Each to his own “green truth”: Ponge, Pastures, Prairies by Philippe Jaccottet

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies is more than a simple tribute to French poet and essayist Francis Ponge by fellow poet Philippe Jaccottet, it is a deeper examination of the way creative influences sift through a writer’s own process of literary development. The two men first met in 1946, when the latter was barely twenty years-old and, as Jaccottet recounts, he imagines that, though he said nothing, the older man likely had his reservations about his youthful lyric enthusiasms. Nonetheless, a friendship between them would form and continue for over forty years. When Ponge died in 1988 at the age of 89, Jaccottet was among the mourners at his funeral in a rustic graveyard in Nîmes. It is with his reflections that day—a piece intended to stand alone—that this small, special book has its origin.

The funeral was a modest affair on a bright summer day, but it was not one without qualities that seem to Jaccottet oddly fitting for his friend. The pastor arrived quietly by bicycle and chose to recite the 23rd Psalm beside the family vault, “because the deceased was a poet.” King David’s ode to his heavenly shepherd and “green pastures” was followed by a simple reading of Ponge’s “The Meadow” by actor Christian Rist:

“Carried away suddenly by a sort of peaceful enthusiasm / In favor of a truth, today, which is green. . .” This kind of albeit distorted echo, over some thirty centuries, was thus perhaps even stranger and more striking than the rest (the vast, noble, abandoned cemetery and this burial, as if for an unknown person, of a writer so legitimately famous).

This juxtaposition sets the scene for Jaccottet’s homage to Ponge—a poet whose domain was the minute examination of the everyday—calling attention to his commitment to a “green truth” and the remarkable vigour with which he defended it. A sketch of a strong character, given to both “excessive intolerance” and “most generous enthusiasms” emerges, composed in the emotion of the moment of loss. It is not surprising, then, that despite the many formal arguments he had offered in praise of his friend over the years, Jaccottet felt a personal need to articulate what essentially separated him from Ponge’s work. So he started to write a follow up.

However, the expansion of this text into its final form was not an immediate or obvious project. In his Postface, written in 2013 when he was preparing for the original French publication, Jaccottet admits that he was not inclined to work his sentiments through to a natural end. Others encouraged him to think otherwise, but still he delayed, out of laziness or, perhaps, out of fear that entertaining his reservations might be disrespectful to a man he had continued to admire and think of with great affection. But this recognition of the complex interplay of influence and divergence, explored with a perspective stretching over more than two decades lends depth to this slender volume.

Jaccottet begins with a consideration of two of Ponges’ heroes: François de Malherbe (1555-1628), the French poet and critic who insisted on strict form, restraint and purity of expression, and composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) whom Ponge proclaimed as the artist who interested him more than any other with a style “of the kind that awakens: male, energetic, and  ardent.” If these men spoke to the inspiration that charged his friend, Jaccottet takes care to look at how his own response and tendencies diverge. As he moves on to discuss the way their approaches to writing start from contrasting points of view or ways of looking—one precise and object-oriented, the other lyrical trial-and error experimentation open to the “fleeting impression.” However, even if the origin and ends differ, he can acknowledge that his thinking on questions, such as the “enigma of purity” has been influenced by Ponge’s concern with that which is “pure” or “true.” One’s questing can be furthered, after all, in discourse with those whose creative inclinations deviate from one’s own. And throughout this text, Jaccottet is careful to reiterate his respect and fondness for Ponge, a feeling that he is assured in reviewing the volume of correspondence they exchanged over the years, was returned.

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies offers a tribute and a uniquely honest, yet sensitive critique. Jaccottet writes very thoughtfully, entertaining ideas about poetry, death, and the particular dynamics of the relationship between himself and Ponge in a manner that does not require a deep familiarity with the work of either man. In this regard, the extensive footnotes, based on Jaccottet’s own but expanded by translator John Taylor, are helpful and informative. I will confess that I have acquired more than a few volumes of Jaccottet’s work over the years, but until this time I’ve not seriously engaged with any, feeling, perhaps, a little intimidated or uncertain where to start. This book has ignited my interest and opened the door or, as Jacottet might say, a crack in that wall.

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies by Philippe Jaccottet is translated by John Taylor and published by Black Square Editions.

The seasons of love and death: The Year by Tomas Espedal

When something hurts
you shouldn’t avoid it
no
you should meet the worst
with all your weakness
and allow yourself to be destroyed.
You should seek out loneliness
to feel that you are alone
to feel that you are desolate
to feel that you have loved
to feel the love
that can obliterate you entirely.

Norwegian writer Tomas Espedal’s uniquely autobiographical fiction rests close to his own life. From one work to the next, his narrator, ever aging as he does, is restlessly questing, his explorations at once intimate and yet maintaining a certain personal distance, or opaqueness. In his last book, Bergeners, his protagonist, nearing fifty, is seeking to understand the meaning of home as he tries to adjust to both the departure of his adult daughter and the unexpected loss of his girlfriend. He wanders the streets of his hometown and travels abroad, but cannot escape the deep loneliness that settles into his bones. Now, with The Year, his most recent work to be released in English, a few years have passed but Espedal’s fictional Tomas has been unable to let go of his love for his former girlfriend, Janne, and now, wondering if he is destined to spend the rest of his life alone, he seeks advice from another man who loved only one woman, from his first sight of her to the end of his life—Francesco Petrarch.

Thus, The Year begins on a meditative, melancholy note. Our narrator states that he wants to write a book about love, with the initial objective to record the events of each day for an entire year. Ah, but where to start? He decides upon the sixth of April, which is, appropriately, the day in 1327 when Petrarch first set eyes on his beloved Laura, the date in 1348 that she died, and the framework within which he structured the 366 poems that comprise his great Canzonniere—his celebration of his boundless affection for the woman he loved so faithfully, from afar and forever. So, on the sixth of April, seven centuries later, another lovelorn man is making his way by train to Avignon, and then by foot to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse to stay for a time near the house that Petrarch built there. And we are with him, riding along on the flow of his thoughts. Bergeners combined a mix of fragmented poetry and prose, but The Year is a novel written entirely in free verse, a compulsively readable style that very effectively captures the protagonist’s reflective, frequently repetitive and increasingly neurotic consciousness.

