Sep 22, 2016

“This is the world I want to live in”: Poetry Links

Page with Mary Oliver poem Dogfish
The other day I asked my Twitter friends for poetry recommendations, and in the conversation that followed I was reminded of how much I appreciate being in touch with such knowledgeable, generous people. I love my online bookish circle: between you you’ve read everything, and you’re very good at coming up with suggestions that are perfect for my taste, interests and sensibility.

That conversation was a gift, so in return I wanted to share a collection of poems I love and which are available online. I’ve been reading more poetry this year, for no particular reason other than that I’ve been remembering to. The links that follow are to old favourites as well as to more recent discoveries, and the one thing they have in common is that they make me feel something.
Is there a poem that moves you that you could link to? Don’t feel that you have to, of course, but if you can think of anything I would be very grateful if you were to share it in the comments.

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Sep 18, 2016

Words that have been of use

Page from The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
The other day, while I was looking through my list of books I’ve read so far this year, I started thinking about how if there’s one thing I miss about reviewing, it’s how it made it so much easier to remember the details of what I read. I have no regrets about the amount or the kind of writing I’m doing these days — it’s what’s possible for me at this moment in time — but this still feels like a loss. I miss the act of delving deep into a book, and I miss what I discovered in the process. It’s not so much that writing down my thoughts helped cement them into memory — it’s more that without that exploratory act of writing, a lot of the time I never arrive at them in the first place. Still, this isn’t to say the way I read these days is shallow, or that I’m getting nothing out of my reading; it’s different than it’s been for the past decade, that’s all. I find myself returning to things more often than I used to, both in my mind and through the act of rereading. It takes me longer to feel done with a book, or a paragraph, or even just a particular sentence, and sometimes there’s value in that incompleteness, in the way it keeps tugging at my attention.

Today I wanted to write about words that have been of particular use to me this year, but part of me worries that by doing so, I’ll reduce them to snippets devoid of context, when really it was their context that made it possible for them to affect me the way they did. The ideas conveyed by these words are important to me, but there is, I hope, no facile moral to them. They’re things I keep going over, sometimes arguing with them, sometimes finding solace in where they take me, sometimes adding a “but”, sometimes an “and”. They’re words that keep me company, words that help me become. They’re one of the main reasons why I read.

In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit explores the act of writing, the process of organising the world and our lives into narratives. She describes the danger, shared by novelists and essayists alike, of “betraying the complexity of what came before” through a too-neat ending, “that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wider sea”. Still, she believes that writing can make it possible to communicate truths that are too long, too subtle and too nuanced to do justice to otherwise. This idea resonates with me (I think it’s what I’ve been trying to do all my life), and at the same time it makes me want to be cautious when writing about words I’ve found helpful without the full benefit of their context. The context is my own, as much as it is the texts’.

The other day I mentioned in a discussion that I favour the kind of writing that allows us to articulate ambiguity and then inhabit it. I like writing that makes room for loose ends; writing that, in Leslie Jamison’s excellent articulation, “allow[s] the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged”. I find value in the tentative conclusion we reached together at Liz’s blog: that narrative has limitations we may never fully countervail, but there’s still something of worth in the attempt, especially when the alternative may well be cognitive chaos. There’s something of that in The Faraway Nearby, something I keep coming back to.

This brings me to what is, to me, a parallel idea: it’s one that Maggie Nelson develops in The Art of Cruelty, whose opening section is titled “Styles of Imprisonment”. I’m no stranger to the particular anguish of feeling trapped between two propositions, none of which seem to do full justice to my thoughts, my feelings, or the reality of my life. I’ve experienced this in reading, in politics, in everyday existence, and every time I felt crushed by it, or boxed in, or forced to betray a complexity I feel in my bones. Nelson calls this the pressure to “choose between binary oppositions that are not of one’s making, and for which one has no appetite”, but she reminds us that resistance is possible. It brings me such intense relief, this idea: to think that I can take my time to be still, to exist between extremes; that I get to reclaim “it’s complicated” not as an evasion, but as a place in which to live — that it’s possible to, as Nelson says (in an evocation of Barthes): “live according to nuance”. I come back to this a lot when I feel the pull of imprisonment, which is not always external but sometimes of my own making.

