“The clever men at Oxford/Know all that there is to be knowed./But they none of them know one half as much/As intelligent Mr. Toad!” (Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows)

I’m in Oxford at the moment, a city I love.  I thought I would look this week at novels set in Oxford, and although there are lots to choose from (I guess lots of writers chose to evoke their alma mater) I’ve picked two crime novels, as Oxford seems to encourage this type of story.  I’m not sure why this occurs, but maybe it’s because it’s seen as such a respectable institution and it’s fun to think of a seething mass of violence and intrigue below the calm façade.  Here’s a picture of Oxford’s most famous fictional detective, to compensate for the fact that I’m not looking at any Colin Dexter novels:

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Image from (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1101952/So-did-Morse-lie-love-In-final-seasonal-serial-young-Morses-secret-admirer-reveals-identity–learn-truth-mysterious-car-crash.html)

Firstly, The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin.  This was the first in a series of novels featuring the sleuthing Oxford don Gervase Fen, and is from the Golden Age of Detective fiction, written in 1944.  The opening paragraph struck a chord with me:

“To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.  And travellers in general are divided into these two classes; the first apologetically haul down their luggage from the racks on to the seats, where it remains until the end of the journey, an encumbrance and a mass of sharp, unexpected edges; the second continue to stare gloomily out of the window at the woods and fields into which, by some witless godling, the station has been inexplicably dumped”

Well, the woods and fields may be much less evident, but otherwise… seventy years on and nothing changes.  Travelling on this train are Gervase Fen, his friend Sir Richard Freeman who is Chief Constable of Oxfordshire and wishes he was a don (while Fen wishes he was police officer) and various members of a drama group, who will return to London with their numbers somewhat diminished. Fen is a likeable, eccentric don, whose “normal overplus of energy …led him to undertake all manner of commitments and then gloomily to complain that he was overburdened with work and that nobody seemed to care”; he distracts himself on the train by wishing for “’A crime! …A really splendidly complicated crime!’ And he began to invent imaginary crimes and solve them with unbelievable rapidity.”

The first murder, of uber-bitch Yseult Haskell, takes place in a room in college close to Fen’s office, and so much to his delight he is distracted from his work on minor eighteenth-century satirists to investigate:

“His usually slightly fantastic naivety had completely disappeared, and its place was taken by a rather formidable , ice-cold concentration. Sir Richard, who knew the signs, looked up from his conference with the Inspector and sighed.  At the opening of the investigation, the mood was invariable, as always when Fen was concentrating particularly hard; when he was not interested in what was going on, he relapsed into a particularly irritating form of boisterous gaiety; when he had discovered anything of importance he quickly became melancholy […] and when an investigation was finally concluded, he became sunk in such a state of profound gloom it was days before he could be aroused from it.  Moreover these perverse and chameleon-like habits tended not unnaturally to get on people’s nerves.”

I’m not going to say too much about the plot as its nearly impossible not to give spoilers.  But if you think the eccentric Fen is someone you’d like to spend time with do look at The Case of the Gilded Fly.  I loved the dry, yet gentle humour in the writing, and it was a well-paced, easy read.  My favourite character however, was one of the minor players; unlike a lot of detectives, Fen does not have a complicated romantic life filled with encounters with unsuitable lovers, but is married to the brilliantly indulgent Mrs Fen:

“After she had greeted the Inspector with a slow, pleasant smile, Fen seized up the gun and handed it to her, saying:

‘Dolly, would you mind committing suicide for a moment?’

‘Certainly,’ Mrs Fen remained unperturbed at this alarming request, and took the gun in her right hand, with her forefinger on the trigger; then she pointed it at her right temple.

‘There!’ said Fen triumphantly.

‘Shall I pull the trigger?’ asked Mrs Fen.

