Essay: Discuss the innovative features of: ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ by e.e. cummings and ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ by Katherine Kilalea



To consider how old language is handled in new and innovative ways in the poems, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ by e.e. cummings and ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ by Katherine Kilalea, one must begin by unlearning the senses[1].  Which is to say, suspend what one feels one knows instinctively of language – to suspend a sense of sense – disassembling rules and received meaning, to then reassemble it all in order to arrive somewhere new and impactful.  As Nabokov had it in his Lectures on Literature: “Stranger always rhymes with danger … let us bless the freak.”[2]

e.e. cummings came to maturity as a writer during the most robust years of Modernism, publishing his first book, The Enormous Room in 1922, the year which Ezra Pound proclaimed the new Modern era began[3].  One of the main tenets of Modernism was that writing should reflect the world and our consciousness faithfully, without embellishments[4].  Therefore, in a world where nothing made sense any longer – as a result of the struggle to come to terms with the horrors of the Great War, the decision whether to embrace or reject Fascism, ‘the death of God’[5] as well as all other metanarratives, and the rise of the individual – the only possible reaction was to reflect that confused new world, that uncircus of noncreatures (to borrow a phrase from Cummings himself[6]) by using new ways of writing.  To: ‘transform the word, transform the world’[7], one supposes as a result of the same being true in reverse also.

In this rejection of the old ways cummings’ contemporaries were producing Modernism’s classic works.  For example: T. S. Eliot’s, The Waste Land, James Joyce’s, Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs Dalloway, which used devices such as stream of consciousness, a fractured sense of time and the deconstruction of traditional literary structures, all as representations of, and responses, to the world around them.  In summary, for the Modernist: “Life is something elusive, baffling, multiple, subjective.”    And so, to replace a collective identity that no longer existed: “… the modern feels the need to employ an elaborate linguistic craft to fix and identify the uniqueness of every individual experience.”[8]  This can certainly be traced through cummings’ work.  As R. P. Blackmur describes it, his use of language is: “Frequently unintelligible because he disregards the historical accumulation of meaning in words in favour of personal and private associations.”[9] In, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ we see cummings bending language in order to record his personal worldview, or perhaps a better description would be that he deviates from language completely, disregarding it as the main poetic tool and instead transforming his poems into non-linguistic experiences: as an overarching worldview collapses, so must language.

As well as a writer cummings was also a visual artist, and stated that his poems should be viewed as paintings: “with few exceptions, my poems are essentially pictures”[10], and asserting that their imagery should be ‘felt and not understood’[11].  Or, as Pound put it: “An image is that which presents an intellectual complex in an instant of time.”[12]  In ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ that instant is an idyll, of a place and of a life, that only on drawing closer do we see the artist has painted outside the lines.  The characters ‘anyone’ and ‘noone’ live lives of subdued hopelessness which are defined not by life but by death.  Furthermore, the adjective/noun displacement of the title (taken from the first line of the poem) suggests that perhaps the town isn’t as pretty as the description would have the reader believe. One of the ways that cummings confirms this “felt imagery” within the poem is to repeatedly use the seasons:

spring summer autumn winter

And the elements:

stars rain sun moon  

As well as the stations life passes through (birth, marriage, death), to demonstrate the inevitability of time passing and our ultimate insignificance in the wider world.  This feeling is compounded by the rhythm of the poem; its rhyme structure consisting of quatrains of two rhyming couplets, internal rhymes and alliteration, which together give the poem the feel of a train moving steadily toward some unknown but inescapable (and somehow dreadful) future.  This is all in keeping with Modernist poetics.  I. A Richards in his book, Principles of Literary Criticism (written in 1924 partly to help validate T. S. Eliot’s baffling new poetry), called rhythm a “texture of expectation, satisfactions, disappointments, surprisals, which the sequence of syllables brings about.”[13]

