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Sheenagh Pugh
This is a fascinating read, but quite a tough one. For one thing it's been written by an academic for academics, which means he doesn't feel required to stop and explain, say, concepts like the semiotic triangle, or throwaway references like "we need think only of Sidonius Apollinaris" (well yes, I think of him constantly, or might do if I had a clue who he was). Secondly, it talks a great deal about the arcane processes of printing and book-binding, in the terminology of those crafts, and while admittedly he explains said terms when they first appear, if your memory is like mine, you will find yourself, next time they crop up, thinking "what the hell was that?" And since they mostly don't appear in the index, it isn't easy to refresh your memory. Nothing would have been more helpful than a glossary of printing terms. I'd have liked more illustrations too, though some of those that do appear are enchanting, notably the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral poking up through the margin of a page in the Chronicle of Nuremberg.

I found I couldn't read it in large chunks without my head starting to swim, but once you get into it, there are some really thought-provoking and illuminating observations on things you might never have thought of in the way they appear here, and particularly the relationships between different developments. The link, for instance, between the rise of silent reading and the representation in signs of punctuation. The way silent reading turned the whole act of reading into something more private, less social, even anti-social, and enabled each individual reader to put his own slant on a text. The impetus which the introduction into Europe (from China) of playing cards gave to mass production of texts and images. The way different fonts evolved for different texts - Gothic, at first, for devotional works, Antiqua and other roman fonts for secular romances. Those who, like me, didn't realise that fonts were sometimes named after people may like to give Messrs Garamont and Bembo a wave in passing...

In his foreword, Barbier says he hopes "by a discussion of the very first media revolution, that of Gutenberg in the mid fifteenth century, to offer some insights into the media revolution of the early twenty-first century". Oddly enough, and despite his use of such terms as hardware and software in the 15th-century printing context, I don't think much of a likeness does emerge between the two. It's true that the internet has opened up a form of self-publishing to huge numbers of people who didn't have access to it before, in the same way that the availability of printed books and their relative cheapness compared with manuscripts hugely widened the audience for texts in its time. But the more this history conveys of the print revolution, its entrepreneurial spirit, the sudden spread of knowledge, the ability to disseminate news (and propaganda) with an unheard-of immediacy via leaflets and posters, the sheer excitement of being able to lay one's hands on a book, the less important the online revolution looks by comparison.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
The last book I reviewed here was The Unwomanly Face of War , Svetlana Alexievich's account of Russian women who served in World War 2 and what happened to them in its aftermath. Now we have a similar account of "how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s" - ie, again in the war and its aftermath.

There are similarities, the most obvious being the attempts for many decades in both France and Russia to airbrush the contribution of women from history. But there are also great differences. Firstly, many of the Russian women were frontline combatants, which Frenchwomen, barring certain resistance fighters, were not (though the definition of "combatant" in postwar France became controversial, since those women who had hidden endangered soldiers and civilians, and often endured the horrors of Ravensbrück for doing so, understandably felt themselves as entitled to the name of combatant as the uniformed men who had put up such a brief resistance to the invader). Secondly, though parts of Russia were occupied, there was no question of "collaborating", even had civilians wished to, because the invader was interested not in coexisting with the locals but in exterminating them. In Paris it was otherwise, which meant there were choices to be made by the inhabitants, and some of these were far from easy. Those in public service might choose to resign their jobs, or stay and try to do them in such a way as best to serve the interests of civilians - though that might also leave them open to the charge of serving the enemy's interests. Rose Valland, volunteer assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume (her sex debarred her from a paid job as curator), stayed on and risked the suspicion, which surfaced briefly after the war, of colluding with the invaders' favourite occupation of looting artwork on a grand scale. What she was in fact doing was secretly keeping records of everything being looted and where it had gone, so that after the war, thousands of artworks could be located and restored to their rightful owners. She also managed, with the Liberation imminent, to notify the Resistance of a trainload of paintings waiting to be despatched by the panicking occupiers, with the result that the train was delayed and captured by the liberators.

Obviously many of the problems female civilians faced in Paris, such as food shortages and moral dilemmas - whether to resist, collaborate or simply keep one's head down - were problems for men as well, and nor were they confined to Paris. The rationale for concentrating on women is twofold. They did have special problems related to their sexual vulnerability and they were in some ways made scapegoats, after the armistice, by men still smarting from their own frontline failures. Sebba remarks of the "tondues", women publicly shaved and humiliated after the liberation for sleeping with Germans, "they were punished by the men who had failed to defend them" and it is true that when you look at the photographs, though there are women in the background it is nearly always men taking the lead. Postwar, too, government ministers, even former resistance fighters among them like Henri Frenay, who knew well the role women had played, were urging them to give up their jobs and let men coming home from prison camps and forced labour return to their role as chef de famille "so that they could regain their lost confidence". This emphasis on the needs of men also exacerbated, for women, the problem that all returning concentration camp survivors faced, namely that nobody wanted to hear what they had suffered. "Don't say anything, they won't understand" as one warned another. The one thing French women did get out of the war was the right to vote, which until 1945 they hadn't had - I must confess I didn't know that and was amazed by it.

The rationale for concentrating on Paris in particular I'm not so sure of, though it seems to be the supposition that Parisiennes are somehow more stylish and clothes-conscious than anyone else. The trouble with that notion is that half the women in this book, though they lived in Paris, were not born there nor even in some cases French nationals. One of the more famous photographs reproduced here was taken by Robert Doisneau in 1948 for the cover of Paris Match: a carelessly elegant young woman sitting on the banks of the Seine, typewriter perched on her knee, writing a novel, the quintessential Parisienne. Since he never spoke to her, he wouldn't have known that she was Emma Smith from London....

There is quite a lot about fashion, reasonably since it was a major industry of the city and the justification for couture houses continuing to operate through the war was that many people would be thrown out of work if they did not. But I did actually get a bit impatient with some of the women's preoccupation with being fashionable at all costs, especially when one reads that "some went as far as to call it 'resisting'" - well, it wasn't. It may have been their way of keeping up their morale but to call it resisting was an impertinence to those who actually were resisting, and risking their lives for others. Karma intervenes at one point when the fascist sympathiser Comtesse de Portes, deciding that even for collaborators an occupied Paris won't be much fun, tries to escape south in a car so overloaded that a hatbox falls from the roof, obscures the driver's view and causes him to hit a tree, killing her instantly. I'm afraid I laughed....

This is a history book with proper notes, bibliography, index etc and a lot of illuminating illustrations. Much of its interest lies in being able to follow individual lives through it, like the incredibly brave Noor Inayat Khan, resistance fighter, and the quiet, dowdy Rose Valland, who didn't much care about fashion or chic, but who preserved so much that was beautiful from thieves and vandals. Even the more dubious characters like Corinne Luchaire, dimwitted teenage actress who collaborates because she doesn't really know how to say no to any man, have their sad fascination. The author is commendably neutral, except where it would be an offence not to take sides. I'm especially glad she did not follow the advice she mentions in the prologue: "When I began this book a male historian suggested I spend hours in the subterranean Bibliothèque Nationale reading the diaries of men like Hervé Le Boterf and Jean Galtier- Boissière." Why yes, how better to discover what women were doing and thinking than to check what men have to say on the subject....
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
First published in Russian in 1985, this is not a history book, though it would make excellent source material for one. It is a collection of interviews with Russian women who lived through World War 2 – a few were civilians but most saw active service and many on the front line, not only as nurses or cooks but as snipers, tank drivers, sappers, pilots and partisans, among many other roles.