‘By all means,’ he said absently, but Sir Richard surged up from his chair crying hoarsely: ‘Don’t! It’s loaded!’ and snatched the gun away from her.  She smiled at him. ‘Thank you, Sir Richard,” she said benignly, ‘but Gervase is hopelessly forgetful, and I shouldn’t have dreamed of doing such a thing.  Is that all I can do for you gentlemen?’”

What a woman. Next, a much more recent tale (2005) whose title tells you exactly what to expect: The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez (trans. Sonia Soto). The novel is narrated by a postgraduate mathematics student, who shortly after arriving in England finds his landlady murdered, discovering the body at the same time as his hero, Professor Arthur Seldom “a rare case of mathematical genius”. The Professor is there because he received a note telling him that something would happen “the first of the series” followed with a mathematical symbol, a circle.  As more people die, Seldom continues to receive notes ending with symbols, and believes the murderer is taunting him specifically as he wrote a book on mathematics where he argues that “except in crime novels and films, the logic behind serial murders…is generally very rudimentary…the patterns are very crude, typified by monotony, repetition, and the overwhelming majority are based on some traumatic experience or childhood fixation”. Some serial killers may take that as a challenge…

The two start working together, using their academic approaches to try and decipher the logic of the murders.  There’s a lot of maths talk, but it’s not overwhelming even for someone like me whose dealings with numbers is limited entirely to their monthly budget.  The combination works well and doesn’t feel forced:

“There is a theoretical parallel between mathematics and criminology; as Inspector Petersen said, we both make conjectures.  But when you set out a hypothesis about the real world, you inevitably introduce an irreversible element of action, which always has consequences.”

Can they make their hypotheses apply in the real world and solve the symbolic series in time to prevent more murders?  What do the symbols really represent?  The Oxford Murders is a short novel and not particularly complex despite the setting in elite mathematics; it’s well written but if you’re a crime aficionado you may find it a bit too straightforward.

The Oxford Murders was made into a film a few years back; from this trailer I would say it’s a fairly faithful adaptation:

Here’s my attempt at a vaguely mathematical end: from the shaded area of a Venn diagram of Oxford and books, here is a picture of one of the most beautiful libraries you’ll ever see – the Radcliffe Camera in central Oxford.  The picture’s wonky because it was blowing a gale and I was up the top of the tower of St Mary the Virgin, where the wind was so strong I thought I, or at the very least my phone, was about to get whipped off the viewing balcony into the square below.  Thankfully we both made it back intact.

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“Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name./Those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame.” (Robert Burns)

Saturday is Burn’s Night, in honour of Scotland’s favourite son, Robert Burns (1759-1796).  I’m posting today however, because tonight I am going to a Burn’s Night supper.  This will consist of Arbroath smokies, followed by haggis, tatties and neeps, followed by clootie dumpling, followed by an argument as to whether I’m going to dance at the ceilidh.   Although I have two left feet I quite enjoy a dance, but my suggestion that we do it before a three course stodge-fest has been met with derision.  Needless to say, I think I’ll be lying down in a corner while the more hardy among my number whizz around in Celtic fashion. To celebrate I’ve chosen a novel written in Scottish vernacular, and a poem by a Scottish writer. I like them both so I hope Burns won’t find me to be one of the “cutthroat bandits” he refers to with such derision. Slainte Mhath!

Firstly, Buddha Da by Anne Donovan (2002).  This was Anne Donovan’s first novel, and it is a confident and accomplished debut.  It tells the story of Jimmy, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, who becomes interested in Buddhism.  His desire to put his newly-discovered beliefs into the practice of his daily life cause strain in his relationships with his wife Liz and daughter Anne-Marie, and all three lend their voices to individual chapters to tell the story.

Jimmy learning to meditate: “It was as if ah’d never felt ma body afore; felt the tightness in ma airms and legs, the openness of ma chest, the wee niggles that ran aboot inside me that usually I never even think aboot. Then as ma breathin slowed doon and ah sterted tae feel mair relaxed he took me through each person in turn.  That was the really hard bit because as each feelin came up he tellt me no tae judge it.  Wi Anne Marie ah just felt ashamed that ah’d let her doon […] Then Liz. That was haurd too cos ah love her – always have – but somehow ah cannae get her tae unnerstaund how this is that important tae me. There’s a gap openin up between us. Ah can feel it and ah’m scared.”

