Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: - Remember to be Kind

You have no idea,
absolutely no idea.

Sixteen, all imagination and deceit;
you can play anyone
except yourself.

It won’t go well; there will be times
you’ll wish yourself dead, somewhere else, anywhere
but the place you’re in.

Wanting to belong you’ll plant yourself
in foreign soil, sending your roots down deep

only to tear yourself up, bleeding, time after time, moving
your tent like a nomad across the world.

(Remember to read the instructions, the small print,
never hope for the best. )

Refuse to be seduced by roses, fast cars,
their owners, sentimental music, sunsets.

(Love, like belonging, is an uncertain partnership).

Claim your own space, never be afraid
to step out into unknown territory, armed only
with words.  They will serve you well.

Love fearlessly, give everything,
and never, never regret the consequences.

Listen for your own inner music:
it has something important to tell you.

Laugh, dance, drink wine and always
remember to be kind.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

I've been dipping in and out of NaPoWriMo.  I find it impossible to write a poem a day - sometimes it's a prompt I don't like, often just too busy/tired, but I'm trying to write something every day, even if it's only a few jottings.  The prompt 2 days ago was to write a letter.  I've also been asked to write a 'letter to my younger self' for the Royal Literary Fund website, so it's been in my thoughts for a while without me doing anything about it.  So I sat on a train and did a freewrite, starting with the first words that came into my head when confronted by my sixteen year old self,  'you have no idea' - and this is the result.  Still needs knocking about a bit, but I'm daring to share. 

On the left is a picture of me at 16 - all romance and no sense!!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Leading a Double Life and the Carpenter of Lampedusa

Writers are supposed to be good at leading double lives.  'We write to taste life twice,' wrote Anais Nin. 'In the moment and in retrospection.'   But I not only have a writing life, I have an English life and an Italian life.  I'm always amazed at how easily I slip into my Italian skin.  There's a slowing down, a tendency to linger over sensual moments - food, wine, the sun slipping into the Mediterranean, conversations with friends, sliding your fingers through a rack of silk lingerie (ridiculously cheap) in a street market, shop window displays that are colourful works of art, a stucco building just catching the pink and amber rays of the setting sun.. . .  perhaps I'd better not go on.

I'm a small part Italian, on my mother's side, so perhaps the susceptibility is in my genes.  The Italians are a more sensual people than we hardened northerners. And then, Italian life is so attractive, centred as it is around the table with family and/or friends.  So much of life here is sitting in the piazza with a coffee or a glass of wine (depending on how broke you are) chatting to people.  Then there's the alluring workman's lunches, the 'pranzo di lavoro', with home cooking to die for and the local wine thrown in.
'Pranzo' with friends on our terrace
Because my partner works in a community where almost everyone is an artist or a technician, or makes their living in some way from sculptors and painters, there's always a gallery opening with free prosecco and nibbles and much hugging and kissing, and often live music as well.  There are pop-up exhibitions, and impromptu affairs in people's back gardens.  Life is more sociable than you can ever imagine.
Neil at work
But under all this conviviality beats the dark heart of Italy - a precarious banking system, a political and economic system as corrupt and crony-ridden as any in the 3rd world, a massive unemployment issue among young people, taxation at 50% of everything, an increasingly unstable climate, and a refugee problem that dwarfs any other European country.

Most of them are from northern Africa.  The ones who have made it this far north, make their living from selling trinkets to tourists, or parking cars in the chaotic car parks in town.  Very rarely do you see anyone begging.  But they do hassle you and many people give them money to go away.
My favourite street trader, Mortela, who never hassles!
Further south, in the poorer 'Mezzogiorno' (roughly translated 'afternoon') of the country, the problem is much worse. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of refugees are rescued from sinking boats every week. Hundreds more die.  Anyone who has read about the optician of Lampedusa and his courageous actions, while out for a quiet afternoon sail, will have been moved by the decision he had to make. 'How do I save them all?' the optician asked, faced with hundreds of drowning migrants he knew could not be hauled aboard his little boat that would hold only 10.  That he saved so many, at risk of sinking his own craft, is a tribute to human courage.  But he is still haunted by the others he couldn't help. 'We were terribly traumatised afterwards,' he said, and his wife had to be hospitalised. Since then he has worked to help the refugees, whatever the personal cost.

Italy is more charitable than many other countries - but one does wonder when that will begin to crack under the pressure of numbers in a region that is already one of the poorest in Europe.

