You are on page 1of 128



No. 33 SPRING 2009

Published by The University of Liverpool School of English. Supported by:


Philip Davis Sarah Coley Maura Kennedy Angela Macmillan Brian Nellist John Scrivener Eleanor McCann



Enid Stubin Les Murray The Reader Magazine The Reader Organisation 19 Abercromby Square Liverpool L69 7ZG See p. 3 See p. 128


Printed and bound in the European Union by Bell and Bain Ltd, Glasgow

Jane Davis, Director, The Reader Organisation

A Reading Revolution!
‘People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.’

Saul Bellow, Herzog We used this quotation in 1997 in the very f irst issue of The Reader. We believe literature is for life, not just for courses. That’s why we’re working in day centres, old people’s homes, community groups, hospitals, drug rehabs, refugee centres, public libraries, schools and children’s homes and many other places to bring the pleasure and value of reading to as many people as possible. We f ind it easy to imagine a near future where literature graduates leave university to work in banks, hospitals, retail, management and human resources. Their job? To bring books to life, opening and sharing the centuries of vital information contained within them, making sure this amazingly rich content is available to everyone.
‘It moves you. I mean it hits you inside where it meets you and means something.’

Dementia sufferer reading poetry

The Reader genuinely welcomes submissions of poetry, fiction, essays, readings and thought. We publish professional writers and absolute beginners. Send your manuscript with SAE please to: The Reader Office, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG, UK.



7 Philip Davis In Which I Do Not Meet Robert Redford 9 editor’s Picks

80 Clive sinclair The Venus Mosaic 119 The Reader Serial Mary Weston The Junction Part 3: What’s the Title?

16 19 36 43 55 63 73 77 Face to Face angela Leighton David Constantine rebecca Gethin Joel Lane andrew McNeillie Isabel Lusted Gary allen

22 Jonathan Bate Reading Shakespeare’s Mind with extract from Soul of the Age 33 45 David Constantine ‘Thy Book Doth Live’ Camille Paglia Final Cut: the Selection Process for Break, Blow, Burn 84 Philip Davis Defining the Literary

39 rebecca Gethin

13 57 Jonathan Davis Snow, Clowns and Otters rana Dasgupta extracts from Solo

10 68 74 Ian McMillan Dropping Aitches Marshall Brooks The Library Pauline rowe Going to Poetry



106 The London eye In Which I Tell A Few Bitter Truths

90 Good Books: short reviews Angela Macmillan on Gerard Donovan, Julius Winsome Sarah Coley on Tove Jansson, A Winter Book 110 Brian Nellist Round up books for Liverpool, Capital of Culture 114 Michael Caines David Garnett, Lady Into Fox

96 99 enid stubin Our Spy in NY: On the Books Jane Davis Silver Threads Among the Dross 104 Brian Nellist Ask the Reader

92 readers Connect Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd 94 John scrivener The Old Poem Marvell, The Mower to the Glow Worms 108 John Killick James Kirkup, A Child of the Tyne

91 Letters 116 Buck’s Quiz 117 Prize Crossword By Cassandra 119 Quiz and Puzzle answers 127 Contributors

08 | Hardback | £25.00 |



Philip Davis


here is no interview in this issue. I am writing this editorial from San Francisco where I was invited to give (what turned out to be) two ill-attended talks on the novels of Bernard Malamud. From here I was also hoping to interview Robert Redford on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the baseball film The Natural, the 1984 adaptation of Malamud’s novel published in 1952. In it Redford played the golden hero Roy Hobbs, a natural prodigy who badly muffed his first chance as a pitcher but in his second life makes a comeback fifteen years later as a hitter. (Okay, so one resolution for 2009 is that henceforth from this issue the name of Malamud will not appear in these pages.) A face-to-face interview with Robert Redford would have been terrific; a conversation by phone more than generous. What a cover that would have made for The Reader. I had to settle for an email exchange via Mr Redford’s personal assistant. I prefer person-to-person of course, where I have found it best to act as Colombo (small, dark, vague mumbling, hand to brow, in ageing coat, asking just one last thing). By email you have to finish your sentences.
Interviewer: Near the beginning of The Natural when you are at the train station, you look alone like a man from nowhere in an Edward Hopper painting. The director Barry Levinson said of your portrayal that ‘Robert Redford makes you come to him’. Were you aware of seeming almost anonymous in the film, like a man hiding his past but also being



a sort of Everyman? Aware of trying to make an audience guess at your inner life amidst a world of externalized sports? Mr Redford: Yes. The Wikipedia entry on Redford reports, with what truth I didn’t know: ‘He attended Van Nuys High School in Los Angeles, California (where he met Natalie Wood), graduated in 1954, and received a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado, where he was a pitcher. He lost the scholarship due to excessive drinking, possibly fueled by the death of his mother, which occurred when Redford was 18. He later studied painting at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and took classes in theatrical set design at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.’ I thought about these connections.
Interviewer: I was astonished to find that the novel’s key sentence (used in the film) – ‘We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that’ – was inserted by Malamud (a great reviser) only at the last minute in the final proof. The film also offers a line of its own, given to Roy’s father: ‘Rely too much on your own gift and you’ll fail’. His own craft wasn’t as natural for Malamud as it was for Roy: ‘Anything he wants to hit, he hits; anything he wants to do he does.’ But second chances are vital to Malamud, as a poor Brooklyn boy from an unhappy family suffering a sense of lost time and damaged lives, struggling for both gift and the character to go with it. Forgive the long introduction to this question, but I get the sense that second chances is a theme of emotional importance to yourself too? Mr Redford: Yes

On receiving these responses, I was reminded of my attempt to interview Philip Roth during the writing of my biography of Malamud. Again Roth would not meet me in person or talk over the phone (Is it I, O Lord?), but said I might send him written questions. I did so. Roth wrote back to say that my questions were ignorant, too ignorant for him to answer. I wrote back to say that ignorant was what questions were. I received no answer. Still, your interviewer persisted, trying to interest his man.
Interviewer: The film, like the book, is very good about athletes having a winning streak, the mysteries of being ‘on form’ or not – be it luck or fate – and the relation to confidence. ‘I lost my confidence’ says Roy at one point, looking back obliquely to the period after his first failure: you say that sad line very well, very quietly, if I may say so. Malamud himself was not confident of his powers, and thought himself less well-educated and talented than Saul Bellow. From your own experience, how important is confidence compared to uncertainty?


Mr Redford: Balance. Too much of one or the other will defeat. Interviewer: (thinking of Redford as director of Ordinary People and as supporter of small independent films in Sundance): Malamud said he had not given up on the idea of the heroic but sought it in small men and women. What do you think of that emotional idealism of his – the heroic in relation to the underdog: I mean, does it seem merely old-fashioned or naïve to you? And where would or should young kids (their hero-worship so important in the film) find heroes now? Mr Redford: I like Malamud’s idea. Kids should find it in smaller ways. And that was about it. I went off with my wife to see Dame Edna Everage in the San Francisco Post Street Theatre, where Barry Humphries (born 1934) peered intently but disconsolately at his audience through the mask of Edna to say right at the start: ‘What happened to you? You got so old.’ Later he asked for questions but I was all out of them. Happy New Year.

Editor’s Picks

In this our first issue of 2009, we ring in as usual both new and old. New writing in abundance this time. In fiction, excerpts from Rana Dasgupta’s new novel; a short story by the wonderful Clive Sinclair (who back in 1983 was on Granta’s original list of Best Young British Authors) and another by young Jonathan Davis, freshly graduated from the School of English at the University of Liverpool; plus the ending of Mary Weston’s ambitious serial (you can catch up with the first two installments on our website). In poetry, Angela Leighton, Andrew McNeillie, David Constantine, and amongst others the return of one of our old favourites, Gary Allen. Also, a big section on Shakespeare (another of our old favourites) with Jonathan Bate and David Constantine. Plus angryish essays by Camille Paglia and the editor. And no interview.


Ian McMillan


here’s a (probably) apocryphal story about somebody who was driving around Dudley in the West Midlands one day; they were looking for the railway station and they were lost and they stopped and wound the window down and asked a passerby how to get there. The passerby pointed and said ‘Yow turn left at “Toys Yam We”!’ Believe it if you like: I do. What that story, which comes out of an oral anecdotal tradition, demonstrates is the difficulty if not the impossibility of rendering dialect into writing. Think of the cod, embarrassing Yorkshire accents in Wuthering Heights. It’s a great, great book but the Yorkshire speech sounds like an actor straight from RADA in his first rehearsal for a small part in Emmerdale. Think of the much more successful but ultimately inadequate attempts by Barry Hines in a book like A Kestrel for a Knave or the early Melvyn Bragg novels to capture the spoken rhythms of Barnsley and Cumbria respectively; they almost got away with it, but not quite, and maybe that not quite is where written language fails its spoken counterpart. The more I read the more I get exercised about the presentation of what people call dialect, tha knows. As I was walking down to the paper shop this morning I overheard a conversation at the bus stop, which I noted down when I got home. Because I live in Barnsley and because


we speak in a kind of stripped-down post-modern South Yorkshire minimalism, the exchange went like this. Man 1: Or8? Man 2: R. R Yore? Man1: Did tha gu? Man 2: R. Crap. Man 1: Reyt. Man 2: Reyt. Man 1: Reyt then. Man 2: Reyt then.* A translation of this conversation can be found at the bottom of this piece. Follow the asterisk like you’re a dog hunting a scent. Now, I think that you can search high and wide in books, depending on the size of your bookshelves of course, and you won’t find much of that kind of language, with the pauses and gazing-at-the-sky that are part of its rhythm and syntax, written down. Perhaps the North Eastern poet Tom Pickard gets in the right ball park with some of his work, and the Scottish poet Tom Leonard gets close to it in some of his Glasgow poems: ‘Hey Jimmy / yawright ih / stull wayiz urryi / ih // ma right insane yirra pape / ma right insane yir wanni us jimmy / see it yir eyes / wanni uz // heh // look jimmy / lookslik wirgonny miss thi gemm / nearly three o cloke thi noo // dork init / good job they’ve got the lights’ which seem to me to get closer to a kind of vernacular Scottish language than my dad’s old favourite Oor Wullie, who still appears in the Sunday Post and whose annual (along with his D.C. Thompson stablemates The Broons, about whom Jackie Kay has written wonderfully) was a big part of my Christmas every year. Oor Wullie would say ‘Jings’ and ‘Crivvens’ and ‘Help Ma Boab’, which very few Scots people actually say. Although they say it in Oor Wullie and Broons annuals which means, as far as some readers are concerned, that Scots people actually talk like that. Perhaps it’s easier to recreate dialect in poetry because at least you can help the reader along with line breaks and stanza breaks and pieces of white space to give the reader an indication of where to take a breath or where to simulate the act of being grabbed by the collar by a Glaswegian who wants to tell you something urgent. Prose is more difficult, as Emily Brontë found; the dialect ear is a spoken rather than a written machine, I guess. There have been a number of attempts over the past few years to recreate the language of real life, to use a blanket term, in novels; Gautam Malkani’s 2006 book Londonstani is narrated by a young Sikh in a kind of street slang that’s a mixture of text language and various slangs and dialects chucked into a melting pot: ‘Come out wid dat shit from yo mouth again and I’m a knock u so hard u’ll be shittin out yo mouth fo real, innit’. Ross Raisin, in his novel God’s Own Country, is more successful than Emily Brontë in creating an authentic-sounding version of the Ilkley branch of the Yorkshire language tree by recreating the cadences of the young protagonist Sam Marsdyke’s sentences and the tone of his voice rather than going in for the apostrophe overkill that can be’t sign o’dialect writing: ‘The ramblers hadn’t marked me. They’d walked


past the farm without taking notice, of me or of father rounding up the flock on the moor. Oi there ramblers, I’d a mind for shouting, what the bugger are you doing, talking to that sheep ? Do you think she fancies a natter, eh?’ A book that’s a little older, but which works very hard to capture dialect in prose, in Anne Donovan’s 2003 novel Buddha Da, which owes a little to the father of this kind of writing, James Kelman: ‘They were sittin cross-legged on the flair in fronty the coffin and they were singin. I suppose you would cry it singin but it was a funny kindy wailin singin…’ I can’t come to any kind of conclusion on this question about dialect writing that I’m asking myself, but I want to take the question further, and I want readers of The Reader to think about representations of the way they speak in books. Can written language ever capture and recreate spoken language, or is it a place where the book is finally a lesser artistic vehicle than the tongue and the ear ? At the moment, oral storytelling is going through a huge and many-faceted golden age, from traditional storytellers like Daniel Morden via storytelling comedians like Terry Saunders to storytelling artists at the edge of hip-hop like Polar Bear, and maybe novels and written stories are struggling to keep up. It’s just a thought, tha knows, but one that’s worth pursuing. In’t it? Toys Yam We!† Hahahahahahahahaha!

* Man 1: Hello my friend, are you well this fine morning? Man 2: Yes, indeed I am, and how are you? Man1: Did you go to the recent football match featuring the mighty Barnsley FC? Man 2: Yes, I went to the football match and it wasn’t up to the standards I expect from a Championship team. Man 1: I see. Man 2: Yes, it was extremely disappointing. Man 1: Well, I’ll be on my way. Man 2: Yes, I’ll be on my way too, and I’ll see you around.

Toys R Us


Jonathan Davis


ll I remember about my mother’s death is Chinese oranges ripening on nutmeg and raspberry yoghurt. She had a coronary. I was young then. Young and not very good at spelling, or telling the time. I don’t remember much, her collapsing or the hospital. But I remember those magical oranges. I think they rubbed the yoghurt into her skin in the hope that it would revive her. It didn’t. It appears that neither nutmeg and raspberry yoghurt or Chinese oranges (or any oranges for that matter) have any healing powers. She died. Of a hard to spell coronary. I couldn’t spell very well then. But my Grandma helped me. I went to stay with her after my mother’s death. My father had left just after I was born. It was because he was a foreigner. That’s what my Grandma said. I don’t think it was that. He had these otters. They lived in the huge pockets of his Mac. They were foreign too. These foreign otters really enjoyed iced ginger nuts. Well my mother never liked nuts, allergic. So I think he left on their account. I think these wild fancies were linked to my problem of spelling. My Grandma had this phonetic system. We would make up memorable sentences, each word beginning with the right letter in the word. I had trouble spelling ‘coronary’ so Grandma made up this sentence, Chinese oranges ripening on nutmeg and raspberry yoghurt. C.O.R.O.N.A.R.Y. It was the same with ‘foreign’. Unfortunately I forgot the actual events of my mother’s death and in a bizarre mental mix-up remember the



oranges and yoghurt as if they actually played a role. It is the same with my father; somehow his appearance is confused with the method of spelling ‘foreign’. So I’m left with a dead mother covered in yoghurt and a father who liked his otters more than his wife. I’ve later found out that this is called the ‘association of ideas’. I think Ivan Pavlov had something to do with it. I see or hear something and it sets my imagination running. It runs so far that the actual ignition is completely forgotten. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. Of course, it helped when I was a child. For when I first met my Grandma on the day of my mother’s funeral she was dressed as a clown. Her face was as white as ice cream, her eyes accentuated with black and blue make-up and her mouth was a red half moon. Her nose was also red, I was sure if I had squeezed it would have honked. I was so ecstatic to find out that this clown was going to look after me from then on that I hardly noticed the sombre expressions on everyone’s faces. However, it turned out later that she hadn’t been dressed like a clown at all. Her face was pale and white from two days of acute vomiting and diarrhoea, perhaps induced by the news of her daughter’s death. The make-up around her eyes had run because of her tears and her nose was red from blowing it so regularly. The copious amounts of red lipstick were simply an attempt to make herself look younger. This finally explained why she never dressed like a clown again or taught me how to make balloon animals. My over-active imagination also transformed her stuffy home. The kitchen had a small hatch which opened into the dining room. I was constantly climbing through it; it was far more fun than simply using the door. In a moment of anger usually unknown to my Grandma, she had it nailed shut. She said that if I forced it open it would fill the house with all the snow and rock in the Himalayas. I’m not sure now why this image occurred to her or why she even thought it would stop me attempting to open it. I was unsure how much snow and rock there was in the Himalayas and whether it was enough to fill the kitchen. And so in a moment of curiosity I opened the hatch when my Grandma had gone to get her hair done. Snow and rock poured in for hours accompanied every so often by a yak and a Sherpa. Once it stopped I managed to clear the mess up except for one yak which continued to chew the grass in the garden. Luckily my Grandma couldn’t see it. It could not last forever. The imagination is not always full of snow, clowns and otters. It has its darker side. It began when I asked Grandma if we could get a cat. She said no. I asked again and she said no again. One day I brought a small cat I found in the street home. She kicked it out. She said if I ever brought another one into the house she would cut its tail off and kick it out the back door. From then on I was haunted


by an image of this felisidal maniac. I imagined her wandering about in the dead of night hunting and killing alley cats. The next day she would feed me her prey in pies or stews. From then on I became a vegetarian. Grandma’s hands were getting older and I couldn’t help but see them as spiders. Her touch almost became repulsive, her hands running across the piano horrific. There appeared nothing more revolting to me than musical spiders. Also one day I caught sight of her large breasts and they evoked such a strong image of melons, so that I could no longer eat the fruit which I had formerly wolfed down ever Sunday morning. But my adulthood soon came, it couldn’t be dissuaded. My thoughts became prescribed to the norm. A hand returned to being simply a hand. I realised the hatch was simply a quick and easy way of transporting food form the kitchen to the dining room. Images became boxed in, filed in sensible ways. They no longer lead on from one another in uncontrollable spirals. For when my Grandma died the doctors didn’t try dipping her in yoghurt, nor were the foreigners at the funeral accompanied by otters, no one was dressed as a clown. I returned to eating meat and melons.


Angela Leighton
What do you keep on your writing desk?

David Constantine
What poems do you know by heart?

Rebecca Gethin
Known by heart

Books and papers for literary criticism. I write poetry in a notebook on my knees, thus keeping the two activities as far apart as possible.
What is the first poem you remember hearing?

Bits of Shakespeare I learned at school, Keats’ ‘Bright Star’, Goethe’s ‘An den Mond’, Verlaine’s ‘Je fais souvent ce rêve…’, many stray stanzas and lines, all in all a small anthology, by no means enough.
First poem heard

Christina Rossetti’s ‘Who has seen the wind?’ It summed up a child’s unanswerable questions, and still haunts me as a lovely simple form of words.
Longest time to write a poem?

Nursery rhymes, playground rhymes, hymns, carols, among them several that I remember and misremember and that whole or in bits affect me as poems do.
Recommend a book

Many of those school anthology poem like ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘The Naming of Parts’ as well as snatches from Shakespeare’s sonnets, T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland and when Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’ was read on the radio the other day I found I could remember chunks from it.
If you could be any character in fiction or real life…

Jane Eyre because she is always sure of what she should do.
First poem heard

Years. Half-written poems never quite let go.
Featured on page 18

I’m reading Raymond Williams’ Border Country. I’ve had it on my shelves for decades and now I am very drawn into it.
Featured on page 30

An Italian one: ‘Dante Alighieri/ Spacca bicchieri/Sulle teste/Dei Carabinieri ‘. It means Dante breaks glasses on the heads of the carabinieri.
Featured on page 39


Joel Lane
What character in fiction?

Andrew McNeillie
So at what age were you happiest?

Isobel Lusted
On your writing desk

The narrator of Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, because he sees incredible things and survives.
First poem heard

What poet would you most have liked to meet? Gerard Manley Hopkins Have you ever been scared by writing on any subject?

I wander. no desk, mainly knees.
What character in fiction?

‘The Dong With the Luminous Nose’ by Edward Lear.
Longest time to write a poem and what kept you going?

Basho. I like the idea of walking combined with an album of haiku rather than photographs.
Recommend a book or an author

No, but by not writing, yes, on any subject.
Featured on page 63

About a fortnight to produce a long first draft – what kept me going was the desire to impress the person I was writing for and about.
Featured on page 55

A book, The Road to Xanadu; an author, John Burnside.
Featured on page 73

Gary Allen
Known by heart

‘Death Fugue’, Paul Celan.
First poem heard

‘The Highwayman’, Alfred Noyes.
Recommend a book


Cillin by Gary Allen, a postmodern classic novel.
Featured on page 77




Something in the air, a slipped kilter or mean, shove or drift, like someone thinking, a faint from under, twitch, a base that gives… my nudged brain wires a fall that floors the complex of our lives – and finds a name before it knows what for. From far, from further back than far, from bone-memory, a sense beyond recall, my shocked sleep stores a cradling jolt, a stay as keen as fall – and halfway waked (the moon’s white squash on the floor – Lacus Timoris, Palus Somni), I catch the reflex of a note not heard, as if the spine’s long probe, struck and jarred, had caught the current of a word. Something, for once, in the bone’s acoustic hall, a summons, faint percussion in the marrow – Christ! from the earth’s small shudder, its adjustment of room, the stirred duppy of its pulse, I wake – the roll of a stone, its fault on my tongue.



The Child in the Tree
Why should it lay a finger on her, or even care about her quick spidery reaches, halfway to air? They’re locked together. She too might net decades of weather, grow higher and higher, feeling its strong, knuckly sculpture, and shadowed by the shadower, hear, so high and almost nowhere, its enormous whisper. Why should this great passive bearer of sky and weather notice her small arboreal dare? They’ll branch together. She’ll read it slowly, feel each notch and bole, finger a grainy book, an open, woody future. This is her own Christopher, till growing by inches, years, weather, she’ll be herself self’s carrier, weightlifter.



In the Potter’s Yard
This mortgaged plot of earth is full of shards. Blue china shows, suddenly, like an eye. Shells and bones are dead-white in daylight, pumiced and raw, a treasure, clinker-light. Earth’s earthenware degrades – a debt of the soul – rusts slowly back to rubble and grit. Foisted below, in soil that gives it space, how small a chip will stop the spade’s deep slice. My Judas tree will stream with blossom soon, beribboned like a model of self-harm. Weather will cross it daily and not hear the chink of silver earmarked in its hair. Where are we, then? housed on these scattered pieces, a midden-yard, preserve of ware and scrap. We’ll dig for silver bells and cockle shells, bones, flutey as a tune, for crocks and spells, knacks and tales. What makes a garden grow out of the muck-heap’s trash? Mud-larks, are we? scavenging here, years after Easter went, for something lost in the ground, or long absent? In clay-cold soil the clay looks baked or raw. Decay turns its hand to what must go. And still, in the grass, I catch a glint of foil: an egg the children missed, ovarian, whole.


Jonathan Bate


an there really be anything new to say about Shakespeare? He’s up there with Hitler and Marilyn Monroe among the most biographized figures in history. But on the basis of a far patchier collection of source materials. If you click on ‘biographies’ in the online World Shakespeare Bibliography, you get 1052 hits. And that’s only for studies published in the last fifty years. Granted, many of these are specialized academic studies of some particular corner of Shakespeare’s life. But since the success of the movie Shakespeare in Love a decade ago, Shakespeare has been big business for trade publishers too. Bill Bryson’s breezy little life and times has shifted more than two hundred thousand copies – though probably more because of his name than Shakespeare’s. In America the much more academic Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt garnered a million dollar advance and rose high in the bestseller lists. Most lives of Shakespeare follow a highly predictable pattern. Childhood in Stratford, ‘lost years’ when he disappears from the archival record, successful twenty year career in the London theatre, and finally retirement back to Stratford. There have recently been some innovative attempts to break this highly restrictive mould: James Shapiro’s prize-winning 1599 focused down on a single year, Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger on a single document. Germaine Greer turned the tables by


writing a life of Shakespeare’s Wife, about whom there are no more than three or four known facts, all of them disputed. People keep telling me that I must be insane to have spent the last few years adding to the over-burdened shelf of Shakespeare biographies. When I began, I half agreed with them myself: my previous contribution to the genre had been a kind of anti-biography called The Genius of Shakespeare, in which I argued that since there will never be a satisfactory cradle-to-grave life of the man we should instead concentrate on the idea of Shakespeare, the history of how he came to be regarded as the greatest genius in the history of writing and theatre. Why was I sceptical to begin with? Partly because of the gaps in the documentary record. Partly because of the sheer tedium, the predictability and dutifulness of the cradle-to-grave narrative. But above all because of the mismatch between the stuff that survives in the archives – records of births, marriages and deaths; legal documentation about property purchases and forays into the small claims court; payments for dramatic services rendered at royal festivities – and the things we really want to know about Shakespeare: how his mind was formed, what inspired him to write, how he viewed the world, what he believed. George Bernard Shaw once claimed that everything we know about Shakespeare can be got into a half-hour sketch:
He was a very civil gentleman who got round men of all classes; he was extremely susceptible to word-music and to graces of speech; he picked up all sorts of odds and ends from books and from the street talk of his day and welded them into his work ... Add to this that he was, like all highly intelligent and conscientious people, business-like about money and appreciative of the value of respectability and the discomfort and discredit of Bohemianism; also that he stood on his social position and desired to have it affirmed by the grant of a coat of arms, and you have all we know of Shakespeare beyond what we gather from his plays.

