Tag Archives: writing

Henrik Ibsen — At Home and At Work

We went to see Henrik Ibsen’s home on Friday. In Oslo. We were in Oslo! It was cold for a summer day, quite rainy, never did really stop raining the whole time. So all my photos have a tremendous background of grey skies and water. Still, Oslo is a lovely place.

Reading Ibsen again was good too — I confess I read him too young. I read The Doll House I think, long long ago. Didn’t really understand it, what could I know of bourgeois emptiness and the disfigurement of women under hypocritical middle-class moralities? Like another planet, and a fairly boring, if not downright nasty one. I remember not liking it.

I like Ibsen so much better now — I worry, perhaps, that I know too much now about bourgeois emptiness. But still only from the outside. I can see, though, why Eleanor Marx would work so hard to translate them into English, why she wrote of seeing Hedda Gabler (1890) in the theatre and emerging transfixed. It was my favourite of these three. There are women here who save, and women who destroy, but all of them feel like real women. Rounded. Fighting their boundaries and the customs that hem them in, even if like Hedda, they don’t have the self-awareness to fight well. This is the tragedy of women who have not found meaning in life, but know that it is missing. Know that the narrow role allotted them is not enough. Hedda wasn’t brave enough to strike through to the centre of things — maybe she wouldn’t have been a nasty bully if she had. I wonder. But she was too brave to live constrained under the power of a man.

The there is The Pillars of the Community (1877). Here Lona has returned from the New World to the Old to shake out the stuffiness and the hypocrisy. She knows just what she wants, is comfortable in her own skin. The New World continues to be a place for Europeans to reinvent themselves, escaping the constraints and disfigurings of middle-class society. Here, the possibilities it offered and the woman who has grasped them, win a happy ending for everyone.

It felt a bit didactic, but I quite loved it as exemplary of that Victorian capitalist who long ago ceased to exist — the one who grew rich on others’ misery yet who was firmly anchored in position and place. This led to a paternalism, a sense of duty, a sense of being a pillar of the community. While it is entirely hypocritical to say that their investments were disinterested, they still had a care to ensure their investments could be seen as building and growing their community.

Hell of paternalistic and hypocritical though — here he has secretly bought up all the land where he is trying to bring a railway line in:

Karsten Bernick: See, I have risked this for the good of the community.

Lona Hessel calls him on it. You have to like her.

Karsten Bernick: And isn’t it the community itself that forces us into crooked ways? What would have happened here if I hadn’t dealt secretly? They would all have thrown themselves into the concern, divided it, scattered it, mismanaged and bungled the whole thing…That’s why my conscience absolves me in this particular case. It is only in my hands that these properties can become of permanent benefit to the many people they will provide with a living. (97)

He is, of course, in the process of replacing workers with machines, forcing them beyond their capacities, and almost commits murder. But at the last moment he is saved from his own self, which allows him to see himself truly and repent. Come out to the community he has felt so constrained by, even as he comes clean. A nice moral.

I liked the The Wild Duck (1884) better. Liked that the wealthy idealist in this play does more damage than good. Is as blind as his avaricious father, but in different ways.  I loved how this play turned The Pillars of the Community on its head in a sense, complicated the value of truth, showing its destructive power. I particularly loved this interchange:

Relling: While I remember it, young Mr Werle — don’t use that exotic word ‘ideals’. We have a good enough native word: ‘lies’.

Gregers: Do you mean the two things are related?

Relling: Yes. Like typhus and typhoid fever. (244)

I’m still thinking about Relling’s ‘medical’ use of the ‘saving lie’. Just another way towards misery, but whether more or less miserable is a difficult question. Hjalmar Ekdal is a vain, weak man. Perhaps What was best was whatever kept little Hedvig and the wild duck alive.

Ibsen’s house and the museum attached was by far the priciest thing we saw in Oslo, apart from perhaps Engebret Cafe, where Ibsen ate on occasion along with Grieg and Bjornstjerne Bjornson and etc (and where Munch was kicked out of, after accusing staff of stealing his gloves and scarf). It was delicious however, and all paneled wood, which you know I loved.

 Oslo - Engebret Cafe

I failed completely to get a good shot of Ibsen’s home’s exterior… here is an oblique shot, where this wonderful statue faces the park where the palace sits:

Ibsen in Oslo

What it once looked like:

We had walked across the park to get to the museum from one of the precisely ten thousand Scandic hotels scattered across the city. It was bought when Ibsen was old and famous and rolling in funds — and so he ended his days in a setting very much like one of his plays:

In face he did all the decorations himself, like his own stage set. It is quite opulent. The dining room and salon (with colours all off due to the light):

Ibsen in Oslo

His amazing study — his wife used to sell tickets to see it after he died, people would line up. She lived here until her death in 1914. It was turned into dentist offices before being returned to almost its original state:

Ibsen in Oslo

They even rescued the bath from a farmer’s fields.

Ibsen wrote five hours every day. Exactly.

One one wall of the study, Ibsen hung a huge portrait of Strindberg — his mortal enemy. I read Strindberg before our Stockholm adventure, and never got round to blogging that. While I quite liked The Red Room, his plays had me raging over the treatment of women. I prefer Ibsen.

Ibsen in Oslo

Suzannah died in this chair  (on the right behind glass) in the lovely but very little library, sitting up as she had wished

Ibsen in Oslo

Ibsen in Oslo

In addition to his plays with interesting women, there are the lovely hand drawn certificates he made for his wife Suzannah on special days:

Ibsen in Oslo

That was from the museum, full of fascinating odds and ends:

Ibsen in Oslo

Ibsen in Oslo

We didn’t go direct from his home to the Grand Cafe, where he went every day. But we did go. Here is Munch’s drawing of Ibsen at the Grand Cafe:

Oslo

It has changed quite a bit, but still feels very expensive and rather glamorous. We drank wine.