In the small museum in Pisa, among the precious medieval icons, there is a single rough cross on a pole.  This was made out of two planks from wrecked boats by Francesco Tuccio, the Carpenter of Lampedusa, who has made memorials for each of those who died in the crossing.  Its simplicity brings you up short among all that gilded inconography.  The values of Christianity and Islam - the two religions that straddle the Mediterranean, are charitable and compassionate.  They have been undermined by fear and overtaken by the brutal, uncaring values of property, wealth, and the pursuit of power through oppression and dispossession.  While the Un-United Kingdom inspects its own entrails with a magnifying glass and shuts the door on a few hundred orphaned children, Italy's generous people are opening weary arms to embrace desperate people every day of the week.  That's only one of the reasons why I love this country.

One of our spectacular sunsets over the Mediterranean
How much longer, given the UK government's chosen Brexit path, will I be able to live a double life? Probably not much longer, which is unbelievably sad.  My partner is already packing up, affected by the new and horrible exchange rate, anticipating the withdrawal of health care and visa problems that are in the pipeline.   He hasn't booked the flight home yet though, so there's still hope! 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: Revolution - Tatlin's Flight


It is machine, eviscerated, just
a grace of polished ash and canvas

the elegant equivalence of flight

I stand under its shadow
watching the cage of  ribs
rotating dark and light

on a white screen; a metaphor
for all our airborne dreamings.

Long spokes - the aluminium pin feathers
of its wings - scissor across
the backdrop simulating naked aviation

the fish-shaped tail tilts up, nose down,
a structure arrested
in beautiful fall, what is left

of himself and the revolutionary music
trapped - a gigantic insect - revolving
in the moment of its execution.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

Photo Hettie Judah, Instagram.

It's NaPoWriMo - and I can't write a poem a day.  Maybe a poem a week.  This poem (still in progress) came out of a visit to the Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy.  Tatlin's Glider, 'Letatlin', suspended under the dome and lit so that images are projected onto the canvas backdrop as it rotates, was one of the most interesting things I saw.  I could have sat for hours watching the images changing, in a silent simulation of flight.

Vladimir Tatlin was a Russian artist and architect and is usually mentioned alongside Malevich as one of the most influential artists of the revolutionary period, though the two had violent disagreements.  Tatlin became a 'constructionist'.  He was fascinated by the flight of birds and constructed many 'gliders' in an effort to facilitate human flight.  He called them 'Letatlin' - a play on words.  'Letat' is the Russian word for flight and he combined it with his own name.

There were many other wonderful things at the exhibition - film footage by Eisenstein, a lot of paintings and sculptures by Malevich, Kandinsky, and other major painters of that period. There is some wonderful photography, and propaganda, as well as ceramics and textiles, showing the struggle that artists had to conform to the political agenda and still make a living. There are portraits of Anna Akhmatova and her lover, the artist Nikolai Punin, who was sent to the Gulags by Stalin and died there. One of the most moving parts of the exhibition was the Memory Room where you can sit and look at a screen projecting images of some of those unfortunate people Stalin sent to the camps. Civil servants, teachers, doctors, workers, writers, artists, students. Some of them survived, but many of them were shot or died of ill-treatment.  It's not often that an exhibition is able to give you a glimpse of a whole culture, but this one does.  It's a chilling taste of what it is like to live as a creative being under authoritarianism.  Let's just pray that it never comes back. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: Thirteen Shades of Black

There is the black of a young raven
which is blue;

and the event horizon at the centre of a galaxy
beyond which is an absence of light;

the fluttering fabric of a hijab in the courtyard
of the women’s mosque, a dark sail
‘veiling human-kind from God’.

The bones of a tree, inked
on a winter horizon.

A Jaguar; all burning eyes, white teeth and darkness
in the Amazon rain forest.

The dress my mother treasured
Chanel style; the one every woman
should have.

The dark sink-hole at the centre of an eye
you disappear into
upside down.

The purple-black of a bruise
after the failure of love.

The mildewed winter coat my grandfather kept
for funerals and weddings
green at the cuffs and pockets.

Malevich in Lenin’s Russia, painting his revolutionary square;
a black symbol of the new art.

The bloated corpse floating in the loch;
the faceless killer, child abductor.  This is NOIR.
You are too afraid to sleep but
can’t stop watching.

The almost seen, out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye
dart and flutter of a bat – a flitter-mouse
of fur and leather, writing its character on the dusk.

New school shoes; their black Cherry Blossom shine.

Blacking out. An absence of consciousness,
the spinning vortex of the fall.  Which is gravity.
Which is black.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

How many of you have been doing NaPoWriMo?   National Poetry Month - that good intention to write a poem a day for a month?   I definitely can't keep up - my life has been so busy I haven't even managed to blog for a couple of weeks now.  But I am trying to at least think around a subject every day.  I found Jo Bell's 'A Month of Poetry Prompts', which she created for the 52 project, very useful and I've been having a go at some of them.  