The interviews themselves, which of course make up most of the book, are fascinating. They build up into an overall picture of experiences with some common elements but many disparate ones. For instance, the fierce patriotism and determination to serve seem to have been just about universal – as was the regret at parting with the long braided hair which was then the norm for Russian women. But while some commanders, desperate for troops, welcomed potential snipers or sappers irrespective of sex, others disapproved of women on the front line. Some women found nothing but kindness and support from their male colleagues; others found them predatory – "when there's gunfire they call out 'Nurse! Dear nurse!' But after the battle they all lie in wait for you… you can't get out of the dugout at night". Some women stopped menstruating and feared they would not be able to have children after the war; others didn't stop and were at their wits' end to cope with a condition for which the forces made no provision. Nearly all felt intense hatred of the invader, but most found they could not translate this into hatred for an actual individual and surprised themselves by offering kindness to captive enemies.

The hardships and dangers were often mitigated by their sense of being young, and caught up in something momentous – "there probably will never again be such people as we were then. Never! So naïve and so sincere. With such faith!" And there was, as always, humour to lighten matters, as when the commissar of a Field Laundry Unit working at the dangerous Kursk Salient has to put in a report that her girls have found and surrounded two wounded (but still armed) enemy soldiers coming out of a wood. "The next day we had a meeting of the commanders. The head of the political section said first thing, 'Well, comrades, I want to give you some good news: the war will soon be over. Yesterday the laundrywomen from the 21st Field Laundry Unit captured two Germans.'"

Nevertheless, many witnessed the aftermath of unspeakable atrocities, and even the more ordinary horrors of war stayed with some for life, like the ex-pilot who, long after, had to stop working in the field as a geologist when her health gave out: "A doctor came, took a cardiogram and asked 'When did you have a heart attack?'
'What heart attack?'
'Your heart is scarred all over'.
I must have acquired those scars during the war. You approach a target and you're shaking all over. Your whole body is shaking."

Perhaps the saddest aspect of their story, though, is what happened afterwards. Much later, by the time these interviews were conducted, their contribution was being recognised and feted, but immediately after the war they faced little but hostility, particularly from other women: "I lived in a communal apartment. My neighbours were all married and they insulted me. They taunted me, 'Ha-ha, tell us how you whored around there with the men'" – this to a decorated sergeant of riflemen who'd likely had rather too much else to think of at the time. Many of the girls' mothers, when they wanted to enlist, had protested "who will marry you afterwards?" and this proved prophetic; many indeed did not marry. Unlike the men, they tended not to wear their medals and felt their contribution was seen as an embarrassment. Yet, though some wished not to have their full names given, they were eager for the chance to tell the stories they felt had been airbrushed out of history: as one said, "it's terrible to remember but it's far more terrible not to remember".

Basically, then, this is not only a worthwhile exercise but a very gripping, if sometimes harrowing, read. But I must protest, once more, at the current practice, in historical and factual books, of including unnecessary prefaces detailing at inordinate length the author's "journey" in writing the book. I don't know if editors and publishers ask for this, but the writers seem to relish the chance to discard, in these prefaces, the sober style suited to their subject matter in favour of sentimental and self-obsessed gush about themselves and their work process. Here's my two-penn'orth as reader: dear writer, I don't give a damn about your "journey". I don't want to know why you wrote the book, how you felt when writing it or how many publishers you sent it to. Just spare us these "me, me, me" prefaces and get on to your subject. I recommend this book heartily, but I also recommend ignoring the fifty (!) pages it starts with. Go straight to the interviews.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Smith begins by pointing out that the Russian Revolution, like the French one in its day, polarised opinion and is still hard to talk about in a non-partisan way. He has gone to great trouble to present the events of 1890-1928 in a dispassionate, neutral way as far as possible so as to avoid being pigeonholed as a partisan of one or another side.

For the most part, I think this works well. He does give a very clear and detailed account of events and conditions, of how these led to revolution and how, inevitably, they also led to said revolution veering off-course. It's pretty easy to read, except when it occasionally gets bogged down in undeniably necessary statistics. But one result of this approach is that the drama of the story, to some extent, goes missing and key players do not emerge as personalities as strongly as they might - if by the end we know that Lenin was a charismatic speaker, or Trotsky a haughty man who couldn't unbend, this is because we have been told so rather than because we have seen it in action, so to speak. One might say it is unfair to criticise the book on these grounds, since it has stated its factual, dispassionate remit, but charismatic personalities do have a bearing on events, and one reason, alongside those he suggests, that revolution happened in Russia but not in Britain or Germany may well be that the leaders who could have fired it were missing in those countries.

It's also perhaps not completely consistent about this approach. During the civil war that followed 1917, there were several independent warlords leading bands of more-or-less thugs about the countryside supporting sometimes Whites, sometimes Reds and more often only their own interests. Some indulged in vicious atrocities, and he names several, but one name he doesn't mention in that context is the anarchist Makhno, who according to accounts I've seen, some of them eyewitness, was as rabid a sadist as any, shooting total strangers through train windows for the fun of it. He mentions Makhno several times, but never imputes these acts to him, so that one might read this book and imagine him better than his ilk.

I'd also have liked rather more, in the chapter "Society and Culture", on the amazing literary flowering of the 1920s, among young writers (especially in Odessa) who might have been excused for thinking of nothing but where the next log of wood for the stove was coming from. On the other hand, it was gratifying that he dealt with the changing position of women more fully than many might have done.

My principal source of information on that time up to now was the 6-volume autobiography of Konstantin Paustovsky, who lived through it and describes it so vividly that one might be there. This is a different approach, and for those desiring a thorough, dispassionate overview, there couldn't be a better. I'd recommend reading it in conjunction with such an account as Paustovsky's, to get something of the "in that dawn" feeling , the heady sense of being alive in interesting and extremely dangerous times.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Though accessibly written, this is an academic history with all the expected trimmings: photos, bibliography, and thorough notes. As usual, these are arranged under the various chapter headings, which means that when you want to look one up you must first ascertain the chapter title you're on and then scrabble through the notes to find it. I saw a history book recently that included the relevant page numbers from the text at the top of each page of notes, making it so much easier to look up the notes while reading the text. I'd recommend that practice to all writers of annotated books.

This is a "micro-history" which illuminates a bigger story, namely the relationship between Britain and Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries, via one small place, a much-disputed island in the North Sea. It belonged at various times to Denmark, Britain and Germany and while the latter two owned it, there were constant influxes of tourists, political agitators, spies, artists, construction workers and military men to unsettle the original population of fisherfolk.  The entire population was evacuated twice, in connection with the world wars; the Germans twice turned it into an armed camp and the British attempted to blow it into oblivion, though amazingly it's still there.

Not surprisingly, the Heligolanders themselves had very little notion of loyalty to any of the various nations who made use of them and their island for their own purposes, and quite sensibly spent their time playing one off against the other. They seem to have always had an innate reluctance to paying taxes or duties of any kind and managed to avoid doing so under the British, the Kaiser, Weimar and even the Nazis; indeed the place is still a tax-free zone.

What this book left me with, in fact, was a keen desire to know more about the Heligolanders themselves, this original population who kept vanishing behind the myths others created around them, not to mention the influxes of outsiders. In particular I'd have liked to know more about how they adapted on their return in the 1950s to a place that had been reconstructed from scratch and, needless to say, not in the way they themselves had favoured. The photos from various eras are fascinating, but none shows the island and its buildings as they are today, which seems a pity.

