Reading Coincidences

I am a person who finds coincidences delightful. (I wonder, are you?)

Not too long ago, I read Kay’s review of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (which made me think of the opening sequence in Steel Magnolias, and yes, if you were wondering, I am basically a 30-something married version of Ouiser), and therefore ordered it, and then Laura of Reading in Bed put it on her list for Novellas in November, an event she’s doing with founder Rick at the Book-a-Week Project. It was meant to be.

So the novella arrived and I realized that the author is Julia Strachey, who was the niece of writer Lytton Strachey, who is one of the subjects of Christopher Hampton’s screenplay Carrington, which I read a little while ago, whose main subject is the artist Dora Carrington, who painted the author portrait of Julia Strachey on the back (not pictured) of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.

Bam! IMG_5462

So. The novella first. It is not, it turns out, remotely like Steel Magnolias except for the fact that it begins on the morning of a wedding. In this case, it’s March and a gale is blowing through the Thatcham house and grounds as twenty-three-year-old Dolly prepares for her wedding. Mrs. Thatcham fusses over details, gives contradictory orders regarding luncheon, and fails to notice the general unhappiness of pretty much every person in the house: Kitty, the younger, slightly boorish sister of the bride, Robert and Thomas, young cousins who cannot get along because Tom is bullying the younger boy over his socks, and Joseph, a friend of Dolly’s who’s in quite the rush to see the bride. And then there’s Dolly herself, who’s bracing herself with the better part of a bottle of rum.

It sounds like the set up for a Kaufman and Hart play, but if you imagine Kaufman and Hart done by a combination of Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, and E.M. Forster, you’ll be on the right track. It’s a deeply odd little book, but one that features some fine writing, a nice twist at the end, excellent characterization, and a very interesting motif of carefully depicted light: For example: “sunlight fell in dazzling oblongs” (12), “brassy yellow sunlight” (26) and “dazzling white light” (47) meet green twilight at one point and lilac heat haze (for which I can’t find page numbers). Recommended.

Now, Carrington: I thought this was a play when I picked it up at a used bookstore in Hyannis, but it’s the screenplay to the 1995 film starring Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce, which I missed when it premiered because (a) I was 11 and (b) I was repeat-watching Sense and Sensibility, another Emma Thompson flick (I love her). Of course, now I’m dying to see it because it’s about the 1920s Bloomsbury folk and their usually doomed attempts to find happiness within unconventional—-to put it mildly—-living arrangements, and I’m a sucker for 1920s English artistic angst. Also I read Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex about seven or eight years ago and wondered mightily about the no-doubt fabulous person who wrote it; here’s part of the answer.

Essentially, Carrington is a story about the difficulty of being romantically interested in someone who can only be platonically (in the modern sense) interested in you. And it’s about gender and sexual nonconformity, art, and family. But mostly it’s about love. It’s gorgeously written and unfortunately impossible to quote out of context, but I highly recommend it. I’ll let you know if and when I find the movie on Netflix.

What about you, Dear Readers? Any bookish coincidences striking you lately?

“My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow”: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”

Photo courtesy Colton Brown via Unsplash

Photo courtesy Colton Brown via Unsplash

As you might have noticed, Dear Readers, I am very fond of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poets, like Thomas Wyatt, John Donne, and of course, one William Shakespeare. One of my favorite courses in college was on Renaissance (English) literature, in which Professor Richard Dutton introduced us (well, me at least, I shouldn’t speak for everyone else) to Milton, Marlowe, and Andrew Marvell (and other poets whose last names did not begin with ‘m.’).

You probably know Marvell from other writers’ allusions to  his poem “To His Coy Mistress,” or from the poem itself:

To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
       But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
       Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.


It’s an excellent poem to read aloud—one of the best “carpe diem” poems in English, its irony and occasionally grotesque imagery undercutting its initial urgent tone. For an amusing riposte to Marvell, have a look at Annie Finch’s “Coy Mistress” at the Poetry Foundation.

Recommended Reading: All That Followed, by Gabriel Urza

Gorgeous cover---one of the best I've seen this year.