Yesterday was a command to write a new take on 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens and the response by RS Thomas, Thirteen Blackbirds Look at a Man.   So this is my version of thirteen ways to look at something - written appropriately in the middle of the night.   Some bits are contentious:  does gravity have a colour?  But if gravity is associated with dark matter then, yes, it's probably going to be black. Unconsciousness certainly is.  And there will be some who question my inclusion of no. III. on the grounds of cultural sensitivity.  But one of my most potent memories is sitting in the women's mosque in Shiraz and watching a billowing hijab against the light - the quote in the third line is taken from a Muslim text explaining why it might be necessary to wear one - the idea of covering one's head in the presence of God is also common in Judaism and Christianity.  As children we had to wear a dark head covering to enter a Catholic church.  In Spain and Italy women still do.

Someone is bound to point out that it should be 50 Shades of Black, but then I'd have been up all night!!

Jo Bell is also posting a poem a day this month, with commentary, on her blog - and very good they have been.  This is the link. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Tuesday Poem: In the Village, Derek Walcott


Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.
The notes outside are visible; sparrows will
line antennae like staves, the way springs were,
but the roofs are cold and the great grey river
where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,
moves imperceptibly like the accumulating
years. I have no reason to forgive her
for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,
past the longing for Italy where blowing snow
absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range
outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting
for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning
of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange
without the rusty music of my machine. No words
for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange
of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds.

Derek Walcott
excerpt from 'In The Village' 
White Egrets by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 2010 by Derek Walcott. 

Derek Walcott, who died a few days ago, was one of my favourite poets.  A Nobel prize-winner, like Seamus Heaney, he changed the landscape of poetry for the next generation.  I loved the way he wrote about his homeland, the ocean and about writing poetry - twisting these three strands together until they became one.   

Joseph Brodsky said of him that “For almost forty years his throbbing and relentless lines kept arriving in the English language like tidal waves, coagulating into an archipelago of poems without which the map of modern literature would effectively match wallpaper. He gives us more than himself or ‘a world’; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language.”

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Failure of Biography - Katherine Mansfield and the anonymous author of 148 journals in a skip

How many of you out there write a journal?  I'm guessing quite a few.  I've been keeping one on and off since my sense of Self began to develop at around 13 or 14.  And, as I wanted to be a writer, I was fascinated by other writers' diaries.  The journals of Kathrine Mansfield, edited by her husband John Middleton Murry, were the first ones to really grab me by the metaphorical throat when I found them at the age of 17.  They had a raw, vulnerable quality that entranced me, though I never dreamt I would one day become her biographer and hold the originals in  my hands.
One of Katherine Mansfield's notebooks, a few months before she died.

They also gripped a young woman in Cambridge, who read Mansfield and had ambitions to become a writer or an artist. She kept a journal every day, recording her own life at great length for 60 years.

I've been reading Alexander Masters' intriguing book 'A Life Discarded', after hearing him talk about it at the Keswick Words by the Water festival.  A friend of Masters discovered 148 journals, written in an assortment of notebooks and diaries, thrown away in a skip beside a house that was being demolished in Cambridge.  Being a historian, the friend rescued them and they were eventually passed on to the biographer.  Masters was fascinated by the idea of writing the life of an 'unknown person'.

Initially he thought of the 'I' of the diaries as a man, but then the subject began menstruating and referring to the self as 'Not-Mary', so was obviously female.  She was writing a couple of thousand words a day, amounting to millions of words in total - a very daunting task for anyone to read - but Masters was hooked by the story.  Some of the journals were written as comic book strips and they were all illustrated with very competent drawings, just to add to their attraction.  The mystery deepened.
One of the 148 diaries found in a skip

Something very traumatic had happened to the writer of the diaries, who shrinks from a lively, curious, ambitious girl to a fearful, inadequate, reclusive older woman - a change revealed by the handwriting, which starts out bold and gradually gets smaller and smaller until it's only decipherable with a magnifying glass. Some trauma seemed to have occurred to halt 'Not-Mary's' emotional growth and it's there in the diaries, recorded without comment or reflection.  At 13 she fell in love with her piano teacher, the exacting, unsparingly cruel, 'E'.

