Books, glorious books

I am supposed to be reading Under the Wire by Iris Murdoch, and in fits and starts I am. It’s our book group choice for this month, and we meet again next week. I am just under halfway through and it’s a slim volume, so in theory there wouldn’t be any difficulty.

However, this week sees publication of Hilary Mantel’s new novel, the third and final part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. It began with Wolf Hall, continued with Bring up the Bodies, and concludes with The Mirror and the Light. The excerpts and reviews I have read confirm that this is going to be wonderful. Not even knowing how it all ends badly for Cromwell, a man who prior to reading Wolf Hall I thought of with an inward shudder, but who now, thanks to Mantel’s sympathetic, human portrayal, I feel a great sympathy, even affection for, will stop me from reading it.

I preordered my copy last May, but now it turns out I shall have two, as Celia and I have booked seats to hear Mantel on Friday at the RFH and our expensive tickets include a copy of the novel. In Under the Wire‘s favour, The Mirror and the Light is not a slim volume, and so I shall be unlikely to be tempted to carry it with me to and from work. But then Coronavirus is affecting my work. I haven’t caught it, but I am freelance and much of my work is with people from abroad. The cancellations are rolling in.

I returned another wonderful book to the library on Tuesday – Rose Elliot’s Complete Vegan. I have renewed it five times, but now finally ordered my own copy. I didn’t intend to borrow anything, but these two books caught my eye. I borrowed them both.

Front covers


Both were on the stands displaying new books. Both I realised belatedly were by poets. I’ve written about Lemm Sissay before, both his poetry and some scant details of his life. He is someone I already admire hugely, and whose poetry gives words flight. Ilya Kaminsky was unknown to me before we went to hear the shortlisted poets read at the TS Eliot event in January. He lost most of his hearing as a young child when the doctor misdiagnosed his mumps as a cold.

At home, after supper, I opened the Lemn Sissay book, My Name is Why. It’s a memoir, a piece of detection, a shocking account of psychological abuse, of neglect, of institutions and how institutionalised adults who work in our homes for looked after children fail to give those children the care, affection and understanding they need. It’s angry, but never self pitying. Each chapter begins with a few short lines of poetry. Some are repeated in later chapters, just a tiny difference, a comma added or missing perhaps, marking change.

This from Chapter 13, when his foster parents, with whom he has been since a baby, withdraw from him, marking the start of years of isolation, emotional neglect, loss of self worth:

He lost touch at night
Their fingertips withdrew
Nobody touched him, light
Except you

Chapter 10
Secrets are the stones
That sink the boat
Take them out, look at them
Throw them out, and float

and in Chapter 22
Secrets are the stones
That sink the boat
Take them out look at them
Throw them out and float

I read it in one sitting. My respect for Lemn Sissay grew as the pages turned. How he survived is a testament to his character and resilience. There were fortunately a few people along the way who spoke for him, who did care. Without them he might well not be alive today.

Read it.

Last night I opened Deaf Republic, the volume of poems for which Ilya Kaminsky was shortlisted. I didn’t expect to carry on reading to the end, but I did. I didn’t expect the same level of anguish delivered in beautiful writing, but that’s what I found. Set in an unnamed country the volume opens as soldiers arrive to ‘protect our freedom’ and shoot dead a deaf child. The population all becomes deaf. Arrests, further killings, protests are described in a few lines. On page after he writes of the descent into a life where the shocking and senseless violence becomes the norm. Passivity and powerlessness becomes acceptance, a shrug of the shoulders.

What Are Days

Like middle-aged men,
the days of May
walk to prisons.
Like young men they walk to prisons,
thrown over their pajamas.

As I read it was easy to think this a collection of poems about war and oppression. At least at first it was. But soon the deafness, which has started as a reaction, becomes a way of ignoring of not acknowledging and is something that affects us all. So by the last poem, set in in a peaceful the deafness is a way of not noticing, of not standing up. There is more than one way to be deaf.

I shan’t type it, it’s quite long, but click here to read it.


5 thoughts on “Books, glorious books

  1. Pingback: I liked What He Said | Pat Bean's blog

  2. So sorry to hear about the downturn in business. I am listening to a news report about the 70% decline of tourists in our Chinatown. I’m supposed to go to a conference in 2 weeks and I’m waiting to hear if it will be cancelled. Being on edge is not my favorite place to be – thanks for the poetry to place our current situation in perspective.

    • It has already been a slow winter, so I am having to rethink future plans. It could mean semi retirement. That might not be such a bad thing.
      Deaf Republic is very much a volume of poetry for our time. He lives in the US now so I imagine his work is widely available your side of the pond.

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