In analysing the prosody of cummings’ work, it could be said that his poems have more in common with music than with metre.  Perhaps as a result of taking Pound’s dictum to heart: “… compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.”[14]  Or Virginia Woolf’s: “… it is all rhythm.  Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.”[15]  ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’  has a musical, skipping feel, almost glib, but for the sinister undertones discussed previously.  The juxtapositions: men/women, up/down, did/didn’t, sowed/reaped, joy/grief, laughed/cryings sleep/wake, forget/remember add to this musicality, giving the reader the feeling that they are being run up and down the keys of a piano.  The poet Les Murray has said that: “Poetry is as much dreamed as it is thought and it is as much danced in the body as it is written”[16] and the dancing prosody of the opening stanza of ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ seems to invite the reader to both dream and dance:

anyone lived in a pretty how town

(with up so floating many bells down)

spring summer autumn winter

he sang his didn’t and he danced his did

The final and most distinctive non/linguistic device employed by cummings’ in this poem, is that of immersion.  Martin Heusser has posited that: “Despite claims to the contrary, the Modernists yearn for a visionary world of language.” [17]  And what the movement wanted was for the words on the page to act in the mind of the reader at a place beyond language.  To this end, cummings employed his innovative ‘ungrammar’; his use of adjective and verb displacement, subject-verb-object displacement and syntactic deviance to displace the reader, forcibly moving them somewhere new and unfamiliar.  For example:

children guessed (but only a few

and down they forgot as up they grew

autumn winter spring summer)

that noone loved him more by more

The cumulative effect of which is that the reader finds it difficult to situate themselves within the work, instead coming to feel surrounded and submerged.  The ultimate purpose of this immersion is to deconstruct ‘meaning as an absolute’[18], mis/using language as a tool to achieve and demonstrate this, so forcing the reader to suspend sense and senses, as Modernism demanded.

The power of this poem lies in its innovation.  In the delight it takes in blindfolding the reader, forcing suspension of disbelief so as to experience language in new ways.  In Ben Lerner’s, Leaving the Atocha Station – which, like The Enormous Room, is a fictionalised autobiography written by a poet – Lerner wonders about those moments when we fail to understand what language is, or isn’t, communicating to us, and whether this is in fact a failure at all, or just a different type of experience.  In describing listening to Spanish, Lerner writes:  “I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.”[19] Cummings was clearly intrigued by language (as much as his Modernist beliefs allowed him to accept it as an absolute) and during his time in prison he was incarcerated with a multitude of other nationalities and languages, begging the question whether cummings’ poetics were influenced by this early exposure to English as a second language, and the way that the syntactically incorrect can often end up being the perfect way to express something up to that point undefined: “Poetic language seems to bridge the gap between what has meaning but not particularity (that is, ordinary language) and what has particularity and no meaning (that is, the reality language is, ‘about’).”[20]

Although writing from very different eras, there are many points of meeting between cummings’ poem and Kate Kilalea’s, ‘Henneker’s Ditch’.  Like cummings, Kilalea writes of an imagined place, possibly based on a real place, in which the reader is never quite able to situate themselves.  Kilalea herself is a South African displaced in London and in conversation with the poet Matthew Gregory, Gregory describes Kilalea’s work as not having a lot of ”exteriorized’ detail”.  Instead: “We encounter an intimate world, often oblique … rather than one with all its public coordinates in place.”[21]  Which seems to put Kilalea firmly in the territory of ‘realism lost’[22] as a description of the central theme of the last century, and more specifically the ‘lost in a big hotel’[23] quality of postmodernity.  Kilalea goes onto to say of herself: “I sometimes feel that I come from the countries I read about rather than the one I actually grew up in.”[24]

This idea of place being a relative concept is one that Kilalea returns to often in her work.  In the same interview, she talks about Peter Sloterijk’s book, Bubbles and how he, ‘describes feeling and thinking in spatial terms’[25], where feeling is being inside of a physical place and thinking is looking, for example at something far in the distance, meaning that you cannot be both thinking and feeling at the same time, one is always at the expense of the other.  This interiority is reflected in Kilalea’s poems, and such inability to reconcile the inside with the outside also places her within the postmodern tradition and its all-pervasive sense of dislocation.  Postmodernity has required us to become adept at living in multiple places (physical and otherwise) at once.  So that we, as Seamus Heaney describes it: “make do with a constructed destination, an interim place whose foundations straddle the areas of self-division.”[26]

