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.

Rules of radiance: Calling Over Water by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

implacably the seasons turn, in me no movement.
dust on pen and inkpot, dust on scissors, knife, rocks.
dust pales lampblack, dust in my mouth, am i made
of dust alone? Lord blow on me, scatter grace
that falls as words on these empty pages.

– from “On Writing Poetry – 2”

Armed with all the classic tools of an age-old trade at her disposal, the speaker above, weighed down by days, weeks, months of silence, is left beseeching the gods of inspiration to set her words free. There are perhaps few writers who would not appreciate her anxiety, but a special force charges this passage which comes toward the end of the central movement of Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s new release, Calling Across Water. This collection of poetry is the fruit of more than a decade and spans themes that move from the intimate and vulnerable, through questions of the nature of creative expression, into a thoughtful wandering  poetic travelogue. For the acclaimed Indian poet, novelist and translator it is a deeply personal journey.

The first section, “Unravelling” traces her mother’s illness and death. It begins, simply with a phone call—one line alone—“The floor churns into a vortex” and ends in the darkened waters and distorted landscape of a world without a person whose absence consumes so much space and defies words. My own mother’s death is but three and a half years fresh right now and I understand this series of poems so completely that it is both painful and beautiful to read them, and it has taken me almost three months since my first encounter to be able to gather a few thoughts of my own. To this point I have only been able to share online the pieces that have shaken me to the core. Like this passage:

She holds me for the first time
my skin puckered by her fluids, her face
a chandrama of love, lantern to my life

I hold her for the last time:
Moon rubbed up from last night’s ink
before she blows past the horizon.

— from “Archiving Mother”

As we gathered around my mother’s bedside in her final hours, I was acutely aware of the sharp reversal of roles, as I caressed and kissed her pale forehead and told her again and again how much I loved her—as I once had to my own children, and as she had to me and to her grandchildren. The circle of life.

Intrinsic to Chabria’s cycle of mourning is a strong recurrence of natural images, calling to mind womb-like rhythms, echoing the symbolic cords that continue to bind us to the woman who brought us into the world, who nurtured us with stories and songs. The questions then, become, how do we witness a loved one’s passing? What are we to give back to the universe in return for a mother’s love? And how do we honour maternal energy, whether we ourselves have children or not? In this respect, “This Is Us”, my favourite piece in this entire collection, is for me, simple and perfect:

the sky of our body flutters
over the ailing
while their unheard
words open like jasmine
through our inkiness

this is us:
sieves through which they pass
as the lips of the horizon part

this is us:
singing remembrance
with mouths of myrrh
each of us alone – though
love’s phosphorescence
rims earth’s darkness

this is us
doing our best

The second movement of Calling Over Water, “Are There Answers Without Questions?” presents a play of queries and proverbs that explore what we can know and how or if we can find expressions for the myriad of emotions and experiences that trouble us. Despite the title, there seem to be more questions than answers, along with compilations of linguistic weapons and tools, and quotations for guidance. Of course, woven into this series of unconventional poems is a sense of the inadequacy of language to open the wounds with which life marks us.

The third and longest section of this collection—“Travelling”—is comprised of a sequence of poems inspired by travel across Central, South and South-East Asia. Here the canvas expands as the poet turns her attention to the patterns of nature, the humanity of distant cityscapes, and the monuments of history, drawing astute and careful reflections. A sensitivity for the spirit of others, in the present moment or captured in the facades of weathered antiquity, surfaces repeatedly as one follows this eclectic tour:

The curator points his singing mobile to rectangles of salmon
pink stone slotted in a bare garden. ‘This was her stage, and that

her makeup room, she strolled here composing
poetry.’ In a corner the crumble of the gardener’s hut where

children’ laughter ran barefoot. We climb though pensive
rooms with shifting amplitudes of shadow but no trace

of indolence’s velvet smear. On the terrace a grey cat slips
down the stairs like water in a drain. Below,

leafless trees cordoned by crowns stand in mist.
Relentlessly the present pulses into the past.

– from “Rai Parveen Mahal”

Chabria, who has translated ninth-century Tamil poet, Andal, and reimagined classical Indian mythology into speculative future worlds, has an especially acute ability to engage with the past and allow it to reverberate with our present times. Her poems—not only in this final movement but throughout this finely crafted symphony—function as memorials on multiple levels that invite the reader to penetrate, with their own experiences and memories, spaces they may know well as readily as those they have never seen. That is to answer the poet’s call:

Memories, like photographs, live
in the continuous present though
their grains alter each time you enter.

Make yourself into a memory.

– from “Dunhuang”

“what I am is a window”: At An Hour’s Sleep From Here by Franca Mancinelli

as the world was collapsing
at night I would walk among the clods of dirt
over a hill on which you cannot tell
if it is slowly swelling into a mountain
or swallowing you up in its hollow

now a light lifts the soil
or is it the whirl once the foot touches
the rolling grains of earth within the darkness.

from On the Train of My Blood

I first came to know of Italian poet Franca Mancinelli in late 2018, when a collection of short, delicate prose poems called A Little Book of Passage arrived at my home, an unanticipated yet welcome surprise courtesy of translator John Taylor and Bitter Oleander Press. The shifting, transitory quality of these fragmentary pieces spoke to me immediately and I knew I had encountered a very special poetic voice. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that our paths would cross last February in Kolkata where she was set to spend a month or so as Poet in Residence. Missing India and the City of Joy most acutely at the moment, it has been no small comfort to spend the past few weeks immersed in her most recent release in English translation. At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007–2019) comprises Mancinelli’s first two collections, Mala Kruna and Mother Dough, and is based on the revised versions included in a similarly named Italian volume, along with Out of Focus, Out of the Fire, a sequence previously published in a different version at the online site On the Seawall. As with A Little Book of Passage, this is a dual language Italian/English edition, again translated by John Taylor.

