Category Archives: poetry

Yet More Of What I’ve Been Reading

'A Favourite Author' by Poul Friis Nybo

I tend to blog only about books I like1, because why would I want to draw attention to books I hated? But until now, I’ve avoided discussing books by contemporary Australian authors, even books I’ve loved. I was worried readers would think I was only praising the book because I was friends with the author. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, now that I think about it (especially as I don’t actually know many other authors). So I’ve decided that I will talk about these books from now on, but I’ll add a disclaimer explaining my relationship with the author, so readers can judge for themselves whether my opinion of the book is impartial or not.

(Note to self: Why am I bothering to go on about this? Hardly anyone reads this blog, anyway. And those who do are well aware that Memoranda is not The New York Review of Books.)

(Note to any Australian authors who may be reading this: If I haven’t written glowing praise of your latest work, just assume I haven’t read it, which is almost certainly true.)

On to what I’ve been reading:

Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

DISCLAIMER: I’ve never met Simmone Howell, but she once asked me to write a guest post for her blog and we exchanged emails about this and we sent each other copies of our novels (this is like exchanging business cards, but involves a lot more reading). I loved her first novel, Notes from the Teenage Underground; I liked-with-reservations her second novel, Everything Beautiful.

I think her third novel, Girl Defective, is brilliant, and I’m predicting it’ll be on all the award shortlists next year (oh, I hope I haven’t jinxed it now). This is a smart, funny, warm-hearted novel about a flawed but loving family, made up of teenage narrator Sky, her odd little brother Gully, and their alcoholic dad, who runs a record shop2. Sky’s mother has abandoned them, and, as if Sky didn’t have enough to do looking after Gully, she’s worried she’s losing her only friend, a cute boy has started working at their shop, and mysterious graffiti art featuring a missing girl has begun appearing all over their suburb. There was so much I liked about this book. Gully’s detective work! The vivid portrait of St Kilda, which is almost a character in itself. All the great lines (“Sending Nancy texts was like sending dogs into space. Nothing came back.”) That Sky’s discoveries about love are as much about family and friendships as about sex. That the interlocking mysteries are revealed at exactly the right pace, without any implausibly neat endings. That it’s gritty and dark, but not without hope. In fact, it’s a testament to how good this novel is that it involves a variation of one of my least favourite YA tropes ever (Slutty Self-Destructive Teen Girl Dies So That Teen Boy Can Grow Up And Learn Stuff About Life) and yet I still loved it. A warning for SqueakyCleanReads fans: this book probably isn’t for you, given all the sex and drugs and rock-and-roll, some of it under-age. For other YA readers, Girl Defective is highly recommended. It came out in Australia earlier this year, and will be published by Atheneum in the US next year.

Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain

DISCLAIMER: I’ve never met, talked with or emailed Georgia Blain, but we were once meant to appear on the same panel discussing YA literature at a literary festival. The organisers inexplicably scheduled the YA talk for nine o’clock on a Sunday morning, then required bookings from anyone planning to attend, then were surprised at the subsequent lack of bookings and cancelled the event at the last minute. I was quite relieved about this because a) they’d neglected to tell me what, exactly, we were meant to be discussing (surely the existence of YA literature is not, in itself, a topic of discussion), and b) I didn’t really want to get up at dawn on a Sunday to trek across Sydney. So, that is the sum total of my connection to Georgia Blain, who, for non-Australian readers, is a well-known Serious Literature person who’s written one YA novel, which I didn’t like much3, plus some grown-up fiction and non-fiction.