Gathering what we can from his plays and poems: that is how we will write a biography that is true to him. But the process has immense perils. As the critic Barbara Everett wrote a couple of years ago in an acute Times Literary Supplement essay on the problem of Shakespearean life-writing, ‘if his biography is to be found it has to be here, in the plays and poems, but never literally and never provably’. That Shakespeare wrote in sonnet 37 of being ‘made lame by Fortune’s dearest spite’ does not necessarily mean that he had a limp, as more than one biographer has supposed. An accurate triangulation of the life, the work and the world must be more subtle. It must look for traces of cultural DNA – little


details such as a reference to the forest of Arden or the knowledge of a particular school textbook – and must be prepared to make surprising connections in the style of Shakespeare’s own inventive metaphorical imagination. We must by indirections find directions out. Shakespeare was the least autobiographical of great writers. He wasn’t like, say, Evelyn Waugh turning his Oxford friends into the characters of Brideshead Revisited. Many of the characters in the plays are, after all, worked up from historical origins and other source materials. He brings Cleopatra and Henry V to memorable life, but they were not his personal acquaintances. Just occasionally, though, something more personal gets woven into the mix. The floral crown of the mad King Lear is improvised from the exact combination of weeds that grew in the furrows of ploughed fields in South Warwickshire. An invented name in Cymbeline is a little nod of gratitude to the school friend who first got Shakespeare’s poetry into print, Richard Field. From his works we can work out what he read and, as important, how he read. From little-known sources such as marginal annotations in original copies of the First Folio of his complete plays, we can also work out how Shakespeare’s first readers read him. We don’t know his political beliefs, but we know which political factions he was associated with. We don’t know his personal philosophical credo, but we can work out what he thought about the prevalent belief systems of his age, for instance the highly influential neo-Roman code of Stoicism (he was, I am pretty sure, a fully paid up anti-Stoic). A biography of the mind of Shakespeare: how it was shaped by the world about him and the worlds he entered through his reading. A reading of the life that is also a reading of the plays in which his mind was working at full stretch – Hamlet, Lear, The Tempest. That’s what I’ve been writing over the past few years. A biography of Shakespeare for thoughtful rather than casual readers.


‘A dazzling portrait’
Simon RuSSell BeAle

‘A stunning tour de force’
DAviD CRyS tAl

october 2008 | Hardback | £25.00 |





amlet’s public image is that of the versatile ‘Renaissance man’ who is at once soldier, scholar and courtier, the embodiment of the three mature ages of man in one. Privately, he struggles to hold together the many pieces of the jigsaw of human being: he finds it difficult to move from ‘apprehension’ to ‘action’. Soliloquizing on what Brutus called the ‘interim’, and in reflecting upon his father’s untimely murder and his mother’s hasty remarriage he is unable to sustain his belief in humankind’s beauty and admirability. It is only when he faces up to the graveyard and the skull that he is able to accept the mortification of the body, the implication of the words of the funeral service that will be evoked by the entrance of Ophelia’s cortege, as Hamlet throws down the jester’s decayed head: ‘we therefore commit [her] body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body, that it may be like to his glorious body, according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.’ Hamlet is obsessed by the division between words – the medium of noble reasoning, the faculty of admirable expression – and matter, the substance of the body and of action. The play begins from something insubstantial: a moral imperative, a paternal injunction from beyond the grave. The first question to be resolved is whether the ghost has substance. Hamlet’s tragic dilemma is to proceed to an act of revenge without himself becoming the beast which he takes Claudius to be. The dilemma is dramatized by the duality between soliloquy (words, the self) and action (deeds, engagement with others). It is compounded by the play’s restless self-consciousness: Lucianus in The Mousetrap has no difficulty in proceeding from words to action, but his identity as a player



raises the possibility that to perform the action demanded may be to act a performance. Hamlet has an existential problem: he wishes to be himself rather than a role which one might play (the Revenger), but for much of the play he cannot reconcile his wish with the knowledge that to be human means to have a set of social relations (which are especially constrained if one is a prince) and a body that is both desiring (like his mother’s) and mortal (like his father’s). Literary genre is a means of structuring experience. As the title of Dante’s divine poem the Commedia reminds us, the structure of Christianity is essentially that of comedy: it looks forward to the day of resurrection, when, as ‘The Order for the Burial of the Dead’ puts it, ‘our vile body’ is sloughed off and we become like to the ‘glorious’ (eternal, pure, spiritual) body of Jesus Christ. Elizabethan tragedies usually end with piles of body being carted off for burial. Elizabethan audiences would be bound to ask themselves which souls among the dead persons of the drama are imagined to be saved. Hamlet and Laertes exchange forgiveness, Laertes dying on a prayer that on the day of judgement he should not be held to account for Hamlet’s death nor Hamlet for his and his father’s. Ophelia is not mentioned here, for hers – as we learn from the gravediggers’ debate about burial rites – was a doubtful case, since suicide meant damnation whereas accidental death left open the possibility of salvation. In his ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy, Hamlet has worried about the hereafter; in his dying speeches, he is more concerned with the manner in which his history is recorded on earth. The audience cannot know his ultimate destination, just as they cannot know their own. In the Protestant world-picture ‘a noble heart’ – Horatio’s final judgement on his friend – does not guarantee salvation. ‘Goodnight, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!’ is the expression of a hope, not the statement of a fact. Hamlet’s closing emphasis on the telling of his story – his history, his posthumous fame – is a sign of the secularization of the drama during the reign of Elizabeth. The gravedigger reminds us that the pagan hero Alexander the Great and the court clown Yorick come to the same end. Only the dust is certain. But Hamlet seems ready for that. As many critics have observed, he is a changed man on his return from the English voyage: ‘If it be now, ’tis not to come: if it be not to come, it will be now: if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.’ He has come to a mood that could be described as Stoic acceptance. Or, more strictly, since he combines a classically achieved ‘readiness’ or ‘constancy’ with a Christian sense of ‘providence’ (‘there’s a divinity that shapes our ends … there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’), we should say neo-Stoic acceptance. Hamlet is a great reader. In the first published version of the play, he speaks his ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy as he enters ‘poring upon a


book’. A book and a philosophical ‘question’. To an educated Elizabethan, it would almost certainly have been apparent that Hamlet is reading the Tusculan Questions of Marcus Tullius Cicero. A university man such as Hamlet would have been expected to read this hugely influential book in its Latin original, but it was also available in an English version of 1561 with the catchy title Those five QUESTIONS, which Mark Tully Cicero disputed in his Manor of Tusculanum: Written afterwards by him, in as many books, to his friend and familiar Brutus, in the Latin tongue, and now out of the same translated and englished by John Dolman, Student and fellow of the Inner Temple. The first of those ‘questions’ (disputationes), debated in dialogue form, was ‘whether death be evil: yea or no?’ Cicero’s conclusion, ultimately derived from a famous speech by Socrates when he is condemned to death (as reported in Plato’s Apology), is that we should not fear death. Why? Because after death, either the soul survives or it does not. If it does not, then death ‘resembles sleep without any trouble of dreams’. If the soul does survive, then it will go to what Hamlet calls ‘The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’ where it will meet a just judge. A person who has lived a good life accordingly has nothing to fear in the afterlife. Hamlet’s problem is that if he carries out his father’s demand for revenge or if he kills himself in despair at the ills of life, then he will be a

“Contempt not for the world, but for death.”
murderer or a self-murderer and will accordingly have something to fear when he meets the ultimate judge. He has to go on a long journey of his own before he reaches the state of ‘readiness’ for death. If there is a single book that parallels his journey, that brings us close to the workings of the mind of Hamlet, it is Montaigne’s Essays. Scholars debate as to whether or not Shakespeare saw Florio’s translation before it was published in 1603. The balance of evidence suggests that he probably did not, but rather that his mind and Montaigne’s worked in such similar ways that Hamlet seems like a reader of Montaigne even though he could not have been. Imagine that Hamlet could have read Montaigne. He would have found a meditation on the pros and cons of suicide in an essay called ‘A custom of the isle of Cea’, but he would most characteristically have turned to the essay in the first book, strongly influenced by Cicero’s Five Questions, called ‘That to philosophize is to learn how to die’. As a university-educated reader, he would have been trained to copy the pithiest wisdom from his reading into his commonplace book, known as his ‘tables’. Here are some of the sentences of Montaigne, as translated by Florio, that we can imagine the princely student of Wittenberg copying


out (in that ‘fair’ handwriting which served him so well when devising the ‘new commission’ for the killing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern):
CICERO saith, that to Philosophize is no other thing, than for a man to prepare himself to death: which is the reason that study and contemplation doth in some sort withdraw our soul from us and severally employ it from our body, which is a kind of apprentisage and resemblance of death; or else it is, that all the wisdom and discourse of the world doth in the end resolve upon this point, to teach us not to fear to die.

Hamlet would have relished the double sense there. The action of study and contemplation is a little rehearsal for death, in that it involves a withdrawal from the bustle of life. At the same time, the ultimate content of philosophy is the knowledge that we are all going to die, and that we should accordingly, as the Duke puts it in Measure for Measure, ‘Be absolute for death’. The Duke’s oration to the condemned Claudio offers a typically neo-Stoic mix of classical resignation and Christian contemptum mundi. Montaigne and Hamlet have a subtly different emphasis. They seek to cultivate contempt not for the world, but for death. They teach themselves to be ready but not to be afraid. A fool, says Montaigne, deals with fear of death by not thinking about it. A wise man simultaneously thinks about it all the time and gets on with his life:
The end of our career is death, it is the necessary object of our aim ... Let us learn to stand and combat her with a resolute mind ... let us remove her strangeness from her, let us converse, frequent, and acquaint ourselves with her, let us have nothing so much in mind as death, let us at all times and seasons, and in the ugliest manner that may be, yea with all faces, shapen and represent the same unto our imagination … And thereupon let us take heart of grace, and call our wits together to confront her. Amidst our banquets, feasts, and pleasures, let us ever have this restraint or object before us, that is, the remembrance of our condition ... He who hath learned to die hath unlearned to serve ... A man should ever, as much as in him lieth, be ready booted to take his journey, and above all things, look he have then nothing to do but with himself ... let death seize upon me whilst I am setting my cabbages, careless of her dart, but more of my unperfect garden.

We do not know whether Shakespeare grew cabbages in his garden at New Place, but it is a reasonable bet that he would have shared Montaigne’s hope of ending his life in some such way. The readiness was all.


Three NoTes oN Lear

Bedlam begins at the garden gate. The King did not know this but Edgar did Who perhaps had grown up lonely And stood there often to see them coming from the tombs Cutting themselves, legion. He saw them feelingly. And I suppose he had a nurse from among the poor Closer, who told him the truth in bedtime stories And scraps of lullaby into nightmare. Easily He became Poor Tom, fished deep And as in posh old people after a stroke Up came the vernacular, the dirt, the baby talk, The horrors. So he acted in truth And pretty soon added this to the facts at his disposal: That worse than bedlam may come up the garden path As guests, as a lord and lady And befoul the living room beyond any catharsis And turn out the host with holes that were his eyes To be contemplated by his son Edgar, survivor.



The Word
Give the word. Get it right. Get it wrong, the portrait of your sainted mother will fall in smithereens The French windows will blow open and in the glacial draught All faces present will set in one or other of the possibilities: Terror or murderous rage. Say the wrong word All simples ever after will be ineffectual. Too late. Best, if you are not the person challenged Should there be a pause while whoever is deliberates Decamp over the garden wall. Bedlam is kinder. Their meat is rats and mice, their drink crawling, the wind Stilettoes through their ribs, but better This accommodation than the big house. In bedlam they sprig their veins with rosemary.

hysterica passio
All the mothers are dead and of them only one, The Bastard’s, gets much of a mention: She was good sport under the dragon’s tail. The surviving wombs are in the care of their father, an unfit person. He has the king’s evil, his touch is mortal. Soon he finds himself pregnant, he has no idea how. It swells up in him, he orders it back down. But labour is not like that (altogether he has no idea), Begun is begun, the King is beginning to teem, King Malediction is bringing forth a mother of his own Hysterica passio Who never knew he was so deep with sorrow. The waters break through his mouth, irrevocable. No one can bear to look at the mother he brings into the world. It is a tangle of fiends, six of them he names Kill Four Howl, and the last out Never, Never, Never, Never, Never.



David Constantine


have been thinking about Antony and Cleopatra in the light of Keats’s axiom that ‘poetry should surprise by a fine excess’. I understand the excess to be that in poetic language which exceeds what a sentence would need simply to convey its burden of fact, information or opinion. A beautiful and effective superfluity; the palpable difference between language being used discursively and language being used poetically. Much of the speech of Antony and Cleopatra may be called ‘excessive’ in that sense. So it is even from the first:
Nay, but this dotage of our general’s O’erflows the measure.

Enjambment concerns us particularly here. Very frequent in later Shakespeare it is almost the hallmark of the verse of Antony and Cleopatra. The opening line does what in very many following lines and in its entirety the play itself will do: it reaches over, to augment itself, it wants more, it overflows to have its fulfilment. But the whole movement of the play is hyperbolic, a ‘flinging further and beyond’. It cannot contain itself in one place; it needs to go out to the limits of the Roman Empire. And it needs many episodes, over a long period of historical time, so that hero and heroine can live themselves out. The play abounds in imagery of increase, extension, and the desired and sometimes achieved passage out of one state or form and into another. One expression of Antony’s abundance is his enjoyment of sex, eating and drinking (2.2.187ff), for which his puritanical opponent Octavius despises him (1.4.16). Maecenas, keeping in Octavius’ favour, says of Antony that he is ‘most large / In his abominations’ (3.6.95). But those who love and admire him couple his largeness (he bestrides the ocean)


with his largesse. Cleopatra’s infinite variety show itself in her rapid deployment of one face, mood, persona after another. At least, sometimes it seems like a deployment – willed, calculating, designed for a particular purpose; at others it is more a helpless volatility. Facets of self shift and show themselves as quickly as any mix of light, air and water. She is a good actress, but her ability to act cannot in practice be separated from her inability to keep still. Her very nature is quickness, and this, like her sexuality (of which it is a chief part), also transforms those around her. So in Antony and Cleopatra, whose hero and heroine are excessive, the excess natural to poetry is put to the particular purpose of saying what excess in people and their deeds – overflowing bounty, love without measure, incomparable living – is like. This is a lyrical drama, and very aptly so. The subject requires that poetry, the means by which the subject is bodied forth, should be freely and superabundantly itself. You can see this, as you always can in Shakespeare but in this play particularly well, in speeches whose essential function is to relate an event or convey some factual information. In the speech of the Second Messenger, for example, who, arriving to tell Octavius that Pompey and the pirates Menas and Menacrates have become bolder, says it in these words:
Caesar, I bring thee word Menacrates and Menas, famous pirates, Make the sea serve them, which they ear and wound With keels of every kind.

The modern reader is most likely to hesitate over the category and meaning of the word ‘ear’. It must be a verb, but its usage as one is unusual – to come into ear, of corn; to give ear to – or, in the sense here, to plough, obsolete. And that uncertainty may even, momentarily, cause us to wonder is ‘wound’ verb or noun. That pause before deciding, however brief, is an instance of poetry’s working against the onward drive of a speech whose prime function is to report. Very briefly the reading mind entertains more than one possibility. The hesitation will doubtless be longer now than it was in Shakespeare’s day, when ‘to ear’ in the sense of ‘to plough’, was current. Nonetheless, there must have been some slight pause in which, then as now, there was not only a query as to the category of the word and its chief sense but also, perhaps, a memory of Antony’s densely suggestive lines only two scenes back (1.2.115–7): ‘Oh, then we bring forth weeds / When our quick minds lie still, and our ills told us / Is as our earing.’ Any such after-effect, combining with a hesitation over sense, engages the mind in possibilities which are in the wake and to either side of the route along which the action of the play is proceeding. Shakespeare’s ‘functional shifts’ are a part of his total linguistic creativity. Not only does he make up words, he uses familiar words newly.



The reading or listening mind, programmed for a noun, has to adjust to its transformation into a verb. Similarly with conjectures and emendations. In the First Folio Octavius says:
It hath been taught us from the primal state That he which is was wished until he were, And the ebbed man, ne’er loved till ne’er worth love, Comes feared by being lacked. This common body, Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, Goes to and back, lacking the varying tide, To rot itself with motion. (1.4.41–7)

‘Feared’ is usually emended to ‘deared’ (giving the sense ‘becomes loved’) and ‘lacking’ to ‘lackeying’ (in the sense of following this way and that as a lackey must his master’). The dense lines feel borne along by, rather than in control of, the very imagery – stream, tide – of their meaning, and the intelligent emendations thicken them further. ‘Lacking’ may well be a compositor’s error after the ‘lacked’ two lines before. But if Shakespeare did indeed write ‘lackeying’ that word itself may have been thrown up on the current of his poetic thinking by the just uttered ‘lacked’. And ‘flag’ (not in doubt) is certainly a reed or rush, but must trail with it, through ‘vagabond’ to ‘varying’, a suggestion of ‘flag of allegiance’, one always changing sides. In many speeches we feel the mind and the tongue of the speaker to be under pressure and in haste. The words come crowding out under the compulsion of more and more words likewise pressing to be said. As the speech proceeds and things are said in sequence (as by the nature of language they must be), other possibilities are thrown off laterally, and linger in the mind as possible further developments, while the main thrust of the utterance continues until it stops. The language is densely packed, and as the lines, and with them the action of the play, move on, they drag a comet-tail of not yet fully apprehended connotations with them. I mean such passages as this from Antony:
O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more. Fortune and Antony part here; even here Do we shake hands. All come to this! The hearts That spanieled me at heels, to whom I gave Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets On blossoming Caesar, and this pine is barked That overtopped them all. (4.12.18–2)

The risk in volatility, in trying out many selves, is the loss of what John Clare, approaching madness, called ‘self-identity’. Keats says of the cha-



meleon poet – or poetry – that it has no self. For poetry also that is a risk, but a necessary one, the essaying of possibilities. But in a person loss of self is dissolution; the person, undelineated, dissolves, dislimns. This is what Antony suffers. Hercules leaves him. Eros disarms him; his shape becomes as unstable as clouds. He was a soldier. That denomination has a quite peculiar definiteness and resonance in this play. As a soldier, a man is something. And Antony was a great soldier. But after Actium, he says ‘I am so lated in the world that I / Have lost my way for ever’ and that is his chief meaning when he says, ‘I have fled myself’ (more than, though not excluding, the sense ‘I too have fled’). So he urges his followers to leave him: ‘Let that be left / Which leaves itself.’

“Listening closely, watch the language in action.”
We might say that the lyric and the dramatic are in combat, the first retarding, spreading, tending to simultaneity; the second hurrying forward. Since Nicholas Rowe’s editing in the early eighteenth century the play has been divided and subdivided into five acts and forty-two scenes; but in the First Folio it proceeds without such breaks and in Shakespeare’s theatre was, very likely, acted out in one rapid session of about three hours. Such a performance would reinforce the dramatic mode in hurrying the events towards their fated end. All the more vigorous then must be the lyric’s answering back. The paradox, entirely logical, is that by its very liveliness, by its power of engendering present life, the poetic word is strong enough to kill. When Antony sends his treasure after him, Enobarbus feels that this bounty set against his treachery will of itself be enough to kill him:
O Antony Thou mine of bounty, how wouldst thou have paid My better service, when my turpitude Thou dost so crown with gold! This blows my heart. If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean Shall outstrike thought, but thought will do’t, I feel.

(4.6.32-7) In 4.9 the sentry and his men witness, with us, the power of thought incarnated in Enobarbus’s soliloquy to the point of killing him. He addresses the moon:
O sovereign mistress of true melancholy, The poisonous damp of night disponge upon me,


That life, a very rebel to my will, May hang no longer upon me. Throw my heart Against the flint and hardness of my fault, Which, being dried with grief, will break to powder And finish all foul thoughts. O Antony, Nobler than my revolt is infamous, Forgive me in thine own particular, But let the world rank me in register A master-leaver and a fugitive. O Antony! O Antony!

He works up his thoughts into a killing flint by three times uttering the name synonymous with generosity: Antony. And dies wishing to be remembered as the very type of treachery: ‘a master-leaver and a fugitive’. The simple opposites of bounty and betrayal, brought to the point, are enough to kill him. Cleopatra, a consummate actress, spurs herself into suicide by the thought that if taken alive to Rome she will have to witness herself and Antony being insultingly impersonated:
The quick comedians Extemporarily will stage us and present Our Alexandrian revels; Antony Shall be brought drunken forth; and I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness I’th’posture of a whore. (5.2.215 ff)

Shakespeare’s stage was almost bare of scenery and props. The eyes of the audience were not diverted or distracted. Actors entered abruptly and obviously and stood and moved under the audience’s intensely listening close gaze. And the troupe was not large, doubling-up was normal; the actors, all male, impersonated more than one life and it was obvious that they were doing so. That economy of means – few props, scant scenery, few actors – demonstrates where the energy for the necessary augmentation lies: in the language. Listen, watch. Listening closely, watch the language in action. And, most important, let it induce you into bringing it fully to life. So here Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play already foresees herself as a character in a play, who may be well or, as she expects, insultingly badly played. It is a nice irony, of course, a moment of amusing knowingness, that in Shakespeare’s theatre Cleopatra would have been played by a boy whose unbroken voice she – Shakespeare’s fiction – disparagingly calls ‘squeaking’. But she – and Shakespeare in her voice – points to the gap there will always be between the poetry, the poetically realised character, and any realisation on stage by however great an actress. Antony and Cleopatra potentiate one another, they combine and


compound their resources of life. And they do so because they are in love. Their love is hyperbolic, a continual outbidding. They seem bent on eliminating the falling short which Troilus, another famous lover, called a ‘monstruosity’. He says to Cressida who fears that lovers promise more than they deliver: ‘This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the execution is confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit’ (Troilus and Cressida, 3.2.79). By their restless doings, their play, their enjoyments, Antony and Cleopatra chase in the execution after the will and in the act after desire. In so doing of course, making hungry where most they satisfy, growing the more by reaping, they further potentiate the will and the desire. Goethe observed that ‘das Unzulängliche ist positiv’ (falling short is a positive thing), meaning perhaps that the gap itself is a further excitement and incitement. Antony and Cleopatra, who needed the whole world for their peerlessly abundant living, imagine, on the threshold of death, a life beyond it. Antony, thinking Cleopatra dead, promises:
Where souls do couch on flowers we’ll hand in hand And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze. Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops, And all the haunt be ours. (4.14.52-5)

And she brings herself to the act of suicide by imagining that he is encouraging her from there:
Methinks I hear Antony call. I see him rouse himself To praise my noble act. I hear him mock The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come! (5.2.283-6)

That bid for after-life, or, better, for continuing life having overflowed the allotted measure of the first, is repeated by the text itself every time it is staged and, still more far-reachingly, every time an audience watches and listens and a reader of it reads. Ben Jonson’s poem to his dead friend Shakespeare, there with a likeness of the man in the First Folio, says something commonplace and true: ‘And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live / And we have wits to read…’ Those lines are a challenge not a sop: books live if we read them, we are the continuation they cannot live without, their next overflowing, body and soul of their further life, another of their metamorphoses, their new translations.

This is an edited and greatly abbreviated version of David Constantine’s essay.


