Sad to say, but Reading Matters has reached the end of its 20-month run. Those of you who have taken the ride with me, as I’ve written up my reading group’s journey week by week, will know that I began documenting our adventures in reading with (and frequently returned to) the theme of dying fathers. This was swiftly followed by bad fathers, absent fathers and heavenly fathers; fathers weak and strong, fair and foul, law-giving fathers, and law-breaking ones.

All the while I’ve been posting these dispatches my own father has been ailing, slowly but surely approaching his unavoidable end. Consciously and unconsciously, then, through a process of gentle seepage,  filial duty became another theme underlying my choices of material.

By an accident of timing, my father, whose health went into a tailspin in February, died within a week of our last Reading Matters meeting, presenting me with another, more final, closure, and leaving me wondering whether I had not chosen so much father-related material as a way of sublimating my anxieties about him.

The point I want to make is not that literature offers an obvious catharsis, but that reading and life can usefully converge; like sunlight filtering through a prism, when the stuff you read smacks right up against life experience it generates a rainbow of narrative perspectives, glistening with possibility and newly refracted permutations.

In my father’s final weeks, when he could not walk and his legs grew matchstick thin, I ran like a mad thing at the gym, telling myself over and over, ‘I am a machine.’  When he could no longer take in liquid, except by sucking a spongy ‘lollipop’ saturated with water, I hit the bottle; a couple of glasses of wine  was my comfort and my friend. While my father dozed through much of the day, I was insomniac; and when he took no pleasure either in reading or being read to, I began hunting down evermore challenging poets to savour: Roberto Bolaño, Christopher Buckley, Sylvia Plath at her most truculent. Such are the strange manifestations of the will to live  as it pushes back against a fear of nothingness.

Until the end, my father did not want to go. At eighty-seven, bed-ridden, unable to eat or drink, barely able to move except for a twitching agitation in his hands, pumped with sedatives, his breathing aided by oxygen, his bladder emptied into a bag, he clung determinedly on.  He had hallucinations.  He vomited in reaction to his meds. He railed at the unfairness of it all and he could not sleep for nightmares.

Yet beyond all this he managed to prize open for himself a chink through which the sun could still shine.  He could blow a kiss at his grandchildren, squeeze a hand in confidence, and, occasionally, he managed to smile a crooked smile, fighting the slack-jawed myopathy that afflicts the dying – the dreaded ‘Q’, when the mouth attempts to slip off the side of the face.

Leading the group through this time has been an unexpectedly enriching experience. I’m reading more poetry now than at any other time in my life and feeling its uplift keenly. But more than that, my reading group has offered  me support and solace through a muddled time. Various of its members have sent supportive emails; they’ve queried me politely about my father’s health, shown me care and compassion, given me chocolate and hugs.

Mainly, however, they just kept showing up each week, whatever the weather, defying the vagaries of the transport system and moving other commitments in order to squash in a session. They have persisted in their commitment to continuity and longevity… Like my father, in his way. And together we have found meaning and laughter and compassion and camaraderie through many wonderful hours shared reading.  For that, I’m grateful.

* * *

I hope to be back  at the end of May with something else to write on: The Walden Project  – Re-Thinking the Simple Life, so please don’t unsubscribe!

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The ancient Chinese philosophers used to distill the essence of their moral teachings into fables that ordinary folk could understand. These fables were economical, pedagogic and often humorous, offering people a kind of practical Daoism, or guide to life.

Chinese fables have been handed down the centuries through both text and the spoken word. But while they might look more beautiful block printed on fabric, I prefer to think of them passing from mouth to mouth, from one person to the next, like generational Chinese whispers.

To the modern ear these fables tend to sound quaint. Yet passing time has robbed them of none of their profundity or humour.

The Man Who Saw Nobody (with its strangely Hitchcockean title) is contained in the Lieh Tzu, a practical philosophy text of the 4th century BCE. It’s about a man who made off with a piece of gold in a busy marketplace. All and sundry saw him steel it. But he himself saw no one, only the gold he was so intent on having.

