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Not Moving Even One Step

The rain falling too lightly to shape
an audible house, an audible tree,
blind, soaking, the old horse waits in his pasture.

He knows the field for exactly what it is:
his limitless mare, his beloved.
Even the mallards sleep in her red body maned
in thistles, hooved in the new green shallows of spring.

Slow rain streams from the fetlocks, hips, the lowered head,
while she stands in the place beside him that no one sees.

The muzzles almost touch.
How silently the heart pivots on its hinge.

Taken from Jane Hirshfield’s 1997 collection, The Lives of the Heart, ‘Not Moving Even One Step’ is one of my favourites, partly because it’s beautiful, and partly because it’s about a sad old horse. A lot of the poems in this collection are about nature, and the idea, absorbed from the natural world, that things are as they are, that there is not always a lot to be done to change events/our selves, loves, lives etc. The natural world, although we can observe it, and attempt to capture it with words, remains separate from us, unconcerned by our obsession. This creates a conflicting irony throughout Hirshfield’s poetry, one that the poet is completely aware of: as she absorbs nature and attempts to pin it down with words, her personal world framed by the natural world, the natural world remains apart, refusing to bend its will, it cannot, it is an impossibility. Yet despite the author’s awareness of this fact, she continues her struggle. This is demonstrated beautifully in ‘Leaf’:

Large as two hands together,

still cupping rain,

yellow of amber stripped lightless,

scent of cold leather.

Nameless, one of ten thousand,

lifted without complaint or hope

to this painted table,

neither envelope or letter.

Almost nothing. Yet before you,

words lie down in envy and silence,

switch their tales,

bury their damp, dark snouts between paws.

I love how the whole argument of this poem is eventually defied by the final metaphor. Mere words, unable to encapture the beauty of the simple leaf, are compared to sulking dogs; an ironic comparison, as it forces the leaf and the inadequate words together inside the category of natural world. Words are unable to match the beauty of the leaf, and yet find themselves a part of that sphere. Hence, the author demonstrates how the tensions between nature and written word are overpowering, one lost in the other through the miss-judgement of the author’s hand.

This idea is one which is re-worked again in ‘Not Moving Even One Step’. The horse is a part of the field, they are one of the same, it is described as his ‘limitless mare’…‘maned in thistles, hooved in the new green shallows of spring.’ The rainwater washes over him; he is absorbed by his surroundings. His refusal to move, despite the conditions and the fact that his history is one entwined with an idea of movement, freedom and travel, is suggestive of despair, or of some secret thing for which he must ‘wait’ (l. 3). Moreover, this refusal to move also removes our human connection with him as a vehicle, an animal to carry us forward, a traditional beast of burden. It re-signifies him instead as a lover, mourning his lost mate who ‘stands in the place beside him that no one sees.’

Ironically, the horse is now re-burdened with another human fantasy, one that imagines him to love and mourn as we do, the author reflecting onto him human emotions and capabilities. The final line ‘How silently the heart pivots on its hinge’, more realistically refers to our own human hearts moving in sympathy to what we imagine the horse to feel, rather than his own heart pivoting on the memory of his missing mate. In this respect Hirshfield has turned full circle throughout the poetic process, removing human burden from the horse by ironically re-aligning him with human emotion; proving that nature, poetry and words cannot help but inter-mingle due to the weakness of our own human understanding.

My Favourite Review

The poet Rosanna Warren has said: ‘Hirshfield has elaborated a sensuously philosophical art that imposes a pause in our fast-forward habits of mind. Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature…. Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfield’s poems clear a space for reflection and change. They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance.’

….and the Hungry Mind Review put it beautifully when they say:

‘[She] writes for readers who have lived a little- that is to say a lot; who have lost and grieved, and know how painful the capacity to love can be.’

Not even a tiny, little, incy-wincy bit of criticism could pass from my lips. Hirshfield writes simple, effortless, perfect, human poetry that is just so lovely to read.

Love,

Zoe

4/5 Stars

Tiger Hills

Quick Overview

Sarita Mandanna’s debut novel is an overwhelming subject thoroughfare, ambitiously attempting to address issues of love, place, suicide, war, family, religion, superstition, rape, bullying, colonialism, childhood, education, death, money, business, beauty and so much more. It’s a buy one subject get a thousand free type of book; topical sardines crammed onto the pages. To be fair to Mandanna, she pulls off this spectacular feat fairly well, and for the first twenty or so years of the novel (about half way through) I was completely, spectacularly, unashamedly hooked.