Rebecca Gethin

They buried their dead so high the graves are specks on the cliff-face. They imagined ancestors watching over their comings and goings. Fingers pointing upward they’d name great-grandparents, sensors of daybreak’s first impulse, approaching weathers, who now voiced thoughts in thunder, directed lightning, conducted stars. Inside the crevices a puzzle of bronze bracelets, shell beads circling what was clavicle, axe heads clinking on metatarsal. To reach a geological hour all they had to do was lie still, while rain seeped through limestone.




y father’s family originally came from a remote area in the Ligurian Alps. Twice a year I go back to the valley where I feel very much at home. Below our tiny house in these mountains is a deep gorge, and rising up on the opposite side is a rock-face, which dominates the village. I am fascinated by the way sunlight and weather play on its surface. Everybody likes to stand and watch the sea but, for me, a rock-face is equally compelling. My first intention was to write about the effects of sun and moon light on stone. I scribbled bits in my notebook like this:
A raw nerve of earth: light on its face is active a searching intelligence; mutely accepting the pressures and fronts fingering its surface

So, through successive days, I kept glancing at the rock to see how it changed: from early morning when rock martins flew out of the clefts through to dusk falling when owls hooted from precariously angled trees. t started to feel like a sacred site, which made me remember that the local museum in Triora displays artefacts that were found in prehistoric burial chambers high up in the valley: pots and weapons, beautiful beads and even shells. Some were 2–2,500 years old. As a number of such caves have been discovered I thought it possible the people had mapped their whereabouts. There are old photographs of skulls excavated from these caves, which are now kept in another museum with controlled conditions to stop them deteriorating.As the skulls were intact when first removed from their thousands of years of lying in a cave I started wondering how they came to be so well preserved. I was struck by the shells that were purposefully left in the chambers (the area being far from the sea) and asked why so many of the beads were blue. The other thing that kept going through my mind was the sheer



height of the burial chambers. It must have taken a lot of courage to get those corpses up there. How did the mourners climb so high with a body to carry? Did they carry it over their shoulders? If instead they lowered them down from the top then there was the real risk of the edge crumbling away and the drop below would be certain death. The first line of the poem had to be about the height. I wanted to juxtapose our under-the-ground graves with these people’s over-theirheads burials. They clearly wanted to be able to see their graves. Perhaps even to be watched over by their dead. But after the thought of the first line, ‘They buried their dead so high’, I couldn’t find the next thread of thought. The past and its meaning was muddled in my mind. I felt hampered because I knew so little about the archaeological and geological facts. So I googled the word ‘limestone’ and learned about its properties and idiosyncrasies. I started trying to use the geological words in the poem but then felt that I was coming unstuck through not knowing the real currency of these words:
its skin, all clints and grykes, quickens as sun breaks through spirals of river mist. All its flutes and runnels charcoaled by clouds…

I read Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’ many times, a poem so wonderful that it intimidated me:
I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing.

A dead end for my poem. Having been to the museum for a second time I marvelled how the archaeologists had come to discover those inaccessible chambers. The Italians of Triora are good climbers and a villager told me how he used to free-climb all the rock faces. I supposed some early twentieth-century fearless mountaineer must have spotted something striking on a ledge, or found a rock that moved.
…to feel for niches to climb inside, to turn into seepage to fold into wrinkle…

I thought I’d try fourteen lines, packed together for closeness and abandon the short tercets in which I’d been writing:
A rock wedged in the cave mouth, like any fallen stone. Fingertips and muscle strain to shift it, exposing the human stash beneath the schist.


Packed inside so small a place so high the hole is a speck in the rock face. Blue beads circle the remains of a clavicle axe heads clink against metatarsal bronze bracelets embrace vanished wrists necklaces and weapons were their letters of introduction to their futures – blood warmth long gone in this lost map of tombs and caves revealing what was always known limestone turns the dead to stone.

But this wasn’t working either. Too dense and line length doing nothing. I wanted to find something out about the religious belief or practices of these pre-historic peoples, some reason why they went to so much trouble and risked personal danger to bury bodies so high, so well-hidden and removed. But all my attempts at research ended in nothing. Then my husband made a joke that maybe the bodies in the prehistoric caves were my ancestors. My father’s family had lived in this area for many centuries. It is a sort of clan and the surname (Lanteri) belongs to at least five different families, all of whom hail from the same village. And then the poem clicked for me. I could imagine people living on these mountainsides feeling the closeness of their grandparents and earlier ancestors beyond that, just as I, myself, feel drawn to the same village to feel the closeness of my long-dead grandparents and the preceding generations, who I know are all buried in the local cemetery. I know that because they have graves with names and photos on them. As these prehistoric people went about their daily chores – gardening, herding, hunting – they would feel the narrow valley was guarded by their ancestors. This knowledge would give their forebears a kind of immortality and the limestone must physically preserve the bones and objects left in the burial chambers. I went back to the tercets but found them too busy and eventually decided on couplets with longer lines. They left enough space for my unanswered questions to remain hanging on the page. The title shifted between ‘Ancestors’, ‘Afterdeath’, ‘Museum Exhibits’ (my poetry group unanimously vetoed this one) but finally I decided on ‘Afterlife’ as I felt the livingness of the dead people was always immanent to their descendants living in the forests and grassy slopes below. So for now the poem is like this, but knowing me, it will gradually evolve over time into something else.



Dangerous translating
They eat funghi. We don’t eat fungi only mushrooms. They learned the language by osmosis as children – to me, the woods are filled with unpronounceable names. Ten days after rain. A waxing moon. Look for pine trees whose needles point down, not up. Don’t eat anything that smells of carrion but a whiff of freshly milled flour is especially good. The night is so still I can almost hear them growing – rustle of leaves being pushed to one side as they poke from the ground like lithe muscles, calloused toes – earlobe-soft, knuckle-hard – monk’s hoods, pigs’ ears, goats’ beard, one-eyed, born-together, fog fungus, small nails, white dove, potato fungus, Judas’ ears, drum sticks, sheeps’ feet, hidden-under-leaves, covered-in-pearls. Ten days after rain. A waxing moon and di buon ora their baskets are laden with kilos of funghi. They know boletus from russula, amanitus from tricholoma. Shaking their heads over my haul, the fungi are tossed over their shoulders into the grass. All I’ve discovered is a fear of adders.



Camille Paglia


reak, Blow, Burn, my collection of close readings of fortythree poems, took five years to write. The first year was devoted to a search for material in public and academic libraries as well as bookstores. I was looking for poems in English from the last four centuries that I could wholeheartedly recommend to general readers, especially those who may not have read a poem since college. For decades, poetry has been a losing proposition for major trade publishers. I was convinced that there was still a potentially large audience for poetry who had drifted away for unclear reasons. That such an audience does in fact exist seemed proved by the success of Break, Blow, Burn, which may be the only book of poetry criticism that has ever reached the national bestseller list in the United States. On my two book tours (for the Pantheon hardback in 2005 and the Vintage paperback in 2006), I was constantly asked by readers or interviewers why this or that famous poet was not included in Break, Blow, Burn, which begins with Shakespeare and ends with Joni Mitchell. At the prospectus stage of the project, I had assumed that most of the principal modern and contemporary poets would be well represented. But once launched on the task of gathering possible entries, I was shocked and disappointed by what I found. Poem after poem, when approached from the perspective of the general audience rather than that of academic criticism, shrank into inconsequence or pretension. Or poets whom I fondly remembered from my college and graduate school studies turned out to have produced impressive bodies of serious work but no single poem that could stand up as an artifact to the classic poems elsewhere in the book. The ultimate standard that I applied in my selection process was based on William Butler Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’, a masterpiece


of sinewy modern English. Ezra Pound, because of his generous mentoring of and vast influence on other poets (such as T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams), should have been automatically included in Break, Blow, Burn. But to my dismay, I could not find a single usable Pound poem – just a monotonous series of showy, pointless, arcane allusions to prior literature. The equally influential W. H. Auden was high on my original list. But after reviewing Auden’s collected poetry, I was stunned to discover how few of his poems can stand on their own in today’s media-saturated cultural climate. Auden’s most anthologized poem, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, inspired by a Breughel painting, felt dated in its portentous mannerisms. A homoerotic love poem by Auden that I had always planned to include begins, ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm’. But when I returned to it, I found the poem perilously top-heavy with that single fine sentence. Everything afterward dissolves into vague blather. It was perhaps the most painful example that I encountered of great openings not being sustained. Surely the lucid and vivacious Marianne Moore, so hugely popular in her day, would have produced many poems to appeal to the general reader. However, while I was charmed by Moore’s ingenious variety of formats, I became uncomfortable and impatient with her reflex jokiness, which began to seem like an avoidance of emotion. Nothing went very deep. Because I was so eager to get a good sports poem into Break, Blow, Burn (I never found one), I had high hopes for Moore’s beloved odes to baseball. Alas, compared to today’s high-impact, around-the-clock sports talk on radio and TV, Moore’s baseball lingo came across as fussy and corny. Elizabeth Bishop presented an opposite problem. Bishop is truly a poet’s poet, a refined craftsman whose discreet, shapely poems carry a potent emotional charge beneath their transparent surface. I had expected a wealth of Bishop poems to choose from. With my eye on the general reader, I was keenly anticipating a cascade of sensuous tropical imagery drawn from Bishop’s life in Brazil. But when I returned to her collected poems, the observed details to my surprise seemed oppressively clouded with sentimental self-projection. For example, I found Bishop’s much-anthologized poem ‘The Fish’ nearly unbearable due to her obtrusively simmering self-pity. (Wounded animal poems, typifying the anthropomorphic fallacy, have become an exasperating cliché over the past sixty years.) Even splendid, monumental Brazil evidently couldn’t break into Bishop’s weary bubble, which traveled with her wherever she went. It may be time to jettison depressiveness as a fashionable badge of creativity. Charles Bukowski was another poet slated from the start to be prominently featured in Break, Blow, Burn. (Indeed, he proved to be the writer I was most asked about on my book tours.) I had planned to make the dis46


solute Bukowski a crown jewel, demonstrating the scornful rejection by my rowdy, raucous 1960s generation of the genteel proprieties of 1950s literary criticism, still faithfully practiced by the erudite but terminally prim Helen Vendler. I was looking for a funny, squalid street or barroom poem, preferably with boorish knockdown brawling and half-clad shady ladies. But as with Elizabeth Bishop, I could not find a single poem to endorse in good faith for the general reader. And Bukowski was staggeringly prolific: I ransacked shelf upon shelf of his work. But he obviously had little interest in disciplining or consolidating his garrulous, meandering poems. Frustrated, I fantasized about scissoring out juicy excerpts and taping together my own ideal Platonic form of a Bukowski poem. The missing Bukowski may be the surly Banquo’s ghost of Break, Blow, Burn. Feminist poetry proved a dispiriting dead end. Grimly ideological and message-driven, it preaches to the choir and has little crossover relevance for a general audience. Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’, a big

“I fantasized about scissoring out juicy excerpts.”
anthology favorite, is symptomatic of the intractable artistic problem. A tremendously promising master metaphor – Rich uses deep-sea diving to dramatize modern women’s confrontation with a declining patriarchal civilization – collapses into monotonous sermonizing and embarrassing bathos. The poem’s clumsiness and redundancy are excruciating (risible ‘flippers’, for example, loom large). I was more optimistic about finding a good feminist poem by Marge Piercy, who treats her woman-centric themes with spunky humor. Piercy’s work is full of smart perceptions and sparkling turns of phrase, but her poems too often seem like casual venting – notes or first drafts rather than considered artifacts. I finally chose for Break, Blow, Burn two forceful, lively poems by Wanda Coleman and Rochelle Kraut that are not explicitly feminist but that express a mature and complex perspective on women’s lives. I had glowing memories of dozens of poets whom I had avidly read (or seen read in person) after my introduction to contemporary poetry in college in the mid-1960s: Denise Levertov, Randall Jarrell, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Duncan, John Berryman, W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, and Galway Kinnell, among many others. But when I returned to their work to find material for Break, Blow, Burn, I was mortified by my inability to identify a single important short poem to set before the general reader. Live readings seem to have beguiled and distracted too many writers from the more rigorous demands of the printed page – the medium that lasts and that speaks to posterity. All of the above poets deserve our great respect for their talent, skill, versatility, and commitment, but I would question how long their reputations will last in the absence of strong freestanding poems. Beyond


that, I was puzzled and repelled by the stratospheric elevation in the critical canon given to John Ashbery in recent decades. ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ (1974), Ashbery’s most famous poem, is a florid exercise in strained significance that could and should have been compressed and radically reduced by two thirds. Can there be any wonder that poetry has lost the cultural status it once enjoyed in the United States when an ingrown, overwrought, and pseudo-philosophical style such as Ashbery’s is so universally praised and promoted? Given my distaste for Ashbery’s affectations, it would come as no surprise how much I detest the precious grandiloquence of marquee poets like Jorie Graham, who mirrors back to elite academics their own pedantic preoccupations and inflated sense of self. That Graham, with her fey locutions and tedious self-interrogations, is considered a ‘difficult’ or intellectual poet is simply preposterous. Anointing by the Ivy League, of course, may be the kiss of death: Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, another academic star, enjoys an exaggerated reputation for energetically well-crafted but middling poems that strike me as second- or third-hand Yeats. As for the so-called language poets, with their postmodernist game-playing, they are co-conspirators in the murder and marginalization of poetry in the United States. For the contemporary poems in Break, Blow, Burn, my decisions were based solely on the quality of the poem and never on the fame of the poet. As I stumbled on a promising poem in my search, I photocopied it for later consideration. Once the finalists were assembled, I pored over them again and again to see if they could hold up to sequential rereading. Did a poem retain its freshness and surprise? Some of my finds were soon dropped when I noted how a powerful opening was not sustained by the rest of the text. It was highly distressing to see what might

“When poets defensively cluster in a ghetto of opinion, they lose contact with their audience.”
have been a remarkable poem self-destruct or wither away, as if the poet failed to keep pressure on his or her own imagination – or perhaps to hold the poem back long enough to let it develop and ripen on its own. An example of this latter problem is William Stafford’s ‘The Color That Really Is’. The poem begins stunningly: ‘The color that really is comes over a desert / after the sun goes down: blue, lavender, / purple. … What if you saw all this in the day?’ Stafford sees the rays of the sun as swords that ‘slice – life, death, disguise – through space!’ These amazing, even shamanistic perceptions about existence are followed by an arresting second stanza sketching a stark scene of chilling specificity: the poet glimpses a woman’s ‘terrible face’ under the light of a casino table in Reno. That ravaged face reveals ‘what a desert was / if you lived there the way it is’.


The juxtaposition of sublime, visionary images with a gritty slice-of-life portrait is brilliant and daring. But then Stafford attaches a jarring finale – a stanza awkwardly inserting himself in a posture of mawkish piety: ‘Since then I pause every day to bow my head’. What a waste! Again and again, there were poems that had provocative or inspired first lines but that then fell flat, as if the poet were baffled about how to proceed. Sometimes an ambitious poem would find its natural architecture but then neglect smaller details of workmanship or tone. An example is Bob Kaufman’s ‘To My Son Parker, Asleep in the Next Room.’ An African-American Beat poet, Kaufman, like his colleague Allen Ginsberg, was directly influenced by Walt Whitman. This memorable poem is an epic chant that surveys human history from ‘shaggy Neanderthals’ marking ‘ochre walls in ice-formed caves’ to artists and priests in far-flung cultures from Egypt and Assyria to China, Melanesia, and Peru. The rhythms are forceful and insistent and the images compellingly visual or visceral. The poem ends in an exalted if uneven coda celebrating freedom. After working with Kaufman’s poem, however, I became disillusioned by its needlessly simplistic politics, exalting all non-Caucasians over Europeans. The poet would have served his poem better with a more expansive, forgiving, and authentically Whitmanian vision. Kaufman’s sadly self-limiting poem demonstrates how progressive American poetry began to isolate itself from general society in the last half of the twentieth century. When poets defensively cluster in a ghetto of homogeneous opinion, they lose contact with their larger audience. A poem that emerged from a quite different social milieu is Morris Bishop’s ‘The Witch of East Seventy-Second Street,’ which was published in The New Yorker in 1953. Though my primary critical sympathy remains with the rude, rebellious Beat style, I find Bishop’s poem far more effective than Kaufman’s in reaching its artistic goal:
‘I will put upon you the Telephone Curse,’ said the witch. ‘The telephone will call when you are standing on a chair with a Chinese vase in either hand, And when you answer, you will hear only the derisive popping of corks.’ But I was armed so strong in honesty Her threats passed by me like the idle wind. ‘And I will put upon you the Curse of Dropping,’ said the witch. ‘The dropping of tiny tacks, the dropping of food gobbets, The escape of wet dishes from the eager-grasping hand, The dropping of spectacles, stitches, final consonants, the abdomen.’


I sneered, jeered, fleered; I flouted, scouted; I pooh-pooh-poohed. ‘I will put upon you the Curse of Forgetting!’ screamed the witch. ‘Names, numbers, faces, old songs, old joy, Words that once were magic, love, upward ways, the way home.’ ‘No doubt the forgotten is well forgotten,’ said I. ‘And I will put upon you the Curse of Remembering,’ bubbled the witch. Terror struck my eyes, knees, heart; And I took her charred contract And signed in triplicate.

Catering with its chic uptown address, well-appointed decor, and sophisticated whimsy to the affluent readers of the glossy New Yorker, ‘TheWitch of East Seventy-Second Street’ nevertheless manages to tap archetypal imagery for eerily unsettling effect. Poet and witch have an odd intimacy: she breaks into his ordered routine like an ambassador from elemental nature. Is she a malign proxy for mother or wife, as in fairy tales? She speaks in ominous parallelism, like the witches of Macbeth – four curses in four stanzas, culminating in the parodic ‘triplicate’ business contract, ‘charred’ by hellfire and signed by the defeated poet. As with Jaques’ melancholy speech about the seven ages of man in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, human life is mapped as a series of losses, with the elderly regressing to an infantile state. The witch’s ‘Curse of Dropping’ attacks the body (fingers and hands stiffen; the belly sags), while her ‘Curse of Forgetting’ attacks the mind (memory lapses, especially costly to poets with their bardic mission). Everything valuable in life – emotion as well as sensation – seems to recede. But the worst is the ‘Curse of Remembering,’ which overwhelms the mind with regrets. Remembering is too crushing a burden. Better to remain in the fenced preserve of quaint connoisseurship (the Chinese vases), into which modern technology can barely penetrate (the sputtering telephone). The poem presents the poet as isolated, refined, and removed from collective joys (the ‘popping of corks’ at unattended parties), but vulnerable to attack from mythic forces. It’s as if, with their active imagination, poets are the vulnerable point in modern civilization, where the archaic can invade and retake spiritual territory. Bishop’s poem, for all its virtues, finally seemed too arch or pat for Break, Blow, Burn. A poem that came very close to inclusion, however, was Gary Snyder’s ‘Strategic Air Command.’ (I decided to use Snyder’s ‘Old Pond’ instead.) ‘The hiss and flashing lights of a jet / Pass near Jupiter in



Virgo […] // Frost settles on the sleeping bags. / The last embers of fire, / One more cup of tea, / At the edge of a high lake rimmed with snow’. Snyder’s opposition of serene nature to ethically distorted society is classically High Romantic. The two men camping out in the Sierra Nevada mountains hear the ‘hiss’ of a military jet, the serpent in the garden as well as an avatar of impersonal industrial mechanization. The visitors seek a spartan simplicity. They have stripped down to essentials in order to purify themselves, like teadrinking Buddhist monks at the ‘high lake rimmed with snow.’ The men’s humble comforts, with their tactile immediacy, contrast with the jet’s dehumanized perfection and arrogance. Earth, air, water, and fire: these endure, while political events flare up and disappear, like the jet. Skeptical questions could certainly be asked: would Snyder return society to the preliterate nomadic era, when humans lived desperately hand to mouth and were helplessly vulnerable to accident and disease? But that does not invalidate his protest. The poem is prophetic: machines, dazzling artifices of the mind, may gradually be robbing humanity of free will, but nature is ultimately unreachable, unperturbed by human folly. David Young’s ‘Occupational Hazards’ still enchants and intrigues me. It draws its inspiration from riddles, fairy tales, children’s songs, and emblematic chapbooks with roots in medieval allegory:
Butcher If I want to go to pieces I can do that. When I try to pull myself together I get sausage. Bakers Can’t be choosers. Rising from a white bed, from dreams of kings, bright cities, buttocks, to see the moon by daylight. Tailor It’s not the way the needle drags the poor thread around. It’s sewing the monster together, my misshapen son. Gravediggers To be the baker’s dark opposite, to dig the anti-cake, to stow the sinking loaves in the unoven— then to be dancing on the job!



Woodcutter Deep in my hands as far as I can go the fallen trees keep ringing.

The poet’s pure pleasure in improvisational, associative play with language is registered in the mercurial puns and quirky metaphors. Young’s catalog of occupations echoes the children’s limerick ‘Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub’ (‘The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker’). However, each vocation here – butcher, baker, tailor, gravedigger, woodcutter – can be read as an analogue to the practice of poetry. The butcher going to pieces is the poet exploring his or her emotional extremes, out of which may come ‘sausage,’ the inner life ground up, processed, and strung together in linked stanzas. Such a life requires intestinal fortitude. Rising long before dawn, bakers (normally beggars) ‘can’t be choosers’; like writers wrestling with their material, they are under compulsion to knead their sticky, shapeless dough. With a strangely active dream life, the bakers see metaphorically: ‘buttocks’ and ‘moon’ prefigure the raw white loaf (compare the slang term ‘buns’ for buttocks; flashing one’s buttocks is ‘mooning’). Poets, the ‘kings’ of their own ‘bright cities,’ have a tactile intimacy with language, while their sources of inspiration range from the coarsely material to the celestial. A tailor at work resembles the poet cutting, trimming, and stitching his verse. The needle is the sudden penetration of insight, while the flexible thread, assuring continuity and shape, is dragged in the rear as a secondary process. The result is ‘my misshapen son’: art-making by men is an appropriation of female fertility. The end product, like Frankenstein’s ‘monster’ with his stitched-up face, may seem ugly or distorted (in an avant-garde era). But the artwork is the artist’s true posterity, a child of the intellect rather than the body – a distinction made by Plato. Young wittily says that the merry gravedigger (‘the baker’s dark opposite’) must ‘dig the anti-cake’ and ‘stow the sinking loaves in the unoven’ – as if the bakery has gone through Alice’s looking-glass and turned into a graveyard. Cake and corpses: this morbid mingling of sweets and rot is a brilliant conflation of motifs from Hamlet, with its jovial gravedigger and its satirical imagery of the murdered king’s body served up as ‘funeral baked meats’ at a too-hasty wedding banquet, where the main dish is the queen (Hamlet 1.2.180). Meditating on elemental realities, the poet faces death and turns it into artistic sustenance and pleasure (‘dancing on the job’). Finally, the woodcutter is the poet who ruthlessly topples his lofty forebears to clear mental space for himself. But their words still ring in his mind. They have seeped into his bones, to the deepest layers of his psyche. Poetry, a form of making, is a mission he



cannot escape. The battered hands of the craftsman dictate to the soul. A. R. Ammons’ “Mechanism” upset me severely and still does. This poem should have been the dramatic climax of Break, Blow, Burn. In fact, it should have been one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century. Its vision of complex systems operating simultaneously in human beings and animal nature is at the very highest level of artistic inspiration. But in execution, the poem is a shambles, with weak transitions and phrasings that veer from the derivative to the pedantic. ‘Mechanism’ is my primary exhibit for the isolation and self-destruction of American poetry over the past forty years:
Honor a going thing, goldfinch, corporation, tree, morality: any working order, animate or inanimate: it has managed directed balance, the incoming and outgoing energies are working right, some energy left to the mechanism

The pretty goldfinch flitting in and out of the poem symbolizes nature unconscious of itself. Flashing through the cherry bushes in the last stanza (‘unconscious of the billion operations / that stay its form’), it carries a valedictory blessing like the ones in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ and Wallace Stevens’ early poem ‘Sunday Morning’ (which ends with flocks of birds sinking “on extended wings”). But it is the doggedly philosophical late Stevens, notably in ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ and ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven’, who is exercising a baleful and crippling influence here on Ammons, as on so many other American poets of his generation, including John Ashbery.

