Out on the streets of Kolkata: A little exploration

While my first twenty-four hours or so in the City of Joy were intense—a mixture of everything and nothing I’d imagined—I now, just over halfway through my stay, greet each day with a blend of ease and exhilaration. How quickly one slips into the rhythms, growing accustomed to the roar of traffic and bleating horns. With each venture out, I have found myself fitting into the flow, making my way through the congestion to explore the city. Every time I emerge from my residence out onto Sarat Bose Road, I am filled with a sense of enthusiasm about where my wandering will take me. I have kicked around by myself in strange towns and cities, from Alice Springs to Cape Town, but none as intensely engaging as Kolkata.

Of course, this is a city that refuses to stand by idly. It commands a degree of attention whenever you step out on to the streets, and I do mean on to the streets; one navigates the roadways on and off the sidewalks as need be, and crosses any significant intersection with caution. In some places, smartly dressed traffic controllers aid the safe passage across busy thoroughfares, but only to some effect. I’ve learned to line myself up with other pedestrians and rely on their instincts. But even those only go so far. I’ve seen one man so busy on his cellphone that a van backed up into him. Only slightly startled, he quickly regained his balance and continued both his journey up the side of the road and his conversation without skipping a beat.

Some seem to engage with the roadways with uncanny confidence. Naveen Kishore, the esteemed publisher of Seagull Books, for example, appears to command the unceasing stream of traffic on S.P Mukerghee like Moses parting the Red Sea. Making the same crossing on route between the Seagull School of Publishing and the offices with their newest editor, a recent arrival from Goa, is a more tenuous exercise. We get half way across and crouch in the middle until an opening appears. On my own, I’ve been known to go out of my way to effect an easier passage, perhaps with lights, which is, even then, not a guaranteed free pass.

On my first weekend in Kolkata I began to explore. On Saturday, after a day spent mostly indoors working, I took the advice of one of the three men who tend to affairs at the residence where I’m staying that I should go to Minto Park. A little oasis in the middle of a noisy city, with a hectic corridor and a high level overpass running along one end, this space, maintained by the adjacent Belle Vue Hospital, is dominated by a large rectangular pond, lined with palm trees, a pathway and shallow green space. Once inside, all thoughts and memory of the boisterous mayhem of the roadways is, I want to say, not simply forgotten, but almost erased. One remembers the solitude and serenity, not the noise. Returning again almost a week later I noticed that, although the city sounds are acute when you first enter the park, they are all quickly reduced to a distant background murmur once you begin to walk around the pond. Or so it seems. In memory, only stillness remains.

The following day’s random explorations led me to the Victoria Memorial Hall, the grand marble edifice and surrounding gardens constructed in the early 1900s to honour the memory of the Queen. On a Sunday, the building and grounds were overflowing with visitors—local families out for the day, others bussed in from afar—squeezing through the passageways of the hall and spilling out onto the grounds. The colourful splash of bright saris added to the spectacle played out amid such formal colonial sensibilities. Hardly a day for actually absorbing any of the contents of the museum itself, I found it the perfect space for people watching. The relaxed mood of the milling crowds caused me to reflect on how much more fractious such a mass of human beings might be at home. (Mind you, this observation preceded my rush our ride on the Metro.) I have since returned to the Victoria Memorial for a very different evening event on the premises, one with entirely different intention and tone.

But that’s for another post.

Monday was the day for a couple of classic Calcutta experiences. I met up with a fellow book blogger, Chelsea McGill who has lived in the city for five years now and is a passionate defender of its charms, at the famous Flury’s—the tea shop and bakery dating from the 1920s that endeavours to maintain all the elements of Imperial elegance. The location, Park Street, is for the reluctant tourist, the most comforting of spaces I’ve encountered so far, where colonial meets modern architecture and business establishments are opened by courteous doormen. But it does blunt a measure of the in-your-face experience that, for me, makes this city so unique. Until, that is, one slips into the South Park Street Cemetery.

No more than a mark on a map for me before I entered the lush, high-walled enclosure, the place caught me completely off guard. Beneath a tall canopy of greenery, rows of aged-darkened, weather-beaten graves, crypts, mausoleums and obelisks mark the final destination of the British officials, traders, and civil servants drawn to the city in the early years of the East India Company. The inscriptions speak to the men, women and children whose sojourns were cut short by illness and other inclemencies of the tropical environment, as well as those who survived to make the mark in the expanding empire. The grandiosity of the structures is almost overpowering. The weight of the souls resting so far from their home shores is tangible in the hot spring air. The history contained in these stones is palpable. And lingering behind it all, the ghosts of more recent years: the criminals who once used the cemetery as a hideout and the homeless who sought refuge from the elements in the columned structures before the area became a protected heritage site. On the day we were there, I’d say that romance was in the air, evidenced by the many couples making out behind the sepulchres.

