The human animal in the room: The Grass Library by David Brooks

Central to Australian writer David Brooks’ meditation on the ethics and implications of existing in a truly honest and respectful relationship with the nonhuman creatures who share this planet with us, is the question of how one can properly write about animal experience at all without filtering it through a decidedly anthropocentric lens. Are words, as we know and employ them, even up to the task? These are neither easy nor straightforward questions, but the search for possible answers is a journey that Brooks stumbles into willingly, and frets about, fumbles through, marvels over, and shares with surprising humility in this engaging—and endearing—collection of interrelated essays.

It all begins with a sudden life shift when Brook’s partner, T., announces over dinner one night that she can no longer continue to consume meat. He takes it well, but when this declaration is soon further refined to exclude all food that comes from animals, he finds himself accepting, if at first a little mournfully, a vegan diet. Where this path will ultimately lead them he can hardly imagine at that moment, but within a few years they will have left their rented house in Sydney and moved—cautiously at first and with an intermediary purchase—to a small farm in the Blue Mountains where he, T. and  their dog Charlie will find themselves living with a growing “herd” of rescue sheep, not to mention the snake, ducks, rats, and all the other creatures that come and go. The resulting account is not a book about veganism or guilt but it is a book detailing one man’s ongoing effort to realign his values in accord with respect for animals. More importantly it is a lyrical philosophical tale of “discovery and wonder: wonder and wondering.”

But first, to set the stage, there is the move. Reluctant to cut ties with the city cold turkey, so to speak, they buy a house in a mountain town, but continue to rent in Sydney. When they finally try to make a permanent move to their new home, a variety of factors prevent them from settling in and feeling at peace. So, when they hear about a farm on the edge of town, they check it out. Two sloping acres, an old farmhouse and a small cabin just begging to be converted into a library. It seems to be perfect given a number of circumstances and dreams that are beginning to colour their thoughts of the future, so they buy it, move in, and within a few months are joined by a couple of rescue sheep—Jonathan and Henry-Lee.

The genesis of the text that will become The Grass Library lies in a vegan friend’s challenge to Brooks that he should write about animals. However, if that was, at least for the friend, envisioned to be part of a grander exposé about animal cruelty, this book is smaller, more intimate and close to home, but it raises fundamental philosophical questions all the same. He draws, for example, on the writings of Kierkegaard and on Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am. But the true beauty lies in the self-reflective exploration of what it means to write on behalf of another creature with an openness to possibility of experience—ours and theirs. Uncertain how to start, Brooks decides to begin with their rescue dog, Charlie, and his curious dusk anxiety. A window on the life of another, a life that overlaps with but is not contained within those of his human companions. See the problem? “Owners” is a fraught term. Even writing this review echoes the challenges of writing about animals—what can we ever fully know about anyone who shares our lives with us, even if they are of the same species, let alone if they belong to another species or even order of being? Brooks struggles to tell Charlie’s story as Charlie might, an exercise, at best never more than approximate and subject to an endless double guessing that he will continue to practice as the group of nonhuman animals who become part of his life and narrative expands.

The true nature of the nervousness Charlie displays as the day comes to a close is never fully understood despite efforts to analyze or assuage it, but it seems that once his family relocates to the farm, where he quickly takes to his fleecy new friends, he finds a comfort zone of sorts. Once “the boys” arrive, followed in time by an orphaned lamb, little  Orpheus Pumpkin, Brooks’ creature considerations extend and, for much of the book revolve around sheep. Living with these characters (and they are definitely distinct individuals) offers countless opportunities for observation, contemplation and, on occasion, serious concern. As for example, when David and T. decide that it would be an act of complicated kindness to have Henry castrated. A ram who exhibits a desperate longing for the ladies whenever ewes are nearby, they worry that he will either injure himself trying to reach them or harass his poor companion Jonathan, a wether, to the point of distraction. But whose comfort is really on the line?

The surgery does not go well, prompting worry, guilt and doubt, though Henry eventually does recover and seem calmer and, dare one say, happier. But, of course, Brooks cannot be entirely certain they did the right thing:

We began this process of—I don’t even know what to call it: stewardship? protection? attempted redress?—so naïvely, despite all the thinking that had gone before. But of course that had been thinking about the animal, in the absence of the animal. No one told us—who was there to do so?—that we’d encounter, almost inevitably, these pitfalls, dark holes, perilous places. As we open up to these creatures, as we apprehend more and more of their Being, or think we do, we’re dealing more and more with lives no less complicated, painful, traumatised, or liable to trauma than our own—indeed we’re dealing in most cases with lives that have been much more traumatised than ours are ever likely to be.

