The beauty of bloody fists and broken bones: The Agonist by Shastra Deo

Once again, my attention turns to a work of contemporary Australian poetry, and this time it’s a remarkably gritty, often grisly, exploration beyond the raw edges of physical and emotional endurance. Embodiment. Disembodiment. Lyrical evisceration.

Evoking characters and imagery drawn from diverse, seemingly unlikely sources—anatomy textbooks, World War I poetry, a scout manual, boxing, entomology, ichthyology, divination, tarot cards—Shastra Deo’s debut collection, The Agonist, is an impressive, unforgettable experience. Like a sucker punch to the gut.

But in the best way possible.

Agonist: (n) one that is engaged in a struggle

The narrators that move through these poems—the voices Deo borrows or inhabits—cover terrain familiar to poetry. They speak to pain, love, loss, damage, healing. But they engage with the world at a visceral, cellular level. Their words work their way into and through the hollows of memory, exploring what slips though the passages of the brain, examining what the muscles retain and imagining the intersection between reading the past and foretelling the future.

So what does that entail? The Agonist is divided into three sections, each of which opens with an illustration from Gray’s Anatomy. Many of the poems in the first section deal with relationships, familial or romantic, employing surreal thaumaturgic, and anatomical imagery.

“Arrhythmia,” for example, details the painful, desperate emotions of the partner not ready to accept that a love affair is coming to an end:

             You count the notches of his spine.
His eyelashes flutter and he sighs, his breath
so warm that for a moment you can
pretend you aren’t cold. You want
to crack him open and hold
his heart in your hands, sink your fingers
into the thin membrane of his lungs.
You want to pull back his skin
and curl up inside his ribcage.
You want to know what he is inside.
Find the symptom, the sickness,
the anomaly that let him love you.
You want to be warm again.

Deo is adept at creating a surprising, brutal beauty in her romantic imagery. We see it again with “Cutman,” a graphic, meaty piece that opens the second section of the collection. Here the connection between a boxer and the attendant who cleans and cares for his wounds between rounds is reimagined in intensely intimate context:

He comes home each night with his hands soaked red,
and when he smiles it’s sharp and jagged and his teeth
quake in his wet mouth. You card your cold fingers
through his hair and lead him to bed, wait
for the weight of his arms around your neck, warm
and drowsy, the familiar shape of his bones and tendons
cradling the base of your skull…

In this part, Deo calls on themes drawn from war and boxing to engage in dialogue with other poets and experiment with poetic form. Included are three centos formed from the Index of Titles and First Lines in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Moving into the final section, inspiration is found in, among other things, a Boy Scout manual from 1914 and a deck of Tarot cards. Consider “XIII—Death”:

. . . I live in the present tense,
tensed and present at the wheel
of a car wreck. My name is re-
membered. I apologise too often
for my lack of biography. He
does not yet know what divinity
he belongs to, but he knows I was
not born for this. He takes the
sheets off the mirrors. He escapes
our mythology.

In my experience of this work, which is of course, all I can honestly speak to, The Agonist is a collection in which the sound of the words and the impact of images are central, the point from which a narrative emerges and takes form. These are not autobiographical poems, for the most part. Nor do they read like “stories” so much as they remind me of paintings or photographs out of which vignettes have been abstracted with vivid, scalpel-sculpted, incantatory language.

Reading this book has left me with the sense of having spent time in a gallery. Attending a deliriously disturbing exhibit.

Shastra Deo was born in Fiji and raised in Melbourne. She presently lives in Brisbane where she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing. The Agonist is published by University of Queensland Press and, as ever, the indefatigable Tony Messenger has a review and interview with Shastra on his website.

The “Wandering Souls” of Panorama

A sensitive and intelligent review of one of my favourite books from 2016, due to be released in North America on May 1, 2017.

Vertigo

A tiny dot had been flashing and circling slowly over a virtual point beside the road on the Google map until the satellites intercepted and correlated my precise position in the imaginary landscape; then the dot stopped moving, coming to rest on the road precisely where I was standing; that’s me, I thought, and as I slid my thumb and forefinger across the tablet to shrink the map, I saw my pulsating point, the beating of a heart, melt into an ever vaster landscape, as if my eye had separated from my body and was ascending high into the sky, swiftly, to the edge of space, from where I could see the entire planet.