Finally, after enjoying my first experience of tea served by a street vendor in a tiny clay cup, I made my way back to my residence. Feeling the heat and the grime settling into my pores, and facing an endless steam of rush hour traffic—cars, buses, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles, the occasional rickshaw driver, and even a horse—I discovered that the streets are elastic. They shrink and stretch with one’s energy and fatigue accordingly.The street I’ve walked the most and know the best, serviceable more than spectacular for the experience, can seem absolutely endless at the end of a good, but tiring day.

So, that was Monday. The flavour of my time in Kolkata  again shifted greatly over the next few days. I had the most remarkable and inspiring opportunity to meet and listen to one of the preeminent literary greats of our time, an experience made even more powerful by its placement here, and now, in the City of Joy.

But more about that later. My notebooks are filling up faster than my ability to transform my observations into posts (and fight with the vagaries of composing on an iPad). More soon.

First days in India: This is the real thing

In the lead up to my trip to India, I imagined that I would have the time to compose a reflective post about writing, and all the anxiety and excitement I feel about having almost two weeks away from home to read, explore a new city, take photographs and, of course, write. As fate would have it, I didn’t have any time for such careful reflection. Coming into the final stretch, in the days preceding my flight, I was beset with the sudden demise of two MacBooks, the second less than twenty-four hours after I brought it home, in the middle of all the work that had to be completed before I could leave.

Just as well, because I had no real idea how the arrival in such a strange, vibrant, and somewhat overwhelming environment would impact me.

I arrived in Kolkata on Wednesday evening after two eight or nine hour flights, separated by a nine hour layover in London during which I met with up Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the tireless force behind Istros Books, and a further two hour flight from Delhi. I’d been travelling for nearly two full days. I emerged from the airport to noise and sweltering heat and a line up of waiting drivers, none of whom carried the sign I was looking for. An cab driver insisted, repeatedly, that he could take me to any hotel I wanted. I’m sure he saw me as his mark. I tried to make a phone call but could hear nothing, yet when I tried to go back into the building to find a quiet corner, the soldier with the AK-47 across his lap had other ideas.

Finally united with my driver who had been waiting at another gate, I made my way into the city. A ride on a river of noise—horns blaring, vehicles squeezing into any space available, lane or not, candy striped light standards wrapped in strings of lavender and royal blue trimmed lights, and clusters of weary men lining the route. Here and there one of the city’s ubiquitous dogs eased its diseased frame to the ground. Every time the traffic flow slowed to a stop, people appeared from behind posts or over low cement barricades to pick their way across the sea of cars, buses and motorcycles. Enterprising street merchants arose to snake between the lanes. To conserve gas the driver would cut the engine until everything began to inch forward again.

It occurred to me, as if I hadn’t quite registered the fact, that I am well and truly in India. This is not a picture postcard. This is real life.

And now, on my third full day in the city, I have barely read a word, no less finished any one of the books I so ambitiously packed, but every morning I have written for several hours. No, I’m not deeply engrossed in the project I planned to devote my energies to, but there is still time. More than a week yet. Rather I am simply absorbing and transcribing the sounds, smells, tastes and sights I’ve encountered so far. The incessant stream of traffic, punctuated by car horns, that roars up and down the busy street outside the heritage home where I am staying has become a comforting backdrop—an urbanized antidote to those recordings of babbling brooks.

No empty shelves at the Seagull office—if not books than beasts and birds..

On the first morning, in a somewhat quieter locale, I gathered my earliest impressions, mostly aural, of my initial encounter with Kolkata. Later that day I made my first trip to Seagull Books—my first opportunity to meet the staff and tour the nearby school and headquarters of their Peaceworks project. It was all a little overpowering to finally be present in a place I’d long seen captured in photographs. But the real shock if you like, the disconnect I failed to anticipate, was the street level reality of the area in which they are based. In my western naivety I had imagined something, well, less “heart of Calcutta.” But no, this is the real thing. The road on which they are located is a busy thoroughfare lined with sidewalk vendors, beggars, and homeless men, women and children. As I quickly discovered, one rarely actually walks on the sidewalks in this city—they are either crowded with people and structures, or in a continual state of disrepair. I have, in very short order, become accustomed to walking along the edge of the roads, having vehicles pass within an inch of my life, and being, to date, the only obvious foreigner—non ethnically South Asian person if you like—that I have seen.