There are, as one can see, more questions than answers, and throughout this book, among the accounts, humorous and tragic alike, of daily life on the farm, Brooks invites the reader into his internal queries and quandaries. The closer he aligns himself with the ethics and obligations of animal advocacy, the more he is forced to re-evaluate his own childhood interactions—the shovel to the head of a snake, for instance—and, perhaps even more painfully, his enthusiasm for some of the literature and authors he once loved as he comes to recognize aspects of their attitudes toward animals as debatable, even distasteful.

Of course, in his evolving effort to articulate this growing self-awareness, Brooks’ engagement is not limited to animals, birds or reptiles. One of my favourite chapters is “Cicada Summer.” Referring to the insects as his “almost-totem,” this piece which could easily be read as an elegant and thoughtful stand-alone essay, describes the emergence of one particular season’s generation of cicadas from their waiting larval refuges buried deep on the roots of trees. He marvels at the fragile beauty of discarded carapaces, and even finds, with sadness, a nymph that has died in a failed effort to free itself from its shell. The song of the insects is the soundtrack of the season, implying in its consistency, an ongoing eruption of these otherwise short lived creatures—short lived, that is, in this stage of their lives. But of course, the cicada offer more than an opportunity for a little speculative natural history. In their epic drama, lies a lesson for us: “If we think we are anything other than creature,” he warns,—have crawled very far beyond it—we are kidding ourselves.”

He then goes on to draw a striking parallel between the discarded carapace of the larval cicada and the creative acts we human creatures engage in:

A book, a poem is like that: the shell of something that has emerged, gone. Writers work hard at those shells, but as soon as we finish them—a poem, a novel, an essay—there’s a sense in which we’re not there any longer. A cicada, I note, sheds multiple shells before the one we see clinging to the bark of a tree; and humans too—human animals—have to shed carapaces, create shells, whether they’re authors or not, if they are to mature. That can be agony, pulling oneself out of oneself.

The further Brooks’ effort to write about animals—and to write about writing about animals—takes him, the more it brings him write back to the human animal in the room: himself. And, for that matter, the rest of us too. As he recounts his and T.’s adventures with ducklings in the swimming pool, a persistent rat in the kitchen, or little Orpheus Pumpkin who spends his early weeks living in the house (and, like his fellow sheep, falling in love with T.), practical and philosophical musings and digressions are frequent. As such, the book has a sense of active construction—tentative, meditative, worked and reworked. Brooks is unafraid to confess to missteps, let the seams show, leave possibilities raised, but unresolved.

And then, through it all, there is the beautiful, poetic prose. It is as if all of Brooks’ years as a poet, essayist, novelist, and short story writer have been channelled into what has become a deeply personal life project. At the end, as he stands out in the paddock with Charlie, surrounded by all of “the boys”—Henry, Jonathan, Orpheus Pumpkin, and the latest arrival, Jason—there is a sense of a man at peace with the world. At least, perhaps, until the next, creature in need arrives on the scene.

The Grass Library is published in Australia by Brandl & Schlesinger and will be released in North America by Ashland Creek Press in June.

Of insects and island men: Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan

Bees are disciplined and predictable, but the outcome of their labour is uncertain, the same as happens with the deeds of men…

The setting is Elba, the year, 1814. Napoleon having abdicated in Fontainbleu, has been exiled to the Italian island where Andrea Pasolini, a beekeeper with a secret passion for philosophy, awaits anxiously for an expected encounter with the Emperor. It seems that, along with an innate island sensibility, the two men share a fascination with and passion for bees. This is the simple premise of Napoleon’s Beekeeper, a fanciful novella by Spanish writer José Luis De Juan. Combining details from history with a contemporary understanding of apiculture, he constructs, through a series of short, crisscrossing chapters, a vivid portrait of two very different men whose lives seemed destined to intersect at what could be a critical moment in history.

Elba’s honey had, at the time, gained a far reaching reputation for its quality and curative powers. Passolini inherited his official vocation from his father, but his true love, nurtured under the tutelage of a free thinking priest, Father Anselmo, who had been, like Napoleon, exiled on the island for a number of years, lies elsewhere. Through him, the farmer’s son had been introduced to philosophical thinking far beyond the accepted scope of the Church. Reading became his greatest love, one he took great pains to keep hidden, first from the townsfolk and later from his own wife and family. But when he can find time he retreats to a room hidden in his cellar where he reads and fills notebooks with his thoughts and experiences. This most unusual beekeeper exercises a careful pattern of behaviour to reveal his private pursuits to no one, even more so now that Bonaparte is on Elba.

It so happens that Passolini has dedicated himself to studying the Corsican’s career for decades, inspired by an anonymous account of an odd behaviour observed during the Marengo battle which caused him to suspect that the Emperor’s adoption of the bee as a symbol and his apparent appreciation of varieties of honey signified a deeper obsession.

