THE UGLY, THE GOOD & THE BAD
Government forms. (Trying to keep farm operational.) How to become a tick in a box—and which fucking box??!! That said, appreciative, privileged and lucky to live somewhere that has some form of a safety net and then, disturbed, concerned and distressed as there are so many the net doesn’t catch (and doesn’t even try to). Why it would be good to have a better idea in the first place than a net in the second.
OK, my wont is to read quite a few actual paper (‘page-turnable’ books) at the same time—sometimes a dozen or more—I own a lot of bookmarks! Whilst being read they live in one of my two trugs (the other is home to recycling), early 1800’s wooden baskets for harvesting produce. Jostling at the moment are poetry, non-fiction, and a single novel. These days I’m on a steady diet of poetry and non-fiction, the latter in the form of essays, semi- and auto-biographic stuff, dumbed-down scientific articles, some news (might move news out of the non-fiction category though!). I stopped reading novels more than twenty years ago when it occurred to me that I was reading the same story over and over, though I understand many people might find this conclusion a hard one to swallow. As a child and younger adult I read thousands of novels (everything from potboilers to classics) starting with at least one a day through much of primary school and the voracity didn’t ease as I went through high school and university. My parents were working class—I spent my childhood in a petrol station—but told me if ever I wanted a book I could buy it. Little sleep and getting caught reading under the desk in many a classroom are strong memories of growing up. Funnily enough, but probably due to family background, I never read poetry and only really started devouring it after I began writing it in my late twenties.
So what’s in the trug? A nice collection of stuff that’s come straight from the horses’ mouths that wrote it—books from overseas authors whom I’ve had the good fortune to come into personal contact with for one reason or another. Let’s take a look at the poetry first: several collections from Canuck poet and sheep-herder Michael Boughn, one from warrior poet André Spears, and a magnificent tome (with co-editor Kristin Dykstra and an assembly of other fine translators) by Kent Johnson (comrade-poet) of a sweeping selection of work from Uruguayan Amanda Berenguer, Materia Prima (Ugly Duckling Presse). This last has just been chosen as a finalist in the Best Translated Book Awards 2020 (The Millions): https://themillions.com/2020/05/best-translated-book-awards-names-2020-finalists.html.
Boughn, Johnson and Spears are all are co-editors of mine at the scary and provocative journal Dispatches from the Poetry Wars:
Now, I’m not generally a re-reader (unless looking to retrieve something specific for something specific) but have taken up again Spears’ XIII Ship of State (Dispatches Editions) for which, a little while back, I wrote a back cover blurb (and, incidentally, have also recently revisited another vessel afloat, Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat in a different translation). Ship of State is a long poem set aboard a spaceship as lost in space and potentially rudderless as we are and provides a hilarious and terrifying indictment of the great collective mistakes we seem so intent on making. Of the three Mike Boughn books I’m reading I will single out 22 Ski / Sub Tractions (Book Thug), two collections between two individual covers in the ‘turn-it-upside-down to read the other’ tradition. 22 Ski won the Friggin Prize in 2009 (I’d like to win this prize just for the title; ditto I’d like to published for the name of this book’s press!): consider from the poem, ‘Skidoo’: ‘You could scram but it wouldn’t / get you beyond where you need / to have been traversing / which isn’t away but over / and over…’ Incidentally, ‘the somewhat sassy slogan of the Friggin Prize was, “No long list; no short list; no guest list; just the Friggin Prize.”’ (Boughn) Then there’s writer and ‘out there’ publisher (Spuyten Duyvil, New York) t thilleman’s Descent, a raucous, challenging and ever-reaching poetic examination of ‘thought’, ‘language’ and ‘humanity’ that is oceanic enough to leave one momentarily drowned: ‘I am the hour of the world’s time / Counting waves that sound / Within cowardly shell of the world’s prison / Will know this puissant pleasure / Power’.
It is kind of serendipitous that I was approached to write this piece at a time when I am reading so many books that have been given to me, many across the ocean. (Writing is itself an act of generosity and a gift-book is always good to look in the face—and it’s always lovely to be able to send some back the other way.) I have another three collections courtesy of UK writer David Pollard of which Finis-terre (Agenda Editions), a book-length poem, is stunning:
Thus does the poet write
not with the pen
but with mortality between his fingertips…
Only the word, walking its need,
can call us back and leave us
the enigma of its absence.
Australian poet, translator and great friend, Peter Boyle, put me in touch with David Pollard. Peter not only sends me his own poems but work he is translating from writers all over the world (currently some more Nikola Madzirov, Macedonia, and Nichita Stanescu’s Elegies, the latter of which Peter has treated me to after I put him onto Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke [Archipelago Books]). I can happily say I’ve been on a constant supply of Boyle for around twenty years now and it’s not only very healthy but soup for the soul!
In other translations I have some more of one of my all-time favourite guys, Yannis Ritsos. I love to read my special authors in as many different translations as possible (these include Celan, Michaux, Pessoa, Char, Reverdy, Guillevic, Jabès, Ernst Meister, Vallejo). Luckily for me Peter often turns his hand to rendering work by these authors that is either previously untranslated or no longer available (or simply too expensive!) to buy. This is wonderful bounty for sadly monolingual me, though I do like to think of poetry itself as another language.
Moving away from poetry I’ve just read Norman Mailer’s ‘thoughts on writing’, The Spooky Art, (Little, Brown) which I picked up in a local second-hand bookshop and gave to myself for Christmas. My second daughter, Vivi, is now reading it and so far I’ve counted forty-seven post-it notes marking its pages (hers have Woody and Buzz Lightyear on them). We both have a fetish for post-its and stationery and she often tells me when reading a book that I’ve read first that she goes to grab a post-it to apply just before realising that I’ve post-it-ed the exact same lines! Genetics eh!!? Anyway, Norman was a pleasure:
It’s the life you can’t escape that gives you the knowledge
you need to grow as a writer.
… how much of the history that’s made around us is
conspiracy, how much is simple fuckups? You have to know
the world to get some idea of that.
After all, we do not write to recapture an experience; we
write to come as close to it as we can.
And so on from ‘bestsellers’ to ‘narcissism’ to ‘Huckleberry Finn’ with a bit of nothingness, Picasso and masturbation thrown in – good times!
Reading Mailer also feels like Mailer talking to you, and I mean actually talking to you. There is the presence, the sensibility and no punches being pulled. There is also the person in its entirety—no mean feat to be found on a simple page—and an intellect, intelligence and authenticity that demands you, the reader, be your own judge. No lecturing but an entreaty to seek: ‘there’s an extraordinary beauty in the potential of most human relations if we’re willing to assume that under all the absurdities, the spleen, the waste, the brutality, there was, indeed, a blocked aesthetic conception.’ Norman Mailer, I think, is saying, allow ‘to think’. And thinking is something we should all be doing more of and more properly.
Another thinker I’ve been living with for quite some months now is Michel de Montaigne. I’ve a fairly large—almost five hundred pages of little print—selection from his essays translated by someone with the wonderful title of M.A. Screech. (Now that gives me pleasure.) And Montaigne is another fellow who’s gotten most of his self onto the page. I read little bits, sometimes only a few lines, or a paragraph or two, sometimes more, in between picking up other books I’m currently reading, that is, at the same sitting. Coincidentally, I seem to be reading his musings on the ‘Art of Medicine’ (he wasn’t a fan) and illnesses sweeping through regions of his Sixteenth Century France right as (t)his moment. Wildly entertaining and well-read, Montaigne has been, and is, a wonderful way for me to read more widely all those great scholars from antiquity I will probably never get around to whilst simultaneously experiencing Montaigne himself.
And this is the thing with reading: there’s not time for everything. And the reader is only a reader with only so much knowledge and understanding. Where I feel this keenly and lament it muchly is in the realms of physics and cosmology. My mind just can’t get itself around these sufficiently to properly know what the hell is going on—but boy do I want to! If I could do anything with my brain it would be to make it work in a way that would better understand these branches of science. My intuition is that I love it. I’m often up against a brick wall when approaching it. Perhaps it’s part laziness but I’m sure it’s a non-Einstein situation. Still I struggle on and through a small correspondence with a physicist in the UK, Nick Watkins (who is very coolly and groovily a Visiting Professor in the Centre for Analysis of Time Series, London School of Economics and Political Sciences as well as a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Fusion, Space and Astrophysics at the University of Warwick!), I get pointed in all sorts of interesting directions. Nick sends me links to things he thinks I’ll be interested in, he posts me journals and pages torn from science magazines and he pops along, from time to time (pun intended J), poems he has come across and likes. On my desk are articles with titles like ‘Fictional models in science’, ‘It’s all just mathematics’, ‘In search of time crystals’ and ‘Time examined and time experienced’. Up to a point in time I’m fine and then I often lose the thread. Unfortunately for me, I even find physics for laymen hard going.
Nearing the end: Time of Gratitude (New Directions) by Russian writer Gennady Aygi. What an extraordinarily moving book of moving through a literary life! Spanning genres—no better way to describe it than is already accomplished by its back cover: ‘inventive essays blend autobiography with literary criticism, social commentary, nature writing, and enlightening homage.’ Seriously, I feel as though I’d like to do an ad for this book! Factual, stunning and humble at the same time, what it shows more than anything is Gennady’s insight into the very especial human nature of ‘the great writer’, and he knew more than several. Pasternak, Char, Tolstoy… What Aygi gleans is needed if not necessarily new (and who cares): being able to say what people think shouldn’t be said, understanding enchantment, knowing the relationships between ethics and culture and the ways in which we bamboozle ourselves. Right for right now, this is a nice quote:
As I see it, in spite of all the changes of one kind or another, there is nothing “unprecedentedly-immense” about our age. This is apparent in the gray nature of the mass of contemporary art, whether “traditional” (i.e. trivially argumentative) or “avant-garde” (i.e. trivially parodic). No one now is going to “trample on the throat of their own song” (as Mayakovsky put it); only great poets are capable of this, in the name of the great word.
And without further ado: the novel. Peter Boyle gave me Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini, a bit of a classic, afterword by Hemingway. I’m up to page six and the story started on page five. Already I’m resisting the prose. Oh dear. I skip over to the prose poetry manuscript my daughter (Vivi again) has written—such a temptation and something I’ve been putting off reading until various jobs are done… Courtesy of other daughters, Maya and Agnès, I get to read song lyrics and film scripts respectively. The three girls are in a band together (lead guitarist, bass guitarist and drums) and Agnès, like my sister Jeanette Cronin, is also an actor. We read each other’s minds all the time—as we say in our family, ‘Minds think alike!’
A lot of the news.
The world’s palm. (We seem intent on breaking the life-line.)
MTC Cronin has published over twenty books.