Many of the people I interact with have no more English than I have Bengali. Uncertain tourists would likely feel ill at ease in these surroundings, but I am loving it! The house manager at this B&B fills me with multi-course Bengali meals at every opportunity. I used a fork for a day but now eat with my hands like everyone else and, knock on wood, I have had none of the usual traveller’s discontents I was fearing. And the bed, a firm 12cm mattress on a wooden platform suits me fine—I’m sleeping soundly. And now that I’ve finally worked out the vagaries of the limited water service, hey, it’s all good.

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One of the coulorful side streets.

The opportunity to spend time at Seagull is a particular honour. Yesterday I managed the five minute walk there and back on my own without getting lost, and had time to sit by myself in the office and gather my preliminary impressions of the place, the groundwork for what I hope will be several articles and interviews to come out of this experience. Next week there are some really exciting things going on…

But for now, I think I ought to walk off a little of the special Bengali breakfast that was prepared here this morning (there is some kind of photo shoot taking place in the house today). So, back out into the noise, colour and congestion that is Kolkata.

A delicate madness: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

Jeanne d’Arc has been the subject of countless historical, literary and dramatic accounts, and it is likely that, at least in the western world, everyone has some image they associate most readily with the famed young woman who donned men’s clothing and led the army of France to a series of decisive victories against the English during the Middle Ages. The rough outline of her story is so ubiquitous in our culture that it is likely difficult to recall one’s first encounter. But I certainly remember my most intense moment of identification with the Maid. It was late May, just over twenty years ago. I was, at the time, at the height of an episode of psychotic mania that would lead to a bipolar diagnosis and, ultimately, to an understanding of the deep gender discomfort I had felt for as long as I could remember. At the time however, I was a mess. Female-born and married with two children, my ex and I had endured a few years of destructive soul searching on my part. My madness, complete with visions, was just one more thing we tried to survive in the desperate hope that it would all pass. In my experience I’d seen drag queens and butch lesbians but no one I identified with. Until May 30, when I suddenly realized—and to this day I don’t remember how or why I knew it—that it was the feast day of Joan of Arc. In this convergence I saw a message. I saw myself. In the state I was in, the timing was fortuitous and seemingly miraculous. In the end, the ultimate moment of self-understanding was still a number of months ahead, but I will ever think of Jeanne’s appearance on my journey toward belated manhood with a mixture of embarrassment and wonder.

When I first heard of the premise around which The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc , the recent novel from Australian author, Ali Alizadeh is constructed, I was skeptical. It triggered my frustration that, looking back in history, cross-dressing women are typically conflated with lesbians or “straight” transmale identities, in these days of heightened trans awareness. However, it’s not always accurate, historically or today. But that is another matter. My initial negative reaction quickly turned to curiosity the more I heard about the unusual, innovative approach taken in this account of a life that has been celebrated, and excoriated, in so many well-known renditions over the past six centuries.

For Alizadeh, who was born in Iran and emigrated to Australia in his teens, the fascination with Jeanne d’Arc is long standing. It goes back to his childhood years.  His enigmatic heroine was the subject of an epic poem he wrote for his PhD and it is this background—a comprehensive understanding of the historical material combined with the spare elegiac prose of a poet—that allows him to create a curious, sensitive, and deeply human portrait of a complex historical figure.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, as the title implies, is structured around the final days of Jeanne’s life. After months of brutal interrogation, she has renounced her Voices and her actions by signing a letter of abjuration. She has saved herself from a charge of heresy, torture and execution, but now she is imprisoned in a cold, damp cell beneath the Treasury Tower of Rouen Castle. Forced to remove her male attire and put on a white gown, she feels vulnerable and alone. However, it seems that there is something more weighing on her, a sense that her passion runs deeper than a divinely inspired drive to serve her King and country—something much too fragile and painful to remember.