It’s tempting — and partly right — to think of the Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar as a modernized W.G. Sebald, as a restless, observant wanderer equipped with a streak of melancholy and a notebook, but also with a…

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A hoard of small treasures: The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves

Which of the psalms will hear the clouds as
they pass overhead, a stave of wires their nest?
What makes them beautiful? Why do they tear
themselves apart like aging stars or clocks?

Two years ago this month, I read a slender book called The Absent Therapist, by British novelist and poet, Will Eaves. It would become one of my top books of 2014 and remains, to this day, one of my bedside essential texts. This fragmentary tour through the musings and minds of a host of disembodied characters comes together to create a thoughtful, intelligent, and affecting piece of experimental fiction. It’s a book I’ve returned to often.

giftshopThe Inevitable Gift Shop, released earlier this year, forms a counterpoint to The Absent Therapist, but whereas Therapist was a project of inhabitation, brief and fleeting, interjected with moments of factual or speculative distancing—the mood of Gift Shop is much more immediate, personal. The text is divided into sections of poetry and prose, with the latter, still fragmentary, moving between memoir, literary criticism, natural science, and even the occasional humorous aphorism. The result is an unclassifiable work that is welcoming, engaging, unpretentious, and wise.

When I first encountered The Absent Therapist, I was deliberately seeking experimental approaches into what I imagined would be a fictional exploration of some aspects of my life story that I wanted to write about. I had, at the time, shared little personal writing beyond this blog, which was still finding its voice. Today, I come to this new work, this curious blend of nonfiction and poetry, as a writer with a number of published pieces to his credit, from in-depth critical reviews, to essay/memoir and prose poetry. If I am a more astute and directed reader now, I feel as if this book has anticipated me, and I find myself once again encountering words that reach out to me and catch me off guard in the way that my favourite passages from its predecessor did. (My review of The Absent Therapist can be found here.)

In particular, the fragments that address the act of writing—especially in its most vulnerable form—echo concerns that continue to haunt me after a year of writing myself “out” in the world. The very first prose piece, in which Eaves shares the insecurities he felt as a late bloomer, physically and sexually, ends with this admission that I recognize so well:

Even writing this is a perilous sort of confession: I will read it over and hear a small voice piping away, an echo that is shaming, and peculiar, because its mental acoustic is also so much to be desired. Because my refuge from all kinds of strange accusation and self-doubt will be the place anterior to the page – inside of my head.

By laying himself open in the earliest pages, Eaves is setting a tone that runs through this work and pulls it together into a cohesive whole. There is something in his voice—a measure of quiet reflection, as if he is thinking aloud and inviting the reader to listen and take from it what he or she wishes without expectation—that is refreshing. In this era of the self-indulgent introspective memoir and its thinly-veiled fictional counterpart, Eaves is, by contrast, slightly self-conscious in his writing. As a result, the memories and reflections he shares take on a special intimacy and personal feel throughout this work, whether he is remembering his mother,  commenting on Madame Bovary, analyzing  Shakespeare’s Sonnets, musing about the nature of consciousness, or  detailing the unfortunate mating habits of captive tortoises.

However, if there is a theme underlying the seemingly disparate fragments of this book, it might be the attempt to understand and capture conscious experience. A psychological imperative permeates the “conversation” that unfolds:

Something is more or less well done but it flows away from me in the doing, and when it’s finished I feel often a mild perplexity at the thing done – at the idea that it had anything to do with me in the first place. Because there is no way back into the work as it happens. Much as we rejoice in the escape from personality, we’re apt to be disconcerted by the experience of liberation – by the irretrievable oddity of what we produce. How was this written, who wrote it?

