Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer

Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer (Atlantic Books 2014)

0857897195After Howard’s End was published, E M Forster began another novel named Arctic Summer, but never finished it. Damon Galgut has co-opted the title for this novel about Forster, appropriately enough given that the book is suffused with a sense of unfulfilled desire and unachieved goals.

Forster is homosexual (his term is ‘minorite’), which for a middle-class Englishman just a few decades after Oscar Wilde’s trial is terrifyingly illegal and paralysingly shameful. A central powerful thread of the novel follows Forster’s agonised path towards an active sexual life and the closely allied quest for intimacy. He has two great loves, neither of them ‘minorites’, and neither of them Englishmen. One, the Indian Masood, rejects his physical advances; the other, Egyptian Mohammed, accommodates what he calls his ‘foolishness’. Forster has other, more compliant sexual partners, but it is with these two men that he forms abiding emotional connections, as each of them reciprocates his love in deeply un-English, heartfelt ways.

The novel is also a story of artistic triumph, an imagining of how Forster came to write his greatest novel, A Passage to India. If I didn’t have other more pressing demands on my time I would now be rereading that novel, which must surely have been changed – enriched, I would guess – by the light shed on it by this one. Damon Galgut inspires trust, partly because he has obviously researched his subject meticulously, and partly because his protagonist’s inner life is so powerfully realised. The story he tells, persuasively, is that Forster’s cross-cultural relationships, with the men he loved and with others in India and Egypt, provided the emotional and dramatic heart of his novel. 

It’s interesting how much this book is in dialogue with others. There are Forster’s books, of course: phrases from and references to A Passage to India  are scattered though it, apparent even to someone whose memory of the book is as vague as mine; Howard’s End and Room with a View crop up, though they’re not named; Forster writes Maurice pretty much as wish fulfilment and shows the manuscript to friends; he has a couple of collections of short pieces published. The richly evocative dedication of Galgut’s novel, ‘To Riyaz Ahmad Mir and to the fourteen years of our friendship’, echoes that of A Passage to India, ‘To Syed Ross Masood and to the seventeen years of our friendship’, surely as elegant an indication of an author’s relationship to his subject as you’re likely to find anywhere.

Forster has significant conversations with other writers: Leonard and Virginia Woolf (the former wanting to publish him, the latter agreeing, not unkindly, when he says he’s not a novelist); Lytton Strachey (who loves Maurice and wants its title changed to Lytton); Edward Carpenter (who gives him a vision of relaxed homosexual intimacy); D H Lawrence (hilariously, dogmatically voluble, and totally heteronormative); and Cavafy (who reads his poems to Forster in Alexandria). Even the raffish character who in the first pages shows Forster some explicit erotic writing (a neat way of showing that Forster’s problem is not simply prudishness) turns out, according to the acknowledgements pages, to be historical.

As well as the intertextuality implied in these encounters, I wanted to put  Arctic Summer on a shelf between Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and a DVD of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: the three of them could have an interesting chat about the Raj, with Galgut’s novel forming some kind of bridge between the horrors portrayed by Ghosh and the movie’s golden-glowing nostalgia. I’d also like to eavesdrop on this book in conversation with Robert Dessaix’s Arabesques: where I found it hard to read Dessaix’s accounts of Oscar Wilde and André Gide’s erotic adventures with much younger men of colour as anything other than sex tourism, Galgut’s version of Forster’s superficially similar experiences reads as complex cross-cultural encounters.

At the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Fair on Sunday there was a Police Department stall in the middle of all the glitter. That evening I went to Belvoir Street to see the supremely silly and sexy The Blue Wizard – billed as ‘the gayest one-man show ever’. I had this book in my bag at both events.

Conrad’s Secret Agent and the Book Group

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907; I read it in a Conrad omnibus from the library)

1conradBefore the meeting: I first read The Secret Agent 40 or so years ago, but all I remembered was a moment when a character hears a sound like a ticking clock and realises after a long paragraph that she is actually hearing blood dripping. That, a dark, clammy London, and a vague sense that the book’s anarchists were nasty, stupid  big-talkers who bore very little resemblance to the anarchists of my acquaintance (except perhaps for the capacity to talk theory).

Rereading it for the book group, I found all those elements still firmly in place. Soon after starting the book, I made the mistake of getting hold of Christopher Hampton’s 1995 film version. I switched off  about half way through the movie, but on the strength of what I saw I’m confident that the virtues of the book didn’t make their way onto the screen – with the exception of Robin Williams’s chilling, uncredited turn as a nihilistic bomb-maker. The Secret Agent is not a spy thriller; Joseph Conrad wasn’t a forerunner of John Le Carre.

The book proceeds largely by a series of conversations: Mr Verloc the eponymous secret agent meets Mr Vladimir of the Russian embassy; the largely self-deluding anarchists of 1880s London discuss political theory; an armchair radical has a beer with the nihilistic bomb-maker; the bomb-maker and a police inspector have a stand-off; the inspector and his superior jostle for the upper hand; the latter seeks the support of a Very Important Politician; Mr Verloc tries to calm his wife after her beloved brother dies dramatically; and so on. Most of the conversations are two-handers; in many of them one participant is virtually silent. The effect ranges from comic when the policemen are playing power games to almost intolerably suspenseful when Verloc is reassuring his wife, completely failing to grasp that her world has been shattered, and that she rightly holds him responsible. Every conversation goes on far longer than could be tolerated by any self-respecting filmmaker (with the possible exception of Louis Malle, who made the superbly garrulous My Dinner with André). Once I relinquished my cinema-trained desire for compression and speed, I was engrossed.

I don’t know that The Secret Agent has much of value to say about anarchism, beyond the observation that some anarchists tend to talk a lot and not do much. Terrorism at the end of the 19th century was a different beast from the terrorism of today, but the book’s central image resonates: when simple-minded Stevie is manipulated by a man he trusts to risk his life, his central motive is compassion for the suffering poor, but his act actually serves as fuel for repressive propaganda. It’s hard not to feel that the young men and women who strap explosives to themselves in the 21st century have a lot in common with him – just insert aggrieved religion in place of simple-mindedness.

The meeting: In the lead-up to the meeting, one chap emailed that if we ever made ‘another ill-thought out decision to read a book like The Secret Agent‘ he’d apply for a transfer to a women’s book group. It looked as if we were going to have a good old stoush. But it turned out that though some of us loved the book, some found it laugh-out-loud funny, and some would prefer to have spent their time on other things, we all at some level enjoyed it. (At this point I should say that I made a number of egregious errors of fact over dinner, and may be completely inaccurate on this matter as well.) There was some happy sharing of favourite sentences.

One guy read us a 2004 review from the New York Times, which made me think that our plan to read a book that dealt with terrorism might have been better served by Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. I guess we’ll save that for another day.

Joan London’s Golden Age

Joan London, The Golden Age (Random House 2014)

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There are any number of ways a novel about children with polio could go wrong. There’s sicksploitation, in which the children are reduced to pity objects, their carers to embodiments of a heartless or incompetent medical system, and their parents to hand-wringing bystanders. There’s documentation, in which treatment is described in painful detail, and criticised in the light of what is now known to be effective. There’s advocacy, in which a longish final sequence shows the children, now in their sixties, dealing with post polio syndrome. And I’m sure there are others. Joan London avoids them all in The Golden Age.

When the book opens Frank/Ferenc, a thirteen year old boy, son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, has newly arrived in a polio convalescent home named The Golden Age (a home of that name actually existed in Perth in the 1950s, and the novel draws on the reminiscences of people who were patients there). Frank has already decided his vocation is to be a poet, and he is drawn to Elsa, another patient about his own age. His growing love for Elsa and his development as a poet, both treated with respectful restraint, are delicately intertwined with the story of their rehabilitation and provide the novel’s central narrative thread.

In the other characters, especially Frank’s parents and Sister Olive Penny, the nurse in charge of the home, the moral and emotional world of post-war Perth is brought to life with apparent effortlessness. Even the sketchiest of characters – the gardener, say, or the ex-patient with whom Olive has an unconventional relationship, or the people who live across the road from the Golden Age – are deeply imagined. Big scenes – a piano concert in the quadrangle, the queens’ visit to Perth – unfold naturally and without ever losing sight of the main game.

For me, the emotional heart of the book lies in the relationships between the young people and their parents. Different parents’ emotional reactions to their children’s illness are deftly captured, ranging from scenes of operatic intensity to tiny, deeply intimate gestures. Anyone who has been in hospital or boarding school as a child will recognise the children’s ambivalence about their parents’ visits, as the institution comes to feel more like their real home and they realise that their parents don’t understand their new lives. The final major turning point, which I’m not going to reveal, emerges from the middle of this complexity as a surprise that is also, in the Nero Wolfe sense of the phrase, most satisfactory.

aww-badge-2015This is the second book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.

Who to vote for?

We have NSW state elections coming up in a little over a month. I live in the newly created electoral seat of Newtown. If I were to decide my vote purely on the basis of advertising campaigns, there’s no competition.

This is from the Greens candidate, Jenny Leong:

And from the Labor candidate, Penny Sharpe:

Notice that the Greens candidate talks about policy in a range of areas, she talks about the nature of the electorate, and when she talks about herself it’s to tell us about her relevant experience. The Labor ad, on the other hand, is all about personality. Penny Sharpe supports same-sex marriage, and presumably can be counted on to be a staunch ALP member: the ALP as a friendship group rather than a machine. She is liked by her parliamentary colleagues and other friends who use empty words of praise, as friends do. As for the crack about her knowing bus timetables: um, would that have survived into a video about a male candidate?

The Liberal Party is fielding a candidate, Rachael Wheldall, but I couldn’t find a video.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press 2014)

In the current instalment of his regular ‘Critic Watch’ feature in Sydney Review of Books, the formidable Ben Hetherington reflects on the state of poetry criticism in Australia. The article, ‘The Poet Tasters‘, is well worth reading, but I mention it here as an occasion to protest my ignorance. Hetherington says that all the reviewers he discusses seem to have taken ‘the same two courses at university: “British and Irish poetry from Wordsworth to Heaney” and “Modern American poetry from Whitman to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’”.’ Well, they have left me in their dust: I hadn’t read Heaney, or Larkin, or Ted Hughes-for-adults, before I started blogging, and I barely know how to pronounce L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (though I do know the meaning of ‘poetaster’, which Hetherington had to google).

1555976905One feature of my ignorance is that, deep in my heart, I want poetry to be about something. It’s no disparagement of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen that it definitely satisfies that desire: in a word, it’s about racism.  It gets right inside that word and lights it up, makes it ultra-visible, ultra-clear, from death-by-a-thousand-cuts micro-aggressions to brutal murder.

In short pieces – prose poems / flash fictions / case studies – she gives us moments among friends or strangers when racism intrudes, the kind of thing a recent Beyond Blue anti-racism ad called ‘casual racism'; Claudia Rankine is much more incisive with her language than that. These moments are of a kind with the ‘joke’ made by the white MC at last year’s US National Book Awards. Claudia Rankine isn’t interested in stirring up a twitter-storm like the one that followed that remark: she wants something deeper than our outrage or our guilt, she’s trying to understand and invites us to join her.

A friend argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’. By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest, and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.

That mightn’t look like poetry to you, but, what can I say: don’t let category problems put you off. If poetry is about language at its most intense then this book is the thing.

There’s a brilliant essay on Serena Williams’s moments of rage and exuberance on the tennis court, and a number of pieces about well publicised moments of brutal racism and sometimes violent reactions to it. Some of the latter are labelled as scripts ‘for Situation video[s] created in collaboration with John Lucas’. At least some of these videos are on line and well worth seeking out, but the scripts stand alone as prose poems. The one on Zinedine Zidane’s tragic moment at the 2006 World Cup works well on the page: much of it consists of quotations and here the sources are given as they aren’t in the video; and the pages’ illustrations do at least some of the work of the video. But even on a tiny browser window, the video packs an enormous wallop as Rankine reads the poem while those moments on the football field play out in stop motion over 6 minutes. Here’s a link: ‘October 10, 2006 / World Cup‘. As a public service, here are links to two more: ‘February 26, 2112 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin‘, ‘Stop-and-Frisk‘.

The book makes up for being typeset in an unpleasant sans-serif font on shiny paper by being illustrated by a number of brilliant and brilliantly apposite artworks. It has reached a much wider audience than usual for poetry, with more than 40 000 copies sold (though it’s not so easy to get in Australia – Gleebooks ordered my copy in from the US).  It’s in the list of finalists for two of the US National Book Critics Circle Awards – poetry and criticism – the first book to have managed this. There’s coverage of its success on Harriet the Blog.

Guantanamo Diaries

I’m listening to the Guardian Books podcast of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantanamo Diaries. Slahi was taken prisoner at his home in Mauritania in 2001 and has been held without charge ever since, for most of that time in Camp Echo at Guantanamo Bay. By some kind of miracle his account of torture, interrogation, endless violation of US and international law, and stark inhumanity has been allowed to be published, with 2500 redactions.

In the podcast a number of famous Britishers and USers, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Stanley Tucci, read excerpts of about 10 minutes each.

No one seems to dispute the document’s authenticity, but there’s a lot that’s mysterious about the book. Slahi spoke very little English in 2001, but this is very well written – he talks about his efforts to learn from the guards, but I don’t know how much editorial and translation help he had, and from where. Same for the occasional telling quote from, for example, Benjamin Franklin. The detailed recall of many of the interrogation sessions must include at least some invention, as I can’t imagine he was given pencil and paper, let alone opportunity, to write notes close to the time of the events. And there’s the question of how the manuscript got out: evidently it’s been in the US courts for eight years, but how did it even reach the courts?

As a citizen of the comfortable West, I think it’s pretty much a civic duty to engage with this extraordinary text, to learn at first hand what has been done and continues to be done in the name of freedom.

Mark Danner has an excellent review article in the New York Times.

Ali Smith’s How to Be Both

Ali Smith, How to Be Both (Penguin 2014)

024114521XThe Art Student gave up on this book after a very few pages. But, well, I’d heard people rave about it, so I decided to brave those first pages of what looked like sub-modernist gobbledygook and give it a go anyhow.

Sure the opening pages are tough going. (The book is in two parts. In different copies, the parts, both labelled ‘One’, are in a different order, so my introductory pages may be your transitional ones, and the problem may not exist for you.) It turns out that the narrator is a 15th century Italian artist re-emerging from oblivion into temporary ghostly existence in 2013. At first, the artist’s grasp on language is rusty, but within 10 pages or so the narrative settles down. The artist, Francescho del Cossa (who really existed, generally known as Francesco), tells his own story in fragments as they come back to mind, and tells what he observes of a young woman in modern England who has been instrumental in his return to the world. That’s not quite accurate, but if I fixed it I’d be getting into spoiler territory, so it will have to do.

It’s an ingenious book. One part (the first in my copy) is Francescho’s narration. The other tells the story of George, the modern young woman. Each sees parts of the other’s story from the outside, only partly understanding it, but the reader doesn’t understand the whole of either story until you’ve read both: Francescho’s modern narrative begins where George’s leaves off; George gives us details of at least one painting that in effect completes of Francescho’s story.

It’s an interesting and amusing read, and the writing is generally elegant and lucid. There’s an interesting and plausible take on gender as perceived in 15th century Italy: not exactly 21st-century inner-city gender fluidity, but not a rock-solid binary neither. A lot of time is spent on Francescho’s art, the making of it in the first part, the viewing of it in the second. This is all lively and intelligent; it moves the plot forward, and sends the reader off to look for the paintings (which all exist, beautifully, in the real world); but maybe some of it could have been saved for the DVD extras, and there is a climactic revelation about a painting that only works if you don’t actually use Duck Duck Go to see the painting for yourself. The modern story, dealing with bereavement and adolescent stirrings, also has its bits that might have been better as DVD extras, particularly mother–daughter arguments about History, and sessions with the school counsellor (all good, but repetitive and surely not all necessary). And at times both narrators seem almost coy about telling their stories: was George’s mother having an affair? was she the subject of surveillance? how did she die? who was the older woman who gave George cups of tea? why? what do the painted eyes mean? Is it all just pretty patterns formed by events with no actual connection? We’ll never know.

So I’m not about to tell the Art Student and other people who were deterred by the first pages that they’ve made the biggest mistake of their lives, but it’s a book that keeps you on your toes, and I’m not sorry I read it.

Australian Poetry Journal 4:2

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 4, Issue 2 (2014)

I hope I don’t sound too surprised when I say that this issue of Australian Poetry Ltd’s twice-yearly journal is excellent. Any surprise isn’t at the excellence, but at other factors. Most of the poems are remarkably accessible, for instance. And it was a pleasure to meet in its pages quite a few people whose work I know reasonably well. Andy Kissane takes on school bullying in ‘Southerly': ‘

I know from talking to Joshua that Fridays
at lunchtime are the worst. He won’t tell me what happens, he simply stares at his shoes.

joanne burns confronts a spider in ‘watch tower a reconnaissance':

of cool voltaren no living creature has been
harmed in the writing of this poem except
perhaps the poet

Brendan Ryan ventures far from his native Victorian dairy farm in ‘Cows in India';  B W Shearer, whom I know from my time in children’s literature, pays homage to a rainbow lorikeet in ‘A crowned queen’. I warmed to poems by Ron Pretty, Andrew Lansdown, Carol Jenkins, Liz Dolan, Rachael Mead, and they weren’t the only ones.

Besides the poetry there are a number of interesting articles. Dan Disney and Kit Kelen call on poets to resist destructive politics, specifically regarding asylum seekers, to rouse themselves and readers ‘from a collectively accepted nightmare’, and they give robust examples, from John Mateer and Vick Viidikas to Bertolt Brecht, of poets who have done so. Oscar Schwartz induces us to think about computer generated poetry in ‘A Turing Test for Poetry’, timely perhaps because of the movie The Imitation Game, and – to me – almost totally unconvincing. Simon Patton gives an insightful account of a translator–poet relationship in ‘Translating Yu Jian: Encounter and transmission’. Vivian Gerrand interviews Claire Gaskin, who has interesting things to say about many things, in particular her writing process, and her belief that to be a decent writer you need to read three books a week (which makes me well on the way). Sarah Day profiles the all but forgotten Tasmanian poet Helen Power.

The journal is a perk of membership of Australian Poetry Ltd, and individual issues can be bought via the web site.

joanne burns’s brush

joanne burns, brush (Giramondo 2014)

brush In a recent blog post my friend Will tells of a friend’s advice on how to visit a gallery:

Don’t try to see everything … When you walk into a room, scan the walls quickly, and then decide which painting you’d like to spend time really looking at. You’ll come away with a richer experience, and you’ll probably discover more.

That sounds like a good strategy for blogging about a book of poetry.

So, to start with a quick scan, joanne burns (this is how her name seems always to be written) is one of the stand-out Australian poets of the 1968 generation. Her poetry is generally witty, minimally punctuated, and not always immediately accessible. brush (again, my shift key isn’t broken) is in six sections:

  • bluff: where there is much play with the language of the share market
  • in the mood: prose poems, all interesting, with no common thread I could discern
  • brush – day poems: I understand these to refer to Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems, and they have elements of what Wikipedia calls O’Hara’s ‘characteristically breezy tone’ and ‘spontaneous reactions to things happening in the moment’
  • road: 21 poems, again with no common thread as far as I can tell – maybe they’re the non–prose poems that don’t fit into the other sections
  • delivery: poems related to a Bondi childhood
  • wooing the owl (or the great sleep forward), which could be subtitled ‘night poems': poems with the feel of dreams or half-waking insomniac reveries.

Choosing just one poem to spend time with ain’t easy. I did a quick scan of poems I’d snapped with my phone on first reading (it’s a friend’s book, and phone-snapping was a non-damaging equivalent of turning down page corners), and settled on one that was outside of my comfort zone – that is to say, no obvious argument or narrative. Here’s a pic of it, and you can read it online at Best American Poets (not a misprint – they had a series featuring modern Australian poets).

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I have no idea what initially drew me to ‘sesame': perhaps it was a tantalising sense of a coherent argument just beyond my grasp; perhaps the play of images struck a chord in me; perhaps it just liked the sounds it made. It doesn’t really matter. I’ve now spent quite a lot of time with it.

Spending time with the poem wasn’t a matter of trying to decipher a ‘meaning’ as if it was a cryptic crossword. I did work out where sentences began and ended; and incidentally noted that the obvious punctuation – the extra spaces on lines 4, 12 and 18, the comma and the semicolon – are not indications of the poem’s turning points, but highlight the enjambed orphans that precede them. I learned the poem by heart. I recited it to the dog, to a paddock full of cattle, to the long-suffering Art Student, to the dark room when I woke in the night (though the effort of recall tends to send me back to sleep wink quick). I wrote it out from memory (and every mistake was a discovery). I went away and read other poems in the book and other books, and came back to it. I wrote a number of drafts of this blog post that went into great and (for any reasonable reader) tedious detail. Basically, I let the poem wash over me again and again. I’m pleased and relieved to report that I didn’t get bored. Here’s a bit of what I found.

First, the unconventional punctuation doesn’t create any real ambiguity. The poem just takes a little longer to decipher than it would with normal marks: the reader has to slow down, to pay attention, even on first reading.  (It does allow for some playfulness: the line break after ‘plate’, for example, conjures up a surreal image of a speedboat zooming over a dinner plate, which evaporates as soon as you realise that ‘plate’ belongs with ‘glass’, and we’re talking about the view.)

Then there’s the amount of patterning in the poem’s apparently casual language. There’s line-end rhyme (‘fast’/’last’), and buried partial rhymes that put stress at the start of lines (‘glass’/’reverse'; ‘access’/’emptiness'; ‘vanishes’/’crevices’). Definite articles – ‘the flowers’, ‘the cactus’, ‘the plate / glass’, ‘the wallet’, ‘the wall’ – communicate a sense of a particular room, a particular life. There are many times: the recent past of the cactus flowers; the distant past that the wallet comes from; the childhood past of touching the wall (of the rock pool at Bondi?); a generalised present (‘everything so fast’); the future (‘will not / help’).

Most interestingly, amid the apparent impulsive hopping from one subject to another, there is something very like a question raised and answer proposed. First a series of on/off moments: cactuses bloom, speedboats come and go, we wake and sleep. Then the longer term: the emblematic wallet is forgotten, goes mouldy, becomes inaccessible. In both these ways, we lose our grasp on things. The problem crystallises at the midpoint when ‘a thought vanishes [‘wink quick’?] into the air’s [wallet-like?] crevices’.

And now, the dominant sense of sight yields to the sense of touch. If you don’t remember how to open the wallet, your fingertips can find a way; when the salt water stung your eyes you groped your way to the pool’s edge. A beachcomber’s manual is close to a contradiction in terms. The next lines move further, leaving not just sight but also speech:

__________[maybe] the best thing
to do between the tick and the tock
is to hold your breath

The ‘tick and the tock’ harks back to the on/off motif, and also possibly takes us back to the room with the cactus and the plate glass, which also evidently has a big clock. The air’s crevices have become veins, as in veins of ore, which yield a patient map: not on/off, not corroded by time, and quite different from an external manual. The thought that vanished into the air returns in a new, useful form, in response to a silent, groping approach. (The stinging salt water also suggests tears, and the air’s veins suggest blood – so perhaps as well as silence and groping the approach involves suffering.)

The poem reaches a climax with the word ‘open’ in the second last line, which arrives with even more force if you have the poem’s enigmatic title in mind. Only at this point does the title settle into place, assuming the reader knows the Ali Baba story (and just in case you don’t: that’s the story from The Arabian Nights where a treasure cave opens in response to the magic phrase, ‘Open sesame’). In effect the title announces that the poem is about opening up some metaphorical cave of riches.  The last sentence might mean ‘you’ll only need the one magic word, not a whole vocabulary’ or ‘contrary to the story, you won’t need words at all – the secret to getting access to these treasures is silence.’ I prefer the latter reading.

So what’s the poem about? Jeez, I dunno, he said, meaning it in the nicest possible way. The Art Student thought it was about dementia. I think the first half is about memory, and perhaps about the mythical process we’ve been told to call ‘age related cognitive decline’. But the whole strikes home for me as a meditation on creativity, on thinking of any sort, on how wisdom grows from concrete experience, perhaps from facing pain rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. What I’m left with, though, isn’t the ‘meaning’ so much as the beautiful, intricate, apparently casual but actually carefully structured play of mind.

Peter Kirkpatrick launched the book at Gleebooks. His illuminating launch speech is online at the Rochford Street Review site.

aww-badge-2015This is the first book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015. I plan to read and blog about ten this year.

Haruki Murakami’s Strange Library

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library (2008, translation by Ted Goossen, Harvill Secker 2014)

1846559219I received this as a Christmas gift, and I’m pretty sure that’s what the publishers had in mind.

Tucked away on the imprint page is a credit to Suzanne Dean as designer with a copyright symbol next to her name, and that is just as it should be. The library record pocket glued to the front cover is just the beginning. As one reads the book, almost every page offers a little (or big) design surprise: gorgeous illustrations (many of tangential relevance to the text), to the illusion of different paper stocks, simulated water damage, clumsily stamped page numbers. You can never forget that you are dealing with a book as physical object. I haven’t been been as entranced by a book design since Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium Is the Massage.

The creep, scary, dream-logical story of a boy who is imprisoned in a labyrinth beneath a library until he can memorise four thick books about taxation in the Ottoman Empire reads like Murakami’s version of a children’s story. If it had crossed my desk when editing The School Magazine, I probably would have voted to include it in our list of recommended books ‘for advanced readers’, though I would have understood if I’d been voted down because of some deliciously scary threats that the boy faces.

As it is, it’s a brief, pleasant diversion for adults as well as whoever else might find it.