As Jeanne’s story is fleshed out, the narrative will return repeatedly to this dim prison, and each time we will know her a little better. But, Alizadeh, a skillful storyteller, takes his time, inviting the reader to remain open to possibility. Effectively employing an inventive style that weaves together a chorus of voices and shifting perspectives, The Last Days avoids falling into the morass of detail that can drag down more conventional historical novels. Narrated primarily in the present tense, from a third person perspective, the historical context and military conflicts are presented in a spare, dated, often time-stamped, documentary style echoing nonfiction prose poetry. It is blunt and remarkably effective:

1413

In England, Henry V succeeds his father, the Lancastrian usurper of the English throne. Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath, probably a war criminal. Is never seen to smile. Must prove himself to the English nobility as their ruler, as a real, mighty man. Or else his dynasty may be toppled just like the dynasty his father toppled. Is keenly aware of the turmoils in France. Decides that the time has come to renew the claim to the throne of France…

Once Jeanne enters history and, in her first battles proves her value, the narrator gradually moves closer into her thoughts, letting the account slip back in time again, to meet our heroine as she hits adolescence. It is at this time that young Jeannette, as she is still called, has her first visionary encounters. It is also the when she begins to sense that the affection she has for her childhood girlfriend is of a somewhat different order. Before long she finds herself distanced from the other youth of her village. She is excessively pious and decidedly indifferent to the idea of dancing with boys, marrying and having babies—something her peers are well on their way toward achieving by their early teens. There is a soul wrenching loneliness in being set apart like this, by desire and, if her beloved Saint Catherine of Alexandria is to be believed, by divine destiny.

As the narrative turns to follow Jeanne’s life more directly, her Voices are allowed to speak, set apart in italics and indentation, appearing to float in the text. Jeanne’s own voice also enters, slipping in periodically either to comment on or clarify the account, or to address another, a “you” who remains, for a time, unnamed as in this passage, just prior to her first encounter with her Voices, where perspective and tense shifts several times:

She has never been caught in such a terrible storm and there is so much pain in her skinny body. I struggled to stand back up. The whole world flared up in the lashes of blinding lightning. The rain immersed my being. She is kneeling, paralysed by the mud. My tears merged with the rainfall. (Did I tell you, my love, how exactly it happened?) The thunder strikes harder and the rain is now a flood and it is in this cascade—why do historians insist it was a sunny day?—amid the fruits and plants being washed away by the storm that Jeanette clenches her fists. It is then that she howls back at the unforgiving sky. She rips off her scarf.

O God O angels O Saint Catherine.

Are you there?

Are you there?

 Allowing room for Jeanne’s voice to reflect back on her experience deepens the intimacy of the present tense narrative. This polyphonic quality will become more pronounced as other emphatic voices interrupt with curses and threats as the story progresses toward its inevitable and unfortunate end.

The portrait of Jeanne d’Arc that emerges over the course of this novel is one of a mix of vulnerability and determination. We see a young woman torn between her convictions and her doubts, conflicted by her desires, and isolated from others by gender, lack of education, and the unconventional role she plays. She is never entirely free from concern about the reality of her Voices and her own sanity, especially when her entreaties meet silence. And, while she becomes hardened to the violence and gore of the battlefield, she grows increasingly distracted by her love for another woman and all of the complex emotions that such a forbidden affection arouses. What comes across is a certain naivety. She is, after all, young (only nineteen at her death) and has, in a sense, been protected from the kind of demands of life that would have hardened and matured her peers who married early. So although she becomes an experienced soldier and commander of men, her romantic love affair has an idealized, almost adolescent intensity that betrays her youth.

Alizadeh does not offer this speculative image of Jeanne d’Arc as a lesbian woman lightly. He knows the relevant documentary material exceptionally well and is aware not only of the limitations but of the spaces where possibility resides. His narrator respects his heroine, balances the historical account with the personal, and situates his chronicle to the contemporary reader. His Jeanne is a medieval heroine for a modern imagination, his novel is an absorbing, lightly experimental, and human re-imagining of the life and death of a young woman who has never ceased to be the source of inspiration and intrigue.

As I can attest.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh is published by Giramondo.

A few thoughts on falling short: On my contribution to A Catalogue of Failure

Failure:

NOUN

  1. Lack of success.

1.1    An unsuccessful person or thing.

  1. The neglect or omission of expected or required action.

2.1    A lack or deficiency of a desirable quality.

  1.  The action or state of not functioning.

When I saw Alice Furse’s call for submissions for a little handmade publication to be called A Catalogue of Failure, it was like an invitation with my name on it in bold print. Ah, failure, I know it well. Don’t we all? But, the consternation… what failure out of a life-time of well-earned examples would I turn to for the exercise of 500 words?