An extended conversation between poet and translator, together with translations of the longer prose poems included in the Italian edition of At An Hour’s Sleep and several other unpublished pieces, can be found in a special focus on Franca Mancinelli in the Autumn 2019 edition of the journal, The Bitter Oleander. This interview offers a window into her perceptive and intuitive approach to the creative process, an articulation the grounding of the writer’s place in the world. She speaks of an early awareness of an otherness, a feeling of somehow being set apart from her peers, that drew her to sketch out her thoughts in words as a way of trying to connect:

I believe that writing is a form of re-union: a way home, a possibility of returning to the original unity. The “fracture,” “fissure,” or “crack” that marks our identity as something separate and distinct belongs to us as a distant inheritance, received when we come into existence. It seems so essential to stay in the world that we are led to experience this fracture, while forgetting it. One who writes is, instead, called to perceive it clearly, with all the pain that it brings, along with grace. I think I started to experience it in childhood. It was like an extended solitude. A sort of condemnation and at the same time a salvation from whatever happens in daily life. The fracture can be opened as a refuge that preserves us, from which we can look out at everything flowing by in the splendor that belongs to life, in whatever form and state it presents itself, even in its most destructive and distressing appearances.

Reading the poetry of Franca Mancinelli one cannot help but recognize a kind of quiet urgency motivating her perpetual need to re-connect—this is writing as a vital act, as necessary as breathing. We all breathe as long as we are living; she seems determined to slip into the spaces between breaths and take us with her:

like stubborn insects
we keep flying against this
light that will not open, that smashes us

how much longer will we beat
on the windowpane separating
oxygen from the heart?

from Mother Dough

*

Mancinelli’s debut collection, Mala Kruna, opens At An Hour’s Sleep from Here. Originally published in 2007 when the poet was but in her mid-twenties, (the title means “Little Crown” in Croatian) this work contains four sequences that call into a shimmering, striking relief images from childhood and early adulthood, first encounters with love and passion, and, in the final sequence, The House in Ruins, intimations of a darker, wiser maturity. The central sequences The Sea in My Temples and On the Train of My Blood are especially powerful—the first conjures a dreamlike landscape within which the boundaries between the self and the lover and the natural environment blur:

at night an estuary your arms
are oak branches
a bottomless sieve
bright plummeting pebble
clump of dissolving dirt

I’ve always been here
at life’s onset
looking at these things
moving in your eyes.

The second sequence sounds the alarm, crossing into that space in which the relationship, now wound too tight, distorts, pains and eventually becomes undone. The separation is slow, the hold that the “he” has on the speaker is insidious, threatening her ability to maintain a separate agency:

one can breathe from his mouth
like someone drowning and walk
stepping on his feet
yet the legs would like to float
like seaweed to the sound of his voice

and he keeps pushing the cradle,
his body like a thumb.

Passage by passage, she traces the conflicted emotions that accompany her effort to “undo the dress that the lips / have sown stich by stitch.” It is an agonizing letting go—recognizable, raw and real.

Mother Dough, Mancinelli’s second collection builds on the same imagery and themes—especially intimacy and self-identity—but with a new confidence. Still searching, still questioning, still exploring voids and spaces that overlap, the poet’s voice has a stronger presence, one that is evident from the opening poem:

a spoon in sleep, the body
gathers the night. Swarms buried
in our chest arise, spread
their wings. How many animals
migrate within us,
passing through our heart, halting
on the curve of a hip, among the branches
of the ribs, how many
would rather not be us,
not be ensnared
between our human contours.

The poems that follow are tightly honed with an often disquieting beauty. Unexpected images are merged with an assured hand, lines trespassed with such ease that one is frequently called to read and reread each piece to soak in its delicate incongruities. The flow of images draw on nature—animate and inanimate—and experience—physical and spiritual—but her observations are fleeting, ephemeral, tenuous marked by a continual opening up, a breaking apart, an aching thirst. A restlessness. A transition from one state to another. Throughout her work, the notion of metamorphosis plays an important, if sometimes unsettling, role. This transformation is often expressed in a fracturing of the body, natural features and objects as part of a constant process of reconfiguring and reimaging, and reflects the poet’s search to understand in her own place in her body and in the world. Intrinsic to her poetry, then, is an abiding existential uncertainty, a continual reframing of Being—a gathering together of explorations into the ongoing process of coming into being, ever sensitive to the elemental, fractured and fragmentary quality of the self.

At An Hour’s Sleep From Here is a beautifully presented volume with an illuminating introduction by the translator. Mancinelli’s verse is spare and fragmentary, and as such, whiteness—a representative silence—becomes an essential element. Few of the texts extend for more than ten lines; blank pages set each sequence or section apart. This minimalism is more than a form of poetic expression—it is a searching for meaning, for an understanding of how it is that we create a space in an unstable order of things. A searching we are invited to join.

At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007–2019) by Franca Mancinelli is translated by John Taylor and published by Bitter Oleander Press.

