Surge.jpg

The question of how we should memorialize victims of injustice, those who've been forgotten or those whose stories can't ever be known is a difficult one. Jay Bernard writes a powerful introduction to their book of poetry “Surge” explaining how they conducted research into the 1981 New Cross Fire which was also called the New Cross Massacre and claimed the lives of 13 young people. Many believed this was a racist attack and the reverberations of this unresolved case are still felt today - especially when there are eerily familiar new cases such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Bernard’s poems poignantly embody the spirit and voice of people involved in these incidents including family members in mourning, bystanders, protesters and even the victims themselves.

Some poems reflect more on Bernard’s own personal experience to discuss issues to do with gender, sexuality, national and racial identity because, as the author states, “Many questions emerged not only about memory and history, but about my place in Britain as a queer black person. This opened out into a final sense of coherence: I am from here, I am specific to this place, I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.” What forms over this book’s journey is a communion and convergence of voices who rightfully insist upon a presence in the nation’s collective memory. These poems are artfully infused with a political urgency, sensitively consider the weight of history and punch through the past into the present day.  

A series of poems take on a strong lyrical quality with repetition and rhythms reminiscent of the songs sung in Jamaican patois that emerged amidst the protests after the New Cross Fire. Other poems are more reflective using imagery which considers the border between past and present, memory and forgetting, life and death. The poem ‘Pace’ meaningfully explores a sense of connection to those who’ve come before us in the physical space we inhabit. Still other poems speak with startling directness in the voice of restless victims: “No-one will tell me    what happened to my body”. Interspersed between the poems there are sometimes photographic images of individuals or banners involved in the protests following the New Cross Fire. There are also occasional quotes taken from a variety of media such as text messages, news reports and relevant books of nonfiction. These add to the texture of the reading experience suffusing the poems with a living energy.

Several poems are achingly intimate and form kinds of narratives based in memory. One describes the bravery summoned to join a Pride parade and the confused sensation of melding into a community: “am I the steaming black street, am I the banner and the band, the crush, lilting ale, tipsy hug, charged flesh and open eye”. The poem ‘Ha-my-ca’ recounts a trip to Jamaica and the experience of skinny dipping where a new relationship with the body is formed: “I learned of self and other when my waist left the water”. While the poems with a more personal feel stand slightly to the side of the poems which converse with the research concerning the New Cross Fire, they add a sense of intimacy to how the author isn’t disconnected from this mission of bearing witness but is also a presence made solid.

Johnny Osbourne - 13 Dead

Sometimes I’ll read poetry collections where only a few individual poems make much of an impact, but nearly all the poems in “Surge” made me stop and meditate on them. It’s a richly complex and accomplished book that demands answers for those who’ve been marginalized and rendered voiceless throughout history: “It’s the only question we ask. Will anyone lessen the losing? Will anyone lessen the loss?... Losing and losing and loss. Never recouping the cost.”

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJay Bernard
DontCAll.jpg

One of my goals this year is to read more poetry and I feel lucky to have started with a new book which totally gripped me with the intensity of its voice. The poems in “Don't Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith have the urgent force of a rallying cry. They pay tribute to individuals and groups who will not be silenced no matter how much they are oppressed, incarcerated or killed. Specifically Smith speaks powerfully about the experience of being a gay African American: how skin colour can lead someone to be targeted by the police or alternately excluded/fetishised in the gay community. These are poems drawn from somewhere very personal. They sometimes play off from lyrics from musicians like Billie Holiday or Diana Ross and use a unique variety of forms to convey meaning as much in their structure as they do in the choice of words. Like all great poetry it can be interpreted a number of different ways, but there is a clarity of self here which definitely has something to say.