“Pompous, big-think gestures have become a crutch.”
(Two examples of luminous early Stevens appear in Break, Blow, Burn.) Over time, Stevens’ language tragically failed him. He ended his career with a laborious, plodding, skeletal style, employed in self-questioning poems of numbing length. Gorgeous images or lines still abound, but pompous, big-think gestures have become a crutch. The obtrusive ‘ideas’ in late Stevens have naturally provided grist for the ever-churning academic mill. But poetry is not philosophy. Philosophic discourse has its own noble medium as prose argumentation or dramatic dialogue. Poetry is a sensory mode where ideas are or should be fully embodied in emotion or in imagery grounded in the material world. Late Stevens suffers from spiritual anorexia; he shows the modernist sensibility stretched to the breaking point. Late Stevens is not a fruitful model for the future of poetry.



In Ammons’ ‘Mechanism’, Whitman’s influence can be felt in the cosmic perspective and catalog of organic phenomena. But there isn’t nearly enough specificity here. Whitman was able to invoke nature’s largest, most turbulent forces along with the tiniest details of straw, seeds, or sea spray. Ammons was on the verge of a major conceptual breakthrough in his willingness to consider the intricacies of human organizations, corporations, and management as expressions of the nature-inspired drive toward order. Whitman’s melting, all-embracing Romantic love is no longer enough for a modern high-tech world. Connecting sexual ‘courtship’ to state-guaranteed ‘territorial rights’, Ammons is using an anthropological lens to focus on the ancient birth of civilization itself in law and contract. And by conflating history, science, economy, and art, he would end the war between the artist and commercial society that began with the Industrial Revolution and that has resulted in the artist’s pitiful marginalization in an era dominated by mass media. ‘Mechanism’ approaches a view of consciousness itself as a product of evolutionary biology. The minute chemistry of enzymes and platelets is made almost psychedelically visible. The poem makes us ponder huge questions: are we merely flitting goldfinches in nature’s master plan? Is free will an illusion? Is art too a product of natural design? But the poem is fatally weakened by its abstruse diction, bombastic syntax, and factitious format. Why did Ammons choose these untidy staggered triads? They seem forced and arbitrary, out of sync with his own music. While David Young’s cryptic ‘Occupational Hazards’ uses a concrete, vigorous, living English that connects us to the sixteenth century, ‘Mechanism’ relies on a clotted, undigested academese that strains at profundity . And the poem is too long. Shakespeare’s sonnets, bridging his piercing emotional experiences with his wary social observations, demonstrate the beauty and power of high condensation. In his great sonnet, ‘Leda and the Swan’, Yeats showed how a vast historical perspective could illuminate shattering contemporary events. Perhaps “Mechanism” should have been a sonnet, a worthy heir to Shakespeare and Yeats. But the poem shows the increasing distance of the poet from general society, which Ammons is analyzing but is no longer addressing in its own language. It prefigures what would happen to American poetry over the following decades, as the most ambitious poets became stranded in their own coteries and cultivated a self-blinding disdain for the surrounding culture.
The full text for this abridged article originally appeared in Arion. Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material: Alison Jolly: Morris Bishop, ‘The Witch of East Seventy-Second Street,’ published in The New Yorker, Nov. 14, 1953. David Young and the University of Pittsburgh Press: David Young, ‘Occupational Hazards,’ from The Names of a Hare in English. © 1979 by David Young. 54


When the hospital sent you home I came to see you, bringing grapes you wouldn’t eat and music you couldn’t listen to any more. Sickness had bent your middle age into something too old to last, a stony pale beach that shivered as the tide made its way in. After an hour, I walked out into the black November glow, went home and read your stories, then played the CD I’d bought and thought of snow falling down in perfect silence, erasing the prints of shoes and paws, hooding the trees: a new world, a cloud made fresh.



Rana Dasgupta
Solo is the second novel from Rana Dasgupta, author of the brilliant debut novel Tokyo Cancelled which has been described as a modern Canterbury Tales. In Solo, a blind man approaches his one hundredth birthday in Sofia, Bulgaria. Alone and dependant on the kindness of neighbours, he muses on the ungraspability of life in passing and fears that nothing personal or real can be saved and passed forward – despite his having lived through Fascism, Communism, revolutions, wars, and great scientific discoveries. At the end of his days he looks back through the hundred years and writes up his life in the Book of Life and the Book of Daydreams. We print three extracts from The Book of Life. The first (Magnesium) is from the start of the novel as the old man embarks on his quest. The second (Carbon) finds him a young man just returned from an exciting life as an experimental chemist in Germany, perplexed to find that his childhood friend Boris still seems bigger and more vital than he does, especially now he has been killed as a revolutionary. The third extract (Barium) is one attempt of many to locate and hold an important memory – his mother – in a surviving form. Can these lost moments keep warmth alive? Solo (Fourth Estate, 9 March, 2009), 978-0007182145

Book 1 The Book of Life
With the exception of his back, which tortures him every morning, the man’s health is still passable, and yet, by the sheer force of numbers, his death cannot be so far away. As a child, the man watched his grandmother stick up biographies of the dead on the trees outside their house. She had come from a village near the Black Sea – cut off, now, by the border – and it was the dead from this distant village whose accomplishments were listed on the trunks of those proud and equidistant plane trees. Every day, it


seemed, was the death-day of someone or other from that remote place, and his grandmother told him the stories over morning tea as she wrote out her obituaries. She tied them with string to the trees, where they decomposed gradually in the rain, to be renewed the following year. ‘How do you remember?’ he asked her again and again, for it seemed marvellous that the entire history of that lost dynasty could be preserved in her mind. But his father disapproved of the rural practice and her own life was never written up on a tree. Sensitive, like all infants, to the beyond, the man had in those years a powerful sense of the infinitude of generations. He had seen people buried in the ground with their eyes closed; and in his mind he envisioned the earth in cutaway, with the stacked-up strata of sleeping bodies so vertiginous in its depth that it was simple to believe the lightness of life on the surface to be no more than their collective dream. For the dreamers, quiet and eternal in their moist refuge, greatly outnumbered those with open eyes. These old intuitions returned to the man recently, when he listened to a television programme about a town that was buried under water after the construction of a dam. Eighty years later, the dam was decommissioned and dismantled. The lake subsided, the river resumed its previous route, and the town rose again into the sunlight. There had been extensive damage, of course. Water had dissolved the plaster from walls, and roofs had caved in. Wooden buildings had floated away, bit by bit. Trees had died, and the whole town stank of dead fish and river weed for weeks after it was drained. But there were a couple of cars still parked on the streets – antique models, as the man remembered from his own youth. There were clocks arrested at different times, and a cinema with the titles of old films still stuck up outside. Road signs had stood firm all this time, pointing the way to underwater destinations. In every house, things had been left behind. A man found a jar of pickles in a kitchen, and tasted them, and pronounced them still good. There were some old people who had lived in the town before the deluge and were taken back to see it again, and it was for them as if they were transported back into a childhood fantasy. These days, the man devotes himself to wading through the principal events of his life in order to discover what relics may lie submerged there. Of course, he has no family around him, his friends have all gone, and he knows that no living person is interested in his thoughts. But he has survived a long time, and he does not want it to end with a mindless falling-off. Before the man lost his sight, he read this story in a magazine. A group of explorers came upon a community of parrots speaking the


language of a society that had been wiped out in a recent catastrophe. Astonished by this discovery, they put the parrots in cages and sent them home so that linguists could record what remained of the lost language. But the parrots, already traumatised by the devastation they had recently witnessed, died on the way. The man feels a great fraternity with those birds. He feels he carries, like them, a shredded inheritance, and he is too concussed to pass anything on. That is why he is combing through his life again. He has no wealth and no heirs, and if he has anything at all to leave behind, it will be tangled deep, and difficult to find.

Two days later, Boris was arrested for sedition, and executed. The police went out in force, with names and addresses, and many were taken in. Georgi was arrested too, and thrown into jail. Afterwards, the police sent word to Boris’s parents that his body was available for collection. When the coffin was lowered into the earth, Magdalena and her mother collapsed simultaneously into their skirts. Ulrich walked home afterwards with his parents. Elizaveta was disabled by it. ‘I loved that boy,’ she kept saying. ‘I loved that boy.’ She forbade Ulrich from going out, fearing that something might happen to him, too. But when evening came he could not stay shut up any more. He ran to Boris’s house. A storm had come up suddenly, and unfastened shutters banged. He battled through a wind so fierce that the entire sky was too small a pipe for it, and the air groaned in its confines. Outside Boris’s house was a crowd of street people. Magdalena stood in front, handing out clothes, while her mother wept on the steps. Boris’s shrunken father watched from an upstairs window. ‘Ulrich!’ cried Magdalena when she saw him, and she threw herself at his chest. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked. ‘I’m giving away his clothes.’ She had brought everything out of the house. Jackets, shirts and sweaters flapped in the gale. Ulrich could not bear to see it all disappear. ‘So his warmth stays alive,’ she said. ‘Look how many have come.’


Ulrich saw Misha in the crowd and, for the first time, burst into tears. The fool approached him. He secreted two cold marbles in Ulrich’s hands. ‘I did not know that fish could drown. Those marbles were his eyes.’ It began to rain. The people dispersed, only a scattering of unwanted shirt collars and neckties left on the ground. Magdalena went into the house and emerged with Boris’s umbrella. ‘Let’s walk,’ she said. ‘But it’s late.’ She ignored him. The storm became stupendous. She led him, pulling his arm, and they found a place for sex. There were no lips, no hands, no hair: just genitals. In the tumult, the umbrella blew away and they were entirely exposed under the flashes. Her skirt was at her thighs and she screamed: not with the sex, but with its insufficiency. Over her shoulder, Ulrich saw a man watching them from his shelter in a doorway, and he felt ashamed. He sank to the floor, sobbing in the downpour. ‘No,’ he said. She stared at him in disbelief, untrussing her skirt. ‘You know how much I need you,’ she shrieked into the tempest. She beat his head with her fists, and ran away, clacking and splashing on the street. He pulled up his trousers and retrieved the umbrella from the iron fence where it had lodged. When he reached the main road she had disappeared. Disturbed crows were wheeling overhead, their wet wings slapping ineffectually at the air. He did not know where to escape to. The city was suddenly without dimension, like a whipped-up ocean, and the umbrella, in this horizontal torrent, a flailing superfluity. He arrived finally at the bar where they had been two nights earlier. He found Else, the guileless prostitute, and took her upstairs. She was alarmed at his inconsiderate, uncouth pounding, but he did not stop until the barmaid knocked angrily at the door, complaining of the noise and the hour, and he grabbed his clothes and went home. For a long time, Ulrich avoided all places where he might run the risk of meeting any member of Boris’s family. Many years later, Ulrich heard a story about the great pianist, Leopold Godowsky, whom he had once seen in Berlin playing the music of Franz Liszt. Leopold Godowsky was born in Lithuania but spent his life in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and then New York. He had a gift for friendship and hos60


pitality, and, wherever he lived, his home became a centre for artists and thinkers. His friends included Caruso, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Chaplin, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Gide, Matisse, Ravel – and Albert Einstein. Godowsky was one of those people who are born to do one thing, and when a stroke rendered his right hand useless for piano playing, he fell into a deep depression. He never played in public again. During his final unhappy years in New York, Godowsky saw Einstein frequently, as the scientist had moved from Berlin to nearby Princeton. Leopold Godowsky had an Italian barber in New York, named Caruso. Caruso was a great follower of Einstein, and when he discovered that his customer, Godowsky, knew him personally, he begged him to bring the famous man to his shop. Each time Godowsky saw Einstein, he told him that Caruso the barber wanted to meet him, and Einstein each time agreed to go and see the man whenever he was next in the city. With one thing and another, however, the visit never took place. Eventually, Godowsky died. When the news reached Einstein at Princeton he did not say a word. He immediately picked up his hat and coat, took the first train to New York, and went to visit Caruso at his barbershop. Ulrich thinks back, sometimes, to the conversation he had with Boris in that attic laboratory so long ago, when they discussed the news of an uncle who had died. He feels that he did not ever progress far beyond his childhood bewilderment, and is ashamed of the inadequacy he always felt in the face of death. He has always been affected by stories of people who knew precisely how to respond when a person has died. Perhaps it is because his behaviour after Boris’s death fell so short of the mark that the terrible finality of it never truly settled. Whenever he thinks back to his wedding day, he remembers the smile on Boris’s face, and the way his hand was tucked in the belt of his green army uniform. But such a thing is impossible: for Boris had been dead for years by then – and he would never have worn army clothes. There are many other memories like that, which have all the flesh of terrestrial recollections, but must have slipped in somehow from another world.

Sometimes he made common cause with his mother over music. When Sviatoslav Richter, the great Soviet pianist, came to play a week of recitals in Sofia, Ulrich took Elizaveta to all the concerts. Richter was


a wild-looking man, even in his suit, and he tamed the piano monster with the mere application of his fingertips. Ulrich was terrified to see the speed at which he played Chopin, for no one could sustain such a fury. When he finished it with such a contemptuous flourish, the tears ran down Ulrich’s face. It was the period when he had strong physical reactions if he witnessed some form of surpassing human achievement. He wept at athletes breaking records. He trembled when he saw a standing ovation in the theatre. When Albert Einstein died, he read his words in the newspaper, which made him weep too: The years of anxious serarching in the dark for a truth that one feels but cannot express, the intense desire and the alternations of confidence and misgiving, and the final emergence into light – only those who have experienced it can appreciate it. At the time of Richter’s visit, there was an influenza epidemic in Sofia, and Elizaveta was one of those who coughed uncontrollably through the music. Her nose ran continually, and her constant wiping irritated Ulrich during the performance. Many years later, after her death, Ulrich heard a recording of those recitals on the radio, and he could identify his mother’s cough, preserved during the long note that Richter held at the beginning of Catacombs, near the end of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.



In the Midst of Life
for Gail in homage to Patrick Conneely

Or mist, I dreamt myself alive again, back from the dead, beachcombing down that wintry shore, lit by a sea-candle’s orange-iodine flame – the bay drawling, like a conch at my ear, sea-spray and salt-wind whirling, and the dunes whistling in a gooseflesh shiver of marram. The day was like a night with no moon, and the air crustacean, clawed; had there been a bell it would have tolled, ask not for whom. It isn’t fanciful to think, heaven and hell got married that morning, bride and groom, and I there uninvited, one long-ago drowned beyond space and time, in Blind Sound. So seawards, singing my sea-words to the world, flotsam-jetsam, heart’s kindling, I strode – with voices in my head, or not, I couldn’t tell. But both, the answer was, not either or. ‘What a memory you have,’ he said, and smiled.


He didn’t know the half of it. Though he’d hand-hauled in twenty fathoms the better part of his days and seen such changes in a body’s fortunes would shake faith down to the rock of ages. ‘Fish-stocks recover, left to their own devices . . . It’s never too late. But what can you do with the weather?’ The fog flurried our mis-en-scène. (Enter: a polar bear, adrift on an ice-cube.) ‘Curtains for us all!’ he cried, ‘and yet they say we still have far to fall . . .’ Then he said, ‘You know, I think those were better days’ and glanced as he spoke, weighing his words, to the last syllable of what it is to know poverty. Involuntarily, my mind flashed, like a night at sea, aglitter with stars and villages ashore, barely lit, and shipping lights, freighted with memory. I struggled to agree but knew grace required it and to be true to my heart, I said I feared it was so. How can you live with so little fishing to look at leaning on the sea-wall of old age? I don’t know. Winter indeed, the only tourist-free zone, winter and its slender hold on light. But you don’t need to be old to be deranged, just thin-partitioned from looking askance at life and its short way with us all from the start. Mad in the style of Father Ted, who now has his day, his little immortality, when fancy-dress priests and nuns invade the island, to party wildly. It being our duty to laugh in the face of grief. Yet to know which comes first and what it means to name so many lost at sea and still believe in life. And who knows what else might come to pass to catch our leisure by the heels and wake us from our sleep? . . . The sea was in and now the plane roared on the runway at Cill Eine, then took to the air like a swan in reverse. As if to prove that you can turn the clock back. And now ‘Somewhere



beyond the sea . . .’ the crooner croons to Saturday night, singing so long ago . . . Prize what’s new, I say, but give me retro too. ‘I know beyond a doubt . . .’ he purrs . . . but nothing will be as before, however many moons go quartering the tides to make a haul of silver. True places aren’t down on any map, said Ishmael. Thoughts run, beyond the page, and do not fit. White is the colour of truth? So of the whale that’s never found on Ahab’s map but in his head? Never say never, nor either or? But both, I think, inner and outer; and seize the hour’s the trick. For myself I was born in Thermidor. Unlike Patrick Lobsterman, I’d sooner tire of life than lobster-meat. But the sea is always greener, not to say the drink. So with his sea-green hair Charles Baudelaire led thought on a leash through the streets of Paris, and sang so long ago, ‘Somewhere beyond the sea . . .’ Là-bas . . . his bittersweet melody divine. No matter the barman stands forever calling time. Drink deep but keep your head above water. As out here the islands keep theirs and prosper while earth’s luck lasts. Only the immortal poor, and their poem, have footing that is surer. However far into the hour you row dreaming you’ll wake from your senses. But waking may I never hear you sing: ‘Never again will I go sailing.’ Though now the curraghs are made of fibre glass, and they have outboards . . . What is it in habitude’s reciprocity? ‘No more canvas!’ Patrick laments. The quick pulse within, inboard swell of ocean felt athwart, dancing cheek to cheek, and sea to skin. For intimacy’s the best we have by heart. Had I a hand for it I’d paint his portrait, in oily impasto of sea-surge and cloud . . .



But this instead. Like poetry, fishing’s an art, I said, and when we put out to shoot a net or spill a line, we do it with both thought and craft, one stretched to the other, taut but not too taut, as to be merely formal, with give and take, between wave and boat. As here and now, the soul’s recital turns on an oar, and comes full circle. On holiday in Sardinia he bought sea-bream. So once he caught them here, in autumn, but never now, their stock fished out, though time may yet shoal them back again. He felt at home, islanded, and hearing ‘Irish’ in the slap and splash of the Med, and loved at dawn to see fresh fish landed, as for the first time. Just what the thing itself must be about when the scales fall from your eyes and you see your life flash by. Then out goes the light . . . What might be better days? Don’t get me started. True and untrue to say they lie ahead as in the first line of a poem poised to be written. But to say at once farewell, fare forward, and haste back won’t do. For all is nothing new. I folded the money and put it in his hand and thanked him for his company. He shook his rein and the pony ‘Grace’ struck out for home, hoofbeat for heartbeat . . . remembered all the way again that tattoo round the bay, and down the strand, where beachcombing for metaphor I meet that one with a torch still burning in his hand.



Marshall Brooks


or my friend Liam O’Dell1 and myself, books helped shape a parallel universe beginning sometime in the late 1960s and on into the early 1970s, when we were schoolboys. The active book sharing, for that is what it was, lasted a little more than a decade until we were just out of our twenties. Besides symbolizing the excitement of what books can mean to people, especially young people who are in the process of formulating their own world, these books are all that remain for me of this once close friendship. Liam read a lot. He read so much as a boy, in fact, that he had a reputation around the neighborhood. At about 14 or 15 he was, in everyone’s eyes, the acknowledged local expert on history and warfare. (He may have already read all of Bruce Catton’s books on the American Civil War at this point. No one would have been surprised by this fact if he had.) Coupled with this precociousness was a kind of attractive maturity about him that comes to some at a very early age. People were inclined to trust Liam and, no doubt, found relief and reassurance in this. It was also widely known that Liam’s parents had given him a rifle for one of his birthdays, a bolt-action thing with a wooden gunstock as heavy and ungainly as a small ugly tree trunk. The rifle, a WWI vintage relic, would not have been out of place in the Khyber Pass, then or now. Liam never abused the impressive trust this gift represented (mind, few boys his age owned such weaponry in suburban Boston). The gun, which


hung on homemade scrap metal brackets down in his makeshift basement digs, was an impressive symbol of Liam’s unimpeachable standing within the community at large. It was also a symbol of his absolute authority on the battlefield in boyhood games of war. Liam was not merely a precocious reader, but a young reader with all the fearsome drive of a Rommel and all the tactical acuity of a Montgomery. We were all in awe of him. His serious, not-to-be-questioned bearing hinted at some grave aspect of the world that we could only but barely imagine. The other side of the very same coin is that Liam had read about Shangri-la in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. He, in turn, christened a part of the Metropolitan District Commission woods Shangri-la (the very same woods where we sometimes played war) and claimed it for personal sanctuary space. He took me there once (and only once). All rock and hemlock, with maybe a low-slung branch lean-to or couch adorning it, it reminded me of a monadnock, just above its scraggly, semi-lunar timberline. The place was almost too private to bear. You felt as if you had mistakenly put on another person’s skin in place of your own pajamas. Even then, Liam had an adult need for place and topography. This, anyway, is how I learned the meaning of Shangri-La without having to read the book. At some point, Liam and I fell in with one another. The long walks to junior high school were made less lonely, and scary, this way; our acquaintanceship grew into a friendship. I am happy to say that Liam was like an older brother to me and what we had most in common was books, despite the fact that back then I was more of what you might call a ‘book watcher’ as opposed to being a full-fledged reader; someone who got more from a book before, rather than after, reading it. At first there were the books about war. Guadalcanal Diary and books about the Battle of Midway, Yamamoto and Nimitz, for instance. Liam read those and regaled me with their highlights, but I did not necessarily follow suit and read them. I preferred WWI dogfight classics such as Quentin Reynolds’s They Fought for the Sky or peculiarities such as The Birdman of Alcatraz. Gradually, as we aged, we moved on to meatier works and shared more actual reading in common, but Liam’s enthusiastic retellings of whatever he had just read remained a constant pleasure. His sardonically accurate summarizations were steeped in a youth-coded vocabulary featuring, among other things, strong apposite allusions to persons we knew from around town. A Guns of August could, therefore, be superbly rendered in a paragraph or two of passionate speech, with the hapless Archduke Franz Ferdinand made to bear comparison to a suspect shop teacher or an unpopular assistant scoutmaster. History never sounded so immediate or accessible. One day, on the bus home from high school, Liam unpacked a slightly over69


size, very flat-looking hardcover book that he had specially ordered from the United States Government Printing Office. The book’s exterior was a sober, institutional green but the sheer import of its contents changed our lives forever. The book was Edwin T. Adney and Howard I. Chappelle’s Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, an indisputably authoritative (to us, at least) text complemented by wonderfully grainy black-and-white photographs highlighting the details of Native American and Eskimo boat building in their most sinewy splendor. The book possessed a terrific feral quality, almost tactile, on account of its esotericism; this made it quite indigestible for the mainstream but all the more palatable for two teenage boys. Therefrom, Liam constructed a 12’ canvas-covered kayak from a ‘kit’. (The kit was really a pile of wiggly lumber, a bolt of white canvas and a gallon of liquid airplane dope in a clear glass cider jug, purchased out of an old man’s barn in neighboring Dedham.) I soon followed suit. Our boats enabled us to effortlessly depart civilization at the merest whim and we would spend long afternoons lazing about, and gunkholing on, the Charles River. We sometimes talked about books, friends, acquaintances, or – the topic could hardly be avoided – school, but often we said nothing at all and just drifted. The simplicity of the boats became our standard, emblem and measure both. While exploiting the very same principles that upheld an aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf or another unnecessary yacht on the Inland Waterway, our nautical profile more resembled driftwood; or fallen leaves; or pine needles, even. We were, above all, unassuming watermen, shielded by and within our own super-consciousness, plainly invisible to the serious traffic of the moment (always plentiful in some way or other) surrounding us. This simple and practical sense of freedom was reflected more and more in the reading that we did and how we did it. One or two more historical notes are in order. At about the time that we became suitable for the draft and Nixon was entering into his peak political years, Liam had, once again, entered into new realms of thought and action through the sheer nerve of his native intelligence. He started fashioning such new-fangled materials as rip-stop nylon fabric, Gore-Tex, Velcro, et al., into customized clothing, lightweight (breathable) camping gear, and sundry drawstring duffel and ditty bags, atop his mother’s sewing machine. By so doing he produced, in effect, an authentically habitable world for himself. Liam O’Dell went through the rest of high school wrapped (winters) in a space blanket, fueled on homemade pemmican, and reading people like Alexis de Tocqueville and James Fenimore Cooper in a pioneer’s


corner space up in his parents’ unfinished attic. (Summers, substitute army fatigue cut-offs and tee shirts dyed bivouac olive drab in place of the Apollo Mission space blanket.) Informationally, and in other ways as well, the early 1970s prefigured the internet. Vast amounts of information, heretofore beyond the reach of the masses, became available. The visually compartmentalized newsprint portions of Harper’s Magazine and the encyclopedic Whole Earth Catalog come immediately to mind, as does the collectively-produced – via the Boston Women’s Health Collectlve – 1970 Our Bodies, Ourselves. Design-wise, they all accelerated the absorption of information from off the printed page in completely innovative ways, which today’s web pages perforce echo. In conjunction with FM radio, foreign films, super 8 film, Swinger cameras, stereo records, tape cassettes, early video, offset printing, the 1976 Freedom of Information Act, and such empowering movements as Women’s Lib, etc., they revolutionized the lives of everyone, and youth culture in particular. Liam seemed magically poised for these developments. If you owned a ten-speed bike (he did, later) or had money for the subway (we both did, you could probably ride it for less than a dollar, each way), much of urban society behaved as one mammoth web site in and of itself. You just had to establish all the new connections yourself, physically, and in real time. And bookstores – especially paperback bookstores – abounded when Liam and I were at large and book-hungry in the city. Downtown Boston, for example, might have at one time boasted two bookstores per block, up and down the length Boylston Street, between Arlington Street and Massachusetts Avenue, a distance of about a half-mile or more. Now there is but one store. The first copy of Studs Lonigan that I ever bought, a still in-print 95-cent Signet paperback edition, was purchased along this bountiful book route at the still new Prudential Center complex. Studs proved a genuine highpoint – and my most memorable contribution – in the reading that Liam and I shared. Pint-size, irascible Studs, from Chicago’s tough South Side, alongside James Fenimore Cooper’s lean Leatherstocking, six foot Natty Bumppo (but, in truth, Natty B. – a.k.a. Deerslayer, Hawkeye – always seemed to me more a creation of Liam’s stoked imagination than Cooper’s) and Henry David Thoreau’s largely unsung better half, Penobscot Indian guide Joe Polis, capped our working-middleclass-meets-backwoods literary pantheon with truly stylish and, what is more, recognizably American sass. Ultimately, it was a book that came between us or, rather, triggered the dissolution of our friendship. The title in question, A Thoreau Gazetteer, not at a favorite of mine but a useful addition to our H.D.T. shelf


(I had, in fact, purchased two remaindered copies, one for Liam, one for myself), raised the question in Liam’s mind as to my motives for mailing him a copy to own. A genuine act of selfless generosity? Or was it something else? Et cetera. In retrospect, I suspect that no gift, however well intentioned, is absolutely without the taint of self-interest or guile, even if it is only to take undue pleasure in the act of giving. Suffice it to say, unspoken, unexamined business bested both Liam and myself, to my enormous and everlasting regret. I once imagined that a catalog of our shared reading and suburban education, would be a relatively simple one to compile – encompassing just ten or twelve books. But, happily, I keep thinking of new books that can and should be added. Then there are, of course, the books that I have forgotten. What to do about them? Like a Paul Valéry poem, then, this personal bibliography would have to be abandoned before it could be ever finished. For the record, a few years ago I did accidentally see Liam after being out of touch with him for some twenty years – in a library. Then he was gone again, like a vanished book title.