And so, the question that confronted me was: what does failure really mean and how can it be distinguished from regret? Surely we regret our failures. And so often we blame ourselves for falling short. But in truth success and failure are relative and complicated. Likewise, whether we respond to either, in the end, with regret or relief, or a measure of both, depends on so many circumstances.

Ultimately much of what happens in this life is beyond our control. Shit happens. And as the parable about the Chinese farmer reminds us: “Who is to say what is bad or good?” For example, nine years of success in a job I loved ended in spectacular failure. Was it my fault? No and yes. Was it a blessing (in so much as I believe in blessings) in disguise? Yes, and on a lonely bad day, no. Failure and success is sometimes very difficult to qualify.

So, I thought, I could write about my professional failure, my parental shortcomings, the opportunities I passed up, the endless years I spent trying to conform to a gendered existence that never fit, or the price paid in personal isolation in my decision to alter that existence. Should I go on? I’m certain the majority of people would, like me, have a harder time choosing from a multitude of failures (perceived or otherwise), than zeroing in on a couple of successes looking back over their lives.

At the eleventh hour, having agonized over the selection of a failure to write about (lest my inability to pull together a submission be yet another failure in itself), I turned, once again, to my recent experience in central Australia and my inability to hike the Larapinta Trail as I had hoped. Failure? Perhaps. Or a success that I managed to walk two and a half days out of eleven given how sick I was? It was, as I’ve said, a truly amazing opportunity to be out there, but at heart I can’t help harbouring a sense of dreaming big and falling short.

Which is, I suppose, what makes failure such a human experience. And those small success such a simple joy.

If you have ever known failure (come on, be honest now) and would like to find a little comfort and company in the stories, poems and experiences of others, copies of this limited edition handcrafted zine can be ordered here for a very modest price. Treat yourself or some miserable failure you know. Order a handful!

One last glance back at 2017, as 2018 dawns

A little more than a week ago I marked the solstice on a rather positive note after another difficult year. The holiday season has been, however, more painful than I had anticipated. The weather has been brutal—as I type this, the temperature is in the low minus twenties, think -28 or -29C with a wind chill factor approaching -37C, and we’ve received about 30cm of snow or more—which has contributed to a marked degree of cabin fever. But what has weighed on me most heavily is a peculiar loneliness, a very personal emptiness, and a measure of anxiety about some of the changes I thought I was looking forward to, like selling my house and moving into an apartment. I’m feeling a little conflicted now, oddly because if my son manages to stay sober, I think less of escaping a bad situation and think more about the advantages of having someone else around, at least until he is well stabilized and ready to move on. (Okay, there’s also the fact that he saved my life a few years ago…)

Taken this afternoon. Does it look cold? Copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

However, now that the end of 2017 is upon us, I can distract myself for a moment by looking back over my year in blogging. Although I started this blog in mid-2014, I did not begin to seriously write about books, or venture into the realm of mini personal essays until the end of that year. In the three years since, my blog has grown steadily and, I hope, developed a bit of a reputation for being unclassifiable. This year I noticed a marked increase in traffic from Canada and Australia, a result, I suspect, of my increased engagement with readers and writers from both countries. Still the largest number of viewers came from the US and the UK, followed by Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India. My most popular review written this year was, by a wide margin, of Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe. Mine must be one of the only reviews of this book online; it was even cited in an extensive overview of post-colonial African literature—the only blog review cited in the entire article. This book is a classic of early post-Apartheid South African black literature and I can’t understand why it hasn’t attracted more attention—clearly it was being studied extensively this year judging by the traffic generated. The second highest number of views for a 2017 review was for The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (tr. Jacob Siefring), the third, My Heart Hemmed In by Marie N’Diaye (tr. Jordan Stump) and the fourth for Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline (tr. Tim Parks). The 50/50 split between new releases and older titles in this selection highlights one of the advantages of blogging—not being bound to focusing exclusively on recent releases as is so often the tendency in other literary venues you can read and write about whatever books catch your fancy. Or not. This year I read much more than I reviewed here or elsewhere.

My own occasional reflective posts, which always make me feel mildly self-conscious, tend to be very well received, generating more hits than the majority of my reviews. Considering that the reviews typically take me much longer to write, it never ceases to surprise me that people actually want to read my idle ramblings… something to hold on to as I start to finally (yes, finally) tackle my memoir project in the year ahead. I’ve been piddling around on this front, to be honest. But it’s so terrifying to put one’s own life on the page. However, I trust I’m not the only personal essayist to struggle with this conflict. As I’ve mentioned several times in recent months, the work of French poet, essayist and ethnologist Michel Leiris has occupied much of my attention this past year (with much to keep me going in 2018). I had expected I would write some kind of a “review” of Scratches, the first part of his four-part autobiographical project Rules of the Game, yet I can’t quite imagine how to write about this book. It has become embedded in my consciousness, and interwoven with my reading of his dream diary, Nights as Days and Days as Nights, and his massive travel journal, Phantom Africa.