Something that connected me to these poems so strongly is the way that Smith frequently makes broad statements while also drawing the reader into the emotional core of his reality. He states “i am a house swollen with the dead, but still a home.” How brilliantly this expresses the architecture of being! That we can encompass all who've come before us and/or those who haven't survived, but our very structure is designed to accommodate this Genealogy and invite others in to experience it. I was continuously jolted by how startlingly personal these poems felt but I also frequently stopped to contemplate how their meaning is so beautifully expansive. Smith speaks for himself as well as others when he writes a line with such dazzling beauty like “let's waste the moon's marble glow shouting our names to the stars until we are the stars.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has revolutionized our dialogue for speaking about both institutionalized and rogue violence inflicted upon black communities. The very spirit of not letting the deaths of young black men like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown pass without testifying to their injustice and how they are endemic of systematic racism seems wrapped up in the line “don't fret, we don't die. they can't kill the boy on your shirt again.” But Smith is also conscientious of the fact that many people who die or experience stultifying oppression aren't memorialised in such a way: “i'm not the kind of black man who dies on the news.” This is because there is also a death of spirit which isn't visible and which is more broadly felt by groups of people continuously ground down. He expresses this so powerfully in the line “some of us are killed in pieces, some of us all at once”. There are also moments when Smith doesn't hesitate to give his poetry a startling directness “reader, what does it feel like to be safe? white? how does it feel to dance when you're not dancing away the ghost?”

Danez Smith reads 'Principles'

This collection is also a poignant testimony to the way romance and sex are experienced by a black gay man. Some poems speak directly about how race and skin colour are listed as turn on or turn offs on dating/hookup profiles. Yet there are gorgeously romantic instances in poems which yearn for a transcendence of these imposed boundaries: “if love is a hole wide enough to be God's mouth, let me plunge into that holy dark & forget the color of light.” The poem 'seroconversion' has the most innovative and creative way of eviscerating identity to describe a conflagration of coupling that results in radical transformations and self-divisions. Smith doesn't shy from the raw power and sensuality of gay sex “praise the endless tub of grease” or the numbing anonymity of it “i'm offered eight mouths, three asses & four dicks before i'm given a name”. Still others pay tribute to instances of aching personal hurt: “I was his fag sucked into ash his lungs my final resting place.”

Smith's poems are also very cognizant of the effect AIDS and STDs have upon the gay community. There's a bracingly sympathetic moment when someone is waiting for test results and pleas “ask him to wait before he gives me the test results, give me a moment of not knowing, sweet piece of ignorance, i want to go back to the question”. Then there are a number of structurally innovative poems such as 'it's not a death sentence anymore' where the words of this sentence are whittled down the page until you're simply left with “a sentence” with spaces in between. This speaks so powerfully about a shift in common thinking that because being HIV+ doesn't instantly equal death anymore, it shouldn't be such a concern. 'blood hangover' fiercely forms what Smith calls “an erasure” of Ross' popular song to acknowledge the serious after-effects of sex. Elsewhere the words “my blood” and “his blood” are repeated until they collide and rapturously mingle on the page in the poem 'litany with blood all over'. It's so heartening seeing these complex issues explored in Smith's poems while also capturing the joy, romance and steaminess of gay sex. I admire how new young poets like Smith and Andrew McMillan are so thoughtfully exploring layers of queer life in their writing. 

I was totally captivated by the urgency and power of “Don't Call Us Dead”. These are poems that are, of course, political and personal at once. They have an invigorating clarity while also being complex enough to yield multiple meanings from rereading. Most refreshingly, this is poetry which feels of the moment.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanez Smith
cover.jpg

I bought a copy of this poetry collection when it first came out a few months ago, but its recent listing for the Costa Book Awards poetry category finally inspired me to pick it up. Kumukanda means initiation but since Kayo Chingonyi came of age in England rather than Zambia where he was born, he mostly records in these poems the rites of passage he goes through as a young black man in Britain. From cricket games to spending time in a Londis grocery store, these poems express his particular take on common experiences of modern English youth and the tributaries that fed into the creation of his particular identity.

Many of the poems describe Chingonyi’s affinity with music and especially his attachment and affection for cassette tapes. In one poem he writes “You say you love music. Have you suffered the loss of a cassette so gnarled by a tape deck’s teeth it refuses to play the beat you’ve come to recognise by sound and not name?” This invokes a real nostalgia not just for the music these tapes contained, but also the process of listening to this antiquated format. He observes how the static these tapes contained was part of the experience. One poem describes the background sounds which are accidentally recorded within tracks and how this can mentally transport the listener to the actual recording studio. These poems build to a sense of how music is a living commentary upon people’s lives and exists within the movement of time so that R&B artists work with “their lyrics written out on the backs of hands.”

