The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, Letters – Leslie Marmon Silko & James Wright, Edited by Anne Wright

Exquisite, a beautiful, too brief collection of letters between two poets, written over a period of 18 months, bringing something special to each others lives at a time when they both needed it, she knowingly, he, not realising he was living his last months of life throughout this correspondence which comes to such an abrupt end.

“I am overwhelmed sometimes and feel a great deal of wonder at words, just simple words and how deeply we can touch each other with them, though I know that most of the time language is the most abused of all human abilities or traits.”

As you may know, if you follow my reviews, I recently read Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir which I loved, followed by her well known novel Ceremony which was exceptional and set me off looking for more of her work.

As I mentioned in my review of the memoir, my original purpose in reading Silko, was not by reputation. I had never heard of her. I was looking for a work of creative non-fiction with a nature writing slant, something that could evoke the landscape and the culture of Tuscon, Arizona. If this book I had imagined existed, it would be the ideal birthday present for a special friend. And it certainly did exist, I discovered The Turquoise Ledge; as Silko and those who understand the way of the shamans will appreciate, it was as if I dreamed it into being!

My friend is also a writer and her most prolific and preferred writing practice is the letter; yes, that disappearing art of epistolary literature arising from the hand-written form. When I saw there was a slim collection of letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and a poet named James Wright (1927 – 1980), (frequently referred to as one of America’s finest contemporary poets), I knew it must accompany the memoir.

James Wright, poet

The correspondence is written when Silko is 31 years old and Wright is around 51. They had planned to meet in the Spring of 1980, mentioned in letters of Oct/Nov of the previous year, not knowing he would be gone before then.

They discuss her novel, his poetry, language, his travels, her adventures with animals, their speaking engagements, their mutual challenges and experiences as university professors, and soon begin to share more personal feelings, as she acknowledges the tough time she is having and he shares his own experience, expressing empathy.

“I realize many wonderful things about language – “realize” in the sense of feeling or understanding intuitively: I realize such things most often when I am greatly concerned with another person’s feelings. I think such realization is one gift which human beings may give each other. I’m not much good at analysis or scholarly efforts with language, probably because I don’t value them as much as I value understanding, which is informed by that which is deeply felt before it is examined.”

Having already read about the snakes, lizards, parrots and numerous other animal life that live in close proximity to her, it was natural for me to see that in her letters, she sometimes shared an anecdote about one of these non-human characters who feature often in her memoir. In one she writes an entertaining piece about her mean rooster.

There are all kinds of other rooster stories that one is apt to hear. I am glad I have this rooster because I never quite believed roosters so consistently were as the stories tell us they are. On these hot Tucson days, he scratches a little nest in the damp dirt under the Mexican lime tree by the front door. It is imperative for him that the kittens and the black cat show him respect, even deference, by detouring or half-circling the rooster as they approach the water dish which is also under the lime tree. If they fail to do this, then he jumps up and stamps his feet, moving sideways until they cringe. This done, he goes back to his mud nest.

Silko opens up to Wright quite early on, letting him know how grateful she is to have this correspondence, a distraction from recent events that occupy her mind, he is more reserved initially, until she shares her grief openly and he responds in kind, taking their letters to another level, a kind of healing balm to the harsh reality of life.

This is one of the most moving, insightful and entertaining collections of letters I’ve ever read, born of a mutual respect & admiration, a sharing of poetry, storytelling & increasingly personal heartache, soothed by the knowledge that the other too carries their pain & grief of current situations that are outside their control.

This correspondence came at a time in Silko’s life when she couldn’t talk or share much with those closest to her, James Wright, her (senior) intellectual contemporary and brief confidant filled that void and they’ve left us this beautiful literary gift.

Leslie Marmon Silko is a poet, essaysit and novelist. James Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his “Collected Poems.”  Above the River: The Complete Poems appeared more than a decade after his death.

They met only twice. First, briefly, in 1975, at a writers conference in Michigan. Their correspondence began three years later, after Wright wrote to Silko praising her book “Ceremony.” The letters begin formally, and then each writer gradually opens to the other, venturing to share his or her life, work and struggles.

The “New York Times” wrote something of Wright that applies to both writers– of qualities that this exchange of letters makes evident.

“Our age desperately needs his vision of brotherly love, his transcendent sense of nature, the clarity of his courageous voice.”

Not having read his poetry, I read some of his works online and this one poem resonated well with their correspondence. Click on the link below to read:

A Blessing by James Wright

Buy a Copy of The Delicacy and Strength of Lace via Book Depository

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

I loved this slim collection of poems, many of which reminded me of something, or awakened something in me, it’s as if they don’t just exist on their own merit, but are pathways of invitation.