Oslo -- Grand Cafe

Oslo -- Grand Cafe

While wandering we also accidentally passed the location of his first house (I think, it’s in Norwegian) that his wife Suzannah hated, said it was cold and all corridors…

Ibsen in Oslo

I could end with his grave, which we found in Vår Frelsers gravlund…

Oslo -- Vår Frelsers gravlund

But instead will end with the cafe, where we actually found a very decent cup of coffee:

Oslo

Nothing Is Lost: Irvine, Leslie and Miller on Glasgow’s East End

I love the idea that Nothing is Lost. The struggle that it should be so. I long for it, having often felt the vertiginous realistion that you can’t quite remember what used to be in a place before the regeneration kicked off and filled the world with its shiny ugliness, or the equally vertiginous feeling of being lost yourself amongst streets you once knew well. Have fought over. I think much of academia alongside planners and architects and politicians have no words for this loss, no sense of its meaning. I think too often their own positionality prevent them from ever knowing such grief, much less coming to grips with it.

So it needs voices like those found in the collaboration Nothing is Lost both to understand the tangled legacies of regeneration, and to ensure that development does not succeed in erasing what was there before. I could even imagine a world where this kind of work helps form the foundation for rebuilding an area together with its residents to create a place the steps fully into its own potential, conducive to a fullness of life and creativity and wellbeing.

So what then, did the Games bring to the East End? A degree of examination and scrutiny of the city’s true historical centre, its frayed edges, the backdrop to its most shameful statistics of poverty and conflict, a part of Glasgow with a deep-seated and firmly held distrust of its city fathers (and a long list of grievances to support it) did make its way past the boosterism and aggressive myth-making of the organisers….
–Mitch Miller

I loved this beautiful collection of work in its awesome brown cardboard box, a surprise gift from Mitch Miller,  later rushed home from Glasgow to Manchester with anticipation. It hurt me to tear it open and  thus ruin a lovely object, but the contents were worth it of course.

Nothing is Lost Nothing is Lost

Inside three booklets of words, photographs, drawings (and more words), and the incredible dialectograms that unfold to display complex drawings mapping out the interactions between people and the spaces they live in and create. I am more than a little obsessed with those at the minute — love them so much I have already given one away to someone from one of the communities depicted. They are too precious to hoard. Because look:

I have without shame stolen some of the photographs and quoted text from the website (where you too can obtain this beautiful thing). Alison Irvine, novelist and tremendous writer on Schipka Pass:

Schipka Pass. The name is no help. It gives no clue to the gaudy, ramshackle lane between the Gallowgate and London Road that was once a cut through and then an in shot housing an eclectic flea market. It gives no indication of the splendour of the surrounding tenements, long since knocked down. I google the name, Schipka Pass, and try to find out the lane’s roots. Folk on Glasgow chat forums say there’s a Schipka Pass in Bulgaria, the site of a battle between peasants and Turks in the 1700s, and speculate that someone associated with the lane in Glasgow had ancestors who fought there. I don’t even know how to pronounce Schipka, but follow Gary’s lead and use a hard ‘k’ as in Skipka rather than a Connery-esque ‘Shkipka’ as I’ve also heard it pronounced.

Her words capture the experience for those of us who could not be there, the flavour of place and feeling, the smell and sound of the bright caf or the muddy chaotic laughing park as people talk about their work, their homes, their memories. My favourite I think was the chapter on Schipka Pass. That might perhaps just be because it took on the legacy of trader Dick Barton (!). So for me, and I suspect for many, there was a whole other layer of utter delight every time I read the name and this music running through my head for the whole of it. It seems to match the pace of his son’s banter.

Chris Leslie’s photographs reminded me I knew Schipka Pass when I lived there, but only ever as a wasteland.

Chris Leslie -- Nothing is Lost Chris Leslie Nothing is LostAs Leslie describes it:

The Wasteland

Schipka Pass – initially a hive of Victorian tenements and bustling back courts, a handy shortcut to get from the Gallowgate to London Road and eventually a flea market akin to Paddy’s Market, bizarrely and somewhat unfittingly named after a pass in the Balkan’s Russo-Turkish War of 1877.

In the latter end of the 20th century it was spiritual home to Dick Barton, who covered his flea market with handmade painted signs of football rants, messages of public safety (beware of yawning dogs) and urban myths of a brothel called Sheik-Ma-Tadger. Empty and dormant since the 80s all that survived was the Patrick Thistle-coloured painted boards. When a wallpaper shop went on fire for several hours in 2011 the whole street level of shops was demolished and then boarded up, leaving another huge crater scarring the East End landscape.

This captures only a small taste of the wealth to be found in these writings and photographs. I feel that the Sheik-Ma-Tadger brothel will of a surety make an appearance at some point in my own stories in its honour.

Back to Alison Irvine, her talks with Robert Kennedy, local boy made good and building an adventure playground from the ground up. Reminding me of how connected the very basics are in communities like ours across the world. This reminded me of the Black Panther breakfast programs — a startling contrast even as I thought it, yet one which holds.

Feed the children, he says. Help out the parents whose budgets during school holidays are burst because they’re having to find money for breakfast and lunch when in term time these meals are provided for free at school. (37)

Irvine talks with a man with a name that actually beats that of Dick Barton:

Raecher Hiscoe thumps the cover of one of the seats on his family’s Sky Dive. ‘That’s the skin,’ he says, in answer to my question. ‘We take the skins off, inspect the steel frames, repaint them as needed, repair any damage and then we reassemble them. Stick your head beneath the floors and get an idea of the layout.’ The ride is mostly packed away but I crouch and take a look.

We’re in a shed in Carntyne, hired by a group of travelling showpeople, including Raecher and his family, to enable them to open out their rides and do the maintenance and safety tests required for the start of the show season. Inside the shed, rides stand in their unlit, undressed state, half opened out, steel arms stretching towards cold corners.