There are references to musical influences from James Brown to Prince, but in some poems he also points to more complicated forms of broader song and dance imagery like Bojangles. This made me recall Zadie Smith’s most recent novel “Swing Time” for the way it describes a black individual in modern Britain contemplating racist imagery from the past and how that affects self-perception. Chingonyi describes in the title poem how he wonders what a version of himself that had been raised in Zambia would have thought of his British self. I admired how he describes in later poems that beyond any internal conflict of national or racial identity he recognizes a more fluid sense of being. In ‘Baltic Mill’ he describes a meeting point where it’s acknowledged “The exact course that brought us here is unimportant. It is that we met like this river, drawn from two sources, offered up our flaws, our sedimental selves.” I felt this worked in two different ways where it could describe two people meeting or someone reconciling different aspects of oneself as adding up to a unique individual.

This collection is a passionate and engaging take on one man’s coming of age.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKayo Chingonyi

Neel Mukherjee may have narrowly missed out on winning the Booker Prize when his previous novel “The Lives of Others” was shortlisted in 2014, but someone ought to give this writer a crown just for writing such impactful openings in his novels. In both that book and his new novel “A State of Freedom” I was moved, surprised and totally gripped after reading the first twenty or thirty pages. The vignettes which open these novels are separate from the main plots but have the ability to capture a reader’s attention and emotionally set the tone for what’s to come. In the case of this new novel, we meet a man who returns to India after living in America for a long time with his son in tow. On their travels to tourist sites he has a conflicted sense of identity seeing his native country through Western eyes. He has feelings of guilt mixed with anxiety and disgust. Then something so surprising and eerie occurs that I became hooked. The novel goes on to describe the lives of a few different individuals whose stories connect in fascinating ways. It’s a sweeping story that makes a complex but highly readable portrait of the state of modern India, economic inequality, classism and national identity.

Although the novel deals with a lot of serious subjects and has many brutally heartrending scenes, a lot of the book is saturated by the warm sensation of cooking. In the second section, an unnamed character makes annual visits to his family in Bombay after he’s permanently settled in England. He’s writing a book about regional Indian cooking because he asserts “Indians have always known there is nothing called Indian food, only different, sometimes wildly and thrillingly different, regional cuisines. This is a fact that has been flattened out in the West.” So he develops a special interest in his parents’ Bengali cook Renu and frequently gossips with his mother about her and their maid Milly. We’re given a strong sense of the flavours of their meals and aromas like fennel, cumin, fenugreek, nigella and mustard seeds which permeate their kitchen. These descriptions are not only evocative of sensory experience but the author delineates the origins of dishes, their attachment to particular sections of society and the way recipes are passed down through generations. This character’s desire to acquire this information and neatly present it for a British audience begs questions about cultural appropriation or cultural/class tourism as he delves further into Renu’s humble origins and the slum she inhabits.

A Qalandar and his bear.

A Qalandar and his bear.

The story veers sharply when the next section describes a baby bear which emerges into a village out of the wilderness. A poor man named Lakshman burdened with caring for his family and his absent brother’s children takes possession of the bear which he names Raju. He alights upon a money-making scheme to train the bear in the tradition of some wandering ascetic Sufi dervishes who make their bears “dance” for the amusement of the public. In reality, the methods used to get these bears to “perform” requires torturous techniques and Lakshman is aware that this practice has been outlawed. Nevertheless, he and Raju set out on a journey to make their fortune. It’s a sad, poignant and tense tale as Lakshman believes he develops an emotional connection with his bear, but the reader is highly aware that the bear’s animal nature persists despite being violently tamed.