The relationships do start to break down, but Donovan is very even-handed and you don’t apportion blame, you can just see how it’s happening as people grow apart.  The first person narrative from all three characters means you can empathise with them all.  Liz doesn’t always behave in the best way, but I still felt sympathy for her as she struggles to make the life she wants:

“It was five o’clock in the morning but ah didnae want tae go back to sleep in case the dream started again.  It wasnae the most frightenin dream ah’d ever had but it was confusin.  Usually if ah have a dream it’s dead obvious what it means, but this.  Ah leaned back on the pillows, shut ma eyes and the feelin came back tae me; the cauld of the water beneath ma feet, the panic as ah started tae sink and the relief as ah sprung up oot the water, the green castin an eerie light all round the sky and this dark, shadowy figure waitin for me on a rock on the other side.”

And between them both, their daughter Anne Marie.  After she plays her parents a song she’s made with her friend:

“And ah was dead chuffed that they liked it but efterwards, sittin in ma room, ah kept feelin that there was sumpn missin. As if they hadnae really got it. And ah really wanted them, no just tae like it, but tae unnerstaund it.  And ah didnae think they did.”

And that really is the crux of Buddha Da.  It’s about how the people we love may not always be the ones who really understand us.  It’s about the gaps that exist even in our closest relationships.  Donovan writes with real affection for the characters, and so these themes aren’t depressing.  It’s a warm novel about living with imperfections and muddling through together. If you’re interested in Scottish vernacular novels, two famous examples you may want to try are Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, and How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman.

Secondly, a poem by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who was born in Glasgow.    I love Duffy’s writing, and she’s managed the rather astonishing feat of writing decent poems within her remit of commemorating national events. Warming Her Pearls (from Selling Manhattan (1987)) was written long before she took office, and is one of her more famous verses.  However, I still went ahead and chose it rather than something more obscure, as I do think it’s brilliant.  You can read the full poem here.  It is spoken in the voice of a maidservant to a rich society woman:

“Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress

bids me wear them, warm them, until evening

when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them

round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her”

This to me is a good example of Duffy’s writing: accessible, simple language to convey an unconventional literary voice, in this case, a maid’s erotic love for her mistress.  The power dynamic of the relationship with its “bidding” and the rope of pearls adds a slightly BDSM element, and Duffy plays with the idea of power throughout the poem.  The maid is emboldened by her desire outside of social class, rather than cowed by it.  I love the following image:

“[I] picture her dancing

with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent

beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.”

The insidious nature of the maid infiltrating her mistress’ life through her body odour is so clever, slyly humorous and evocative; the idea of bodies betraying themselves is carried on in the next stanza: the soft blush seep through her skin/like an indolent sigh.   The tenderness with which the maid approaches her mistress, a reflection of her feelings, is wonderfully evoked through this beautiful language.  Warming Her Pearls is as delicate and subtle as the situation it portrays.

Finally, a little bonus, another poem by Carol Ann Duffy, this is from The World’s Wife, where she imagines the stories of the wives of famous men.  ‘Mrs Darwin’ is one of the shortest, so here it is in its entirety:

7 April 1852.

Went to the Zoo.