So far there’s been a logical thread uniting all these thoughts; the last two items on my notes depart from that, and I want to shy away from them both for that reason and because they’re a little rawer. To go back to Rebecca Solnit, I’ve been dwelling a lot on the following paragraph, from A Field Guide to Getting Lost:
We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed?
There’s a whole post in here waiting for me to be ready to write it, probably; I’m not done with this idea, not by any stretch of the imagination, and I can only get at it obliquely even now. Still, I suppose that’s a start. Much of this past year has been about learning to withstand need (social, political, interpersonal) without feeling diminished by it. It’s also been about rejecting the patriarchal notion that incompleteness or dependency weaken us, and exploring its full ramifications in private and public life (there’s a reason why Upheavals of Thought is the most useful book I read this year). I’m now able to say that I want to be more of the world, in many senses, and not be undone by this desire or the act of articulating it (Maggie Nelson again: “the fraught apprehension of our dependency (…), the radical undone-ness that can attend both loss and communion”). In my moments of greatest impatience with the confines of my life and the weight of unsatisfied need, I find a certain degree of relief in at least sitting with this feeling without shame, and with as little fear as is possible for me. It’s a work in progress, but once again I find that there’s value in the attempt.

(Also of use: to think of personal and political despair as a form of impatience, an idea I can trace to both Hope in the Dark and Fans of the Impossible Life — not because it was new to me when I read them, but because both works articulate it in a way that made it hit me anew. This doesn’t mean I berate myself for feeling despair — impatience is only human, after all, and there’s plenty to be impatient about at the best of times — but it does sometimes allow me to step away from the feeling when I need to the most.)

Lastly, I wanted to write about some lines from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Splittings”: “I believe I am choosing something new / not to suffer uselessly / yet still to feel”. This is an idea Rich returns to several times throughout the poem, saying in a later stanza, “I refuse these givens the splitting / between love and action I am choosing / not to suffer uselessly and not use her / I choose to love this time for once / with all my intelligence”. There are “buts” here as well as “ands”, mostly to do with the circumstances in which we are or are not able to choose to turn away from suffering; the extent to which relief can be an act of will; the times when it applies and the times when it causes us greater harm to think that it might.

Still, these lines have been like a mantra to me these past few months — a mantra about accepting help, whatever shape it might take in each particular life; a mantra about hope; a rejection of inevitability. I like Rich’s use of the word “uselessly”, as opposed to “needlessly”. It seems to me gentler, devoid of blame or reproach; and it seems to hint at the kind of suffering that exhausts you because you’ve gone over it so often in your mind. There’s no lesson in the act of overcoming it, no facile insight — there’s only repetitive toil, which sometimes seems too daunting to go through again. This is why there’s such immense relief in thinking it’s possible to move past this suffering “yet still to feel” — without numbing, without loss, without rejecting love or human need, but with hope and openness instead. Regardless of whether or not I manage to make them true, these words have been a beacon.

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Sep 11, 2016

Sunday Links, Mostly

Book pile: Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful by Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens by Alice Walker, Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison, The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde
I wanted to check in this Sunday, even though I don’t have a whole lot to say that is of any real substance. I’ve been reading, slowly but excitedly, probably too many books at once. Last week Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby floored me; now I’m reading Jo Walton’s Necessity, and keep accidentally starting new non-fiction titles alongside it. I’m also reading Karen Brodine’s poetry collection Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking, about which I suspect I’ll have a lot more to say. Other than that, I’m mostly still thinking about this summer and all that it signified, and enjoying the last of the warm, golden evenings with stops at the park after work. My life has changed a lot in the past year or so; I want to make sense of it through books and then perhaps write about it, but it’s been a slow process.

Yesterday a friend and I went to a used bookshop I’d only been to once before, right after I moved here four years ago. It’s slightly out of the way from where I live and work, so I never happen to just wander past, and somehow I never made the effort to stop by again. I walked out with what just might be the greatest pile of used bookshop finds in my life, which leaves me wondering if visiting more often would be a terrible or an excellent idea. In all seriousness, I’m so excited that I found all these books. Then I came home and spotted a black squirrel in my garden as I was cooking dinner. It was a good day.

Things I’ve been reading:

  • Like so much of the rest of the world, I’ve been obsessed with Blonde these past few weeks. This NPR discussion has some interesting bits about how the album grapples with hegemonic masculinity.

  • V for Volunteer — a dystopian reality. No surprises here, but it’s still dire reading.

  • Dawn Foster’s piece on zero-hours contracts is not new, but it’s still a good antidote to all the rhetoric of context-free “choice” I keep seeing floating around.

  • Sandra Gilbert writes about Adrienne Rich for The American Scholar.

  • Laurie Penny on work:
    Our cultural insistence that paid work is the surest route to well-being and dignity has little basis in fact. For many millions of people, the modern workplace is a blunt insult to both body and soul, but we are invited by our bosses and leaders to agree that exhaustion is a sign of weakness and that despair is a mark of moral deficiency. It should not take a spate of suicides for us to begin to question that logic.
    Mine is fortunately a healthy work environment, for the most part, but still: yes.