Births, Deaths, Marriages is a thoughtful and moving account of the author’s childhood, which looked perfect from the outside (a bright, pretty child with rich and famous parents, living in a lovely house in a beautiful part of Sydney) but was actually riven with conflict. Her father seemed to have some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder and was verbally and physically abusive (“it was the threat of what he might do that kept us tiptoeing, scared, around him”) and her elder brother got caught up in a life of crime and drug abuse, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and died of an overdose. Her mother, the writer and broadcaster Anne Deveson, was a talented, strong-minded individual and a passionate feminist, but it took her years to decide to leave her abusive marriage, and this book is particularly good at describing the conflicting loyalties and societal pressures that turn us all into hypocrites: “I had absorbed my mother’s success, her ideological beliefs, and her years of appeasing my father in equal measures . . . we are all capable of holding many selves in argument with each other.” Not surprisingly, given the chaos and trauma of her early years, the author turns into a perfectionist adult, over-analysing everything, including her happiness. Her relationship with her loving partner is fraught; when she achieves her longed-for pregnancy, she spends the whole time panicking about how she’ll cope with the birth, then is overwhelmed by the reality of caring for a helpless infant. I was really impressed with both the quality of the writing and the brutal honesty involved in this memoir, although I couldn’t help wondering how those close to the author felt about being the subject of her gaze. (Of course, she wonders about this at length, too: “How can I write about the people I know? What gives me the right to expose them?” But then she does it anyway. Although she’s much harder on herself than on anyone else still alive.) Recommended for those who like memoirs, especially those interested in the lives of Australian women.

Oh, good, I don’t have to write any more disclaimers, because the writers are all either dead, or living on the other side of the planet.

The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

This was a great coming-of-age novel set in post-war England, about three Yorkshire schoolgirls who win scholarships to university. One is a Jewish refugee who escaped Germany in 1938 and has no idea if the rest of her family survived the Holocaust. Another is a doctor’s daughter wondering how to sustain her relationship with a working-class boy. Meanwhile sweet, innocent Hetty, who never expected to get into university, worries about her academic ability, struggles to become independent of her smothering, tactless mother, and falls in love with a very unsuitable aristocrat. Really, there’s enough in any one of these girls’ stories for an entire novel, and so the author resorts to leaving some very big gaps in the narrative, which didn’t always work for me. However, I loved the emotional honesty in the descriptions of the family relationships and enjoyed all the clever, sharp descriptions. For example, Hetty, holidaying on a farm, observes “a brindled cat and kittens [which] lay in a cardboard box by the fender, the kittens feeding in a row like a packet of sausages . . . Their eyes, still shut, bulged under peanut lids.” But this is Jane Gardam, so you know not to expect sentimentality, and sure enough, two paragraphs later, a lamb has died and “the cat started eating it. Still warm, but they know. It’s Nature. Now, what’s wrong with Hetty? . . . She’s gone white.” Poor Hetty. Anyway, this is a very good read, as is Bilgewater, another coming-of-age novel by the same author.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

Yes, I do actually read books written by men. I picked this up because I recently watched (and liked) the film by Tom Ford. This novel was beautifully written, with a lot of insightful commentary on relationships, ageing, death and grief, as well as some sharp satire targeting American consumer culture and 1960s homophobia. Unfortunately, there was also some really vile misogyny, and I wasn’t sure whether this was purely the opinion of the protagonist (a clever and endearing man, whom we’re meant to admire) or of the author as well. I suspect the latter. The writing was otherwise wonderful – lucid and often very funny – so I will probably read some more of this author’s work – perhaps the book that inspired the film, Cabaret. I must say, though, the film version of A Single Man had so little in common with the book that I’m surprised the film-maker gave his work the same title. (The film, for those who haven’t seen it, looks like a glossy fashion advertisement, so I’m not sure Tom Ford noticed the anti-consumerist message of the book at all. The film also gives the main character an entirely different story – the main character plans his death, which focuses his attention on all the beauty and love that remains in his life, despite the loss of his partner.)

The Works of Emily Dickinson

She goes on about God and Death a little too enthusiastically for my tastes, but she really could pack a punch into a quatrain, couldn’t she? I hadn’t read many of her poems before, and I was knocked sideways by the power of the images she conjured. Some of my favourite poems in this collection were The Inevitable, Childish Griefs, A Thunder-Storm, Apocalypse and Loyalty.

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  1. The exception being my Dated Books series.
  2. Yes, records. Those dusty round vinyl things full of music that people used to play in the olden days. Actually, the shop reminded me of Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity.
  3. Darkwater, which involved one of my least favourite YA tropes ever (see above), a bland protagonist with almost nothing at stake, a mystery so obvious that even I’d figured it out within the first few chapters, and some really clunky expository dialogue. However, it also contained some beautiful descriptive writing and a great depiction of a mother-daughter relationship. And lots of readers loved it, and it was a CBCA Notable Book, so check it out if you think it sounds like your sort of book.