A deep and abiding melancholy: Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa

There is a moment in our earliest years, if we are lucky, when the outside world with all its attendant ills and hardships cannot yet touch us, but it is simultaneously a vulnerable space, fleeting, ephemeral—even more so when we look back and remember how quickly it passed:

It was the middle of the dry season but each time her lips parted I found myself in an oasis in which I wanted for nothing; I had no need to look to the horizon but if I did, it would have gone on and on, a hungerlessness that might well be called paradise. The wind was blowing from the coast, a salt wind from the Atlantic which I would feel against me as a phantom presence even when it was not there any more. The sun was not shining and its not shining was neither here nor there; I was not waiting for the sun to reveal itself to me . . . Although I was old enough – three years, perhaps four – I seldom spoke at this time. No one really remarked on this fact nor how I hung off every one of my mother’s words. Indeed, I could have continued in this same vein for an aeon or more, unaware of the peril of what might lie ahead.

Set in Angola during the years leading up to Independence from Portugal in 1975, Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa, an Australian author of Goan heritage, is a young woman’s account of childhood and youth during a time of increasing political unrest and instability. As she remembers the magic of her early, loving bond with her mother, in an idyllic setting secure in the comforts wealth affords, the truths she is not yet able to understand linger in the air. From the beginning, a tentativeness, a sense of an impending ending runs through the narrative, beneath the protection of a child’s innocence and an adolescent self-absorption, until it becomes evident that the last remnants of the colonial social structure must either face unfortunate dissolution or exile.

Named for the Portuguese expression meaning an unbearable longing or melancholy, Saudade is a novella of displacement. Narrator Maria-Christina’s parents, Indians from Brahmin backgrounds, their marriage arranged, had immigrated to Angola in the dying days of Portuguese rule in Goa. Africa was seen as a place of promise and hope for the future. At first they settled into a comfortable existence, and started a family. But their colonial experience, as such, has two sides. They have a certain status, hire African servants, and yet, to many Portuguese they are still bound to the reality that Portugal had once subdued and ruled their homeland. When, at school, Maria-Christina refers to explorer Bartolomeu Dias as an “invader,” her indignant teacher reminds her of her place:

Her voice tremulous, she declared that Bartolomeu Dias had been commissioned by João II and Isabel; she said that he had battled storm and shipwreck and cannibalism to claim Angola for Portugal. Bartolomeu Dias, she said, was responsible for civilising the people of Angola and was part of that long line of fidalgos who had cultivated my own loinclothed and mud-thatched and blue-godded people! When she had made this speech, the teacher from Coimbra was standing close to me and yet it seemed I could not see her; her face was blur. When she spoke, her breath smelt stale – as of onions and salt pork sitting in a pot too long. Not a day went by without one girl or other being humiliated by her, so I tried not to take the humiliation to heart.

After an initial period of prosperity, unrest begins to grow and threaten the security of the non-Angolan residents. As the fight for independence escalates, Maria Christina’s father is caught up secretive, risky activities, while her mother becomes increasingly stressed and homesick. Meanwhile, their daughter must navigate the mysteries and challenges of childhood and adolescence against a shifting social, political and domestic landscape.

The success of any Bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel, for me, depends on a certain recognizable authenticity of voice. Here the spare, wistful melancholy of the protagonist’s early memories, filtered through the lens of acquired understanding, carries just the right tone. Trusting and deeply attached to her mother when she is young, she gradually gains a more defiant edge as puberty arrives and the tensions at home and in the country intensify. Her relationships with her parents become strained as friendships and her first romance start to define her move toward an independent engagement with the world. That is, until political upheaval begins to draw her friends away from Angola, often to places and relatives they barely know. Yet, as much as this is a story of a family living through the final years of colonial power and privilege, the nostalgia for India is deep and  abiding—a loss that haunts the mother and leaves the daughter rootless.  Independence exacts huge costs for all and, of course, for the Angolans themselves, there will be many bloody years yet to come.

Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa is published by Giramondo in Australia and Transit Books in the US.

Addressing a captive audience: A Slap in the Face by Abbas Khider

Set in the earliest years of the twenty-first century, Abbas Khider’s A Slap in the Face confronts the complicated realities of the mass migration driven by conflict, poverty and the hope for a better life that has become such a definitive and disruptive feature of this new century. The novel opens with an actual slap across the face. The narrator, Karim, a young Iraqi refugee facing deportation from Germany, has accosted his caseworker in her office and taped her to her chair. Frustrated, anxious and unable to consider returning to his home country, what he really wants to do is force her to listen. Karim rolls himself a joint and launches into his story. Bound and silenced, Frau Schulz, as a representative of a dispassionate bureaucratic system, will now have no alternative but to hear him out:

Here you are. Helpless. All trussed up like a parcel. Sitting there in your expensive black leather chair. You were a goddess, a force of nature, exercising your authority over other people. I was at your mercy, but like a mythical hero I have risen up and stormed Olympus. And soon I’ll leave you to your tiny pen-pusher’s office again. You’ll be left sitting here, a lonely as a creator whose creatures have forgotten him. A god without believers doesn’t exist. That’s true of goddesses too. I’ll leave you behind and go away to a distant land.

What unfolds is one very human account of the complicated forces that can drive one man to leave his home and family behind, taking on, at great cost and risks, with uncertain hopes of success, a flight to a new land, together with a broader portrait of the haphazard expat communities that form in the limbo of an asylum system that can be painfully slow and impersonal. It is a story Khider is well suited to tell. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he was a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein. Upon his release in 1996, he fled, making his way through a number of countries before landing in Germany where has been living since 2000. Writing in German, A Slap in the Face (originally published as Ohrfeige; translated by Simon Pare) is his fourth novel.