The fable is short, running to just six lines. But there are telling incidental details. The would-be criminal wears his best clothes the day he is to execute his plan. The police officer who questions him is guileless as well as incredulous. ‘why did you steal gold in front of so many people?’ he asks the man, who explains, with a hapless shrug, that he saw only the gold.

We’re also told that the witless thief hails from the state of Chi, which made me wonder whether Tang era sophisticates in Bejing looked down on their clueless cousins in Chi, much as the French mock the Belgians today, or the English, the Irish.

Many of the Lieh Tzu fables concern the mistrust that exists between neighbours —  an enmity so natural it has been with us since the beginning of society, ever since clans began to settle side by side in towns and then cities.

One of these fables, called Suspicion, is about a man who loses his axe and suspects his neighbour’s son of having stolen it. From that moment on every move the youth makes, every look and gesture, takes on the aspect of thievery: to the axe-less man the youth is tainted. However, sometime later the man finds his axe and goes out to dig in the field. There he happens to catch sight of his neighbour’s son. But now the boy looks quite unlike a thief.

Some of the fables I read to the group provoked guffaws. The one about the man whose shields are so strong they cannot be pierced and whose spears are so sharp they can pierce anything. So what happens, asks an onlooker, when one of his spears strikes one of his shields. Or take the fable about the man who wants to sell some gorgeous pearls. He commissions a casket made of rare wood, scents it with spices, inlays it with jade, and wraps it in kingfisher’s plumes. The result: no one wants his pearls, but everyone clamours to buy the casket.

The fable that stirred the most interest was written by Yin Wen Tzu in 3rd Century BCE. Called The Prince and his Bow, it tells of a certain Prince Hsuan, a keen archer who enjoyed being praised for his skill with the bow. Hsuan’s attendants knew this and, although the prince could drawn no bow heavier than 30 catties, they pretended to be unable to draw his bow. ‘This must weigh at least 90 catties’ they cried, bending the bow to just half its extent. The prince was pleased. Till the end of his life he believed his bow weighed 90 catties, when it was in fact 30. “But but for the sake of the empty name he sacrificed the truth.’

I instantly felt for plight of the attendants, forced to be less than they were in order to move freely in their social world. But someone else pointed out that the attendants knew very well their own power and were playing with the prince, mocking his virility even as they enjoyed their greater strength: they, not the prince held the trump card. But, said another, the Prince commands more power because he can get people to deny the truth. But, said another, that kind of power is ultimately empty because it commands through status and not personal virtue. And so we went on, in circles.

Even if we couldn’t be sure who was duping who, we all agreed that the fable was a masterful allegory of power, and as apt in describing class relations today as it was twenty odd centuries ago. Personally speaking, I find it a comfort that there are such profound continuities between ancients and moderns; that their literature and wisdom traditions, and philosophy, and spirit are still able to reach us largely intact. I only wish these fables were more widely known.

There are certain poems, narrative poems in the main, that contain so much of life in them you wonder whether they might not have a secret compartment somewhere hidden about them, where the poet has snuck in a whole lot of meaning.  Poems like expandable travel bags. Or pocket universes.

This week we read two such poems and it was like five-star dining.

Christopher Buckley’s A Little About Not Knowing Very Much is a super-refined piece of writing, whittled and honed to a state of near perfection. It segues back and forth between confessional verse, where we learn about the poet’s life –  childhood fears,  grown-up disillusions – and cosmic speculation: ‘What are the odds there is someone behind the cosmic curtain, who can read our thoughts…?’

At five, Buckley was afraid of taking a nap, fearing there was ‘nothing on the other side of sleep.’ He was born with this primal fear, he says, and he pictures his boyhood self, vulnerable, doubting, hanging upside down from the avocado trees in his Californian backyard, watching coastal clouds ‘strung out like a Sumerian alphabet’, and a darting crow, ‘a riddle of pitch and feathers against the blue’ squawking into the breeze.

For the next 20 years he was a ‘polished page of longing,’ keeping the faith with resolution and reward. But he kept drawing blanks. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. But then, nothing out of the ordinary ever happens: we just keep circling back on ourselves with improved tools, thinking we are going somewhere, trying to read the runes – ‘the fine print about flesh and bones’ – in the stars above.  What perspective is there, asks Buckley, beyond the vanishing point of the earth.