One of the biggest luxuries that divide people into different classes and levels of privilege is access to education. The novel takes a surprising turn when the next section describes the back story of the maid Milly, her impoverished childhood and conversion to Christianity. The family and many local villagers convert because they are promised “a big sack of rice. It was food for a month.” Although Milly shows a natural flair for learning and enjoys reading with a passion, her education is abruptly cut off at the age of eight when she’s forced to travel far away to work as a maid.
“‘And school?’ she [Milly] asked in a small voice. ‘Studying?’
‘Nothing doing,’ her mother replied impatiently. ‘Studying. What is that for a girl?’ You’ll be more useful bringing in some money. Now shut up.’”

Naturally, being a lover of reading this scene felt particularly heartbreaking. But it also made me inwardly cheer as Milly tries to find secret ways to continue reading in her new places of employment. 

We follow the agonizing condition of Milly’s life as she works for a variety of households. Earlier this year, I read Anne Brontë’s first novel “Agnes Grey” which recounts the life of a humble governess as she works for a series of middle/upper class families. It feels like Mukherjee uses the same method here, depicting a servant in a variety of settings to both satirize the behavior of a girl’s privileged employers and expose the egregious abuse heaped upon the servant class. While Brontë’s depiction might have been scandalous at the time, Mukherjee’s is even more so now for the way he shows Milly is not only oppressed but turned into an imprisoned slave.

"The world transformed - in the burnished gold of the winter afternoon sun, the umber-red sandstone used for the whole complex at Fatehpur Sikri seemed like carved fire, something the sun had magicked out of the red soil in their combined image and likeness."

"The world transformed - in the burnished gold of the winter afternoon sun, the umber-red sandstone used for the whole complex at Fatehpur Sikri seemed like carved fire, something the sun had magicked out of the red soil in their combined image and likeness."

Running parallel with Milly’s story is that of her childhood friend Soni who suffers devastating losses due to illness. This highlights another important schism between classes of society: access to healthcare. Through emotional scenes in a rural underfunded and understaffed hospital the author powerfully depicts how “Illness was a luxury for the rich. Illness had reduced everyone here to a beggar.” Soni’s tragic circumstances prompt her to join the “People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army” – a radical Maoist armed group bent on overthrowing the government. This brushes against the Naxalite movement which Mukherjee explored so fascinatingly in “The Lives of Others.” In this story it makes a sharp contrast between the paths that Milly and Soni take in life and elucidate the central preoccupation of the novel: what choices do we really have in determining our personal freedom?

The final section, yet again, goes somewhere else entirely and demonstrates a complete stylistic change as well, but poignantly circles back to earlier story lines. It builds to a spectacular tale that prompts uncomfortable questions about the degree to which our own independence impinges upon or inhibits the freedom of others. Mukherjee excels at describing evocative details of particular places, but also movingly comments upon universal conditions such as friendship and aging: “Childhood friendships were often like that – intense in presence and in the present tense, remote and unreachable in absence.” His characters are so memorable not only because he movingly captures the arcs of their development, but lets us feel so intensely that given a twist of fate their stories might be our own.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNeel Mukherjee
6 CommentsPost a comment

In a case like the 1969 Manson Family murders a lot of focus has been centred on leader Charles Manson, his background and his bizarre ideas. Less emphasis has been given to what would motivate young women to follow such a fanatic and commit such horrendous acts of violence. In Emma Cline's debut novel “The Girls” she creates a situation which highly resembles the Manson cult and crime, but gives voice to fourteen year old girl Evie Boyd who is drawn into becoming a part of this group. Moving back and forth between the summer of 69 and a point many years later when the crime has become notorious, Cline gives Evie's account of the inner workings of this Californian quasi-commune and why she becomes involved with them. With great insight and sensitivity she writes about female adolescent development to create a hypnotic and powerful tale.

Evie comes from an upper-middle class background and lives with her single mother Jean. Her long-time friend Connie has shrugged her off in the way that friends sometimes do around this age when our development causes us to grow apart from those we were at one time intensely close to. Jean is more concerned with her own love life and building her own self confidence than caring for her daughter. So Evie is somewhat isolated struggling to understand who she is and what this new body is that she's growing into. Like many adolescents, she learns from magazine and the media that she should work to make herself attractive: “the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” At that time, boys weren't held to the same standards and so don't feel the same level of self consciousness. She remarks “Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love.” There's a sense that if only they can find someone to recognize and value them then they will have worth in the world. It leads Evie to long for a role model to look up to and she finds it when she sees a confident black-haired girl named Suzanne.