Karim’s intended destination upon setting out from Baghdad is Paris where he has a relative, but in submitting to the whims of people smugglers, he finds himself dropped off on a rural road in Germany in the dead of winter. He manages to make his way to a train station where he is immediately picked up and placed in a windowless cell in Dachau. In retrospect he is relieved that he naively does not know the association of that location beforehand. He is terrified enough. From that point, he is funnelled into the confusing, often tedious, administrative  system that will determine his fate, ultimately ending up in a small Bavarian town. Here he will build connections with a small group of fellow Iraqis, each carrying their own pasts and burdens that remain unshared. They exist as loose association of men bound by common country of origin, amid a fractious community of other refugees.

Woven into his account of the trials and tribulations that arise as he navigates the complicated asylum application process, periodically reminding Frau Schulz where she has played a role, Karim shares childhood losses and adult longings. Despite his momentary position of power, he comes across as a vulnerable figure, focused and determined but cautious to try to play by the rules. When he reveals the deep secret that lies beneath his initial desperation to head to Europe—an unexpected circumstance that I personally connected with in a way others might not—the space he occupies, slightly offside that of his peers makes perfect sense. He has a very unique reason to want to stay—one he has revealed to no one, least of all the officials at his asylum hearing.

However, 9/11 and the subsequent American invasion of Iraq upends his dreams. Everything changes almost instantly:

From that accursed day onwards, the main term used to describe us Arabs in Germany was ‘suspicious’. I would never have thought that terrorists hiding in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains could, by their attacks in the United States, plunge my life in the Bavarian town of Niederhofen into such disarray. That’s what you call globalization.

Caught up in the confusion of this rapidly changing atmosphere, Karim and his friends struggle with conflicted emotions as they watch broadcasts of the destruction being wrought on their homeland and worry about the safety of their families. Yet around them, fundamentalist passions rise among some, fueling bitter divisions within the expat community itself and further anxiety among the German population. But, once Saddam Hussein is neutralized, Karim finds that his contrived claim for refugee status no longer carries any weight, and his asylum status is revoked, but going back is not an option. He has too much invested in his hopes for a better—even normal—future. So with Frau Schulz as his silent witness, he is unburdening himself as he prepares to take flight again after three years in Germany.

A Slap on the Face offers a look at the reality of arriving in a strange land with little more than the hope for a better future. It does not glamourize the experience. The administrative roadblocks, the uncertainties, the poverty, the prejudice, the appeal of drugs or petty crime for some, and the loneliness or isolation for others all ring true. Karim’s story tumbles out—part confession, part diatribe—fueled by the frequent joints he rolls and his controllled contempt for Frau Schulz and the system she represents that has so heartlessly decided that his years of waiting and working hard mean nothing. It’s difficult not to like Karim, to feel his frustrations, and it is this connection that lends his narrative a such compelling, earnest urgency.

A Slap on the Face by Abbas Khider is translated by Simon Pare and published by Seagull Books.

Standing witness to the “ordinariness” of prejudice and violence: Unearthed by Yvette Greslé

I am, I confess, a sucker for a beautiful cover. I first encountered Yvette Greslé’s Unearthed on Instagram while I was in India last fall, looked it up, was intrigued, and ordered it as soon as I got home. Greslé is a London-based art historian and writer, born in South Africa, who spent her childhood in Seychelles, an archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, before being sent to boarding school in Johannesburg as a teenager. Moving between time and place, she explores the “ordinariness of the colonial order,” and the ongoing normalization, the very mundanity, of racism, intolerance, and violence. She stands witness, ever conscious of the advantages afforded her as white. And of the complicity she bears.

Greslé is, as she describes herself, a sensitive child. She is aware of ghosts. Her dreams are suffused with quiet symbolism. Her mother tells her she is a hypochondriac. It is not good to be too sensitive. Yet, it is this sensitivity, a certain pensiveness, that makes Unearthed such a compelling and thought-provoking read. Spare and elegiac, this short work occupies a liminal space between memoir and social discourse. As the author draws on personal experience and a wide selection of readings to trouble uncomfortable questions of privilege and prejudice, she offers an unflinchingly honest assessment of the society that formed her.

Memories layered on memories create an essay that is beautiful, painful, and wise.

The early island years have a magical tropical glow—white sand beaches, cinnamon, bananas and pineapples—but with distinctly colonial manners, and a sharp divide between the French and English residents and the Creole population. Greslé’s father was born in Seychelles , a descendant of French settlers. He had moved back from Johannesburg with his South African wife and young family in 1974, only two years before the country achieved independence from Britain, which led, by the late seventies, to a period of great political unrest. This in turn heightened tensions at home that the author, still a child, finds herself caught in:

My mother wanted to leave the island but my father wanted to stay. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, crockery would fly around the house and I would hear my parents shouting. My father couldn’t let go of the land and when he asked me if I wanted to leave the island, I shook my head and said no and this ‘no’ was without ambiguity. From childhood, I was conscious of an emotional bond to my home on the mountain and the land that surrounded it and, as I grew older, I was conscious of not wanting to give it up. Now I can see that my identity and sense of self were wound up in my father’s name and the possession of this land. It was only later that I would come to fully grasp and develop a language for what was truly at stake and for whom. I would come to see how I was positioned within a history embedded in a racial violence and white entitlement.

In 1984, Greslé will be sent to boarding school in Johannesburg and her experiences in South Africa, through her teens and into her adult years would deepen her understanding of, as she puts it, “the logic of white supremacy” and the “human capacity for brutality.” It is not a pretty picture, nor is the violence always obvious—it can be inflicted on the soul as readily as the body. At times, Greslé herself will experience othering, at times when her own ethnic origin is questioned, or just because a capacity to scapegoat exists even within groups that are otherwise (presumably) alike.