However, it would not be a fair criticism of this book to say that it concentrates too little on the Heligolanders, because its whole purpose is to discuss, through the history of the island, the relationship between Britain and Germany and their contest for supremacy in the North Sea. This it does very thoroughly and readably; the fact that it left me wanting to know more about a quite different aspect of things is a bonus.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
02 February 2017 @ 11:40 am
A small poem I just wrote for the encouragment of revolutionaries

Ça Ira

It'll be fine, it'll be okay,
they sang as they swung on down the road
to make the world work a better way.

Freedom, equality, brotherhood,
everyone's dream, how could it fail,
once they'd cleared out the dead wood.

Only the axe was under a spell,
chopped and chopped and never let up,
like something out of a fairy tale,

and when they finally made it stop,
nobody had any appetite
for freedom; no one could handle hope.

It'll be fine, it'll be all right,
except that for now they've all slunk back
to where they were, or maybe not quite.

Perhaps just a small step down the track
can make a difference next time they try;
perhaps every ship that goes to wrack

is wood for a better. It could be
that men become wiser, that they shun
the evil they know, that history

is the tale of progress. Then again,
they might be like the vomiting cur
from the Bible. Yet… it'll be fine,

they sing, after every ruinous war,
each tyranny, pogrom, disastrous choice.
The axe chops on, till they remember

the magic words: poll, armistice,
uprising. Then they hand out freedom,
give folk doctoring, schooling, a voice,

welcome strangers into their home,
seeing their brothers. Though they turn
again to their folly, still it would seem

there's something in them that longs to learn,
that gropes for light, yet flinches away,
loving the glow, fearing the burn.

It'll be fine, it'll be okay,
freedom, equality, brotherhood,
it'll be fine, just not today.

 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Rarely has a poet been in a better position to answer the hackneyed question "Where do you get your ideas from?" Suppose for a moment that your great-grandfather had been James Fraser, official artist at 24 to the Austin Expedition which explored the Murchison region of Western Australia in 1854 and very nearly came to grief in the hostile terrain. Suppose further that quite apart from the watercolours he painted, you also had the journal of the expedition's leader, and that while on the expedition, your ancestor had been constantly thinking of  Helena, a young Irish immigrant girl in service in Fremantle with whom he'd fallen in love and who would become your great-grandmother.

This material would be a gift to any poet, but it still needs an interpreter who can handle it well. Geraldine Paine has already shown, in her first collection The Go-Away Bird, how sympathetically she can put flesh on the bones of historical texts, with her sequence "Tokens", based on the messages left behind for families by semi-literate convicts on their way to transportation. She does it again here, bringing alive both the English gentleman and the Irish housemaid in their own voices. Both are out of their comfort zone, partly because their unexpected feelings for each other are liable to meet family opposition given that he is Protestant and she Catholic, and partly because of the new environment they are in.

This brings us to the third character in the drama; the pitiless, demanding Murchison landscape itself. The poet researched this via travel as well as via books, and we see James, in his diaries, progress from making the sort of notes any tourist might jot down, "the view of the lake most attractive", through observing it properly and in detail,
Hopping mice and porcupines
burrow in sand under our feet, feral cattle

disappear into scrub
to, finally, feeling it from inside, becoming a part of it as he very nearly literally does:

With each day now, I'm quick to notice signs,
the woven wattle boughs –

a trap laid above a dried-up stream,
figures scored on gum trees, a stony grave

disturbed by dogs, the bones of horses
left to die. The land speaks.

I shudder, knowing men such as we
have passed this place before.

Tracks disappear in the soupy red loam.
Will we too become part of this land,

our dying marked by rocks
James's voice is that of an educated man becoming aware of how much he does not know; it is characterised by wonder, fear, intense curiosity. Helena, who has had less education and more hardship to cope with, is in some ways tougher and more worldly-wise, but she is made vulnerable both by how little control she has over her situation, as a domestic servant, and by the strength of her feelings for James, her only possible way out of it, who may not return from the interior and if he does, may still be beyond her reach. When her consumptive fellow-servant is turned off, we can sense, as she does, how easily this could be her fate:
Going, and no more than a week's wages paid to her.
Sure, she'll not survive, knows nothing but skivvying –
plenty off the ships will fight for that, and not be coughing.
The subtitle of this collection is "A Story in Verse", and that it is; we become attached to these characters and involved with their narrative, but it is the poet's eye that brings both them and the beautiful, forbidding landscape alive. The best material in the world won't help without that, and we may be glad that this little goldmine of a story came into the right hands.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Review of Between Quran and Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities, Navid Kermani, trs. Tony Crawford, English edition Polity Press, 2016

This is a collection of essays, speeches and articles by a German writer and scholar of Iranian extraction. The texts do have connections, notably his standpoint of looking for affinities and influences between Western and Eastern literature, but not all are about literature and they certainly don't add up to a single text with chapters. This is important to note, because neither the back-cover blurb nor the preface makes it clear, and since the two first texts, from the same series of lectures, can in fact be read as if they were the two first chapters of a book, this is confusing. The first appendix, "About the Text", makes it clear, but I don't know about you, I tend to read a book before its appendices.

Apart from the influence of Eastern (mainly Islamic) thought on German literature, which was my main reason for reading the book, other essays deal with terrorism, the refugee crisis, the death of an Iranian friend, the future of Europe and the performance of opera at Bayreuth. Most of them, though, do tend to reference an author somewhere, eg the chapter on refugees (one of the best argued and most telling), which is headed "Towards Europe: Zweig and the Borders". In truth Zweig didn't strike me as vital to the argument, but the text was a speech given at the Burgtheater of Vienna, so I suppose an Austrian author had to come in somewhere. Also it might indicate that Kermani is coming at matters primarily from the standpoint of a literary critic, though his interests are clearly wider and his view, like that of all who own two different cultures, that of a partial outsider.

This can often be an advantage: his reportage in "Towards Europe" is incisive and gripping:
Every night, from my hotel overlooking the port, I heard the dogs of the Moroccan border patrol waiting to catch the children. And yet once in a while a child makes it on board one of the ships, people say; sometimes they just try to hold on to the hull of a ship, in the water. I have no idea how that is supposed to work, but I wouldn't put it past these children to try it. Soon the European Union will be providing Morocco with sensors that detect a heartbeat or body heat. Then the children will have to stop breathing to get to Europe. They would probably try that too.
Among other chapters I found impressive,"Kafka and Germany" addresses the way in which Germany has been shaped less by its ever-changing borders than by language and literature. I don't think he argues it quite as cogently or readably as Neil MacGregor's "Germany", also published this year and reviewed here, but then MacGregor is one of the most readable of writers and doesn't labour the same point over and over as I find Kermani sometimes seems to, just in case the reader has missed it – perhaps this is a habit teachers and lecturers get into. Oh, and the remark (about Thomas Mann lecturing at the Library of Congress) "at the close of the war in the capital of the nation that has conquered Germany" might raise eyebrows, not to say hackles, in Britain and Russia, for two: the USA did it all on their own, did they, despite not actually having entered the war for its first three years? I also found "Revolt Against God" and "Hedayat and Kafka" fascinating, largely because they introduced me to two writers, Fariduddin Attar and Sadeq Hedayat, who were new to me and sound rather like my sort of thing – Attar in particular, a sort of cosmic Persian Eeyore whose The Book of Suffering I must look for.