  • I really enjoy Briallen Hopper’s writing, and can’t wait for her forthcoming essay collection. Here’s what she wrote about Girls on Fire.

  • This moved me: What Remains: Remembering Michelle Cliff, Beth Brant, and Stephania Byrd by Julie R. Enszer.

    More words soon, I hope.

    Sunset in the park
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    Sep 7, 2016

    Kindred Spirits

    Kindred Spirits by Rainbow Rowell
    Last week I read Kindred Spirits, a story by Rainbow Rowell that was published in the UK for this year’s World Book Day as a little booklet. It’s about Elena, an 18-year-old Star Wars fan who decides to camp out for the premiere of The Force Awakens. For the uninitiated, this means sleeping on the pavement outside the theatre for a few days ahead of the movie’s opening night — not because you need to in order to secure tickets or anything of the sort, but because it’s a unique chance to celebrate the thing you love and the joy it brings you alongside other people who are equally committed. For Elena, Star Wars is most definitely the thing: the thing you love so much it’s come to represent the inside of your heart; the thing that’s so deep in you it can be hard to talk about. Unless, of course, you’re surrounded by your people — people who might love whatever it is that you love in entirely different ways and for completely different reasons, but who nonetheless treat its importance in your life with the reverence it merits. There’s no room for shame or feigned indifference in the queue. Not in theory, anyway.

    Kindred Spirits is a lovely and thoughtful look at what fandom means: at everything that’s involved in the process of loving the same things as other people; at what this sort of shared experience says about us and what it doesn’t; at having our identity shaped by communion and separation both. Also, it’s not a facile or rose-tainted story. Elena eventually makes a friend in the queue, but this happens after long, lonely and awkward hours of fear and uncertainty. The moments of human connection, when they eventually arrive, feel earned and significant in their own right. Here are two that made me smile from ear to ear:
    Elena bounced up and down, pointing from side to side.
    “What’s that?” Gabe asked.
    “It’s my Star Wars dance,” she said, bouncing and pointing.
    After a few seconds, he joined her. Then Troy’s friends picked it up. The dance travelled down the line. From the street, they must have looked like the Peanuts characters dancing.

    “Gabe?” she said.
    “What?”
    “I can’t sleep.”
    “Why not?”
    “Star Wars!”
    The second of these exchanges is so much like a memory I have from this summer that it nearly made my heart burst. I’ve just come to the end of an extraordinary year in what I guess I could call my main fandom. It was a year full of opportunities for this sort of shared experience, and as such the subject matter of Kindred Spirits has been very much on my mind. I remember hugging strangers in various cities across the world; I remember sharing neon make-up and tape with a group of people I’d only just met, and laughing as we watched the late afternoon light shine on Colorado’s strange rock formation; I remember how watching one another be excited magnified our own joy and excitement, and how at the end we hugged and exchanged thank yous for making the day even better. I remember the joy of spontaneously jumping up and down while holding hands with a new friend; I remember helping a lovely, quiet, shy teenage girl attract the attention of a member of her favourite band so she could give her a present, because I recognise the impulse and the feeling even in situations where I don’t share it. I remember sitting outside with Clare on a sunny Sunday morning in New York, still achy and exhausted and delirious with joy from the day before, listening as she told me about a perfect moment of communion with a fellow Saturday Night Live fan, and telling her in response to her story, “I live for this shit”.

    And it’s true; I do. It’s interesting, though, to think about how my understanding of this sort of experience has changed over the years, and how the internal narrative that accompanies it shape the experience in its turn. I remember being a teenager, posting in the music message board where I met my partner and made several lifelong friends: we were misfits, for the most part, though if you were to ask us to explain what that meant for each of us there would be worlds of difference in the specifics. Still, at the time we all daydreamed — and wrote pages-long threads — about moving to an island where we were the only inhabitants. It was a dream about belonging, of course: we harboured the hope that if only we were among the right people, then human connection would happen naturally, without fear or strife.

    There’s something to that idea, if only in the sense that it’s important to find people who are safe, who are kind, who you can love truthfully, with openness and with trust, and who will love you in return. But finding them is far more complicated than just surrounding yourself with people who also love the thing you love. Time made it abundantly clear that you won’t always get along with such people, or even necessarily share a sensibility or an outlook. Sometimes you will, of course, and that’s a wonderful thing. But when I say, today, that I live for these moments of shared connection, what I mean is less about finding kindred spirits and more about appreciating those exchanges in themselves, even if they’re limited in time and in emotional scope. There’s value in human connections that are transient, that don’t necessary take the shape you imagine or expect. There’s value in communion, in reminders of our shared humanity, in not standing apart. What I feel during those moments reminds me of, as Virginia Woolf puts it in Three Guineas, “the capacity of the human spirit to overflow boundaries and make unity out of multiplicity”. It’s also to do with what I wrote about earlier this year: with moving past exceptionalism and finding enormous and unexpected comfort on the other side. It’s important to me.