This is a memoir that, more than tracing the events of a life lived, traces an evolution of thought. It simmers with controlled emotional tension, and while moving back and forth in time, a frequent use of the present tense creates a sense of immediacy. Greslé shares moments of pain and loss without self-pity or sentimentality. Her reading and her experiences in post-Apartheid South Africa and, currently, in London, reinforce her impatience with the insistence that we have moved beyond the divisions of old—that they are of another era, or rendered no more severe than the disadvantages we each can catalog in our own lives. Or, if these intolerances still exist or may in some places be rising again, it has nothing to do with us as individuals. I’m not like that. Its time to move on.

But there is no line to be drawn between the past and the present. The past cannot simply be buried and forgotten about. The past lives on in the lives of the descendants of those who have suffered the kinds of things that don’t just go away, the kinds of things that inhabit bodies and memories. Racism, xenophobia and prejudice in all of their iterations are not simply historical artefacts, inanimate objects.

 This is one of the most deeply affecting essays I’ve encountered—an example of the way our own stories can be told to tell stories that are larger and more important than we are. The kind of stories that are difficult but need to be told. It feels as if Greslé has wrung each sentence from her heart; toward the end she admits that she is restless, that these swirling memories and images, all the concerns unanswered, are taking an emotional toll. So many critical questions. So few answers. But this thoughtful meditation, this personal story, rich with passages from writers and thinkers and an accompanying reading list, and that’s a good a place to start as any.

Unearthed by Yvette Greslé is published by Copy Press. It is no. 13 in their Common Intellectual Series of 100-page paperbacks. Each title makes a proposition for living, thinking and enjoyment.

Delirium, desire and despair: The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

The Blind Owl is a not an easy book to read. A hallucinogenic, opium-soaked account of a lonely pen case illustrator’s decent into madness, it is disorienting. Unpleasant. Consumed with death, decay, sexual obsession and frustration. After finishing the last page it sits heavy in the gut. And then, as you start to unwind the experience, it takes on an eerie, impressive, surreal quality—no less dark—but unlikely to easily slip from the imagination once wedged there.

A classic of twentieth century Iranian literature, The Blind Owl was composed during the latter years of the oppressive reign of Reza Shah and first published in 1936 in Bombay where the author, writer and intellectual Sadegh Hedayat was studying. On the first page, Hedayat famously wrote: “The printing and sale [of this work] in Iran is forbidden.” Although the setting of the story the Iranian city of Rey, and, briefly, in India has a classical atmosphere, there is a strong, idiosyncratic modernist feel. The influence of writers like Jung, Rilke, Poe and most notably, Kafka is strong, but this absurdist tale seems to be driven by its own cluster of existential horrors. It can, and has been analyzed, symbolism examined, but that seems less interesting to me having finished the book. It does not matter how much of the author’s own psychology is embedded here (he will commit suicide in 1951 in Paris at age 48), the real power of this work lies in its ability to create a tortured, internal irreality that spins on its own frenzied axis to reach a bizarre climax that, in the end, leaves more questions than answers.

The novella is presented as a confession, the narrator feverishly scrawls out his account, addressing it to an imagined confessor, a shadow on the wall of his room that resembles an owl. In the West, the owl is commonly associated with wisdom, but in Iran and India the bird is considered a bad omen and, as the translator notes, Hedayat was likely aware of both of these contexts—the pen case painter seems to be uncertain if he hopes to understand or exorcise the demons he carries, the macabre dreams and visions that haunt him, and the crime he may, or may not have committed. A delusional narrator driven beyond despair is hardly reliable.

But he can be hard to forget.

To attempt to describe the course of events laid out in this story would be pointless. The same images are endlessly cycled and recycled throughout. The first section appears to recount a vision, a strange visit, and an unexpectedly gruesome event which is echoed but not explained in an extended surreal, feverish central sequence that makes up the core of the book—a relentless nightmarish account of delusions and bitter memories dominated by a preoccupation with death, decay, and decomposition. What appears, at first, to be the narrator’s attempt to fill in his background history, his childhood and miserably unhappy marriage, quickly loses chronological sense. Boundaries between memory, dream, hallucination, and obsessive paranoia melt and blur. The motifs that recur in varying forms—bruised morning glories, clotted blood that can’t be washed off, characters shaking with a harsh convulsive laughter, a butcher chopping up an animal, the narrator’s inability to recognize his own changing face in the mirror, houses with odd, uninhabitable geometrical shapes and shadows that stretch, bend and distort—lend the work a distinctly Expressionist quality. At times I found myself picturing The Cabinet of Dr Caligari re-imagined in a Persian context. But with a much, much darker undertone:

I saw that pain and suffering existed but they were devoid of any purpose or meaning—Amongst the rabble I had become an unknown and unfamiliar breed, so much so that they had forgotten that before this I was a part of their world. What was frightening was that I felt I was neither completely alive nor completely dead, I was but a moving corpse that could neither join the world of the living nor partake in the oblivion and peace of death.

It is hardly surprising that this book has frequently been censored in Iran, attacked by Islamists, and has served as the unfortunate inspiration for suicide among some readers. It is a vital, if disturbing, piece of literature all the same.

However, a discussion would be incomplete without a word about translation. Several versions of The Blind Owl have been published in English over the years, D. P. Costello’s (1957) being the best known. I chose the 75th Anniversary Edition translated by Naveed Noori, the first to be based on the original Bombay Edition. As a native Persian speaker fluent in English, Noori examines a number of significant inconsistencies in Costello’s text, relative to the original, and considers the likelihood that he was working at least in part from a French translation and a typed Persian version that contained errors and typos. This is, for those interested in debates about translation, where the rubber hits the road.

Those familiar with Persian will benefit most from Noori’s detailed introduction, but he brings up a very interesting matter. “Costello’s translation,” he tells us, “is entirely fluent and reads well;  however, in doing so, the narrator’s voice is changed, and the text has become domesticated.” Domesticated. An example is offered where tones and subtleties are missed, not without admitting that it is always a challenge to balance the tendency to domestication against the risk of foreignization. Smoothness is frequently championed as the hallmark of success in a translation. But at what cost? Noori chose to begin with a foreignized bias and work toward the centre with repeated edits to improve the flow. That means, at times, employing more unconventional English usage, to retain a meaning closer to the original Persian. As well, whereas Costello’s translation is apparently relatively calm and controlled, Noori follows Hedayat’s practice and employs the repetitive use of dashes to heighten the agitated discomfort of the narrator’s collapsing mental state as he frantically scribbles his confession:

Before I leave I only want to bring out on paper these pains that have devoured me in the corner of this room, bit by bit, like leprosy or a festering wound—for in this way I can make my thoughts more orderly and organized—Is it my aim to write a will? Never. I have neither money that the court can swallow up, nor religion that the devil can take away, besides what on this  earth can have the least bit of value for me—that which was life I have lost, I let it and wanted it to slip away, and after I am gone, to hell with it, whether someone reads my scraps of writing, or whether they go unread for seventy black years—I only write for this need to write has now become vital for me—I am in need, more than ever I’m in need of connecting my thoughts to my imaginary being, my shadow—this sinister shadow that, in front of the light of the tallow-burner, is bent over on the wall, as if it is carefully reading and devouring that which I write—This shadow must surely understand more than I!

Now, I cannot compare Costello’s well-loved version, and The Blind Owl is available in at least three English translations along with many more in other languages. However, as a reader interested in the art of translation, I am very glad I happened to select this one for my first introduction to Iranian literature.

The Blind Owl by Sedegh Hedayat, translated by Naveed Noori, is published by l’Aleph under the auspices of The Sadegh Hedayat Foundation.

Older than yesterday, younger than God: 926 Years by Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster

The universe is a big empty space, small clusters of stars and planets stretch across impossible horizons and, even if you are lucky enough to find yourself on one of the statistically unlikely chunks of rock that might just support (apparently) intelligent life, the chances that you will gather around yourself a few precious like-minded souls to nourish your own creative dreams and endeavours within spitting distance is another statistical unlikelihood, though much less unlikely than finding enough oxygen and water available to allow for your own existential possibility. Period.

Imagine, then, the good fortune that led one somewhat cynical Australian writer in Sydney to chance upon the work of an American (sorry but I have no idea what his temperamental tendencies are) writer from Louisville, Kentucky in the 17th issue of The White Review. What started as writerly admiration grew, thanks to the magic of email, into a friendship and now, some three years or so later a book-shaped collaboration. Twenty-two pieces of micro fiction. A literary game of call and response. A sideways glance into 926 cumulative years of human existence.

Each story, or vignette, is titled after the central character and his or her age. One imagines each author taking turns, challenging the other, triggering the next effort. Perhaps there were complex rules, elaborate algorithms. Perhaps a roll of the dice or a measure of blind faith. I don’t know. Entering one world after another, spaces filled with souls that seem somehow disconnected from their lives—from their jobs, their relationships, their health, or from the simpler beings around them—a curious reader (okay, I’m guilty) might be inclined to look for points of reference loosely linking one story to the next. Yet, the opportunity to slip in and out of a variety of experiences is its own reward. A connection to the unconnected. Like 47 year-old Larry Hoavis, sitting in his rural backyard, reflecting on the radio towers in the distance, their lights flashing in the darkness:

Why does it feel lonely, sitting and watching? Nature in its subtle power and monotony, pre-Internet to the core, unconscious of its enormity. No one. No one even knows he’s here. The house at his back. Divorced. His ex elsewhere , how he loved her, hurt her, himself. Why’s it beautiful, why’s it comforting, that no one knows? The crickets bleeping in the grass around him, the corn growing before him. Far lights pulsing like heartbeats, waiting for lives and bodies to grow around. Loneliness, it’s inarguable isn’t it? Crowns a person like some kind of common wisdom. Then overthrows him.

Each moment, painful, precious, perfect.

926 Years by Kyle-Coma Thompson and Tristan Foster, the American and Australian co-conspirators, is the second small book to emerge from Joshua Rothes’ Sublunary Editions (I reviewed the first, Falstaff: Apotheosis here, and interviewed Rothes for 3:AM Magazine here). The collaborative effort—not just between the authors but with the editor/publisher—gives this project its energy and sets a wonderfully realistic and realizable model for creating literature that is fresh and original. One that invites and encourages other like-minded spirits to imagine their own projects and help make this lonely habitable rock a little less lonely.

Love is never enough. Madness is enough: Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up.

I tend to approach books about mental illness with caution, I rarely write about my own experiences, my appetite for memoirs, eagerly fed in the years following my diagnosis as bipolar, has been long exhausted and I tend to look askance at novels that bleed evidence of well-intentioned but distanced research. The best fiction, I’ve found, comes from those who have been close to but not caught inside the maelstrom of mania or the plunging darkness of depression—like Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, the third section of Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room or, the book I just finished, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom. These are books that touch on a condition, albeit relatively manageable, that has been my companion most of my life, books that seem familiar and strange at once. Even if they are all charged with a measure of compassion and dark humour, they have the power to disturb and unsettle me  because they remind me how disconnected, pained and even oblivious the sufferer can be when caught in the worst waves of the disorder, but, even more upsetting, I catch a glimpse of myself from the outside, of how I must appear to those around me when I’ve been most morbid, morose or, as Em would say, “mad.”

Drawing on life with his own mother who suffered from a severe form of manic depression, one that resisted the treatments available, Jerry Pinto offers a bittersweet love story that is also an introspective coming of age story and a searing portrait of the way mental illness can create a vortex around which a family can be tossed and turned—a cyclone that pushes away the outside world and makes “normal”  life an impossible dream. At the heart of the tale is a small Roman Catholic Goan family tucked into the mosaic of late twentieth century Bombay, India’s largest city. The unnamed narrator and his sister Susan share a tiny one bedroom apartment in with their parents Imelda and Augustine Mendes , fondly referred to as Em and the Big Hoom. Although at one time their prospects might have promised a more generous standard of living, all changed as Em’s illness progressed. Swinging widely between deep suicidal depressions and expansive, unpredictable and emotionally abusive mania punctuated by rare episodes of normal, she dominates both the cramped living space and their reality. In the midst of the storm, their stoic father is a fount of calm reserve, their rock, the hint of stability to which the children cling.

Pinto’s narrator is an uncertain, emotionally sensitive character, charged with not only recounting the surreal experience of managing life, adolescence and early adulthood with his difficult and unusual and wildly eccentric mother, but with re-imagining a time before mental illness claimed her moods and mind, before the electrical currents started racing uncontrolled—“flashing and sizzling”—through her brain. Relying on Em’s own, occasionally lucid recollections, and scraps of the diaries and letters she compulsively wrote but rarely mailed, he tries to piece together a picture of her life as a young woman, forced to go to work in her teens to support her family rather than going to college as she hoped, then pushed into becoming a stenographer. She meets her future husband while they are both working in the same office; their courtship is prolonged and simple.

His father’s past our protagonist approaches more cautiously. The Big Hoom is his hero and, if he is seeking the ordinary behind his irrational mother, he does not want to risk learning that his father’s calm exterior is a façade. A father and son trip to Goa provides the backdrop for an exposition of the Big Hoom’s remarkable resolve and determination, tracing his inadvertent arrival in Bombay where, without his family’s knowledge, he stayed on and began working until he could he could afford to go to school and earn an engineering degree. He was the first of his village to make good in the outside world. But for his son he very much remains an enigma, and as a result, so do many of the social norms that are distorted by his erratic upbringing:

At that point I realized what it meant to be a man in India. It meant knowing what one could do and what one could only get done. It meant being able to hold on to two patterns simultaneously. One was methodical, hierarchical, regulated and the outcomes depended on fate, chance, kings and desperate men. The other was intuitive, illicit and guaranteed. The trick was to know when to shift between patterns, to peel the file off the table and give it to a peon, to speak easily of one’s cousin the minister or the archbishop. I did not think I could ever know what these shifts entailed, and that meant, in essence, that I was never going to grow up.

Back at home, Em remains an unpredictable force of nature. As her children get older, eventually moving on to post-secondary educations and careers, they remain essential to her immediate circle of care. With their father, and occasionally their grandmother, they take turns balancing each other off through her ups and downs. It’s a physically and emotionally draining routine:

We never knew when the weather would change dramatically with Em. You’re vulnerable to those you love and they acknowledge this by being gentle with you, but with Em you could never be sure whether she was going to handle you as if you were glass or take your innermost self into a headlock. Sometimes it seemed part of her mental problem. Sometimes it seemed part of her personality.

She could be erratic, intense, loud and obscene, often embarrassing her children. Responding with a disapproving, “Em!” would only further her efforts to shock. However, as difficult as the manic episodes were to endure, especially for the narrator who seems to take it all so personally, the other bipolar extreme was even worse:

I don’t know how to describe her depression except to say that it seemed like it was engrossing her. No, even that sounds like she had some choice in the matter. It was another reality from which she had no escape. It took up every inch of her. She had no time for love or hate, fatigue or hunger. She slept ravenously but it was a drugged sleep, probably dreamless sleep, sleep that gives back nothing.

Add frequent suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and an inability to leave her home unattended, the Mendes family are caught in an endless nightmare.

But for all that, this is a beautiful, warm and affectionate tale, told with generosity and gentle humour. Em’s mind-spinning divergent monologues capture the off-the-rail ramblings of mania with remarkable room filling intensity, but a very human, vulnerable portrait of the woman behind the illness is preserved. However, the real magic of Em and the Big Hoom lies in the narrative voice. Pinto captures the son’s self-conscious guilt—the awareness that his mother’s illness forces him to think and talk about himself and then feel badly about it. He wants to tell his mother’s story, but of course it can’t be extricated from his own. She stirs conflicted sentiments. Bitterness. Anxiety. An impossible love. The illness is endlessly exhausting on those around her, yet the narrator worries that he might share the same genetic tendency to mood disorder, lives in fear that his sister will marry and move out and that the Big Hoom will die leaving him to care for Em alone. Mentally he tries to prepare for this and  wonders if he will ever have the confidence and maturity that stage of life will demand of him. It is this complicated tangle of emotion that carries this novel right through to its poignant, unexpected end.