Gorgeous cover—one of the best I’ve seen this year.

Gabriel Urza’s All That Followed* is a quiet book about dramatic events.

Set in the Basque Country, the novel is told from three perspectives: Joni, an older American teacher who’s been living in Muriga since the 1940s; Mariana, a young widow whose husband José was abducted and killed five years before the novel opens; and Iker Abarzuza, the young man imprisoned in the Salto del Negro for that murder.

When the novel opens, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid have reminded everyone in Muriga of a time they’d rather forget: when the usual simmering tension between separatist protestors (many of them teenagers) and the forces of order boiled over into violence. Joni, Mariana, and Iker recall the fateful weeks leading up to José’s kidnapping and the roles they played, knowingly and not, in each other’s lives.

There’s no one dark secret or startling revelation at the end of the novel, though each of the main characters reveals something closely guarded—a troubled family, a personal failing, a lapse in judgment. Instead, this is a quietly gripping novel about choice and community, as well as the dangers and exhilaration of both. All three major characters struggle to find their place in Muriga, Joni because even after fifty years he’s still an outsider (he speaks Spanish but not Basque), Mariana because she feels hemmed in by her marriage, and Iker because he’s a teenager who’s not sure whether to take the path of revolution or personal fulfillment.

I came to this book knowing very little of Basque culture (aside from what I picked up from Malcom Brooks’s Painted Horses), and it was fascinating to see it from the perspective of characters living in it, but at some remove, rather like the way a reader feels when absorbed in a book. (Mr. Urza, by the way, has lived in the Basque region and his family is from the area). Though it was at times difficult to keep track of the different timelines in the novel, I appreciated the novelist’s command of subtly-shifting characters, and decision not to dwell on the sensational aspects of the story.

Mr. Urza’s writing is graceful and neat, his descriptions of the town and its inhabitants memorable. The last lines in paragraphs often pack an emotional punch, as here:

In the summers I would return from a day at San Jorge to find Nerea in the kitchen beating a half dozen eggs—a fork in one hand, a new translation of an Orwell novel in the other—wearing one of my work shirts unbuttoned and open against the afternoon heat. These are the days against which I have measured the rest of my life. (120)

All That Followed is an extremely promising debut. Recommended.

[And, fellow Buckeyes who remember Denney Hall: you’ll like, as I did, the acknowledgments pages with the list of Ohio State professors, wonderful people all.]

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“to paper my wall with rejection slips”: W.S. Merwin’s “Berryman”

Photo by Viktor Jakovlev via Unsplash

Photo by Viktor Jakovlev via Unsplash

I don’t write much about my non-blog, non-job-related writing for a variety of reasons. One is that there’s precious little time for that writing, so writing about it seems like a waste of that time. Another is that I get a great many rejections. Six in a week? Been there.Three in one day? Yep. Two rejections (from different magazines) in two minutes? Yes, it’s possible.

This is, as you might suspect, discouraging.

Plenty of articles, lists, and even whole magazines are dedicated to encouraging and advising writers, both new and seasoned, in the face of almost certain rejection. I sample these prescriptions for perseverance occasionally, but the best I have ever found is a poem (surprise? probably not).

In “Berryman,” poet W. S. Merwin (he’s prolific, but most likely you’ve encountered his translations of Neruda) describes the advice John Berryman (most famous for The Dream Songs) gave him as a young writer. I love the whole poem, but especially these lines:

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
and the closing two stanzas:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

And there you have it.

Recommended Reading: The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer

IMG_5370As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I do not have strong Feelings, as many do, about Amanda Palmer, singer and performance artist perhaps best known for her punk-cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls. She gave a very well-received TED talk in 2013 and is now the best-selling author of The Art of Asking*.

[You may have heard of her with respect to her Kickstarter campaign that garnered more than a million dollars to produce an album, as well as the ensuing controversy regarding volunteer musicians (overblown, from where I sit). Or you might know of her tangentially since she’s married to Neil Gaiman, author extraordinaire of various works of speculative fiction (here’s a review). A friend in high school (brilliant, creative, and rather sad) was a big fan of Dresden Dolls, so I’ve kept an ear out for Ms. Palmer over the years, and she pops up pretty frequently in my various newsfeeds since she was based in Boston for many years.]