The stories of Dalmarnock’s travellers, how lives and patterns and spaces have changed. Dalmarnock, that I only ever walked through once, knew mostly as a name in a list being called as I waited for my train. Which brings us finally to Mitch Miller’s dialectograms:

For me it meant going back to the work I had done on my own community, Glasgow’s travelling showpeople. ‘We’ form the largest minority group in the schools of Shettleston and Carntyne, and before the new housing that came to Dalmarnock, its largest group of residents. Yet this community – one that has been in Dalmarnock for forty years, and associated with the wider East End for nearly two hundred – has rarely been discussed, despite being directly in the path of Clyde Gateway’s redevelopments. As Alex James Colquhoun, the former Chair of the Showman’s Guild (based just over the river at Cambuslang) noted, not one member of the community made it into Commonwealth City the BBC Scotland documentary on the changes taking place in the Dalmarnock area. Not even the aerial shots that swept over Springfield Road, Baltic or Mordaunt Street or Dalmarnock Road itself captured a single one of the twenty or so yards that line Swanston Street, just a few metres away from all of these thoroughfares.

Mitch Miller Nothing is Lost

I can’t begin to capture the wealth of stories, drawings, photographs held here, but I loved them. Together I think they explore in a most beautiful and complementarily detailed way the connections between people and place going back over generations, the stories hidden in today’s empty spaces and fading advertisements, the grief and loss caused by decay, ‘slum removal’, ‘regeneration’. Above all the ignorance built into a profit-driven process with no understanding of the wealth that exists here or ability to ever see it, making hope so precarious for meaningful improvement.

Hearing resident voices, seeing with new eyes what was there and what is gone, exploring through drawings how people connect to each other and inhabit a space to render it place — all of this allows the complexities of everyday life to surface in areas shaped by the structural violence of poverty and discrimination. The kindnesses and community and individual violences these larger structures engender, the hope and the despair, the beautiful and the far-from-beautiful-but-hell-of-interesting (and itsn’t that often so much better)? All of the things that create meaning, and that do so in relation to one another as they grow up over time — it is this old forest growth that is cut down by development, to be replaced with standardized and regimented rows that grimly shine.

Above all, Nothing is Lost throws into high relief the understanding that people matter without judgments or reservations. An understanding that rarely connects with the slick promises of regeneration, which too often simply brushes them away.

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Two Poems by Derek Walcott (colonialism, cities, words of fire…)

A City’s Death by Fire

After that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city’s death by fire;
Under a candle’s eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire. (6)

Origins

VII

The sea waits for him, like Penelope’s spindle,
Ravelling, unravelling its foam
Whose eyes bring the rain from far countries, the salt rain
That hazes horizons and races,
Who, crouched by our beach fires, his face cracked by deserts,
Remembering monarchs ask us for water
Fetched in the fragment of an earthen cruse,
and extinguishes Troy in a hissing of ashes,
In a rising of cloud.

Clouds, vigorous exhalations of wet earth,
In men and in beasts the nostrils exalting in rain scent,
Uncoiling like mist, the wound of the jungle,
We praise those whose back on hillsides buckles on the wind
To sow the grain of Guinea in the mouths of the dead,
Who, hurling their bone-needled nets over the cave mouth,
Harvest ancestral voices from its surf.
Who, lacking knowledge of metals, primarily of gold,
Still gather the coinage of cowries, simple numismatists,
Who kneel in the open sarcophagi of cocoa
To hallow the excrement of our martyrdom and fear,
Whose sweat, touching earth, multiplies in crystals of sugar
Those who conceive the birth of white cities in a raindrop
And the annihilation of races in the prism of the dew. (15-16)

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God I Enjoyed The Sellout by Paul Beatty

If only I enjoyed all prize-winning books a fraction as much as this one by Paul Beatty. I laughed out loud reading this on the long plane journey home, and I needed some laughter for that journey back to a wintry reality far from my family. Now this is the LA I love — complex, mixed up, full of chickens and kitchen gardens and farms too, hell of segregated, violent, funny, and pretty damn woke.

LA always hurt like hell too.

All that, and then there’s the language, oh the language.

When I was ten, I spent a long night burrowed under my comforter, cuddled up with Funshine Bear, who, filled with a foamy enigmatic sense of language and Bloomian dogmatism, was the most literary of the Care Bears and my harshest critic. In the musty darkness of that rayon bat cave, his stubby, all-but-immobile yellow arms struggled to hold the flashlight steady as together we tried to save the black race in eight words or less. (11)

That might just be my favourite passage, though tinged with jealousy because I always wanted a Care Bear and never did get one.

So later on he’s smoking up some homegrown (those names for his gardening genius elicited a lot of laughter I can tell you) in the Superior Court, amazing, and hello Clarence Thomas:

All I know is that the sour-faced Justice with the post-racial chronometer won’t stop looking at me. His beady eyes fixed in this unblinking and unforgiving stare, he’s angry that I’ve fucked up his political expediency…

There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokenus hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the black working-man’s motto, but now the entire country can see this one, our collective noses pressed to glass in amazement that he’s been able to camouflage his Alabama jet-black ass against the red, white, and blue of the American flag for so long. (20)

Oh shit, that is beautiful. Beautiful, and yet it gets even better (though maybe just because I’m obsessed with these lines, with the geographies of life, belief, language, opportunity):

You can assimilate the man, but not the blood pressure, and the vein pulsating angrily down the middle of his forehead gives him away. he’s giving me that crazy, red-eyed penetrating look that back home we call the Willowbrook Avenue Stare, Willowbrook Avenue being the four-lane river Styx that in 1960s Dickens separated white neighborhoods from black, but now, post-white, post-anybody-with-two-nickels-to-rub-together-flight, hell lies on both sides of the street. The riverbanks are dangerous, and while standing at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change, your life can change. Some drive-by homie, representing some color, clique, or any one of the five stages of grief, can stick his gauge out the passenger-side window of a two-tone coupe, give you the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare and ask, “Where you from, fool?” (22)

Damn, ‘the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare’? And ain’t that something about how these dividing lines stay with us, long after they’ve been rendered invisible by the flight of wealth and resources.

I was talking with my friend Debbie Humphrey, doing an about how writing fiction compares with writing a thesis on racism and struggle. An interesting question I’m still thinking about, probably will always be thinking about, but in trying to describe what this novel means to me…well. It does things academic work could never do, plays with possibilities and with feelings. Plays with how you might recover a community’s pride and identity through just drawing a line — and how that might be a positive thing, not a violent turf thing. Interesting question in LA because turf…I fucking hate so much how LA is full of lines, dividing up identity and the drug trade, our youth defending territory to the death. And so many of them die. They die in this novel.