Just the title A Thousand Mornings suggests how many, many mornings Mary Oliver has passed in taking walks in nature observing creatures large and small, her shortest poem two lines about an ant; of watching the tides, there are at least three poems about the sea, the one mentioned on the back cover of the book, reminds me of a lesson whose symbol is “chop wood”, that sometimes we need to stop over thinking and tend to the ordinary and mundane.

Her title also reminds me of the benefit of writing morning pages, three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, ideally practiced first thing in the morning, advocated by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, as a way of awakening one’s creativity, overcoming fear or blocks.

I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall-
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

***

There is a poem called If I Were on ways to dance and the joy in life it brings, which can be read superficially, but which could be and most certainly is also about writing poetry, as I am reading another book of Mary Oliver’s called Rules for the Dance, A Handbook for Reading and Writing Metrical Verse, the title of which is clearly inspired by a stanza from Alexander Pope’s brilliant, poetic essay An Essay on Criticism a controversial work that discussed and compared styles of poetry and criticism, alluding to poets and critics past and present.

‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.’ Alexander Pope

IF I WERE

There are lots of ways to dance and
to spin, sometimes it just starts my
feet first then my entire body, I am
spinning no one can see it but it is
happening. I am so glad to be alive,
I am so glad to be loving and loved.
Even if I were close to the finish,
even if I were at my final breath, I
would be here to take a stand, bereft
of such astonishments, but for them.

If I were a Sufi for sure I would be
one of the spinning kind.

***

THREE THINGS TO REMEMBER

As long as you’re dancing, you can
break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.

Sometimes there are no rules.

***

There are mornings in India hinted at in After I Fall Down the Stairs at the Golden Temple and the closing poem of the collection Varanasi, which is in itself something of a response, a balm to the cry nestled within her poem A Thousand Mornings.

And finally one of my favourites:

I HAVE DECIDED

I have decided to find myself a home
in the mountains, somewhere high up
where one learns to live peacefully in
the cold and the silence. It’s said that
in such a place certain revelations may
be discovered. That what the spirit
reaches for may be eventually felt, if not
exactly understood. Slowly, no doubt. I’m
not talking about a vacation.

Of course, at the same time I mean to
stay exactly where I am.

Are you following me?

***

Click Here to Buy a Copy of Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings via Book Depository

The Poet Slave of Cuba, a biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle

CIMG6788Juan Francisco Manzano was born into the household of a wealthy slave-owner in Cuba in 1797.

We know details about the early years of his life thanks to a collection of his autobiographical notes being smuggled out of Cuba to England, where they were published by abolitionists who hoped to raise support for their cause.

He spent most of his childhood close to a woman who insisted he call her Mama, despite the presence of his own mother Maria del Pilar.

 

Imagine

how he must feel in that other home

CIMG6789where he learns the words

of verses, plays, sermons, sonnets

now he’s a parrot, not a poodle

he listens, listens, listens

repeats every sound he hears

from every book in his godmother’s library

Though he wasn’t formally educated, he had a gift for language and poetry and despite the severe punishments he endured for continuing to express joy and suffering through his words.

The other day he recited words so completely new

that I understood the verse

was his own

not borrowed, memorised,

begged from the godmother’s books

Soaring

he said

Spirit

he whispered

CIMG6790Imprisoned

he murmured

and then he went on

I only caught a  few fragments

of his rhyme of delight,

something about a golden beak

something about singing

and wishes

and hope

The woman who kept him initially allowed his mother and any unborn children to buy their freedom and promised Juan freedom on her death. It was a promise rescinded by those still living after the woman’s death, though his mother continued to try to purchase his freedom without result.

Don’t cry, my other mother, the real one, whispers

this is the end

of your sadness

now you are free!

But I am not

it’s a trick

one swift trip

to the house

of my godparents

and then to La Marquesa

instead of the long-promised

freedom.

The Marquesa is a bitter, cruel woman who even when inflicting the most grotesque punishment on Juan, still finds reason to blame him for her own suffering.

Some people can never be satisfied.

The poet-boy for instance.

Nothing is ever enough for him.

marquesaI have to tell the overseers to teach

the same lessons

over and over

locking his ankles in the stocks

tying him to the cross like Jesus.

Or tying him to a ladder laid out on the ground

face down, mouth down

so he cannot speak

except to count his own lashes out loud.

And even when this is done nine days in a row

still he bleeds and weeps,

trying to show me

that he has won

he has triumphed once again

he has proven that he can still

make me sad.

Evil child.

To find out what happens, read this wonderful story of poems, a beautiful collection and tribute to a life of an exceptional poet.

Juan Francisco Manzano didn’t stop producing spontaneous poems until very late in his life, after being arrested for trying to stir up a slave rebellion through his poetry and spending a year in prison. That experience silenced his voice forever.

His work is astonishing, bold, thought-provoking, intelligent and lengthy. Once you begin reading it you can’t stop and I can see why both his work and his story haunted Margarita Engle for so long. That she has been able to condense his experience and thoughts into this humble volume is a gift to readers young and old.

To read the English translation of some of Juan Francisco’s original work, click on this link or the image below:

Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated;
Translated from the Spanish, by R. R. Madden, M.D.
With the History of the Early Life of the Negro Poet, Written by Himself

Manzano

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet who has published a number of books for young readers in free verse and prose poetry. She chooses interesting subjects that make me want to read everything she has written, they are an introduction to explore further the subjects she introduces. The titles alone are seductive.

The artwork in all her books is fantastic, this work illustrated beautifully by Sean Qualls.

I have read and reviewed The Wild Book, based on the life of the author’s grandmother who struggled with dyslexia, and she has other tempting titles such as:

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck

Top Reads 2014

It’s tough to have to choose one, and all the books below have been excellent reads, but the one standout for me was Prayers for the Stolen, because I haven’t stopped thinking about it all year,  it’s always top of mind when anyone asks me about a good book I’ve read recently, just as I still recommend Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton from 2013 and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child from 2012, all outstanding reads.

The Stats

This year I read 57 books, basically one book a week, 79% of my reads were fiction, 16% non-fiction and 5% poetry. I managed to read books by authors from 18 different countries and this year 40% of what I read was translated from another language. 54% of the books I read were printed books and 46% I read on a kindle. 63% were written by a female author.

Outstanding Read of the Year 2014

Prayers For The Stolen by Jennifer Clement

prayers for the stolen This book had a huge impact on me at the time of reading,  a fictional account of a girl named Ladydi growing up in a part of Mexico where it is dangerous to be a girl, so the mother’s disguise them as boys, from the moment of their birth.

An insightful read, about a tragic issue, told with empathy and humour and helping to raise awareness of the plight of so many women and girls unable to speak out for themselves. A must read.

 

And in no particular order, My Top Reads for 2014!

Top Fiction

1.Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (translated from Russian by James E. Falen)

Eugene Onegin 7 8The epic book length poem Eugene Onegin was my surprise read of the year and pure delight. I avoided reading it for years and years thinking it would be inaccessible. It was hilarious and a riveting read.

I read it two chapters at a time in a read along and was thoroughly entertained by that cad Eugene Onegin and bemused by that reader of far too many romantic novels Tatiana, and broken-hearted at the fate of the poet. Absolutely brilliant and I would quite like to read another translation after some of the comparisons other readers made as we read, what turns out to be not quite the same version. More Pushkin definitely.

2. Nada by Carmen Laforet (translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman)

Nada (2)Nada was being passed around friends all exclaiming its wonder, a book written by the author when she was 23 years old and based on her own similar experience as a young woman moving to Barcelona to study. It takes place in the shadowy aftermath of a traumatic civil war, its effect hanging over her family. Andrea, now an orphan, arrives to stay with relatives, however her stay is not as she’d imagined it, the family are full of eccentricities and Andrea finds more refuge in the gloomy streets and with her new friends than in the oppressive atmosphere of the apartment among her strange relatives. A feverish, coming of age classic.

3. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood

We That Are Left (2)A title I was waiting for, having loved Eden’s Garden and this promised to be just as good, set in World War One and featuring a cast of women characters who are changed by the war in ways that will continue long after.

From Cornwall to Wales to France, we follow Elin as her husband leaves for the war and she must assume responsibility for the family estate and is propelled into a dangerous mission to rescue her friend in the thick of fighting. It concerns the changes thrust upon women during the war and their refusal to go back to the more submissive role that was expected of them before the war. They prove they are just as capable of handling a crisis and if necessary will manage on their own. Brilliant, thrilling and unputdownable.

4.The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal)

True DeceiverThe True Deceiver is the first novel I have read by Tove Jansson, having read three collections of her short stories (The Summer Book,  A Winter Book and Art in Nature) all of which I enjoyed, so this was an interesting departure to stay with the same characters throughout and it is quite a thrilling read, clearly inspired in part by her own experience, facing up to the artist struggle.