But as one might expect from a book of disparate texts, I found the quality varied. I have no expertise in dramaturgy, which is perhaps why I can't follow what he is getting at in "Liberate Bayreuth!" As near as I can fathom, he thinks it impossible to act naturalistically while singing, so proposes instead that opera should be performed like oratorio, with the singers making no pretence to "be" whom they represent. I don't think this would actually hold an audience's attention (not a lot of oratorios seem to get staged these days) and I also think he underestimates the audience's capacity to suspend disbelief. As for his further demand that the orchestra be brought out of the pit and up on stage, he's going to need a bigger stage.

I could be doing him an injustice but I think one problem is that he lacks a sense of humour. When he speaks of modern poets, both Arabic and German: "many younger poets seem not to care about the rules and phonetic diversity of literary Arabic […] their recitation is as expressionless and interchangeable as the poetry readings we are familiar with here in Germany", he sounds exactly like a fusty Oxford don harrumphing that these modern chaps have no idea of prosody, and when he asserts that modern German university students "are introduced to longer, more complex works at best in abridged form" because they "have never learned the cultural techniques to comprehend nested sentence structures, rhythmic language, unfamiliar metaphors, intentional ambiguity", I'm not at all sure I believe him. I know this is not the case in British universities; students may be less sophisticated readers than their predecessors from the pre-TV age, but that can be, and is, addressed at university if it hasn't been at school; it doesn’t mean that Eng Lit students are presented with The Guinea-Pig Pride & Prejudice and I doubt it happens much in Germany.

The main place where a sense of humour would have helped is when, discussing King Lear, he quotes Gloucester's speech to Kent on his, Gloucester's, illegitimate son, who's present at the time:
Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for; yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making and the whoreson must be acknowledged.
This sparks off an explosion of tutting in Kermani: "when the father has no qualms about speaking his contempt openly to a third party, this explains and almost justifies the son's feelings of inadequacy that set the crime in motion and seal the father's doom." To my ear, Gloucester clearly speaks these words in a tone of bantering affection, probably while ruffling Edmund's hair (even "whoreson" is surely an Elizabethan version of the modern Geordie endearment "y'bugger"). Granted, the humour is darker than we are used to, but then Elizabethan humour often was. Walter Ralegh could write for his small son ("my pretty knave") a tenderly joshing sonnet about the possibility of naughty little boys ending up on the gallows ("The Wood, The Weed, The Wag"). Lord knows what Kermani makes of that; presumably he'd have had Tudor social services round at Sir Walter's door first thing in the morning, if only they'd been invented.

It is this misunderstanding not of words, but of tone, that sometimes makes me distrust his literary conclusions about works I do not know well, though to be fair, when he discusses Kleist's Penthesilea, which I do know, I wouldn't dissent at all. There is much to interest the reader in these essays; I would avoid the Preface, subtitled A Personal Note, which struck me as self-absorbed and slightly pompous, and get straight into the texts.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
05 November 2016 @ 02:16 pm
Like what?
"[In his poems] there was an exuberance of metaphor and simile entirely original, and not in the least borrowed from any resemblance in the things compared." (George Eliot: Scenes of Clerical Life)

The whole idea of likening A to B is to provide the reader with a new angle on A, a way of looking at A that illuminates it via its partial likeness to B. This can be immensely helpful to the reader, but only, I suggest, if it is possible to visualise B clearly. Otherwise the comparison hinders rather than aids the vision. The writer needs to know exactly what he is looking at, or the reader will not, and this requirement exists no less in poetry than in any other form of writing.

This all derives from a debate I've been trying to have on twitter (you try debating in 140 characters, which is why I'm blogging instead) about an image of Ashbery's that someone had tweeted:
"women
with a trace of tears like re-embroidered lace"

When I asked the tweeter "what's re-embroidered lace?" it was of course a genuine question, because to me this is very much one of those similes that obstructs vision. I have no trouble visualising the traces of tears on a woman's face. I have immense trouble visualising what Ashbery means by re-embroidered lace, possibly because I suffer from having done, albeit unwillingly, a bit more needlework than him.

To begin with basics: embroidery is decoration executed on fabric, usually in thread or yarn but it can also involve sequins, beads, jewels and much else. Lace is itself a fabric, made of yarn or thread in an open, netlike pattern. While it would be theoretically possible to embroider with thread on lace, it wouldn't be easy and would probably end up like a dog's breakfast, because lace just isn't a ground that takes embroidery well. Another possibility, perhaps likelier, is that he is thinking of "lace embroidery", which is itself a metaphorical usage in that it means applying lace to another fabric in a decorative pattern that mimics real embroidery. It would be possible to visualise the tracks of tears as lace applied decoratively to the women's faces.

But in that case, what's with this "re-embroidered"? What am I meant to see there? Lace is a delicate fabric; its threads can break easily, but then you mend it; you don't "re-embroider" it, for it was never embroidered in the first place. If you applied decorative lace to a dress, you could remove the lace and "re-embroider" the dress – not the lace – by applying new lace. But why should the tracks of tears look "re-embroidered" as opposed to just embroidered?

What I think happened is that Ashbery liked the idea of tear-tracks as lace, partly at least because of the vowel echo with "trace", but he also liked the idea of embroidery and wanted both. Why, in that case, he didn't write "a trace of tears like lace embroidery", I've no idea, nor what he wanted to convey by "re-embroidered lace". I do know that as an image, it did nothing but confuse my vision.

I also know that I can't go along with the tweeter's suggestions that one should "accept images in poems on their own terms" and that "what makes perfect sense in a poem is not the same as what makes perfect sense outside of one". True, poets do sometimes leave out the odd logical step that the reader must fill in – Donne and Rilke are good examples. But this "accept the poem on its own terms" philosophy comes uncomfortably close to Humpty Dumpty. Words, for a writer, cannot mean just what we want them to, neither more nor less, because they also carry the meaning the reader sees in them. And said reader cannot un-know what she knows. If our readers happen to be familiar with the topography of a real place, or the habits of gulls, or the terminology of needlework, any errors or inconsistencies of fact in those areas can scupper a poem for them by destroying their trust in the authorial voice.

This is not to say that poets can't fictionalise, go beyond reality – embroider it, indeed. But if there's one place where this works less well, it would be imagery. If we want to help the reader see something more clearly, or in a new way, by means of a comparison object, then that object must surely be drawn –and drawn accurately - from the reader's own real world, which means the writer must himself be very sure what he is observing. And there needs to be some immediacy about how it works; the reader has to read it and at once think "yes! That's what A is like…" If you leave her scratching her head, I reckon you might as well just have described A in the first place.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
05 November 2016 @ 12:19 pm


Not normally my thing, but the composer has set a couple of my translations of the German Thirty Years War poets Andreas Gryphius and Paul Fleming. St Albans, 19 November.