I loved that awkward shaky paint line and that fake freeway sign reclaiming Dickens after white planners had erased it from the city’s official landscape.

It plays with that idea (and who hasn’t heard this idea?) that everything was actually better back in the day, when segregation kept all classes living close together. When segregation meant that everyone knew damn well they were all in it together, and kept them fighting for the race as a whole. Plays with the idea that something was lost when some of segregation’s walls came down, and everyone with a nickel fled. What it might look like if  some sleight of hand were to make it seem as though it were being recreated as it once was. A trick highlights segregation’s continued reality and shows that its existence requires clarity to inspire resistance. It asks hard questions (without actually asking questions, because, you know, this is fiction with a story to tell and a lot of satire along the way) about what so much struggle has actually won, and where we’re at now. Asks questions about the nature of change itself, what steps lead to liberation and what steps to a new form of old oppression.

It plays with the power of making a ubiquitous and politically correct racism visible again, naming it, showing it for what it is by insisting on a (faked and slightly half-assed) return to older, harsher forms whose clarity made it easy to know what you were fighting and have inspiration to fight. Slavery. Official white-only schools. Hominy (that name!) demanding he be considered a slave, demanding regular whipping — it embodies so many of the costs of racism, and shit, the Little Rascals? So vile and yet, this is where fame and money and work as an actor were to be found… The opposite side from the Nicholas Brothers of the damage done to artists through Jim Crow. Damage that continues in carefully colorblind language and tokenisation.

Yet the solution to this need to be whipped? Hilarious, and gives me some faith things are a bit better. Because, you know, there are places you can go for that, and no one will judge.

It plays with urban farming and self-reliance. With the trials of being raised by a political father. With the good and bad of philosophy, activism, struggle. It manages a lot of pain and knowledge, reflections on life and our heritage and our responsibility.

That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book–that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you. (115)

Amazing to manage all of that, and still…be full of laughter. There’s more I should say, so much more here, will be so much more waiting for me when I re-read it, but now I got some rewrites to do. One more blog and that will be me for a while.

Valletta’s Spaces of Stone

Valletta’s architecture is unified in its building material — as is all of Malta it seems, but here it is most striking how this unifies the old and the new. Renzo Piano’s fabulous new city gate rises up as you enter, it’s massive square forms work beautifully in this space, as modern as they are. I wish I had taken more pictures.

Valleta

Just as I wish I had more pictures of the opera house beyond (the columns visible just beyond), where they chose not to rebuild the massive building left in ruins by WWII bombs, but to leave its foundations and columns to embrace an outdoor performance space, which I also quite loved. Similar pictures of the ruins were shown several time through the Cities as Community Spaces conference, a symbol of the city’s resilience.

Valletta opera-house-8-april-1942Valletta is in fact surrounded by monumental space, this stairway rises up to the left as you enter, leading to Hastings gardens along the battlements that protect the city.

Valletta

I’ll come back to those because they are fascinating, but still what most captivated me were the narrow streets in this Renaissance city, originally named the most humble city of Valletta, after the Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean de Vallette, who had successfully led the defense of the island against the Ottoman Turks in 1565. This city on the isthmus was to solidify defenses — and you can tell. Built in 40 years by Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, student of Michelangelo, and finished by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, I am curious to explore how it connects to other city planning from this time. Their auberges — grand renaissance building with a municipal feel that housed the langues and now house museums and government offices — are familiar, the churches also:

IMG_5070

These wonderful grand colonnaded spaces

Valletta

But the streets laid out in a perfect (then almost revolutionary) grid with these wonderful balconies — these are like nothing I had ever seen.

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

It is a city where the whole is beautiful to look upon, but the details are as well…

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

And just look at these balconies, the individuality they bring to each building front, and the craftsmanship of them, they all seem to have their individual touches amplified by the passing of time and the histories of their owners:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Interesting, though, that so many of them are enclosed and hardly large enough to be used as extended living spaces. They seem used for laundry and plants. You could not squeeze a table and chairs outside as we saw so often in Paris, you cannot easily connect and talk to your neighbour next door or across the way, even with the windows wide open as they are above. It seems an opportunity missed, a reflection of a more enclosed society or perhaps an aspect of the city that helps create one. Nor are there stoops or enough space to extend living into the doorways and streets the way families do in say New York. Much of this seems concentrated in the squares, but still, I wonder at the impact on the everyday life and conviviality.

These streets contain atmosphere, and the surprise lost through the absence of twists and turns is found instead in the variegated building surfaces and the faded palimpsests painted onto stone, the flaking remnants of the past .

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

I don’t have a picture of the old grafittied pictures of ships that was pointed out to me by someone from Valletta as we walked back from a panel through the streets — her friend had uncovered it as he was cleaning the stone. There is no telling how old it is, a deep ochre red and it looked like pictures of the galleys so prevalent in the Mediterranean I have seen in books. She told me too the use of statues of saints at the street corners instead of street signs — St Christopher easily recognisable embodied in stone for those unable to read the letters of his name. We laughed that no longer are we literate in that way. I had a thought to catalogue them, but it fell away, saints are not my favourite things, and these are many of them grand, not the humble saints dressed in hand-sewn clothing I am more used to. But I do love shrines.

Valletta

This on the other hand…on the grand masters palace on the edge of George’s Square. Perhaps this was explained on one of the tours or if I could hit upon the right search terms, I usually love grotesques but this man in European dress riding what seems to be a naked African woman? Telling, if rather horrible.

Valletta

I only really noticed it my last day, because always your eyes are drawn to the life in the square — though early on a Sunday as I headed to the airport is was more quiet than I ever saw it:

Valletta

There are fountains here which must be wonderful in summer, it was  always full of children, including two little girls swanning through delightedly on scooters. Tourists and townfolk and migrants alike make use of the many places to sit that ring the square, as did I the night I wandered here alone. It is a lovely space, especially at night when the cafes overflow and there is lively talk and the clink of glasses and the smell of food…

Funny that it almost never smells of the sea here. Yet the sea surrounds it, on the other side of these enormous fortifications. This is looking towards Sliema:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Finding these fields tucked away made me so happy though, I can’t image football in this kind of setting! I was glad too, as many of the conference speakers mentioned the way they had played football in the streets as children — streets now very full of cars, and it’s true no children play there now.