As well as place, cummings and Kilalea are also linked in the immersive nature of their imagery.  In a recording of Kilalea reading ‘Henneker’s Ditch’ (at that time – 2010 – called ‘Dear Circus’), she describes the poem as featuring: “A series of characters and observations without any authorial interpretation”.  She puts herself in the audience with her listener-readers, claiming: “I’m in the same position as you.  No work to be done really, but to listen.”[27].  Like cummings she intended the poem to not ‘mean but be’[28], saying:  “I guess there’s a pleasure in making a world and then closing it in on itself, not letting in the light from outside.”[29]  She does this in various ways in the poem.  Primarily by removing all sense of narrative:  “A sequence, unlike an unbroken long poem, doesn’t offer narrative promise of progression … In a narrative poem you can never really be lost.”[30]  In the poem we begin in a train station, we quickly are swept along by the jagged rhythm of the poem to the coast, back to the city, then to Africa and back and forth.  This sense of being taken out of the identifiable world is added to by the treatment of time in the poem which is variously alluded to with lines such as:


I think we are in the middle, aren’t we.

We certainly aren’t at the beginning anymore.


We have no history.


A hundred years pass like this.

A point of departure between the two poets is the use of punctuation.  Unlike cummings, Kilalea uses a glut of different kinds.  The poem variously includes: italics, hyphens, accented words, ellipsis, interrogatives and exclamation marks (which, interestingly, has much the same effect, displacing the reader inthe same way that cummings’ lack of punctuation does also).  Additionally, Kilalea also invents words and sounds:

Ickira trecketre stedenthal

And uses striking metaphors:


Cars sob across town


The trees walk backwards into the dark

This use of metaphor and these other linguistic devices to ‘reinvent the world’[31], makes that world, the one of ‘Henneker’s Ditch’ multilayered, jagged and difficult to define, yet it remains compelling, reminding the reader that: “Truth is ‘really’ a kind of fiction, reading is always a form of misreading, and, most fundamentally, understanding is always a form of misunderstanding, because it is never direct, is always a form of partial interpretation, and often uses metaphor when it thinks it is being literal”[32]

The final point of comparison between the two poets is the idea of their poems as non-poems, or as other experiences of art, as well as – or in the case of cummings, sometimes instead of – linguistic ones.  In the interview with Matthew Gregory, Kilalea mentions the influence of the working methods of visual artists in her poetry.  Gregory takes this further in describing her poetics: “… there’s something close to expressionism in this sort of fluent responsiveness to the tangible.”[33]  cummings’ poetry in turn was often compared to impressionism.[34]  Similarly both poets were concerned with the musicality in their work.  David Lodge describes it thus: “There is poetry … which forces us to pay attention to the surface of words, to their sounds.”[35]  This is certainly true for these two poets.  For both cummings and Kilalea, the reading of their two poems, and the reading aloud, or the listening, are very different experiences.  Kilalea, in introducing a reading of the poem in 2013[36], says that she wrote the poem in response to a comment by a reader that her poems were not at all musical.  This was something she found upsetting, having always prioritised prosody in her poetics, and when one listens to Kilalea reading the work herself, the musicality is striking.  One section where this is particularly strong, when read, or listened to:

Henry, the breezes – they bolt across the open market

like meatballs, Henry,

like windmills, Henry,

like policemen, Henry, apprehending criminals…

Which, with the five-footed repetition of the two middle lines, and the repetition of ‘like’, gives the lines a sense a song in chorus.

For a poem like ‘Henneker’s Ditch’, which seems defiant in every way towards analysis (particularly when the creator of the poem additionally states that we only need to absorb the work, and not work upon it), the final way in which one can consider that Kilalea uses old language in new ways is to – through language – create as close to a non-linguistic experience as possible. Seamus Heaney, on talking about Jorge Luis Borges described it thus: “… poetry lies in the meeting of poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on pages of a book.  What is essential is the thrill, the almost physical emotion that comes with each reading.” And that that physical emotion, ‘fulfills the continual need we experience to ´recover a past or prefigure a future.´’[37]  Kilalea does just that with ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, she creates a point of connection, a spark between herself and the reader that projects one into simultaneous worlds in a shared moment, dissolving language into lacy jags.[38]

What the two poets share in their respective use of old language in new ways is that they disassemble recognisable language systems in order to bring us somewhere new and differently beautiful, somewhere that is beyond language itself, in “the between of the language.”[39]  Ben Lerner has described it this way in his essay, The Hatred of Poetry: “Do you remember the feeling that sense was provisional and that two people could build around an utterance a world in which any usage signified?  I think that’s poetry.”[40]  This is where the power in these two poems lies, in that “place of possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies).”[41]

[1] Julio Cortázar, Rayuela (Buenos Aires: Me Gusta Leer, 2016), p.285.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (Florida: Harvest, 1982), p.372.

