Absent Presence by Mahmoud Darwish – a fascinatingly undefinable piece of beauty

Described by the author as “a baffling text”, this is an entirely unique piece of literature. Admittedly, it’s quite difficult to grasp at the outset, written in the second person where the narrator seems to be addressing other forms of himself – but the beauty of the language and the phrasing compelled me to persevere. 

From the opening parts, it’s clear that this is the journey of an exile, moving from the recollections of a young boy exiled from his homeland across the Middle East. However, it’s not just a simple narrative – the narrator explores the very notions of life and each chapter philosophises on some of the most basic concepts of human existence. In the opening, he examines the notion of language and how we learn to work with letters and what worlds are opened up to us as a result. 

Each chapter is between six and ten pages, which means it never dissolves into navel-gazing. Many of the observations work as aphorisms in their own right and some of the descriptions of the world of the Middle East are incredibly vivid. The narrator feels the call of the sea and draws some very interesting parallels early on:

“Words are waves… words have the rhythm of the sea and the call of the mysterious”.

Even when the narrator is telling the story of refugees moving under cover of darkness and the consequences of statelessness in airline travel, he keeps coming back to poetry and its reason for existence: “poems and twilight have this in common.”

The text weaves personal experience, recollected snippets and also the classics. In chapter 8, Darwish draws comparison between the plight of refugees and the journey of the Aeneid, using literature to shine a spotlight on the cyclical nature of human suffering.

Returning to cities devastated by bombing campaigns, Darwish still manages to pull beauty from the wreckage with observations like “an idea is a coal burning.”

In the second half of the text, there is less movement and each chapter focuses more on an emotion or human need – there’s an examination of the concept of love, one on sleep, one on nostalgia, one on the shadows of the past. There are also some more whimsical chapters, like the treatise on grass given in chapter 17.

It’s difficult to define this text – it feels like a collection of beautiful aphorisms and philosophical obersavtions woven around the recollections of a Palestinian exile remembering the journey of his life – which makes it difficult to read from cover to cover. It’s more of a slow journey from chapter to chapter, pausing to fully engage with the language. Unsurprisingly, it finishes on a question, suggesting that even the writer hasn’t fully convinced himself of the purpose of poetry.

It’s easy to enjoy the journey when it includes observations such as these:

“The stars look down, friend on us like the glittering gold buttons on the coat of eternity. They look down on us from a distant death which has not yet reached us.”

Hotel du Lac – a light escape by Anita Brookner

Although set in a completely different part of France, this book reminded me of Bonjour Tristesse. Perhaps because of its central character – a female left to her own devices trying to find a foothold in idleness.

 

Narrated by Edith Hope, a middle-aged English writer of clever romance novels, Hotel du Lac opens with an incredibly vivid description of the hotel on the banks of Lake Geneva and its residents. The plot is gentle, Edith’s witty observations of her fellow guests interspersed with the details of the love letters sent to her lover David. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that she’s in an imposed exile due to this scandalous relationship. Her friends in England are put under the spotlight as she recollects her past life, most of them appearing as somewhat vacuous unpleasant society beings. 

The novel picks up pace when Edith encounters Mr Neville, a fellow countryman who urges her to shake off the shackles of expectation and live her life her own way. With his help, she blossoms in self-esteem. However, this is not just a fluffy love story, thanks to Edith’s strength of character. It’s an easy read, with Brooknwe using the lightest of touches to avoid it becoming a saccharine love story. The descriptions of the guests are witty and entertaining and Edith is a protagonist that inspires empathy. At only 200 pages or so, it’s an enjoyable way to while away an afternoon.

Amy Sackville’s Orkney – a haunting week by the seaside.

It’s difficult to decide whether the main feature in this novel is the relationship between the honeymooners or the Orkney seascape. This is a novel with a very voyeuristic feel – a nameless young bride with long, silvery hair sits for hours gazing out at the sea. Inside the rented cottage, her husband Richard, a literature professor forty years her senior watches her, wondering what she finds in the sea. She’s told him she’s from this area, but will reveal little else about her background, as mysterious and shifting as the sea upon which she gazes. From our viewpoint, we watch them both as the events of the week are narrated through Richard’s voice.

This is a mesmeric novel, full of enigmas and questions – even the facts around their meeting are open to interpretation, with her questioning his seemingly solid recollection of the early days of their courtship. Nothing feels concrete – except for his unwavering obsession with his young bride, which dips once or twice into the possessive, but it’s not an oppressive viewpoint – we are comfortable looking at her through his lens. Perhaps this is because a lot of the narrative is given through their conversation and we are directed by her perceived reaction to his beatification of her: “I’m heart-sore for wanting her”.

Like Richard, we are soon bewitched by his strange and beautiful bride. Sackville includes just enough to make her seem tangible – the encounter with a local family on holiday an example where some of the magic sloughs off and we see her as a normal, if slightly eccentric young woman. 

For me, the truly enchanting element of the novel is the description of the sea and the way in which she melts the bride into these descriptions in passages such as these:

“The height of those waves, now. The wind scatters the sky, growing steadily stronger; it whips up the cliffs in a spray, a plume like smoke, and her hair streaming upwards like that blown-back fall, too, like a fountain.”

The novel is partitioned almost like a daily diary, with Richard flitting back from the present to the past, building a clearer picture of their relationship as he recalls their first meal together, the details of which are questioned by his bride when he fondly recollects his reminisces. The days of the week are almost one of the only concrete concepts in a world where the sea infuses everything with its scent, taste and aura. Even the landmass is susceptible: “The island to the west has smeared into the sea again.”

But it is the bride who pulls us in. Her husband describes her as some sort of nereid, a sea-sprite, an enchantress and Sackville rarely uses language to describe her that isn’t tinged with the otherworldly or some sense of water: “her eyes bruised with purple rainclouds”. It’s testament to Sackvilles’ skills that we find her so intriguing as we learn little to nothing about her and there’s no real sense of plot development in the novel – the mundanities of a newly-wed couple on honeymoon. For this is a very difficult book to put down – and even harder to shake off. 

A Journey round Suffolk – Sebald’s Rings of Saturn reviewed

It’s with some shame that I admit I’ve had this book on my shelf for years but only just got round to reading it. Described as an influence by many of the psychogeographers that fill my bookshelves, I was expecting great things.

Based in August 1992, this piece of writing weaves history and landscape together as the author embarks on a walking tour of Suffolk. In the opening chapter, it’s clear that this ig going to be a multi-dimensional text, with Sebald weaving his own experiences with the subjects of those of his academic colleagues, settling on the work of Sir Thomas Browne and his relationship with the art of Rembrandt, which whisks us to Amsterdam and a detailed examination of  the thoughts and theories behind Browne’s work.

This criss-crossing of the continent and different time frames defines Sebald’s work, and in chapter after chapter we move across the centuries as we move across the county. Personal observations of the world around him fling us to other periods, such as the examination of the changing fortunes of the fishing industry prompted by the view of the beaches south of Lowestoft, the biographical accounts of both Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement opened up by a chance TV documentary seen in a room in Southwold.

These trickles from the main river of the narrative are fascinating, particularly the exploration of Conrad’s life and the sea journeys that brought him to Lowestoft. His skill in weaving the narrative means that they never feel ‘shoehorned in’, but rather a natural tributary from the main flow of the journey. This section in particular sees us journey with Sebald back to an experience in Belgium before joining Conrad back in the Conrad before linking again to Casement and finally back to the present day. At one point, we move from the disused railways to Imperial China where we’re told the Dowager Empress “had a daily blood sacrifice offered in her temple to the gods of silk.”

However, what makes much of this book so compelling is not just Sebald’s skill at weaving together fascinating anecdotes, but much of the prose is incredibly poetic, such as the description of the train journey he takes in the second chapter to Lowestoft:

“Most of the time the carriage, pitching along unsteadily on the track, was merely coasting along, since there in an almost unbroken gentle decline towards the sea; at intervals, though, when the gears engaged with a jolt that rocked the entire framework, the grinding of cog wheels could be heard for a while, till, with a more even pounding, the onward roll resumed, past the back gardens, allotments, rubbish dumps and factory yards to the east of the city and out into the marshes beyond”

Much of the narrative feels melancholic due to the examination of lost worlds, seen most keenly when he visits once stately homes, both in the present and in memory, commenting that ”It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.” Although we generally meet a new character in each chapter and it’s these biographies that underpin each section, he keeps returning to Browne, at one point examining his philosophy on life and Time: “The night of time far surpasseth the day”. 

There’s a somewhat Hardy-esque feel to his criticism of industry, especially when he arrives in Dunwich, where the labyrinthine heath seems to induce a sort of dream-like consciousness as he wanders lost through a confusing landscape. It is at this point that his criticism of the industrial world is at its strongest as he declares, looking at the remains of the prehistoric forest destroyed by fire that “combustion in the hidden principle behind every artefact we create.”

This is not a wholly solitary journey – peppered not just with anecdotal and biographical accounts of historical figures, but also encounters with friends such as the poet Michael Hamburger (although I must admit that these are perhaps some of the least interesting parts of the book as he seems to drift off onto their tangents.

It’s not difficult to see why this text in particular has influenced many other writers. It weaves multiple narratives and some of the prose is an absolute joy – particularly when paired with personal experience. For me, the most powerful part was towards the end when he describes the destruction of trees in a storm: “Where a short while ago the dawn chorus had at times reached such a pitch that we had to close the bedroom windows, where larks had risen on the morning air above the fields and where, in the evenings, we occasionally even heard a nightingale in the thicket, its pure and penetrating song punctuated by theatrical silences, there was now not a living sound.”

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin: Selected Poems. A Review

This is an extensive selection of poems, many of which feel like the poetic interpretation of a Chagall painting, full of dream-like, surreal imagery haunted by ghosts and steeped in natural imagery such as ‘The Girl who Married the Reindeer’.

The earlier poems at the beginning of the collection are filled with references to agriculture and the natural world with the phenomenal line: “nights darker than thickest hawthorn-shade” in ‘Celibates’.

Many of the poems are full of surprises, such as “The day will arrive for my last communion/ 

When I plan to swallow the universe like a raw egg.”

 

One of my favourite things about this collection is the way in which she meshes the natural world with more metaphysical observations such as in ‘Early Recollections’: “I became aware of truth/ Like the tide helplessly rising and falling in one place” and the wondrous image of “The ruffled foreheads of the waves”.This is most evident in poems such as ‘Deaths and Engines’

“You will find yourself alone

Accelerating down a blind

Alley, too late to stop

And know how light your death is;

 

You will be scattered like wreckage,

The pieces every one a different shape

Will spin and lodge in the hearts

Of all who love you.”

 

There are many motifs and themes woven through the collection, such as family, architecture and the classical world. Towards the beginning, the references to buildings are agricultural and domestic but move outwards, peppered with references to architectural splendour across Europe. Later in the selection, they develop a more classical feel, with poems that have Odysseus meeting the ghosts of the women in his stories. Despite the classical referencing, these feel much more contemporary and more in tune with later poems such as ‘London’ which explores the story of a woman who’s had a masectomy. These poems are tight, delicate in their phrasing and have a very observational feel – much like ‘The Italian Kitchen’.

 

Religion and womanhood flow through the collected poems, most evident in ‘Our Lady of Youghal’ and ‘St Margaret of Cortona’. This takes a more tragic tone when Ní Chuilleanáin begins to explore the horrors visited on the women of Ireland in poems like the moving ‘Translation’ which points the lens at the reburials of the dead by the Magdalene sisters and the brutal ‘Bessboro’. The second of these is unflinching in its examination, highlighting how the horrors done on these women by the Church have scarred the earth with shame

“the blood that was sown here flowered

And all the seeds blew away”

 

Towards the end of the collection, a sense of nostalgia begins to increase in volume. Evident in the earlier poem ‘The Informant’ with its reference to “a stitch of silence”, some of the later poems bring us back to Cork and her home town, both directly referenced in a number of poems and underscored with some sense of regret

“A hand, a wood, 

I am wearing your shape

Like a light shirt of flame;

My hair is full of shadows.”

 

Language, nature and nostalgia intermingle beautifully in some of my favourite lines in the whole selection:“Water has no memory/ And you drown in it like a kind of absence” which makes the choice for the last poem all the more effective, ending as it does with a scholar searching for a language and how this language can open doors to new worlds and new experiences: “the steam of her breath is turning the locked lock green.”

Lantern, Sean Hewitt: A Review

This debut collection feels very much like a prayer in praise of the natural world and the symbiosis between man and nature. Almost every poem is steeped in the language of the natural world and many make direct reference to religion.

From the opening poem ‘Leaf’, we are treated to natural images that feel both ancient and fresh :“each tree is an altar to time”, “every knot/guards a hushed cymbal of water”. However, this imagery is made more powerful through a pairing with aphorisms which give these poems even more weight, causing them to reverberate in the mind long after the last line:

“For even in the nighttime of life

it is worth living, just hold it.”

For many of the poems, I felt as if I was suspended in the gloaming – close to nature and a primordial language. In poems like ‘Barn Owls in Suffolk’ where we try to impose our language to describe the world around us “strange geometry/ of their faces funnelling the air” – it’s the use of the unexpected that keeps these poems weighted. The collection feels expository, which makes the exploratory and confessional ‘Dryad’ even more significant: “ keeping/ my secrets still in the folds of night.

“Dryad’ is an astonishing poem – haunting and otherworldly while also firmly rooted in place. There’s a stillness to these poems, a hushedness as if hearing them over the crackling of a fire – if a collection was a place, this would be in the bleak landscape as we are urged to come closer come closer and listen at the fire for the secrets.

‘Kyrie’ also stands out with its ‘mercy refrain’ and references to the haunting sound of a child crying meshed with the noise the speaker made when calling his mother to talk about the suicide of a loved one. It’s a very raw and powerful poem and perhaps central to the whole collection. This collection is about growing into manhood and ‘Kyrie’ seems the poem everything is weighted on. There’s also a fragility in the rawness of grief which is echoed in ‘Dryad’ and ‘Ilex’ which asks us to “witness how a fragile thing is raised”.

The journey into adulthood is a hesitant one, and there’s a sense of being lost in poems like ‘Moor’ and ‘Dormancy’ (a particularly beautiful poem about a morgue visit and the way experience grows in us like a seed “I sowed myself/ like a wych elm in a windless room.”) The entire collection is filled with revelations as the speaker looks to nature and religious ritual to guide himself through a difficult period. ‘Petition’ is about Lourdes – again filled with the sense of seeking solace, this is a Lourdes of nature, like a Catholic Epidaurus “I came here to see myself shattered and remade” “the moon/ has turned my skin to silver”. 

As the collection and the speaker matures, we glimpse light at the end of the tunnel, culminating in the release in ‘Hacksjon’: “I love/to plunge through the black glass/ of the lake, to make it echo/ with my body” 

This echo reverberates through the very last line of the last poem, ‘Wild Garlic’, as the collection ends on the beautiful “The world is dark/ but the wood is full of stars”. I’ve never had a tattoo, but I’ve been tempted to have this phrase inked somewhere. As a line, it perfectly encapsulates the collection – using nature in an fresh and inventive way to illuminate ancient but forgotten truths about mankind.

All the Beggars Rising: Lucy Caldwell

Being Various was one of my favourite books in 2019, so I was intrigued to read more fiction from Lucy Caldwell. Enter All the Beggars Rising. Written from the point of view of Lara, a middle-aged woman with a chequered childhood, it’s a story about struggling to shrug off the ghosts of the past. 

It’s a book filled with surprises and a masterful command of narrative structuring. It opens with a documentary of Chernobyl – both in the present and in flashbacks where Lara remembers watching it at a significant moment in her childhood. The main image in the documentary is the testimony of a worker’s wife who refuses to leave her husband’s side as he deteriorates even when the hospital workers stay away. Her reason? “That’s what love is.” For Lara, who has never really known love, this is strange, and prompts an examination of her parents’ relationship through a creative writing class she attends with one of her patients.

Painful recollections come in snippets – we learn early on that there was something stange about her family setup – she lived with her mother and brother in London while their father spent most of the month in his native Belfast. When Lara’s father dies in a helicopter, the truth begins to tumble out – they were not their father’s only family.

What really sets this book apart is the choice to have Lara tell a number of different narratives. It feels almost post-modern as we learn about her mother through Lara assuming her mother’s voice and writing a first-person account as part of her creative writing project. I say almost because this is a novel steeped in the visceral – the focus is unrelentingly on the characters and there’s nothing to trim. 

In addition, Lara addresses the reader throughout, almost as if we’re embarking on this creative writing project with her as she makes corrections “no, that’s not right” she’ll say and make a correction, which only makes her character more endearing. 

Penguin Modern Poets Three: A Review

This series aims to introduce readers to new, contemporary poets. I bought this collection as I’m of the belief that one cannot have enough Sharon Olds poetry in their possession and I’d never read any substantial amounts Booker or Shire although I have been a big fan of everything I’ve read or encountered. Suffice to say, I was not disappointed.

The overarching theme in Booker’s poetry is the strength of women. Booker explores female relationships in a way that is at times painful and disturbing but always full of power.  The poem ‘Erasure’ was one of the most difficult to read as she exposes her pain with a rawness that forced me to stop reading and put the book down for a while to digest the suffering in stanzas such as 

“I did what we women have always done.

Froze the tears into a block of ice

Buried so deep that the guilt is a cold in me.”

Pregnancy and motherhood are put under the microscope in this collection as Booker examines the effect of unwanted pregnancy – whether carried to term or aborted.

The opening poem ‘Red Ants Bite’ meshes the patois of her culture with language that is brutal in its simplicity “her mouth was brutal, like hard-wire brush, it scraped me.” 

She explores the role of misogyny in poems such as ‘Warning’ and ‘After Liming in the Local Rum Shop on Diamond Street’ with a directness that is also uncomfortable to read as the women blame one another for the abuse they suffer.

The collection moves between her mother, her grandmother and herself, exploring the difficult relationships between them as she comes to an understanding that it is mistreatment by men that have contributed to their hardness:
“My father made my mother stony,

A martyr for her kids, brittle and bitter.”

As the collection matures, Booker’s depiction of her mother becomes more tender as she comes to the end of her life. Motherhood has changed their relationship and the final line in the collection is a beautiful ending

“What can I do? Let go, she said. Let go.” 

 

The second poet Sharon Olds has divided her poems into sections. The first explores her relationship with her parents. Unlike in Booker’s collection, Olds’ father features heavily as do other men as she examines the journey of sexual discovery – as a teenager and a new mother in poetry that is wry and humorous in parts. The men are treated with humour, as a backdrop to a female world ‘The Pope’s Penis’. The second section is more concerned with motherhood, with beautiful observations such as in ‘Physics’:

“I have not grown 

up yet, I have lived as my daughter’s mother

The way I had lived as my mother’s daughter,

Inside her life. I have not been born yet.”

This sense of legacy permeates the collection, but there are also tender poems about the intimacy of marriage, such as in ‘Psalm’. The last poem in this section ‘His Crew’ about the self-sacrifice of a pilot for his crew is very powerful, woven as it is with surprising images:

“Parachutes unfolding and glistening, little

Sacs of afterbirth.”

The third section is more brutal and painful, its main concern the breakdown of her marriage and the death of her mother. The poems are less lyrical, more broken in form, more raw but no less affecting. The final section is short and feels conclusive. Olds has come to terms with the events in her life and this pair of poems feels very definite. Like Booker, the last line also explores the notion of the mother daughter relationship, ending in a very similar way:

“You held me

Close, for 18 years, and then

You let me go.”

 

The last poet in this collection is Warshan Shire. Like the others in this book, her poetry centres around the female experience, but is more aggressive in tone and much more political, including a prose sequence entitled ‘Conversations About Home (At the Deportation Centre)’ which are filled with incredibly powerful imagery “Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like against loose tooth.” later sequence “I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant?

Again, this collection looks at the experiences of a range of women across the generations, exploring traditions like Female Genital Mutilation with imagery so delicate it makes the subject matter even more disturbing in poems such as ‘Mermaids’

“After the procedure, the girl learns 

how to walk again, mermaid with new legs,

soft knees buckling under new sinless body.”

Poems such as ‘Your Mother’s First Kiss’ show that this violence against women has crossed generations “The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women/when the war broke out.” and the short poem ‘In Love and in War’ is more powerful for its brevity:

“To my daughter I will say

When the men come,

Set yourself on fire.”

There is a sense of wisdom and teachings being passed through the generations here, as in the poem ‘The House’: “Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women…

And sometimes, the men – they come with hammers.” 

A lot of the poems explore sex and how it has been used to find connections, such as in ‘Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle’ where she talks about an uncle who spends years with “women who cannot pronounce your name.” 

However, there are much lighter notes – she talks of her grandparents with tenderness and there is a lot of playfulness in ‘Backwards.’ The final poem in the collection, much like those of the other two poets, deals with the sense of letting go: “going to float.”

That They May Face the Rising Sun: A Review

Although published in 2002, McGahern’s last novel has no tangible sense of time – apart from a reference to watching ‘Blind Date’ and the recent Enniskillen bombing, this could be set anytime in the 20th century. Set in rural Leitrim amongst a smattering of houses around a lake, this is a novel where time is of little importance. It follows a year in the life of the Ruttledges, a married couple who have moved back to Ireland from England to live a simple, peaceful existence in Joe Ruttledge’s childhood village. It is a spectacularly beautiful piece of work, where the passing of time is marked by the changes in the countryside. McGahern gives the lake itself such prominence in the novel with lyrical descriptions that it seems to be a character in itself, one that observes the lifespans of the humans living on its shore. The other characters use it as a barometer for their own existence: “We’re no more than a puff of wind out on the lake.”

 

Many of the characters are in their twilight years – although their ages are not stated, Joe and Kate are near retirement and their friends Jamesie and Mary have an adult son, whose visit to his parents allows for a mirroring of the passage of time as shown through the description of the changing seasons. Mary’s reaction to her son’s visit is very moving and this pondering of the frailty of the human lifespan underpins a lot of the novel – which is appropriate for a novelist nearing the end of his own life:

“Mary stood mutely gazing on her son and his wife as if in wonderment how so much time had disappeared and emerged again in such strange and substantial forms that were and were not her own. Across her face there seemed to pass many feelings and reflections: it was as if she ached to touch and gather in and make whole those scattered years of change. But how can time be gathered in and kissed? There is only flesh.”

 

I’ve always been a huge fan of McGahern’s work and the delicate, quiet lyricism of his writing. This is a masterpiece of a novel, filled with beautiful phrasing and thought-provoking observations that probe rather than bludgeon.

“The very idea was as dangerous as presumptive speech: happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped; it should not be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all.”

Christmas in Austin: A Review

Centred around the four Essinger family as they descend upon their family home for Christmas, this is Markovtiz’s seventh novel and a typically incisive examination of the tensions in familial relationships. With each member of the family given their own turn at the narrative we get an insight into the conflict between living a life of one’s own and wedging oneself back into a life one no longer fits into. 

 

There’s a dryness in the novel as despite the familial relationships, each family member is keeping secrets from one another. All conversation is superficial, as observed by Dana, the ex-partner of Paul Essinger, through whose eyes we see the family interactions most frequently. I found it difficult to warm to any of the characters as a result – although we learnt their inner thoughts, they lacked passion and depth – perhaps this is the point Markovits is making, that we revert to painted versions of our childhood selves when back together for family occasions. Although it was clever, witty and ultimately readable, this book kept me at a distance – much like the characters keep one another at arm’s length throughout.

Wood Bee Poet

Poems, thoughts...etc.

The Pledge

Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon

Nicola Heaney

Writer & Poet

Freefall

'She would say to discover / the true depth of a well, / drop a stone, / start counting.' - Andrew Greig