age what is seen and experienced, like her reaction to the ageing, drying fruit in "Clementines". I think it's arguable that there are, in modern poetry, not just in this collection, too many "I remember" poems and that it's a theme which can become predictable, but it is very well done here. The most memorable poem, to me, was "The Blue Wave", in which she comes closest of the three to the "creative ageing" brief in celebrating a painter:

But in my head there's a painting
done in your nineties
when just to lift your arm

was an effort: a single brave
upwards sweep with a wide
distemper brush so loaded

with paint the canvas filled
with the glistening blue wall
of a wave before it falls.

One of those images that does in a moment the work of a paragraph.

Diana Hendry's selection is mighty unpredictable. We go from memories-of-childhood poems to coming-to-terms-with-the-present poems and (my favourites), ones which veer unexpectedly off at right-angles to reality, like that iconic oldie Cpl Jones going into the realms of fantasy. She takes risks, which means that not all of them will come off – I don't think "Meditation on an Old Bear" really rises above doggerel, and in "An Alternative Retirement" I find her praise of the Hatton Garden jewel thieves, or as she calls them "the glamorous gang riding off with the loot", plain annoying: a thug on a pension is still a thug, not a role model.

But other risks come off rather beautifully. "Autobiography" with its ballad rhythm has an air of Causley

And what d'you remember of fear, child?

Long grass, bare feet, imagined snakes.
Dark slid a lid across the day.

And "Beyond" is probably my favourite poem in the collection. Its syntax and lineation are freed-up, unconventional in a way no other poem in an otherwise completely conventionally-justified book is, and the thought-line is to match.

What is it about the need for it? The why
of flight        mountaineering        the gift of grace.        How dire

if ours was the only galaxy!

How happily the word sits in the mouth, satisfying
as a communion wafer.

This is the sound of the distant train
                               running through your dream--

be-yond be-yond be-yond be-yond.

I found this an uneven anthology, but its best poems, notably "Beyond", "The Blue Wave" and "The Glove Compartment" make it well worth the modest £7 cover price.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


With a Selected, it's fun to go back to early poems and see when various themes and techniques emerged. I hadn't read the poems from Sweetheart for some time, and had forgotten how reminiscence-based they were: like many first collections, they take much inspiration from parents, childhood memories, early love affairs. But already individual traits are emerging. The memories don't all come from one place: America, London, Scotland all figure. There's a keen interest in the mortality of things, the insides of animals and people, the way places change over time. In "Fleet" we see both this and another preoccupation that will become central: this is essentially an urban poet who is more moved and vitalised by cityscapes than rural scenes:

             I glide blissfully through my day,
all liquid, like a fish. I can't understand
what gives this extra lift to my step, as if I'm floating,
and the cars drifting through Clerkenwell Green
are barges carrying sailors home from sea.

But an undercurrent sinks me at Islington:
I sense the bones of the old prison, the plague-dead
dumped straight from their beds

There's also a hint, in "The Arnolfini Marriage", of the fascination with ekphrastic poetry and coming at a theme through different media, which would develop into sequences like "The City With Horns", centring on Jackson Pollock, and into her publishing venture Hercules Editions, which has brought out pamphlets by various poets in which words and images work together.

In later collections it becomes ever more evident that this is a displaced poet, one raised in one place (though even then a traveller), but now living elsewhere (and still travelling). I have a fondness for displaced poets, because their way of seeing places seems to me to be unlike any other. Their eye takes nothing for granted; nothing is overlooked for long acquaintance or accepted as commonplace. The delight and surprise pulsing through "The Nolans in Japan", where Tokyo is "a wind-up toy - flashing,/bright" is that of someone seeing it new, but in London too, where she has lived a long time, she is conscious not just of
the alleys wet with condensation
darkened streets

but also of

               the rivers running
just below the ground, the Wandle, the Walbrook

the Tyburn, the Fleet. (Christmas in London)

The other thing about these poets' way of seeing, especially seeing the past, is that a place is not just a place, but that place at a particular moment of time. In "The Atlantic at Asbury Park" a derelict fairground's heyday is briefly evoked and becomes emblematic for that time when everything still seems possible to adolescents, though the evidence of the adults around them suggests otherwise; in "London Particular", the speaker's London merges with the city her father knew decades before.

This consciousness of time passing is always liable to foster a sense of darkness. In many of the London poems, her fascination with ruined buildings comes through; "Construction" is in fact more concerned with what has been demolished:

               The empty plot forgets
clothes strewn on vanished floors, spoons and frying pans;
in demolition the goal is ground,
we are out in the open.

The later poems in particular are getting quite death-haunted, as tends to happen when poets get older. This city-dweller is not usually much for flower poems; it seems grimly appropriate that when she does choose to write about one, it is either poisonous ("Sinister Little Flower") or the invasive, destructive "Knotweed":

               You will not budge

now you've found your calling: the felling
of our failing structures.

In the fine sequence "Fetch", where a woman indulges her fantasies of a different and more dangerous life, Yoseloff's taste for the sinister creates real, gripping tension and fear in the reader. This undercurrent of menace and decay exists in many of her poems, but so, alongside it, does the related carpe diem impulse of "City Winter", another hymn of displacement. Another thing I like about displaced poets is that they have no comfort zone; they are never entirely where they want to be and if there are any answers, they are always somewhere else:

               What you want

you won't find here. A train
leaves the city, its complicated tracks
weave past buildings still to be built,
girders lifting beyond the horizon,
its passengers bound for those lit rooms
flickering like grubby stars
on the outskirts.

This may make for restlessness in the poet, but it stimulates nothing so much as excitement and variety for the reader.