Long before Knausgaard starting dissecting the minutiae of his experience, Leiris was reflecting, musing, analyzing, and agonizing over the stuff of his life and, more accurately, his emotional and intellectual engagement with the world as mediated by language and memory. Scratches begins with his earliest recognition that language held magic and secrets that he could unlock as he came to understand the meanings of words. Throughout the book his discourses, which range widely from childhood amusements to recent events and back again, hinge on the associations he has for certain words or phrases. (Lydia Davis’ remarkable translation seamlessly weaves the French words into the text so that the layers of sound and meaning ring through.) It can be quite wonderful to get swept up in his winding and circuitous streams of thought. However, what I love about Leiris is his idiosyncratic emotional volubility. He easily swings from being proud and confident, to wallowing in despair and self-doubt. If the contemporary “journey of self-discovery” model of the memoir enforces the notion that life has a narrative arc that leads to growth and improvement, Leiris is not the model. In fact, much of the time he simply seems to be travelling in wide sweeping circles without getting anywhere at all. Nor is he wretched enough to stand as a forerunner to the popular misery memoir. But he doesn’t hesitate to indulge in a little morbid excavation of his weaknesses and failures when his mood plummets. I well imagine this annoys some readers, but as someone who has struggled at length with mood regulation, I adore the honesty and the way he somehow manages to drag himself out to firmer ground. Toward the end of Scratches he very nearly gives up his entire autobiographic endeavour worrying that he has reduced himself to “a sort of aged child, a prisoner of a bygone period and henceforth shut off from all action—even thought—involving the future.” In his anxieties, I see reflected my own insecurities about committing to a long term project. He justifies his decision to break off work on his book saying:

Since the literary work to which I am devoting myself with such difficulty seems less and less uplifting and no longer necessary (since it gives me nothing beyond what I put into it myself more or less deliberately), it would be better to abandon it and wait for a more favourable time. And right now the most serious hope I have for recovery is to let everything lie dormant until the anecdotal illness ailing me… and my brain cleansed by this period of repose, I can shed my old skin. To come into a new skin after a long period of obliteration in blankness, like a drum one has beaten too persistently and which, even though its body may still seem in pretty good shape, absolutely must have its vibrating skin replaced by a fresh one.

Of course, he not only recovers his enthusiasm but will go on to produce three more volumes after this.

So, looking ahead to 2018, I have a small selection of books that I am especially keen to read, but I know better than to make any public lists. I do want to continue a steady diet of poetry, learning how to read it more deeply, and write some of my own. But writing and photography have to take centre stage. Most immediately, I am heading to India in February to spend a couple of weeks in Kolkata where I hope to be able to find some distance from home, a wealth of inspiration and a little quiet time to write.

Copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

Happy New Year to all. Here in my hometown, and in many cities across Canada it is so cold that outdoor celebrations have been cancelled. But if the meteorologists are right, we should start to climb out of the deep freeze tomorrow as 2018 rolls in.

Another winter solstice: A dark year ends brightly

2017 has been a difficult year for many, personally and globally. It has become my custom to stop on this day—the shortest of the year, 7 hours, 54 minutes to be exact—and tally an account of sorts for the year just passed. That typically also includes some variation on a “books of the year” theme. This time I will refrain from the attempt to gather a formal list, but will work in some of my literary highlights.

My year began on a very low note.  2016 had been a year marked by significant creative achievement tempered by great personal loss. With the advent of the new year, I was awash in a mix of complicated emotions. Toward the end of February, probate was finally granted on my father’s will and I received the first part of my inheritance. This relieved the serious financial concerns that had been haunting me for months, but paradoxically, I felt worse than ever. As a wave of loneliness, threatened to completely overwhelm me, I sat down and composed a short blog post that, much to my surprise, garnered more views on the first day than any post I’ve ever made. Clearly I was not alone in my loneliness.