From that day forward, after he learned of the connection between Bonaparte and bees, Passolini’s routine as a beekeeper found a new release. He started foraging in the backrooms of booksellers located in Pisa, Luca and Florence, getting hold of the tiniest booklets with some special tidbit about the First Consul, the most intimate detail, the most secret.

Over time, the beekeeper begins to see, in the behaviour of the colony and the structure of the hive, a key to understanding, even predicting, the outcome of military actions. He comes to view Napoleon through the hexagonal lens of the honeycomb. However, this knowledge also has him caught as a pawn in a larger political scheme he no longer wants to be part of. Now that the object of his attention is close at hand and interested in meeting and touring the island’s hives with him, his anxiety and paranoia grows steadily.

Meanwhile, the Emperor spends his early months in exile keeping his leadership muscles as toned as they can be under the circumstances. Down but not defeated. However, the days begin to drag and soon Napoleon finds himself alternately frustrated by circumstances and troubled by doubts and insecurity. He passes his days with a measure of regimented boredom as he rules over his diminished domain. The glory he once tasted begins to feel more distant, less possible:

I confess I’m an impostor. I was never the youngest general of France. I never conquered the north of Italy or reached as far as Naples to cleanse the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies of its bandits. My great Alexander dream was just a boozy night in a tavern. I no longer make the foolish claim of having kept the Revolution from turning against itself, of having tackled the Terror, promoted civil justice, set the lazy clock of the centuries racing.

Of course, relieved, at least temporarily, from the full demands of his former existence, Mr. Bonaparte has time to indulge his interest in apiculture and from his arrival on his present island realm, that is one of his goals. He was already aware of Passolini, having received an unexpected missive from the modest beekeeper many years earlier and imagines the humble farmer to be a suitable guide to the island’s apiaries. Arrangements are made.

As the narrative inches toward their planned meeting, moving not chronologically but rather slipping in and out of the past to sketch out and fill in the characters of the Emperor and his would-be beekeeper, dropping into their dreams and nightmares along the way, a lyrical, slightly magical story unfolds. This is historical fiction at its most spare and whimsical, but grounded in possibility, that ultimately becomes a double stranded portrait of two sad figures longing to escape their circumstances.

Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Giramondo.

Imagining the exotic: A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira

As a child of the temperate zone, there is no way that the palm tree can ever be redefined as ordinary. Raised and nurtured amid aspen, spruce and pine, the palm was that magical backdrop to postcard perfect white sands and crashing waves, the defining feature of the gawdy Hawaiian shirt, the label of Malibu Rum. When I was growing up, the closest I ever came to the real thing was the handful of leaves I brought home from church on Palm Sunday (the most crowded mass of the year my mother insisted, nothing like getting something free to put bums in the pews). I would take my leaves home and carefully tuck them behind the cross that hung above my bed. At the end of the year, as another Palm Sunday approached the old leaves were to be burned, but somehow we never were allowed to witness that ritual, if it even occurred in our house.

My first encounters with palms growing where palms can grow were in thoroughly domesticated urban settings—first in San Francisco and years later in Cape Town where many of the variants I met were shorter, bulky affairs, but they still made my heart soar. The first truly natural palms I encountered were entirely unexpected, stunted bush like desert palms tucked into sudden lush eruptions aside (typically) dry river beds along the Larapinta Trail in Australia’s Red Centre. But it was in India where I was finally able to embrace palms that matched my imagination—casually lining the roadside, reaching their tousled heads above city skylines, growing free in open spaces. And although it is the perennial green that has drawn me to the country more than once in the depth of our bleak midwinters, palms hold a special allure. They symbolize, for me, the exotic like no other tree.

No surprise then that I was immediately attracted to Jessica Sequeira’s new book, A Luminous History of the Palm, the latest miniature masterpiece from Sublunary Editions. Here the palm is the common thread that binds a collection of imagined anecdotes, microfictional histories interspersed with brief meditations on luminosity—what it is and how it makes itself manifest in the way one entertains, orders and translates meaning in the world. Quite simply, this book follows a trail of associations, luminous associations, through time, across the globe, where the palm figures in some way, whether close at hand or only, as I once knew them, imagined from afar:

A luminous history seeks to make connections beyond the surface level of great events and statistical data. To do so it takes a symbol, any symbol, as a seed to create anecdotes.

The luminous begins from the small and everyday, the particular and the peculiar.

It is a very simple and delightful notion, perfectly suited to this sort of slender, pocket-sized book. Each anecdote gives voice to a fictional character, from a healer in Yemen, to, among others, a Thai rice farmer engaged in an illicit flirtation,  an opera singer performing for a young Mozart, a plastic surgeon in Australia and ultimately a cyclist in Chile, who may or may not be the author herself. Perhaps we have gone from the distant to the immediate, but  along the way a window has been opened on a wide variety of personalities and locales. The palm is sometimes an important element, but more often it passes by, almost unnoticed in the scene. Every story is different, nothing is predictable although it would be remiss if the original procession forever reproduced on Palm Sunday was not also among the histories—and of course, it is.