Buckley is a thoroughly modern poet, imagining TV and radio waves carrying Howdy Doody and Flash Gordon out over the cosmic waves, announcing our presence to the universe, while we hold our breath here on earth as SETI checks 100 million channels for signs of life elsewhere. With a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders, he says it hardly matters that the NBC News takes 60 years to get to Alpha Centauri, when you consider our stealth bombers are little different from those in the ‘40s, and the boys on all sides are still being blown to bits.

No wonder Diogenes made his home among the homeless in the streets of Athens, holding all human achievement in contempt and making a cult of poverty.

‘What’s coming next is anyone’s guess’, says Buckley, outside of what we know about the reliable collapse of our cells. Yet there’s comfort in knowing that you don’t know — a comfort that allows you to gaze at the stars with a glass of pinot in your hand, offering a salute to the atoms, ‘whirling with their undisclosed purpose towards the dark’.

The reading group was divided about this poem. Some people found it bleak (even the cats and birds understand more than we seem to about the way things are), others hopeful (we know what we know, even if it amounts to very little). I fell to neither side, content to enjoy a cynical poem by an uncynical soul.

The second narrative poem we devoured was The Worm by the Chilean poet, revolutionary, and sometime vagabond, Roberto Bolaño – an altogether darker affair; insistent, repetitive, unforgiving, like a fairytale from hell.

‘I saw him with my own eyes’, goes one of the poem’s refrains; a gun-toting man in a straw hat, gesturing into the sunset. He smokes unfiltered Delicados, has a Bali between his lips, and he travels with vendors and drunks through the border towns of north Mexico, ‘dragging his desperation.’ Sometimes he shouts promises through streets lined with low-slung adobes. Sometimes he mumbles to himself about an old village, up near the border with the United states:

‘a place that still existed,
only forty houses,
two cantinas,
and a grocery store,
a town of vigilantes and assassins
like him himself,
adobe houses and cement patios,
where one’s eyes were forever hitched
to the horizon
(that flesh-colored horizon
like a dying man’s back).

 

Mostly, he wanders lost, ‘evicted from the mind’ a stranger to himself and beneath the notice of others. This is true hopelessness, I think.

It’s no accident that Bolaño set his bitter portrait of this petty criminal dressed in rags, this worm, in the shapeless border towns between one place and another. The borderlands are neither here nor there, neither this nor that. They are a no-man’s-land, patrolled by vigilantes and assassins, where the soil is ‘watered with blood and the mendacious words of the frontier’ and the horizon offers only wind and dust, ‘a minimal dream’.

The borderlands are where man is naked, his flaws all on show. And he is ugly.

For Bolaño, as for his near-contemporary Charles Bukowski, poet of the down and outs, lyricist to the hobos, it is poetry that promises salvation. In fighting spirit, the poem’s narrator tells the worm :

‘get out of my tracks, you prick,
poetry is braver than anyone,
the soils watered with blood can suck my dick,
The evicted Mind hardly rattles my senses.

 

Poetry, Bolaño  suggests, is the better part of humanity. The thing that keeps us sane when we search the borderlands of our shady identities.

Again the group was divided. The Worm, we agreed, was a scary poem. You need to be brave to take its darkness in. And yet, it is just a poem. It is just Roberto Bolaño messing with our heads, conjuring a fearful tale out of the blood and dust of the Mexican experience.

It is a world apart from Christopher Buckley with his glass of pinot, content to know what he doesn’t know.

In the context of deep time mankind is a relative newcomer, a real Johnny come lately. With his tool-maker swagger and speech-making smoothness, he treats the planet as if he owned it, denuding forests, strip mining, polluting, cultivating and over-populating. He lords it over the rest of Earth’s residents, convinced his kind sits at the top of the evolutionary tree.

It’s a supremacy complex that’s echoed in our creation myths and salvation myths – our beginnings and ends – confirming that we sit at the centre of things, that we are the very point of creation.

There’s not much humility in play here, even if we do understand that we were gifted existence, fashioned and fed by prior entities, or else nurtured (for the godless among us) in primordial darkness.