Valletta

More views, this of Fort Manoel with the massive luxury build in Sliema behind it:

Valletta

Back over Valletta itself — in the foreground graffiti. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee, I was happy to find Mohammed Ali quoted here.

Valletta

Valletta at night — it is magical, I confess I wrote reams, though nothing coalesced quite into a story. My thoughts circled around Caravaggio for some reason, swaggering through the streets. It struck me that sober he wanted to be like the knights who were lords of all this, and that drunk he wanted to destroy them. It is easy to imagine him wandering through streets such as these, unlike England the modern almost never intrudes to break the atmosphere. Maybe the story will come, tinged with the recent car bombings, the old man wandering down the street with a bird in a tiny cage held reverently between his hands, chirping as he went. The undercurrents you can feel here, though I am ignorant of their precise nature.

Valletta

Valleta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Looking across from the other side of Valletta, towards the Forti Sant’ Anġl

Valletta

There are spaces underneath as well — I was lucky enough to visit the air raid shelter beneath the Crypt of St Augustine where the conference dinners were hosted. The crypt itself is a beautiful vaulted space where many lived during WWII, escaping down rickety stairs at the sirens. Boards covered the puddles of water at the bottom, we half-drunkenly explored the long passages and rooms and it was wonderful.

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

I had to leave too soon. But luck brought me a window seat, and it is from the air that you can best appreciate how small Valletta is, and the position it holds within this much larger urban conglomeration. I loved the fields as well, these are small plots that can never become too mechanised or monocultured.

Valletta from the air

Valletta from the air

I think this was Gozo in fact, but you can see the stark lines of the towns and the terracing of the hillsides, even if you can’t quite see the wonderful blues of the sea itself.

Malta from the air

A wonderful place, I am so thankful for the luck and generosity of those I love that allowed me come here.

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Writing Cities: Oath of Fealty and right-wing utopian enclaves

oath-of-fealty-niven-pournelleOath of Fealty is one of the more vile and viciously right wing novels I’ve read, though to be fair I haven’t read many of them at all. But this is something like Ayn Rand – wig askew and on her 13th pink gin fizz – going off on a paranoid scree about the muggers and rapists who are all out to kill her. Because she’s so rich and talented and beautiful and they just can’t handle that so she’s bought 10 attack dogs and built a concrete bunker.

It’s all about taking the gated community to the next level, making it a maze of about a cubic square mile with about a quarter of a million people. It towers like a monstrous black cube in an area essentially burned down by its own residents – I would guess Watts or Compton. It’s powered by hydrogen, fed through pipes from ‘a complex of nuclear breeder plants in Mexico’.

Ah, the outsourcing of risk and contaminants.

It calls itself Todos Santos – All Saints – why do white people in the Southwest always call their high-end real estate developments nice things in Spanish? A patronising nod to the people they stole the land from? Easier to pronounce than indigenous phrases for ‘Pretty View’ and ‘Mountain Hills’? But the authors aren’t being entirely metaphorical in calling the residents saints. Apparently you can pick them out of a crowd of poor old Angelinos, they are the shiny beautiful people who move in a certain way, speak in a certain way. They are a new kind of person.

THINK OF IT AS EVOLUTION IN ACTION.

I thought at first this rather chilling slightly fascist slogan must be ironic or a nod to the dangers this kind of project could raise. But no. These really are a ‘better kind’ of people, helped by those who commit suicide or get themselves killed. They like this slogan, paint it on walls, put it on stickers and huge banners like a big F-you to L.A.

The utopia?

We’re running a civilization, something new in this world, and don’t bother to tell me how small it is. It’s a civilization. The first one in a long time where people can feel safe’ (18).

Constantly watched, constantly surveilled and monitored. But the many guards are their friends. They don’t arrest people for being too drunk the way the terrible LAPD does, they walk you home. What is better than being safe after all? We know that the real danger is from criminal poor people who are all on the outside, hopped up to their eyeballs on drugs and trying to shoot down helicopters.

Todos Santos is of course trying to be completely separate from Los Angeles – the crime, the pollution, the drugs, the poor people. There’s a lot of anger in this book about how the government forces all of us to become accountants to pay our taxes, and the pain of collecting receipts and things. A whole lot of anger. Familiar tea party sort of anger. Trump kind of anger. Taxes in Todos Santos don’t go to welfare and they are part of your mortgage payment to the company – kindly saving you from wasting any thought on them at all. It’s a bit feudal, yeah, but they had some good ideas back then. Oath of Fealty rendered, everything else taken care of. Awesome. Of course, I can’t quite understand how this fits with America, Land of the Free in their heads, or their hatred of big government…I mean, my opinion is that these fit together because the residents of Todos Santos don’t see poor people, particularly poor Black and Brown people, as real Americans or as any kind of people they can cooperate in a democracy or a community with, sad facts that have forced them to secede and build something new. Something they may one day conquer and colonise outer space with. But I don’t think they think that, or at least, openly admit that.

Instead the book tries to show it’s not racist by trying to admit that some discrimination exists but it’s less than you think, and making one of the high executives Black. Well. Teak colored in the book’s own words. He’s a bit estranged from other African-Americans and admits there are only maybe a hundred among a quarter million, but his homies break him out of the L.A. prison he gets sent to after he kills a couple of kids pretending to be terrorists and becomes a hero to the population. That’s a long story I won’t go into, who’d want to give away such a sparkling plot?

The kids are sent in by activists to test the defences, because that’s what environmental activists do, right? Use kids without remorse. Make unreasonable demands. The civil rights movement made some unreasonable demands too, which is how they lost the support of the white community

We did care once. A lot of us did. But something happened. Maybe it was the sheer size of the problem. Or watching while everybody who could afford it ran to the suburbs and left the cities to drift, and complained about taxes going to the cities, and—Or maybe it was having to listen to my police explain why they’ll only go into Watts in pairs with cocked shotguns and if the Mayor doesn’t like it he can damn well police that precinct himself.