This unconventional “memoir by other means” is anchored by the poems that grace its pages. They appear like books within the larger book, islands of verse that balance a more conventional literary presentation within an experimental work. And Eaves’ discussions of poets and poetry that occur through the text enhance the experience of engaging with these poems:

Poetry, is the discipline exerted on or by words in order to summon feeling, often very painful feeling, at will. It is powerful because it recognizes that the material world, as far as humans are concerned, exits in psychological flux: no material or brute fact is an island. It survives in an atmosphere of witness…. The messiness of the world as it presents itself to creatures of emotion becomes subject to ordering, but the aim of poetic ordering is not to deny the emotion or regulate the world: it is to stabilize both in a form of words – an incantation, Thom Gunn says – that faces the entirety of the mystery, of why we are here to see and hear and locate these things in every daily particular.

The Inevitable Gift Shop, as its title (taken from the comment of the tour guide at an Icelandic greenhouse called The Garden of Eden) implies, is a collection of oddities, amusements and small treasures that reveal a deceptive depth as one browses its offerings. As a reader and writer, I suspect this is another book that I will return to time and again, fitting well alongside not only The Absent Therapist, but one of my favourite similarly eclectic collections of writerly wisdom and poetry, Breyten Breytenbach’s Intimate Stranger.

Original, undefinable and yet well worth the visit, The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves is available from CB Editions.

My father’s library: A very personal reflection

It is the Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. We planned to gather, as a family, at my parents’ house to begin the process of determining what will be kept, sold, and thrown out; and to assess the repairs required before the house can be put on the market next year. However, an early taste of winter has caused us to cancel our plans due to road conditions (they lived two hours northwest of the city where my brothers and I all live). With a mixture of relief and an unresolved need to begin the process of closure, I am re-posting an updated version of what was, at the time of its original writing, a premature tribute to my father. The sentiment, now relevant, remains. His library is one of my major concerns.

roughghosts

Originally published in December, 2015, I have updated this essay with an addendum.

I was standing in my father’s library last night, looking for a book I could not find, but as I scanned the titles I began to read the shelves as life lines, like the lines that always creased his forehead and fanned out from the corners of his eyes as he squinted through the windshield or glanced up into the rearview mirror of the car. For as long as I can remember, my father never drove without a grimace. The shelf lines are deep and distinct. His love of classic literature represented in tattered hardcover volumes with faded lettering on the spines. His life long obsession with Russia marked with rows of history books, discourses on Stalin and Marxism taking up more space than I’d remembered. And the Soviet literature, of course. Then his more recent forays…

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Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli

I am very pleased to have my first review published at The Quarterly Conversation. Dreams and Stones by Polish writer, Magdalena Tulli, is a poetic meditation on the city as an organic entity, essentially an urban cosmology. I read it through twice before writing my review and in my second encounter its nonlinear, cyclical quality was even more apparent. Thinking about it now, two months later, its fantastic, mythic qualities still have a strong hold on my imagination. But there is more that haunts me when I think about this book.

dreamsstones

I had been aiming to submit this review in mid-July, my first reading was in late June, but before I could put pen to paper, so to speak, my father had a stroke and car accident and my mother became ill and died. As one might imagine, I struggled to write, let alone read. During times like this words fail us. But, as my father’s death neared I returned to this short book, for distraction, comfort and, above all, to know that I could still write. The ability to sit down and pull together a critical review was an important turning point. In times of immediate crisis and grief when family members find themselves trudging back and forth to the hospital, the advice is to try to return to some measure of routine. The answer, for me, was to write.

Dreams and Stones is translated by Bill Johnston and published by Archipelago Books. My review, originally published at Quarterly Conversation is reproduced below:

“There are more things in heaven and earth,” Hamlet famously says to Horatio, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So might Polish writer Magdalena Tulli be imagined to warn readers entering her enigmatic first novel, Dreams and Stones: to be prepared to open your minds to an urban cosmology that envisions the city—its evolution, destruction and rebirth—in the light of two seemingly opposite notions of the world. Paragraph by paragraph, Tulli’s images are startling and fresh, and they become the building blocks of a fanciful metropolitan vision that overflows with both magic and sorrow.

