Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

Before I read this collection, I was familiar with Shire’s poetry through this piece and extracts I had seen on the internet. These tasters left me hungry for more, the same way catching the end of a song on the radio might make you want to search out the rest.
Shire’s writing has an immediacy and a potency that grips, whether in written or spoken form. The collection itself is relatively strong. Shire sings the body beautiful, but in rather broad strokes. From the overlapping perspectives of woman, Somalian, lover, daughter, immigrant, human–the poems are incredibly personal, and closely written, like having secrets whispered in your ear. Shire’s candidness is striking.
Some of the poems are powerful, but their effectiveness seems to lessen on each reread, rather than increase. One word comes to mind when considering TMMTGB and that is flashy. Flashy can be mistaken for brilliant at first glance (or listen), and certainly it knows how to work your senses. But as Shire shows all her best moves at the same time, there’s not a lot holding them together. I can’t deny the effectiveness of the collection, it’s just that, taking ideas away, they seem a little shallow. Immature, maybe. Beautiful word compositions over strong foundations.

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smuggled poem


Reading Aimee Herman’s To Go Without Blinking. Have a taster

Originally posted on Aimee Herman:

this poem is queer with white disco blood cells, turning over floor boards purchased from mice and roaches with a lineage of two hundred million years ago

do not lock lips with this poem because your bed sore against this lip sore could lead to the need for medication in the form of cream or humiliation

this poem has been diagnosed with HPV, gonorrhea, syphilis, ADD, chlamydia, candidiasis, scabies, herpes, cataracts, genital warts, PTSD, bacterial vaginosis

this poem votes Republican, but calls itself a Democrat or does not vote at all due to overactive sleep cycle, laziness and the ability to pick a side

this poem needs to hire an accountant to keep track of its sexual partners

this poem steals prescriptions from medicine cabinets and bedside tables

this poem is into course language, orgies, erections, blow jobs, humiliation and the word NO

this poem places pills in pockets for…

View original 321 more words

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Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera


Life Is Elsewhere has been a three-, four- and five-star book. I couldn’t, and still can’t, make up my mind about it. At times I loved it, stopped at certain passages to marvel, to underline in order to remember later. Other times, I found myself rolling my eyes. By the end, I had to admit to myself that I was looking forward to finishing (the tell-tale signs: unconsciously skimming longer paragraphs; checking the page numbers to ascertain how many are left.) All in all, I’d say that, enjoyment and literary merit considered, this is a 3.5 for me. 

I only read Life Is Elsewhere because I’d recently read and adored The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Apart from a few little things that niggled and irritated (these were magnified and harder to overlook in LIS, I think), the reading experience was utterly lovely. I had this sensation I don’t often get with books where, on reading an author for the first time, I feel a sense of recognition. Not necessarily anything to do with the content (i.e. the plot resembling some life event of mine), this recognition is with the writing itself (the style, the voice, its perspective on things). As with déjà vu, I feel I’ve been there before – but obviously, haven’t. It was a book I felt I had been waiting to read, like I had always known it would end up in my hands someday. Some books just do that, and it’s the nicest thing. So, for this reason, on finding another Kundera novel on my parents’ shelves, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. 

In LIS, a poet is conceived, born, nurtured and adored. His childhood and his adulthood, his growth into poet, lover, political man, is a shared story, as much his mother’s as his. We begin with a conception and end with a death, and this is cleverly done. Kundera’s novel has a grandness to it, Jaromil the poet is The Poet, a figure at once candidly and closely drawn, cobbled together out of all the little and large experiences and influences that go about making a person, but is also distanced from, placed out of reach and made something more. At times he feels allegorical. Sometimes it felt as though Kundera was setting the poet up in a role not dissimilar to the gallant knight of an epic tale. This had much to do with Kundera’s presence in the text (as with TBOLAF). His frequent interjections into the narrative felt like an interruption, shaking up the text, disturbing the realness of a scene. These usually took the form of rhetorical questions, regarding character motivation, or else tried to set up Jaromil’s actions as something higher. The narrator repeatedly broke through what was otherwise described from a distance, and I found this bothersome. It felt incongruous against the intimate, more subtle narration of events elsewhere.

