November 11th, 2012

book and cup

#116 Shrinking Violet - Karina Lickorish Quinn (2012)

Well this was not something that I had planned on reading this month, but thanks to Simon at stuckinabook I downloaded it to my kindle yesterday after reading his excellent review of it. So far it is only available on kindle – and at just 77p is really rather a lovely little bargain. I got stuck into it myself straight away.
In many ways this short little book is not my usual kind of thing at all. However I needed something light and bright after the pall cast by the sad but utterly brilliant Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
This novel is a cleverly written work of imagination. With more than a nod towards Lewis Carroll’s Alice, it is a surreal yet touching coming of age tale. With references galore to jam tarts, white rabbits, pocket watches, lateness and snarks, this is a book that will delight the Lewis Carroll aficionado.
Violet lives in a quirky eccentric household in Oxford. A strikingly tall girl, who started off very small as a child, she has a wonderfully close relationship with her grandfather, Julius who now lives in the basement, and once wrote a famous book. Now Julius is developing dementia and writes haiku on scraps of paper.
It was true that it was a most impractical house. Violet’s family lived in a higgledy-piggledy house with seven floors, because no two rooms were level, but each was connected by a set of stairs to the other. The house was also full of doors here and there of all shapes and sizes leading to cupboards and passages or to nowhere at all. There was not a single right angle in it. Under every piece of furniture was wedged a notebook or a folded handkerchief to stop them from wobbling on the uneven floors. Every breakable object was stuck down with glue or adhesive tape. Not even the pictures on the walls could be balanced in such a way as to hang straight.
We see the world through the eyes of a growing Violet, it’s often an odd world, a conversation with a dodo and an elephant bird at the British Museum just one example of the author’s marvellous imagery in this novel.
When Violet’s family suddenly tell her that she has lost her spark, Violet realises she must find out who it is she really is. With her grandfather slipping away into dementia – Violet is forced to do this by herself.
A quick, light read, with a poignant sweet little ending, I am glad I got to read something different, and must thank Simon for introducing me to it.

#5 Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds

Title: Stag's Leap
Author: Sharon Olds
Genre: Poetry, 2012
Summary: A collection of poems from Sharon Olds, dealing with the emotional devastation of her divorce from her husband of 30+ years.

Sharon Olds is one of my favorite poets. I have more of her works of poetry in my library than any other poet. If you've read one her poems in an anthology, its a good chance that poem was about her love for her husband. I would guess about 50% of her entire work and the overwhelming majority of her famous poems were centered around the theme of how besotted she was with her husband. I was shocked (and even grieved) to read that her husband left her after 30+ years of marriage for a younger woman. This book of poetry is about the emotional devastation of that abandonment.
This was an emotional read for me. As a fan of her work, you are forced to retcon her prior poems, as she herself as retconned them. These lines from the poem "Stag's Leap" (which gives the book its name) cut me, knowing how much they must have cut her:

...Oh my mate. I was vain of his
faithfulness, as if it was
a compliment, rather than a state
of partial sleep. And when I wrote about him, did
feel he had to walk around
carrying my books on his head like a stack of
posture volumes, or the rack of horns
hung where a hunter washes the venison
down with the sauvignon?

How painful this was to read when you juxtaposed it against one of her most anthologized poems, the brutally joyful "Greed and Aggression" (from my favorite book of hers, The Gold Cell):

Someone in Quaker meeting talks about greed and aggression
and I think of the way I lay the massive
weight of my body down on you
like a tiger lying down in gluttony and pleasure on the
elegant heavy body of the eland it eats,
the spiral horn pointing to the sky like heaven.
Ecstasy has been given to the tiger,
forced into its nature the way the
forcemeat is cranked down the throat of the held goose,
it cannot help it, hunger and the glory of
eating packed at the center of each
tiger cell, for the life of the tiger and the
making of new tigers, so there will
always be tigers on the earth, their stripes like
stripes of night and stripes of fire-light––
so if they had a God it would be striped,
burnt-gold and black, the way if
I had a God it would renew itself the
way you live and live while I take you as if
consuming you while you take me as if
consuming me, it would be a God of
love as complete satiety,
greed and fullness, aggression and fullness, the
way we once drank at the body of an animal
until we were so happy we could only
faint, our mouths running, into sleep.

If you've never read her work before, this isn't a good place to start. These poems are mainly serviceable, not bad certainly, but not great either. Perhaps intense grief, leaches too much out of you, for you to be articulate about it. There's a surprising lack of fury about her husband's affair. She's still sleeps with him after learning about it with none of the rancor Anne Carson so aptly distilled in her poem "The Glass Essay"

Everything I know about love and its necessities   
I learned in that one moment   
when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon   
at a man who no longer cherished me.   
There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body   
that could have done otherwise.

Instead her emotions are forgiving, even grovelling in her poem "Gramercy":

It was as if he was suing for peace,
asking if this could be over-maybe not
just this time, but over. He was solid
within me, suing for peace. And I
subsided, but then my bright tail
lolloped again, and I whispered, Just one
more?, and his indulgent grunt
seemed, to be, to have pleasure, and even
affection, in it

It seems as if Olds couldn't summon the energy that the emotion of betrayal requires. I'm not critiquing that, I think the emotional response you have to romantic failure is heavily dependent on your age and the length of your relationship. I just find these heartbreaking poems not easily relatable, as I haven't, and indeed few people have, been in the position of the failure of a marriage that last as long and was as seemingly nourishing as Sharon Old's marriage.

That being said, this work is by no means an artistic failure, just not a good introduction to her work. My favorite poem from this collection is "The Flurry" is as good as anything Olds has ever written.

When we talk about when to tell the kids,
we are so together, so concentrated.
I mutter, “I feel like a killer.” “I’m
the killer”—taking my wrist—he says,
holding it. He is sitting on the couch,
the old indigo chintz around him,
rich as a night sea with jellies,
I am sitting on the floor. I look up at him,
as if within some chamber of matedness,
some dust I carry around me. Tonight,
to breathe its Magellanic field is less
painful, maybe because he is drinking
a wine grown where I was born—fog,
eucalyptus, sempervirens—and I’m
sharing the glass with him. “Don’t catch
my cold,” he says, “—oh that’s right, you want
to catch my cold.” I should not have told him that,
I tell him I will try to fall out of
love with him, but I feel I will love him
all my life. He says he loves me
as the mother of our children, and new troupes
of tears mount to the acrobat platforms
of my ducts and do their burning leaps.
Some of them jump straight sideways, and, for a
moment, I imagine a flurry
of tears like a wirra of knives thrown
at a figure, to outline it—a heart’s spurt
of rage. It glitters, in my vision, I nod
to it, it is my hope.