If the palm is the unifying theme, however quietly it might slip into any individual narrative, the meditations on luminosity and reflections on the project unfolding hold the work together. They give it depth, make it special and are, in themselves, worth returning to repeatedly for the inspiration they offer—for their ability to illuminate creativity:

To be luminous is not the same as to be enlightened. Enlightenment comes from the outside and implies progress. To be luminous is to generate affections and affiliations from the heart, belly and bowels of a situation in time, and form part of an organic system that is possibly infinite. It is to avoid abstraction, at least at the start, to prefer the concrete and the sensual, the soft light forged by the bodies of stories as they crush together in violence or embrace.

 This is the promise and excitement on offer. As the author, our luminous historian, describes her compact treatise: “it can be read as a series of small portraits through time, all of which include a palm tree. Or it can be read as a revolutionary tract.”  I would argue it is not a question of either/or—this little book can, and should be read as both. Sequeira explains that she chose the palm for its vital presence, but she invites the reader to repeat the exercise with a plant or animal of their own choice. The soil is fertile, she assures us; all we need to do is plant a seed. This is, then, a book with no end but infinite potential beginnings.

A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira is published by Sublunary Editions, purveyor of fine short texts, and available here.

Searching for answers to unaskable questions: The Red Sofa by Michèle Lesbre

Some readers love nothing more than to lose themselves in vast, sprawling texts, happily admitting that the longer, the better. It’s a rare occasion that I share that sentiment—I’m inclined to insist that most of the time, less is more. Often much less. Like French author Michèle Lesbre’s The Red Sofa. At just over one hundred pages, this award winning novella is a small, quiet, perfect book—one that touches at the very heart of what it feels like to be adrift in life, to be searching for answers to questions one cannot articulate.

This is such a simple story. The narrator, Anne, is travelling by train to Siberia in search of Gyl, a man she once loved many years earlier who had suddenly given up everything to move to Russia, take up residence on the shores of Lake Baikal to paint and put on plays. The revolutionary aspirations of their youth never quite left his system. Their friendship had endured long after their relationship ended but about six months after his arrival in Irkutsk, he suddenly stopped writing. Naturally she is worried, but whereas his political passions had not dimmed, she has grown more cynical and critical over the years and finds herself without solid beliefs to cling to. It is but part of the unease that she carries with her on this journey to find—what?—she is not quite sure.

As the miles pass beyond the window of the train, Anne’s thoughts often go back to Clémence, her elderly neighbour at home in Paris—the owner of the red sofa of the title— whose memory is fading fast. Anne had regularly visited the old woman to read to her of strong eccentric women, often following up with a trip to a local café to enjoy a glass of wine. A close, if unlikely, friendship had formed between them. A former milliner with closets filled with her marvelous creations, Clémence had had a full and vibrant life, but her heart had always belonged to her first love, Paul, who was tragically killed young.

Anne is uncertain where her own heart belongs, perhaps she is looking for it. The dreamy shifting landscape of Russia, and the drift of an unanchored life give the narrative an uneasy, contemplative quality.

Most of the time I would wake up very early, at the break of dawn. Pines and birches were hardly emerging from an ocean of fog in which the train ran blindly and a few swarms of grey isbas floated—their wood, worn by the frost and the brutal summer sun, looked like papier mâché. The dull light became progressively brighter, revealing a dizzying sky. I would follow it with my eyes until it took refuge in the horizon. What horizon? Everything seemed far away, inaccessible, too vast.

As an obvious outsider on a regular commuter run, Anne enjoys her solitude among her assorted compartment-mates. The absence of reference points, her limited knowledge of Russian, and the monotony of the days allow her space to think, relax and read—that is, until Igor boards the train. She becomes obsessed with this stern, silent figure who puts her in mind of the central character of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Her attractions are not reciprocated, but she imagines him as a critical guide into her own personal Zone, her own search for meaning. The landscape reinforces the allusion:

The forests became the image of a possible paradise which men did not deserve and that only the trees knew how to incarnate. This grandiose, devastated landscape, heavy with melancholy, spoke to me of everything I already knew but with a force, a cruelty I had not expected. It would remain with me for several months after my return and settle into my life as other journeys had done, thus constructing a singular, imperfect, emotional and sometimes imaginary world—mine.

Memories, distant and more recent alike, haunt the narrative, woven effortlessly into a powerful evocation of the strange dislocation that being in a foreign country allows—and the gift that it offers. Anne arrives in Irkutsk ostensibly looking for Gyl, worried about his well-being. But what she discovers is complicated, at once inviting and alienating. The few days she spends alone in the city before she can fly back to Moscow help her begin to move toward freeing herself from the kind of intangible, limiting snares in which we sometimes find ourselves in life. My own rather directionless travels in recent years, walking through the streets of cities in India and Nepal, were reflected in her own urban wandering:

I was finally finding myself in that pleasant sense of abandonment, that way of breathing and thinking differently in a foreign city, in a state of weightlessness, with the feeling of belonging to the world, to that ideal humanity I was seeking in the faces, the music of the language, the gestures, and the smallest details that link us all together in spite of everything. I was letting myself be swallowed up by the sounds, the rhythm, and the invisible current that ran through the city.

Anne returns to Paris almost, but not quite, prepared to move on with her life. What awaits her will offer the final release.

This thoughtful, meditative novella is quite wonderful. The story that unfolds is filled with poetic beauty and bold personalities, but much is left untold or unknown. However, it does not feel incomplete or lacking. That is the beauty of a spare, dream-like tale such as this—a story of loss, disillusion, desire, and learning to live again.

Originally published in 2007 as La canape rouge, it seems to be the only one of her novels to be available in English to date.  The Red Sofa is translated by Nicole and David Ball, and published by Seagull Books. Curiously this is one of the books I brought home after my first trip to Calcutta several years ago—an impulse purchase from the publisher’s storefront that sat neglected on my shelf of French translations. It somehow feels right to read it now with its evocative tribute to the space—mental and emotional—afforded by travel, at a time when travel is on hold for the foreseeable future.

Off the beaten path: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

About a month ago, as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic began to have a greater impact on daily life in my community, I became more determined than ever to take full advantage of the pathways behind my home aware that, for a variety of reasons, my freedom of movement could be curtailed at some point. It seemed a good time to invite a companion on these walks, one who would not violate any rules of social distancing. I chose Robert Macfarlane, or rather his text The Old Ways as narrated by Roy McMillan which proved to be an ideal introduction to audiobooks for me and the perfect narrative to walk with. Coincidentally, my engagement with this wonderful evocation of the lure of long travelled trails and passageways overlapped a group reading of Nan Shepherd’s classic The Living Mountain, guided, on Twitter, by Macfarlane himself. But more about that book later.

One of the finest nature writers of our time, Macfarlane is able to bring the world, to use a cliché, alive on the page or, as in this recent circumstance, in the listening. He is able to pull one into the landscape, its history and its place in the human imagination. His books are the product of a deep engagement with the subject at hand, a commitment that often takes years before the final text is complete. The Old Ways, subtitled A Journey on Foot is perfect walking companion because it is, more than anything, about walking—tracing paths and passageways—a book that is not about the destination but act of following the trail. A trail peopled with a collection of intriguing characters, living and long gone, for a path exists as evidence of the creatures who have passed on it before, even if lies hidden for many years or longer, waiting to be uncovered and tracked once again.

As ever, his eye is keen, his writing lyrical, and his affection for those he meets or travels with undeniable. The book opens with the detailed account of a December walk close to home, and as I made my way along the well-loved, oft-travelled trails behind my own home, still snow covered and wintery in denial of the season, I was secretly glad that I had an e-book copy buried unread in my electronic library. As much as I was certain I would cherish the audio experience, I knew I’d want to revisit the words. The setting he described was different, but the sentiment familiar:

This is the path I’ve probably walked more often than any other in my life. It’s a young way; maybe fifty years old, no more. Its easterly hedge is mostly hawthorn and around eight feet high; its westerly hedge a younger mix of blackthorn, hazel and dogwood. It is not normally a beautiful place, but there’s a feeling of secrecy to it that I appreciate, hedged in as it is on both sides, and running discreetly as it does between field and road.

Divided into four sections, The Old Ways, begins in England, traversing different types of landscapes—paths, chalk, and silt— and then moves to Scotland where he travels traditional waterways, explores the Hebridean moors and then revisits his first mountains, the Cairngorms. This is where his grandfather had settled after a life of adventure, and where young Robert fell in love with “high country and wild places.” It is also where his path crosses the ghost of Nan Shepherd whose intimate relationship with the same terrain is recorded in her masterpiece, The Living Mountain, a manuscript completed near the end of the Second World War, but unpublished until 1977. Macfarlane would not encounter her work until much later, long after the author’s death. But her poetic, deeply sensitive nature writing has no doubt informed his own. From Scotland, his journey moves abroad, to Palestine, Spain and Tibet, before coming home again to travel ancient paths and pay homage to poet and writer Edward Thomas whose footsteps guide him throughout this tribute to the powerful pull of the path.