People think they’ve done enough. (126)

Note the use of the words ‘us’ and ‘people’ to mean white by default. Thinking you’ve done enough when you’ve done worse than nothing is an interesting contradiction noted by many. But let’s get back to the activists. They call people pigs even when they’re not cops – which is silly, cops have really earned that name. Activists are also almost always rapists apparently. Unless they’re women, in which case they are just sadistic and probably Lesbians. ‘She’s probably a Lesbian’ is a direct quote actually, as the ‘heroine’ imagines shutting her in a room full of rats to mentally survive the indignities of being kidnapped. The men probably couldn’t help raping her of course, they’re brutes and she is a stunning model-turned-business-woman who is powerful and talented and successful and rich and they obviously can’t handle all of that.

Anyway, I haven’t even cracked the surface, just released some of my bile. This is a story where you are supposed to cheer on the beleaguered community of alcoholic rich people who can only drink coffee if it’s Irish, creating their Utopia safely insulated from the nuclear power plants and the poor people who pick their lettuces and sweatshop workers who make their clothes and carrying out their own vigilante justice – which is ok, because they don’t kill people unless it’s absolutely necessary, they just paint them and tattoo them. There’s nothing about how the place stays clean or who makes the food etc, and it’s not the kind of fantasy story where house elves are a possibility though it is one in which things science fiction writers dream up are considered really cool and often become true.

The happy ending is the Black dude gets sent to Zimbabwe.

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Poverty, Quesadillas & Alien Interventions: Juan Pablo Villalobos

Juan Pable Villalobos I loved Si viviéremos en un lugar normal
by Juan Pablo Villalobos, enjoyed again the way that fiction can open up experience of home, patria, poverty, frustration, entrapment, and the inflationary economy in ways that non-fiction cannot. This post tells you a very little of the plot but does kind of involve a spoiler, so be warned.

En los anos ochenta en Lagos de Moreno, un pueblo donde hay mas vacas que personas y mas curas que vacas, una familia mas bien pobre intenta sobreponerse a los estramboticos peligros de vivir en Mexico.

On the amazon.co.uk page, this book is being sold as Quesadillas, rather than If Only We Lived in a Normal Place, and this description from the back is translated as:

It’s the 1980s in Lagos de Moreno – a town where there are more cows than people, and more priests than cows – and a poor family is struggling to get by.

Struggling to get by, yes without doubt, but this translation misses the vital point. I’d say rather ‘trying to overcome the absurd dangers of life in Mexico.’ Possibly bizarre rather than absurd. The rest of the translations are my own and done in a little too much haste, and all faults are mine.

This is, above all, a book about absurdity — of poverty, of politics, of life. The sense of absurdity that emerges from the anger that emerges from this poverty. That gut feeling that it doesn’t make sense pushed to its absurd liberatory conclusions that therefore other absurdities are equally likely to exist. The black humour that resonates so strongly with my favourite approach towards getting through the injustices of life. It is the same kind of humour found in The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi, describing the absurdities of Palestinian life under occupation. I adore the fact that both involve alien interventions from outer space (or do they?) because why not? (I mean honestly, why not?) What is stranger than reality, if not the way everyone ignores the injustices of its strangeness?

I can see, though, why they called the English version Quesadillas — delicious morsels of cheese melted inside a tortilla. For me, this use of quesadillas to explain the experience of the Mexican economy in the 80s is almost nostalgic, because here in the UK they remain a treasured memory as any semblance of the cheese required to make them does not exist here. But my own longings are beside the point.

Entramos en una fase de racionamiento de quesadillas que terminó por radicalizar las posturas políticas de todos los miembros de la familia. Nosotros concíamos muy bien la montaña rusa de la economía nacional a partir del grosor de las quesadillas que nos servía mi madre en casa. Incluso habíamos creado categorías: quesadillas inflacionarias, quesadilla normales, quesadillas devaluación y quesadillas de pobre — citadas en orden de mayor opulencia a mayor mezquindad. Las quesadillas inflacionarias eran gordas para evitar que se pudriera el queso que mi madre había comprado en estado de pánico, ante el anuncio de una nueva subida en los precios de los alimentos y el peligro tangible de que la cuenta del súper pasara de los billones a los trillones de pesos. Las quesadillas normales eran las que comeríamos todos los días si viviéramos en un país normal, pero si fuéramos un país normal no comeríamos quesadillas, por lo cual también las llamábamos quesadillas imposibles. Las quesadillas devaluación perdían sustancia por razones psicológicas, más que económicas, eran las quesadillas de la depresión crónica nacional — y eran las más comunes en casa de mis padres. Finalmente teníamos las quesadillas de pobre, en las que la presencia del queso era literaria: abrías la tortilla y en lugar del queso derretido mi madre había escrito la palabra queso en la superficie de la tortilla. Lo que no habíamos conocido todavía era el chantaje del desabastecimiento quesadillesco. (17-18)

In English:

We entered into a phase of rationing quesadillas that ended by radicalizing the political postures of every member of our family. We knew all too well the roller coaster of our national economy through the thickness of the quesadillas that our mother served to us at home. We had even created categories: inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and the quesadillas of the poor — named in order from greatest opulence to greatest meanness. The inflationary quesadillas were fat to prevent the great amount of cheese from going bad that my mother had bought in a panic, confronting the announcement of another hike in the price of food and the tangible danger that the supermarket bill might go from billions to trillions of pesos. The normal quesadillas were those we would have eaten every day if we had lived in a normal country, but if we had lived in a normal country we wouldn’t be eating quesadillas at all, which is why we also called them impossible quesadillas.  The devaluation quesadillas lost substance for psychological reasons, more than economic ones, they were the quesadillas of a chronic national depression — and they were the most common in the house of my parents. Finally, we had the quesadillas of the poor, in which the presence of cheese was only literary: you opened the tortilla and in the place of melted cheese my mother had written the word cheese on the tortilla’s surface. What we still hadn’t yet come to know was the blackmail of the cheese shortage.