I read this book out of sheer curiosity; I find Ms. Palmer fascinating. Though her lyrics, several of which are included in The Art of Asking, reveal an introvert’s self-examination and anxieties, she’s outspokenly open about much of her personal life (from sharing finances with her spouse to not shaving her legs) and her artistic process. You might get a sense of this openness from the book’s cover. She’s worked as a street performer and recently appeared in only body paint to benefit the New York Public Library. She and Mr.Gaiman have an open marriage. In essence, she does things I would be utterly terrified to do or utterly uninterested in doing.

And she makes her living by making art, which most writers will tell you is extremely difficult in this day and age. The Art of Asking is a memoir that also explains how and why she is able to do this.

The book shifts back and forth in time, but the touchstone is Ms. Palmer’s street performance as “The Eight-foot Bride” in Harvard Square. Wearing a wedding dress and painting her face white, she stood silently on milk crates in the bustling square; when someone dropped money in the jar she set out, she theatrically handed the person a flower from her bouquet. The performance went on until she ran out of flowers (or until it rained). This is her theory of the arts economy in miniature: artists should put their work out into the world, and ask for compensation from those who connect with it, being prepared for the fact that most people will walk by without leaving any of their change behind. Build on those connections, ask for help when you need it (without shame, without expectation), and eventually everything will work out. And more than work out: the community you build will function even in your absence; people will find each other and help each other based on their shared connection.

The fan connection part of this model—-making art for a specific audience, to find that audience rather than making something and hoping it will become a hit—-reminds me of writer Diana Gabaldon, who maintains a personal connection with fans better than almost any other writer I know of (Neil Gaiman also comes to mind, perhaps unsurprisingly). Ms. Gabaldon writes her own posts on facebook, comments on fan art, keeps readers up to date with excerpts from her work in progress, even visits book blogs that review her books (like this one, actually). Result: devoted fans who are happy to pay for the art that she makes, and who joyfully connect with other fans over matters Outlander-related (knitting!) and not.

Accustomed to doom and gloom about the state of the arts and humanities, I found Ms. Palmer’s optimism and practical suggestions refreshing; I’d definitely recommend the book to enterprising new artists.

But wait, you’re thinking. What about the memoir part of the memoir?

Well, it’s terribly interesting, as you might expect from an indie rock star. Putting on an act to get out of a terrible record contract, pop-up ukulele shows with six people, getting trapped in Iceland but still finding fans, and masters-level couchsurfing all make appearances. Here’s a passage about the latter I liked:

Couchsurfng is about more than saving on hotel costs. It’s a gift exchange between the surfer and the host that offers an intimate gaze into somebody’s home, and the feeling of being held and comforted in their personal space. It’s also a reminder that we’re floating along due to a strong bond of trust, just like when I surf the crowd at a show, safely suspended on a sea of ever-changing hands. (157)

The book is also three love stories. One is about Amanda Palmer’s love for her community of fans and fellow artists; one is the tale of how she fell in love with Neil Gaiman (apparently, I learned at their event at the Boston Book Festival, when they couldn’t agree on his wording in recounted arguments, she let him write his own dialogue), and one is the story of her lifelong love for Anthony, her neighbor, friend, mentor, advisor, and relationship coach. They met when she was a girl, and he died after the book was published, but Ms. Palmer’s writing about his illness is a moving testament of the great love between kindred spirits of the platonic variety.

I have quibbles, of course. One involves her anecdote about Thoreau, a favorite of Ms. Palmer’s, who accepted help in the form of doughnuts baked by his mother (among other things) while he was living at Walden Pond. The problem with Thoreau, in my view, is not that he took his mother’s homemade doughnuts, but that he didn’t acknowledge the gift in his book on self-reliance—-of course the gendered nature of the labor that his mother performed is part of this issue. Ms. Palmer wouldn’t fail to offer thanks in this way; she heaps gratitude on the relevant parties.