[3] Kevin Jackson, Constellation of Genius, 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz (London: Windmill Books, 2016), pp.124-130. Amazon ebook.

[4] The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p.3. Amazon ebook.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 125. Amazon ebook

[6] `E. E. Cummings´, Poetry Foundation [accessed 1 October 2017]

[7] ibid.

[8] David Lodge, Language of Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 261.

[9] `E. E. Cummings´, Poetry Foundation <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[10] Martin Heusser, `The Semantics of Structure: Iconicity in the poetry of William Carlos Williams and E. E. Cummings´, in Iconic Investigations, ed. by Lars Ellestrom, Olga Fischer and Christina Ljungberg (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013), p. 163.

[11] ibid.

[12] The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p.4. Amazon ebook

[13] Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), p. 53. Amazon ebook.

[14] The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p.3. Amazon ebook.

[15] Alvarez, p. 45.

[16] ibid., p. 61.

[17] Heusser, p.160.

[18] ibid.

[19] Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station (London: Granta, 2011), p. 14.

[20] Lodge, p.67.

[21] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[22] Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 110.

[23] ibid

[24] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[25] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[26] Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 189. Amazon ebook.

[27] Kate Kilalea, Katharine Kilalea reads “Dear Circus”, online video recording, YouTube, 7 April 2010, <; [accessed 10 October 2017]

[28] Lodge, p. 7.

[29] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[30] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[31] Nabokov, p. 2.

[32] Butler, p. 21.

[33] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[34] The Faber Book of Modern Verse, ed. by Michael Roberts and Peter Porter (London: Faber and Faber, 1982), p. 41.

[35] Lodge, p. 51.

[36] Kate Kilalea, Katharine Kilalea – ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, online video recording, YouTube, 13 July 2012, <; [accessed 10 October 2017]

[37] Heaney, p. 8.

[38] The Faber Book of Modern Verse, ed. by Michael Roberts and Peter Porter (London: Faber and Faber, 1982), p. 38.

[39] Sylvia Adamson, `The What of the Language?´, in The State of the Language, ed. by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p. 511.

[40] Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016), pp. 105-6.

[41] ibid. p. 114.


Book Diary: The Art of Sleeping Alone (Sophie Fontanel)

Listlessness.  The moment you realise you are not at the top of someone else’s list (perhaps you don’t even appear anywhere on it), that’s when you can’t avoid asking yourself: and where do I appear on my own list?

A few months ago, whilst recovering from a dispiriting experience with a man (one of those things that was neither something, nor nothing), I told myself: I’m going to stop sleeping with people just like that, as if it were nothing.  Because there was getting to be something about it that was less than pleasurable, and if it is no longer pleasurable, then what was the point exactly?

My mind knew exactly where it was headed (as the minds of writers often do), even though my body dallied, lagged behind, and took detours.  Then I happened upon an interview with Sophie Fontenal, after Googling: “benefits of celibacy”, that bought all the strands together.  This book is for anyone who lives somewhat outside of the norm, and if that outside involves taking a break from sex – or at least the (at times) obsessional search for it – for a while, then the book has an even greater resonance.

Before I even started reading it, I was almost fully convinced that I needed just such a break.  However, there was one loose end I had to tie up in order that I could enter into the thing wholeheartedly.  It had to do with that man.  I had been able to extricate myself relatively cleanly, consciously, and kindly, but that didn’t mean that it was painless.  For whatever reason, he was kind of cold.  A few days after finally putting the last nail in the coffin, I went to a party and I met someone who was warm.  His warmth taught me in a few hours what would have taken months of introspection.  I thought that something very special had occurred, all the more special for the timing, the contrast he was providing, the mirror he was holding up.  I needed to know if this was going anywhere, before I could shut myself away indefinitely.  He was (is) still warm, still sweet, still lovely, but I realised after he listed all the reasons why it had been hard for us to get together again after that night (work, family, friends, a Masters degree – the stuff of life, really), that I wasn’t on that list of his.  Furthermore, why did my position on his list concern me more that my position on my own list?  That told me all I needed to know about where I should now be focusing my attention.