In her wonderful memoir of spiritual encounter and experimentation, A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland takes another tack and considers the place of silence in our creation myths. She asks why silence is so often portrayed as a nothing that needs to be broken, whether by the word of God, the explosion of stars, the ructions and commotions of universes being born.

Our group read a particularly lyrical part of the book in which Maitland free associates on the cultural differences between one creation myth and another, highlighting the fact that cultures unlike our own produce myriad creation myths in which silence is portrayed otherwise, where it is generative and enabling: a life giving force and not a nothing.

Maitland relays a Maori myth in which a whole lot of action happens in silent darkness (copulating, reproducing, growing and separating),  and also a Norse myth in which the Great Cow, Authumla, licks a giant out of ice and suckles him until he grows to adulthood and spawns a race of giants using material from his armpit.

She also outlines an Aboriginal myth that depicts a land everlasting. The land has always been there, it has no beginning or end, and it evolves from featurelessness into shape and meaning as the ancestors travel its paths. Each generation re-traces the paths, creating new meanings as they go. ‘The paths must be walked. The creation work must be done’.

Maitland picked these myths because they contrast so sharply with the verbal, intellectual, monotheist rendition of creation in which silence is dumb, and where a shattering instant of noise and action bursts through to front the creative drama. It’s ironic, she says, that when we understand human creativity we don’t tend to see it as a violent, sudden act, but rather as a gradual process involving thought, both conscious and unconscious, and a blending of ancestral influences with contemporary ones.

I very much like this idea of transposing the metaphor backwards, from artistic to divine creativity, so that creation more closely resembles evolution rather than revolution. It’s more humble, less jarring, and more appealingly human.

It’s not often  I use my blog to plug something else, but I am such a fan of Edward’s Barker’s contemporary poetry website – www.thepoem.co.uk – that it feels only right to dedicate some small space to singing its praises.

Edward Barker is a poet and also the son of a poet. His father George Barker is famous, among other things, for having been the lover Elizabeth Smart romanticised in her seminal 1945 novel, By Grand Central Station I sat Down and Wept. (Less well known is that George offered his own account of their affair in his 1950 novel The Dead Seagull.)

Anyway, Barker fils’ website showcases a somewhat highbrow crop of British and Irish contemporary poets whose work it commissions directly. It boasts a poetry zine and a discussion forum. But, most importantly, it has impeccable good taste. The poems posted on the poem.co.uk are by and large very sharp.

This week I chose five of them to read to my multi-faith group:

Kathleen Jamie’s Julian of Norwich

Kate Clanchy’s Poem for a Man with No Sense of Smell

Roddy Lumsden’s Pagan

Michael Longley’s An Amish Rug

Carol Ann Duffy’s Poet for our Times

I’ll confine myself to telling you how just one of them went down with the group, Longley’s Amish Rug, which I have to confess was my favourite of the bunch, since I find it difficult to resist a poem that begins with the promise of a bit of fairytale magic….‘As if’.

An Amish Rug is poem of concise perfection, three verses and twelve lines long, that moves from black and white, into colour, and thence into luminescence.  It begins by picturing Amish life from the outside looking in; the one-room schoolhouse, the black clothing, ‘Marriage a horse and buggy going to church’, children looking like stick silhouettes in the snow.

With the second verse, we’re right inside the Amish world, the patchwork of the rug being compared to a smallholding, its threads the colour of ‘cantaloupe and cherry’ to the threads that secure hay bales, corn cobs and tobacco leaves. The making of the rug represents and contains the industry of the community.

In the final verse Longley seems to be suggesting that if you undress humanity you get the Amish – a people simple, innocent and pure. You may hang the rug on the wall, he says  – ‘a cathedral window.’ Or you can lay it on the floor. But even then it remains an object of reverence, not to be stepped on but stepped over when you undress for sleep or love, ‘as over a flowerbed.’

I love this image of stepping over the rug, as if it was a sacred object, as if it were a bridge, or a gateway. As if, when you stepped over it, you alighted in an over-cleansed world, a heaven or paradise, so neat and so ordered that an outsider might mistake it for austere.

And yet Longley so clearly suggests that an insider would know better.