This first section addresses the early lives of Devi and Devanna who grow up together in the beautiful Coorg Mountains of Southern India. The pair are inseparable through childhood, though the reader understands at a very early stage that their lives will not be left un-tinged by tragedy; the herons which fly above Devi’s mother as she gives birth, the horoscope reading and reflections of the local priest and the all knowing narrative voice leave us waiting and prepared for some type of agonizing and painful event. All though it was easy to foresee the love triangle which opens up between Devi, Machu the tiger killer, and Devanna (Devanna believing that Devi will always be his, whilst Devi vows as a stubborn ten-year old that she will eventually marry the famed and heralded tiger killer Machu) Mandanna manages to completely shock the reader with the terrible act which fuses all three together into a future of black tragedy (I won’t ruin it for you, but it’s horrible. Lots of horrible things happen actually. If you’re not into pet death/squirrel torture then I suggest you don’t read it over breakfast- my big mistake.)

Whilst this part of the story is encaptivating, enthralling, Mandanna now moves on into the lives of the ageing protagonists and their children. Whilst I was never tempted to put the book down (the beginning was so beautiful, I knew there must be an ending to match) the tale becomes worn in this stretch, weighted down by topic, the heavy sense of time and the burden of threads left untidy. Whilst this is a wonderful novel, it struggles to achieve the momentous heights it had laid out for itself so early on.

A Picture Portrait

Yellow hibiscus/Indian flowers: Flowers, nature, gardening and botany are all themes used for their symbolistic ends by the author. Devanna creates a garden in tribute to Devi though fails to plant the yellow hibiscus, Devi’s favourite plant which reminds her of Machu; a fact Dev is unaware of. A space in the garden remains which Dev hopes to fill with a rare flower he has searched for since his childhood. The fact that the garden is beautifully rich with flowers and life, though remains bare of the plants they both truly love, encaptulates the feeling which pervades the final stretch of the novel: The pair living lives which are full of everything bar that which they truly desire.

Croquet on the lawn, dahhlinggg: English colonizers and their brash and pompous ways; it really is enough to make you hate yourself. Also a feature of the latter part of the novel, we are given an insight into their lifestyle, and the irrepressible influence this has on the people of Coorg. Devi’s adopted son Appu is given an english education and finds himself in a strange no-man’s land across cultures. Drinking whisky and partying hard, he insists the family discuss their day in the dining room before proceeding to supper. Furthermore, we are shown how his hybridity, whilst leading to cultural insight and political power, can only result in personal disaster; his marriage with local Coorg villager Baby doomed to failure.

My Favourite Review…

…is by Sarah Johnson on Blogger.com (http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/2010/05/report-on-sarita-mandannas-tiger-hills.html) and goes a bit like this:

‘In a way I felt I arrived in Mandanna’s Coorg as a tourist who decided to stay. I was caught first by the magnificence of the landscape, flora, and fauna, then slowly introduced to its people’s customs, ceremonies, and traditions. Only later did I get to know the characters. They don’t reveal their inner selves to strangers easily, though after a while I didn’t feel like a stranger any longer. The novel’s historical focus becomes more political in the later sections, though European influences on Coorg (the missionaries, the coffee planters, the prestige of an overseas education) are seen throughout.

Tiger Hills presents universal themes such as our relationships with our surroundings, the unpredictable patterns of our lives, and the happiness we evoke and stifle in one another, and the author’s rich, mesmerizing language brings them all to life. And in composing this eloquent hymn to her homeland, she made me believe that Coorg must be the single most beautiful place on earth.’

Criticism

Let’s be honest, there was enough of that in ‘Quick Outline’….but seriously, even the Hitler youth are some how squeezed in. In a historical representation of Southern India? Really? It’s enough to make your head explode.

Love,

Zoe

3.5/5 Stars


                             Quick Outline

Daisy Waugh’s Last Dance with Valentino is a twirling, musical, suspense filled lovestory; weaving a flowery tale around the real life of Rudolph Valentino, famous actor and early pop icon of the 1920’s. The story opens on seventeen-year-old Jenny Doyle and her impossible, cureless artist father as they cross the Atlantic; from gloomy wartime London to the seemingly sparkling freshness of New York, where it appears, almost anything is possible. Jenny is enrolled immediately as a nanny for the rich and dysfunctional de Saulles, spending her first night at their home, ‘The Box’ , undetected; obscured by inconsequence. Whilst the de Saulles and their guests are too far removed by alcohol, snobbery and their own distorted relationships to harbour any interest in Jenny, Rudolpho/Rudy is drawn to her. He is, at that time, a lowly dance teacher, and the pair are able to share in the alien feeling of loneliness which is married resolutely to the displacement of home. That night they dance and from then on their friendship and future love becomes sealed indefinitely.

Eventually, however, affairs at ‘The Box’, which had been in gradual, jarring decline; reach a climax, sending the pair, who are by now lovers, orbiting on separate paths, which, due to unlucky circumstance and the cruel hand of fate, fail to cross for another ten years.

The story is one of loneliness and loss, of an aching love which remains constant despite the passing of hard, unrelenting time. Albeit a rather painful subject matter; the hodgepodge of poignant and colourful characters, the structure which zigzags back and forth through time, and the first person narrative voice of Jenny (brilliantly funny), leaves the reader able to lift their head above the drowning pressure of dismal circumstance. Instead we live the tale on a skipping heartbeat, breath held in suspense, longing desperately for the two to meet. It helps that Jenny is dysfunctional, imperfect, and yet wholly loveable; the reader able to find part of themselves in amongst her numerous flaws.

A Picture Portrait

Flapper Girls: Jenny, on  moving to Hollywood, finds that looking right compliments survival. The sections of her tale which find her growing her hair or wearing drab clothes are the bleakest moments in her life; the cinematic air of Hollywood refusing to reward those who will not conform to the desperately high standards of fabulous.

Busy and Bustling American Streets: The heat, the dust, the constant movement and air which crackles with excitement. The smell of fresh paint, champagne, coke; glamour is everywhere, seeping into everyone and everything. Possibilities appear endless, opportunity seems to shine constantly. Of course, it is all a mirage, a trick which never tires or bores its lovesick audience.

 

My Favourite Review…

Can be found on wordpress at: http://thebookoftomorrow.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/review-last-dance-with-valentino-by-daisy-waugh/

 

Criticism

Whilst the story was suspense filled and lovely, I was haunted by disbelief. The foundations, I felt, had not been laid seriously enough in the opening moments. Had enough happened between them in that brief period to ensure their love would last ten long years? However, if you are a classic, idealistic, old-fashioned romantic then read read read! It is perfect holiday, sunny day reading for this summer.

Love,

Zoe

 3/5 Stars

My Last Duchess

Paperback published by Hardline Review, 2011, £7.99

Quick Outline

Despite the title, My Last Duchess is not a sight for Browning imitation, or even Browning tribute. In fact, Daisy Goodwin’s tale of a struggling marriage and unrequited love, if it were a colour, would be a lovely girly pink (and I think you will agree, Browning’s classic dramatic monologue is far more blood-red than pretty-pink.) Yes, this is one very girly book. From the detail and attention paid to American millionairess, and hero of the tale, Cora Cash’s expansive and ridiculous wardrobe, to the romantic love story which is very Pride and Prejudicey (a new clever literature term coined right there, you saw it here first) the novel soon declares itself to be a fantastic romp through the stereotypically boy-and-clothes-obsessed girls paradise.

Of course, it should be horrendously annoying; the search for a husband, the husband’s need for money, the other-woman who thwarts the happiness of the lovers; yes, it is all very predictable, same old, same old, and probably should have got boring soon after Jane Austin and her fawning, chirping, desperate gaggle of girls roamed Literature’s stage (now that’s rather harsh. I love a bit of Austin, and they hardly ever ‘fawn’ or ‘chirp’…). But no, just as feeble as Cora Cash when it comes to her brooding, Heathcliffe-esque Duke (yes, there is a pattern here. Goodwin must love a good classic), you hand us My Last Duchess which ticks every girly-wirly pathetic whim left in us, causing a book induced weakness of the knees. And guess what, even better; there’s not even one death! (This only neutralises the pain of reading Tiger Hills however, which will soon peep its little head on here.)

A Picture Portrait

Old English estates: Heritage and tradition. Here, at Lulworth, Cora must come to live, leaving behind her luxurious high life in America for a lack of central heating and bathrooms. Like Lulworth, England stands in gloomy contrast to the new-wealth of Cora’s America.

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Fashion: ‘[My Last Duchess is] like literary pornography for those with a rarefied fetish for the fashions of the early 1890s.’ Laura Barnett, reviewing for the Guardian.(http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/04/my-last-duchess-daisy-goodwin)


My Favourite Review…

Laura Barnett (referenced above), after giving the first half of the book a fairly poor review, continues in a far more positive manner, remarking that; ‘The great surprise of Goodwin’s book, however, is that it vastly improves from about halfway. Cora – transplanted to the duke’s chilly castle at Lulworth, sneered at for her American ways by servants and aristocrats alike, and forced to face up to her new husband’s dark secret – becomes much more sympathetic. And Goodwin tones down the meticulous cataloguing of her characters’ wardrobes to focus on her plot, which becomes increasingly compelling. The scenes involving the portly Prince of Wales, sometime consort of the duke’s own fearsome mother, are a comic delight: notoriously touchy about his weight, at one picnic he wobbles dangerously on his bicycle, with none of the assembled party allowed to smile.

From its none-too-promising beginnings, My Last Duchess turns out to be a surprisingly intelligent exploration of the gulf between the New World and the old – and one woman’s spirited attempt to bridge it.’

Criticism

A separate strand of the tale is allocated to Cora’s maid servant Bertha, who is, in many respects, her only friend: A romance with English servant Jim, a life spent far from a mother who eventually dies without reunion, and the difficulties which face a black women and a white man who wish to be together in America. All of these themes are tied up briskly in careless little snaps; Goodwin offering the reader moments of relief from Cora’s tale, using Bertha as a vehicle for a wider outlook. However, these sections appear hurried and uncared for, Bertha is a mere afterthought, thrown in for good-luck. Ironically, it is this lack of care which really drives home to the reader the struggle faced by women like Bertha, Goodwin’s lack of thought far more symbolic, and troubling, than her actual authorial intent.

Despite the problem of Bertha, and lack of originality, My Last Duchess is very, very enjoyable. And that is, after all, all that counts.

3/5 Stars

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Love,

Zoe


I Look into my Glass

I Look into my Glass,

by Thomas Hardy

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I look into my glass,

And view my wasting skin,

And say, “Would God it came to pass

My heart had shrunk as thin!”

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For then, I, undistrest

By hearts grown cold to me,

Could lonely wait my endless rest

With equanimity.

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But Time, to make me grieve,

Part steals, lets part abide;

And shakes this fragile frame at eve

With throbbings of noontide.

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The word on the poetic street is that Thomas Hardy is a pessimist, a grumpy Victorian who wrote dark lines which, thankfully, were for the best part ignored. This lack of fame is a painful irony for Hardy, public attention hooked upon his novels, novels that he wrote only to finance his poetic ambition.

‘I Look into my Glass’ can easily be read as evidence for all the reasons we should not read Hardy. From the outset it’s about a wrinkly someone who only wishes their heart were as weak and incapable as the reflection which confronts them in the glass, that their ability to love had worn away with the passing of time; that they would no longer have to bear the pain of ‘hearts grown cold’. These dark wishes are wrapped up in a cold reminder of our own fragile mortality; the ‘endless rest’ which awaits us after out time on earth is done.

Now, of course, these are dark ideas, but are they capable of making the reader feel depressed/sad/like they should end it all now? Nooo. All this Hardy-is-depressing rubbish has grown so huge as a popular idea it has managed to fix itself upon his work like a concrete historical reality, which of course, it is not. Hence, when reading about a life concluded by ‘endless rest’, it is easy to turn to what we believe about Hardy and find that he has rejected all former Christian belief in believing there is no advancement from earth to heaven.

This idea is complicated, however, by the address to God on line three. This address mirrors the reference to ‘endless rest’(l.7) structurally, existing, as it does, on the third extended line of the stanza. This tension is a complex one, and it seems obvious to expect remedy in line eleven, which mimics lines three and seven in position and length. Disappointingly, ‘And shakes this fragile frame at eve’ does not at first resolve this God related struggle. It is then we realise that this is not a tension the poet is concerned with; this is not a vacuum in which he repairs his own doubts, bleats about his own pain, but instead a space where the reader and poet are fused as one in their own shared mortality. A mortality which is painfully transcendent, hearts grow ‘cold’ and skin ‘wasting’; a mortality which will leave us all, upon one time, to be alone with just our reflection. So whilst the constant reference to ‘my’ (‘glass’(l.1), ‘skin’(l.2)) at first appears to reject the reader by appearing so terribly inward looking, eventually succeeds in locking them into the poem through the knowledge that fear, loneliness, and the unstoppable drag of time is one thing we all have in common, and must all bear separately in our own way.

So when we turn to line eleven expecting a simple resolution between ‘God’ and ‘endless rest’, we find resolutions are impossible, that the poet is as in the dark as we. Nothing is resolved within this poem. Life, mortality, the transgressive nature of faith, our bodies, our love, cannot be simply resolved by the words of a poet, who is, we must not forget, just a man. What this final third line speaks of is our fragility. It is this fragility which leaves us scared and alone, leaves some of us finding comfort in God, and some finding comfort in the thought that an oblivion awaits, an ‘endless rest’. Wherever we find our comfort, a way to handle the hardship which is life, the poet is not one to decide or point the fairer path. He instead offers us a space where we can all share in our collective loneliness, a comfort in a world which is often so complex and meaningless, to know we all bear it together is possibly all it takes to make it easier.

Is it hugely naive to believe that this simple consolation is enough for the reader, that they can now resolve themselves to the poet and his plight? Perhaps not. But there is more besides; the honest expression within the lines, the simple, direct language used. The direct confrontation of self, a terrifying confrontation which reveals only a stranger in a mirror, one who cannot pay testament to heart, memory, love or fear. By openly admitting this pain and fear, loneliness and desire, the poet infringes on human emotions which are so delicate, so scary, they are usually avoided in verse. By delving straight to the bottom of a subject we all continue to avoid fills the reader with admiration, they share in him, he gives a little of himself and we then reward him by understanding.

…Of course, I may just be totally disillusioned, if you still want to slit your wrists, I apologise. A lot. (So would Hardy, I’m almost sure!)

hhhhhh

Love,

Zoe

4/5 Stars

 

The Line of Beauty

Winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize,
Published by Picador, 2004 (£7.99, paperback)

Quick Outline

Alan Hollinghurst’s, The Line of Beauty, is set in Thatcher dominated London. The pages open onto the city elite, the politicians, the millionaire entrepreneurs; their snobbery, laughter and dry conceit. Nick, our hero (or anti-hero) is gay, just out of Oxford and staying, indefinitely, with his friend’s family, the Feddens. Living in the attic bedroom of their Notting Hill home, Nick becomes embroiled in Fedden family life. Gerald Fedden, a determined Tory MP, his wife Rachel and two children Toby and Catherine exist together in the blind clasp of upper-class freedom and privilege, a world which Nick, despite seeing clearly its hypocrisies and flaws, comes to romanticise, adoring his position as a fostered member and viewing his own parents and their life with a mixture of shame and condescension.

As the decade progresses Nick finds his destiny inextricably tangled with the Feddens. The inescapable fall in all of their fortunes is a mess which harbours the huge merciless nature of the decade to the private and personal concerns existing amongst Nick and the Feddens; their ability to regain themselves, or not, a daunting testament on class, social, and human values.

A Picture Portrait

Private gardens: Nick takes his first boyfriend Leo to the gardens which belong to the Feddens and their neighbours. His status as ‘key-holder’ marks his inclusion in the exclusive Fedden world. Nick uses the garden for love-making, unknowingly demonstrating the proficient concealment provided by wealth and power. The gardens an apt symbol for the politician Gerald and his co-workers, their life of corruption finding little in the way of rebuke or reproach.

London summers: For Nick, young and experimental, London is magical and sunny, romantic and fabulous. Strangely, although parts of the book are spent in traffic, on the bus, in the car queing- London disconnects itself from the bustling, smokey-monster usually imagined. For a book set, and concerned with city living, it defies sense, tinted, as it is in blues and greens. Perhaps something to do with Nick and his obsession with beauty.

Mahogany: The smell of polish, the musty sense of old, antiques and their grand arrangement. All this old gathers itself around the book, like Nick’s obsession with Henry James, the idea of classical work, art, music, furniture; it litters the pages and seems to stand against the new, causing it to appear dangerous and untrustworthy.

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Favourite Review…

…by Angel Gurria-Quintana, Financial Times, who writes that:  ‘The title alludes to the S-shaped double curve, thought by William Hogarth to be the model of beauty and elegance in painting. Conjured by Nick to describe a lover’s body, it also illustrates the ways in which opposite compulsions and conflicting feelings flow into each other incessantly. It is an apposite figure for Hollinghurst’s novel, which must rank among the funniest ever written about Thatcher’s Britain, whilst remaining one of the most tragically sad.’

Criticism

My only criticism concerns the all too easy way in which the reader becomes Nick. Therefore, if you have a nagging doubt that your Men’s Fitness addiction isn’t one-hundred percent straight, then leave this book well alone. A quarter of the way through and you’ll be gayer than Graham Norton and Alan Carr’s beautiful love child. On the other hand, maybe it’s time to get out of the closet? In that case, read away!

Love,

Zoe

Love,

Zoe

4/5 Stars