"Born in Flight, a new cantata by leading young composer Alexander Flood, will receive its world premiere as part of the concert by Radlett Choral Society at 7.30pm on Saturday 19 November in St Saviour's church, Sandpit Lane, St Albans. It sets three poems dating back to one of the most horrific conflicts in European history, the Thirty Years' War. That conflict was fought for complex reasons both political and religious four hundred years ago between all the great powers of the time. It laid waste to vast areas of what is now Germany. Imagine a war lasting from the start of WW1 to the end of WW2 in which proportionally twice as many people died as both world wars combined and we get a sense of the carnage that scarred the psyche of the German people for centuries.
The poetry of Born in Flight, in translations by the Welsh poet and novelist Sheenagh Pugh, reflects the typically matter-of-fact response of people of the time to the uncertainty and transience of life. The final section of the cantata sets a lament for a baby born as a refugee who died only a few days old. There are clear parallels between that time in Europe and today in the Middle East, and the rich sounds of the cantata combine elements of music from both time periods.
Composer Alexander Flood, who will also be conducting the performance, says ‘Serious composers today sometimes find it difficult to write music that can connect with and move an audience. I hope that Born in Flight can spark across from the performers to the listeners and provide a memorable and dramatic expression of poetry that is as relevant to our lives today as when it was written’.
The concert also includes two profound compositions by Gabriel Fauré, and J.S. Bach’s exquisite Cantata 18. Fauré’s Requiem is his best known works, described by the composer as ‘dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest’. At the age of nineteen, Fauré composed the music for Racine’s text in his ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’ for a competition at the school of church music he attended in Paris, which won him first prize.
Radlett Choral Society and the Mariana Ensemble, with Soprano Sarah Gabriel and Bass Samuel Evans, will be conducted by Alexander Flood.
Tickets at £12, accompanied children under 16 free, are available from RCS Box Office 01923 226836/243545, or on the door."
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Another anthology. This is an edited version of a website of the same name, a collection of poems which came into being because of the 2015 general election. The swing to the right, against the predictions of opinion polls, surprised most poets, who, like nearly everyone else, live in an online bubble where we come across few world-views that do not mirror our own. Two poets, the editors of this anthology, decided to publish a poem a day for 100 days in response to the election (it turned into 138 days, but poets aren't usually big on maths). Some were commissioned from poets the editors knew or knew of, others came from open submission. Disclosure: I have a poem in it myself but am taking my usual stance that one poem doesn't disqualify me from reviewing a whole anthology.

It might be argued that commissioning poems from the editors' own online acquaintance would produce homogeneity of views, but apparently the open submissions were no less homogenous (as I know was the case in a later project on poems about Brexit: not a single pro-Brexit poem was submitted). Why there should be this political consensus among poets is a puzzle many have raised. If one accepts that the role of poets in society, rather than to be unacknowledged legislators, is to be gadflies, it seems natural that they should be anti-whatever government is in power, and indeed anti-establishment. But that doesn't wholly explain the leftist consensus. Either right-wing poets, these days, don't exist, or they don't write about politics, or if they do, they avoid projects like this. The introduction, if I've understood it correctly, suggests that right-wingers, being more pragmatic, may not bother with the lyric form as a way of influencing or persuading others, ie for political purposes, because its reach is too small. I'm not sure about this, but then neither am I sure I have the hang of its argument elsewhere, eg "By dividing the work according to the four ministries […] in Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are not just having a dig at the attitudes of the political class […] but also indicating that the opinions expressed in these pages are not without their own ideologies". I don't really see how the second follows from the first (though I thought the idea of the four sections quite a witty way to organise the book) and overall the intro reminds me of an old North Wales man's reply when asked his opinion of the sermons preached by his local vicar, the poet R S Thomas. He said, "He do pitch the hay too high in the crach", meaning the sermons went over his head. Some of this intro's hay is out of my reach, too.

If the poems are largely homogenous in their political stance, they are, thankfully, not at all so in their technique. They range from overtly polemical to very oblique, from free verse to complicated and elaborate forms (both classical and invented), from contemporary to historical parallel, from persona to personal. Some of the form poems particularly impressed me, because the technique turned out, in this instance, to be a way of making the reader think more carefully about the words and their import. I would cite as outstanding Hannah Lowe's use of bold type to create a poem-within-a-poem in "The Garden Is Not For Everyone", Ian McMillan's similar use of italicised unspoken thought in "News From't Northern Province" and Paul McGrane's variant villanelle "The Government" – I seldom warm to villanelles, but this is a perfect example of how to turn the form's repetition and inevitability to account, stressing over and over the unpalatable fact that "somebody voted for the government". There are many other forms represented: sonnets, ballads, ghazal, terza rima, sestina. I'm still trying to work out why Ben Wilkinson, in his lively sestina "Building a Brighter, More Secure Future" chose the indefinite article "a" as one of his keywords. He must have had some purpose in deliberately choosing so weak a word in so strong a place, but so far I'm not getting it; more reading needed…

Another technique that worked very well in some of these poems was mythologizing, which gives a universality and timelessness to what might otherwise be bounded by its own particular time and place. Jon Stone's "Incentivampire" is a splendid, memorable example, as is Tony Williams's terza rima "The Promised Land" (another happy marriage of form and theme, a form and journey both potentially without an end).

I don't think all these poems can have been written specifically for the project, or during the hundred days; some must have been to hand already and simply fitted the brief. For instance, Steve Ely's "Inyenzi", one of the most powerful poems I've read in recent years, was in his pamphlet Werewolf (Calder Valley Poetry, 2016, reviewed here) and though the timing would allow for it to have been written for this project, it seems so integral to the pamphlet, so much part of its pattern, that I can't believe it evolved outside it. Not that this matters, because his transfer of the rhetoric used in Rwanda, to dehumanise the Tutsi and justify their killing, to a persona in this country speaking of what's sometimes called the underclass is chilling, masterly and fits the brief perfectly.

Nevertheless
they seemed to find each other attractive
mating continually and without compunction,
Even the juveniles were fertile

There are some poems that seem more tangential to the theme than this. In some cases, like Josephine Dickinson's "Go Not, Gentle", they are less a reaction to a specific event than a way of seeing the world, but still capable of being seen as a response to the theme. It's also possible that many poets preferred to approach the theme in an oblique way rather than risk being overtly polemical. There were a few poems that made me feel preached at, and correspondingly resentful, but not many. Overall, it's an anthology with much energy and passion, as is natural with political poetry, but also with more nuance and subtlety than might have been expected.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Disclaimer: I have a poem in this, but have decided that one poem does not constitute a reason not to review the rest of the anthology.

Well, this is interesting. Last year, I reviewed two individual poetry collections whose main focus was ageing (Philip Gross's Love Songs of Carbon and Tamar Yoseloff's A Formula for Night) and one anthology of poems about ageing – also Scottish, Second Wind: new poems by Douglas Dunn, Vicki Feaver and Diana Hendry, pub. The Saltire Society. Indeed, a few poems from that anthology also cropped up in this one…. So there would seem to be a current fashion for poems on this topic.

Second Wind's remit was specifically to be "creative" about ageing, and judging by Sally Magnusson's foreword to Whatever the Sea, I wouldn't be surprised if this one too had been determined from the start to be basically upbeat rather than depress the customers. Magnusson describes the general tone as "pleasingly bracing". Even in the section entitled "Old Age Blues", the poems rarely get darker than wistful, and there isn't that much Timor Mortis in the final section, entitled "As Time Draws Near". Those who know my Eeyoreish tendencies will not be surprised to learn that the two bleak exceptions in these sections, Helena Nelson's "Blight" and Edwin Muir's "The Way" were among my favourites in the book.

The title, as many will recall, comes from one of the wonderful late poems of Edwin Morgan, "At Eighty", from his last collection Cathures:
Push the boat out, compañeros,
push the boat out, whatever the sea.

