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.

Weltschmerz: Some thoughts on the current state affairs

In this time of COVID-19 I am writing little. I’ve been wanting to record my evolving response to this exceptional time but the act of simply keeping up with my own thoughts, or rather, slowing them down long enough to get them on the page seems a monumental task. My feelings are mixed. Suspended anxiety. With every passing day, the number of infections and death counts rise and the world is suddenly filled with armchair epidemiologists pontificating on what local, national and international scientists, health officials and politicians are doing, or more often, have failed to do. Hindsight isn’t even 20/20 at this stage of the game. That analysis will not be possible for a long time and, even then, no one-size-fits-all solution will magically become clear—differences in circumstances are too great, inequities in health, wealth and access to basic services are even greater, both between and within nations. But in the meantime, greed, selfishness, and racism will only add to the cost. And deepen the despair.

But, on the bright side, the world is quieter, and the air cleaner than it has been in a long time. Mother Nature taking her pound of flesh to remind us of the cost our activity exacts on this planet? I wonder what lessons, if any, will stick with us.

However, not all my concerns are so grand and worldly. I am human. My fears also lie close to home. I worry about my daughter’s safety at the computer shop where she works—an apparently essential service that has reduced hours but, at last report, not instituted safety measures—and because she lives across town I cannot even see her. Despite our challenges, I am grateful to have my son at home. I would not want to be alone right now. But I am otherwise inclined to isolate these days—I  find it hard to find the energy to write an email, make a phone call or send a message. Everything seems to take so much energy. Fortunately I can still get out and walk and editing, or writing rejection letters, occupies a lot of time. Somewhere people are finding it possible to read and write and fill my inbox with their offerings.

But not me.

Most strangely I spend a lot of time thinking about mortality—well, under the circumstances I suppose that’s not too strange—but since surviving a pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest five years ago I’ve not known what to do with that experience. I have no memory of the event. There were no angels or bright lights, only the near miraculous sequence of coincidences that allowed my son to hear me moaning from his room downstairs, find me, call the paramedics, and start CPR. For some reason coming so close to death did not fill me with a renewed sense of purpose. I have, in the years since, struggled with suicidal ideation and, in anger and frustration, wondered why I had the misfortune to be saved. Now, faced with an invisible force that holds both existential and real threat, even if I have none of the significant risk factors apart from age, I am aware that I don’t want to die. I don’t even want to get sick with the kind of flu and respiratory symptoms many who suffer at home endure.

It’s funny how we take calculated risks—board an airplane, travel to foreign countries, drive a car, hike up a mountain—weighing the rewards worth the potential costs. But this virus is different, even if I have so many advantages on my side. I think about it all the same. The stirrings of a possible cold or allergy heighten the senses; body aches and malaise have me reaching for the thermometer.

This time of distancing forces one inward. The real test, I suppose, will be to continue to look outward, beyond our homes, our communities, and our countries. And to try to believe. Whatever that means.

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.

Asking for angels: John Prine

It pains me have to update this, but John Prine left us today, April 7, 2020. This illness is taking its share of musicians it seems.

Originally posted March 29, 2020:

It is not in my common practice to share a song on this site, but as I write this, American singer-songwriter John Prine is in critical condition with symptoms of COVID-19. Like many, I will be listening to his music tonight, especially this, his signature composition made famous by Bonnie Raitt.

I think this song is especially relevant to our shared circumstances these days. This virus does not discriminate between race, ethnic group, religion, nationality, gender or income level. However, we can’t fool ourselves, those who have the least among us, the marginalized and disadvantaged in our respective communities stand to lose the most, to pay the highest price.

This song honours an aging woman with a rough life behind her and the simplest of dreams. I’m thinking of people like her, and the man who put her story to music at this moment.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go…

Reading (or not) through a pandemic

Remember that desert island  you used to playfully assemble a mental reading list for? That essential library that would fuel you through an extended period of isolation? How is that notion working out for you now in these days of lock downs and distancing and otherwise upended routines?

I was never much of an imaginary library builder, but at the moment, in a flat lined with a total of ten bookshelves—seven tall, three short—bursting with books, I am finding it almost impossible to commit to any one of them.

Some of this is probably reflects my readerly nature. I invariably pack too many books when I travel and as soon as I’m away from home, none of the titles look appetizing. I wonder why I brought some, wish I’d brought others. At worst, I pass through episodes marked by a literary nausea every time I think about reading. It’s odd, unsettling and counter intuitive to what I always imagine a vacation offers—time. All that waiting, flying, transiting, eating alone in restaurants…

These days, with varying distancing measures in place across the globe, many of us are faced with a surfeit of time. A reader’s paradise. Some seem to be coping well, if social media is any measure. Book related blog posts still appear, photographs of bookshelves and stacks of self prescribed reading material populate my feeds. I’m finding it almost as disturbing as the death counts and criminally inadequate political responses that also seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate. I find books offer no distraction or comfort these days.

And I’m in a good space. The federal government here in Canada is responding rather sensibly to the medical and financial threats on the horizon and my provincial leader, much to my surprise, is responding with measured compassion and generosity even though our already weakened economy stands to take a beating. Certainly there are those who will always find fault, but the willingness to work across party lines is admirable. And although politicians have their share of time at the podium, our public health officials hold centre stage, earning respect and even a little celebrity in their own right. A sharp contrast to the crisis presently exploding beyond our southern border.

Yet, somehow I sit here, shuffling piles of books, reading a few pages here, a few pages there until once again anxiety pulls my attention away.

Some days are worse than others. The sun helps. Limiting time online is essential. But nothing works for long. Editing for 3:AM Magazine has helped a little—the imperative of a self imposed obligation I suppose—but I am engaged in precious little reading and writing for myself. Books that I’ve accepted or requested for review taunt me from the shelves even though there are no deadlines or absolute commitments attached. They fill me with guilt all the same. As do the partly read volumes I’m struggling to return to. Somehow I feel I should at least clear the deck a little before venturing on to something new. I’m already juggling a handful of titles as it is.

So I fritter around, surrounded by books, unable to finish anything, start anything, write anything. Overwhelmed by words.

These are, of course, exceptional times. Time perhaps, to throw out the “rules”, including all the idiosyncratic expectations we set for ourselves. Follow the flow. Resist the urge to measure ourselves against others. We are all in this together, but our circumstances vary. Friends in India, the UK, Italy, and South Africa are under lock down—variations on the theme are in place or on the horizon elsewhere. Here in Canada, physical distancing is advised if one is well, isolation if ill, and enforced quarantine if returning from outside the country. But each day, the parameters shift, the restrictions increase and for many the immediate future is unnervingly uncertain.

So I suppose my best pandemic reading strategy is to play it by ear.

Or is that eye?

Each day I try to get out for a walk, even if the energy sometimes eludes me. I’ve decided to set aside a few books in progress for the time being, and try to be open to any muse that might pass my way. At the moment, then, I’m reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain for Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter read along, R. K Narayan’s shortened modern prose version of The Ramayana and plenty of poetry. But is all subject to change without notice.

Stay safe, friends.

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.