I said to Him –

Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

I could end with a picture of the books, but I doubt Burns would approve of such a prosaic choice.  Instead, here’s one of the most Scottish things you’ll ever see:

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(Image from http://www.sattlers.org/mickey/culture/clothing/kilts/hallOfFame.html)

“By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” (Robert Frost)

Oh, the joys of mid-January.  The seemingly never-ending greyness of it all.  The lights of Christmas and resolutions of New Year have long faded and you’re back at work.  Work: the daily commute wedged into someone’s armpit, steam rising off everyone’s drizzle-soaked clothes; arriving at your office to realise the barbarian you share a kitchen with has stolen your favourite coffee mug and still hasn’t eaten the unidentifiable gelatinous foodstuff they brought in from home 3 weeks ago; faux-friendly emails from your work-shy boss asking you for fourteen completed reports before the end of the day, signed off with an inappropriate and frankly borderline-sarcastic emoticon. If this is your experience take comfort from the fact that you are far from alone.  This week I’m looking at novels that deal with the daily grind of our work lives.

Firstly, Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971). Bukowski is one of the best-known beat generation authors, and Post Office was his first novel.  It’s a short work (160 pages in my edition) and details the insanity of working for the titular organisation with its impossible targets and low pay. Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s alter-ego) suffers at the hands of his bullying supervisors, indifferent colleagues and the unpredictable public.  His hard-living ways do not anaesthetise the situation:

“Each route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them.  Each day it was another god damned thing, and you were ready for a rape, murder, dogs, or insanity of some sort.  The regulars wouldn’t tell you their little secrets.  That was the only advantage they had – except knowing their case by heart.  It was gung ho for a new man, especially one who drank all night, went to bed at 2am, rose at 4.30am after screwing and singing all night long, and, almost, getting away with it.

One day I was out on the street and the route was going well, though it was a new one, and I thought, Jesus Christ, maybe for the first time in two years I’ll be able to eat lunch.”

Needless to say, he doesn’t get lunch.  Bukowski is great at describing the tedium of a job that holds no meaning (for him, my particular postie has been doing the job for 30 years this year and tells me he loves it for the most part), and the seediness of the life he lives and those who surround him.  But he tempers the tale with humour which stops the portrait being too relentlessly bleak:

“I picked my cap up out of the street, put it on my head.  Put the sack back onto the left side of my spine, started out again. 100 degrees.

I walked past one house and a woman ran out after me.

‘Mailman! Mailman!  Don’t you have a letter for me?’

‘Lady, if I didn’t put one in your box, that means you don’t have any mail.’

‘But I know you have a letter for me!’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Because my sister phoned and said she was going to write me.’

‘Lady, I don’t have a letter for you.’

‘I know you have! I know you have! I know it’s there!’

She started to reach for a handful of letters.

‘DON’T TOUCH THE UNITED STATES MAILS, LADY!  THERE’S NOTHING THERE FOR YOU TODAY!’

I turned and walked off.

“I KNOW YOU HAVE MY LETTER!”

Another woman stood on her porch.

‘You’re late today.’

‘Yes, mam.’

‘Where’s my regular man today?’

‘He’s dying of cancer.’

‘Dying of cancer? Harold is dying of cancer?’

‘That’s right,’ I said.

I handed her mail to her.

‘BILLS!BILLS! BILLS!’ she screamed. ‘IS THAT ALL YOU CAN BRING ME? THESE BILLS?’

‘Yes, mam, that’s all I can bring you.’

I turned and walked on.”

Post Office is unrelenting in the cynical gaze it casts over tragi-comedy of the working day.  If you’re sick of your job, this is the novel for you.

Secondly, Year of the King by Antony Sher.  I’m going a bit off-piste here because this is a diary and not fiction, but Jeanette Winterson says there’s no such thing as autobiography, only art and lies, so I think this allows for admission into a blog about fiction.  (Confession: when I first thought of this blog post I was going to write about Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris as the second book, but I started it 3 weeks ago and I’m only 100 pages in.  It had cracking reviews so I’m surprised I’m not getting on with it.  If you’ve read it can you tell me, should I persevere or give up?) So, I chose Year of the King for this theme as it details a year in a working life, in this case one of the finest actors of his generation as he grapples with the eponymous role in Richard III.  If you love your work but worry constantly that you’re not good enough, this is the book for you.  It’s so reassuring to read how this incredible actor feels he struggles with the language of Shakespeare, and messes up his first reading in front of the rest of the cast.  Having admired so many of his accomplished performances, I found myself thinking really? Well, if Antony Sher struggles maybe I’m not doing so badly after all…

“‘Just read it,’ says Bill grinning.