I read half the book in one sitting and the first noticeable, and liberating, effect it had on me was to change my gaze.  Even though I would have protested that I was in any way concerned by the male gaze (on me, that is – it concerns me in many other, more political ways), it turns out I was more subconsciously aware of it than I realised.  After reading half the book, I had to leave to go to work.  I felt like I was launched out of my front door on mass of buzzing energy.  I felt really tuned in, and more alive. Every man that passed me, I felt more and more elated, as I noticed that I didn’t care what they made of me!

After having been single for about 3 years following the ending of very special relationship (and preceding that, one boyfriend after another, going all the way back to age 14), I was enjoying, and needing, the time to get to know myself again.  However, I’ve always been aware that there is a certain amount of pressure not to stay single too long.  There was some part of me that, although I wasn’t looking for love, felt bad that love wasn’t looking for me.  I know what that was now, it is all back to this gaze.  The gaze that I now threw back off of me like I was wearing a reflective shield!

I very suddenly no longer cared what anyone thought of me, or whether or not I was with anyone.  And there was another side effect too – I saw myself as radiant.  Other people noticed too and I got more compliments that first week than I can remember collecting in a long time.  Fontenal reported the same thing.  I think it has to do with this, that she describes in the book: “Those who set themselves free have the whole universe before them.”  There is something very enticing about that, people want a piece of it.

The original French title of the book is, L’envie – I looked up what that meant, and as my laptop is Spanish, it gave me the translation in Spanish: ganas.  This is one of my favourite words in Spanish, and it doesn’t really have an equivalent in English, but it could mean an urge.  I’m so happy to have found this beautifully expressed and written book.  As well as my gaze, it has turned my urge inward.  My urge is now to treat myself better than ever, to get to know myself further, to care for myself, to fill my life with good and nourishing things, and to be alone, which is to say: all-one.

Book Diary: The Oxford Reading List

I normally take the summer off from blogging, as I like to think of myself as an adopted Madrileña.  Which means, even if I’m not spending the whole month of August at the beach like everyone else in the city, I like to pretend I am by generally hanging out and not doing much, except napping and going to the pool.

This summer, I knew that I would be starting my MSt at Oxford University the coming September, which would be the beginning of two intense years.  Therefore I was even more determined to spend as much time as possible being as lazy as possible.   Two weeks or so before the start of August, I got an email from the course administrator, giving us our preparatory reading list.  I read it.  I shut down my laptop and went to the pool.  I thought about it the whole time.  I went home, I read it again.  I shut down the laptop again and went for a walk.  The third time, I was able to read it more calmly and by the fourth read I felt ready to tackle it (when I returned from my first residence at the end of September, it was with the knowledge that the percentage of reading I had done (otherwise known as: reading that I had spent every spare moment (when I wasn’t working) doing) was woefully below the level expected.  If I had known that then, I probably would have given up.  Happily, I have now found a rhythm).

Once the panic subsided, I actually began to get excited.  As this course is half-creative and half-critical (analytical), there were a lot of great poets and scriptwriters I had never sat down to take the time to get to know, and now here was my opportunity.  In fact, the biggest surprise I gave myself, was that I inverted my normal order of preference in what I like to read.  My favourite part of the preparatory reading were the scripts, followed by the poetry with my beloved prose coming in third.

For this Book Diary post, here are my three favourites:

Alan Bennett – Talking Heads

I learnt from the Course Director that the reason I didn’t get through enough of the reading list as I should have was because I should have been speed-reading.  Ie. reading more books, less, rather than fewer books, thoroughly.  I think quite a lot of that deficit could be down to Alan Bennett.  I read all 12 of these plays, and then watched all of them online as well.  That was about two weeks down the drain.  But they were SO good.  In some ways – being monologues – they read like short stories (which might be why I enjoyed them particularly), but then at the same time, writing something that is purely dialogue is clearly unlike writing prose (for my money, more difficult) and also reads very differently.  They were so finely drawn; some were funny, some were sad, some were sad and funny.  It made me wonder what the North Americans on my course would make of these so very English portraits.