Jerry Pinto is a well known writer, poet, translator and children’s author from Mumbai. He’s also a passionate mental health advocate; I was fortunate to hear him speak in Bangalore this past November. I know from my own experiences that the stigma around mental health is widespread, even in the western world where progress has been made but services are often difficult to access or too expensive, and a breakdown can easily  cost jobs, careers and relationships. Books like this—entertaining and thought-provoking—are an important aspect of a necessary ongoing discussion.

Em and the Big Hoom is available in India and internationally from Penguin.

The theatre of the desert: Pierre Senges’ Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust

Last week, as I sought a text to carry me across the midnight bridge between decades, I wanted something that might, even for a moment, turn the world on its head. What could, I wondered, be more fitting than to spend New Year’s Eve and the following day in the company of Pierre Senges. After all, a voyage with the French writer, be it brief or extended, is guaranteed to offer a taste of the unexpected. The world he inhabits exists on the edges of maps, in the margins of manuscripts, in the creases between pages, and tucked into the corners of the imagination. If it looks familiar that’s because you have been there, wandered its streets, navigated its seas, crossed its stages. But when you stop to adjust your compass, or try to align yourself with the stars, the needle tends to spin, shudder to a stop, and, then, as soon as you think you know where you are heading, a flood of literary, historical, or starkly contemporary references will slide into the narrative and lead you off track once again. To read Pierre Senges is to embark on an adventure, one that may just as easily take you travelling halfway around the world as stumbling down the block and into the local pub.

Fortunately for me, I had recent translations of two rather different texts by Senges on hand, both translated by his tireless advocate Jacob Siefrig, and published by a couple of inventive small publishers. The first, my New Year’s Eve companion, was the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis. Published by Seattle-based Sublunary Editions, a project that began in mid-2019  to produce original literary offerings distributed as a monthly print newsletter, this small, pocket-sized volume marks their first foray into the big world of book publishing on a manageable small scale.

Senges delights in taking characters and themes from literature and history, reimagining  them in terms that stretch from the mildly satirical to the strangely absurd, and then proceeding to fashion tales shot through with sharp, dry humour—one that can, at times, be lost on readers who like their humour to be more, shall we say, in your face. In this regard, Falstaff: Apotheosis, taking as its subject Shakespeare’s most misunderstood minor character, is an ideal bite-sized introduction to his singular style. More than a comic foil, Falstaff is presented as an ingenious master of humiliation as a heroic act. His crowning glory, or apotheosis, is his bold and daring performance of a deceased figure on the battlefield, an act that sets the stage for a treatise on the ethics of playing dead:

To be the master of one’s own death, what a timeless caprice: the trick being to lie down not just any old way, rather to adopt the humble simplicity of the sandbag, or the hieratism of the tree trunk, or the mannerist posture of a hunting dog, or an expressionism inspired by anatomies of past centuries and the bold contrasts of cinematic skills—to breathe out one’s last sigh, but exhale it negligently, instead to opt for the Romanticism of the last and lightest breath, like the breath a child turns on a dandelion. . .

What makes Senges so successful is his language—long winding sentences filled with wise and wonderful imagery, holding fast to a measure of seriousness in the narrative voices he employs.

My into-the-new-year Senges was Geometry in the Dust. Published by the bold, experimental Lawrence, Kansas-based publisher Inside the Castle, this is a longer, more elaborate ruse—a delicious anachronistic tale presented as a report to a desert-bound prince keen to construct a city in his kingdom of sand, from his loyal minister who has been sent on a mission to learn about the features of a real-life city and advise his ruler on what will need to be considered. Echoing the spirit of the travels of Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo, our narrator is attentive but a step out of time, observing the modern metropolis, but not always connecting the dots completely. The result a strangely insightful and original reflection on the nature of the urban landscape.

His observations are often trapped in time. He seeks out the city scribes at one point, hoping to be able to compare his ideas to theirs and finds, rather than rows of copyists at their desks he finds that calligraphers ply their trade by night, running through the darkened streets, clutching paint, hurriedly scrawling messages on walls. The intensity of city life overwhelms him, continually exceeding his expectations, but leading to wonderful portraits as he seeks to describe the indescribable to the sheltered and isolated ruler he serves:

To define a city for you more or less: it’s a danse macabre every single day of the week: it seems to me that the idea of the danse macabre will help you put your finger on what a city is, because it communicates to you a scraping of nail on bone, as well as a gnashing of teeth. The danse tells us all we need to know about the city’s circular nature (not so long ago cities were contained within wooden circles, like certain soft-rind cheeses; although they tried hard to emancipate themselves and go over the walls, they still retain a bit of this roundness: it will be necessary to take this design into consideration)

Yet, even if the noise, chaos and moral loose edges of the city challenge our often judgemental traveller, he is determined to make sense of everything (including the curious cul-de-sac) and advise his prince on the extent to which all architectural, cultural and social intersections should be designed so as to leave nothing to chance. It’s difficult, of course, not to be struck by the degree of hubris driving the ambitions of this desert monarch and his faithful servant, especially on their shifting terrain of sand and dust. But then again, perhaps it is only in the space of pure fancy that the ideal metropolis can exist. Paired with the artist Killoffer’s grotesque depictions of the hectic, congested modern city, Geometry in the Dust offers a fantastic meditation on the impossibility of reducing a concept as complex as the city to a few lines scratched in the dirt.

For a taste of this work and Senges’ inimitable style, see this excerpt from Geometry in the Dust with illustrations by Killoffer at 3:AM Magazine.

Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges are both translated by Jacob Siefrig and published by Sublunary Editions and Inside the Castle respectively.