On a more serious note, I don’t think she completely owns the mis-step she made when she wrote a poorly-received poem in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings. I’m all for empathy, but the way she chose to offer it was poorly timed and ill-considered, at the very least—-and I say that as someone who, with my family, was .3 miles from the infamous boat.  I think the often vitriolic and violent response to the poem was completely inappropriate and, as she writes, was difficult for her, but I would have liked to see some sort of re-assessment of the original incident.

Overall, however, Ms. Palmer’s writing is lively with piquant detail, her pacing is good, and her sincerity apparent. I’d like to read more about her adolescence (Why did performance art seem like a good idea? Whence the angst?) and her thoughts on parenthood now that she and Mr. Gaiman have a son. She notes that writing is not her preferred artform, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel to The Art of Asking in the next few years.

tl;dr: As Forster wrote, “Only connect.”

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

A literary-minded electrician (now out of business, alas) in our neck of the woods.

A literary-minded electrician (now out of business, alas) in our neck of the woods.

“Come, then, domestic Muse”: Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “Washing Day”

Image courtesy of winnond at

Image courtesy of winnond at

Recently, a certain small acquaintance of mine left a tissue in a pair of pants that went into the wash, with predictable results. As I was grumpily separating flecks of tissue from every other item of clothing, it occurred to me that I should really be feeling gratitude for doing this in the comfort of our apartment kitchen, rather than in a laundromat I walked to, child in tow, and then sent a mental thank-you note to the parents and grandparents who have done and still do laundry in much less convenient situations.

I imagine that a laundromat would have looked pretty great to Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825). I just came across her often-hilarious poem “Washing Day,” about the household disruption occasioned by the day when all the washing was done (and heavens forbid that it rained). For this domestic subject Barbauld uses the blank verse of Milton’s Paradise Lost (no, I’m never going to stop talking about Paradise Lost), and even gives readers a parodic invocation of the Muse.

Washing Day

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

The Muses are turned gossips; they have lost
The buskined step, and clear high-sounding phrase,
Language of gods. Come, then, domestic Muse,
In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on,
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or droning flies, or shoes lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face —
Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded washing day.
Ye who beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,
With bowed soul, full well ye ken the day
Which week, smooth sliding after week, brings on
Too soon; for to that day nor peace belongs,
Nor comfort; ere the first grey streak of dawn,
The red-armed washers come and chase repose.
Nor pleasant smile, nor quaint device of mirth,
Ere visited that day; the very cat,
From the wet kitchen scared, and reeking hearth,
Visits the parlour, an unwonted guest.
The silent breakfast meal is soon despatched,
Uninterrupted, save by anxious looks
Cast at the louring, if sky should lour.
From that last evil, oh preserve us, heavens!
For should the skies pour down, adieu to all
Remains of quiet; then expect to hear
Of sad disasters — dirt and gravel stains
Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once
Snapped short, and linen-horse by dog thrown down,
And all the petty miseries of life.
Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,
And Montezuma smiled on burning coals;
But never yet did housewife notable
Greet with a smile a rainy washing day.
But grant the welkin fair, require not thou
Who callest thyself, perchance, the master there,
Or study swept, or nicely dusted coat,
Or usual ’tendence; ask not, indiscreet,
Thy stockings mended, though the yawning rents
Gape wide as Erebus; nor hope to find
Some snug recess impervious. Shouldst thou try
The ’customed garden walks, thine eye shall rue
The budding fragrance of thy tender shrubs,
Myrtle or rose, all crushed beneath the weight
Of coarse-checked apron, with impatient hand
Twitched off when showers impend; or crossing lines
Shall mar thy musings, as the wet cold sheet
Flaps in thy face abrupt. Woe to the friend
Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim
On such a dav the hospitable rites;
Looks blank at best, and stinted courtesy
Shall he receive; vainly he feeds his hopes
With dinner of roast chicken, savoury pie,
Or tart or pudding; pudding he nor tart
That day shall eat; nor, though the husband try —
Mending what can’t be helped — to kindle mirth
From cheer deficient, shall his consort’s brow
Clear up propitious; the unlucky guest
In silence dines, and early slinks away.
I well remember, when a child, the awe
This day struck into me; for then the maids,
I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them;
Nor soft caress could I obtain, nor hope
Usual indulgencies; jelly or creams,
Relic of costly suppers, and set by
For me their petted one; or buttered toast,
When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale
Of ghost, or witch, or murder. So I went
And sheltered me beside the parlour fire;
There my dear grandmother, eldest of forms,
Tended the little ones, and watched from harm;
Anxiously fond, though oft her spectacles
With elfin cunning hid, and oft the pins
Drawn from her ravelled stocking, might have soured
One less indulgent.
At intervals my mother’s voice was heard,
Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,
All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,
Or fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.
Then would I sit me down, and ponder much
Why washings were; sometimes through hollow hole
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles; little dreaming then
To see, Montgolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through the clouds, so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air, and sky, and ocean hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them — this most of all.