Other gems include Elma Mitchell, one of the several mature women poets so encouraged by the much-lamented Harry Chambers of Peterloo Poets. In "Good Old Days", having forensically dissected her body's failings, she ends:
But up here, at the top of the spine, behind the eyes,
Curtained a little but not blind,
Sits a young and laughing mind
Wondering which part of me is telling lies.

This disconnect between physical fact and mental self-image also cries out of Nelson's "Blight", which I can't resist quoting in full:
Each of us is old
and our brave silks begin
to fall from us. Draw close
in the chapterhouse of skin.

How shall we be glad?
We were young, young – we knew
it would happen as it happens
but not like this. Not to

us, not to the silk-sellers,
the bearers of spice and gold.
Our tales were bright in the telling
but this was not foretold.

There are poems in the anthology which are cosier, and which please me less, because they can get perilously close to cheery homespun philosophy. Mostly this consists of the odd clichéd line or phrase in an otherwise interesting poem, but a few poems, like Helen Cruickshank's "Autumn Compensations", seem to be pretty much made up of cottage gardens, slippered feet and irredeemable cosiness. Cruickshank, who could write much better than this, seems to have been left out of the author biogs at the end, which is a shame as hers would have been one of the more interesting ones.

But there is some fine work in here – apart from those I've already mentioned, there is Iain Crichton Smith, always a reflective, thought-provoking joy, Vicki Feaver and Alastair Reid among many others. Plus that chilling, exact Muir poem, which I didn't know before and now can't forget:
Stay here, for ever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh places I have passed!
That journey's done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.

I'm wondering now when the next anthology on this topic will come up, and what the trend means…
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
30 September 2016 @ 07:52 am



The exercise in the page photographed above (photo by C J Southworth) comes from a book called The Practice of Creative Writing: a Guide for Students by Heather Sellers, pub. Bedford Books 2007. Basically it quotes a poem by Bob Hicok about his home town and then suggests the students make substitutes of their own for certain key words and phrases (like "Michigan"). They will thus "build their own poem in between the lines". The helpful advice continues… "After you write lines of your own built from Hickok's lines copy out just your poem, on a new sheet of paper. As you copy, tinker with your lines. Delete and add words to make them connect to each other. […] If you decide to submit the piece to a literary magazine or a class anthology, you can simply put 'After Bob Hicok's 'A Primer'" under the title if you feel it is still very closely related to the original. Poets and writers often talk to each other in this contemporary fashion; it's not unusual at all. Imitation is, after all, the highest form of flattery."

I used to teach creative writing. This isn't it. There is a world of difference between this and the process whereby one reads a poem, thinks "wow, that's just how I felt when X happened" and then goes off to write a poem about X. That is identifying what was universal in the poet's experience and how it was manifested in yours. I have used that as an exercise, and blogged about it here. This, on the other hand, is pretending to have had the experience someone else had in the poem. Hicok wrote about Michigan because it meant something to him. You're writing about Halifax, or whatever else you substituted for Michigan, because your tutor told you to. And it will show in the writing – there's a name for this barren, tick-box process, "ghosting", which strikes me as most appropriate for a pallid, insubstantial imitation of someone else's reality.

And it goes further. You are not just appropriating Mr Hicok's experience, you are copying the mechanics of how he chose to write about it – the syntax, the rhythms, the use of images. "Another image for how your place looks – comparison that spills over onto next line" advises the book helpfully, in case you should have accidentally done something original. The implication of "if you feel it is still very closely related to the original" is that it might not be; the student might somehow, out of this sterile parroting, create an actual new poem. But even Ms Sellers seems to recognise the danger that it will indeed still be very closely related to the original, in everything save originality, hence the advice to include the epigraph "After Bob Hicok". Here's my advice: putting "After Fred Bloggs" on a flagrant imitation of that gentleman's work will not stop Mr Bloggs objecting, and if he happens to be an irritable man, books or noses may get pulped as a result. The term "after" in an epigraph properly means that one has been inspired by a poet's work to produce something somehow related, but of one's own. It might be a parody; it might be a whole different take on his material; what it is not is a reproduction of his poem with some of his words crossed out and replaced by yours.

Some people who use this technique, of course, omit the stage of "tinker with your lines". They also omit the attribution "after" and publish their ghosts of others' efforts as their own original work. We call them plagiarists, and rightly scorn them, but being taught in this lazy way is arguably one reason they think such conduct acceptable.

Here's some alternative advice:

1. Imitate (or better, emulate) the how, not the what. This means working out not just what it is you admire in a poem but also how the poet achieved it. Thomas Wyatt, in the line "That now are wild, and do not remember", heightens the emotion of the word "remember" by throwing enormous stress on it. He does this by means of tinkering with his rhythms: leaving out a stressed syllable before the word in a basically iambic line. Don't waste time trying to do this exact same thing with a different set of words: just note for future reference that stress rules, like most others, can be broken to great effect.

2. Work out what you want to write, not what somebody else wanted to write. This is the heart of the exercise I've linked to above: the students had first to identify an experience of their own and only then look at how others might have used similar material. Then they wrote about their material; all they had brought from the poets we read was how that might be done by identifying what it was about this material that stuck in their minds.

3. Don't be constantly looking for lazy short cuts. That's all "ghosting" is – letting someone else have the experience, process it in his mind, work out the best techniques for expressing it…

4. If you honestly can't think of anything you want to write about, or any way of doing it, without borrowing from others, consider that maybe you're not cut out to be any kind of a writer. Being handy with words doesn't matter if you've nothing of your own to say.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

The most important thing about this novella - and it is one in length, rather than a novel - is its narrative voice. Bjarni is an old man, a widowed sheep farmer in a very isolated rural part of Iceland, writing a letter to the woman he loved many years ago but did not marry, and who moved to Reykjavik. A lot of the time he talks in proverbs, anecdotes and quotations from, or references to, Icelandic literature, and his imagery and vocabulary are drawn from the landscape and culture about him, so that it's natural enough for him to liken his lover's breasts to two nearby tussocks, or remark that his late wife was "tremendously good at distinguishing sheep, meaning she knew which heads belonged to which lambs even after they'd been singed and boiled". These are the things that matter to him, and since, like many Icelanders, he is also steeped in classical Icelandic literature and folklore. these references come naturally to his voice as well. There is a glossary at the back, for those not acquainted with the sagas. I'm not sure how this aspect of his voice will play with them, but for those of us who do know that marvellous branch of literature, it's a bonus that deepens and colours the old man's voice.

Having said this, he is in some ways a limited narrator: his feeling for the culture and landscape around him is acute but his views on town life and the modern world in general are little more than uninformed prejudice. His author is well aware of this, I'm sure; we are not meant to see purely through Bjarni's eyes. His reason for not following his lover Helga to town was not love for his wife but love for the landscape and culture in which he was brought up. It is made clear that this was in some ways almost literally a dead-end choice; his marriage is sterile, his way of life dying on its feet and the future - his future - looking at him from Reykjavik via a TV screen. Nevertheless, as Quentin Crisp once said, most of us end up doing, if not what we like, at least what we prefer, and so did he.

The translation, in US English, reads well enough in the prose but very awkwardly in the verses the old man quotes, If these were all amateur verses, it might be deliberate, but those by noted poets read just as stilted. It is, I suspect, simply that the translator normally works only in prose and is not himself a poet; it's really a different kind of translation, where one must often sacrifice literal accuracy of meaning for the sound the man wanted to make. One other thing - reviewing this via Vine, I have a proof copy which does not give the name of whoever was responsible for the beautiful illustrations, looking like woodcuts, which head each chapter. I trust this has been rectified in the pukka version, because they are outstanding, as you can see in the one I've headed this review with.