Born in 1955, Tulli is one of Poland’s most original contemporary writers. She has received three nominations for the prestigious Nike Prize, and four of her novels translated into English to date, including In Red which was longlisted for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award

Recently re-issued by Archipelago Books in paperback (they published a hardcover edition over a decade ago), Dreams and Stones truly defies simple classification. From the opening passages, the contemplative poetic imagery reads like a re-invented Book of Genesis, sketching out the life cycle of the metaphorical tree upon which a fruit ripens, falls to the ground, and germinates; it holds in its core the seeds of a great city and the parameters of the human system that surrounds it. This archetypal city is fundamental to the vision of the world that Tulli proposes, but herein lies the tension that motivates and propels the narrative: Tulli’s calmly disconnected narrator ponders, never committing to one conception over the other, how the world is to be understood: as a tree or as a machine? Is the city borne of the dreams of its citizens? Or is it grounded in the faith and certainty of its master builders?

Be it natural or mechanical, the city is created by an inextricable combination of thought and the appearance of objects. Necessity and a restless urgency drive this process onward. Tulli’s narrator describes the lines of the city as ordained to appear through the pens of the draftsmen, inspired by the builders’ unshakable belief in one possible truth.

Though it remains a supposition it is not hard to interpret. It proclaims that it is not the power of germinating seeds and not the pressure of juices circulating between the roots and the crown that give the world life, but that it is set in motion by motors, gears, and cogs, devices that keep the sun and stars rotating, pull the clouds across the horizon and drive water along the bed of the river. The clarity and simplicity of this notion may prove salutary. They will make it possible to dismantle, repair and reinstall every broken component—so long as the world is composed only of separate and removable parts . . .

However, as the narrator goes on to speculate, how can one be certain the world is a machine when it resembles a tree in so many respects? This continual pull between the two poles of this dichotomy suggests that the way one chooses to view the world influences, even governs, the way one attempts to exist in it. Both views, it is argued, are true. And both have their limitations.

Tulli spins webs of interconnected realities and counter-realities. As a tree has a network of roots that spread, like the branches of its crown, in the dark depths of the soil, the city and every object in it ideally has its counterpart. But as the inexorable progress of the mechanized world rushes forward, the city is easily separated from the counter-city and, like a tree cut off from its roots, everything begins to spiral out of control, break down, fall apart. The builders that once seemed so assured failed to leave room for fate, chance, and fatigue—not only of materials but of the legions of flesh and blood workers required to build, repair, and maintain the metroplis in its glory.

Eventually time begins to run short and the power required to hold the counter-city at bay outstrips demand. The city, and the framework of the world that surround it, enter a period of cosmic decline. Here the narrative registers a distinct shift in tone:

No one knows where sorrow comes from in a city. It has no foundations; it is not built of bricks or screwed together from threaded pipes; it does not flow through electric cables nor is it brought by cargo trains. Sorrow drifts amongst the apartment buildings like a fine mist that the wind blows unevenly across the streets, squares and courtyards. There are long streets and short ones, there are broad ones and narrow ones. The gray of some bears a trace of ochre while others are bluish from the sidewalks to the roof tiles. Each of them has its own peculiar shade of sorrow.

The city of thoughts is now precariously maintained in the dreams of its inhabitants, their memories. The city of sorrow grows increasingly disordered and fragile. When war threatens to level it forever, the survivors, like their forbearers who constructed the original city, attempt to reconstruct one of memories. For, as the narrator assures us, “nothing in the world—even imaginations—can be destroyed completely and finally.”

Although Tulli never names the city at the heart of her story, recent Polish history, the massive destruction of Warsaw during the Second World War, and the systematic rebuilding and redesign of that place all seem to be woven into Dreams and Stones; but, these threads need not be traced in a linear fashion. This is a fable, one that essentially folds back on itself, a poetic meditation on the soul and heart of a city built, rebuilt and kept alive in the imaginations of its people. A metropolis that is connected to the rest of the outside world, to those shifting, almost fantastic municipalities that exist elsewhere, and yet stands as a self-contained ideal. One has to be aware though, that such an ideal can become distorted over time. Warsaw was reconstructed, with great attention to detail on the one hand, but altered to accommodate the new pressures of a steadily increasing population on the other. Memories and the rebuilt reality do not always align:

It is possible to imagine a city perfect in its entirety, a city that is the sum of all possibilities. In it nothing is missing and nothing can perish, every china teacup comes from somewhere and is destined for somewhere. But precisely this absolute city is eaten away by the sickness of never-ending disasters. Change invariably brings confusion to the lives of the inhabitants. One has to pay attention so as not to drive accidentally onto a bridge that was demolished years ago, so as not to sit on the terraces of torn-down cafés once known for their unparalleled doughnuts.