1. Liam O’Dell is a pseudonym.



Winter, New Town, China (1979)
A rock face a grey frieze where the knife slipped a scramble of snow on the seam snow on the ninety steps to go from the old to the new frozen spit cabbage leaves a few shoes enmeshed in ice every step a slide. Coal carrying women pails slung across shoulders frail as early aconite will come tonight to the Engish lesson where the Party Member snoozes in fur-lined mittens. A market lane iced and bitter a bookshop long and narrow a single bulb that might just light my garden shed students peering through a fog of ideagrams to the world outside.


Pauline Rowe


n 1978, above a wool shop in Widnes, a group of eccentric men (mostly called John) saved my life by reading poetry every week. I had recently started O levels and on Wednesday evening I would leave ‘for Poetry’, and no-one at home questioned what I was doing or why. They were used to my pursuit of words and books. When I was just five-years old, my mother had used me as a sounding-board for her revision. Her night-school subjects included English Literature and Language, History and Economics, and I developed the impression William Blake’s ‘Tyger’ was somehow connected to the Spinning Jenny. By the time I was doing O levels, my mother was teaching English Literature at the school that she had left without any qualifications at the age of fourteen. The reading group I attended called itself a Poetry group and was organised by one of my mother’s colleagues, John W. I think she must have mentioned the group to me in a moment of impatience. There was an occasional appearance by a woman called Sue, but typically the group was made up of John W., John who worked in the Council’s Legal Department, John J. with his constant cigarettes and passion for visual art and painting, Stephen, an occasional Dave, and me. John W, in his mid to late 30s, was the heart of the group. He was nothing like Robin Williams and this was no Dead Poets Society. He looked like a young Jim Broadbent and could do a perfect imitation of Dylan Thomas’s lilting barely Welsh English. He used to roar with laughter and talk about the decline of the nation in terms of the desperate state of poetry. He longed for John Berryman or Hart Crane and told me all about the disappearance of Weldon Kees many years before Simon Armitage made a film about him. No surprise then,


this being in Widnes, and given John W’s favourite poets, that the rooms above the wool shop were called ‘The Bridge’. At ‘The Bridge’ I was introduced to writers who have remained companions and even, on a few precious occasions, saved my life. When I read Wallace Stevens’ ‘Snowman’ I hear John W’s voice:
For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

When I read Emily Dickinson, I remember how John brought me a twig from her garden when he visited New England. If I think of Dylan Thomas’s thirtieth year to heaven, I see that small whitewashed room with its few hopeful readers sitting uncomfortably on plastic chairs and celebrating life through the words of others.
O may my heart’s truth Still be sung On this high hill in a year’s turning.

‘The Bridge’ was an arts centre with a compassionate heart. At the very first meeting, I was taken to a new world in which men loved each other’s company, conversation and ideas. As I climbed the uncarpeted stairs for the first time I could hear a voice enthusing and laughing. Deeply self-conscious standing at the open door of the room, I was welcomed warmly. John W knew me by sight and started telling me about Edgar Lee Masters and The Spoon River Anthology – each poem a gravestone obituary from the dead of small town America. The room where we met was newly painted and had frames of alarmingly ugly work by local painters. There were two large windows with nets facing Albert Road. We were a few doors away from Big Jim’s nightclub (the patron a local lad made good via rugby league). Widnes felt still as though the 50s held it by the scruff of its thick, industrial neck. I knew the place and hated it. We didn’t call ourselves a Reading group at ‘The Bridge’ but that’s what we were. I sometimes wonder why those men were so tolerant of me. I was a confused, bright and deeply unhappy girl who spent many hours reading poetry. I read D.H. Lawrence and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, re-read William Blake (my first love), Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Reading Keats for school remained a separate occupation. At school, a Liverpool all-girls grammar school run by a French order of nuns, we learned most through singing; we performed Edward German’s Merrie England, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, The Messiah, and we were always preparing for concerts and prize evenings and special assemblies which required choral music. I recall one ditty we sang as part of choir rehearsal. I still sing it to cheer myself in moments of gloom:


I left my pink parasol On the upper deck Of a Hammersmith bus Oh bother! Oh Bother!

Exams were not seen as vital – Oxbridge entrance was virtually unknown in spite of the cleverness of many of our girls. Within still living memory, our school had been advertised to the world as ‘A school for the daughters of gentlemen’. In 1978, Sister Sarah our eager young literature teacher taught us by dictating pages and pages of pre-prepared notes about Keats. I learned ‘To Autumn’ and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ by heart, and struggled with ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. We read To Kill a Mocking Bird together and discussed Julius Caesar but my abiding memory is of my aching hand taking dictation as I looked out at the rain on Princes Park. I didn’t find the deep consolation in Keats at fifteen that I find now as a middle-aged woman. The consolation and support of reading was found at ‘The Bridge’. For reasons too painful to elaborate here, I drifted away from going to poetry on a Wednesday but never completely abandoned it as long as I lived in the town (I left when I was 18). That group of poetry-reading men even included me on visits to ‘The Snig’ a pub in West Bank that they frequented after the meeting. I took my place securely beside them, listening and learning and drinking a pint of bitter. There was never a word of censure or exclusion. No obvious discomfort about my adolescent struggles and confusion. John W. was a mentor and friend but I don’t know what became of him. Unless he uses another name I haven’t seen his poetry in any of the magazines or journals I read. He is probably best remembered as a lost hero perpetually laughing and reading, and loving the humanity he found and conveyed through poetry. The rooms that served as a place for people to go if they painted or read, or tried to write, were converted long ago into a taxi office or upstairs flat and Widnes is now part of Halton which has the Brindley arts centre in Runcorn. But I wonder what would happen if my fifteen-year-old ghost wandered into the Brindley and asked to join a group of men in their 30s to read and share poetry. It wouldn’t be possible. John W. introduced me to John Clare and Anne Sexton, Rimbaud and Christina Rossetti, Robert Lowell and Stevie Smith. His voice was the first I heard reading the work of Tony Harrison and he was the first person to listen with patience to my strange adolescent poems without laughing. He gave me permission to love poetry and to write without being afraid. He made me write the words of others in my heart so that, in deep crisis, they came back to save me.



Painting the 1st Presbyterian Church
Where comes a fire in the fierce afternoon eating up the pavement kerbs, the somnolent gravestones, the wisps of straw round the disused petrol pumps – no one is on the long main street that ends where the burning sky meets the foot of Slemish. Tarmac bubbles, sun curtains hang like striped sails in the doorways, light flashes from the wing mirrors of a hundred parked cars. The primer is overpowering with the smell of cut grass and graveyard bouquets, a line of holes remain cut into the plaster from forty years ago – this could be the early sixties. Wasps fly in and out from a nest under the eaves. We are at peace – the painted words on the fascia board tell us, the tall men have gone back to their chamber graves, their ring of hill farms, the catechisms piled in the windows, the school doors locked. Miliuc slumbers under the ruins of his fort on Skerry, Patrick finds God among the rooting pigs, the linen mill silent as the brush making long slow sweeps, painting away the newly dead, the afternoon, history.



Look at the windows clouds broken across their faces the wind feet on pitted stairs – we have wasted the finest years of our lives there at the long tables unable to see the quiet days of wintry sunshine become night. Youthful flesh is weak tears easily on heddle wires, flying shuttles – on old men: my grandmother’s friend giving birth in a stockroom at thirteen to a fiery bible-preaching layman who hid Mausers in the rafters of the carding room was blown to pieces in France. Black water crippled their bare feet: let us meet by the winding sheds on days like these my grandmother ninety-three and always frail reaching up with the other giggling girls to gouge their names into the soft plaster that still remain among the ruins epitaphs on grave stones, or poems.



These houses are little better than caves the small brick blackened by running water the lintel height not fit for a decent man and there is my grandfather almost young again cycling the country road to his digs in the Sandy Row fitting out liners that could fill the street he stops to eat berries from the hedges to find God in the song of a thrush before the long descent to the gleaming lough daydreams of Montreal. All the women and girls are laughing walking barefoot to the mills in the sun – the washing is out the steps are scrubbed the men are working there will be food on the table. The women and girls eat heels of loaf drink from bottles of water a row of chittering birds in the grass as my grandfather planes wood behind bolted shipyard gates marvels at the delicate condition of the speckled egg in his work pail.



Clive Sinclair


ime was when I laid claim to be the finest portrait painter in the USA, by which I mean the University of St Albans of course. That preeminence came to an abrupt end when Professor Newbroom took over the Art Department, and announced that Life Drawing was an artisan craft, unworthy of university study. Besides, he added, what use is portraiture in an age when selves are fragmented and personalities multiple? If I wished to retain my position I would have to embrace Conceptual Art. The process of making thought visible had no appeal. Instead of Conceptual Art I embraced life itself in the shape of Connie Hanks, Connie Hanks of Malmesbury, a member of the Wiltshire family which had gifted the New World the great Abe Lincoln (mine had blown in from elsewhere, like an easterly). Oh for the balm of Malmesbury, that most ancient of cities. Most English too, if I may say. How its very name rolls around my tongue like a boiled sweet, leaving a taste of marmalade and mulled wine. My wife’s dowry was a house on its High Street, which in a previous existence had been the Bear Inn. After our marriage she resigned her post as head of history at Beaumont, and together we sought a new life in the west. By 1981, the year our only child was born, we had stripped away most of the soiled patina of the fifties – linoleum, false ceilings – to


reveal the pine floors and oaken beams beneath. Our bedroom, located in the former attic, filled with dawn light on summer mornings. No sleeper I, it was my delight to watch the sun butter my wife’s face. As it rose higher her hair turned as golden as ripening wheat. Her eyes – when she opened them – were as blue as cornflowers. It was the very picture and image of my happiness. However, my wife was not always comfortable with the intensity of my gaze. Once she even went so far as to say: ‘That look of yours feels like a pillow on my face.’ In those early years we lived off the income that came from commissions I received to portray the ladies of the Beaufort Hunt. It was from Lady X herself I learned that Prince Charles was going to bring his new bride to Highgrove House in neighbouring Tetbury. Though sworn to secrecy I passed on the news to my wife, whose indifference matched my own. Even so, the presence of the royals, invisible to us, began to exert a significant influence upon our own lives. Strangers began to stare at my wife in the street, especially when her pregnancy began to show. One even sneaked a photograph. Only when a tabloid ran a story labelled ‘Exclusive’, and headlined, ‘England Expects’, did the penny drop. My wife was Princess Di¹s double. And the hapless paparazzi had snapped and sold a photo of the wrong twin. Urged on by her friends my wife joined the books of an agency which specialised in celebrity look-alikes. Why not? The extra money paid for our child’s nanny, and for our annual trip to Italy, where my mother-inlaw owned a villa on the Amalfi coast. It was a sight more substantial than the ruin we helped unearth in a field outside Kingscote, on the Cotswold escarpment, just a few miles beyond Tetbury. A shared love of Roman history meant that my wife and the dig’s director soon became as thick as thieves. Me he called ‘the miserable sod’. We turned what seemed like tons of the stuff and were eventually rewarded with a mosaic pavement. At the centre of which was a medallion featuring a female bust assumed to be Venus. Her head was tilted to the left, the better to examine her reflection in the oval mirror she was holding aloft. An entrance to a hypocaust, more or less intact, was found beside an adjoining room. The director claimed the privilege of being the first to enter. Someone handed him a torch, and he penetrated the narrow aperture on his belly. Soon only the soles of his shoes were visible, and then they too were swallowed by the underworld. He returned breathless with excitement. My wife insisted upon seeing what he had seen. He did not discourage her. Within moments the space once occupied by Connie was transparent. All that remained was the echo of her voice calling enthusiastically: ‘I must be below the Venus mosaic.’ And the rest, it seemed, was silence, until from deep beneath our feet: ‘I cannot


breathe!’ The director pulled her out, feet first, like a country vet. Our growing child, I’m glad to say, preferred the living thing, his grandmother’s villa over in Italy. Unlocking the door, after our return from the sixteenth consecutive visit, I heard the telephone ring. ‘Bring up the cases,’ I said to the teenager who was following in my footsteps, and unencumbered ascended the stairs at a run. ‘Hello,’ I said, snatching up the receiver. A man with an over-pronounced French accent asked to parler avec ma belle femme. ’Connie,’ I called, ‘it’s your lover.’ That was the Deputy Head of Security at the Ritz in Paris, she reported afterwards. ‘He wants me to check into the hotel at the end of the month, when Diana is due to spend one night there with her Dodi. My role will be to act as a decoy to keep the paparazzi off the scent of their real quarry.’ The Ritz. Now the word sticks in my craw like a broken cracker. But at the time I advised her to take the job. My wife telephoned but once from France. ’You should see what they’ve done to me,’ she said. ‘Even I can’t tell the difference. If there is such a thing as a perfect counterfeit I am it.’ They said it was Princess Diana they were burying that August, but since that day my wife has been officially listed as a missing person.


Philip Davis


f course for most of my working life, the formal study of literature in schools and universities has been a disaster-area. The ‘literary’ has been hi-jacked for the use of other disciplines as if in its vulnerable shame it had no discipline of its own. And so for thirty years in universities it has been appropriated for social and political purposes, mainly the soft left pretending to be hard enough through the use of fiction, and thus literature is sacrificed for the sake of gender and agenda alike. For a long time you wouldn’t have thought that ‘the literary’ challenged conventional categories and frameworks, through the individuality of praxis, and by the relatively unprogrammed nature of a thinking-out into language that does not know in advance the route that it is taking. Literary venturing does not know in advance – in the way that ideological opinionatedness emphatically does know beforehand. And now am I pleased that at long last that unliterary appropriation may be coming to a close? Am I pleased that we have the critical turn of something like Derek Attridge’s famous recent critical work The Singularity of Literature? Am I happy when I read in that book that literature ‘solves no problems and saves no souls’, is not predictable enough ‘to serve a political or moral programme’, and thus is not susceptible to


an instrumental approach that seeks ‘to comprehend the text by relating it to known and fixed parameters and values’. If we are not literary, says Attridge, we risk generalizing a book’s uniqueness, ‘transforming its performativity into a static paradigm’? But no, I am not pleased, I remain unhappy in the profession, because when Attridge praises the ‘elusive pleasures’ of the literary, what I see is an equal and opposite error, in the danger of a return to the old prim aestheticism. I do not want to rid myself of the instrumentalist’s purposive question: what is this for? how can I use the literary? I hate every form of formal institutionalism which says that a practice exists justifiably by means of its own internal reasons: I hate the idea that there is no external challenge and purpose. My sort of readers go to the literary, not as in art for art’s sake, for elusive pleasures, but naively or stupidly expecting every time to find something (yes) that might save their souls, something that has referential relation to the imaginable world, to human life, and to themselves. Rightly thwarted, properly complicated, proven again and again to be grossly over-simplified, nonetheless that primary purpose remains and should remain if the literary is not to make itself secondary, inhabiting as fictional a refuge as Plato’s cave. At some primary level John Ruskin hated the way that literature would not be straightforward and could not say directly all it meant: ‘I cannot quite see the reason of this,’ says Ruskin, ‘nor analyse that cruel reticence in the breasts of wise men which makes them always hide their deeper thought. They do not give it you by way of help, but of reward, and will make themselves sure that you want it and deserve it before they allow you to reach it.’ Literature may do some of its good work in refusing to write life off, by reduction to paraphrase. But the first quality of literature is not that it is or needs to be elusive: we don’t go to it for it to be elusive. We go to reading, I say, because of problems with living; we seek communication through writing because of the failure, the impossibility or the evanescence of direct spoken communication. I repeat: some literary obstacles are necessary to ward off reductive paraphrase, but if writings are substitutes for primary purposes in life, as I believe they are, all the more reason to retain that lost primary drive that lies behind their substitute-creation and not forget it in the subsequent specialization of the art. What is literature for? No to literature existing merely for the sake of politics. But No too to literature existing purely for its own sake. Let’s be clear: none of this is my fault. It is not me being ambivalent about ‘the literary’, it is about a series of misalignments that has left the literary badly askew. The problem therefore is not so much about defining the literary as correctly positioning it, finding its place. For that reason I want to go back in time to some clearer points of origin or orientation. In 1873 in Literature and Dogma, Matthew Arnold launched an attack on Biblical fundamentalists by making a crucial distinction between the


literal and the literary. The literalists, he insisted, were bad readers, even of their own Bible, because they did not realize that many of its utterances were not so much like facts of science or laws of exact knowledge but terms of poetry, terms ‘thrown out, so to speak, at a not fully grasped object of the speaker’s consciousness’. These approximative efforts at the meaning of the unknown were literary terms, not literal ones. In particular the utterances of Christ, says Arnold, ‘are put in such a way that his hearer was led to take each rule or fact of conduct by its inward side, its effect on the heart and character; then the reason of the thing, the meaning of what had been mere matter of blind rule, flashed upon him.’ You would think the disciples were right in telling the woman with the alabaster box of ointment not to waste pouring it on the head of Christ but to go sell it and give the proceeds to the poor; you would think they were literally following Christ’s own injunctions. But all too literally, not inwardly; it was the way of the anticipated outward letter, not of the inner spirit. Jesus said ‘Let her alone, why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.’ But that brings me to another, alternative point of entry, over 300 years earlier. In 1528, in The Obedience of a Christian Man, on the other hand, William Tyndale – assuredly no bad reader of a Bible which he himself translated into the vernacular – protested that the literal is the spiritual. For all the supposedly higher allegorical readings of the Bible, ‘Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all [other senses]… If thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way.’ It is not only the translation into the vernacular, it is also the Incarnation itself that means nothing, if the embodiment of spiritual meaning in the ordinarily human is not supposed sufficient. There is something real out there, in here, which the language is literally and committedly pointing towards. When I read in Cranmer’s 1559 Book of Common Prayer:
We have left undone those thinges whiche we ought to have done; And we have done those thinges which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

that basic word ‘thinges’ means something, just as much as the basic ‘un’ and the ‘not’ and the ‘no’ and the ‘ands’ literally do. As a reader, it does not seem to matter that I am not formally a Christian, and maybe not what is called in the categories of the world ‘religious’. But the literary finds us, whatever we think we think, whatever we think we are. It’s not difficult to put the positions of Arnold and Tyndale into opposition – to dismiss each in the eyes of the other as dogmatic early


Calvinist and moralized latter-day Aesthete – literal versus literary. Nor is it difficult to historicize that opposition, to explain it historically in terms of a religious sixteenth century and an increasingly godless nineteenth century. But this is not, I believe, what we do in the right exercise of ‘the literary’, meaning by that term an event in the moment of reading. I am not talking about an ahistorical timelessness here. I am talking about the way in which both Tyndale and Arnold are part of our inheritance. I say ‘our’ though perhaps every man and woman must work out the specifics of their own inheritance in terms of the books that find them, books that ring bells, fire synapses, and make us think involuntarily, ‘That must be where I got this from’ or ‘This I recognize somehow

“No Truth Without Poetry. No Poetry Without Truth.”
as if it were a hidden part of my memory and make-up, or something I need for a future’. For by inheritance here I mean something of what Alasdair MacIntyre means in his fine book After Virtue. There he refers to the modern almost biological sense of a rich confusion of different and often ill-sorted cultural genes in us, arising out of an uneasy jumble of fragmented traditions and languages. I am only interested in those of you – frankly – who feel that both Tyndale and Arnold are somehow right on the literal/literary, or rather that something in you responds to both, at a level deeper than the externalized simplicities of historical contrast or ideological opposition. When Blake says ‘Everything possible to be believed is an image of Truth,’ when Keats says, ‘Every point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world’, I think they well describe the act of reading, throwing oneself into thoughts that seem separately true in the absolute moment of their happening and yet extraordinarily difficult to integrate thereafter. To find the place of the literary, our problems are structural or, more specifically, syntactical. For the literary is a distinct discipline in so far as it offers a syntactic holding-ground for those who, for example, want neither to separate the literary from the literal nor allow individual nuance and tone and verbal care to suffer and collapse at the hands of broad-brush reductionists; and furthermore do not wish to be merely wishy-washy in between. Our problems are syntactical. I am thinking here of that slogan that I believe J. H. Prynne formulated with Charles Olson: No Truth Without Poetry. No Poetry Without Truth. In between those two is the space for everything that needs to be thought. Or again Samuel Beckett in a letter to Harold Hobson, which is one of my favourites, in pointing to some sentences from St Augustine on the crucifixion: ‘Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.’ One the crowd released;


the other suffered Christ’s fate. Says Augustine: ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.’ But also: ‘Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.’ Beckett says what interests him it is the silent shape of the idea created between ‘Do not presume’ and ‘Do not despair’. Somewhere and somehow between these two, according to their connected law, all mankind must work out their way, alone, in the dark of double negatives. What is created here is a sort of gene pool of human possibility and risk. Ultimately one person was saved, one damned, and the two came out separately in terms of character and story. But before that outcome, the thought of being either of them, of feeling anything and everything in between the emotions of confidence and despair, creates the life-spectrum or gene pool of all the subsequent reality which then happens to happen to you, personally, more narrowly and specifically. It is easy to have one thought or one feeling – presumption or despair – and be just one fixed person: it gets more serious when you can imagine having either, both, and the rival fates assigned to them. And that is what our discipline exists first of all to do – in the words of the great George MacDonald on Wordsworth: ‘When Nature puts a man into that mood or condition in which thoughts come of themselves – that is perhaps the best thing that can be done for us.’ It is what

“The teaching profession made ‘close’ reading seem like something Mr Magoo does, through pebbled glasses.”
Nature did for Wordsworth, it is what Wordsworth does for us: put us into the space, the place where the thoughts come out of. So I say for shorthand: not names, not themes, but places. For the great literary moment is not just to create the two great sentences as Augustine does, but rather to inhabit, mine, and work within the space that is opened up by them. That is the saturated space for your thought, a place to do thinking in created in front of your eyes, a meditative holding-ground charging itself or filling up in front of you. Here is another of my favourite passages which I think of and often use. The poet David Constantine, a great regular in The Reader, is helpful when he describes what it is like, on sitting down, to have at the back of his mind some pre-existent adumbration of the poem he wants to write and then to have to try to match and realize it on the page before him:
Trying to write a poem, the space you are staring into will in the end, if you are lucky, begin to fill with words. The space becomes a shape. But you need to be quite peculiarly lucky. The words taking shape may be the wrong words. They may be in the way


of, not on the way towards the poem. They may actually make it less likely that you will ever get where you feel you want to get. Then you would prefer the space to the shape, blankness to fullness, if the words coming in are wrong and in the way.