I didn’t always like the way LIS discussed sex and relationships. Assumptions the book made were reminiscent to me of Lawrence, at least in the way they made me feel uncomfortable. Does this mean I prefer it sugar-coated? Not at all. Hopeless and unromantic as Kundera’s depictions of sex could be (often with easy cruelty; at other times, every intimate act accompanied with some psychological explanation; and sometimes, sex as everything, some airy-fairy pursuit of truth), they didn’t feel especially like real life. In fact, it felt like Kundera trying to make his novel and its character weightier than they really were. Same with the author interjections. Shame, because beneath all that, the story is solid, without the need for every point to be wrung out and exhausted. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Jaromil’s childhood. The small politics of the classroom, a growing interest in literature, the transition from reader of poetry to writer of it, trying on the title of Poet like a hat, the pubescent boy’s dawning sexual awareness. There is a very knowing, wonderfully written section where the adolescent Jaromil decides he is in love with Madga, the maid in mourning with the ‘sorrow-lovely face’. He concocts a plan to watch her bathe. It is gloriously subtle section of the book, which really, despite its rigid chronology, has no real shape and is a thread of experiences, of which the seemingly inconsequential can have as much or more impact than the life-changing (a father in a concentration camp.) I loved the way Kundera was able to get into this young boy’s head. Jaromil’s total preoccupation with this act, the planning of it, the all-or-nothing importance it has to him. It felt real, I was able to believe in it. In this way, Kundera showed himself as a skilled, consummate and thoughtful writer, one who is able to zoom his lens in and out as easily as he achieves a panoramic sweep. 

I enjoyed the depiction of Maman’s loveless, dispiriting but not necessarily unhappy marriage, and of her love affair with the unnamed artist. It could so easily have been played as a rescue. And while it was a sexual awakening for Maman (her identity, even in this, always as a mother), the flaws in the pairing are evident. Maman sees herself as a reflection of what the artist wants to see. The artist begins to paint Maman, actually to paint her naked body, and she becomes a part of his art. Cleverly, the artist is described as a god of sorts, and Maman his creation. Maman is unhappy for it, or perhaps, since she has now known passion, unhappier than ever. She seemed to me a far richer, more interesting character than her son, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my interest began to wane around the time that Jaromil grew up and took centre-stage. However, the way mother and son’s stories were intertwined was well done. Too much of one of them would have called for a much smaller book. 

Flaws in the pacing, the rambling nature, the constant and obvious authorial insights, did not take away from the really rather lovely bones of this book. And, annoyed and indifferent as it made me at times, I’m glad I read it.

“The artist lavished attention on her and tried to draw her into the world of his paintings and thoughts. Maman liked that. It proved to her that their union was not merely a conspiracy of bodies exploiting a favorable situation.” 

“Éluard had become the poet of Magda’s calm body and of her eyes bathed by a sea of tears. He saw his entire life locked in the spell of a single line: sorrow-lovely face. Yes, that was Magda: sorrow-lovely face.” 

“At that point Maman really was little more than his image and his invention. She knew it, and she tried with all the self-control at her command to keep him from knowing it too, to keep him from realizing that she was not his partner, not a magical counterpart worthy of love, but only a lifeless reflection, an obedient looking glass, a passive surface on which he was projecting the images of his longing. She succeeded. The artist reached the climax of his joy and happily slid off her body. When she returned home, she felt as if she had undergone a great ordeal, and before going to sleep that night she wept.”

“She stood in the middle of the room and could think of nothing except her belly. She was afraid to look down but she saw it before his eyes as she knew it from a thousand desperate glances into the mirror.” 

“He was repelled by the pettiness that reduced life to mere existence and that turned men into half-men. He wanted to lay his life on a balance, the other side of which was weighted with death. He wanted to make his every action, every day, yes, every hour and minute worthy of being measured against the ultimate, which is death.” 

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The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim


The opening paragraph was the best thing about the book.

I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will go into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace.

A strange story. I never quite knew what it was getting at, but it was very prettily written. Lush, lyrical writing. The garden was full and alive, but the characters who inhabited it felt lifeless by comparison. I enjoyed the narrator’s discussion of literature, especially the way she linked her reading to the natural landscape. But, that wasn’t enough. I feel like I will forget about this book quickly.

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Love Poems by Anne Sexton

3.5 stars

On the day of breasts and small hips,
the window pocked with bad rain,
rain coming on like a minister,
we coupled, so sane and insane. 
We lay like spoons while the sinister
rain dropped like flies on our lips
and our glad eyes and our small hips.

“The room is so cold with rain,” you said
and you, feminine you, with your flower
said novenas to my ankles and elbows.
You are a national product and power.
Oh my swan, my drudge, my dear wooly rose,
even a notary would notarize our bed
as you knead me and I rise like bread.

(‘Song for a Lady’)

Another inconsistent collection from Anne Sexton. Apart from To Bedlam and Part Way Back, which was faultless from cover to cover, I find Sexton to be a very hit-and-miss poet. But when she succeeds, you don’t remember the lines that don’t work. It’s skin-tingling brilliance. I’d forgiven her anything, reading those lines that stick to you and don’t shake off. I’d even forgive her her sometimes odd, arbitrary choice of words, which reek of style over substance (and at other times are just weird: ‘cat-green ice’?) Sexton is personal, intimate, to the point of suffocation, but it is incredibly effective. I love her honesty. I love her stripped back, unflinching approach to writing about herself, her body, her lovers and their bodies. 

Fragments / love for Sexton’s love poems:

My mouth blooms like a cut


The end of the affair is always death.


At night, alone, I marry the bed.


I give you back your heart. / I give you permission – 

for the fuse inside her, throbbing / angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her / for the burying of her wound – / for the burying of her small red wound alive – 


She is so naked and singular. / She is the sum of yourself and your dream. / Climb her like a monument, step after step. / She is solid.

As for me, I am watercolor. / I wash off.


Look, / when it is over he places her, / like a phone, back on the hook.


Loving me with my shoes off, / means loving my long brown legs, / sweet dears, as good as spoons; / and my feet, those two children / let out to play naked.


Darling, you will yield up your belly and be / cored like an apple.


Notice how he has numbered the blue veins / in my breast. Moreover there are ten freckles. / Now he goes left. Now he goes right. / He is building a city, a city of flesh.


Being kissed on the back / of the knee is a moth / at the windowscreen


We are bare. We are stripped to the bone / and we swim in tandem and go up and up / the river, the identical river called Mine / and we enter together. No one’s alone.


Yesterday I did not want to be borrowed / but this is the typewriter that sits before me / and love is where yesterday is at. 

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Lifted: Jonathan Steffen on translating poetry

‘It is often said that poetry is that which cannot be translated. This assertion suggests that a true appreciation of poetry is only possible through reading it in the language in which it was originally written, for the fine nuances of meaning that make a work genuinely poetic will inevitably be lost when the work is translated into another language.

‘This argument ignores the huge impact that many translated works of poetry have had on the world. One thinks of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, to name but three poets whose writings have been appreciated in countless different translations over the course of many centuries. It also ignores the fact that many great poets have also been great translators — Geoffrey Chaucer for instance, or Alexander Pope, or Ezra Pound.

‘I would in fact argue that great poetry — and indeed, great literature in any genre — survives translation remarkably well. Generations of modern English-speakers have enjoyed the poetry of the Japanese haiku master Bashō, for instance, without having the first notion of the Japanese language, or any means by which to judge the accuracy of the translated versions which they are reading.

[On translating Rilke]

‘The attempt to render his works in English presented me with countless apparently insoluble translation problems. Yet my admiration for his work and my growing intimacy with the German language encouraged me to continue, often for weeks or months on end, in my attempt to render this or that phrase in a manner I could deem satisfactory. Many of these solutions came at odd moments, when I was supposed to be thinking of something entirely different. Many indeed came in the middle of the night, forcing me out of bed  between the hours of two and four into the morning — a time which I loved for its almost palpable quality of silence and solitude, and which I found to be extremely productive.’





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Review: Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore

Reading Helen Dunmore’s short story collection, Love of Fat Men, felt like people-watching, or those encounters you have with strangers, in shop queues, as bus-stops, waiting at a bar, which leave an imprint, small and very temporary, but an imprint all the same.

You wonder about their histories, these people; you wonder about their untold stories. You wonder if the married couple pushing the trolley through the supermarket are still in love. If the man sitting alone reading his book in the launderette is lonely or whether going there has afforded him an hour and a half of solitude in a busy day. Either way, the way his nose is almost touching the page tells you he’s forgotten everything else.

The appeal of strangers is their mystery, their strangeness. As with Dunmore’s stories, you the reader, the observer, slip in and out of a series of lives. You don’t interrupt. You’re just watching. You are very much apart from it, allowed just a taster. The rest, you must make up in your head.

So Dunmore does not try to get too much into her characters’ heads. She explains how they feel, their motivations, but that is not her focus. Rather, she creates these scenes, these snapshots, of the human experience. You come away knowing not much more about the characters than when you started, but that’s not a weakness. That’s the beauty of it. The mystery, to be built upon by the tools of your imagination, remains. Like those strangers you wonder about as they walk out of sight.

I believe this is was a short story should be. An observation. A sketch. Quiet – detailed yet detached. Fascinating and mysterious. Not epiphanic, not promising it knows the wholeness of things. Instead, a hint. The best short stories, instead of being wholesome and rounded like a poem, often feel rather incomplete.

Dunmore’s prose is exquisite. Crisp, elegant. I had this sustained feeling of recognition, of scenes, moments—quiet moments—of particular times of day. It’s a lovely feeling when someone else is able to skewer them perfectly to the page. The images she conjures up are textured, flavoured, scented. Image after image, sensation after sensation, rise up, fade away, and are replaced by new ones.

A wonderful collection. Recommended.

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