Mary Oliver, Red Bird (2008) #20BooksofSummer

Red bird came all winter …

I read Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird, in one evening. Then I got up the next day and read it again on my commute to work. This is not her greatest work, but something about the poems really resonated with me. I rarely read a book twice in forty eight hours.

The poems in Red Bird are set in winter, which it soon becomes apparent is a metaphor for living through a time of grief and loss. The many birds, and other animals, that appear are metaphors for psychological and emotional states. The ‘big’ connecting theme in this collection is the inevitability and relentlessness of death: ‘Death waits for me, I know it, around one corner or another’ (p.38). The speaker is an older person, confronting loss and their own mortality, reflecting on the past, and fearful for the future. But, as ever in Oliver’s poetry, the poems convey a luminous quality of hope and resilience in the face of suffering, that has made her poetry so beloved. Oliver’s dog Percy makes a few appearances too.

I love bird poems and there are so many here. Goldfinches, night herons, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, crows, nuthatches, meadowlarks, teals and the ‘Red Bird’ of the title, who reappears in various guises, firing up the winter landscape with ‘the music of your heart that you wanted and needed’ (‘Red Bird Explains Himself’ p. 78).

There are some overtly political poems that address the destruction of the natural world by human civilization and the horrors of war (‘the terrible debris of progress’) in poems like’Red’, ‘Showing the Birds’, ‘From the River’, and ‘We Should be well Prepared’.

The collection includes Oliver’s famous ‘Instructions for living a life’:

Pay attention

Be astonished

Tell about it

‘Sometimes’, (4.) p. 37

Taken out of context (the poem is about death), it’s the kind of thing that gets her accused of being a bit ‘live, love, laugh’, but I don’t think there’s anything ‘live, love, laugh’, about Oliver’s poetry. She understands and fully acknowledges the pain and suffering of life, and wrote to try and help us deal with it.

As someone who has been living through their own ‘winter’ for the last two years, the collection had a special resonance for me at this time in my life. A reminder that the red bird is out there.

Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans (2016) #20BooksofSummer

A copy of The Cosmopolitans resting on a brown wood table. The cover features a black and white photograph of a diner from the 1950s.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1958, The Cosmopolitans centres on the relationship between Bette, a white secretary, and her neighbour, Earl, a black, gay actor.

Earl and Bette have developed a close friendship over the course of thirty years, a friendship based in their shared experiences of being ejected, unjustly, from their families and having to make their own way in a hostile world. They have created a family of choice, eating dinner together, providing sympathy, celebrating birthdays and Christmas. But, Earl and Bette are also people who have, in a sense, become “stuck”, remaining in the same patterns as the world changes around them.

At this historical turning point, just before the beginning of the 1960s, Bette and Earl’s lives are invaded by Bette’s young cousin, Hortense, an aspiring actress whose disruptive presence will explode all the pain this relationship has been designed to contain.

The encounter with Hortense creates a crucible, revealing the truth that despite their long friendship, Bette and Earl have never really understood each other’s pain. They haven’t truly seen each other. Bette simply doesn’t fully understand the extent of Earl’s anguish and loneliness, as a middle-aged, failed actor, who’s life is heavily curtailed by homophobia and racism. Earl, meanwhile, does not truly understand the way that Bette’s family’s betrayal has frozen her in a kind of emotional limbo, endlessly waiting for her opportunity to make the people who hurt her tell the truth.

The Cosmopolitans beautifully evokes the world of 1950’s New York and the emotional lives of its characters. It’s one of the most insightful novels about human relationships that I’ve ever read. This story, which has just a handful of characters, delves deeply and uncompromisingly into the nature of love and friendship. It is about cruelty and lies; it is about truth and accountability. It is very much a novel about ethics and picks up the theme of “shunning” that recurs in Sarah Schulman’s fiction and non-fiction. It asks a lot of difficult questions: why do we tell lies and destroy each other’s lives? What does it mean to love another person? What does it mean to really see another person? Without trying to reduce The Cosmopolitans to a “message”, I took away these thoughts: trying to annihilate another person in response to our own pain is never a good strategy; we have to talk to make things better, and healing can only happen when something is made right.

The Cosmopolitans is an intertextual work that engages with Honore de Balzac’s 1846 novel, Cousin Bette, which sadly I haven’t read. It also speaks to the work of James Baldwin and, at the end, even becomes a little meta in relation to the author herself.

Recommended.

Jane Hirshfield, ‘After’ (2006)

A photograph of the collection 'After'. The cover of the book is a painting of a window opening onto a landscape with trees and sky.

But thought is hinge and swerve, is winch, is folding.

Jane Hirschfield, ‘Articulation: An Assay;

I’d read a few poems by Jane Hirshfield over the years and thought that I should explore her work, but I didn’t buy a collection until I came across the poem ‘One Sand Grain Among the Others in Winter Wind‘.

This poem articulated something about loss that I was feeling at the time, but was unable to express. When I read it, I realised that what I was experiencing was a kind of pleading with the universe, “No, not this too, don’t I get to keep even this one small, precious thing?” That’s the power of poetry, that “yes, this is what I mean”.

After is quite an eclectic collection, both in terms of form and content. The poems range across topics such as philosophy, language, nature, the self, grief and death, and are thematically linked by a deep interest in the human condition. Many of the poems are concerned with the relationship between thought, speech and action. There is also a sense that language is often an inadequate tool to express human experience, but we must try because it is all we have.

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.

David Baker, quoted on Wikipedia

I find it difficult to write about the individual poems, possibly because they are so eclectic. As the blurb says, these poems are “an extended investigation into incarnation, transience and interconnection”. Some of my favourites include ‘Theology’, a poem about our desire to believe in miracles, and ‘After Long Silence’, which addresses the relationship between words and thoughts. I love ‘I Imagine Myself in Time’ a poem about that sense of multiple selves which develops as you get older and the realisation that a future self will one day be looking back at the person you are now, “And that other self, who watches me from the distance of decades, what will she say?” ‘Letter to C.’ is a moving poem for a dead friend and fellow poet. There are the ‘Assays’ dotted throughout the collection, examinations/investigations into words and what language does. There are beautiful encounters with nature. There are seventeen tiny “pebble” poems. After concludes with ‘It Was Like This: You Were Happy‘, a blunt study of mortality which strips the entirety of human life down to a sentence:

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

This is an enriching collection which I’ll be keeping and revisiting again and again.

A Tribute to Ursula Le Guin

I missed this at the time it was published, but want to flag up Vandana Singh’s lovely and moving post, True Journey is Return: A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin

The best tribute I can give Le Guin, as a writer, is to honor her teaching and be conscious of what messages I’m putting out into the world.  Am I asking the hard questions?  Are there hard questions I’m avoiding?

The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

Charlie Jane Anders, The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

The Left Hand of Darkness was published fifty years ago, but still packs as much power as it did in 1969. Maybe even more so, because now more than ever we need its core story of two people learning to understand each other in spite of cultural barriers and sexual stereotypes. 

Nancy Kress, Yesterday’s Kin (2014)

Image shows the cover of Nancy Kress's novel Yesterday's Kin. The spherical alien ships hover over the river hudson with a DNA double helix superimposed in the front

The aliens have arrived! But then they just stay inside their spherical ship, sending out a repeating message saying that they are on a “peace mission” to make contact with humanity. After two months of this suspense, genetics researcher, Dr Marianne Jenner, is surprised to be invited aboard the ship for a meeting with these elusive aliens. When she and a handful of other chosen scientists arrive and discover the ‘Denebs’ true identity, they are in for a big surprise (hint: it’s in the title).

They have come with horrific news, an interstellar spore cloud is on its way towards Earth and, when it passes through the atmosphere, everyone will die a horrible, painful death. The Denebs say that they want to help develop a vaccine, but they are up against what seems to be an impossibly short timescale.

The story alternates between Marianne’s point of view and that of her youngest son, Noah, who develops a deeper relationship with the Denebs. This enables Kress to explore two very different and conflicting perspectives on what’s really happening. As the months pass, and social unrest increases, the scientists begin to question the aliens’ motives and Noah must make a choice.

Yesterday’s Kin is a pacey, entertaining sci-fi thriller. The story is gripping, and the characters feel like real human beings, especially the middle-aged, flawed, but determined, Dr Jenner. I like first contact stories and I thought this was a good one, plus there’s a nice twist at the end.

However, I did find it a bit rushed and plot-driven, and thought it lacked the character development I’ve seen in some of Kress’s other novels, such as Steal Across the Sky and Crossfire. In terms of the content, I was irritated to see the “dead gay best friend” trope again. It pops up in Steal Across the Sky as well and is used both times to push forward a straight protagonist’s emotional journey. Not cool or necessary in my opinion, although there are decently written gay characters in Crossfire.

Something else I would say is that after reading several of her novels and short stories, I get the impression that Kress thinks the worst of humanity in general. Some individuals might be okay, but on the whole, she seems to believe that we’re going to fuck things up and behave badly in a crisis. This “vibe” may not be to everyone’s taste!

Yesterday’s Kin is followed by a trilogy of books and I probably will read them when I get around to it.