Having already spent a year immersing himself in Petrarch’s writing, the narrator is on a sort of pilgrimage. If the Italian poet could love so completely and purely, he must have known something about living with the one he loved. After several weeks living in the area, it is time for him to approach the master directly. On Easter Sunday, an imagined encounter and walk along the river occurs, echoing the Petrarch’s imagined discourse with Saint Augustine recorded in his deeply personal Secretum. They even stop at a café where the narrator’s ghostly companion challenges him, accuses him of being banal, and shares some of the wisdom the saint disclosed to him. Still, the unanswerable question remains: How is it possible that love remains, year after year, even after the one you love has left you and hurt you so deeply? How?

After tracing and retracing Petrarch’s steps and agonizing over his peculiar predicament and the way it has left him emotionally paralyzed, it is time for the protagonist to move on. There’s a writer’s festival to attend in Montpellier where he drinks heavily, has a brief encounter with a woman, and escapes from the hotel the moment she starts to talk about catching up with him once he is back home in Norway. He catches the first southbound train. The atmosphere and mood has shifted.

There’s nothing better than being inebriated
on a fast train at such high speed racing away
from everything you’ve done as a stranger
in a strange city it’s almost
as if you’d never been there I say
aloud and drink some wine
write in my notebook I’m back
to normality writing and drinking
on a journey on the train
the first of May
under way
to or from
it makes no difference
it’s good to be on the move
it’s good to be nobody.

In Barcelona he has arranged to meet his father, for a time panicked that he won’t find him among the mass of tourists arriving, then disappointed to see how old he looks when he does. Together they board a luxury cruise ship, a self-contained city of its own where the days pass, their calendar designations blurring. Our middle-aged narrator seems to view his father with a mix of admiration and contempt. The older man, who has lived by himself since his wife died seventeen years earlier, now clearly shows the weight of his age. This triggers a range of complicated emotions in his son who is secretly fretting about his own life unfolding empty and alone to the end. When, sitting in the ship’s casino, his father says something he knows well—all my life I’ve loved just one woman—the truth suddenly hits home:

He’s always been what I shall become.
All my life I’ve loved just one
woman they’re my father’s words and
they’re Petrarch’s words in a letter
to Boccaccio
and as I’d searched for Petrarch’s history
I had without knowing it
searched for my father’s history
I’d searched for a love story
which I thought was my own.
I’d searched for my father
here he sits
and I hardly see him at all.

I know only too well
why I don’t see him
it’s because I
resemble him.

Father and son, hard-headed, each with a fighter’s instincts and a stubborn inability to let go of love, are an odd, yet endearing pair. The narrator cannot help measuring himself against his father, for better and worse. The dynamics of their relationship plays out while we learn more about the circumstances that led to Janne’s leaving and discover our protagonist is nursing not only an unhealed broken heart but an unresolved grievance. The tension rises as he hatches a plan to resolve it.

The Year is book that, by virtue of its internalized poetic narrative, moves swiftly, swirling around a core set of ideas or, shall we say, obsessions, but shifting and changing shape along the way. In the early pages I took a little time out to glance sideways into Petrarch’s life and writing, but as the narrator’s short pilgrimage draws to a close one soon comes to understand that although he can be meditative and thoughtful, he can also be neurotic, edgy, and a man with a tendency to drink too much. Through this year, spring to autumn, Petrarch continues to surface, as does the initial reflective tone and, amid the ongoing questioning of life, love and death, profound, wide-reaching observations are raised, anchoring Espedal’s work, as ever, in the world in which we all exist.

The Year by Tomas Espedal is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.

A special type of perception: Responses · Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář

I first encountered the work of Jiří Kolář (1914-2002), one of the most important poet/visual artists in post-war Europe—a man for whom the two descriptors very often went hand in hand—through A User’s Manual, first published in English translation in 2019. This intentional pairing of his so-called “action poems” written in the 1950s and 60s with collages from the series “Weekly 1967” was originally published together in 1969 and reproduced handsomely by excellent Prague-based indie press Twisted Spoon. Now, with the release of Responses · Kafka’s Prague, another of the Czech artist‘s idiosyncratic pairings, an intriguing overview of his opinions and reflections on the intersection of literature and art is set against a collection of his distinct “crumplages.” Again it makes for an unusual yet beautifully presented volume which also speaks to his creative processing as displayed in both this and A User’s Manual.

Responses is a sort of one-sided investigation, or what Kolář called an “imaginary interview,” a set of seventy-one answers without questions. Compiled in Prague and Paris in 1973, the topics covered include the development of his artistic sensibility, the writers, artists and movements that had an influence on him, and a discussion of technique. It has a thoughtful, conversational, musing-out-loud sort of feel and a sense of direction that is not explicit or artificial but gives the work a natural flow.

From the outset,  Kolář makes it clear that he sees art as part of the “general drive toward universal knowledge” and as such there can be nothing extrinsically new that is not a departure from that which is already innate to the practice. Art and literature are disciplines that do not create anything new so much as they create new ways of looking at (and using) what is already there, a “special type of perception.” As in science, artists are engaged in exploration and investigation, and those he admires, such as Mallarmé and those who followed in his footsteps, are those who become dissatisfied with the status quo. For Kolář this leads him to analyze and reflect upon what various poets were doing with language, and ultimately realize he had to dismantle language itself:

For me the destruction of poetic language followed the same path and the same type of perception as did a new and different perception in other disciplines. As I’ve already said, this is primarily the case in [modern] music and the visual arts. I was speaking about a type of perception — what I mean is that I couldn’t keep seeking poetry in the written word. I had to go beyond the written word. It meant finding another, living language.