Cline describes very well that feeling we have as teenagers where we become so enamoured by someone we want to do whatever we can to be close to and be seen by them. She inveigles her way into Suzanne's circle of friends and the ranch commune she lives at centred around the charismatic Russell. But, for Evie, Suzanne is always her focus. She's powerfully drawn to how Suzanne and her friends “were sure of what they were together”. Evie believes that there must be a point when your identity becomes a solid knowable thing “As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be revealed.” Of course, in reality our identities are constantly shifting as we continue to grow and change throughout our lives, but a vulnerable girl like Evie has no way of knowing this without guidance.

There's a section I love where Cline also gets at that teenage feeling of wanting to be numbed. She references “Valley of the Dolls” and that desire for drugged stasis and Evie's wish for “my body kept alive by peaceful, reliable machines, my brain resting in watery space, as untroubled as a goldfish in a glass bowl.” Rather than face the difficult task of understanding who she is and what she wants as she grows into her adulthood she'd rather be unconscious and wake up at some later stage fully formed. It's a powerful notion and gives one perspective on why teenagers in particular are perhaps so drawn to the blissful effects of drugs and alcohol.

Camp Fire Girls

Camp Fire Girls

Cline also has a powerful way of describing the psychological impact of sex at this age. Evie has a number of sexual encounters which show her natural curiosity, the draw of pleasure and a desire for closeness more than a wish for the physical act itself. Her wish to be near Suzanne produces complex feelings. Men such as Russell have a persuasive way of psychologically manipulating young women into participating in acts they aren't ready for when they aren't outright forcing them to have sex with them. After the fact, Evie expects there to be a shift in the world to match the shift in her own post-sexual mindset: “I wanted the world to reorder itself visibly around the change, like a mend marking a tear.” This strongly describes the way we want the world to substantiate the confusion and internal changes that occur after such a significant life experience.

Although this novel is centred around a violent incident and flashes of this horrendous crime are shown, “The Girls” is more about the incremental stages of adolescent development. Emma Cline's writing reminds me somewhat of Joyce Carol Oates for the way she captures this experience so well while also creating vividly rendered characters, scenes and metaphors. There is a relatable intensity to Evie's psychology as she is not innocent, but stumbles towards finding what she wants in life and can be persuaded into discarding any sense of morality in favour of being accepted by people she idolizes. This is an intense, insightful and engaging novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmma Cline
5 CommentsPost a comment

I had the pleasure of hearing Rose Tremain read from her new novel “The Gustav Sonata” at a special event at Waterstones Piccadilly several weeks ago. The section she read and her writing in general has a wonderful way of drawing you into the lives/experiences of her characters so I was eager to read this new novel – especially since I loved her previous book “The American Lover” which is a collection of short stories. It’s admirable how Tremain never sticks to writing about any one particular genre, subject matter, time period or area of the world. Her books span from historical novels set in the court of Charles II to the mid-1800s New Zealand gold rush to stories about migrant works in modern London. “The Gustav Sonata” primarily takes place in pre and post-WWII Switzerland (with a later leap to the more recent past). Given its location it gives an interesting slant on the war and the meaning of neutrality by focusing on the lives of two different families affected by the greater conflict. It’s a deeply immersive story about loyalty during times of conflict, ambition, betrayal and family strife that made me stay up late at night longing to read more.

The novel centres around a Swiss boy named Gustav whose single mother Emilie struggles to make ends meet while working in an Emmental cheese factory. His father Erich died at an early age, but was once an assistant police chief during the tense period in the lead up to the war. In 1948, a six year old Gustav befriends a new Jewish boy named Anton at school. Emilie resents her son’s companion because she blames their diminished circumstances on the influx of Jewish refugees. It’s not difficult to see how these embittered isolationist feelings still resonate today in current political opinions. Despite his mother’s objections, Gustav and Anton form a special bond which continues throughout their lives. Questions raised about how Emilie got to this difficult point are answered in the second part of the novel which moves back to 1937 to recount her tumultuous marriage with Erich. The third part of the book then skips far forward to the end of the 20th century to show how dilemmas about his family and his country’s past still resonate for Gustav in his later years.