Amazing. That encapsulates much of the humour, the next sentence captures how it hits a little below the belt, and makes it hurt:

A mi hermano no le gustaba ser pobre, pero la pobreza de los peregrinos circundantes no modificaba la nuestra, si acaso nos dejaba clasificados como los menos pobres de ese grupo de pobres, lo cual lo único que demostraba era que siempre se podía ser más y más pobre: ser pobre era un pozo sin fondo. (78)

In English:

My brother hated being poor, but the poverty of the surrounding pilgrims didn’t change our own, even if did allow us to classify ourselves as the least poor among this group of poor people, that only demonstrated that it was always possible to be ever more poor: being poor was a well without bottom.

A well without bottom — that’s what it is, isn’t it. And always you are afraid you have further to fall.

Two brothers are already embarked on picaresque adventures here — in search of their two younger brothers who have disappeared (meaning more quesadillas are available for everyone else). Their adventure involves a fight and a split — they lasted longer than I probably would have with any of my brothers, however. Orestes refuses to believe the story of his older brother that they have been abducted by aliens, (Orestes is our hero, they are all names after Greek figures — Aristóteles, Orestes, Arquíloco, Calímaco, Electra, Cástor y Pólux) and he continues on to the city, works out a con involving a machine with a red button, survives, returns. The unfinished shoebox of a house that he hates stands in the way of the development of a rich neighborhood, and they are evicted brutally, watch it torn down in front of them. It is all managed by their wealthy neighbour who also works inseminating cows — Orestes once went to play there with the son, eat their wealthy food, experience their wealth of possessions, and disdain. At one point he has to apologise to them, work for them, and oh, I burned with him. All these feelings. So familiar. There is, too, that feeling that things just happen to you and you have to react, the adrift feeling of circumstances pushing you here and there because you are not someone with the power or money to stand still, make your own fate.

And then:

Aparece una gigantesca nave interplanetaria…

— No puede ser verdad…

¿Y por qué no?

¿Por qué no, papá?

¿Acaso no viviámos en el país en que vivíamos? ¿No se suponía que nos pasaban cosas fantásticas y maravillosas todo el tiempo? ¿No hablábanos con los muertos ¿No decía todo el mundo que éramos un país surrealista? (180-181)

In English:

A giant interplanetary ship appeared…

— It can’t be true…

And why not?

Why not, papa?

Maybe we don’t live in the country in which we live? Didn’t we all know that fantastic and marvelous things happened to us all the time? Did we not speak with the dead? Did we not tell the whole world that we we were a surrealist country?

All the rules are off, and with clicks of the red button on Orestes’ little machine, the house of their dreams is built there in the field, reality constructed in ways that the poor are never able to construct their own realities:

al final, in the end:

Ésta es nuestra casa
Ésta es mi casa
Ahora intenta tirarla (186)

These are the fighting words, now there is something worth defending and everything is different.

This is our house
This is my house
Now just try and tear it down.

Just try.

But, as always, the victory is terribly fragile.

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June Jordan: A handful of flowers and fruits

June Jordan - Directed by DesireA few more poems from June Jordan, easing the end of a rough week where so much had to be done, almost all of it cold-derailed. I love her poetry, love how Jordan always holds in precarious shining balance joy and suffering, life itself as we are bound within it. Part of nature, never apart, and nothing is wholly innocent.

Queen Anne’s Lace

(From Things I Do in the Dark – 1977)

Unseemly as a marvelous an astral renegade
now luminous and startling (rakish)
at the top of its thin/ordinary stem
the flower overpowers and outstares me
as I walk by thinking weeds and poison
ivy, bush and fern or runaway grass:
You (where are you, really?) never leave me
to my boredom: numb as I might like to be.
Repeatedly
you do revive
arouse alive

a suffering. (211)

Her words take my breath away sometimes.

Sunflower Sonnet Number Two

Supposing we could just go on as two
voracious in the days apart as well as when
we side by side (the many ways we do
that) well! I would consider then
perfection possible, or else worthwhile
to think about. Which is to say
I guess the costs of long term tend to pile
up, block and complicate, erase away
the accidental, temporary, near
thing/pulsebeat promises one makes
because the chance, the easy new, is there
in front of you. But still, perfection takes
some sacrifice of falling stars for rare.
And there are stars, but none of you, to spare.

Always they fill me with release, reading in these perfect words the wordless furies I know, resistance I feel.

From Sea to Shining Sea

From Living Room – 1985
6
**

This was not a good time to be married

The Pope has issued directives concerning
lust that make for difficult interaction
between otherwise interested parties

This was not a good time to be married.
This was not a good time to buy a house
at 18% interest.
This was not a good time to rent housing
on a completely decontrolled
rental market.
This was not a good time to be a Jew
when the national Klan agenda targets
Jews as well as Blacks among its
enemies of the purity of the people
This was not a good time to be a tree
This was not a good time to be a river
This was not a good time to be found with a gun
This was not a good time to be found without one
This was not a good time to be gay
This was not a good time to be Black
This was not a good time to be a pomegranate
or an orange
This was not a good time to be against
the natural order

—Wait a minute—

**

7
Sucked by the tongue and the lips
while the teeth release the succulence
of all voluptuous disintegration

I am turning under the trees
I am trailing blood into the rivers
I am walking loud along the streets
I am digging my nails and my heels into the land
I am opening my mouth
I am just about to touch the pomegranates
piled up precarious

This is a good time
This is the best time
This is the only time to come together
Fractious
Kicking
Spilling
Burly
Whirling
Raucous
Messy

Free

Exploding like the seeds of a natural disorder. (330-331)

What better way to respond to such a week, such a world, than this. Together with a dream of growing a much much thicker skin.

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Stars Falling is out today

Stars fallingA new story, ‘Stars Falling,’ is out in the world today! Always feels good to have a new story out. A nice surprise to find an acceptance not a rejection. A surprise that really did me good.

I know they say writing is mostly about rejection, but that doesn’t make it easier really.