There is a distinct restlessness to Kolář’s self-described poetic and artistic evolution, accentuated by the casual style of this particular discourse, but then he was working in trying times. Deemed publicly undesirable by the Communist government in Czechoslovakia he spent time in prison, saw the publication of much of his work delayed, and would eventually end up living in exile. Responses, however, is not concerned with political revolution, but rather with his artistic interests and endeavours, past and current. As translator Ryan Scott points out in his Translator’s Note, this work “should not be read as Kolář’s final word but as capturing a particular moment in time amid his creative flux.” Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting look into an original creative mind.

Kolář’s international reputation rests largely on his innovative collage techniques. He is so fond of printed materials—newspapers, letters, tickets, receipts—not only as raw materials but for the moment-in-timeness captured in them that one wonders how he would have adapted artistically to our increasingly digital environment. The present volume contains a series of “cumplages” constructed from photographs of buildings and landmarks in Prague, paired with brief quotes from Kafka’s writings. In these images, the shapes and angles of the structures are distorted, twisted and bent out of shape. The effect is quite striking and perfectly “Kafkaesque.” The process follows a specific routine, starting with moistened paper:

Crumpling must be done fast and carefully, and it’s difficult to predict results with this technique because it’s always the brother of chance. Because the moist paper is crumpled and the work has to be finished fast, hardly any adjusting can be done.

Later on he mentions that his “best crumplages were created from reproductions that readers had coloured themselves.” He delights in the touches human hands have left behind coming through in his art. Among the thirty-four images employed in Kafka’s Prague are buildings directly associated with the writer’s life, and other structures Kafka would have known well. (You can get a sense of the book here.) To have this work so beautifully reproduced in this book is a treat in itself, together with Responses it is an enriched experience.

Responses · Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář is translated from the Czech by Ryan Scott and published by Twisted Spoon Press.

Saying farewell to 2021 with some of the books I loved and best wishes for the future

If 2020 was the year that my ability to read and write felt the numbing impact of a medicated mind, 2021 was the year I had to decide what was really important. My mind is still medicated, but with a drug that does not leave me mentally spongy like the one that I lived on for more than a year. There are pros and cons with any maintenance drug, but I realized that, all things considered, I was better off with the devil I know than the one that was pulling me under. So, by mid-September I began to feel a welcoming release from the haze I’d been struggling against and it became easier to engage fully with literature once again. My reading never stopped, of course, it only slowed, and as I gather my thoughts on my favourite books of 2021, I can see that half of the works I remember most fondly were read in the first two-thirds of the year. But I will admit that every review I wrote during that time was painful, as if pulling my own words together to talk about the words of others was a huge task. In the end, reading only feels like a complete activity if I can articulate a response to each book, regardless of whether it comes out in a “review” of some sort. It is only now that my capacity to read has been restored do I realize how truly impaired it was.

With 2021 and all its global and personal challenges slipping into the rear view mirror, I wanted to take a moment to consider my favourites of the books I read this year. I skipped this readerly ritual last year and, as ever, I am troubled by the fact that each such list necessarily leaves out so many excellent works because, quite honestly, if I am not enjoying a book I rarely feel inclined to finish it, let alone write about it here. So with that in mind, but sticking to a strict ten titles, here’s my contribution to the discussion.

First, my top three. One will be no surprise to anyone who follows my blog: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta (tr. by Teresa Lavendar-Fagan). Probably the last book I read before transitioning off the troublesome medication, this imagining of the final moments of Osip Mandelstam against a tight, poetic flight back through his life thrilled me with its confident sense that sometimes less truly is more. In the reading I would regularly stop to think: How did she say so much with so few words? This is the work of an accomplished, mature writer. Apart from singing this book’s praises at every opportunity on Twitter, I spoke about it about on this video and recommended it in the December issue of The Bangalore Review.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany (tr. by Robin Moger) is one of those books that defies classification—standing somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, it can best be considered an imaginative meditation on sleep and the sleeper that leans toward the philosophical in its grounding, but is unbound in its scope. Thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring.

Finally, I read some amazing poetry this year and as usual I found my limited formal understanding of the literary form a barrier to confident articulation of a response, but with Lost, Hurt, and in Transit Beautiful by Nepali-Indian Anglophone poet, Rohan Chhetri, I just wanted to scream READ THIS BOOK! It has disappointed me to see that this collection seems to have been under-appreciated in its US release (it was published simultaneously in India) because it is not only accessible, but gorgeous, and shockingly violent. Stunning.

The balance of my top ten (in the order that stacked best for the sake of a photograph) are:

If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani (tr. by Elizabeth Harris), is the story of a young Italian man who travels to Romania to attend to the affairs of his deceased mother from whom he has been long estranged. It presents a simmering, spare narrative—the kind of read that I responded to especially well with reduced focus and concentration—that resists the need for any tight resolution.

Outgoing Vessel by experimental Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen (tr. Katrine Ogaard Jensen) is perhaps a little more brittle and restrained than Third-Millenium Heart but once again her work takes you on an operatic post-human, yet humane, adventure. Excellent.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (tr. by Robin Moger) offers a different kind of adventure into an otherworldly Egypt that is very much informed by a fragmented post-Arab Spring reality. Hard to follow at first, yet fun to read, with much uncertain resolution.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott (tr. by Karen Leeder). I had been saving this dreamy little volume, knowing that little of this Austrian poet’s work is available in English. The tale of one man’s relationships with three women, it is also a meditation on deserts and the search for home. Exactly the kind of undefinable book I treasure.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim (tr. by Isabel Fargo Cole) was an unexpected surprise. I’ve read almost all of his work available in translation, and was a little apprehensive about this novel, knowing that he is perhaps at his best in his meandering, surreal shorter works. But this much more conventional narrative featuring another iteration of the classic Hilbig protagonist felt somehow closer to the man himself—a hard drinking, socially awkward, reluctant literary “star” who cannot find a home on either side of the Wall.