Tremain skilfully raises many difficult questions about what happens to political allegiance, social responsibility and moral conscience when put under the pressure of warfare. Being only a boy during WWII, it takes Gustav a lifetime to untangle the truth and meaning of the decisions his parents and their friends took at the time. It’s remarked how “Europe is at war. Fairness is now becoming a word without meaning.” There is no balanced view when embroiled in the fear and terror of this conflict. When looking at specific actions from a historical point of view, it’s easy to judge what was right and wrong. But when facing conflict in the present when you’re aware of different negative outcomes no matter what decision you make, the choice is not always so clear. By moving backwards and forwards in time through different parts of this novel, Tremain artfully shows the true nightmarish dilemma faced by ordinary people caught in a large-scale battle.

I also greatly appreciated the dynamic view of transforming sexuality represented in the personal lives of her characters. Throughout their entire adult lives all of the characters find their desire changes which also transforms their points of view. Lottie, the wife of Erich’s friend Roger, is a particularly fascinating character who finds herself drawn to the forbidden and struggles to express her sexuality within the narrow confines of society. Also, there’s a particularly memorable and disturbing section where a mentally-disturbed young neighbour attempts to sexually abuse Gustav when he’s still a boy. Although this character and his actions are reprehensible, he is still treated in a balanced way as he is evidently a victim of shock treatment and other damaging medical therapies of the time. There is also an innocently intimate scene between Gustav and Anton as boys which is so delicately portrayed. Tremain has a tremendous ability for writing intelligently and sensitively about the ever-evolving sexuality of a broad range of characters.

A subterranean melody plays throughout Gustav’s journey in this novel. As a child Anton is an aspiring pianist and his desire for fame hangs upon him throughout his life despite his crippling performance anxiety. He frequently plays Beethoven and other composers to Gustav. It’s extraordinary how I started to almost hear this music playing as I progressed in reading the novel. Like great works of music, “The Gustav Sonata” has a subtly transformative effect saying what can’t be overtly stated by using a juxtaposition of characters, place and images. It also made me salivate to try Emilie’s favourite desert Nusstorte! This is an exceptionally beautiful and accomplished novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRose Tremain
7 CommentsPost a comment

At just sixty pages, “Loop of Jade” is a strong slender book of poetry. I had an odd experience reading it over a number of days as I found myself occasionally flipping to the back to see how many more poems awaited and every time I checked it felt like there were more. It was as if they were continuing to multiply or that the book was growing a tail to extend out further and further. I think this is because poetry, and particularly Howe's evocative poetry, has the effect of levelling time. The past, present and future can be experienced together. Even though many of the poems in this book obviously come from a very specific personal place, the weighty themes of identity and particularly society's diminishment of women are universal. There is a feeling in the language used that what has come before is coming again, that our patterns of thought and that our memories too spin round and round, that we live and travel in ever widening and continuous circles. This is informed poetry with something important to say.

Some of this writing such as the devastating poem ‘Tame’ have a more narrative or fairy tale feel. Here the value of female life and freedom is superseded by their perceived economic value. The poem 'Islands' is in a similar style yet has a more coming of age structure and surprises with lines of brutal reality that hit like a hammer: “She said she saved me from the refuse heap, from being eaten by the dogs with other scraps.” In the extended title poem ‘Loop of Jade’ micro-poems seem embedded within the larger poem which is composed of the stories told by a mother. There is an intensely felt gap between the experience between the mother and narrator: “myself a waving spot, unseen, on the furthest shore.” Yet there is a sense of continuation and connection between generations in the inherited “loop” which serves as a talisman forming a physical connection to the past and possible future.

