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Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965 edited by Mark Andryczyk (Penguin)

Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965 edited by Mark Andryczyk (Penguin)

Two immediate surprises from this volume: firstly, how much poetry is included within its 343 pages; secondly, that Penguin have chosen to repackage, reprint and retitle a 2017 anthology. Surely they could have put together a new book? We all know how quickly work can be requested, submitted, edited, typeset and printed these days!

Never mind. If I wasn’t someone who reads the small print, I’d probably never know, although the Introduction and section of review quotes still refer to the book by its previous title, The White Chalk of Days. What is missing is, of course, any mention of the recent Russian invasion and war, which as I write has been happening for 160 days. Perhaps that is a different book, one I’d like to see, but I suspect I am not alone in wanting to find out more about Ukraine because of the current conflict.

The prose, some of which is excerpts from longer works, is perhaps more obviously Ukrainian. The fiction is often set within the country, and characters dress, speak and act in specific ways, in settings that seem to be actual places. The essays grapple with issues such as history, culture, poverty, oppression, often from surprising angles: Taras Prokhasko’s ‘Selections from FM Galicia’, a series of ruminations on the nature of cities, the seasons, language, and much more, could be non-fiction or fiction, but is perceptive, insightful and engaging. Yuri Andrukhovych offers up a brief history of Prypiat, a city which only existed from 1970-1986, when it died from ‘Acute Radiation Syndrome’, but the piece is also a travelogue and philosophical discourse. Who can be held accountable? What can be done? Nothing it seems…

Elsewhere things get more fantastical and perhaps more ‘Westernized’. Andrey Kurkov’s prose excerpt is about a KGB captain who arranges for the hand of Jimi Hendrix to be brought to L’viv so it can be buried in the Lychakiv Cemetery, whilst Yuri Vynnychuk’s excerpts ‘From Spring Games In Summer Gardens’ swim ‘along the waves of daydreams’, sometimes reminiscent of Virginia Woolf in their lucid brevity. Viktor Neborak was part of Bu-Ba-Bu performance group, and some of his poems seem rooted in that world:

   It rises up like a head,
   the lopped-off head of a vagrant.
   It utters words from the beyond
   once, twice, and for the third time:
   Are you devouring TV soaps?
   You gaze at dragons behind the glass!
   Remember you can’t hide anywhere!
      (‘From Genesis of the Flying Head’)

   —Paint a BABE naked BLUE
   with lips the day looks BA
   BU in dithyraMBs BU taBOO
   put your teeth in BUBABU
       (from ‘A Drum-Tympanum’)

Elsewhere, Marjana Savka writes about how ‘books we’ve never read are opening for us’ and listens to Sonny Rollins, the ‘Lord of Jazz’; Andriy Bondar ponders how Ukranian he looks and takes advice from Robbie Williams; Sylvia Plath turns up in Marjana Savka’s ‘Who, Marlene, Who?’; and Serhiy Zhadan serenades ‘Alcohol’ in the guise of a lover, or vice versa.

Other poems seem more mainstream, taking love, loss, separation and distance, family and relationships as their subject. Ivan Malkovych spends ‘An Evening with Great-Grandma’, whilst Bondar ponders the fact he has ‘very good genes’ and that his ‘great-great-grandfather lived to be 119 and died with dignity / simply walked into the house and died’. Lyuba Yakimchuk considers her ‘Grandmother’s Fairy Tale’ and ‘The Book of Angels’, but also takes her clothes off ready to make love before learning to also shed her family’s expectations and judgement:

   and now we wear nothing at all
   such people are called naked
      (from ‘such people are called naked’)

The (original) Introduction offers context for the anthology, which arose out of the Contemporary Ukrainian Literature Series of events, and came to a close in 2014 due to a war with Russia. It also introduces the 15 writers selected, whilst the new Preface re-contextualises the book in the light of more recent events. Throughout the book there are helpful footnotes, and each author gets an introductory page before their work.

If there is little here to suggest that Postmodernist writing has taken root in Ukraine, and little evidence of textual and linguistic experiment, it is nevertheless an intriguing and informative anthology with plenty of different styles of work on offer. Whilst I feel Lloyd’s Schwartz’s claim on the back cover that this is an ‘act of moral generosity’ is somewhat hyperbolic, it is nevertheless deserving of your attention and time.

Rupert Loydell 9th August 2022

Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Victoria Chang’s collection of mostly prose poetry, Obit, published by Copper Canyon Press, calls on a literary tradition of loss that builds from the poets whom Chang references such as Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, and I would say more modern poets like Sharon Olds and even Ted Kooser in his discussion of the loss of his father. Chang is a Los Angeles-based poet who has reached that time in her life when she must deal with the death of the previous generation, and Obit is simultaneously about that loss and the strange position those who mourn are put into.