With The Promise, South African writer Damon Galgut has finally won the Booker Prize after three nominations and somehow I fear that certain readers might eschew this book because he won this prize (yes we literary folk are a fickle lot). I have long been a fan, and although this book will never replace some of his smaller, quieter efforts in my heart, The Promise is a sweeping portrait of four decades of South African history through the lens of a mischievous high modernist narrator who is by turns, funny, caustic and clever.

And last, but not least, I was offered an opportunity to read a couple of fascinating MIT Press titles by virtue of ending up on a publicist list, and without that I would never have stumbled across Sandfuture by Justin Beal. This is one of those unlikely hybrid essays—a biography of Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Centre that is also a reflection on art, illness, urban planning and more—and it works remarkably well. I had so much fun reading and writing about this book that I can only hope that it comes to the attention of the audience it deserves.

For the New Year, I have no specific reading intentions, aside from a small winter project to read some Norwegian literature—no particular reason, I just have a few things piling up and it seems a suitable goal for the cold, dark  months ahead. I’m also hoping to ease back into writing again after a dry spell. Ideas are starting to trickle to the surface, I’ll see if they lead me anywhere. And otherwise I will probably continue my idiosyncratic literary meanderings and savour the ability to read at a faster, yet deeper pace than I was at this time last year.

Oh yeah, and if travel feels feasible again, I hope I might be able to pack my bags and catch up with distant friends by the time this old earth makes its way around the sun once more.  May you be warm, well, and have plenty of light to read by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

Words are rocky tears: Alphabets of Sand by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta

Where do words come from?
from what rubbing of sounds are they born
on what flint do they light their wicks
what winds brought them into our mouths

Their past is the rustling of stifled silences
the trumpeting of molten elements
the grunting of stagnant waters

– from “Words”

My first encounter with Vénus Khoury-Ghata was with her novella, The Last Days of Mandelstam, a spare, poignant portrait of the Russian poet’s life and lonely death that I read several months ago. It left me keen to explore her poetry and prose further. I soon discovered that American poet and translator Marilyn Hacker has released translations of several collections of her poetry and one novella, so, uncertain where to begin, I opted for the evocatively titled Alphabets of Sand (2009) from UK publisher, Carcanet. A wise choice it turns out, because this collection draws on material from three of Hacker’s earlier US translations along with an insightful introduction.

If poets dwell in language, Khoury-Ghata exists in a world threaded with letters of alphabets scattered like sand in the wind or like stars cast against the blackness of the sky. Born in Beruit in 1937, into a French-speaking Maronite Christian family, the dual French and Arabic cultural and linguistic influences of her childhood animate her poetry and colour the world that she imagines—a place filled with magic and marred by misery. Although she has lived in Paris since 1972, much of her writing looks back to the country of her birth and its tragic history.

Alphabets of Sand gathers five poems or sequences and selections from a sixth. The title of this collection comes from the wonderful piece “Words” which plays with and celebrates language as a primal life form, born and nurtured in the soils of the continents of the earth, taking shape, searching for and finding tongues, mouths and speakers to breathe words into being. As such, language is a collaborative magic between nature and humankind:

Language at that time was a straight line reserved for birds
the letter ‘i’ was the cleft of a hummingbird
‘h’ a ladder with one rung necessary to replace a charred sun before nightfall
‘o’ a hole in the sole of the universe

Unlike the consonants with their rough garments
the vowels were naked
all the weaver’s art consisted of humouring them
in the evening they counted each other to make sure no one was missing
in the rocky countries men slept without dreaming

Khoury-Ghatta’s native Arabic and French speak to one another in the course of this sequence, their respective alphabets moving from left to right and right to left, but the Word she evokes, belongs to neither language but to all languages living and lost.

As translator Marilyn Hacker describes it: “Khoury-Ghatta’s work bridges the anti-lyrical surrealist tradition which has informed modern French poetry since Baudelaire, and the parabolic and communal narrative with its (we might say Homeric) repetitions of metaphors and semi-mythic tropes of poetry in Arabic.” She writes, as she herself puts it, “in Arabic through the French language.” The confluence of these traditions is especially evident in the poetry collected here. “The Darkened Ones,” for example, written during the 2006 war in Lebanon, adopts a communal voice of unfathomable depth—a chorus of women speaking to generations of the dead, displaced and disrupted—echoing the unanswered questions that accompany the sorrow and pain of senseless conflict.

An idiosyncratic personal mythology permeates the most powerful works here, a magical sense of place that pays tribute to a world where ghosts mingle with a shifting present. “The Seven Honeysuckle Sprigs of Wisdom” paints a portrait—by turns affectionate, coarse and funny—of the eccentric cast of characters who people a village where time is “in a hurry,” but the river “turns back toward its source.” The hairdresser, cemetery caretaker, beggar, shepherdess, prostitute, schoolmasters and others appear, alongside saints and spirits and a host of struggles and dreams.

However, it is the sequence of poems from “Early Childhood” that carry, for me, the most weight and shimmering energy. Central to these pieces, most of which are dedicated to individuals including the author’s sister, the writer May Ménassa, is an enigmatic mother figure:

I write Mother
and an old woman arises in the uncertainty of evening
slips into a wedding dress
stands on tiptoe on her windowsill
calls out to the hostile city
addresses the haughty tribe of streetlights
bares her chest to the clocks
shows them the precise site of her sorrow
disrobes gently for fear of creasing her wrinkles
and unsettling the air

My mother had her own way of undressing
as one would strip the medals from a disgraced general

The poems that comprise this sequence move from a familial to a wider universal sense of mother as teacher, keeper of wisdoms and memory. Language again features prominently, not simply as a alphabets deciphered in books, but as read in nature:

The books we browsed in came from the forest that watched us read
from the peeled bark’s shriek which continued under the pages’ skin
We read in the darkness of August
when the galaxy disposed of its excess stars
when, without  margins, night stretched itself out until night.