There are poems here about love affairs and the act of creativity as well as strong poetry about identity and the question of place. This repeated phrase in 'Crossing from Guangdong' takes on great profundity: “Something sets us looking for a place.” The inclusion of multiple languages in the excellent poem 'Others' pays tributes to the blend of cultures and skin itself through generations. One of the strongest themes of this collection is the treatment of women in a patriarchal society. This is particularly true in China, but in the west as well. The institutionalized way in which women are valued below men so that we become blind to the ways in which this occurs. It seems to me that the intention of many of these poems are to sharpen our focus on how this works. One poem gives a perfect metaphor for this shift in point of view: “like at a put-off optician’s trip, when you realise how long you’ve been seeing things wrongly.”

Howe intelligently reexamines attitudes about gender in classical figures. In ‘Sirens’ she traces the disfigurement of women through literature that makes them into strange creatures because of a fear of desire: “for lust brings with it many monsters.” Later the same scrutiny is put to the Sphinx and the dividing line between genders. She also takes on Shakespeare stating in one poem that “On the heath, Lear assumes all ragged madmen share ungrateful daughters.”

This powerful poetry affirms the need of books to widen our view of history to include points of view which have no voice. There is a striking statement about the dominant political forces which have seized the narrative of history, but are mindful of the alternative narratives they've suppressed: “In their dreams, our long-lost books nightly buckle & char.” There is also much playfulness and humour to be found in this book which mentions Michael Flatley in one poem and where folklore mixes with research on Wikipedia. Howe demonstrates how she is in dialogue with many other poets as well referencing authors as varied as Theodore Roethke, Homer, Horace, Ezra Pound and Peter Streckfus. The most startling and beautiful thing about Sarah Howe's poems are the way she uses colours and shading to form images in the mind so I felt like I'd spent a long time gazing at paintings rather than simply reading.

Sarah Howe is one of the writers shortlisted for The Sunday Times/Peter Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. The winner will be announced this month. I'm so glad this excellent prize has introduced me to Howe's writing. 

Read an interview with Sarah Howe here.

One of the longest flights I’ve taken in my life was from London to Beijing several years ago. Flying over the vast mountains and tundra of northern Asia I was amazed how incredibly desolate it was. Looking at a blank space on a map can’t convey the hundreds of miles of inaccessible emptiness that exists when you glide over it at such a height. Flying has the potential to radically shift your spatial awareness of the world. Or it may just be an isolated amount of time to catch up on reading or watching movies. I find our relationship to flying fascinating and I once wrote an absurdist short story about passengers in an airplane watching people rise from the earth. You can listen to a recording of this story ‘Rise’ being read by the actor Matt Alford at Liars’ League NYC here. Although people have many different reactions to the experience of flying, few have given such a sustained and deeply sensitive amount of thought about it as pilot Mark Vanhoenacker has in his book “Skyfaring.” This is an extended meditation on the process of flying and the way it transforms our relationship to the world we inhabit.

Vanhoenacker has flown all over the planet having worked for around a dozen years as a commercial 747 airline pilot. In this book he combines his technical insight about the mechanics of flight with his poetic sensibility about his place in the world. He focuses on particular subjects such as 'machine', 'air', 'water' or 'night' by combining scientific knowledge with meditations upon his experiences in flight. He's like a modern Antoine de Saint-Exupery who I first read last year. Of course, Vanhoenacker references him as well as many other writers to support different points he makes or illuminate profoundly different ways of viewing the world. He draws upon a wide variety of literary sources from the poet Rumi to Emily Bronte to Joan Didion. The convergence of all these things in this book creates deep-feeling insights on the distance between the self and the world around us.

Watch Mark Vanhoenacker read from and discuss his book Skyfaring at University Bookstore in Seattle.

What's so engaging about “Skyfaring” is Vanhoenacker's beautiful style of writing which provokes deep contemplation. It exhibits both an authoritative understanding and a ceaseless wonder. Stories of his life-long journey towards becoming a pilot are combined with specific experiences he's had flying around the world. There is a curiosity and excitement he shows about the naming of places, the nature of clouds, the poignancy of anonymous encounters which is infectious and makes you want to read more. It also paints the world and skies he sees on his flights with such exquisite detail it helps you re-experience and re-view those times you spent looking out of a plane's window. This book is a deeply thoughtful and enjoyable read.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson