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

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

I began seeing reviews about When I Hit You, Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife late in 2017,  most were stunned by this novel, obviously by the subject, a woman writing about the experience of domestic violence and abuse, herself a victim of it within marriage; but also the analysis of her response to what was happening. This was a highly educated, intelligent and articulate young woman writing. It nudged preconceived ideas about victims of domestic abuse.

The reviews made me wish to read it, but the subject prevented me from picking it up sooner.  And then it made the long list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. I relented.

While it genuinely deserves to be on the list for its literary uniqueness and merit, it’s also relevant given we are in an era where the silencing, harassment and abuse of women is reaching a tipping point, in the West at least. The author now lives in London, however this story takes place in contemporary India, where she grew up.

The statistics on domestic violence in India are appalling, violence by husbands against wives is widespread, nearly two in five* (37 %) married women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their husband, and while the statistics vary according to the number of years of education men or women have acquired, 12%  of married women with 12 or more years of education have experienced spousal violence, compared with 21 percent of married women whose husbands have 12 or more years of education.

This is one aspect that surprises some Western readers, that highly educated women, married to highly educated men (the husband in this book is a university professor) while less likely to suffer, are not immune. No one is.

The title is a reference to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man his debut novel about a young man growing up, (essentially, his alter-ego). In the same way we see the character of this novel traverse the early months of a new marriage, as a young wife.

Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy has created an artwork, carefully sculpted, observed and understood from different angles, a work that endures over four months, like acts in a play, before the master stroke, a line she drew, that when her husband crossed, would signal to her the moment to leave. It is written by an unnamed narrator in a first person voice that moves from reflective to urgent, from a place of detached distance to a disturbing sense of present danger.

The novel begins in the period after she has escaped her marriage, in recounting the things her mother says to people, it is five years since her daughter left the marriage and the story has mutated and transformed into something the mother can more easily digest as she narrates.

So, when she begins to talk about the time that I ran away from my marriage because I was being routinely beaten and it had become unbearable and untenable for me to keep playing the good Indian wife, she does not talk about the monster who was my husband, she does not talk about the violence, she does not even talk about the actual chain of events that led to my running away. That is not the kind of story you will be getting out of my mother, because my mother is a teacher, and a teacher knows that there is no reason to state the obvious. As a teacher, she also knows that to state the obvious is , in fact, a sure sign of stupidity.

When she tells the story of my escape, she talks of my feet.

The way the story begins, hearing her mother’s voice with hindsight, introduces the subject with a dose of irony. It is a lead up to the author introducing herself as the writer that she is, and sharing the lessons she has acquired through this writing project.

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It also takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story. Be ruthless, even if it is your own mother.

She continues with narrating the story, and seeing it as if she is playing a role in a drama.

And in some ways, that is how I think of it: it is easier to imagine this life in which I’m trapped as a film;  it is easier when I imagine myself as a character. It makes everything around me seem less frightening; my experiences at a remove. Less painful, less permanent. Here, long before I ever faced a camera, I became an actress.

The husband, a Marxist who considered himself a revolutionary, a comrade, using communist intellectual ideas and his activities to elevate his self aggrandisement, detests the idea of his wife’s being a writer, an attitude that pushes her to want to antagonise him. The more he wishes to silence her, the stronger is her will to write, to imagine, to create, to express herself.

Being a writer is now a matter of self-respect. It is the job title that I give myself…

But it’s not just about antagonizing him. There is a distasteful air of the outlaw that accompanies the idea of a writer in my husband’s mind. A self-centredness about writing that doesn’t fit with his image of a revolutionary. It has the one-word job description: defiance. I’ve never felt such a dangerous attraction towards anything else in my life.

Given how prevalent it is, it is a brave and courageous feat for the author to have penned this work and for it to be recognised and appreciated in this way, deservedly so. In an interview with The Wire, (linked below) Meena Kandasamy said:

“I will write in the same way in which I lived through all of this: carrying myself with enormous, infinite grace.”

It is an incredible work of creativity, working through the post-trauma of domestic violence.

Meena Kandasamy has taken charge of her story, she retells it in exactly the form(s) that she desires, and I am sure she will move on and create more great works of art, in literary form.

This is not a work to shy away from, especially not now, in these times where women are being supported when they choose to express these narratives, in order to move on from the trauma, because no one wants these stories to define their lives or to be who they are. Healing might come slowly, but I hope it does indeed come, that people like Meena Kandasamy can share their version of resilience and acts of moving forward and on, for the sake of themselves and others like them, albeit never forgetting.

I finish with one more of the many quotes I highlighted from reading:

I remind myself of the fundamental notion of what it means to be a writer. A writer is the one who controls the narrative.

I have put myself in a dangerous situation with this marriage, but even in this complicated position, I’m finding plot points. This is the occupational hazard of being a writer-wife.

Further Reading:

Interview: Meena Kandasamy on Writing About Marital Violence

* Statistics on Domestic Violence in India

Buy a copy of this book via Book Depository

Love by Anita Moorjani & Angie DeMuro and a Poem by Derek Walcott

“Be your own best friend. Love yourself just as you are!”

is the message that Love: a story about who you truly are teaches children to embrace.

Anita Moorjani, author of Dying to Be Me and What If This is Heaven and illustrator Angie DeMuro have co created this book to help parents teach children how to love themselves, especially through the hard times, and to know and understand that this is something important and valuable for all of us to learn.

Within the beautifully written and illustrated pages of the book, children are taught how to have compassion and acceptance for themselves, and how to love themselves through many everyday situations. The happiness and confidence that can come from learning this ability is a gift that children, even grown-up ones, will carry with them their entire lives.

“You can’t love another unconditionally until you love yourself unconditionally, and when you truly do achieve that, you will never allow anyone to use you or abuse you.”

Anita Moorjani, What If This Is Heaven

At the end of the book is a Love Yourself Pledge, with a space to write the name of the person who has been given the book. Anita Moorjani believes her own childhood might have been changed had she had access to something like this.

Although I have not yet bought a copy for myself, this is a book that I’ve gifted, and one I recommend gifting to anyone who might have the opportunity to read to children and to impart positive messages of love and compassion in today’s increasingly stressful world.

I can’t think of any child that wouldn’t want to be exposed to something as reassuring and heartfelt as this, and it may just make a difference to some who needs to hear its message now, especially as we become more aware of the widespread silencing of victims of bullying and criticism, events or experiences that too often children are too afraid to share with parents.

It reminds me too of a wonderful Derek Walcott poem, which since today is Valentines Day, I share below for you, for not everyone can rely on another to express loving words or gestures on this day, but as Derek shares with us below, we have it in us to do that for ourselves.

So what loving thing are you doing for yourself today?

L O V E   A F T E R   L O V E

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

 Happy Valentine Everyone!

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor

Nuala O’Connor is the Irish author I discovered in 2014 thanks to the Irish Times Book Club.

You may remember last year, I read and reviewed her novel The Closet of Savage Mementos which she wrote under her Irish name Nuala Ní Chonchúir. That novel was about an Irish girl who left Dublin for a Scottish seaside town after the death of her boyfriend and to escape her mother’s dramas. In Scotland she encountered her own drama and was forced to make a life-changing decision.

Now, writing as Nuala O’Connor for US and UK  readers, she pens the story of another Irish woman, the feisty but hard-working Ada, who also leaves Dublin, destined to become housemaid to the Dickinson family. It is a fictional account of the friendship between the Irish maid and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Ada Concannon, the eldest of 7 children, possesses an energetic zest for life that was unappreciated by her previous employer; upon being demoted to scullery maid she decides to seek her fortune elsewhere, taking a passage on the boat to New England where her Aunt Mary, Uncle Michael and a couple of not too friendly cousins reside.

She lands on her feet with the job at the Dickinson household, a family of four with their spinster sisters Vinnie and Emily, neighbours to their gruff brother Austin and his wife Sue, whom Emily appears to (not very convincingly) pine for.

The Frugal HousewifeEmily is reluctant to leave the house, preferring words to company and attaches herself to Ada, the kitchen being one of her preferred refuges, thus friendship with the housemaid most important.

Her friendship with the maid flouts convention and is a kind of quiet rebellion within the home that the poet rarely steps out of.

“When I talk too much, everything I think and feel is wrung from me. I have nothing to write about when all is spent. It takes me so long to restore myself. It is as if I must heal a wound after each party where all is chitchat and glances and fun.”

Ada is adept in the kitchen, devoted to the family and the book The Frugal Housewife that Mrs Dickinson has lent her.

“Think of this as your second Bible,” she said.

Ada is charmed by the quiet and unassuming Daniel Byrne, her stay marred only by the creepy presence of the nephew of Daniel’s boss, Patrick Crohan.

Chapters alternate between Miss Emily’s and Ada’s perspective to reveal brief but eventful encounters in the kitchen and rooms of the Dickinson home, between Ada, Miss Emily and those around them.

Although Ada is outgoing and attractive, she still has something of the Irish reserve and tendency to silence when there is trouble. And trouble there will be. Ada and Emily must attempt to navigate the narrow space between their classes to deal with the trouble, without compromising their reputations.

Miss Emily is a lively, charming read, she brings her characters to life, especially the Irish and creates a world we can quickly imagine and inhabit. There is something comfortable and reassuring in her prose and novels that makes you want to abandon all else until the last page is turned. Just as she did with Savage Mementos, so too she achieves with Miss Emily. My only regret is that it all ends too soon, I’m still wondering about Ada and could easily follow after her into a sequel.

“For now I need the solace of words. Words bracket silence. That quiet gives propulsion to the words and all that they say. Words smoulder, they catch fire, they are volcanic eruptions, waiting to explode. I like to start small. With the fewest words I can manage. If the words run away, I trip them up and pull them back – they are elastic. If they do not cooperate, I obliterate them.”

Miss Emily audio

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