Katherine Mansfield also fell in love as a teenager, with an older woman, but artist and mentor Edie Bendall was kinder and more understanding towards her protege.  Katherine quickly outgrew her. Not so 'Not-Mary'.  For two decades she desperately tried to please the unidentified 'E', believing, as she was told, that she was useless, ineffectual, that she would never achieve anything.  All the bitterness of 'E's' own wasted talent, sabotaged by WWII, was vented on a young, impressionable girl who was prepared to lay her life down like a mat to be trodden on.  The damage takes your breath away.  Not-Mary develops an eating disorder, agoraphobia, depression.  Her family don't seem to notice her distress.

It is always assumed that the author of the journals is dead - after all, isn't that when their effects get dumped in a skip?  Biographers spend a lot of time reading the diaries of dead people.  We are the 'unintended reader', who - according to Virginia Woolf - is always at the back of a writer's mind as they scribble down their inmost thoughts for posterity.  That may have been true for Katherine Mansfield, but it wasn't for the 'Not-Mary' of these notebooks, who admits:

'I just enjoy writing.  I enjoy the sound of the words . . . I just like the feeling of the pen on the page'.

The attraction for Alexander Masters was in not knowing who that person was and so unable to determine the truth or otherwise of the story that the journals unfolded. Because, normally, for the biographer, what matters is their reliability, how much can be verified.  But this is wrong, because it is the journal's own truth - the author's truth - that matters, written in that moment, in that situation, in that frame of mind.  The entries' contextual truths, in the light of current events, the point of view of other people in the life of the author, or the illuminations of hind-sight, are immaterial.  These exterior 'truths' are irrelevant to the emotional and personal reality of that momentary revelation.

It is the triumph of the character/subject, who constantly eludes the biographer.  Something in their refusal to be pinned down guarantees their immortality.  They remain themselves, enigmatic, unexplained.  The ultimate unreliable narrator and yet the author of the absolute truth about themselves.  Which is just as it should be.

Alexander Masters' book is deeply reflective and set me thinking about the very nature of journals, particularly those of ordinary people, who, not being famous, are never likely to believe they are going to be published at some point in the future.  Does this make them more confessional?

Katherine Mansfield at her desk.
The Katherine Mansfield journals, which contain some of her most startling writing, have been deciphered and annotated, first by Margaret Scott, scholar, librarian and Katherine Mansfield addict, and then re-edited by Mansfield scholar Gerri Kimber.   But still, Mansfield eludes us.  I read the originals in New Zealand, alongside Margaret Scott's (not published at the time) transcription because Mansfield's handwriting was so terrible. It was both a jigsaw puzzle (writers don't always use notebooks consecutively) and a detective game.  But it was always a moving and engrossing occupation.

Katherine also made little drawings to illustrate her diaries and letters.

As Alexander Masters found, the character of the writer is in the very notebooks they choose, the way they handle them, the character of the script and the doodles, the little reminders, the shopping lists, marmalade thumb prints and coffee rings, that hold the story of a life, not a literary myth.  This, you can tell yourself, holding the book as the author may have held it, is the very page they also held open and pressed between their fingers.  A hair, a flake of skin even, may still be trapped in the binding. You are touching their life.

When Masters had finished his book and drawn his conclusions, he went in search of the author's identity in order to get the permission of her estate to use quotes from the diaries. And that was where the revelations began, though I'm not going to spoil the plot by telling you what they were!  You'll just have to read it for yourself.

Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller,  by Kathleen Jones

Katherine Mansfield: The Early Years, by Gerri Kimber

The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, transcribed by Margaret Scott 

Katherine Mansfield: The Diaries, edited by Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison

Friday, 17 March 2017

Remembering Derek Walcott - The Schooner Flight

One of my most loved poets has died - Derek Walcott, at the age of 87.  From a very young age, his poems stuck in my mind like grit.  I think partly because they are so full of longing - a yearning for a particular place.  I was a homesick girl and his poems resonated with that feeling.  But, more than that, they are full of the sea and the natural landscape and his words have a 'rightness' that makes him one of the greatest poets. There's a very good tribute to him in the Guardian today.  And if you would like to listen to him talking about the music that meant most to him, this is the link to BBC Radio 4. 

Just wanted to post this short sonnet-shaped excerpt from Star Apple Kingdom.  It's about sea fever and also about the poet's craft.

Derek Walcott on St Lucia [New Yorker]

The Schooner ‘Flight’

As I worked, watching the rotting waves come
past the bow that scissor the sea like milk,
I swear to you all, by my mother's milk,
by the stars that shall fly from tonight's furnace,
that I loved them, my children, my wife, my home;
I loved them as poets love the poetry
that kills them, as drowned sailors the sea.

You ever look up from some lonely beach
and see a far schooner? Well, when I write
this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;
I go draw and knot every line as tight
as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech
my common language go be the wind,
my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.