It is the perfect winter read, set in the snow bound winter months, while they await the thaw. Anna is an aging artist who lives alone and is content for it to be that way, her contact with the outside world through the many letters from her fans. But someone in the village has other plans and slowly makes herself indispensable to the older woman, preying on her vulnerabilities. And the true deceiver? That is the question that reading the novel reveals.

4. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

My Brilliant FriendIf you haven’t yet succumbed to #FerranteFever keep an eye out for this book and the two that follow it, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay. They narrate a friendship between Elena and Lila, set in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples, one tries to escape  her place in society via a university education and a marriage that will elevate her status while the other uses her intelligence in a relentless, fearless and  often ruthless quest to survive. The books are compelling and may be semi-autobiographical, however the author remains an enigma, using a pseudonym and not ready to own up to his/her identity – believing that if a book has any merit, it will find its audience.

5. The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismialov (translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield)

The Dead Lake

This is why I wait until the end of the year before creating my list, because who knows what special book gems we might discover before the final curtain call. The Dead Lake is part of the Peirene Press coming-of-age series published in 2014 and tells the story of Yerzhan, a boy growing up at a remote railway siding in Kazakhstan, an area where atomic weapon testing is carried out.

There are only two communities where he lives and he adores the neighbour’s daughter and it is to impress her that he walks into that lake at 12-years-old and stops growing. It is a stunning and unforgettable novella and an insightful glimpse into a nomadic culture, that we are privileged to be able to read thanks to the passionate endeavours of our friends at Peirene Press.

6. The Bees by Laline Paull

Bees2

The Bees is an extraordinary feat of the imagination, narrated from the point of view of Flora 717 a sanitation worker bee. It is about life in an orchard hive and the threats both internal and external to the hive. Totally convincing, the Hive is like a cult and each bee knows its place, its role and responds by instinct and receives energy from the Hive Mind, the Queen and the collective conscience of the Hive. Flora is different and as we discover why, we begin to fear for her life. A stunning, original work, I was enthralled but the story and love that the author was inspired by a Bronze Age Minoan palace in translating a real beehive into a fictional landscape.

 

Top Non-Fiction

Ex Libris1. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

This was the very first book of the year I read and a special read for booklovers. It contains 18 bookish essays from the bibliophile Anne Fadiman, written over a period of four years, in which she talks about how she became so book obsessed and shares many often hilarious anecdotes. It was also recommended and gifted to me by the talented blogger and world-wide reader VishyThe Knight.

Arctic dreams2. Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

First published in 1986 and winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction in the US, Artic Dreams is a compilation of poetic nature essays written by a compassionate, scientific, nature loving mind, as he observes those creatures whose natural habitat is the arctic, whether they are polar bears, seals or Arctic people. Some of my best recommendations, as was the case with this book, come from Valorie at Books Can Save a Life.

Vera Brittain3. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

I planned to read this right from the beginning of 2014 when it was republished as an anniversary edition to commemorate the beginning of World War one. Vera Brittain was an intellect and despite it being seen as a waster of time by many ion the provinces where she came from she set of for Oxford to compete with the boys, whom most of her friends were.

One by one, her friends, her brother, her fiance went off to fight and not able to concentrate on something that seemed meaningless in the face of war, she volunteered as a nurse. Testament of Youth is taken from her journals and is an insightful, at times heartbreaking insight into a lost youth, and an attempt to understand humanity and to prevent us from repeating the same mistakes. A brilliant book, about to be released as a feature film.

H is for Hawk4. H is for Hawk by Wendy Macdonald

There haven’t been so many non fiction titles that called out to me this year, but this one did immediately and I pushed it to the top of the pile to read and was riveted by Helen Macdonald’s grief stricken, obsessive encounter with Mebel, he Goshawk she raises, spurning human company and comfort in the aftermath of her father’s death. Great to see it then win the Samuel Johnson prize.

 

Brown Girl Dreaming5. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

What a delightful memoir in free verse from a well-known children’s writer, writing of her childhood spent between South Carolina and Brooklyn, NY tales of family members, a new brother, her passion for words, being Jehovah Witness and making a great friend. Reminds me of the equally talented Margarita Engle and her collection of novels in verse.

 

Voila!

So what was your outstanding read(s) for 2014?

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson was unknown to me, though she is a prolific writer, having already published 30 books and been shortlisted this year for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature.