So, I am so happy to have a story out. And sad at the same time, because this story makes me damn sad. I am not entirely sure where this story comes from — other than being spewed out by a whole mess of memories and feelings that never usually see the light of day. Mostly from growing up in Tucson, from LA. Mostly of that world where women blame each other for the things men do. That world where they stay with the men who beat them. Maybe this story is a twisted feminist take on domestic violence, but I worry it is not feminist enough. I don’t feel feminism has equipped me very well to deal with the memory of junior high when one girl curled her hands in another girls hair and beat her head into the concrete and there was blood everywhere. The memory of women who thought love was violent passion and jealousy and fighting and making up — and the memory of myself not totally rejecting that idea — despite the amazing model I so luckily had in my parents. It didn’t equip me very well to deal with such contradiction, or the phone call I picked up to hear ‘Bitch, who is this? Bitch, what are you doing at my man’s house? I’m going to come over there and kill you.’

I was pretty sure it was a wrong number. But not entirely. Not after being hit in the face by another ex for stealing her man, even though she was already married again with two kids. I know I gave up on feminism way too early, I didn’t even know about the waves when I gave up. I been writing it, and coming back to it theoretically in various guises, with the help of bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins among others. All of these things being the reason, of course, why feminism is so desperately important.

This story is still back dealing with the part of the world I tried to leave behind, but if life teaches you anything it’s that you can’t really do that. Not that any of this was conscious while I was writing, it’s not how my writing works. Nothing in this is based on anything real except the L.A. bar with its velvet green curtains, pricey martinis and the god-awful band. I had a good night too, with Larry and his friends, and wrote some notes down on a napkin. Like a real writer does. But I look at this thing now I’ve written it and see it as a kind of reworking of these memories, and a channel for the anger that I still carry from years helping women and children get their papers under the Violence Against Women Act, then encountering so many more women going through his — or coming out of this — through tenant work. Most of my anger is for the men, but there is some emerging from the helplessness I felt as women I loved tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back. I know the cycle of violence, know how hard it is, I hate that part of me is still angry at them.

I worked on an asylum case for a man, once, who had been horribly tortured for his work in the community in El Salvador. Good work, important work. Turns out after that he started doing unspeakable things to his wife. Violence to violence, you see. I didn’t know who to be angry at then.

I have said the words ‘you have to leave him or one day he will kill you’, I have said them many times. There’s something else here too, in my mind, which is that I can’t find the right words to describe the strangeness of knowing that of all the women I have known, the woman he did kill was my friend from college who never heard those words from me. White, middle-class, not just crazy smart but also well-able to take care of herself. Esther. She was New York cool, knew arthouse movies and visited galleries and talked nonchalantly about directors and writers and artists — I had never encountered someone my age (well, one year older, all of 18) before. She helped me move into my first apartment. She was so self-possessed, and so impossibly far from the violence of my own world.

I still haven’t been able to come to terms with her death, have started writing things and stopped, started and stopped. I knew domestic violence was as prevalent among rich families as among poor from counselors and therapists I have worked with. I don’t think I could have believed it deep down. It took my partner to remind me that you never really know the demons people are facing. That leave you stabbed and bleeding, dying on the floor.

I have left a prevalence of certain attitudes behind, perhaps, but never violence.

Of all the strong and beautiful women I have known who have lived with fear of death at the hands of their partner, Esther was the best situated to get out. She was the one who did not. Esther still brings tears to my eyes and a riot of feelings I can’t sort out. Except the clarity of missing her and the guilt for not keeping in touch.

Anyway, all of this leaves me a bit ambivalent about ‘Stars Falling’. But I am rather proud it’s the only woman’s voice in this issue, flawed as it may be as a story. I write noir, and love it as a genre, because it grapples with this darkness within us and around us. It grapples in flawed ways, because how else can we try to do it, and don’t we have to try? But noir is also generally so damn male. A little in love with its own violence. A little over fond of violent women stereotypes. These other stories sharing the issue with me are good and tight and I enjoyed them, but they fit in that mold. So it almost feels the wrong company. But I hope in a challenging kind of way, so I am still glad it’s there.

Luckily the other stories I’m currently flogging have nothing like this kind of baggage attached to them.

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Emily Dickinson’s The Gorgeous Nothings

emily dickinson the gorgeous nothingsThis huge hardback book The Gorgeous Nothings is rather breathtaking — despite the fact that really it consists of scribbles from Emily Dickinson. I had earlier flipped through it a bit confused — my mum had got it from the library so I had no fore-warning of just what it contained.

This is what a flip-through will show you, envelop poems on the one side, a careful and spatially exact transcription on the other:

tumblr_mxpuemido31qd3jsao2_1280

Poems written on envelopes carefully undone and opened out, poems that spill out to fit the space allotted, even when it is tiny.

emily dickinson the gorgeous nothingsScraps of paper covered with words.

They are profoundly moving.

This was one of my favourites, and is also subject to a lovely essay at the end by Marta Werner:

benfey-dickinson-envelope a-821-trans

wheels of birds, afternoon and the west the gorgeous nothings

Werner writes

If I had not held it lightly in my hands, I would never have suspected the manner in which it was assembled. Although its brevity and immediacy place it outside the reach of conventional classifications, it bears a striking affinity to the genre David Porter names “small, rickety infinitudes.”

Look at it here, flying on the page, vying with light. (199)

The pinpricks are from where Dickinson pinned her scraps of paper together. I think of her now overflowing with scraps of paper.

circa 1850: American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886). (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
circa 1850: American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886). (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

 

A view of the book with Pluto the guinea pig who poses with books (and there are reviews sometimes), one of my new favourite tumblr blogs.

http://plutosbooks.tumblr.com/post/133289260584/the-complete-sherlock-holmes-and-pluto
http://plutosbooks.tumblr.com/post/133289260584/the-complete-sherlock-holmes-and-pluto

There is little that can describe the cumulative effect of these scraps of paper, these scratches of writing that you become better at puzzling through, though too often relying on the typed transcriptions. They range from pointed, sarcastic responses to daily life to collections of words that seem to mean little to deeply moving fragments so evocative of beauty.

Not until reading this did I realise just how much the rhythm of Dickinson’s poems had been shifted, regularised upon the page by her editors. These fragments show space and irregular rhythms, the process of playing with words.

And oh, did I say they are impossibly moving?

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