Nan Shepherd, who was born in 1893, was well educated and travelled widely across Europe and to South Africa, but she spent most of her life in her childhood home near Aberdeen where she taught English. Known during her lifetime for a number of novels it is The Living Mountain, published only four years before she died, that places her in the company of the great nature and travel writers of the twentieth century. It is a quiet masterpiece. She writes about her beloved Cairngorm mountains with a mix of poetic passion and clear-eyed respect, chronicling her own maturing relationship with a landscape as alluring as it can be hostile and deadly. The early chapters explore, in turn, the features of the geological and meteorological environment, exhibiting a finely tuned attention to detail. She knows these mountains intimately, experiences a full-bodied engagement with the landscape. However, it is in the later chapters of this slender volume, those that deal with the living elements—flora, fauna, and human—and the more existential aspects—sleep, senses, and being—that this work really sings:

To bend the ear to silence is to discover how seldom it is there. Always something moves. When the air is quite still, there is always running water; and up here that is a sound one can hardly lose, though on many stony parts of the plateau one is above the watercourses. But now and then comes an hour when the silence is all but absolute, and listening to it one slips out of time. Such a silence is not a mere negation of sound. It is like a new element, and if water is still sounding with a low far-off murmur, it is no more than the last edge of an element we are leaving, as the last edge of land hangs on the mariner’s horizon. Such moments come in mist, or snow, or a summer’s night (when it is too cool for the clouds of insects to be abroad), or a September dawn. In September dawns I hardly breathe—I am an image in a ball of glass. The world is suspended there, and I in it.

Over the past month as I travelled with Robert Macfarlane and Nan Shepherd, I could not help but reflect on the pathways I’ve travelled in my life. As child I spent each summer weekend camping and hiking with my family in the Rocky Mountains, my head filled with adventures out of King Arthur and Lord of the Rings. As a teenager I found refuge on the horse trails winding through the aspen woods near my childhood home. In my twenties I moved across country, exploring the bird sanctuaries and natural areas of the Ontario cities we lived in. And returning to western Canada, I have cherished the large natural parklands in this city where I’ve lived for last three decades, especially the Douglas Fir Trail that extends behind my home. But my mind also wandered along trails that my travels over recent years have opened—the rugged shoreline of the Eastern Cape of South Africa, sections of the even more rugged Larapinta running along the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, Australia, or the rutted red roads and granite sheets of rural Andhra Pradesh, India.These are two books that allow you to experience the world through the words of dedicated guides, but like all journeys, the path ultimately leads you back home. Inspired by my engagement with these two gifted nature writers I recently wrote a piece for our “3:AM in Lockdown” series in which I attempted to follow the trail I know best and reflect on the uncertain state of our world at this moment. That short essay can be found here.

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is published by Penguin Books and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is published by Canongate.

A timeless immediacy: Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved by Adeeba Shahid Talukder

At this moment, as the world grapples with a rapidly spreading virus, two contradictory impulses can be observed: borders are being reinforced around nations in the interest of isolation from without and within, while simultaneously, we are observing unprecedented international scientific collaboration. On the ground level, class differences and prejudices can be augmented and yet, to defeat COVID-19, it will be necessary to rise above them.

On the individual level, to get through the difficult months ahead, those who find their regular lives upended are looking to find ways to occupy, distract and comfort themselves. That is, however, not always easy. If some avid readers are finding themselves struggling to settle into a novel or a work of nonfiction, that’s where poetry can offer respite.

But how are we to read poetry in a time of disruption, uncertainty, and exceptional circumstances? Do we look to contemporary voices, or to those from the past—classical themed works that have echoed down the years, the centuries, speaking to love and loss, peace and war, and everything in between?  Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, the new collection by Pakistani-American poet, translator and ghazal singer Adeeba Shahid Talukder, offers, in its own unique way, a blend of both. This collection, reaches across vast distances to call on traditional tales, and iconic Persian and Urdu poetry, and bring it home and into the present day, into the lived reality of a young Muslim American woman’s experience of life in New York City.

New York City. When Talukder composed these poems, and when I first read them, who could have known that before I would write my reflections on this book, NYC would have become the epicentre of a global pandemic? In some ways the altered circumstances imbue certain pieces with a new aura; in other ways, nothing changes at all because so many of these poems deal with those elements of growing up and coming into one’s own that are at once smaller and greater than any global catastrophe.

In her Preface, Talduker acknowledges her influences, a litany of prominent Persian and Urdu poets who have formed and informed the way she views the world. They include Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Allama Iqbal, Mirza Sauda, Noon Meem Rashid, Ibn-e-Insha, Agha Shahid Ali and more. Her intimate knowledge of the literary traditions and poetic forms is evident and effortless, but her objective is broader. She seeks:

to defend and decolonize this universe—its beauty, its grandeur, its intellectual feats. At the same time, I defy the patriarchy of it, the patriarchy with which so much of literature is cursed.

That is an admirable objective—to honour and challenge a world so thoroughly dominated by the male voice. And yet it is that strong modern feminine presence that makes this collection so powerful.

Written over the span of a decade, there is an ongoing theme, developed throughout the course of Shar-E-Jaanaan, of a young woman’s experience navigating the dynamics of her immigrant family and their expectations, coping with questions of identity and self-esteem, exploring sexual independence and romance, and, finally, falling in love with a white, non-Muslim man. While grounded, or often returning, to an urban American setting, she effortlessly draws on the beauty, passion and tragedy of classical imagery and legends, passed down in Persian and Urdu poetry, often writing in response to specific lines or images from the ghazals of Faiz, Ghalib and others. However, rather than being restrained by her benefactors, she is buoyed by their legacy. The result is a work of remarkable elegance.

The first poem “When in the dark / my mind brightened” opens with a stark confession that sets the tone for the collection that will follow:

I realized I could no longer
wait to be beautiful. Thus, I pushed
bangles upon bangles
onto my wrist, rubbing
my hands raw with metal
and glass.

Each time a bangle broke, I watched
the blood at my veins
with a grim face,
feeling more like a woman.

It ends with the speaker’s mother, facing her maturing, possibly troubled, daughter with terror. The first section, “The Wine Cup” returns to the tension between mother and daughter through a sequence clearly set in Manhattan that closes with a classic maternal concern: You’re getting older, and there are such few boys.

Traditional elements, and poetic influences become more evident from the second section on. Her notes at the end of the book introduce the stories from which she draws inspiration and acknowledge the poetic lines woven into, or referenced, where relevant, so familiarity with Urdu literature is not necessary, but some background would certainly further enrich the experience. She calls on several epic themes, with the seventh-century Arab legend of the ill-fated lovers Laila and Qays notably surfacing in a number of pieces. In this tale, when Qays, a poet, is forbidden to marry his beloved beauty, he takes to running through the streets calling her name and composing love poems. His erratic behaviour earns him the nickname Manjoon, or madman, and he is forced into exile.

Other poems incorporate lines, or images drawn from one or another of her literary touchstones. In the light of the current state of the world, “If It Were (after Ghalib)” seem especially poignant now that I return to it:

The hospital sheets cover my face. No one sees. My eyes are closed, my
hands spread like a hem. The walls white like jasmines.

I sing: I would die happily, if it were once.

The patients’ quarters are hushed but I can hear his breathing, the
way he smiles into my neck and ear. In each room, his bulk rises
and falls beneath the thin blankets. In each room, his face in the blue
light. I scream and scream.

His arrow was half-drawn. The liver aches, anticipating its touch.

The scale cannot measure my weight. I am a goddess; the sickle moon
and East River are mine to feed. I shred all the roses, let the torn petals
fall all over the tiles.

The true context of this poem will later come clear in the titular sequence, “Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved”, the centrepiece of the book . It opens with a reference to the events that followed the assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, on December 27, 2007 and its very personal impact, halfway across the world:

At December’s end Benazir died
in a suicide attack.

                             Men burned

tires, cars, banks,
petrol pumps and factories

Perhaps in grief.

The nights in New York
were clear, cold

and I read Faiz
in a way I never would

again. In Washington Square,
the benches were empty.

What follows is a harrowing account of the speaker’s descent into madness, accompanied in her mania, by God and her poetic saints, culminating eventually in hospitalization and echoing back to the poem I quoted above. It’s devastating, horrifying and strangely familiar, but on my first encounter I did not recognize it for what it really is.

Talukder’s poetry frequently captures the dramatic sweep from ecstasy to despair, an element I read as an attraction to the  heightened intensity of desperate romance, loss, madness, and suicide (real or threatened) that features in so many traditional Asian legends. I could not help, for instance to note how often reference to the story of Laila and Manjoon appears. But until I read an interview with the poet, I was unaware of her own personal bipolar history and her desire, through her writing, to break down some of the misunderstanding and stigma she has faced. Looking back, that explains some of the unspoken level of attraction I felt to these elements in my initial reading, for I, too, am bipolar—this kind of emotional instability is more than poetic for me, it is real. I’ve known madness and hospitalization myself.

This is a collection that came to me, unexpected, through a publisher’s inquiry. The appeal was, first and foremost, to the language and the poet’s connection to Persian and Urdu literature, something my travels and connections in India have started to bring to my attention. The true beauty here, though, lies in the fluid crossing of borders—of language, nation, era and gender—not as an act of re-imagining or re-purposing, but a full-bodied act of translating a rich literary heritage into something new, vital. In this respect, among the illustrious Urdu forebearers of this young Pakistani-American woman, the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali holds special relevance. His body of work spoke to both sides of his life and identity, to both of the homes he knew, but he was able to address that space where the two meet—the hyphen.