As presented, the lasting sensation that this collection leaves me with is one of the kindling of a connection with the roots of Khoury-Gatta’s poetic sensibility. Her love of language and her comfort with repeated metaphor—dead leaves, pebbles, wind, streetlights, stars, trees, alphabets—make sense within the context of her dual language, culturally rich upbringing. Again, I am left wanting to read more and know more. Now in her 80s, she has many honours and an extensive body of work to her name, most of which is yet to be translated into English. Nonetheless, I plan to explore more of what is out there in the new year.

Alphabets of Sand by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta is translated by Marilyn Hacker and published by Carcanet Press.

Retracing a snowy path into the past: Twelve Nights by Urs Faes

It seemed to him that a story told, a story from the past, would never truly fade once it had moved someone. The act of remembering, of reading, was like a return, a homecoming into a story. He was never closer to himself than in the remembered and read.

When I made note of this book last year, I imagined it making a nice pleasant read to fill some of that melancholy time around Christmas and I was not wrong. However, there were several things I had not anticipated. This year, as the holiday drew near, with my cat recovering from surgery, my son started drinking heavily, and all of our modest plans started to unravel. Then, once I started reading, the book itself suddenly seemed more timely than I had expected—I was unaware of the superstition, central to the narrative, that the days between Christmas and Epiphany were traditionally seen as a time of hauntings by evil spirits in parts of Europe, nor was I prepared for the bitter darkness that lay at the heart of this simple tale of a man returning to the Black Forest valley, to the home he had fled decades earlier. Thus, while snow fell outside and temperatures plummeted into the minus thirties Celsius, Twelve Nights, by Swiss writer Urs Faes, became a suitably sombre companion for a holiday more sombre than I’d hoped for.

At a scant 84 pages, this novella moves with the economy and steadily building tension of a well-crafted short story. As Manfred, back home after years in an unnamed distant land, wanders through the winter landscape of his youth, his ruminations gradually reveal what he thinks he knows and what he doesn’t want to face. The snow falls and a cold wind blows. Travelling back through a remembered past, the scenery and weather frame his musings. He has long been estranged from his younger brother Sebastian who, for reasons Manfred can neither understand nor accept, was chosen to inherit the family farm and, in doing so, won the hand of the woman he had loved. Now, so many years later, his parents and his beloved Minna are all dead and Sebastian lives the life of a recluse, while the self-exiled son still carries vestiges of his grief and rage that no amount of time can heal:

He had thought he could hear a humming, wings beating, a whimper drifting up from the valley across the treetops, into this frosty stillness which became entangled in his clothes, penetrating his skin; freezing what was inside him, as though even his heart were turning to ice.

Manfred wants to see his brother again, hoping for what, he isn’t sure—reconciliation, perhaps? There is, as we learn, more to this desired and uncertain reunion. A motivation that drives the returning brother, and an act of violence, buried in the past, that may not be forgivable. These facts are revealed, with only the required detail and much open space, yet it is impossible not to recognize one’s own complicated and conflicted holiday emotions in the longing, sadness, anger and guilt that haunt the protagonist. This is a season that carries a lot of weight for many of us. Twelve Nights captures that mood, but does so with solemn beauty and hope. An ideal read for a stressful time.

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes is translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle and published by Harvill Secker.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

“Dignity is the heaviest thing in a man”: Slipping by Mohamed Kheir

Alexandria’s aging buildings sagged into one another, yellowed and peeling. They were set back from the road on ether side, and between them lay a great network of streetcar lines, crossing and recrossing like a tracery of veins. Bahr picked up a path through the tracks, and cautiously I followed. I followed him over rail after rail, while he kept his gaze fixed on the ground as though trying to marry a memory to what he saw.

Suddenly, he stopped, whispered, “Here!” and tugged at me so that I was standing upright, directly behind him. Then I heard it, the distant but distinctive metallic tick of streetcar wheels approaching, and as that grew louder, an identical ticking, echoing the first, started to close in from somewhere behind us.

The most important thing you need to know before entering the slippery, shifting world of Mohamed Kheir’s novel Slipping—his second published but first translated into English—is that it is, in the words of translator Robin Moger, “a book about not knowing what’s going on.” If you are the type of reader who feels most comfortable when you have, or at least believe you have, a firm grasp on what is happening and where you are going beware that, in the world Kheir invites you into, reality is an uncertain quantity from the opening pages through to the final chapters where some threads are picked up in unexpected ways while others, even the ones that felt most secure, are loosened, untied, rewound. But if you are open to a book that, to quote Moger again, “teaches you how to read it,” Slipping is an exhilarating journey into a fragmented, dreamlike vision of Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring.

The opening chapters unfold like a series of unfinished vignettes as new characters and scenarios are introduced only to disappear, not resurfacing until much later as the narrative is building toward a close. The overall effect is similar to a nested narrative, but with an amorphous, magical quality that burs the edges of the experience throughout. I was inclined to take careful notes at the beginning, like leaving a trail of bread crumbs, a practice I soon abandoned. Likewise I have noticed that other reviewers have taken pains to sketch the initial “unfinished” stories, only to slip ahead to the end to indicate how the thread is picked up. That creates a spoiler effect of sorts, in so much as one can “spoil” a book that leaves many questions unanswered even after the final page is finished. But for a novel filled with ghosts, disappearances, magic and mystery it is strangely fitting—especially because painfully real circumstances like protests that turn into riots, police brutality, mass migration and exile, ground this alternate-Egypt in the harsh realities of a recent past.