The author's afterword mentions that he grew up surrounded by storytellers, and there are indeed some marvellous anecdotes woven into this book, my favourite perhaps being that of the old man whose wife dies in a hard winter when her corpse can't be moved from her remote farmhouse. In his practical way, the widower preserves her body (for a spring burial) where he preserves everything else, in the smokehouse.

We helped him take her down off the crossbeam, and the entire time we were busy with this, Gisli spoke to Sigridur as if she were still alive and kicking. 'Well, my dear, they've finally come to get you. Now you're going to go for a little boat trip, my good woman.' That's how he spoke to this woman, whose dead body he'd so affectionately prepared for burial. Gunnar of Hjardarnes couldn't refrain from saying something that we were were naturally all thinking, as we lifted her carefully from the cage and over into the coffin, her skin rosy brown, smelling like the best smoked lamb meat. I swear she had a smile on her face. Gunnar said, 'Well, mate, I don't know what you say, but I think Sigridur has never looked better!'"

Not all the writing works that well, and I do think the obligatory sheep-shagging incident contrived and predictable. But overall this is an unusual and engaging novella, about a man whose inner life is more expansive than his outward circumstances. In his own words, he has "big dreams on small pillows"
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
08 September 2016 @ 10:33 am
Back to plagiarism… sorry to the non-writers for whom this isn't necessarily a Big Thing in their lives, but it's a debate that doesn't go away in the poetry world, principally because it's become clear in recent years that it happens far more often than we have cared to admit. We're not talking of influences, parodies, hommages here, but of Poet B shamelessly nicking Poet A's actual lines and phrases and not crediting them.

You wouldn't think this would divide the poetry world much, or only along fairly obvious lines – all the honest folk on one side and all the thieves on the other, surely. But in fact there are a few writers and publishers who insist that there can be no ownership of words, no "originality", on the ground that we all use the same dictionary, and that if you, as Poet A, happen to have written a heartfelt lament for your father, you shouldn't make a fuss when Poet B appropriates it with some trifling changes and makes it about his mother; if anything you should take it for a compliment. (That example actually happened, and Poet B won a competition with it, until it was sussed.)

The interesting thing is that both sides of the debate sometimes cite the practice of creative writing courses and workshops in support. I've seen it so often asserted that in these forums, students are taught to "sample", imitate, cut and paste, "ghost" (a particularly pernicious practice, in my view, whereby someone uses another's ideas and structure as a template for a new poem). Those who approve point out that there are ways of crediting, like an epigraph that makes it clear the poem is "after" so-and-so. But what gets me is the notion that all such courses use these shortcuts – sorry, I mean techniques, of course. I can only say I didn't, nor did any of my colleagues on the CW degree where I taught. Of course I used the writing of others as models, just not that way. Just by way of illustration, this is an exercise I used.

Stage 1. Think of someone you know well, probably family or close friend, who is known in their circle for doing some particular physical activity. It could be sport, painting, music, housework, cooking, gardening: anything from setting a fire or putting clothes on a line to playing an accordion or fencing, as long as it involves some physical activity, not just sitting thinking with a pen in one's hand. (Though calligraphy would be fine.) Write a very full, detailed description, not a poem but a prose paragraph or two, or even notes, about this person doing this thing – how they do it, how they look when doing it, how they seem to others, what the result is. These notes in this form will not get shown to anyone.

Stage 2. We read several poems in which the way someone does something becomes emblematic for something about them, or a way into some other knowledge. These were some I used:
Michael Laskey: "Laying the Fire". A divorced woman finds herself having to relight the Parkray, which had always been her husband's job. He made a complicated mystery out of it; she does it more haphazardly but it works perfectly well and in the process she begins to see that she can manage without him.
River Wolton: "Running". River writes a lot about physical exercise and sport; this was an early piece that conveyed, to me, not just her feelings when running, but something about persistence, the mental need to persevere with something not because it was fun but to prove something to oneself.
A D Mackie: "The Mole-Catcher". We had to do a quick bit of byroning for this: in Mackie's poem the pitiless mole-killer is compared to the Angel of Death who sweeps down on the Assyrian host in Byron's poem "The Destruction of Sennacherib". In the Byron poem, the Assyrians are the baddies, threatening the Lord's people. But in Mackie's, by the end we are firmly on the side of the moles, the "sma' black tramorts [corpses] wi' gruntles grey", and having to reassess, in the light of the comparison, how we feel about the Lord and his angels.

I used other similar poems in which physical activity became emblematic of more than itself, just never Heaney's "Digging", which struck me as way too bleedin' obvious.

Stage 3: Go back to those notes from Stage I. Now try to work out what it was about this person doing this thing that stuck in your mind. What did it say about them, or their relationships with others, or how others saw them? What was special, for them, about this thing and how they did it? Whatever it was, that's where the poem is, so now write the first draft of it.

I got some fascinating poems this way, full of physicality as one might expect, and often quite insightful. One I especially recall was by a young widow; her husband had been a plasterer and the argot of his trade included a surprising number of bird-related words like hawk, swoop, hop up. He'd been a small, active, delicate man, and in the poem, busy at his job, he comes over so quick and birdlike, he could have been there in the room.

What I never got was straight imitation of the poems we had read. That wasn't possible, because they'd been sent back to their own experience, not that of the poets in front of them. All they had gleaned from those was how personal experience might be transmuted into something more than itself, and how they, using their own experience rather than piggybacking on someone else's, might do likewise.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
I really, really like the way Neil MacGregor illuminates history by focusing on individual objects. He has of course done it twice: once creating A History of the World in 100 Objects (all in the British Museum where he was then director) and then in Shakespeare's Restless World, where he brought the plays alive, again via objects the man would have known and seen. In the process he shines a light on things you just might not normally think about, like the fact that the theatre name "Globe" was cutting-edge at a time when Drake had not long circumnavigated the world.

In his latest, he does again use objects, like coins, machines, Peter Keler's Bauhaus cradle (designed in 1922, still in production today), but also focuses on towns, motifs from folk tale, paintings and individual humans. But the method is the same: to zoom in on what may look like a detail and use it to illuminate something far wider. In the chapter "Snow White vs Napoleon", he examines the role of the forest in the German imagination and self-image, from Hermann's epic victory over the Roman legions in the Teutoburger Wald (AD 9), through the sinister forests of the Grimm folk tales and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, to the modern preoccupation with conservation which results in a third of the country, no less, being protected forest land, and has made the Greens stronger in Germany than anywhere else in Europe.

Sometimes too, the individual objects of his focus interact revealingly and movingly, as when we realise that Ernst Barlach's sculpture "Hovering Angel", created in 1926 as a Great War memorial, melted down by the Nazis for war material and recreated post-war from the original plaster mould, has the face of Käthe Kollwitz, whose "Grieving Parents", commemorating her own son's death in the Great War, we have already seen.