Lee Hall – Spoonface Steinburg and Other Plays

When I sat down to read Spoonface Steinburg I was already in a shitty mood.  I had had a bad day, I was tired, it was boiling hot, my hair looked awful and it was a colleagues’ last day at work, so I had two hours to read this play, alone in a bar, before everyone arrived for the goodbye drinks.  I looked the blurb, and I when I read that it was narrated by: “A seven year old autistic girl who is dying from cancer” I again nearly thought about quitting this Masters and burning the sadistic reading list.  However, when my colleagues all arrived and wondered why I was looking strange and altered, it wasn’t due to stress and desperation, it was because I was profoundly moved.  This was also a monologue, and so joyous and beautifully written that it turned my bad mood around totally.

Kevin Jackson – Constellation of Genius, 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz

This was actually part of the fiction reading list, but the critical part, not the creative.  It was also the biggest book in the whole reading list.  Again, it so totally hooked me in that I had to read it all (another few weeks lost).  I’m not even really all that interested in Modernist writers, some writers, by dint of being around at the same time (ish) as the big names, I like, but I couldn’t finish Mrs Dalloway when I was doing my undergraduate degree, similarly The Dubliners, so well… This book, however, I couldn’t get enough of.  It was a portrait of a moment and so well drawn that you felt part of that moment.

I’ve just submitted my first two assignments for this course, so until I get my marks, I’m suspending judgment as to whether I’ve fully found my flow, and what course-correcting (as my boss call its) needs to be done.  For now, however, I feel part of a moment, a special and unique one in my life so far and I hope that I can – like that reading list – really make the most of it.



Book Diary: Little Labours (Rivka Galchen)

After I read New American Stories , I made a list of all the fabulous new authors I had discovered through the anthology.  However, as I live in a Spanish-speaking, European country, these American authors are not so readily available.

On a recent trip to the UK, I held out hope that I would find a few more there, to which end I spent a happy half an hour in the first bookshop I could find, with a very sympathetic shop assistant who clearly understood my need.  Despite all the people-power behind the search, I was still only able to find two further authors on my list.

Rivka Galchen was one of these.  However, when the shop assistant read me the description of the book he found by her, I didn’t really like the sound of it.  It is about motherhood, something I don’t know anything about and doesn’t particularly interest me.  So I bought it for my sister instead, as she is nearly 8 months pregnant.

The next day of my trip, I went to see my cousin, who I hadn’t seen for about 12 years, and her two small sons.  Her sons are the first in the next generation of the family on my Mum’s side, and the first time I’ve met children that are directly related to me.  I was really surprised by the strength of the biological reaction (for want of a much better way of putting it).  They weren’t just small, uninteresting non-adults – they looked like my cousin, and I loved them immediately and without question.

Thus, on the plane on the way back to Madrid, I decided to read Little Labours.  I already knew that I really liked Galchen’s style of writing and by the time we had landed I had already finished the book.  It really has helped to engage me with a theme I had happily neglected previously, but much more significantly, I now feel engaged with the idea of being an Aunty, something that I hadn’t exactly struggled with, but was taking some getting used to.  Galchen’s writing about writer-mothers, her observations about how the world sees and treats mothers and children was fresh and insightful anyway, whether the topic touches your own experience or not, but for me it served as a kind of stylish self-help book.

It also served as self-help for my sister.  About a week after arriving back to Madrid, she was hospitalised following a slight complication with the pregnancy.  She had more time to read than normal, being incarcerated on the ward, and Little Labors was her part of her entertainment. I arrived for one visit and she was alone in the hospital room, with a monitor strapped to her bump.  There was a noise filling the room, which she told me was the baby’s heartbeat. She took my hand and placed it on her stomach, I felt the baby’s head on one side and it’s feet on the other, he/she (we don’t know the gender yet) was wriggling around and then suddenly hoofed me with it’s foot.  That was the moment – thanks to this book, thanks to my cousin’s small boys, thanks to the modern science allowing me to hear the heartbeat of a yet unseen person – that I became an Aunt.

Book Diary: The Hatred of Poetry (Ben Lerner)

Ironically, I picked this essay up at a poetry reading.  I bought it, and then had to sit with it in my lap all through the reading, as if I were in silent protest. Hopefully those present knew that Lerner himself is a poet.

I’m really a big fan of Ben Lerner and so I was very excited to happen upon this book.   The premise of the essay is painfully beautiful: that poetry is problematic for poets and readers alike because it cannot ever really achieve its desired purpose, which is to reflect and faithfully record moments of sublime beauty and elevation.