I spoke at the beginning of the literary as a ‘thinking out into language’ – it is of course John Henry Newman’s definition of style. What I love there is the ‘out’ and the ‘into’ in the almost visibly struggling interchange between mind and language registered in the midst of the formation of sentences. With Constantine, writers are situated between the pre-verbal structurings at the back of the mind and what they seek to make of them on the page before their eyes. The writer is trying to make the two click together, resonate, seeking a two-way correspondence and reciprocal modification between them. And it is when this does not work that the writer feels the words are only replacing the dim thoughts or getting in their way. Or, again, he or she feels the syntax not so much creating the room, the niche, the triggering contour for the words to come into being, but rather pre-empting or cajoling or distorting them. It may indeed be impossible, but in some imaginary brain-imaging of the future, it would be truly wonderful to see the two mental levels – the unwritten and the written – moving together and apart, mapping onto and composing each other. What these dense utterances offer is not just a language for thinking about things, where knowledge is but the dry residue of experience, but a way of thinking within the inferred structure of things, in the midst of the space created between hope and despair, virtue and fault. There thought lies in what Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida calls ‘its dumb cradles’ – between ‘do not despair’ and ‘do not presume’. That is how literature is a syntactic force-field, a melting-pot, containing within itself not merely opinions or arguments but the very sites or places that thoughts must come out of. But when the teaching profession began to call it ‘close reading’, it had already given up on it. It made attentive reading seem like something Mr Magoo does, through pebbled glasses. But the literary has to do with precisely human sentences and the shapes they make as they follow upon each other; it has to with individual utterances, with persons thinking out into language. ‘There must be some way,’ said the Victorian F. D. Maurice, ‘of uttering ourselves without talking about ourselves.’ The literary is that way: it is the way of signalling all that a person means, really means and not just deliberately so, in resonant context. The literary is – final go at defining it – the height of what the philosophers call ‘qualia’, the felt inner this-ness of our mental lives.


Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan
faber and faber, 2008

ISBN 978-0571235377 A man lives in a cabin in the woods of northern Maine. Inside, the walls are lined with 3282 books. When he finds his dog shot he takes up his late father’s Lee Enfield rifle and begins a series of revenge killings. This is a highly surprising, disturbing and intensely thought-provoking novel about loss, instinct, war and the language of communication. It is hard to get this very good book out of your mind.
Here only short sentences and long thoughts can survive… Distances collapse, time is thrown out. Children skate their names on ponds, sleds drag dogs in front of them. People defeat winter by reading out the nights, spinning pages a hundred times faster than a day turns, small cogs revolving a larger one through all those months. The winter is fifty books long and fixes you to silence like a pinned insect; your sentences fold themselves into single words, the hand of twelve makes one hand of time. Every glance ends in snow. Every footstep sinks North. That’s time in Maine, the white of time. Angela Macmillan

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson
Sort of Books, 2006 ISBN 978-0954899523

The creator of the Moomins wrote for adults in the later years of her life and this book collects stories many of which have been unavailable in English for nearly forty years. In ‘The Squirrel’ an old woman lives alone on an island with a squirrel: ‘Dogs are dangerous, they mirror everything, instantly, they’re superficial, compassionate beasts. A squirrel’s better.’ In ‘Parties’ the child comments on her parents’ friends: ‘A pal never says anything that’s worth repeating the following day. He just feels that nothing is so important at the time‘. There’s nothing kept back and nothing that can be saved, and that is experience.
Sarah Coley

Dear Reader,

I wanted to tell you about my work as a Library and Information Worker and to share our success story here in Dundee. In the past few years, the scope of library work has expanded, with greater emphasis being placed on the delivery of library resources to special needs groups, embracing people with a wide diversity of learning and physical disabilities. We run weekly sessions for these groups in which the aim is to connect to the individuals – so rather than just reading a story to them, we want them to become involved in the stories and the storytelling process. This can be achieved by something as simple as having them choose a story that they would like to hear, or deciding on options within a story to dictate how the story unfolds. We use stories to encourage skills ranging from visual tracking, making choices, selecting items and storylines, to discussing the story and answering questions about it. Each story is accompanied by relevant artefacts, such as puppets, shells, fruit, flowers, soaps and seaweed. These aromatic and tactile props are particularly important to members of the groups who have visual impairments, or are blind, and have to rely on their other senses. Particular interests are also catered for; these could include topics of local significance, such as the football teams, places of interest, or historic events. Staff, carers and relatives, as well as the members of the groups themselves, have noticed a marked improvement in concentration spans, from initial visits, many can now maintain attention for the duration of the story and experience a greater anticipation of storylines. Other developments include significant advances in eye and finger pointing, responding positively to stimuli, choosing between a numbers of objects and manipulating objects. Group work has now becomes an integral and rewarding part of the job for the library staff who work with the groups. Such is the success of this initiative that Dundee City Council has received funding to provide a new facility to make libraries more accessible to vulnerable people. This support area will provide, not only a dedicated area for the group sessions to take place for people with learning and physical disabilities, but also, it will provide various activities for young mothers, and those in recovery from addiction. It’s rewarding and important work.
Maureen Hood Dundee



William Boldwood, a rich gentleman farmer, appears to be a man of immense solidity. But when he receives a Valentine message from the beautiful but capricious Bathsheba Everdene, what to her was a joke is to him a sexual bombshell. That steady dull stillness in him which previously characterised him was in fact the result of ‘the perfect balance
of enormous antagonistic forces – positives and negatives in fine adjustment. His equilibrium disturbed, he was in extremity at once. If an emotion possessed him at all, it ruled him.’

The whole novel (first published in 1874) is like this – thrown out of balance and into extremity by sexual forces. For what Bathsheba has stirred in Boldwood is precisely what the charismatically amoral Sergeant Frank Troy had earlier released in her through a hypnotising display of swordmanship. Meanwhile the only figure who continues to represent that dogged, loyal steadiness which the others forsake is Gabriel Oak, a ruined sheep-farmer who becomes Bathsheba’s farm-manager and is the poor third amongst her admirers. What is remarkable is the strange patterning that results from this erotic possession – a sort of chaotic order in the overlapping triangles of rivalry: Troy-Bathsheba-Boldwood; Oak-BathshebaTroy; Bathsheba-Troy-Fanny Robin (Troy’s previous deserted love). “We seem to have shifted our positions,’ says Boldwoood to Oak. ‘Our moods meet in the wrong places’ says Bathsheba to Boldwood. These configurations flash into being, like the lightning in the storm scenes suddenly showing the characters to themselves in dark silhouettes. So it is when Bathsheba sees her husband Troy contritely bending over the dead body of Fanny Robin who was bearing his child, and gently kissing her lips, ‘as one would kiss an infant asleep to avoid awakening it’ – then Bathsheba cries out:
‘Don’t – don’t kiss them! . . . I love you better than she did: kiss me too, Frank – kiss me! You will, Frank, kiss me too.’

This is the novel that established Hardy as a major writer of human emotion.

Jo Cannon is a Sheffield GP and short story writer This book trundled along until I adjusted to the cumbersome sentences, ponderous humour (mostly at the expense of quaint working class characters) and weighty voice-over, but then I was hooked. The miserable vulnerability and destructive dramas induced by the altered mental state of love are timeless. Towards the end the action gets exciting, and the unassuming hero satisfyingly gets the chastened, morally improved girl. The descriptions of weather and scenery are great. *** Lynne Hatwell (dovegreyreader) is a Devon-based community nurse Reading this book again has been like having an old lifelong friend to stay – the same but with the passing years comes renewed understanding and something unnoticed suddenly commands my attention. As I get older do Gabriel and Bathsheba seem to be getting younger? Always a supreme joy to read this book, possibly my favourite Hardy. It is almost as beautiful as the star-studded sky that captures Gabriel’s gaze. Please read this book at least once your life. ***** Eleanor McCann, is an English student at Liverpool Uni and an assistant editor of The Reader magazine WILL BE ELEANOR’s COMMENT AND PICTURE INSTEAD

Drummond Moir, once of Edinburgh, works for a Londonbased publisher Beautifully written, gripping, infuriating – and a masterful exploration of life’s almosts, what-ifs and nearlys. Whatever your opinions of Gabriel (saint), Boldwood (agonising), Troy (repented too late) and Bathsheba (awful, but repented just in time – hurrah!), you can’t help but get immersed in their tragic yet moving stories. I’m a huge fan of Hardy’s poetry; Far from the Madding Crowd is definitely a good place to start if you’re even remotely intrigued by the novels.
***** one of the best books I’ve read **** one of the best I’ve read this year *** highly recommended ** worth reading * not for me but worth trying 0 don’t bother





John Scrivener

1 Ye living lamps, by whose dear light The nightingale does sit so late, And studying all the summer night, Her matchless songs does meditate; 2. Ye country comets, that portend No war, nor prince’s funeral, Shining unto no higher end Than to presage the grass’s fall; 3. Ye glow-worms, whose officious flame To wandering mowers shows the way, That in the night have lost their aim, And after foolish fires do stray; 4. Your courteous lights in vain you waste, Since Juliana here is come, For she my mind hath so displaced That I shall never find my home.



The opening picture strikes us as slightly comical: we think of birds as producing their song in a spontaneous and unpremeditated way, yet here the nightingale burns the midnight oil while he labours at his composition. The smile comes partly from the poet, surely, who has to work hard at his verses, though he might prefer them to seem effortless. Marvell creates a miniature world in the first three stanzas which address the glow-worms. It is a genial little world of neighbourly offices and courtesy. The glow-worms provide light to the mower returning from work and to the student alike, ‘courteous’ and ‘officious’ (‘officious’ meaning not meddlesome but efficient and even solicitous). This world, which embraces ordinary rural work but also art and learning, is seen as inherently natural, since the glow-worms do what they can’t help. In their role as tiny rustic comets they ‘portend / No war, nor prince’s funeral’, no great convulsions, but only the fall of grass (‘no higher end’ because princes have a long way to fall, but grass hasn’t, being near the ground). The events of the big world seem to be at a remote distance here, things heard and known of in a general way but which don’t affect you. But if this poem, as seems likely, was written by Marvell during the time he spent at Nun Appleton in Yorkshire as tutor to Sir Thomas Fairfax’s daughter, the words would have had a much more specific charge – only a year or so before a prince’s head had been cut off, and the country convulsed with civil war. In this period following the King’s execution in 1649, men retired to ponder lessons and lick wounds – Jeremy Taylor writing Holy Living and Holy Dying at Goldengrove, Hobbes his Leviathan in Paris. Perhaps men had ‘lost their aim’and strayed after ‘foolish fires’. A contemporary reader would not have missed the oblique presence in the poem of these references. In the poem’s world things unravel in the final stanza, when all the elements which have been kept at bay by the kindly work of the glowworms – the darkness in which no man can work, the commotions portended by real comets, the danger of losing your way – are brought back by the main verb we now discover we’ve been waiting for: ‘Your courteous lights in vain you waste’. Juliana, love for whom will derange the mower, is a purely conventional figure, but she gains weight from the political sub-text: this microcosm can be thrown out of joint too, and the feeling of displacement in a world turned upside down is focused in the closing word ‘home’. How to find one’s way back? What if a country ceases in some bewildering way to be its own home? The effect of pregnancy is enhanced by Marvell’s characteristic use of the tetrameter. English poetry naturally tends to four main stresses in the line, so when the verse is four-footed there is no slack. There is a kind of buttoned effect: ‘I might say more but won’t’. (Aubrey says of Marvell: ‘Though he loved wine he would never drink hard in company, and was wont to say, that “he would not play the good-fellow in any man’s company, in whose hands he would not trust his life”’.)


Enid Stubin


n the holiday season you can find me wending my way from one academic party to the next, collecting slights, snubs, and sneers as I go. Thursday evening’s fête at my home school, for which I waited around The Store the entire day, did not disappoint. Colleagues in sparkly Lurex sweaters appraised each other warily, and someone who had shot past tenure and promotion with the shared publication of a prepositional phrase accepted my congratulations with queenly poise. Told that she looked wonderful, she graciously concurred, announcing that she’d just separated from her husband. Someone else in the department gauged how long I’d wait just outside a crescent of comrades to greet him and then, before I could pipe up, sauntered off to the sushi station (thunder of God, we have a multicultural menu), assured of his deft maneuvering. Hail fellow, well met. The next night held a double header: the dean’s reception at Baruch, where the head of the psychology department, a fellow I’ve always liked, suddenly displayed a bewildered sense of who I was, asking after my daughter. Half a declarative sentence into my explanation that the kid he’d seen me pushing in a stroller was not my own, he ambled off in search of – who knows? I sallied downtown to New York University’s party for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. The place was so crammed that no one at the coat room would accept my trench, briefcase, or umbrella, but I was offered my choice of chocolate bar – milk or dark, to match my mood, as it happened – and a do-it-yourself identification tag. Suddenly shy, I took off, pausing only to salute the


program administrator who’d tipped a terrible teaching observation into my personnel file. Furious at the time, I left off my outraged response when it reached four pages and desisted. Now, of course, I looked cool, too disinterested to cavil about pedagogical differences. I could bide my time, especially accompanied by Brenda Lee warbling ‘The Jingle Bell Rock,’ and give the Buffalo chicken wings a miss. But it was pouring out, and the closest bus I could catch ran along University Place. Hustling past Number 19, which houses the English department offices, I caught a glimpse of a familiar head dipped to accommodate the opening of a collapsible umbrella – a linguistics specialist I hadn’t seen for years. He recognized me and began chatting happily in the vestibule until, with Faustian accuracy, I asked after my dissertation adviser. ‘Right behind you,’ my interlocutor warned. And indeed, there were the dyspeptic scowl and grudged greeting of a veritable Scrooge for the post-postmodern era. Clearly undelighted to see me, he growled ‘Happy Chanukah’ and shoved past toward the door. Stunned despite myself, I stomped off along University Place, my own Boulevard of Deferred, if not quite Broken, Dreams, after the M3 bus, which I’d just missed. All of which is by way of chronicling my attachment to Ben Jonson, that bad boy of social satire, the Big Kahuna of Renaissance Postclassicalism. This is the tale of our meeting. Our first real contact. I was reviewing seven hundred years of literature for the doctoral comprehensives – three days of exams in which the top of one’s head is lifted off and a committee peers in – and determined to take the procedure seriously, something I had most demonstrably avoided throughout my coursework. I set aside two months from freelance copyediting and waitressing to present myself at the red-brick monolith of Bobst Library six days a week at 11:00 a.m. with a canvas bag filled with books, notes, and a litre of Vintage seltzer, my favored brand. Never having registered for a course in Old or Middle English, I needed to teach myself Period One and slogged through The Dream of the Rood and Piers Plowman. Period Two began with more familiar fare, the Renaissance, and my progress quickened. I knew the authors and works on the bruise-colored typed and mimeographed list. I ticked off Shakespeare, Plays and Sonnets shortly after the Fourth of July, and opened The Alchemist in the slender green New Mermaid edition to read Subtle’s challenge: ‘I fart at thee.’ I was halted in my tracks. I was home. I had read Jonson’s plays in a course on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama with a wonderful Renaissance scholar, but revisiting them at the battered library table during my grim summer of cramming gave me my first moments of unalloyed pleasure in his company. Of course it had been a joy to take in Shakespeare, but Jonson was so much more


acidulous, scabrous, outrageous. Drawing from Plautine comedy and his own teeming resentments as the bricklayer’s stepson, the day-student at Westminster School – the un-Shakespeare – he had to pace himself against the favorites, the darlings. Jonson’s world of cheats and the cheated exposes a swirling society in which negotiations include the gimlet-eyed acknowledgment of class attainment and its subversion. His [low?] characters Subtle, Face, and Dol Common establish the ‘venture tripartite’ of The Alchemist and take over Lovewit’s London house while the master is away in the countryside; Volpone creates his own whirlgig of would-be cozeners around him, using Mosca to fetch and choreograph the dance of greed, flattery, and [ ] that circles him like one of Jonson’s own masques for the court of King James. No one in Jonson’s world really knows his or her place. The energies and exasperations of the plays (‘I don’t have time to flatter you now,’ a rushed-off-his-feet Mosca reminds the recumbent Volpone) suggest the exuberance and appetite of their author, not only his quickness to take umbrage but also his generosity and amplitude. And then there are the poems, among which luminous evocations of camaraderie and warmth, conviviality and [ ], jostle alongside Juvenalian flailings, derisive caricatures, and couplets that simply snuff their subjects out of existence. Through the body of his work looms the vast figure of Jonson himself, all twenty-stone of ‘mountaine belly’ and ‘rockie face,’ anxious about who might be counting his drinks at the table of the great and endorsing the most liberal hospitality himself. After my sullen summer of cramming and the sodden anticlimax of the exams themselves, when I never knew so much so pointlessly, I turned to Bartholomew Fair and the masques and the Epigrams to find a Jonson who bestrides the world, if not quite as a Colossus, then certainly as a Rabelaisian figure and, despite his upholding of brevitas, emblem of copia. In the masque Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, Comus, the belly-god, is heralded: ‘Room, room! Make room for the bouncing belly, / First father of sauce, and deviser of jelly,’ ‘the father of farts.’ The image of Jonson at the end of his life, old and ill, paralyzed by a stroke and defiant, is an unbearable one. I’d like to imagine him comforted by the tierce of canary wine allotted to him by King Charles, by ‘a little winter love in a dark corner,’ and by the assurance that the body of his artistry, The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, would endure. The biographer David Riggs writes, ‘If Jonson flourishes today, at a time when authoritarian modes of interpretation appear to be increasingly bankrupt, it is probably because of the powerfully subversive streak that led him to seek the shelter of authorship in the first place. He comes near to us not as a father or a judge, but as a chronic transgressor who lived to tell the tale.’

Jane Davis

The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
William Wordsworth


et’s start where we are: December 2008, Primark, Liverpool, European Capital of Culture, and this it: in this huge flagship church of the cheap and chuckable, the shoppers are as determined as a football crowd. Men, women and children are pressed together, talking, eating, shouting into mobiles, crying in pushchairs, holding hands in the thronging aisles, being searched by store detectives, putting earrings to their ears, clutching clothes and bags of clothes. There is too much stuff, and it is all very cheap, girls kick tried-on shoes out of the way and laugh at their actions – aren’t we awful – but no one is picking them up. A woman, perhaps Somalian, in African dress, looks puzzled as the girls laugh at the shoes. The woman has two or three large Primark bags in either hand. Almost everyone looks angry, fed-up, anxious. ‘He said go upstairs, everyone’s there’ cries a boy aged about nine to a woman who looks like his grandmother, and she looks angry and then I see that the boy is angry too. He’s been lost. I imagine how it


feels to be lost in this huge chaos of stuff. Two Chinese girls are trying to take a tourist photo of their friend beside the donkey jackets. ‘He said go upstairs’, the boy scowls and swears at the woman whose face is hardening even as she turns away from him. The Chinese girls laugh and speak to each other in high-pitched voices, flashing their cameras. ‘He said everyone’s there’, the boy repeats. I imagine the whole family in the shop, shopping on a Saturday. The boy turns violently away from the woman. He’d rather get lost again, his little thin shoulders hunched against it all. You can see his feelings pouring out of him; hurt, anger, a settled lack of satisfaction. It’s what he expects. After my trip to Primark, at a putative after-school reading club, I meet Stacey, Cara and Mica, aged twelve. Two of the children, Stacey and Cara, are very bight kids, keen to engage me in conversation and good at telling stories, but with a reading age of about seven, or less, I’d say. Mica, hunched self-protectively inside her own body, looking out from her eyes like child in a cave, is more troubled and less obviously bright but still with a sly human intelligence that means she ends up with the book she wanted to take home in her bag. Mica does not read at all during the session, perhaps she can’t read. Still, she wanted to take the book home, and told me her Mum would read it to her. These were bottom-set children in an inner city school which has raised its standards of attainment enormously in the last couple of years. The girls had virtually no relation to books. Not only were their own literacy skills poor, but the whole sense of why you might read at all was almost entirely missing. (An exception: Stacey had read The BFG and she loved it, pounced on it when she saw it in the pile, an old friend. It was interesting that she, who had this history of knowing a book, was the most likely of the three of them to participate in the play with the books we had brought) As for concentration: no, none, not possible, not in the range at all. They can flit, they can chatter, they can dance for a few seconds, but concentration isn’t a skill they possess. This must be, at least partially, due to their lack of literacy. Reading asks us to be still and to wait. I had the sense that nothing and no one had ever asked these kids to do that. During the course of our two hour session we played with twenty or so books we had brought with us, looked at pictures, read sentences out, made weak and sugary cups of tea, ate many biscuits, washed up and chatted, I saw Stacey make a reading connection which lit up something in her. She offered to read a Brian Patten poem to us, and we sat back as she monotone-stumbled her way along the lines about a baby brother who ate coal and other strange things… until he went to school and ate a teacher. Stacey saw the word ‘teacher’ coming from about a line away


and her eyes widened in shocked delight. Her voice became animated and she threw dramatic glances at us as she read. Something inside her had made a naughty, joyful connection with something outside her and the book came to life in her hands. She began to ask us if we were coming back to do reading club every week. It is essential that someone does something about Stacey, Cara and Mica. Even more so about Liam, Terry and David, some of the boys who attended the session but left as soon as possible and without any reading at all. These kids are doomed to educational failure because they have no relation to the book and therefore to the only likely source of calm and concentration and perseverance they are likely to meet. But this is about more than educational failure. This is also about the anger and unhappiness of that small boy in Primark. There is an inner life in humans and we ignore that reality at our peril. We are not robots to be programmed to sell ourselves and buy products, as our appallingly sad mental health statistic show us. The Reader Organisation’s Liverpool Reads project has chosen David Almond’s The Savage as its city-wide read for 2009. This is a graphic novel, with pictures by David McKean, and it is entirely about ‘the inner life’ and its relation to outer reality. As Zak, one of the Liverpool Reads book selection committee said during our deliberations, anyone who can create the savage – as an act of imagination – does not have to be the savage. I am looking forward to getting thousands of copies of the book into the hands of Liverpool’s twelve-year olds, but the physical object will be more mere stuff unless someone teaches our children how and why to read. And who will do that? My own sadly chequered educational experience tells me that only people who really love the stuff can pass it on. For the past year I have been travelling the country meeting people who have become interested in Get Into Reading project, largely through reading Blake Morrison’s article in The Guardian in January 08. These are people who recognise the power of the book to move, sustain and shape us. I have met doctors, nurses, librarians, housing officers, social workers, probation officers, teachers and many people who do not have an easily nameable job – freelancers, retired people, indies, people who are unemployed but shouldn’t be, stay-at-home Mums, voluntary agency workers, service users… It has been a tremendous experience meeting these people and learning about their work and their lives, and the way in which books, and what books stand for, can help. But it has also been shocking. I have seen first hand that the range of reading that goes on, even among committed readers, is much narrower than I would like to think. The word ‘poetry’ strikes terror into the hearts of many and the idea of reading Shakespeare is unthink101