The core narrative driving Slipping is revealed gradually. The first chapter introduces Ahmed, a young man whose deceased father holds a commanding presence over his household from beyond the grave, informing his wife and son how he wants things done—even what he wants to have prepared for dinner. Other early chapters entertain the unusual predicaments of a waylaid bridegroom, a doctor, a singer and other individuals and communities. The only recurring figures are Bahr, an old, almost ageless man who has returned to Egypt after many years of exile with a mission to revisit a number of mysterious locations, and Seif, the journalist who has been assigned to accompany him and report on his observations. Their adventures, as narrated by Seif, first appear as alternate chapters before coming to carry the flow of the central portion of the book.

Together they visit spaces where reality intersects with the unexpected, such as the “safe point” in the railyard described above where two ancient streetcars pass within inches of where they are standing or a location where for a brief time each day the level of the Nile drops to a few inches, allowing transit from one side to another, or a neighbourhood in Cairo where the risk of falling corpse flowers keeps the streets quiet or an abandoned village emptied when the residents decided to travel north by boat in search of a better life on another continent. Seif’s account is not chronological or even entirely clear or consistent. Amid the details of the strange places his companion leads him to, he weaves memories of his lost lover, Alya, an enigmatic and gifted woman with an uncanny ability to sing any sound—the sea, the rain, the wind—and Bahr’s own stories of his life in Egypt and abroad.

Both men’s lives have been personally impacted by protests and political violence and their country is, as they piece their way through it, distorted in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Likewise, the protagonists of the other various storylines also find themselves in a world at once peopled by ghosts and caught within an increasingly surreal bureaucratic nightmare. As the book’s final sections near, earlier stories approach apparent conclusions that seem to raise further possibilities, while what we think we understand of Seif and Bahr’s journey becomes less clear. Slipping, is a work that seamlessly slips between tales, weaving a mesmerizing blend of magic and mystery to craft a fable resting on a foundation of unpleasant truths that leaves much to ponder.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir is translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger and published by Two Line Press.

We mourn us: Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza

I don’t quite know where to begin to attempt to write about this book. The historical roots and global and economic crosscurrents that course through the so-called War on Drugs that has openly threatened the fabric of Mexican society since 2006 go back much further. Yet, as I understand it, when President Felipe Calderón sent troops to his home state in a bid to end the longstanding drug violence there, the action initiated the ongoing conflict between the government and the drug cartels, that has effectively brought an unspeakable brutality out of the margins and into the daily lives of the country’s citizens. It has become a war against the Mexican people, and a war against women.

Cristina Rivera Garza’s hybrid essay collection Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country gathers twenty-eight pieces—some personal, some journalistic, some literary—as a tribute to the power of language in the face of unrelenting fear and violence, and at times her words leave you gasping for breath. It is not a comfortable read. She writes about the barrage of visceral attacks that reduce human beings to unrecognizable bodies, tortured and mutilated, and of the killings, targeted and incidental, that rob mothers of their children, communities of their respected members, families of loved ones. And she writes about femicide, the murder of women, that too often goes unpunished. Like that of her own sister.

But what to do? How to address this accumulating pain, the pain of an entire people? Grieving in this context is not a mere process of coming to terms, to peace with a loss. There is no peace, the losing is relentless, the grief exponential. In Rivera Garza’s passionate, gut wrenching Introduction she speaks of the importance of recognizing the shared experience, the shared voice:

When everything falls silent, when the gravity of the facts far surpasses our understanding and even our imagination, then there it is—ready, open, stammering, injured, babbling—the language of pain, the pain we share with others.

And this is the importance of suffering, for where suffering lies, so, too, does grieving: the deep sorrow that binds us within emotional communities willing and able to face life anew, even if it means, or especially when it means, radically revising and altering the world we share. There, where suffering lies, so, too, does the political imperative to say, You pain me, I suffer with you, I grieve myself with you. We mourn us.

The texts that follow include published and unpublished essays, poems and crónicas, Spanish pieces translated Sarah Booker along with some originally written in English. For admirers of her enigmatic, dark novels like The Iliac Crest and the Taiga Syndrome, Grieving offers an opportunity to hear the acclaimed Mexican author speak directly to the tragic state of her country with painful honesty, strength and hope.

The works that comprise this collection are varied and relatively short, but the intensity of the material may be best processed and appreciated by taking a few pieces at a time. As someone with little understanding of the political reality of present day Mexico—awareness of the gruesome violence and the dangers to citizens and, at times, visitors, yes, but limited comprehension of the dynamics at play—I was continually faced with my own instinctive reaction to the idea of living under the conditions in which so many Mexicans find themselves on a daily basis. Rivera Garza’s language is powerful, poetic, but so much of what she touches on is grim, raw and heartbreaking. A central unifying construct is her notion of The Visceraless State—one that lacks political acknowledgement of the human body and its individual subjectivity—arguing that by engaging in this mis-named Drug War, the Mexican government has placed maximum profits above its obligations and responsibilities to its own citizens.

Essay collections are sometimes weighed down by a degree of sameness, a feeling that the same or similar themes are being rehashed, rather than viewed anew as the work progresses. Although Grieving is an attempt to articulate the present situation in Mexico, it is not an explicitly historical or journalistic effort. It is, rather, a human response, from a woman who is not just a reader and a writer, but  “a mother and a daughter and a sister. A grieving sister.” Rivera Garza is writing from within her personal experiences, offering astute intellectual observances only as needed. The result is an eclectic, thematically focused exploration, yet one that picks up refrains, images and stories, calling on them again and again through the course of the book.