‘ “Now is the winter of our discontent…”’

I read badly, rather monotonously or else I over-stress.  Mercifully Bill stops me after about ten lines and starts to pick at words and discuss meanings.

We have begun.”

Sher is a great writer (it’s something he’s done more and more of) and his style is easy to read yet vivid.

“Bill suggests running the scene ‘trying to be more bestial’.  The result is a disaster.  Behaviour not from the animal world but the world of pantomime.  Cackling laughter, food being thrown around, sinewy ‘wicked’ acting. Although I’m participating and probably responsible for some of the worst excesses, I can hardly bear to watch the others.  Have to bury my head on the crutches for much of the scene.”

Ah yes, the crutches.  If you don’t know, Sher performed the “bottled spider” role in crutches.  What’s so interesting is amongst all the self-doubt and creative process, are vacillations over the use of the crutches, which for the reader 30 years on is a source of amusement.  The play went down a storm, Sher’s performance was showered with praise, and the crutches became stuff of theatrical legend:

The book holds all the things you would expect in an actor’s diary: taking us though the research process, details of the politics of rehearsal, fond (and discreet) portraits of his fellow actors and theatre professionals (Michael Gambon in particular seems a large, hilarious personality).  But Sher offers much more, such as beautiful images of the surrounding environment:

“An oil slick on the river today, from the long weekend’s abuse.  In the morning sunshine it’s as if a rainbow has fallen in the water and is being gently rubbed against the bank, washed and cleaned until its transparent again.”

The diary is also filled with his brilliant drawings, such as this one of Olivier, whose filmed performance of Richard casts a long shadow:

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Year of the King has a lot to offer the great variety of readers (little – very little – joke there for any Shakespeare fans): if you’re interested in the acting process, in approaches to Shakespeare, in the realities of theatrical production, or in Antony Sher himself, you’ll find Year of the King a rewarding read.

To end, here is a clip to bring some joy & colour into these grey January days spent in dreary magnolia offices:

“The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader.” (Paulo Coelho)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the film version of a book is never as good as the original text.  Except I don’t think that’s true.  This week I’m going to look at two books where I think the film was better, but the novels are still worth reading.  Slightly odd tack for a book blog to take, and I may end up regretting this, but let’s crash ever onwards!

Firstly, The Commitments by Roddy Doyle (1987).  Here’s the trailer for the 1991 film, with a brilliant script by the author, in collaboration with the long-term writing partnership of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.

The Commitments is Roddy Doyle’s first novel, detailing how a group of white, working class Dubliners set up a soul band together.  I think in this novel Doyle is really learning his craft, and his writing gets progressively stronger as he goes along.  The Commitments is a far from terrible book, but it’s a bit slight, and filled with so much dialogue it reads more like a script than a novel for much of it.  Still, if you’re going to have a novel filled with dialogue it may as well be written by Roddy Doyle, who has a great ear for how people speak and seems to take real joy in capturing it on the page:

“-Grow a pair o’ tits, pal, an’ then yeh can sing with them, said Billy.

– Are you startin’ somethin’?

-Don’t annoy me.

– Here! Said Jimmy. –None o’ tha’.

The time was right for a bit of laying down the law.

-No rows or scraps, righ’.

-Well said, Jim.

– An’ annyway, said Jimmy. –The girls are the best lookin’ part o’ the group.

– Dirty bastard, said Natalie.

-Thanks very much, Jimmy, said Imelda.

-No sweat ‘melda, said Jimmy.

-What’ll we sing? Bernie asked Joey The Lips.

-You know Walking in the Rain?

-Lovely.

– I WANT HIM, Imelda sang.

– It doesn’t exactly have a strong feminist lyric, does it? said James.

– Soul isn’t words, Brother, said Joey The Lips. – Soul is feeling. Soul is getting out of yourself.”

You can see that this is writing really stripped back: minimal punctuation, not always clear who is speaking.  The style suits the tale of a bunch of people with very little creating music with only their voices and few instruments.  It makes The Commitments a quick read, and the characters are evoked with warmth through minimal authorial intervention. By writing in such a sparse way, Doyle allows the characters to speak for themselves. At other times he uses scant detail, rarely embellished with imagery, to portray the lives of the band:

“’Joey The Lips got one of his dress suits dry-cleaned. Dean crawled in under his bed and found the one he’d flung under there. He soaked the jacket till the muck was nearly all gone. Then he brought it down to the cleaners.

Black shoes were polished or bought or borrowed.”

The Commitments is a well-observed story, evocative and humorous. However, a novel about music will always have much to gain from being filmed; hearing the talented cast of the film give their voice to soul classics brings the characters into being in a way that is nearly impossible in print.

Secondly, The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973).  Here’s the trailer for the 1987 film adaptation, screenplay by the author:

One of my favourite films from childhood that I still love to watch today – a definite winner on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  Again, it’s not that the book is bad (the film is scripted by Goldman after all so you wouldn’t expect a great deal of difference) but the film is better.  It takes all the best bits of the book and distils them into a fast-paced, funny narrative; the book can be a bit flabby at times by comparison.  The film also offers some of the best cameos ever: Billy Crystal as Miracle Max, Mel Smith as the albino torturer, comic genius Peter Cook as the Impressive Clergyman, as well as a perfectly cast set of main characters.  But if you like the film, you’ll like the book.  The same dry, silly humour runs through it, and who wouldn’t love a tale of: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”

The tale is one of Princess Buttercup, who falls in love with the stable boy Westley.  He goes off to seek his fortune, and is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who famously leaves no survivors.  Believing her One True Love to be dead, Buttercup agrees to marry the hunting-obsessed Prince Humperdink.  Before they can marry she is kidnapped by a gang comprising the cunning Vizzini (“never start a land war in Asia, [… and] never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line”), the giant Fezzik , and genius-swordsman-with-a-vendetta Montoya (“my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”) They are followed by the mysterious Man in Black, who seeks to foil their plans… Will goodness triumph? Will true love conquer all? Yes, of course, to both.  This is a lovely escapist fantasy, but at the same time it is a  satire on established rule and its abuses, which gives the story a more serious dimension. Prince Humperdink has arranged the kidnap of Buttercup in order to blame a neighbouring country and start a war.  (Fill in your own contemporary analogy here.)  He tells his henchmen to seek the “villains” in the thieves quarter:

““My men are not always too happy at the thought of entering the Thieves Quarter.  Many of the thieves resist change.”

“Root them out. Form a brute squad.  But get it done.”

“It takes at least a week to get a decent brute squad going,” Yellin said. “But that is time enough.

[…]

The conquest of the Thieves Quarter began immediately.  Yellin worked long and hard each day […] Most of the criminals had been through illegal roundups before, so they offered little resistance.””

Goldman is also able to extend his humour in the novel towards the processes around writing, which he couldn’t do in the film; for example his editor querying his translation of the “original” story by S. Morgenstern:

“this chapter is totally intact. My intrusion here is because of the way Morgenstern uses parentheses.  The copy editor at Harcourt kept filling the margins of the galley proofs with questions: […] “I am going crazy. What am I to make of these parentheses? When does this book take place? I don’t understand anything. Hellllppppp!!!” Denise, the copy editor, has done all my books since Boys and Girls and she had never been as emotional in the margins with me before.”

So there we go: two film recommendations as well as two book recommendations in the same post – call it a late Hogmany present from me to you, dear reader. Enjoy!

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“Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” (Neil Gaiman)

Happy New Year!  I’ve quoted the lovely Neil Gaiman to start off 2014, and do please check out the full context of the quote here, as I’m sure it will get your year off to a flying start.  Here’s to many more mistakes in 2014!

And now, I’d like to entirely ignore New Year.  This is a blog post for my brother.  His birthday is 1 January, and it’s a crap time to have a birthday.  It gets entirely subsumed in Christmas and New Year, and once you’re no longer a child, everyone you know spends your birthday with a monster hangover.  Rubbish.

Like Neil Gaiman, my brother is a lovely man, who despite reading very little fiction always reads my blog posts and likes them on Facebook.  That’s who we’re dealing with, people.  So what to write about? Well, he likes poetry and I think he has a really good feel for it, an innate understanding.  So this post will look at two poems that I think he’ll appreciate. This is for you, T.  Entirely for you with no thematic link to New Year at all.  Happy Birthday, brother of mine.

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(Image from: http://hdwallpaperspictures.com/birthday-cake/)

Firstly, The Door by Miroslav Holub (trans. from Czech by Ian Milner).  You can hear Joseph Fiennes read the whole poem here. This is a hugely clever poem, disguised in simple language.  The poet repeatedly urges the reader to “Go and open the door”, and speculates as to what is on the other side.  The first stanza is:

Go and open the door.

Maybe outside there’s

a tree, or a wood,

a garden,

or a magic city.

This is a poem you can read to a child: the idea and language is so simple, they will quickly relate to the opportunity to let their imagination run riot.  Yet it works on a variety of levels that adults can appreciate, and can be about the search for inspiration; the courage to take new, unexplored paths in life:

Go and open the door,

If there’s a fog

it will clear.

Go and open the door.

Even if there’s only

the darkness ticking,

even if there’s only

the hollow wind,

even if

nothing

is there,

go and open the door.

The images of “darkness ticking” and “hollow wind” are eerie, and add an unsettling quality to the poem.  They bring a sense of form to the formless, effectively creating how the unknown can still be scary. However, this door and what lays beyond is not entirely unknown; I think one of the really clever things about this poem is that the door is a definite article: “the door”, not the indefinite “a door”.  It’s a small thing, but by suggesting the door is specific one, Holub delicately reminds us that this door to new ideas and new ways of living is within reach, already identified, carried within ourselves.  And if nothing else, the final lines remind us:

At least

there’ll be

a draught.

A lovely, humorously deprecating end to an unpretentious poem that can follow you through life.

Secondly, A Glimpse of Starlings by Brendan Kennelly. You can read the full poem here.   This is an astonishing and powerful poem, full of intriguing imagery. It begins:

I expect him any minute now although

He’s dead. I know he has been talking

All night  to his own dead…

It’s not clear who “he” is, or if he is really dead, or only living among the dead.  Googling this poem tells you it is about the poet’s father, struggling to deal with the loss of his wife.   The struggle is beautifully and tenderly evoked through a variety of images:

Sipping a cup of tea, fingering a bit of bread,

Eating a small photograph with his eyes.

The questions bang and rattle in his head

 

[…]Daylight is as hard to swallow as food

Love is a crumb all of him hungers for.

How gorgeous, and heartbreaking, are those lines?  The frequent use of full-stops keeps the pace of the poem low-key and quiet, creating a sense of the poet’s careful approach towards the grieving man.  The transfer of images between food and the environment “eating a small photograph”, daylight being “hard to swallow”, skilfully shows how the sustenance of a man’s life has disappeared, affecting everything.  The hungering for a crumb of love is a beautiful way of evoking the yearning emptiness of grief that can never be sated.

The image of starlings is created in the last few lines:

…over his shoulder a glimpse of starlings

Suddenly lifted over field, road and river

Like a fist of black dust pitched in the wind.

This is an oblique image so I’ll leave it with you to find your own meaning.  I find this poem extremely powerful and the images truly haunting.

To end, here is a video of the astonishing display of a murmuration of starlings:

I hope you liked them, T. Have a great day one and all!