able to most. For many a ‘great’ novel comes shrouded in anxiety – the length! the footnotes! the reputation going before! Or perhaps the potential for boredom, for being in some way forced or coerced. No one wants to be forced to read but that is what universal free education has meant for many people. Why read an old book when there are so many contemporary ones? This question was put to me recently by a very committed senior librarian. On another occasion, and more annoyingly, I’m questioned about the word ‘literature’ by a leading advocate for reading: why make value judgements? Is one kind of reading really any better than another? Who says a football magazine or Grazia is not ‘as good’ as Anna Karenina? Just a different choice, isn’t it? I constantly want to make a metaphorical connection to food. If people who liked food went to college and came out determined never to eat Bearnaise sauce, Caesar salad, Chocolate Marquise or fine Lancashire cheese ever again, wouldn’t we think there was something wrong with the education we were offering? Imagine the national promoters of food saying junk food is a ‘just another choice’, and the fact that people are eating at all is ‘brilliant’. Imagine a world of food where the chief law was: above all there must be no judgement of quality. So here we are, 139 years on from the Elementary Education Act of 1870 and we do, in the UK, have universal access to reading. Or at least about 76% of the working age population do (the rest suffer ‘literacy difficulties’). 20% of children leave primary school unable to read well enough to cope with the secondary curriculum. I’ve met those kids and they are not thick. They are simply uneducated. Stacey can recognise a metaphor but she can’t read with fluency, partly because she doesn’t think there is any reason to do so, and partly because no one has had the time to sit with her and help her want to do so. We need to change our ideas of education. We must teach children to become entranced. We must let them dream. We must start that process with simple stories. Adults, too, need to learn this skill, in order to believe in it. The alternative is the nightmare we are already living. And yet, in Primark, a child aged about four is pushed past. Slumped sideways in his chair he holds a short plastic sword, a scimitar. He regards this toy through half closed eyes, as if dazed, as if lost, and I imagine him playing a game in imagination so he’s not there, he’s escaped. Something wants to bless him for that or make it be true that a child might still escape into imagination and find there space and a silence in which to become… other than we are. You can do this in all sorts of ways. Animals help: read Mark Doty’s wonderful account of living with dogs, Dog Days. Football supporters know what it is and that is why Tranmere supporters will turn up,


grimly determined though thoroughly depressed week after week. Religious practice does it for some. As does Tracy Emin’s Bird or Bed. Music can do it (and do the opposite). But you most often find it made explicit in books. And that doesn’t have to mean Paradise Lost. We could start a little further down the scale. Two rather different writers I admire both recommended Terry Pratchett to me. I had thought that I couldn’t read Mr Pratchett because there is too much of the farting thirteen-year-old boy about his books. But when A. S.Byatt told me how much she admired Prachett because unlike almost every other living writer ‘he will take on death’ I began to think it was time to give him a try. Then Frank Cottrell Boyce’s ecstatic review of Nation persuaded me to do it. It’s a children’s novel and if you had a bookish twelve-year-old to read it to that would be a good mutual experience. It’s a novel about the necessity of belief (and also, because this is Terry Prachett, about bird poo and swearing and beer) and in praise of ‘the order which is, amazingly, inherent in all things and in the way the universe opens to our questioning.’ It is also a novel about fighting for survival and it is brilliant on how imagination or thinking or memory works as an experience. Our hero, Mau, is able to make things happen because he can imagine making them happen. Lost in the wake of a giant wave, Mau, adrift in a tiny canoe, imagines returning to his island home:
His father would be watching for him at the edge of the reef, and they’d bring the canoe up the beach, and his uncles would come running up, and the new young men would rush to congratulate him… And if he could just hold it in his mind, then it would be so. There was a shining silver thread connecting him to that future. It would work like a god anchor, which stopped the gods from wandering away.

Imagining doesn’t make it happen, but creates ‘the shining silver thread’ which is in fact hope or belief, and it is this which gives Mau the strength to continue to paddle. When he reaches home his father and all the others are dead. The silver thread connecting him to a future is, from this point on, impossibly stretched, but its vital relation to Mau’s survival is one of the subjects of the book. Piled Primark high, Terry Prachett’s books take up a whole section in my local Borders. Let’s hope the enormously successful Mr P has put some money into a Foundation for the Protection the Silver Thread, and that some of that dosh lands with a Pratchettian splat near Stacey, Cara and Mica very soon. The resultant tidal wave might propel them towards a bookshop.


Brian Nellist

I believe most Working Men’s Institutes when they were founded in the 1800s refused to have prose fiction in their libraries. Though I read novels I can understand that ban. Two or three days it takes me to get through the latest best seller and in three weeks time I can scarcely recall the name of a single character and have only the faintest recollection of the plot. Am I wasting my time?


In some sense everything that goes in, stays in, which is why we should take some care over what we put in our minds. Any novel worth reading should give you more than character and plot though our ‘rage for narrative’ as Walter Scott called it is so insistent that it must be a fundamental need. It’s the significant moments we should be able to recognise and recover, so never read a book without a pencil to hand (unless it belongs to a public library, of course) and not only mark the moments where you are moved to think hard and your steady career through the pages is arrested but also note the page number where the explosion happened on the fly-leaf! ‘It’s only a novel’, Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey imagines some reader saying dismissively to which she responds ‘Only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language’. She’s setting the stakes high because she’s writing a story where the ill effects of the bestsellers of her day, Gothic novels, on inexperienced minds is readily acknowledged, though it’s clear that she herself had read and appreciated at least the best of them. Maybe you need to demand more of your reading since there are enough novels of the kind she describes to keep us busy through a lifetime.



Not the least important part of her praise of her own art is the final, to us apparently awkward, term, ‘the best chosen language’. Such deliberateness seems to rule out spontaneity. But it refers back to the adjective ‘liveliest’ and the noun ‘wit’. Our own capacity to articulate, which is almost the same as to think, is prompted not simply by being in the presence of articulate companions but by reading. ‘Wit and humour’ she writes which is not to say the same thing twice. Wit is not a joke but the sharpness and economy with which an idea is formulated so that it seems to strike the mind as for the first time and remains there because it becomes memorable for that reason. The old definition of a straight line as ‘the shortest distance between two points’ is witty in that sense and Jane Austen’s own novels are full of such wit. Even if you forget many of the details of the plot and some of the characters, a good novel should have altered, maybe ever so slightly, the way in which your mind reacts. But I’m not denying that dosing oneself in a not supremely good but exciting books can sometimes become almost a therapy and certainly nothing to feel guilt about. Any such act of reading at least demands attentiveness over a span of time and the mental business of construing the words. But read actively and avoid surrender. Read as though the book were given you to review. While recognising generously what it has to offer you ask yourself why it doesn’t offer more. It’s not just that less than the best reminds you of what the best is like but that you discover your own mind by finding what you really want when you read. Don’t let it remain a vague dissatisfaction (‘Am I wasting my time?) but imagine a friendly voice within asking you ‘What was wrong with it, then?’ It doesn’t matter that you couldn’t write a novel yourself though that should produce at least a considerateness towards an actual achievement. You can still find a meal unsatisfactory without yourself being a cordon bleu chef. Reading is a dialogue between two minds, your own and the mind of the book so you must know your own mind for the conversation to take place. But also you must listen and be patient in order to hear that other unfamiliar voice speaking in your head. Don’t demand too much immediate excitement. Catherine Morland setting out on her first big journey going to Bath with family friends in Northanger Abbey finds her own enthusiasm and expectations not at all replicated in her mother and father but rather that she is surrounded by ‘the common feelings of common life’. That gap between youthful hopefulness and parental experience is inevitable, sad in a way but understandable, and our sympathies lie on both sides of the divide. To Catherine ‘common’ means over-familiar, trite, small but to her parents it means normal, representative, what we can cheerfully cope with. The detail is small, made in passing in the novel but if we are over-eager in pursuit of plot or dazzling characters we shall miss it. And that would be a pity.



s the credit crunch became a crash several months ago, life at the large publishing firm where I work continued pretty much as normal. We read the newspapers and shook our heads as we swapped stories of poor friends in the City, but then we turned back to the serious business of book-buying, scheduling meetings with agents, booking taxis and restaurant tables. Editors and sales people began wondering how many ‘we told you so’ books we could buy and sell from exasperated economics experts who saw it all coming a mile off. We began mining the archives for books that sold well the last time round: how to knit, how to darn your socks and sew on buttons, where to find food for free, how to hold dinner parties on a budget, how to cook in a bed-sitter. Surely, we mused, people would want to turn off televisions and radios with their hourly gloomy news broadcasts, and lose themselves instead in a good book? With people pretty much compelled to spend long winter evenings at home, surely War and Peace would fly from the shelves? Booksellers saw their sales pitch: hours of entertainment for under ten pounds! The thinking was not that publishing and bookselling would have a merry old time of it but that books would prove ‘recession-proof’. Book buyers tend to be relatively better off; or they are special-interest customers who are not to be deterred by the financial situation. With all the current of talk about value for money, and the fact that books make affordable Christmas gifts, perhaps we even might attract those elusive ‘non book-buyers’. A few months ago, this view might have been optimistic, but it was not wishful thinking. But then the talk of a crash became talk of a recession. While on the shop floor we were distracted by the miraculous American election (should we buy the Obama books now, or cynically wait till he’s been



a year in office and things have begun to sour?), paranoia was sweeping executive offices and emergency boardroom meetings were called on the floors above. Slowly news of ‘new profit-enhancing initiatives’ began trickling down to us. Recently vacated positions were not advertised, books with low-sales expectations were cancelled and their agents did not kick up a fuss, special finishes were dropped from book covers, lunches and taxis were cancelled. Book sales were slipping and have continued to slide. Last week, Bookscan, the web-based provider of book sales information (the book world’s Eye of Sauron), showed that growth was down 0.2%. In other words, sales over the last twelve months are smaller than sales over the twelve months before that. The financial meltdown that once seemed to be happening in quite a different part of London became harsh reality for us too with rising unemployment and rocketing bills. The less-than-festive spirit in the office was not improved when Woolworths announced they were going into administration. Not because we got sentimental about the loss of venerable old Woolies, but because Woolworths owns Entertainment UK, a wholesale distributor of books to major supermarkets and other outlets such as Zavvi and W. H. Smiths. Right before the season’s biggest titles were due out on the shelves, our supply to these massive retailers was blocked. This may make for a very blue Christmas, especially as masses of books are at the time of writing trapped, malingering in warehouses while the accountants do their sums. And now someone must decide whether to wait out the seige or bear the cost of reprinting the trapped books. EUK also owns Bertrams, which supplies independent bookshops, and while Bertrams operates outside of Woolies and is so far unaffected, stern alarums are ringing. If Bertrams were to suffer at all it would be very bad news for the indies, and thus (as I explained in a previous edition) very bad news for publishing. No more wishful thinking, in this calm before the storm we have become as superstitious as sailors. But it is a genuine comfort to remember ‘the product’ amongst all these louring clouds, since the product is books and not baked beans. Screeching reporters and neurotic bloggers are quick to turn troubled times for publishers into the beginning of the end of the book, but this a peculiarly backwards way of looking at our business – as the steady stream of unsolicited manuscripts will prove. I trust any true and useful book will still make it into print, though getting it there might be more of a struggle. A recent (particularly badtempered) Reader editorial reminded me of the words of Daniel Doyce from Little Dorrit, and his quiet self-sustainment can be a comfort now. It is a consolation to think that the best of these books, despite what quality of paper they might be printed on, or what foils and finishes we can’t add to the cover, remain as true as they ever were.




James Kirkup, A Child of the Tyne University of Salzburg Press, 1997 ISBN 978-3705200609

John Killick


ames Kirkup was brought up in a poor street in the working class town of South Shields. He was born in 1923, and his childhood encompassed those very lean years of the Thirties. His father was a joiner and work was often hard to come by. Cockburn Street was, in Kirkup’s own words, ‘a near-slum’. Yet his parents had standards, the house was kept spotlessly clean and the boy was treated with unfailing kindness and had as much mental stimulation as the limited environment afforded. Kirkup’s first two volumes of autobiography The Only Child and Sorrows, Passions and Alarms (republished together in 1996 as A Child of the Tyne) constitute one of the clearest and most affectionate portraits of such an upbringing that we have. They are an astonishing feat of memory: the first book, packed with circumstantial detail, deals with the first six years of his life, and the second with the years up to his eighteenth birthday. Despite poverty, this was an almost idyllic childhood (the sorrows and alarms in the title of the second book refer almost exclusively to his primary and secondary school experiences, which proved stultifying to a curious and imaginative child). Kirkup takes us through a variety of enthralling areas: street-games, parks, sweets, early friendships, and reading and writing. His accounts are unfailingly vivid and exact. Here he is writing on a snowflake:
I would often try to follow the course of one turning, shivering, drifting flake as it fell and fell, but could never be sure if my eyes had lost it and seized on another before it reached the ground. I loved the snow’s absolute quietness. It was a stillness I knew



well, and that I sympathized with. I would fasten pieces of cotton-wool to long lengths of white thread and hang them inside the white lace curtains, against the window-panes, like an arrested snowstorm in the house, and then I would gaze and gaze through the artificial snowflakes at the real snowflakes falling outside, falling so densely, so silently, so steadily, that a kind of hallucination would gradually come upon me, my eyes would stare and stare until they went out of focus, and I would slowly begin to feel that the veils of snow were no longer falling: they were still and I was rising, and the window, and the table I sat on, and the whole heavy house were rising weightlessly with me.

Kirkup is not an introspective writer. Indeed his strengths throughout his extensive output are those of an observer: that is why his most famous poem ‘A Correct Compassion’, which describes a surgeon’s work, and his poems about the sights and sounds of Japan, are so effective: he does not let himself get in the way of his subjects. Nevertheless the personal does leak through:
It was natural that, a Taurean, I should really love the earth itself: I would often play with it like sand, and stretch full-length upon it, burying my face in its warm, crumbling darkness. The manure heap had a broad, jolly stink, like a wink from Nellie Wallace: it was the smell of life. What is strange is that I should also have such a strong affinity with water – not only with the sea, the ancestral element, but also with rivers, streams, springs, rainwater and common tap water. The rainwater tubs in our backyard were to me sources of mystery and power: their dark, soot-flighted water had an elemental smell, an unforgettable mineral tang with a ‘snatch’ of tar: their depths had often held the reflected outline of my head and thrown back a deepened, gloomy echo of my lonely talks with myself.

What is so remarkable about this passage is that, whilst dealing with outward things, particularly sights and smells, it is also self-revealing. It is not only the phrase ‘my lonely talks with myself’ which lets us in under the writer’s guard. The creativity of the poet is present in the sentence about the manure heap too: imagination is at work here as well as the memory. This is the pattern throughout A Child of the Tyne: personal observations have a cumulative effect, so that the reader builds up a picture of a personality, his tastes, his strengths and weaknesses, and projects them forward into the developing adult. The almost overwhelming immediacy of person and place are filtered through the sensibility of a unique individual, and the reader quite subconsciously absorbs a way of looking at the world. We feel we know James Kirkup just as well as if he had provided us with an interior monologue to absorb.

Liverpool 800, Culture, Character and History, ed. John Belchem Liverpool University Press, 2006 ISBN 978-1846310348; Nicholas Murray, So Spirited a Town Liverpool University Press, 2008 ISBN 978-1846311284; David Seed, American Travellers in Liverpool Liverpool University Press, 2008 ISBN 978-1846311291; J. Carmen Smith, Chasing Shadows Appin Press, 2008 ISBN 978-1906205089

Brian Nellist


Those who conceived the idea of a circulating Capital of Culture must originally I suppose have thought they were offering a display-space for the group that Karl Mannheim believed ‘create culture, i.e. the intelligentsia’. Liverpool’s response has had more in common with T. S. Eliot’s more pragmatic conception; ‘a “culture” is conceived as the creation of the society as a whole; being, from another aspect, that which makes it a society’. His selective list of cultural phenomena may be centred too purely in England, now seems dated or quaint but at least aims at a kind of inclusiveness, ‘Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wenslydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar’ (Notes towards a Definition of Culture). Certainly Liverpool’s celebrations have had a similar happy heterogeneity, partly because the city, except for a brief period between say 1790 and 1830 has never really had a defining intelligentsia, nothing to


compare with Birmingham’s Lunar Society or the Manchester of Engels, Cobden and Mrs Gaskell (let alone the distinguished thinkers who adorned Edinburgh for almost a century). Why that should be so is explained in passing by the sumptuously produced and illustrated Liverpool 800, edited by John Belchem and significantly subtitled Culture, Character and History. Though arranged chronologically this is not a continuous narrative (like Ramsay Muir’s volume a century before) but a series of essays, some designed more for the specialist but others, on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century city, for example, informing also the general reader. A port with a fairly transient population, people came here to make money. If they stayed, they spent their riches on bricks and mortar (or marble) and on charitable enterprises like the Bluecoat School or the school for the blind which so impressed later American visitors, on buildings to demonstrate civic self-confidence, including admittedly a public library, or art objects. Such writers as the city produced tended to leave in a hurry. The famous exception was William Ruscoe, though the great man lives in print today, if at all, not for his histories of the Medici but for the little children’s poem, ‘The Butterfly’s Ball’:
Come take up your hats, and away let us haste To the Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast; The tempter, Gadfly, has summoned the crew, And the revels are now only waiting for you.

The verbal culture of Liverpool is less literary, in fact, than oral, and that rich mix of street humour, stand-up comedians, traditional tales and popular song and drama is the subject of Nicholas Murray’s So Spirited a Town. The title comes from Charles Dickens’s response to a visit to the docks, well-protected by the local constabulary, typical of the reaction of strangers to the astonishing mix of grandeur and squalour that met them. Personal reminiscence of a Catholic boyhood here in the fifties attractively mingles with a sharp eye for detail in other people’s accounts of the city. Kilvert comments on Liverpool horses:
I admired the dray horses very much, huge creatures 17 or 18 hands high, more like elephants than horses. Liverpool boasts the finest breed of Flemish draught horse in the world.

Not by chance, the following chapter discusses Hopkin’s ‘Felix Randal’, the farrier. Mr Murray’s experience as a skilled biographer has equipped him for telling his stories with the flair and vitality that typify his subject. If you want to know what Liverpool felt like, looked like, even smelled like, a hundred and fifty and more years ago read David Seed’s absorbing anthology of American reports, American Travellers in Liverpool, not only for the accounts themselves but for the mass of information offered in the introduction and head-notes. Many identify it with New


York as a place given over wholly to commerce and Washington Irving makes so much of a sight of Roscoe because he alone represents the values of the mind. In 1816 (not 1860) the bank in which he was a partner failed and in 1820, Roscoe as a bankrupt sold his early Renaissance paintings (now largely in the Walker) and his books (some at least in the Athenaeum). Irving didn’t know that with supreme honour the victim refused any private arrangement but the point about the city’s collective oblivion to intellectual pursuits remains valid:
Even that amiable and unostentatious simplicity of character, which gives the nameless grace to real excellence, may cause him to be undervalued by some coarse minds, who do not know that true worth is always void of glare and pretension. But the man of letters, who speaks of Liverpool, speaks of it as the residence of Roscoe. —The intelligent traveller who visits it inquires where Roscoe is to be seen. He is the literary landmark of the place, indicating its existence to the distant scholar. —He is like Pompey’s column at Alexandria, towering alone in classic dignity.

W. D. Howells, paying us a visit eighty years later comments far more bitterly on this peculiarity of the city. He asks why
so great a city should make so small an appeal to the imagination. In this it outdoes almost any metropolis of our own. Even in journalism, an intensely modern production, it does not excel. [Sorry Daily Post!] Manchester has its able and well-written Guardian but what has Liverpool? Glasgow has its school of painting, but what has Liverpool?

Point taken, but what it did have other American writers found intensely valuable, its school and chapel for the blind, for example, where great music was to be heard and a pre-Braille system of raised script was in use or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s rather comical description of the laying of the foundation stone of the library by William Brown in 1851. Despite our terrible past, African-Americans found here a lack of prejudice which astonished them (oh that it had remained so) and there is a fascinating chapter about visits by Abolitionists. For sheer enthusiasm and descriptive detail read William H. Riding’s article from Harper’s of 1879 ‘England’s Great Sea-port’. George Catlin, painter of the native American nations, brought his Red Indian troupe to the town in 1839:
During the last week of their noble exhibition, the children from all the charitable and other schools were admitted free, and in battalions and phalanxes they were passed through my room, as many hundreds at a time as could stand upon the floor, to hear the lectures (shaped to suit their infant minds),


and then the deafening war-whoop raised by my men in Indian paint and Indian arms, which drove many of the little creatures with alarm under the tables and benches, from which they were pulled out by their feet; and the list that we kept showed us the number of 22,000 of these little urchins, who, free of expense, saw my collection, and having heard me lecture, went home, sounding the war-whoop in various parts of the town.

One of the stories of the year that reveals most compellingly why migrants settled in the city without quite becoming part of it is J. Carmen Smith’s Chasing Shadows. The author’s grandmother was Spanish and came to Liverpool in 1904 to work in a boarding house for Iberian sailors, married, had a child and remained there through two difficult World Wars without really becoming English or becoming a British citizen:
Micaela’s apparent devotion to the British Royal Family was never fully explained. The only possible justification lay in the apocryphal tale of King Edward VII’s visit to Liverpool in 1907, when he is said to have kissed baby Pilar [the author’s mother] as Micaela stood outside Lime Street station.

She had come to England in the first place because she had [left?] her first husband and son in Spain but this and much else in her past, including the mystery other birth, is gradually revealed in a semi-fictional recreation of her life on the basis of visits to Galicia made by the author and her husband, themselves with minimal Spanish. The result is not just a piece of family history but an account of a complex series of lives over a period of a hundred and fifty years shared between two countries. But it also describes from the inside that sense of separation between authority and is subject people, which bedevilled Liverpool until close to the present day and maybe explains its disjunctive ‘culture’. When, as a child, the author was badly burned on the leg, her mother doesn’t want to take her to the hospital:
‘What am I going to do, Mam?’ Micaela had no words of comfort for her daughter. She too was uneasy at the thought of interference by the faceless ‘they’. Her weekly visits to the police station had become a matter of routine [as a resident alien in the war]. The policia were kind, called her ‘Ma’, but the restrictions – she couldn’t even spend a night away from home without permission – increased her sense of alienation, her lack of control over her own life.

Well, at least all that is now changing but the process of overcoming the divisions continues. The Get into Reading programme makes its unique contribution to overcoming these largely cultural divisions here and in other communities up and down the kingdom.

David Garnett, Lady into Fox Hesperus Modern Voices, 2008 ISBN 978 1 84391 449 5

Michael Caines


avid Garnett was a lucky man: he had a fox for a wife. She was a person, according to her sister, Frances Partridge, ‘reserved almost to shyness but perfectly self-possessed’, and in The Flowers of the Forest (1956), her husband likened her to ‘a woodland creature’: ‘among the beeches and the pines I saw her as I could never see her in London’. Rachel Alice Marshall, ‘Ray’ to her friends, ‘R. A. Garnett’ to readers of the books she illustrated, was with her husband in the woods near his parents’ home one day, when their vain attempts to spot some fox cubs caused him to say, ‘There’s no hope of seeing a fox – unless you were suddenly to turn into one. You might. I should not really be much surprised if you did’. ‘You must write that as a story’, said Ray, reminding him that he had recently bought a copy, with woodcuts, of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Garnetts had married in 1921, and Lady into Fox appeared the following year; it made Garnett’s name. Ray provided both the model for Silvia Tebrick – the lady who, within a few of its pages, turns into a fox – and her own woodcuts. David provided the words. The novella strikes a balance somehow between whimsical sophistication and being seriously concerned with the workings of love and loyalty. Perhaps it is the husband who triggers his wife’s metamorphosis. (The narrator calls it a miracle.) Does Richard Tebrick betray his wife by turning his head away from her for one moment, while they are out



walking near their Oxfordshire home? When he turns it back, ‘Where his wife had been the moment before was a small fox, of very bright red’. This fox’s beseeching gaze and demure behaviour convince Richard that it is Silvia indeed. He puts her under his coat and whisks her home. The trouble really begins after the transformation has taken place. Husband promises to stick by wife, dismisses the servants, shoots the dogs, and lives in fear of the hunting season. Wife plays cards with husband, and struggles into dresses in order to cover her (furry) nakedness. Husband despairs as wife begins to take a less modest interest in chasing wildfowl. ‘This womanliness in her never failed to delight him, for it showed she was still his wife, buried as it were in the carcass of a beast but with a woman’s soul.’ The less delightful beast is also present, however, and it has more interest in eating its meat raw and running wild than in piquet and the piano indoors. Richard’s love is tested by his wife’s attempts at escape. Her instantanous physical transformation is less awful, it would seem, than the gradual but ineluctable mental shifting that is the true source of their tragedy. Lady into Fox has stayed in print, in several languages, with good reason: it is, as the narrator promises, a ‘strange’ and resonant tale, its civilized prose rendering it all the stranger. If this Hesperus edition has advantages over its predecessors, they are threefold: its pleasing format, the inclusion of R. A. Garnett’s woodcuts (not to be taken for granted) and John Burnside’s insightful foreword.