This is, then, a work that cannot be easily summarized. I was fascinated by several of the pieces that spoke about books not yet translated into English and their authors’ perspectives and contributions to an understanding of forces at play—not just in Mexico but in other analogous situations in social and political history. Cruelty and inhumanity is not the sole domain of any particular time or place. But there are a few key pieces that I found especially powerful. “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life” examines the impact of drug based violence on youth through testimonies contained in a volume called Estos últimos años en Ciudad Juárez (2020) which looks at the recent period in Ciudad Juarez, a city on the Rio Grande, south of El Paso, Texas, and the price paid by the people there. Rivera Garza frames the lived reality:

No survives a war unscathed. Just as rivers feed nearby land by virtue of their mere existence, wounds run deep and pain seeps through every inch of the body. No action, no word, no gesture is unconnected to war. Similarly, actions and words and gestures remain linked to a growing alertness, a critical consciousness, about the sources of tragedy and loss. There are laments in the book, but they are never disassociated from the rage and indignation against a Visceraless State and the profit-making cartels. Wounded and on their toes at the same time, the people who remember their youth in a war-ravaged Ciudad Juárez, while still, in many cases, confronting the damage brought upon them by forces larger than their own, speak directly and to the point: We were robbed, many testify. They robbed us of our youth, indeed, but more importantly, they robbed us of our future.

Another especially powerful entry that again takes us back to Ciudad Juárez is “The Longest Sunday.” This essay recounts, in 13 brief numbered segments or chapters, a day Rivera Garza spent in the city. She is heading there to meet a woman whose testimony was included in the volume discussed in the piece mentioned above (which appears in any earlier part of Grieving). Luz Mariá Dávila had lost her only two sons in a violent massacre in 2010. Their meeting is sensitively portrayed. But this visit also brings to the surface the author’s own anxiety before arriving in a city that occupies “a sadly privileged place in our geographies of contemporary horror” to which increasing reports of femicides had also been added:

I remember the wide streets, empty of people, the string of abandoned houses that lined the road all the way from the airport to the hotel. A black hole in the very heart of the city. An immovable immobility. That way of repeatedly looking over your shoulder like you were expecting the worst, sure it would come at any second.

Her account unfolds under the quiet burden of grief, of pain, carried not simply in the story of one grieving mother’s sorrow and stubborn resolve, but in the complex emotions that Rivera Garza wrestles with under the “overwhelmingly blue sky” on that Sunday in Ciudad Juárez.

This is just a very brief sampling of this vital collection. For a taste of the intensity and insight, Rivera Garza brings to her essay writing, I can point you to a slightly different edit of the second last piece in this work which I had the great honour to publish in the spring of 2020 when I was an editor with 3:AM Magazine. Written in the early days of the pandemic when Trump was still President, “Touching is a Verb: The Hands of the Pandemic and Its Inescapable Questions” is not only an ever relevant meditation on the impact of COVID-19 on our relationships but a cautiously optimistic look ahead to the possibility of a Visceral State. It can be found here. Only time will tell what more questions and answers the pandemic will bring, but hope must be maintained, against all odds.

Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza is translated by Sarah Booker and published by Feminist Press.

To fall with grace and compassion: A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving by Katie Farris

I know people who shy away from poetry for fear that they will not know what it means, as if a prerequisite of appreciating poetry is an intimacy with style and form and an inexhaustible knowledge of that which came before lest an influence be mistaken or missed in the reading. So, here is a collection to assuage that fear, a small book that can be met by anyone. Paradoxically it is accessible precisely because it chronicles an experience, a reality, that we all fear—a diagnosis that so many of us have known, if not intimately, then in a friend or loved one.

In the miraculously titled A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving, Katie Farris invites us to walk alongside her, as she ventures into hell, so that we can know, as she is determined to believe, that even in the midst of hell, there are things that are not hell. Her words, lines, poems, bruised against the flesh of living, become an offering, an answer to a terrifying uncertainty, a string of songs that speak to her journey, expose her joys, and catch her falling body in their shadows. Love poetry to a burning world.

Here’s a shot between
the eyes: Six days before
my thirty-seventh birthday,
a stranger called and said,
You have cancer. Unfortunately.
Then hung up the phone.
– from “Tell It Slant”

This slender chapbook is her response to the third stage breast cancer that is staking a claim on her body, tracing the shock of diagnosis, the invasion of surgery, the toll of treatment. Unflinching and honest, this collection of poems speaks with an awareness only illness can heighten.

For Farris the experience of cancer seems less of an inward looking process, but rather one of looking and extending outward, into the world. Which might, appear at first glance, counter-intuitive. She turns to her husband, wondering about the balance of intimacy and caregiving, if a “slow / sweet collapse into / oneness” has its limits, and yet discovering, to her surprise, that mid-chemotherapy she wants sex:

Philosexical, soft and
Gentle, a real
Straight fucking, rhymed
Or metrical—whatever
You’ve got, I’ll take it.
Just so long as we’re naked.

Poetry itself is also a comfort, a companion, as one might expect and, at this time, it is Emily Dickinson with whom she develops a special friendship, if you like. Echoes of her idiosyncratic spirit may be heard. “Emiloma: A Riddle & an Answer” playfully addresses Dickinson, alternately with questions directed to her own condition and treatment. The kind of questions that evade comforting responses:

Will you be
my death, Emily?
Today I placed
your collected poems
over my breast, my heart
knocking fast
on your front cover.

*

Will you be
my death, chemo?
The shell of my self
in the sphere of time
plucking, plucking
the wool of my hair
from its branches.