I don’t think I can say that post changed my life, but it represents the beginning of an awareness of the extent of the very real community that can develop online. Most tangibly it led to an invitation from fellow blogger Tony Messenger to take part in the annual extreme walk for charity he organizes in central Australia. And of course, because nothing is as perfect as we would like, I picked up an extreme cold somewhere between Calgary and Alice Springs, so I didn’t walk very much (or very fast), but to have almost two weeks out in the heart of the desert was an experience I’ll never forget. And the beginning of a deeper level of grieving for my parents. At the moment, much of the journey is, like so many of my photo files, unprocessed.

These things take time.

And, having travelled halfway around the globe, I had to at least stop into Melbourne and Sydney and catch up with some Twitter and online friends along the way. Every encounter was wonderful, and contributed to shrinking a large, lonely world a little, even if just for a few hours.

Brighton Beach, Melbourne
Glebe, Sydney
Sydney icon

Over the course of the summer, my brothers and I managed to get our parents’ home fixed up and ready to go on the market. They lived on an acreage outside a small village in a region of the province where the real estate market had been dormant for over a year due to the depressed oil industry. However, things were just starting to turn when we listed the house in late July. Within a week we accepted an offer. Now there are still some estate matters to clear up (and lots more stuff to dispose of), but with a measure of closure we can all start to move forward.

My highlight of the autumn was my city’s annual reader’s festival, Wordfest. I volunteered as a driver for the first time and had a blast. One has an opportunity to engage with authors in a completely different way when driving them around town. And this year’s event featured a strong line-up of Indigenous writers and an excellent poetry cabaret. But by far, my singular thrill was an opportunity to witness the phenomenal M. NourbeSe Philip performing from her experimental epic Zong! I had several opportunities to speak to her privately, and she was generous, supportive, and enthusiastic about my own writing project.

However, when I think back over 2017, I feel like I have been less productive as a writer. I would like to think that the work has been germinating… In truth, 2016 saw the publication of a couple of pieces that had been fermenting for a few years. This year it has been harder to find the focus, but I feel that shifting. I also limited critical writing off my blog, again an energy and concentration issue, but I am very pleased with the reviews I did publish. I’ve also been editing more, an invisible but very highly rewarding activity. And I’m excited to see where my new role with 3:AM Magazine will take me in the year ahead.

And so, at last, to the year in reading. I read many great books—and acquired many more that I’ve not yet gotten to—but here are some of the highlights:

This year I read, for the first time, several writers I have been meaning to get to for a while—Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Gerald Murnane—and I was in no instance disappointed.

I collected and read an embarrassing amount of poetry. These are a few of the collections I’ve been spending time with:

And somehow I’ve ended up with a healthy selection of contemporary Australian poets (with a few more still on the way):

Meanwhile, a couple of Canadian Indigenous writers really caught me off guard and I have since gathered earlier works by each to catch up on:

As a memoirist (or memoirish writer), I paid special attention to a variety of excellent (and different) memoirs:

And although I can say with confidence that almost every book I read this year was published by an independent publisher, I took special pleasure in supporting some very small indie outfits:

I also like to think that reading should be both intelligent and fun,so with that in mind, these are a few books that really surprised and delighted me:

And finally, I loved every single book released by Two Lines Press in 2017, including two of my absolute favourites novels of the year:

Last, but not least, 2017 is the year I became rather obsessed with French author Michel Leiris. I read the first part of his autobiography, Scratches, which I will write about soon, and purchased the next two parts (the last part has not yet been translated), along with his essays, fiction and correspondences. But, by far, the most demanding and rewarding reading experience I had all year was his monumental journal Phantom Africa. (With the exception of most of the poetry, I wrote about every book pictured here on my blog or for other online magazines. Links can be found on my Review Index 2017 page.)

Now, as the year is coming to a close, I am, of course, still reading. I’m also writing, and looking forward to an upcoming trip to India where I hope to be able get even more writing done. But the true reason this winter solstice is brighter than those of the past few years is that, as of tomorrow, my son who is just about to turn twenty-eight, will have been sober for two weeks. After eight years of heavy drinking and all of the discord, danger, and stress that loving an alcoholic entails this is something I feared I’d never see. I don’t know why he suddenly stopped. I have not asked. I am simply being supportive and hoping that this is the beginning of a new future for him.

So, at least for the moment, it’s all good. I hope everyone else finds a little goodness in the days ahead.