The Spent Deep Feigns Her Rest . . .

Today’s poem is by Rudyard Kipling, who held some very unappealing beliefs about war and empire-building and The White Man’s Burden, but also wrote some excellent children’s books. He even won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. This particular poem is quoted by Sophie in A Brief History of Montmaray, and is best read aloud while stomping about the deck of a sailing ship.

Warning: this poem may be seen by some as amoral, as the narrator firmly declares that he does not want to work in a church.

The Bell Buoy

They christened my brother of old—
And a saintly name he bears—
They gave him his place to hold
At the head of the belfry-stairs,
Where the minster-towers stand
And the breeding kestrels cry.
Would I change with my brother a league inland?
(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!

In the flush of the hot June prime,
O’er sleek flood-tides afire,
I hear him hurry the chime
To the bidding of checked Desire;
Till the sweated ringers tire
And the wild bob-majors die.
Could I wait for my turn in the godly choir?
(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!

When the smoking scud is blown—
When the greasy wind-rack lowers—
Apart and at peace and alone,
He counts the changeless hours.
He wars with darkling Powers
(I war with a darkling sea);
Would he stoop to my work in the gusty mirk?
(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not he!

There was never a priest to pray,
There was never a hand to toll,
When they made me guard of the bay,
And moored me over the shoal.
I rock, I reel, and I roll—
My four great hammers ply—
Could I speak or be still at the Church’s will?
(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!

The landward marks have failed,
The fog-bank glides unguessed,
The seaward lights are veiled,
The spent deep feigns her rest:
But my ear is laid to her breast,
I lift to the swell—I cry!
Could I wait in sloth on the Church’s oath?
(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!

At the careless end of night
I thrill to the nearing screw;
I turn in the clearing light
And I call to the drowsy crew;
And the mud boils foul and blue
As the blind bow backs away.
Will they give me their thanks if they clear the banks?
(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not they!

The beach-pools cake and skim,
The bursting spray-heads freeze,
I gather on crown and rim
The grey, grained ice of the seas,
Where, sheathed from bitt to trees,
The plunging colliers lie.
Would I barter my place for the Church’s grace?
(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!

Through the blur of the whirling snow,
Or the black of the inky sleet,
The lanterns gather and grow,
And I look for the homeward fleet.
Rattle of block and sheet—
‘Ready about—stand by!’
Shall I ask them a fee ere they fetch the quay?
(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!

I dip and I surge and I swing
In the rip of the racing tide,
By the gates of doom I sing,
On the horns of death I ride.
A ship-length overside,
Between the course and the sand,
Fretted and bound I bide
Peril whereof I cry.
Would I change with my brother a league inland?
(Shoal! ’Ware shoal!) Not I!

'Storm on the Sea' by Johannes Christiaan Schotel, c 1825

‘Storm on the Sea’ by Johannes Christiaan Schotel, c 1825

Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart

I am more of a dog person than a cat person, but I was completely charmed by Christopher Smart’s ode to his cat Jeoffry, when I first read it a few years ago. The Jeoffry verses are part of a much longer work, Jubilate Agno1, which was written sometime between 1759 and 1763. Christopher and Jeoffry were incarcerated at St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics at the time, which may account for what Robert Pinsky calls the “oddball, manic seriousness” of the poem.

Poor Christopher Smart died in a debtor’s prison a few years later, and Jubilate Agno was not published until 1939. Naturally, Rupert Stanley-Ross loved it and learned the Jeoffry section by heart, which is why he’s able to quote from it in The FitzOsbornes at War. There wasn’t room to quote the entire Jeoffry section in that book, so here it is, for those who are interested.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually — Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is affraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroaking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

'Six studies of a cat' by Thomas Gainsborough

‘Six studies of a cat’ by Thomas Gainsborough, 1763–70

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  1. The Jeoffry segment can be found in Fragment B, part 4.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

Those beautiful, elaborate paper sculptures that have been popping up in Edinburgh libraries seem to have come to an end, sadly. Thank you, Mysterious Sculptor, for sharing them with us.