But, perhaps one of the most powerful elements in this collection, one that speaks to me in particular in relation to illness and healing, is her engagement with the natural world, with images of trees and birds. In front of the Atlanta Cancer Center she ponders whether we arose in imitation of trees, longing for roots and raising our arms like branches, while another poem contemplates the strangeness of survival, of standing “in the forest of being alive.” It is, however, in the closing poem, “What Would Root” that she finally gives herself to that forest, a reconnecting with a vivid, corporeal recognition of being one with nature—the water, the soil, the roots and branches—however tenuous or complete the journey is. In just 37 pages, this chapbook, is evidence that when the world is falling apart, writing love poetry may just be the best defense.

A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving by Katie Farris is the winner of the 2021 Chad Walsh Chapbook Prize and published by Beloit Poetry Journal.

I want to be ordinary: Special Needs by Lada Vukić

On the surface, Special Needs by Croatian writer, Lada Vukić, appears to be a simple and straightforward story, told by a boy who does not engage with the world the way others do. He knows he is different. Special. And he does not like it. His classmates taunt him, his teacher barely tolerates him, and his aunt suffers him without affection. His single mother struggles to support the two of them by working as a seamstress for a manipulative, abusive boss, their nosy neighbour is alert to any sign of possible dysfunction, and a small-time drug dealer turns him into an unlikely accomplice. Lots of room for misunderstandings, the wisdom of the innocent, and maybe, if we’re lucky, a happy ending. Except that luck is in short supply for our hero and his mother, intimations of tragedy lie beneath the surface in an intriguing novel that succeeds on the uncommon strength of the perspective through which it unfolds.

I tend to be skeptical about child narrators who can veer too far toward the irritating or be exceptionally precocious. I am equally wary about narrators with some obvious emotional/cognitive impairment which often is imagined somewhere on the autism spectrum—which, in reality, is a very wide range. Put both together and the results can be a voice that is overly naive or unrealistically charmed. As the parent of two children with learning disabilities, one of whom also has mental health concerns, and as someone who has worked extensively with disabled populations from extreme physical and developmental disabilities to mental illness to a great variety of adult acquired brain injuries, I opened Special Needs with curious caution. And was immediately drawn to the narrative voice.

Born with an unspecified disability that others allude to but never name in his presence, ten year-old Emil is a selectively mute child with some deformation or inflexibility in his hands and feet. His reasoning is highly logical but on his own unique scale of understanding, to the point that he appears to others far less intelligent and intuitive than he is. The fact that words so often freeze in his mouth, adds to this perception. He believes he has problems with abstract thinking but rather he seems to lack a certain flexibility in some areas and an idiosyncratic frame of reference in others, often linked to his love of nature programing on television and an almost magical level of auditory acuity only his mother understands. He engages in some ritualistic behaviours and has an aversion to being touched. This cluster of qualities may or may not conform to any typical diagnosis but, if you work or live with disability, you know that there is no such thing as “typical,” or rather typically atypical. From Emil’s point of view, he is used to people failing to understand him, it’s a frustration he is quite capable of articulating if not verbally expressing. But what he really longs to do more than anything is shed the heavy corrective shoes he is forced to wear, get a pair of trainers, and run. That is the dream he holds to.

You can’t buy my shoes in a shop. They’re not displayed in the shop window like other shoes. And they don’t have the logo of a famous brand. I get them from Uncle Mario. So, no Nikes, no Adidas, just – Uncle Mario. Who wants shoes called Uncle Mario? I mean, nobody normal. And I’m normal, though sometimes they say I’m not. First, he makes an imprint of my feet, which are then used to make the shoes. I’ve seen that he does the same with others, so I’m not the only one. There are others like me, with special feet. But that doesn’t mean anything to me because I don’t like being special. I want to be ordinary.

Life is difficult for Emil and his mother. He is teased at school and unable to perform as expected by his teacher. The only subject he really enjoys and in which he demonstrates an uncanny, if pragmatic, understanding is religious studies—a class he is only allowed to attend as a viewer. His mother is a woman whose faith, if she ever had any, has been tried and found wanting. She colourfully expresses her anger at the school’s lack of patience and appreciation of her son, but she is unable to afford any supports for him, has lost the natural social network she once enjoyed, and gets no empathy from her bitter, intolerant sister:

Auntie Zrinka told mum that she had only herself to blame for the situation she found herself in. No, nobody else was to blame, just her! What was happening to her now was the consequences of past mistakes. What mistakes? Clearly, those when she should have gotten rid of me in time. (?!) Alright, she saw that the words “get rid of” were too strong, what she meant was some sort of institution for children like me. (?!) And yes, how many times did she have to tell her that she was stupid because she wasn’t even asking the boy’s father for child support. (!?)

Emil’s super hearing allows him to eavesdrop on conversations he is not meant to hear, nor fully equipped to understand. He tries to connect the nonsensical facts as best he can. The larger implications are apparent to us as readers, but many details are left out. An incompleteness is allowed. Emil draws his conclusions, we draw ours. He is also granted, by virtue of his hypersensitive ears, an ability to hear the hearts of others crashing around in their chests in times of fear or excitement, and when he confesses that he has detected a second faint heartbeat in both his mother and his teacher, he inadvertently tosses a wrench into several lives at once. Emil’s extra-special special needs add an important quality that enhances the appeal of the story without reducing the reality of challenging circumstances and disadvantages that he and his mother face. Nor will it help avert tragedy.

Special Needs’ true strength is the tightly controlled narrative, preserved beautifully in Christina Pribichevich-Zorić’s confident translation. Vukić never loses the voice of her young protagonist, maintaining the authenticity and appeal of Emil and his uniquely matter-of-fact worldview, while letting his self-awareness to begin to slowly evolve as the story turns in an unexpected direction. This work, her first, which won the V.B.Z. award as the best unpublished novel of 2016, is steady, strong, and a subtly different take on the exceptional child narrator, one that may be of particular interest to those who have spent time with the extraordinary ordinary people who see the world in a way that exposes truths we so often pretend to ignore.

Special Needs by Lada Vukić is translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books.