Idly tossing stones: Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes

Although I’ve never been a stranger to poetry, I have read (and acquired) more this year than ever before. I have even, cautiously, attempted to write about some of the shorter collections that have resonated with me most strongly. However, whereas the more I read, the easier it is to articulate why some books—even a couple of those by the celebrated young poetic stars of the day—fail to win me over, I am often at a loss to write with confidence about the collections that draw me in, hold my attention, and continue to call me back.

If there’s a moment when the proverb that likens offering unjustified criticism to throwing stones seems especially apt, I can’t think of a better one than this: my attempt to gather my thoughts about Glasshouses by Australian poet, Stuart Barnes. And yes, I know I am twisting the intent of the original wisdom, but I am slowly learning enough about poetry to be increasingly aware of what I don’t know.

I read this book through, listening to the rhythms, enjoying the wealth of rural and natural imagery, the sensitivity to the nuances of familial and intimate relationships, and the recognizable cultural references. And then I hit the detailed Notes at the end of the book and discovered what a cento is (a patchwork of lines taken from the work of other poets), and learned that some of the poems sample or rework other texts, or incorporate very specific structures and form. Tony Messenger’s interview with Barnes further confirmed my suspicion that I was missing entire levels of structural significance and poetic discipline; an awareness that is at once exciting and intimidating.

If one stops at superficial impact is that enough? What does it mean to enjoy a poem? If a line that catches me short in a cento actually originates from another work, who owns the power? The poet who crystalized the image, or the poet who re-envisions it, a jewel among other salvaged (and fully credited) jewels? Or—and I should hope this is correct—both but in different ways?

At the same time, returning to the closing poem in the collection, “Double Acrostic,” one of my favourites, after taking a moment to refresh my memory (again) about what an acrostic poem is (words or names are spelled out through the first—and if double, last—letters of each line), I found it thrilling to re-experience the poem on two levels, appreciating the beauty and the precision of the language anew.

For the novice poetry critic like myself, Glasshouses is a luminous example of what can be done within an array of poetic forms. Barnes openly takes rhythm and inspiration from his mentors, his favourite music, and from the application of specific limits. As he admits in the interview linked above:

I adore writing in form, be it fixed or one I’ve altered or one I’ve conceived; when writing in form I feel as if I’m at my most creative; I feel liberated, not constrained.

But, of course, the true test is, do his poems work for the casual reader? I would be inclined to think that form, if it is effective, should function beneath the surface—neither obvious nor necessary for the enjoyment of the piece. After all is there only one way to understand a poem? Poetry is, ideally, not written from the top down. A poem is not an intentional exercise to illustrate the universal by forcing specific images and allusions; the poet enters the process of writing to see where it takes him or her, and the reader has to feel comfortable to do the same.

Or perhaps I am tossing stones after all.

And so, to the reading. Glasshouses is a collection that feels intensely intimate and personal, in the sense that Barnes seems to be engaging directly with his reader, sharing his love of the poets who have guided him, directly or through his careful reading, drawing inspiration from his family and from his own experience as a gay man, and openly riffing on the influence of music and pop culture. The wide range of voices that emerge, together with the variety afforded by his delight in structure and form, allows for a reading experience that never falls into tired and predictable patterns. There are misted melancholic pieces, and poems that explode in loud, energetic bursts. In short, this collection is so much fun to read that I can easily imagine myself returning to its pages again and again.

Yet, within the limitations of this brief review/reflection, it’s impossible to offer more than a glance at a poem or two. Many cannot be reproduced because they are printed in landscape format, are shaped, or employ unusual fonts for emphasis and impact. Otherwise, it is difficult to zero in on any one representative example. For me, at this point in my life, I found the translucent beauty of a series of in memoriam poems to be especially powerful—“eggshells” and “colour wheel” in particular. The latter (i.m. Mervyn Barnes) begins:

The American-
barn-red-off-centre
timber shed

trumpeting
through blood &
bone the glasshouse’s
yellow stars

the front yard’s statue-
sque rooster
screaming blue
murder till blue

in the face
Bay of Fires’
orange lichen,
zinc-creamed lips…

However, since I began with an allusion to a proverb, it seems fitting to close with a taste of “Proverbs”—a playful literary take on proverbial witticisms:

A fish always stinks from the elegy down.
Hell hath no fury like a metaphor scorned.
The senryū does not change its spots.
You can’t get blood out of a trope.

Love of the couplet’s the root of all evil.
Procrastination’s the thief of metre.
Nothing is certain but stress and narrative.
The darkest stanza’s before the dawn.

Ah, yes, but fortunately I have a copy of Glasshouses to wake up to.

Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes is published by University of Queensland Press.