As you can see, there’s a very clever mind at work in these lines, and it turns out that Anna Barbauld was extremely influential in her day, as a poet, abolitionist,  editor, essayist, and children’s book writer, but like too many women has been rather under-appreciated. I’m glad I’ve heard of her now, and will keep an eye out for more of her writing in the future.

Which domestic task would you like to read a poem about?

Recommended Reading: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth and The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie

be waery of the storm.

be most waery when there is no storm in sight

Friends, it’s time to talk about The Wake*.

IMG_5197I’ve had my eye on this book for months, ever since I read Kay’s review, and when it arrived and I started reading, it was incredibly hard to pry myself away from it for food, sleep, parenting, and other adult-type endeavors.

Let’s chat history for a second. What do you know about the Norman conquest? Here’s my list as of ten days ago:

  • It involved the Normans.
  • There was a conquest.
  • It happened in 1066.
  • It involved the Battle of Hastings.
  • William the Conqueror was the big winner.
  • Normans are the bad guys in Robin Hood.

And there you have it. I’m willing to bet that for most of us, that’s pretty much the extent of our knowledge. After all, when’s the last time you saw a movie or read a novel about the Norman conquest? Truth may be stranger than fiction, but art brings history to life, and keeps it living in the minds of readers (and viewers) for hundreds of years, or thousands. And when there isn’t much, or any, art about a culture or a period or a people, it or they will tend to fade in our collective memory. (Cue Galadriel’s Lord of the Rings preamble here.)

Read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and the Norman conquest will be seared in your mind. You won’t forget it. This is an amazing book, terrifying and beautiful all at once. Its pacing is exquisite, its language revelatory, its protagonist a marvel of extended characterization.

When 1066 begins, The Wake‘s narrator, Buccmaster, is a socman of Angland, a landowner who owes allegiance to no thegn (if that word sounds familiar, think Macbeth), only the king.  He has a wife and two teenage sons, as well as three servants (two laborers and one servingwoman for his wife). Proud and stubborn, he comes to feel that signs in the natural world are speaking to him of something momentous that is coming.

That something is the Norman army. Soon Buccmaster has lost everything of value in his world—his wife, children, land, servants—with the exception of his grandfather’s sword, which his grandfather claimed was given him by a mythical figure named Weland the Smith.

Taking his sword, Buccmaster retreats into the forest and over the next two years recruits a small band of green men to conduct what is essentially guerrilla warfare against the French invaders, with increasingly disastrous results.

“now Angland is but a tale from a time what is gan,” says Buccmaster early in the novel. His account, flawed and madness-filled, is the tale of a lost England, but it is of course his tale too, one that he controls with varying degrees of dexterity. He includes tales of the old gods, like the set pieces in the Iliad or the Odyssey, tales of his own history, tales of the recent past (his own and others’) that he reframes without shame to suit his present audience. But in the end, it is a tale told by a woman—and women in this book are almost always marginalized, oppressed, almost always objects of violence (Buccmaster is an unapologetic wife-beater)—that undoes the story he’s told about himself.

