Monday 31 December 2012

A year in reading

Paradoxes and Oxymorons - John Ashbery

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.


This year I read far less than usual. I lost my attention span for fiction and my appetite for non-fiction. I made up for it a little in poetry, which I could let roll over and through me. The greatest delight? A constellation of friends who would read, send me, even once or twice memorably write for me, poems they thought I would like. And I did.

Alice Oswald Memorial

Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

This was the first book to blow me away this year - a retelling of the Iliad. Gods and men, nature and death, names, names, names ...

Rebecca Lindenberg Love, An Index

knows she's famous 
in a tiny, tragic way. 
She's not 
after all

This was the first book I bought, after. It is tearsoaked and angry and lyrical, but also in love with words and how they bring us together.

Wislawa Szymborska View with a Grain of Sand

So you're here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more shocked or

how your heart pounds inside me.

Szymborska was the first of a group of Eastern European poets - Tadeusz RozewiczAdam Zagajewski, Miroslav Holub - that I came to know this year. It's the bubbling joy of her writing (as well as the sorrow and the unsparing observation) that brings me back to her over and over again.

James Schuyler Selected Poems

The green leaves of the tulips on my desk
like grass light on flesh,
and a green-copper steeple
and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.
I can't get over
how it all works in together

I always start with the library book. And I can always tell how much I like the writer by (a) how rapidly the dogears accumulate (sorry, public library, and all your patrons) and (b) how quickly I fire up Book Depository to order my own copy. With Schuyler both these happened fast. Very fast.

Craig Arnold Made Flesh

This collection did such things to me that I wasn't able to write about it. But I shared the exquisite Hymn to Persephone - Then she reached on her tiptoes he was a head taller / and breathed into his mouth the scent of mint and violets - over and over again.

Rosemary Sutcliff Tristan and Iseult

I went back to some childhood favourites this year, for comfort reading - I Capture the Castle has been referenced in endless Twitter conversations, but Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH got another outing, as did M.M. Kaye's An Ordinary Princess and a bit of Mary Poppins and some Margaret Mahy. This book by one of my favourite children's writers was new to me, and its moral complexity and occasional sensuality surprised me.

And beyond, Iseult sat among the piled cushions, combing her hair that was red as hot copper in the smoky torchlight.
She said, “Put out that torch. It has served to guide you to me, and the moon is better for keeping secrets.” And laid aside her silver comb and held out her arms to him.

Louise Erdrich Shadow Tag and Jacklight

Now shadows move freely within me as words.
These are eternal, these stunned, loosened verbs.
And I can’t tell you yet
how truly I belong

to the hiss and shift of wind,
these slow, variable mouths
through which, at certain times, I speak in tongues.

Louise Erdrich punches your heart and then makes you ask her to do it again. I find her brutal and beautiful. The Plague of Doves is nearing the top of my holiday reading pile.

Charles Simic

Could you live in the middle of
nowhere Virginia
could you live as in the game
of tag

live as a bride of no one
the sister of algebra
could you love and remember
and remember only to forget
could you live as a dog without a master

and you do of course you do
with the river the wind and the evening star
your little insomnia their big insomnia
each night clenching your eyes hard
clenching them with a sigh

Could you live knowing nothing
of why and where and how
live as a balmy day in dead winter 
live as the kitchen radio
blaring all the sad old lyrics

and you do sweetheart you do

I read a lot of Simic this year, in collections - Frightening Toys, That Little Something, Classic Ballroom Dances - and online. I found him, despite some initial puzzlement and resistance, slipping into and shaping my thinking.

Mark Leidner Beauty Was The Case That They Gave Me

The woman told me the saddest thing I had ever heard. I told her I loved her because of what she had told me. Her expression soured. She warned me not to love her for her telling me that. She told me it was okay, and maybe even good, to love her – only not for that. I responded that I did not love her for that, exactly, and that she had misunderstood me. I admitted that why I loved her was related to what she had told me, yes, but only tangentially, and was that alright? She asked me to elaborate, so I told her that I loved her, not for the thing she had told me, but for the courage involved in telling someone something like it, something that sad, which seemed to me to be a great deal of courage – and I told her I also loved her, though far less than for the courage part, although plenty still, for the way in which she told it to me, which I explained had been, in all seriousness, eloquent and mesmerizing. She had a small build and at that point she laughed like a flower, wilting and blooming. Her nose was in the center. I decided to show her the river. I picked her up in my hands and carried her, crisscrossing back and down through the steep and elaborate cragwork of the slope of the riverbank. When my feet were finally in the water I looked at her and said, the river is deep, and fast, and it drowns many people, but I still love it. I still love the river, I told her. But I do not love it because it is deep, and fast, and drowns many people. I love it because it runs behind my house, and I have lived above it forever.

The first writer to whom I have sent a fan letter since primary school. And he was very gracious about it.

Robert Leonard Nostalgia for Intimacy

While not all aspects of intimacy are good, these days I catch myself looking back fondly on earlier times, when New Zealand art was a more intensely local discussion, when New Zealand artists positioned themselves in relation to other New Zealand artists, when the proximity of other positions and competing claims seemed more urgent and consequential. I look back at a time of sandpit politics and storms in teacups, when people were at one another's throats and in one another's faces, and so much seemed to be at stake.

This is the only book of non-fiction I have read since Easter. And I adored it.

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