In Lerner’s essay he used the example of Caedmon to explain this paradox: “…the first poet in English whose name we know, learned the art of song in a dream.”  Caedmon wanted to be able to sing with his fellow goatherds, but felt unable.  One night some sort of God visits him in a dream, and in the dream Caedmon is able to sing words of great beauty and he awakes as a poet.  However, when he tries to recreate the dream-song in the waking world, although still beautiful, it is not transcendent as was the dream-version.  Thus:

Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the the finite, the historical – the human world of violence and difference – and to reach the transcendent or divine.  You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse.  But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms.

I thought about this a lot.  And then – as seems to happen to me frequently – I coincidentally had it reflected back at me in section 23 of Rayuela, which I’m making my way through at the moment.  Cortázar’s Oliveira talks of exactly that impulse, the experience of that dream state, where everything is beautiful and meaningful, but is also fleeting, and becomes ever so tricksy at the moment of trying to translate it into reality:

Pero todo eso, el canto de Bessie, el arullo de Coleman Hawkins, ¿no eran ilusiones, y no eran algo todavía peor, la ilusión de otras ilusiones, una cadena vertiginosa hacia atrás, hacia un mono mirándose en el agua el primer día del mundo? … Oliveria … sentía ahora que la verdad estaba en eso, en que Bessie y Hawkins fueran ilusiones, porque solamente las ilusiones eran capaces de mover a sus fieles, las ilusiones y no las verdades.  Y había más que eso, había la intercesión, el acceso por las ilusiones a un plano, a una zona inimaginable que hubiera sido inútil pensar porque todo pensamiento lo destruía apenas procuraba cercarlo.

But all that, Bessie’s song, Coleman Hawkin’s coo, were they not just illusions, and were they not even worse than that, the illusion of other illusions, a vertiginous chain going all the way back to a monkey looking at himself in the water the first day of the world? … Oliviera .. felt now that the truth was in that, in that Bessie and Hawkins were illusions, because only illusions were capable of moving to faith, illusions and not truths.  And there was more that that, there was the intercession, the access through the illusions to a plane, an unimaginable zone that would have been useless to think about because all thought destroyed it as soon as you tried to get near it (my translation).

Towards the end of Lerner’s essay he presents his way of assimilating this gap between waking and dreaming, between vision and reality, between poetry and the dream-song, by exploiting that very gap, using it to imbue language with an odd, different kind of beauty and meaning:

If you are five and you point to a sycamore or a idle backhoe or a neighbor stooped over his garden or to images of these things on a television set and utter “vanish” or utter “varnish” you will never be only incorrect; if your parent or guardian is curious, she can find a meaning that makes you almost eerily prescient – the neighbor is dying, losing weight, or the backhoe has helped a structure disappear or is glazed with rain water or the sheen of spectacle lends to whatever appears onscreen a strange finish.  To derive your understanding of a word by watching others adjust to your use of it: Do you remember the feeling that sense was provisional and that two people could build around an utterance a world in which any usage signified?  I think that’s poetry.

Much in the same way as Adam, Lerner’s character in Leaving the Atocha Station reinvents the act of listening in a language that is not native to you:

I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.

In the end, I found in all this a balance that, for me- perhaps ironically – is beautiful. And that speaks of an alignment, of an harmony, both artistically and emotionally that I for one, am happy to live within.

Book Diary: The Dying Animal (Philip Roth)

A good thing about having friends who are 24 years older than you is that they know more stuff, about stuff.  My friend Antonio is constantly educating me in art, in films, or in where to find the best bars (and pimientos de padrón) in Madrid.

One of his recent offerings was, Death In Venice.  We watched it one Sunday night and the final scene haunted me for days afterwards: Gustav von Aschenbach collapsed in his deck chair with his foolish, painted face melting and running down his real face, gaze fixed on an object of pure beauty, until his dying breath.  I couldn’t get that image out of my head, I just kept thinking: Desire is ugly, and it makes you ridiculous (to which I later conceded an additional, “unrequited”).

Antonio didn’t see it that way, however, he thought that the film explored the idea of perfect beauty in Art as unachievable, and was not related to sexual desire.  Hence, the image of Aschenbach reaching toward the idea of perfection (the boy Thaddeus, who in turn is reaching toward he sun) in his dying moments.  However, he did add – and the film clearly explores this also – that desire gone bad (ie. obsession, or “ill desire” (as he called it)) causes us to suffer greatly.  Thus, the pursuit of beauty will always lead to ruin, as – although it sounds like a contradiction – passion for perfection, will eventually eliminate passion, and cause all manner of wretchedness along the way.