From the Europeanism of Goethe to the federal individuality of sausages, from Martin Luther reinventing a language to a handcart used by refugees after World War 2 but which, as he points out, is of so timeless a rural design that it could easily have been used for the exact same purpose during the Thirty Years War, this is as many-sided and illuminating a portrait of a nation and its history as I can imagine. It's also, like everything of his that I have read, immensely readable.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
29 August 2016 @ 07:45 pm
Here's an interview I did for Poetry Spotlight, with a poem from my last visit to Canada. Oh, and while we're at it, a photo of a mother bear and cub near Jasper.
bear2.jpg
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Will MacReady, on his first day with Cardiff CID, joins a team already stretched by a policeman's murder. Now a divorced man out for visiting time with his son has found something in the docks that oughtn't to be there…

Cornelius – yet another MOP who seemed desperate to tell their life story to a complete stranger – had been arguing with his new girlfriend on the phone while Lucas threw stones into the water. Calling for his daddy to come look. Pointing out through the railings, at the mouth of the dry dock. When |Cornelius ended the call and went to his son, he saw what Lucas was looking at.[…]

MacReady checked across the dock at Davidson. He was bent over at the waist, laughing as the kid skittered around his legs, dropping F-bombs every couple of steps.

"My ex is going to murder me." Cornelius moaned.

"I truly hope not," MacReady said.

"There's none of us left to investigate if she does," Lee offered.

This little vignette demonstrates a number of the characteristics of this, Mike Thomas's third novel drawing on his background as a long-serving South Wales policeman. The way the police, like the fire and ambulance service, necessarily harden themselves with brittle jocularity to what they see. The way their patience with members of the public – MOPs – wears thin. The way Thomas, as always, does not make the error of explaining this kind of trade argot but leaves you to pick up on it as you go, so that it always sounds completely natural. And the presence, absence and importance of children, a pivotal factor in this novel.

Thomas's last two novels were not about crime but rather about being a policeman and what that might do to people. This one is too, but it is also about the actual solving of a crime. The protagonists in Pocket Notebook and Ugly Bus didn't spend a whole lot of their novels doing that; they were too busy working through their own problems and the minutiae of police procedure, as well as, in some cases, actually committing crimes. I loved both books, by the way, and was worried, before I read this one, that the "crime novel" aspect might get in the way of the character development and interaction which he has been so good at.

But it doesn't. We are at two ends of a crime which moves between Nigeria and the UK by way of Portugal, and while for most of the time we are with the Cardiff police who only know about their end of things, sometimes the narration shifts so that we see what is happening elsewhere and can make a partial guess at what might be going on. This ratchets up the tension considerably, because where we suspect the narrative may be going is where we desperately don't want it to go, and by the end it is as unputdownable for that reason as any crime novel should be. For me, though, it was already gripping for other reasons: the host of rich and believable minor characters, the cross-talk between the policemen which was such a feature of the first two novels, the unexpected but perfectly feasible compunction that begins to develop in some of the villains about what they are doing and makes you realise, unwillingly, that nobody is all of a piece.

Then there's the personal story of MacReady. His back-story resembles that of Jacob in Pocket Notebook, while his character, doggedly fighting off the cynicism that goes with the job, bears some likeness to Martin from Ugly Bus. But unlike them, he is envisaged as a character developing over several novels, rather than just one. So far, I'd say he definitely has the necessary depth and possibility to sustain reader interest over a series, and I'm glad to note from the author's recent blog tour that MacReady's next adventures are already written.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
03 August 2016 @ 01:45 pm
Green mwold on zummer bars do show
That they’ve a-dripp’d in winter wet;
The hoof-worn ring o’ groun’ below
The tree, do tell o’ storms or het; […]
An’ where the vurrow-marks do stripe
The down, the wheat woonce rustled ripe.
Each mark ov things a-gone vrom view—
To eyezight’s woone, to soulzight two.

- William Barnes, "Tokens"

The above is as good a definition as I know of a writing technique that fascinates me because it's almost, but not quite, imagery. As I understand it, imagery is fetching Object B out of its context in order to compare it with Object A, and by so doing, to shed a new light on Object A. For the purpose is not just to show A more clearly, it is rather to slant the reader's view of it in the author's own chosen direction by means of the comparison object, because Object B does not come out of its former context alone; it brings with it a whole trail of associations. As Martin Opitz observed in the 17th century, to write that a girl has hair like corn and eyes like forget-me-nots says "farmgirl" whereas hair like gold and eyes like sapphires says "queen" – but, as he went on to point out, once you have the rule you can subvert it; describing a queen in farmgirl similes might be a subtle way of indicating that she was ill at ease with her rank and secretly yearned for the simple life.

But what Barnes was doing above is not comparison exactly. The iron bars, the furrows, are themselves; they are not being likened to any other object, but what he is doing is seeing beyond their present state to the past contained within it. It is human deduction, knowledge and above all memory that make green mould emblematic of a wet winter. His wonderful coinage "soulsight", as opposed to eyesight, is what the Welsh poet J T Jones of Llangernyw was using, and making his readers use, in his englyn "Now that I am old and unsteady on my feet, I feel an urge to go back to where I was brought up, to walk in the places where I used to run". In any other place on earth, an old man doddering along is just that, but in the one place where his mind's eye (and ours) cannot help but see the boy running ahead of him, the figure of the old man contains that of the boy, the memory of all he once was.

Cavafy, who almost never uses actual metaphor or simile, constantly uses this technique whereby things or acts become more than themselves, emblems of everything an individual's experience and memory has added to them. In his poem "The Afternoon Sun", what would be, to anyone else, a space where furniture once stood is transmuted by memory and association:
This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, merchants, companies.

This room, how familiar it is.

Here, near the door, was the couch,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window was the bed
where we made love so many times.

I think what pleases me most about this technique is its sense of the power and importance of things, both the solid reality of their present and the depth of association and memory they carry with them, which transcends and transmutes that reality. In the poem above, Cavafy pretty much does this twice; first his memory can fill the now empty office with the furniture it once held, but then the conjured-up furniture itself, because of its associations, becomes emblematic of the relationship so firmly in the past. William Barnes does something eerily similar in "The Wife A-Lost", one of the many poems in which his uncanny skill at creating empty spaces comes in handy. The widower who speaks this poem is spending all his time in a grove of beech trees, precisely because his late wife disliked it and never went there: it is the only place in the neighbourhood where he doesn't constantly expect to see her and miss her presence. Again here, the beech grove is not precisely being used as an image for the man's bereaved state, any more than the bed absent from Cavafy's former room is an "image" of his lost relationship. They are real: objects in their own right which belong where they are seen or recalled, not imagined Object Bs dragged out of some other context solely to furnish comparisons for Object A. But by making us conscious not only of what they are but of what they have been, the writer can invest them with an unsuspected depth of meaning.

None of this is intended to deny the efficacy of metaphor and simile, with their ability to slant and direct the reader's view via the complication of associations and value systems which any comparison object drags at its tail. What could be more heartrending, for all manner of reasons, than the metaphor in an old Irish Gaelic folk song Frank O'Connor quotes: "Rise up and put a fence about the field you spoiled last night" (ie, "marry the girl you seduced")? Yet, for all it tells us about the kind of society those two people live in, I think we are still, as readers, using our eyesight here: we are seeing a field and a fence on one side, a woman and a man on the other, and superimposing one picture on the other, to great effect.

Cavafy's lost furniture re-imagined back into the room, the old man who walks where he used to run, Barnes's "tokens" and powerful empty spaces (like the arms of the turnstile, gaping empty and still, where the narrator's memory sees the lost child who used to set it spinning) are something else. It is eyesight that shows us these real, solid objects in their normal setting (and you may be assured, there is nothing as solid as a Barnes empty space). But it is another kind of perception, reliant on memory and imagination, that adds the emotional depth to it, that makes it "to eyesight one, to soulsight two".