1 2









11 13 14 16 18 17 15


19 21 24 25 26 22 23




ACROSS 1. They don’t believe in heartache at Henley (7) *5 down and 20 down. Lift for a silent servant (3,4,6) 9. Real Madrid provides an area of interest (5) *10. Perhaps housebound tough Tina may fancy one of these (1,5,3) 11. Garments revealed by dancing Scot on hill (10) 12. Composer for an old Irish soldier (4) 14. They could give nepotism a good name (5,7) 18. Do we do this when listening to Lear? (4,8) 21. These rolls signal the start of birthday and party snacks (4) 22. Instrument for spinning Cretan coin (10) 25. Grenadier adjusting to revision (9) 26. There is little to be found in repetition (5) 27. Wagon trip to East Riyadh maybe (7) 28. Former striker expert with clippers (7)

DOWN * 1 and 19 down. Our subject is top hardliner in revolution (6,6) 2. Often second of three, coming in slowly (5) *3. Returning former Liberal leader following domestic company (10) 4. Marsh tree found in Wellington (5) 5. An ostrich in Aegina was found to be carrying parasites (9) 6. The start of Edward’s career hit trouble despite being genuine (4) 7. Necessary condition of Schroedinger’s box (8) 8. In returning retsina to bar we came across plantsman (8) 13. Lynne dislikes how greengrocers often use it (10) 15. Romanized set up to validate statistical results (9) *16 and 17 down. Family planning may prevent this celebration (3,8,5) *17. See 16 down *19. See 1 down * 20. See 5 across 23. These enclosures may feature in Neolithic Age settlements (5) 24. Garment leading one to adopt airs (4) * Clues with an asterisk have a common theme



1. What do Mr Micawber and Mr Dorrit have in common? 2. Which eponymous hero says of his love: ‘Her voice is full of money’? 3. Who earned Browning’s versified contempt: ‘Just for a handful of

silver he left us’?
4. How old was ‘I’ when ‘I heard a wise man say / Give crowns and

pounds and guineas / But not your heart away’? 5. In which 1980’s novel does film director John Self pursue a film deal only to have his credit card returned to him cut into four pieces in the end? 6. Who, oppressed by debt and the sorry consequences of adultery, takes her own life with arsenic? 7. Which play ends with the main character driving off intent upon killing himself so that his son might receive his $20.000 life insurance? 8. ‘His gold, as he hung over it and saw it grow, gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own.’ Who is the miser? 9. Who has too much to drink and sells his wife for five guineas? 10. Who wrote a scandalous novel while imprisoned in The Fleet for a debt of £840? 11. Whose publishing house was a nineteenth century victim of falling financial markets leaving him in debt for £120.000? 12. Who, in 1692, went bankrupt owing £17.000 and thereafter attempted to write himself out of debt? 13. Which fictional heroine said, ‘I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year’? 14. Which 21st century story concerns a boy who finds a bag containing £229.370 which he thinks must have fallen from the sky? 15. Whose latest book, based on the 2008 Massey Lecture is subtitled Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth?



The sender of the first completed crossword will receive our selection of World’s Classics paperbacks, and the same to the winner of the fiendishly difficult Buck’s Quiz. Congratulations to Richard Hook of Liverpool (Crossword), and to Jan Sear, also of Liverpool who answered all questions correctly in Buck’s Quiz. Please send your solutions (marked either Cassandra Crossword, or Buck’s Quiz) to 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG.

Across 1. Heckle 4. Pastel 9. Swat 10. Abhorrence 11. Argyle 12. Macaroni 13. Charlotte 15. Anne 16. Arch 17. Beanfeast 21. Jane Eyre 22. Cheese 24. Cartoonist 25. Item 26. Threes 27. Beryls Down 1. Haworth 2. Cathy 3. Leave to 5. Africa 6. The Brontë 7. Lacunae 8. Shame the devil 14. Rochester 16. Adamant 18. Necktie 19. Sisters 20. Zygote 23. Emily

1. Gregor Samsa (Metamorphosis). 2. Clarice Starling (Silence of the Lambs)3. Raskolnikov, (Crime and Punishment) 4. ‘Beetles black approach not near’ 5. The Fly, Mary Howitt 6. David Constantine 7. . Daddy LongLegs 8. The Behaviour of Moths 9. John Fowles 10. John Donne 11. Stealing Sicilian cheese 12. The Grasshopper 13. Ogden Nash 14. Robert Burns 15. The Caterpillar. (Alice in Wonderland)



Mary Weston

The story so far: Captain Peter Scott dies just as the First World War is ending. He awakes in a curious old-fashioned village, The Junction, where he seems to have been expected. Is this Heaven? He fights against the thought though at the same time he cannot bear to dispel the mystery by questioning the inhabitants. On the brink of forgetting all his former life he is visited by memories of his brother Ricky and girlfriend Celia – intense recollections of not having lived intensely enough. He decides to accept the offered oblivion and finds that this second death brings not loss of consciousness but loss of judgement, and an experience of being ‘very sharply alive’. This is the final instalment. The full text of the earlier episodes can be found at


eter went out for an early walk. A mist had come down in the night. It was still, and he could barely see ten feet in from of him; a curious feeling, no views, no past or future, only the immediate circle around him – the hedgerows, haw-scraggly and lit by spiderweb chandeliers, as if light had condensed into dew. The birdsong was strangely immediate, not coming from left or right, but happening there in his head, like an aural hallucination. ‘Just – this,’ he kept saying to himself. He was only this moment, this experience, a point of view without a perspective. The


tweed of his jacket was dusted with tiny spangles of airborne water. The sound of marching feet. Men marching in silence, a company at least, he judged, and syncopated with their regular tramp the hollow notes of horseshoes on the hard road. They rose out of the mist, the leader on a big chestnut horse. Peter stepped aside into the gap of a gateway. The colonel saluted him as he passed. The ranks, khaki and feldgrau, officers and men jumbled together, turned their faces toward him, intently, as if wanting to be known, or curiously, wondering who he was. They were the dead, he realised. His dead, though he could no longer name them. He stood by the gate after they had passed, some hundreds, until the sound of their tread faded into the stillness.

There was heat in the sun. Peter followed the road upwards, deeper into the valley. The air thinned. At first he thought the fog was lifting, but in fact he had cleared it, and turning back he saw it lying low, a layer of pinkish cloud over the village and river fields. The road ended with the last farm house, but a path continued, leading over stiles and fields of sheep, meeting up with the stream and tracking it right back to the waterfall at the deep cleft of the valley. The rock wall rose some twenty feet above the pool, and a concealed flourish at the top threw the water upwards, so that it plunged with an arching trajectory, flinging spray into the air. The pool was deep and peaty looking, and it absorbed the force into a tranquil circling current. It was almost unbearable to watch, and almost without thinking (certainly without calculations of temperature) Peter stripped and lowered himself into it, making a slipping way into the centre to stand under the cascade. The water pounded into him and he did not resist it; the tenor voice of the rushing water, and the rich contralto of the currents in the pool were singing about giving, giving, the ecstasy of pouring oneself out – telling him he was also the kind of thing that could empty himself, and be continuously refreshed. Me? Was that what you meant? Uncertainly, he essayed it – it felt like opening his throat to sing, opening his heart to a girl – and he was part of the endless circling transformation of watery being, swirling, thrown upwards in a shiver of drops, rarefied momentarily into vapour, cooling and falling and tumbling downwards in white rapids. Chance reassembled him a hundred yards downstream. On fire with cold, he clambered out to the first field that sloped down from the wooded ridge. He lay down in the grass, and looked up at the sun. He could look the sun in the eye, and his gaze seemed to channel its warmth. After the waterfall’s ecstasy of giving, the pure receptiveness of the earth was rich. He soaked up light energy until it flung him upwards to his human


height. He made his way across the field to the path, remembering just in time that he’d better go back up to the pool to get his clothes.

Coming down to the road again, he realised that a familiar sound had been growing gradually louder: he looked up, and there it was coming over the ridge, a biplane. He thought it had a jaunty pre-war sound, but that was perhaps the effect of the silence; at any rate, it was a Camel. Peter watched as it circled the valley. The freedom those sky people must feel! He wondered if he could fling himself up into the machine, as he had made himself part of the waterfall and soaked himself into the earth, and was just lifting his heart to attempt it when the pilot put it into a dive, stooping like a hawk. The daredevil! Time stretched. Now! Now! Peter willed him to pull out of it. Time snapped back, and the little plane was a crumpled X in the field just down from him. Recovering his senses, Peter ran, jumping the hedge. The left wing had hit the ground first and taken most of the shock. The nose and the cockpit were relatively undamaged. He scrambled over the wreckage. The pilot was unconscious, but there was a pulse under the corner of his jaw. Powered by shock and necessity, Peter lifted him out and carried him home without finding it difficult, almost without noticing he was doing it. He only felt the weight in his arms when Mrs Fielding ran out and opened the gate for him. ‘Can you get him up the stairs?’ ‘Try,’ Peter grunted, and this was hard work. He went automatically to his own room and dropped the pilot on the bed. Mrs Fielding pulled off his leather helmet and loosened the silk scarf. He was fair-haired, with a face that had probably once been round and boyish, but was now weathered by aerial combat, sharp and ratlike. A neat little chap, probably a bit of a dandy. His boots were very tall and tight-fitting: Peter had to work away at the first, heel and toe, for several minutes before he got it off. As soon as he attacked the other, it came away directly – with the leg still inside it! Oh. It was wooden. Of course. But Peter had to sit down and breathe for a while before his stomach settled. The Archdeacon came in, wheezing from the stairs, with a bottle. ‘Not too much,’ said Mrs Fielding. ‘Just a drop,’ he promised her, measuring out a spoonful. She raised the patient’s head, and he administered it. ‘That’s better,’ gasped the airman, eyes still shut. ‘Try to rest,’ Mrs Fielding told him. But he struggled to rise and pulled himself up, resting on his elbows, coughing and blinking, until he glanced across the room and exclaimed, ‘Peter!’



Yes, it really was Peter, sitting there on a blanket chest. Alive! Why? How? Could it have been a hoax? No. God knows, his father had a strange sense of humour, but he couldn’t have joked about that. A mistake then? But they’d opened Peter up, to find out why he’d died, and found all the nerves curdled like cooking egg whites. Even if it had been a mistake, he couldn’t have survived the autopsy. At last he worked it out. ‘Well Peter, this is an unexpected pleasure.’ He frowned. ‘How do you know my name?’ ‘You’re my brother!’ ‘Oh,’ he said, as if taking in a piece of information, the solution to a very minor puzzle. ‘Don’t you remember me?’ The woman who was standing at the side of the bed advised him to keep calm; the elderly gent at the window remarked that the doctor was coming up the path. ‘I wonder who called him. Not much goes unnoticed, in this place.’ Peter ran down to let him in. The doctor was a big man, like a bull with a curly poll. He listened to Ricky’s heart for a good long time – several minutes of silence – but conducted no further examination. ‘Suicide attempt,’ was his diagnosis. ‘Well? Am I right?’ Ricky shrugged. ‘I just felt like I had to smash something.’ ‘You swerved at the last moment, I take it.’ Indignantly, ‘I did not!’ ‘Anyway, you’ve bought yourself some time to think about it, which is just as well, as it doesn’t sound like you were thinking before.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘If you want to live, you’ll have to go back. You don’t have the cardiac capacity to survive here, not for long.’ ‘What are you on about? I’m fine!’ He pushed himself up, gasping as he encountered a bruised or fractured rib. ‘Nothing wrong with me that a bit more of that won’t fix.’ By ‘that’ he meant the brandy that had restored him to consciousness. ‘Last thing you need!’ the doctor bellowed. ‘You want to go back to where you came from and make something of yourself, my boy!’ He packed up his stethoscope, told the Archdeacon to lock up the brandy, and charged down the stairs snorting.

The others followed to see him out. Ricky lay back and put his hands over his face, pressing his eyelids with his fingers. In fact, his suicide was not as impulsive as bravado pretended: it was a decision he’d begun work on more than a year ago, when they had his leg off. ‘If I can’t fly…’


(but as it happened, he could, and in 1917, the Corps was so desperate for pilots they kept him on). A few months later: ‘If Mark Thaper’s dead…’ (but by the time the Red Cross came back with the confirmation, he’d got used to limping along without hope). He still didn’t quite understand why it was Peter’s death that had decided it. Peter came up the stairs, as if summoned by thought. He placed a cup of tea on the table beside the bed – he was moving carefully quiet as if in deference to an invalid, and was about to go without speaking. ‘Wait!’ He stood in the doorway, regarding him with strangerly alertness. ‘Can you really not remember me?’ ‘I don’t want to try,’ he said. ‘I’d rather get to know you from what I am now.’ This triggered the exact shaken feeling that had hit him when he had first heard of Peter’s death – the sense that the ground under his feet was no longer solid. I needed him to be myself against, he realised. We defined each other. And though he sensed that the man standing there was someone very strong and… and clear, he wanted the shabby old brother, the affection, frowsty and sour, the rivalry, the moralising. The new man was loss made absolute. He (Ricky didn’t want to think of him as Peter) he, the prosthetic brother, went back to the blanket chest and sat there. ‘Were you terribly unhappy?’ ‘Yes – I don’t know. Not unhappy, exactly. I just couldn’t go on.’ ‘Things look very different, you know, from this end.’ ‘I hadn’t noticed.’ He picked up the boot and peered, with uninhibited curiosity, at the wooden leg inside it. ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘Not any more. The phantom itching is the worst. – What is this place?’ ‘They call it the Junction.’ ‘You didn’t used to believe in an afterlife.’ This provoked a smile, rather difficult to read, rather uncomfortable to receive. ‘What?’ Ricky demanded. ‘Just that ‘after’ seems a funny sort of word to stick to life. You know? If you’re alive, how can there be an after, or a before, for that matter?’ ‘Eternity?’ Ricky snorted. ‘Well, at least the climate’s more temperate than Auntie Matt used to make it sound!’

‘Peter!’ the woman’s voice came from below. ‘Don’t wear him out with talking!’


Peter went downstairs. The front door was open, and the Archdeacon stood at the garden gate, waving and talking to the people who were coming along on foot or in carts to see the wreckage of the flying machine. Children were scrambling perilously on the wings or fighting for a place in the cockpit. Peter marched across the field and ordered them off. The plane did not appear to be all that badly damaged. One wing smashed of course, but the engine housing appeared intact. He enlisted a couple of farm hands and the hauled the tail down and got it set on its wheels again. Cocked up like that, it looked so jaunty and so crushed – so very like the little pilot-bloke. Peter felt a twist in his gut, a pain he couldn’t name, and he hurried back to Rosemont House. Mrs Fielding was in the kitchen. ‘What will happen to him?’ he asked her. ‘Is there no way he can stay here?’ She sighed. ‘Dr James is usually pretty accurate.’ A series of thumps from upstairs, as if someone was moving furniture – or hopping across the room. Peter came out into the hall just as Ricky emerged onto the landing. He came down the stairs one step at a time, wooden leg first. Halfway down he had to pause and hold the rail to steady himself, shutting his eyes as if he was feeling faint. Peter braced himself to break his fall, but he drew a deep breath and recovered, and tock-tapped the rest of the way down. ‘There! I deserve a drink for that, wouldn’t you say?’ On the level ground, he walked well, with only a bit of a limp. It was the sound rather than the movement that gave the wooden leg away. Peter opened the door into the sitting room; he went in and dropped on the sofa. Peter pulled the piano stool over and sat beside him saying, ‘I didn’t want to understand what the doctor was saying. But we’d better face it. You can’t survive here. You need to go back.’ Ricky sighed. It looked like he was going to need it spelling out. ‘There’s nothing to go back for. Mark – my friend’s dead. You’re dead. I’ll be even more crippled – demobbed for sure, and no chance of civil work. Not flying, anyway.’ ‘I know it’s hard, but that’s the kind of thing that expands your heart, takes you out of yourself.’ Softly, ‘I chose to die.’ ‘What about your family?’ ‘There’s only Pa. You don’t remember him, either?’ ‘No, but if he’s lost two sons – ’ ‘He’ll bounce.’ No need to tell him that it had looked like Pa and Celia were well on the way to consoling each other for Peter’s loss. There


was perhaps no real reason why they shouldn’t, but it wasn’t something Ricky had wanted to witness. ‘Then will you do it for me?’ ‘For you? You don’t even know me!’ ‘I find that I want to. But I won’t ever, unless you go back and let life make you into someone who could be my brother.’ Nausea. At first Ricky took it for a reaction against soppiness, but it deepened into something cold and dizzy, and he must have looked bad, judging by the yelp the other let out. A cold sweat broke out of him, and his lungs were fluttering. Yes, it was his heart. The Archdeacon came in and gave him brandy, which helped the nausea. But his heart – how had he never realised how frail it was? A tiny, trembly thing, that had never flown against the limits of his own predilections and passions. Maybe Peter was right: the dreary slog of his resumed life was probably the exact thing that would build it up. The business of always striving to be better than yourself – in the short term it made you miserable, but it seemed that it worked in the long run. Huh. The stranger was Peter, then. What he had made of himself – but still enough of the old Peter to want me to do the same! Ricky smiled. And this is me. Not strong enough to be something different, but maybe brave enough to be what I am. He had a sense of himself standing up to Auntie Matt, all those years ago. And then, years later, of the time he had run away from school to live in a leaky shed in an asparagus field on the Thaper family farm. Mark raided pies for him, and he slept under a tarpaulin next to the love of his life, a wood and canvas fuselage, wingless and engineless at that stage, mounted on bicycle wheels. He survived three nights before his distraught father found him. Rather a biblical scene, actually. Except that he had refused to go home and obey. He felt a light, objective fondness for the little chap he had been. No, I can’t betray him. Let him be what he is, and come to an end.

‘Ah, that was that lovely.’ Peter looked at the Archdeacon. ‘You could see him deciding to go, and then, ever so neatly, he went. Just like that!’ He made a little flicking gesture with his fingers, trying to express the quality of the disappearance, silvery and instantaneous. The gesture, like the note of a clear bell, temporarily suspended feeling. Not the numbness of shock, but clarity, so that Peter could see that the death was of a piece with the person. And that what the


Archdeacon had called neatness was actually courage: letting go of life without fear or regret. But perhaps only someone with a light grasp on survival could ever have cast himself into the sky in one of those rickety machines. And yet it still seemed heartbreaking that his brother should only have stayed with him for such a very short time. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, suspecting that the Archdeacon wouldn’t understand his emotion – or that he would see it as an error of taste, allowing self-indulgence to cloud his appreciation of a death that had really been a quite exquisite piece of work. He went upstairs and sat down on the bed. Ricky had, of course, left it rumpled. To stay yourself, you simply stop at your own end. Simplicity. To go on, you become what you are not. Difficult, but it could happen. But what was it all for? The sense of Ricky’s all-of-a-piece life and death returned to him. Only now it seemed that the sorrow he felt wasn’t an emotion, not a feeling inside him, but a feeling that he was in, something of Ricky still tingling in the air. Almost as soon as he grasped this, it was withdrawn, as if Ricky himself – no. No, he was gone, the feeling didn’t make sense except it took in his death. Not Ricky, but perhaps the principle that had structured him – teasing, refusing to be solemn. And it was answering his question; was in itself the answer to his question.


Gary Allen was born in Ballymena, Co. Antrim. Latest collections, Iscariot’s

Dream (Agenda Editions) and The Bone House (Lagan Press). A selection of poems has been published in the anthology The New North (Wake Forest University Press).
Jonathan Bate Marshall Brooks lives in Southern Vermont with his wife and youngest

son. Currently, he is working on a book about readers and their personal libraries. Michael Caines works for the Times Literary Supplement. He has edited an anthology of plays by eighteenth-century women and a book about the actor David Garrick. David Constantine is a translator of Hölderlin, Goethe, Kleist and Brecht. Collected Poems was published in 2004 and a collection of stories Under the Dam (Comma Press) in 2005. His new collection is Nine Fathom Deep (Bloodaxe 2009). Rana Dasgupta is a British writer based in Delhi. His first book, Tokyo Cancelled, was a collection of folktales for the era of globalisation. Solo is his first novel. Jonathan Davis graduated from Liverpool University in English and Philosophy in 2008 and has become a Teaching Assistant. This has given him time to write and apply for a Creative Writing MA that he hopes will develop and foster his writing. Rebecca Gethin lives on Dartmoor. Her poems appear in various magazines and her first collection, River is the Plural of Rain will be published by Oversteps Books in 2009. She teaches creative writing in a prison. John Killick is a poet and critic. His contribution in this issue will appear in his next book (co-authored with Myra Schneider) Writing Your Self, due from Continuum International in November 2009. Angela Leighton has published two volumes of poetry: A Cold Spell (Shoestring 2000) and Sea Level (Shoestring 2007; 2nd ed. 2009) In addition, various critical books, most recently On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (OUP 2007). Joel Lane lives in Birmingham. He is the author of two poetry collections, The Edge of the Screen and Trouble in the Heartland (both from Arc), and five other books. Isobel Lusted is a New Zealander who has lived in London for many years. Ian McMillan was born in 1956 and has been a freelance writer/performer /broadcaster since 1981. He presents The Verb on BBC Radio 3 every Friday night. Andrew McNeillie’s most recent poetry collection is Slower (2006). His memoir An Aran Keening came out in 2001. Its prequel Once will appear in Spring 2009. He is literature editor at OUP.



Camille Paglia, the scholar and culture critic, is the University Professor of

Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She has written numerous articles on art, literature, popular culture, feminism, politics, and religion for publications around the world. Pauline Rowe was born and brought up in Widnes. She lives in Liverpool with her husband and 5 children. Her first full poetry collection will be published by Headland Publications in 2009. Clive Sinclair is the author of thirteen books, some of which have won prizes. Clive Sinclair’s True Tales of the Wild West, the most recent, was published last July. Enid Stubin is Assistant Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York and Adjunct Professor of Humanities at NY University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Mary Weston was born in Hawaii and now lives in Liverpool. She is an outreach worker for The Reader Organisation and a novelist.

The Reader Magazine
Subscription Information
UK (p&p free) 1 year 2 years 3 years 4 issues 8 issues 12 issues £24.00 £38.00 £57.00 £36.00 £57.00 £86.00

Abroad (p&p free) 1 year 4 issues 2 years 8 issues 3 years 12 issues

Please make cheques payable to the University of Liverpool and post to The Reader, 19 Abercromby Square, University of Liverpool, L69 7ZG. Include your name and address and specify the issue with which you would like your subscription to begin. Save 20% on 2- and 3-year subscriptions. The easiest way to take out a subscription abroad is by using Paypal on our website:

Distribution Information
For trade orders contact Mark Chilver, Magazine Department, Central Books email: web: <> tel: 0845 458 9925 fax: 0845 458 9912 Central Books, 99 Wallis Road, London, E9 5LN For any other queries regarding trade orders or institutional subscriptions, please contact Jenny Tomkins in The Reader Office email: tel: 0151 794 2830