It becomes increasingly apparent that he’s becoming unhinged, like a slow-burning Lear; for him, the invasion is not the first unwelcome advance of a foreign power. Though he is economically privileged, Buccmaster is also an outsider because like his grandfather, he despises “the crist” (Christ), viewing Angland’s weakened state as a result of its people turning away from the old gods (Norse, as we would think of them). Thus his quest to rout “the frenc” and return Angland to what he thinks are its roots is doubly doomed.

There’s so much in the novel to think about: madness, pride, grief, colonization, memory, religion, storytelling, vengeance. Buccmaster’s unreliability is mirrored in the reader’s realization that what we know, what we’ve been taught, is inevitably incomplete. We are accustomed to recognizing that the English, the French, the Dutch colonized parts of the world that have yet to recover from imperialism’s yoke (and hopefully we realize that the descendants of those colonized peoples are often still treated terribly unjustly; for a literary example, see The Round House). It’s harder to grasp that England itself was colonized, violently and more than once, in this case by an enemy with superior technology (steel, horses, chainmail), an enemy that re-shaped the land itself (through the building of castles, which Buccmaster and his men regard as devilish).

How far back does this chain of suffering extend? What does it mean to be English, French, any one people?

There is no single answer to that question, but one possible answer has to do with language, the stuff from which we build our stories. Buccmaster wonders how his language will survive and the answer is before us, since so much of it did; The Wake is almost an experiment in how language itself—sounds, really—can re-create a lost world.

Citing his dissatisfaction with historical novels written in modern language**, Mr. Kingsnorth wrote the book in what he calls a “shadow tongue,” Old English updated with enough modern grammar and sentence structure to be readable by people (like me) who’ve never studied it. Mr. Kingsnorth writes almost exclusively with Anglo-Saxon, not Latinate words, and provides a brief glossary to catch those that might not be understandable phonetically and in context. It takes a few pages of getting used to, but after about ten pages I was hooked, just awash in this not-English English. (Sci-fi readers: the experience is a bit like reading Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden.)

The difference of the language, the requirement of focusing on each and every word, and the unusual orthography (there are no commas, colons, semicolons, or question marks that I noticed; proper names are rarely capitalized; paragraphs end without periods) ensure that the reader is locked into the world of the novel. For the first fifty pages or so, I felt almost overwhelmed by dread. By the end of the book, my hair was quite literally standing on end***. It’s just harrowing, completely harrowing. Read the first two pages and you’ll see****.

a storm saes the gleoman cums from heofen it cannot be feoht only lifd through

[a storm says the storyteller comes from heaven it cannot be fought only lived through]

A week or two ago, I pointed readers toward “The Whales,” a poem by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. I’ve had the chance to read the rest of the collection in which it appears, called The Overhaul*, which is stellar. I highly recommend it.

In some ways, Ms. Jamie’s voice reminds me of a sparer Mary Oliver; the two poets share a keen sense of the detail in nature and spin that detail into larger observations, but Ms. Jamie’s poems are less conversational. I loved her striking images, like the stags who “hold” the speaker and her companion in “civil regard” as their  antlers rise “like masts in a harbour, or city spires.”

In an odd way, The Overhaul resembles The Wake in its evocation of the landscape and in its occasional dip into Scots (as in the poem “Tae the Fates,” in which the speaker begs the powers that be for just “ane summer mair” to make “ane perfect poem”) to conjure up a sense of a different time. While these poems develop a sense of sadness for the things of this world that are passing away, like the young eagle in “The Halfling” leaving its youth behind or the seasons that fade, there is also a sense of hope in them, which I found refreshing and necessary after the marathon of The Wake; I’ve gone back to these poems more than once after reading them.


*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

**One wonders, though, if he’s read Hilary Mantel.

***(I took a picture to prove it, but the whole disembodied-arm thing didn’t really seem like the best choice here).

****Or get in touch with me (e-mail, Twitter, instagram) and I’ll send you an audio file of me reading them. This book is built to be read aloud.