    This summer I saw Kathleen Hanna live, more or less by accident: I was not aware of her latest project The Julie Ruin, but I happened to be camped in front of the stage where she was playing at a festival in New York. I was thrilled to see her — I was too young to be aware of Riot Grrrl when it was happening, but I’ve come to be invested in everything it represents. Anyway, she had the best stage banter, unsurprisingly. At one point she started telling us about how she resents the constant state of suspicion that is forced upon her as a woman in our world. She talked about how she wants to be able to be open and trusting, without having that be taken away from her by power differentials and the way these are exploited. And then she told us that the trust she felt at that moment, standing in front of this crowd of people in that particular space and time, is what she wishes were the norm in our world.

    I am aware that this is shorthand in a sense, because it’s not like bad things don’t happen at music festivals, even within crowds of people who all love the same music by a renowned feminist activist. Still, I know the feeling behind that statement, and it’s something I wish I could experience more often too. Even just getting to feel it from time to time sustains me. It’s the opposite of fear, being enveloped in such goodwill. It’s the opposite of the deep sense of suspicion and isolation I felt in the days and weeks that followed the Brexit vote. It’s the “oneness of feeling with others” I was talking about recently. It means something. It means a lot. It’s how I want to be in the world.

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    Aug 31, 2016

    Bookshelf Nerdery, or: in which I put far too much thought into shelf arrangement

    White bookcase with Supergirl Pop figurine on top
    Friends! I have a new bookshef, and I’m disproportionally excited about it. The last time I had new shelves to fill was when I moved into my current house, nearly four years ago. Part of the appeal of this flat was the fact that it had embedded wall shelves in the living room, which promised to give me all the space I’d need for a long time to come. I’m sure it won’t come as a shock if I tell you that it took me far less time than expected to fill them up, though.

    Since then I’ve been trying to see the fact that I’d nearly run out of shelf space as a positive, since it really makes me think twice before I bring more books into the house. What eventually began to really bother me, though, were not the piles of books that started gathering on the floor — it was the fact that no shelf space meant that there was no rhyme or reason to how I was arranging my books. The piles were mostly made out of books I got at around the same time, and any attempts at thematic arrangement I had going went down the drain.

    The most exciting thing about this new bookshelf, then, is that it gave me an excuse to start over. I knew it was going in the living room, where I spend most of my time when I’m at home; the vast majority of my books are in the spare room, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to move books that make me happy to where I can see them all the time. So I moved all my signed books and/or nice editions by favourite authors to the top shelf:

    Top shelve up close: signed books by Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Margo Lanagan, Kate DeGoldi, Patrick Ness, John Green, Jeffrey Eugenides, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Frances Hardinge and Holly Black
    (Kara is looking a little lonely. I might have to get her a friend before too long.)

    The middle shelf has non-fiction that’s really important to me, plus a few books I haven’t read yet but think I’ll love when I get to them (this includes recent acquisitions by Maggie Nelson, Adrienne Rich, Rebecca Solnit and Eula Biss). Lastly, the bottom shelf is for the most part a TBR shelf — these are mostly books I’d like to get to in the near future, and I thought that perhaps keeping them in sight would make this more likely.

    Middle shelf: Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Maggie Nelson, Rebecca Solnit, Eula Biss, Adrienne Rich, Leslie Jamison, Cheryl Strayed, Tillie Olsen, Cordelia Fine, Hanne Blank, Laurie Penny, Howard Zinn, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Sayers
    Finally, all the space I freed up elsewhere allowed me to rearrange those embedded wall shelves. I can’t really do an Ideal Bookshelf for fiction in the same way I did for non-fiction because so many of my copies of life-defining books are still stored at my parents’ (this is the problem with the international moves, and also with an economy that makes it impossible to know whether you’ll stay somewhere long-term). Still, I wanted to see books that make me happy and that matter to me when I look up from my computer, so this is what I ended up with:

    Shelf with books by Diana Wynne Jones, Frances Hardinge, Franny Billingsley, Margo Lanagan, Shannon Hale, Maggie Stiefvater, Rainbow Rowell

    Continuation: Terry Pratchett, Patrick Ness, Erin Bow, Rebecca Stead, Emily St John Mandel, Kate Scelsa, Rita Williams-Garcia, E. Lockhart, Sarah McCarry
    This exercise also made me think that I really need to get around to investing in copies of favourite books I don’t own. Can you believe there’s not a single Kristin Cashore in my house?

    How do you arrange your home library? Do you shelve by theme, author, size, colour, or none of the above?

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