Brown Girl DreamingI saw it mentioned on twitter, as it recently won a National Book award in the US and it has the most beautiful, striking cover and when I read that it is a memoir of the author’s childhood, written in free verse, I just knew I had to read it. And I’m not the only one, of the seventeen books US President, Barack Obama bought on a recent book buying spree with his two daughters, this book was sitting on the top of the pile.

Brown Girl Dreaming is an easy reading collection of anecdotes in free verse, that tell of Woodson’s childhood growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn , New York, not so much focused on herself, she paints a picture with words of all those around her, their inclinations and beliefs, the daily rituals that made up the ambiance within which she spent her early years.

She has something of both the North and South in her, moving comfortably between the two and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She collects aspects of her childhood that have stayed with her and that shaped who she is today and she discovers old stories that fill out her experience and deepen her roots and sense of belonging.

“When we ask our mother how long we’ll be here,

sometimes she says for a while and sometimes

she tells us not to ask anymore

because she doesn’t know how long we’ll stay

in the house where she grew up

on the land she’s always known.”

After her mother leaves her husband and Ohio behind, bringing three small children to her own childhood home, the children are drawn into their Grandmother’s ways, including regular attendance at the Kingdom Hall, where they become part of a Jehovah Witnesses community, which has a significant impact on their upbringing and keeps them out of trouble, though it also has its consequences and is something the author will eventually leave behind.

“Everyone else

has gone away.

And now coming back home

isn’t really coming back home

at all.”

Jacqueline, named after her father who wanted her to be Jack, observes the individual brilliance of each of her siblings, she acknowledges their talent and discovers her own, a love of words and despite the challenges they confront her with, she never loses sight of her dream to be a writer and to catch those words that sometimes eluded her on the page.

“I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist

Twirl across the page.

When they settle, it is too late.

The class has already moved on.

I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them

Then blow gently,

Watch them float

Right out of my hands”

I couldn’t help but recall the Cuban writer Margarita Engle’s exceptional The Wild Book, not just because it too is a brilliant volume of prose poetry written for both a young and adult audience, but because its subject also includes a child with a love and fear of words.

Jacqueline WoodsonBrown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful book and a compassionate collection of childhood, a celebration of all the author’s family and n its writing, it enabled her to reconnect with many of those whom she hadn’t seen for years and in doing so, to learn of and preserve more of the family’s stories that had been within the family for generations.

Her poems are like a giant tapestry and the members of her family, her neighbourhood and friends make up the complex colours and patterns, infused with story, emotion, excitement and foreboding, the fabric of her childhood.

By the time you get to the end, you feel like you know them all and to complete the experience the author has shared her collection of black and white family photos.

The Toga and the Rose by Sheighle Birdthistle

The Toga and The Rose is Sheighle Birdthistle’s latest collection of heartfelt poetry.

An Irish poet who founded the Poetry Corner in Aix-en-Provence, a group that meets monthly in the English bookshop, Book and Bar, Sheighle’s work is a wonder to read and arresting to listen to.

As I said to her after reading the collection the first time, there were moments when I realised I was holding my breath until the end of the poem, as if breath or movement would break the spell and silence might help ensure an ending I could cope with.

Her poems navigate the roller coaster of life’s events and emotions and she captures many of them with a choice of words that invoke powerful meaning and create suspense. From the darkest depths to the cusp of enlightened contentedness, it is a ride worth taking.

TogaFrom The Hand of God Gloved,

a life that should have been yellow, coloured grey’

to the desolation of Syria where

‘the falling leaves drop like huge tears of sorrow,

On the poppies scattered at their roots.’

 

and the absence of words in A Starry Night,

Words, stars, words blending

And rending us poets rigid with wonder

As we ponder.’

 

The poems of the Son and Daughters,

The Four Souls of My Body

‘we love each other, in different ways,

tempests and gentle torments,

Flowing like angels wings’

The Toga and The Rose

The Toga and The Rose

From family to humanity, we are affected by emotions both familiar and far from the hearth.

 

The Lady hostage of Burma,

Katrina of New Orleans

 

interspersed with many starry nights, sometimes bearers of hope, on other occasions harbingers of catastrophe, predictable only in their unpredictability.

Comedie de livreSheighle will be reading from The Toga and The Rose this weekend at La Comédie du Livre literature festival in Montpelier, where you can buy a copy of her book or via O’Mahony’s Booksellers and a range of online bookshops.

A grand weekend of literature of not just poetry, but also a focus this year on Scandinavian writers, including Jón Kalman Stefánsson, who the Shadow International Foreign Fiction Prize Team just voted as their choice for the top prize for his book The Sorrow of Angels.