Which reminds me of my favourite entry in this year’s Creative Reading Prize in the Inkys – the amazing book sculpture (I’m not sure how else to describe it) of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Look at wee Harry, climbing through the tunnel with his broom, and Slytherin’s locket, and the detailed blurb on the back cover! Fabulous work, Rebecca. (And yes, my favourite entry last year was the French-knitted Harry Potter.)

I love this: Lies I’ve Told My 3 Year Old Recently. Except the fourth one isn’t actually a lie. Tiny bears DO live in drain pipes.

The FitzOsbornes don’t live in a drain pipe, but they are on the Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Books of 2011 list. However, in the interests of balance and to stop myself getting a big head, I should point out that not everyone liked The FitzOsbornes in Exile. This Goodreads reviewer, for example, who said:

“The book was very unrealistic. First off, the reactions to certain situation were very unnaturally calm and anyone had real emotion to any situation. The story wasn’t bad but it shouldn’t have been that long for such a plot that wasn’t that interesting. Overall, the book left me with a very empty feeling. Nothing was settled. You never found out what happened to everyone. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.”

So, if you haven’t read any of my books: you’ve been warned.

But if that warning doesn’t put you off, you still have time to enter my Montmaray book giveaway. Entries close on the 4th of December (which is actually the 5th of December for Australians).

How I Learned To Hate Poetry

I didn’t always hate poetry. When I was little, I loved Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and the verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. I liked these poems because they were short, and funny, and made each word ‘do a lot of work’, as Humpty Dumpty observed. They had clever rhymes, and their rhythm had me stomping round the house, singing the words in my head. Poems back then were playful and witty and exuberant.

Then I started high school.

I don’t really blame the teachers. They had a syllabus to get through and a lot of bored, unruly students to control. But my English teachers turned poetry into something to be killed and dissected, rather than experienced and loved. (They tried to do this to novels, too, but novels are simply too large and robust to be damaged by this treatment, and in any case, I was reading enough novels outside class to counteract any ill effects.) It wasn’t just that I hated writing essays about poems. It was the type of poems we had to read. They were all written by men, mostly dead white men, and were usually about subjects I had no interest in. For instance: in my senior year of high school, we had to read something by Les Murray about beans (truly), and something by Philip Larkin about Whitsun (whatever that is). We also studied The Canterbury Tales, which weren’t even written in English. Worst of all, there was John Keats and his morbid, mawkish odes about dead knights and old vases. I walked out of my final English exam vowing I’d never read any poetry, ever again.

I kept my vow, mostly. There are a lot of things other than poetry to read, and I was busy devouring novels and short stories and non-fiction. I did read a few verse novels, by people like Dorothy Porter and David Levithan. I liked them, but I couldn’t help feeling that writers that good would have been better off writing proper novels, with punctuation.

Then I started writing my own novel, A Brief History of Montmaray, and realised almost at once that my narrator, Sophie, loved poetry. It was an essential part of her character, I could see that. Great. Now I’d have to start reading the blasted stuff again.

Well, here’s what I discovered. I still hated Keats, and I didn’t much like Tennyson, either. Reading Idylls of the King was like wading through treacle. I decided I preferred T. S. Eliot when he was writing about cats. But there were some pleasant surprises, too. For a Romantic, Shelley wasn’t too bad at all. I’d only ever thought of Kipling as one of those dusty Victorians with irritating views about India, but I loved The Bell Buoy. I found I absolutely adored W. H. Auden. And I’ve now ‘discovered’ (not really; I’m sure anyone with a degree in English Literature knows all about him) a wonderful eighteenth century poet I’m hugging to myself for the moment. A fragment of one of his poems is going into a pivotal scene of the third Montmaray novel, and I can’t wait to write that scene.

Note that all these poets are dead white men. I read these particular poets because that’s what Sophie and her friend Rupert were reading. In the 1930s. But apparently women wrote poetry, too, even back in the olden days. I haven’t got to them, yet. I may actually end up reading some for pleasure. You never know.