The maturity and diversity displayed in Shahr-E-Jaanaan is impressive, a testament to the many years over which it came into being (her first book, What is Not Beautiful was also written and released during this period). In our rapidly evolving new world, Adeeba Shahid Talukder is a poet, and performer, to watch.

Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved is published by Tupelo Press.

Letters to a distant shore: A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett

I have spent most of my life landbound, far from open water. As a result, oceans and seas have always held a special fascination for me—those distant horizons, blue fading into blue, and endless watery expanses. Similarly, poetry inspired by ocean imagery has invariably captured my imagination and that’s what I suspected Australian poet Felicity Plunkett’s new collection, A Kinder Sea, with its stylized black and white wave-decorated cover might offer. And it does, but of course it is so much more. It is a rich and generous exploration of an ocean of skeletal fragments, human longings, and loved and forgotten souls.

Written over a period of seven years, the poems in this book seem to come together around their uniting element in an organic, interactive manner, forging connections and participating in debate with one another along the way. There is a clear sense, then, of a creative ebb and flow that runs through the collection. Referring to Paul Celan’s depiction of poems as “making their ways to readers like letters in bottles,” Plunkett describes her new work as “a book of unspoken hopes, un-mourned losses, of mute and unprayable prayers and letters never sent.”

If the poems that comprise A Kinder Sea arose, as their author indicates, over time, in conversation with one another, as missives in search of readers, they also exist in dialogue with artists and poets from whom Plunkett draws inspiration. Early on, Celan’s quote referring to poems as bottled messages, serves as the epigraph for the multi-part piece, “Glass Letters”. Twelve aching, embodied and intimate poetic communiqués follow:

This morning want-of-you has left me.
I test for its absence, press bruises, look clear

in the sea’s flat glass. No sign of storm’s spines:
sharp possibilities. Disturbance has bled

itself out. Shaken wordless, I wash syllables
in salt, trace remembered promises to

the place where they rolled in foam. You
erase waves from our correspondence:

excise agitation.

The palette she paints from is one of varied, often melancholy colours. Poets, most notably Emily Dickinson and Celan, but also Rilke, William Carl Williams, Sylvia Plath and others offer epigraphs, allusions and inspiration, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Neil Young.

Felicity Plunkett writes with a formal sensibility and delicate precision, her language seems to register, not simply in the ear or the imagination of the reader, but on the very surface of the skin. One senses that each word, each line has been carefully honed to cast a reflection at once sharp and shifting—much like the surface of the sea. As in her award winning debut, Vanishing Point where flakes appear as a recurring image, in A Kinder Sea, there is, apart from the obvious connecting feature, a bone-level awareness and an existential grammar awash in the waves—the abstracted self as body and language. Consider the hospitalized speaker’s lament in “Songs in a Red Key”:

Conduct a river in plastic over
my shoulder through an elbow’s fold
My shroud stretches to fray
translucent at its seams, rolled
soft by the smooth stones
of a queue of injured
bones: white-gowned, awkward

-ly sheeted  nativity
angel, nameless, I shepherd
drip chamber and tremble-wheel
trolley across night’s locked ward
jitter this tangle through
silence: my hubris muted
below drug’s sea levels

Or the epistle to a secret, perhaps doomed, addressee in “Strand”:

Nothing to say when words lose their letters
in winter. Letter’s spines dismantle
in my silent hand.

I hear your name in a dream of sea. Dream
my secrets fall from my mouth, braced
neat as pearls

Broken mirror, split salt, opened
umbrella. Salt rain broke and I thought no
harm could come to you.

But, of course, the sea is the primary note sounding through this collection, sometimes as a passing metaphor, sometimes as a broader backdrop, and in one set of poems, as a vast, inviting, yet often unforgiving space that has drawn daring souls to adventure, even death. The sequence “In Search of the Miraculous” contains some of my favourite pieces: “Equal Footing Mermaids” honouring Donald Crowhurst, the British businessman who died competing in a single-handed round-the-world yacht race in 1969, and “Disappearing Act” in memory of Dutch-born film maker and performance artist, Bas Jan Ader, who was lost at sea in what would be his final performance, an intended solo voyage across the Atlantic. These poems speak to the romance of the sea that has always held a particular allure, in art and literature, for a landbound soul like myself.

A Kinder Sea has rightly been referred to as a masterpiece. It is certainly a testament to Plunkett’s ability to evoke recurring themes in a constellation of image and form that remains fresh, never predictable. And, like the ocean itself, there is an unmeasurable depth to this collection, one that invites slow, thoughtful engagement.

A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett is published by University of Queensland Press.