These comments came back to me when I picked up – just a few days later, and by total coincidence – Philip Roth’s, The Dying Animal.  The title taken from Yeats’, Sailing to Byzantium:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

The novel is about University Professor, David Kepesh and his sexual obsession with a female student 30-odd years younger than him, and in particular with her body, and even more particularly with her breasts, which he considers to be perfect.  Although the two breed a relationship of sorts, in the end it only leads to heartbreak and depression.

Perhaps as a result of having recently watched Death In Venice, what I read into this book was that – as with humans, as in Art – desire always going to be irreconcilable.  That there is a balance between the desired and the desire-e that is forever changing and shifting, but never harmonising.  An idea that, in the novel, was also linked to Art.  Kepesh’s friend says to him after the relationship is over:

…Look,” he told me, “see it as a critic, see it from a professional point of view.  You violated the law of aesthetic distance.  You sentimentalized the aesthetic experience with this girl – you personalized it, you sentimentalized it, and you lost the sense of separation essential to your enjoyment.”

I then got to thinking about Lolita.  Both Death in Venice and The Dying Animal contained shades of Lolita, another mediation on beauty, desire and obsession (all three works involve objects of desire that are very much younger that the ones doing the desiring; the juxtaposition of youth and vitality with the depreciating letch making the space between beauty and non-beauty all the more gaping).  However, after reading Lolita, I didn’t feel despairing, as I did after reading The Dying Animal and seeing Death in Venice, both of which made me look at the relationships around me in a new (and not very flattering) light and made me question why sexual relationships are so endlessly difficult and often humiliating.  The only reason I can think of for this is because to me Lolita is the most beautiful book I have ever read, so perhaps in the end Antonio was right in another of his comments on the film: when something is so beautiful as to reach near perfection, it elevates us and moves us on, as long as as the balance doesn’t tip from light, to shade.  However, how you stop that from happening, I do not know.  Maybe somewhere out there Art has the answer.  If it does, I’m sure Antonio will lead me to it.

Book (Talk) Diary: La Noche de los Libros 2017

My favourite day (and night) of the year fell last weekend – bookworm Christmas as I like to call it: International Book Day.  Every year in Madrid there are a ton of activities and, in addition, there is always a headline act who gives a talk at the Real Casa de Correos, right in the centre of Madrid, in Sol.  This year the it was Irvine Welsh.

Real Casa de Correos

He was really funny, and charming.  I liked his un-writerly way of talking about writing and the writing life.  The first question from the interviewer was whether Welsh thought Margaret Thatcher was the primary reason for the increase in heroin consumption in Scotland in the 80s, drugs always seeming to become a recourse for the dispossessed.  Welsh agreed that the politics of the time had an clear effect, and he described how life was where he grew up, in Leith, during that time.

The talk finished and my sister and I queued up to get a book signed (my sister told him how the first book her Venezuelan boyfriend read in English was Trainspotting, and we talked a little about translation as he signed my sister’s copy of his latest book in the Spanish edition) and I didn’t think too much more about Thatcher and heroin, until the following day…

The description of the next event I went to sounded to me like music and readings and projections, well, actually, that was the exact description in the programme.  However, by total coincidence, it was in fact a talk by a local author who had written a trilogy about the area he grew up in, in the suburbs of Madrid, that had a big problem with heroin addiction in the 80s, thanks to feelings of political and social dispossession.  Without meaning to, I had come to exactly the same talk as the night before.  I had stumbled upon the Spanish Irvine Welsh.

From there I went onto an event that is run every year, which is a continuous reading of Don Quijote, it takes around 48 hours and goes through the night without any pauses.  I love anything that runs through the night, for some reason it seems romantic, such physical dedication to art.  There are famous people who read their favourite parts, there are live video links with Spanish citizens all over the world, it is a real celebration of Spain’s most famous book.  I walked in and it took me a while to realise someone was reading the text in English.  It turned out that there was a delegation from the US Embassy in Madrid taking part.

It seemed it was a weekend of reflections, or refractions – I had heard the same talk by two versions of the same author, discussed translation of Scottish colloquialisms for South American readers, and heard a Spanish classic read in English.