An obvious counterpart to Dreams and Stones can be found in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Tulli has translated Calvino and admits to his influence. But in so far as this book can be understood as referencing Warsaw, it retains a sharply central European feel. I was especially reminded of Pavel Brycz’s  I, City.[1] Originally published in Czech in 1998, Brycz    honors the history and people of the industrial city of Most in northern Bohemia, by giving the narrative voice to that place, setting the stage for a melancholic meditation on an urban center widely understood, at the time, to be in a state of unemployment, decline, and despair. In Tulli’s urban landscape it is the city’s inhabitants who maintain, generation after generation, the idea of their home, even as its proud stone edifices are turned to rubble. In I, City, the concept is reversed. It is the city that retains the memories and affections for its people and its past—it dreams, keeping its spirit alive despite repeated historical destruction, occupations, and finally as its neighborhoods are leveled to mine resources and replaced, not by stones, but by prefabricated concrete slabs.

While Tulli regards Dreams and Stones as a novel, her translator, Bill Johnston, respectfully disagrees. He sees it as prose poem.[2] It is, essentially, a series of images and reflections, and there are no individual characters apart from the measured and detached narrator. Yet either way, novel or poem, the piece is endowed with an overwhelmingly orchestral quality. The dynamic life of the city, builds up speed, slows down, becomes erratic, falls into an abyss, and is reconstructed anew. Tulli is playful with her imagery, intentionally pushing her metaphors to the edge. Even the moods—pride, sorrow, nostalgia—that course through her streets are imbued with a mythic intensity. This motion and fluctuating energy, combined with the fundamental philosophical tension at its core, gives the work its flow, draws the reader in, and, in the end, offers a richly provocative experience that invites and rewards rereading.

[1] Brycz, Pavel. (2006) I, City. (J. Cohen & M. Hofmeisterová, Trans.) Prague: Twisted Spoon Press (Original work published 1998) – Link to publisher page for book: http://www.twistedspoon.com/city.html

[2] Interview with Bill Johnston on Magdalena Tulli. Polish Writing. Retreived from https://web.archive.org/web/20111106183056/http://www.polishwriting.net/index.php?id=125

grieving bipolar

I have not written much recently on my own ongoing struggles following a serious breakdown last year – a set back to the level of mental health I imagined I had sustained for more than a decade. I don’t think I have even begun to grieve or articulate that yet. The quote that begins this blog from my friend Blahpolar is part of an ongoing dialogue her posts have inspired me to engage in. As such it is worth reblogging here.

blahpolar

I have been thinking about grieving lately. It need not be death. With a serious mental illness, we grieve the loss of wellness, I know I am grieving the loss of my job identity and I lately I am in a phase of grieving a life/body wholeness I sacrificed for a life/spirit wholeness. It is odd, but one can grieve the loss of one’s self as much as one grieves the loss of another. roughghosts

He’s right, of course; all endings merit some form of grief, no matter how unobtrusive. And grief comes with varying levels of heartbreak.

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Independent foreign fiction prize longlist 2015

I will be reading along with 10 other fine book bloggers will keep me busy for the next few weeks as we have our go at the IFFP 2015 long list. I have 12 of 15 books to read. Yikes!!!!

Winstonsdad's Blog

Well we finally get to see what us shadow IFFP folks will be reviewing over the next few weeks .I managed to guess two right   in my prediction post .I have read 7  of the longlist five I ve reviewed leaving me 8  read so here is this years longlist .A good year for what is 25 years since the prize started .I ve

Longlist

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