With the gravity of loss, any other concern seems trivial and moving on with one’s life seems wrong. She discusses that emotion most directly in “The Doctors” where she writes, “To yearn for someone’s quick death seems wrong. To go to the hospital cafeteria and hunch over a table of toasts, pots of jam, butter glistening seems wrong. To want to extend someone’s life who is suffering seems wrong” (68). Anyone who has witnessed the process of the death and dying knows what she is capturing so well here. Even acknowledging that one feels awkward seems wrong because that emotion cannot compare to death, so we, like her, are left not knowing how to deal with death because we have no training for it.

Obit also clearly shows us how long the process of dying can be; the narrator’s father suffers from dementia and her mother from pulmonary fibrosis. She has to watch as her mother loses oxygen over months and years. The knowledge of the coming death is overwhelming, and her father’s dementia after a stroke turns a once intelligent mind foggy. In “Language,” she writes, “Letters used to skim my father’s brain before they let go. Now his words are blind. Are pleated” (10). It is a slow burning pain developed throughout the collection, and her poems like the reality of this condition are complex and subtle.

This was a painful book for me to read, but also a necessary one. I read it slowly having to deal with the pain that is in my life as well, but that is not to say I didn’t welcome the process. This is a healing book. Part of the problem with dealing with death is that we do not have a good vocabulary for it, and we feel that there are so many aspects that should not be discussed as though our emotions surrounding death cheapen it. That fact makes the process so much more difficult, but here, Chang is speaking about it out loud. By doing so, she is giving us a vocabulary for mourning.

John Brantingham 3rd February 2021

The Past by Tessa Hadley (Vintage)

The Past by Tessa Hadley (Vintage)

One of the things that raises Tessa Hadley’s work so far above its quiet and accurately observed domestic dwelling is the author’s profound understanding of the nature of loss.
The opening paragraph of David Lowenthal’s book about yesterday, The Past is a Foreign Country, is uncompromising in its assertion:

“The miracle of life is cruelly circumscribed by birth and death; of the immensity of time before and after our own lives we experience nothing. Past and future are alike inaccessible. But, though beyond physical reach, they are integral to our imaginations. Reminiscence and expectation suffuse every present moment.”

The direct dramatic opening of Hadley’s novel, The Past, defines a sense of place as well as time and the opening word nudges us to recall a girl from 1865 whom Lewis Carroll described as peering through a door into another world:

“Alice was the first to arrive, but she discovered as she stood at the front door that she had forgotten her key. The noise of their taxi receding, like an insect burrowing between the hills, was the only sound at first in the still afternoon, until their ears got used to other sounds: the jostling of water in the stream that ran at the bottom of the garden, a trickle of tiny movements in the hedgerows and grasses.”

Tessa Hadley is an intelligent reader of literature and there is an appropriate sense of ease with which she weaves Browning’s 1855 poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ into her narrative about a journey into the past:

“For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
O’er the safe road, ’t was gone; grey plain all round:
Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.
I might go on; nought else remained to do.”

Three sisters and a brother, aptly named Roland, have arrived at a childhood family home for a few weeks of immersion in a long-gone past and as we soon discover “They were in the country, in the middle of nowhere, with no way back…”. As Alice, having forgotten her key, stands gazing through the French windows “the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror”. Later in the novel she talks to her brother about this moment of standing outside and explains that “Now I keep feeling as if I passed through the mirror and I’m living in there, on the other side”. The abandoned house to which the grandchildren return has a stillness which echoes that of the house in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse but “sunk further back into the earth” and “perched high above the steep end of a valley” is another cottage which has more association with Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows, Gibson’s ‘Flannan Isle’, Graham Swift’s Waterland or the witches house in the Grimm tale of lost children, Hansel and Gretel. Whereas the grandparents’ home is still inhabited by archives, family letters and books, the cottage smelled awful, “not innocently of leaf-rot and minerals like outside, but of something held furtively close, ripening in secret”.
Just as ‘the child is father to the man’ so the past re-emerges into the present and we tread upon the bones of the dead. This is of course not always recognised by children themselves and the nine-year old Ivy finds it impossible to believe “that she ended at the limits of her skin and couldn’t surpass it”. The past has a language which speaks like a shark’s fin cutting through water and one of the lessons learned throughout this powerful novel is that we do not simply stop at that enveloping bag of skin which holds us in. In a similar fashion the archivist is always searching through the old letters of the past in order to come to an increased awareness of the present and it is no mere accident that Tessa Hadley is both an ardent reader of Henry James and a writer of articles and a book about the great novelist. In a short piece about The Aspern Papers (‘The Cambridge Quarterly’, 1997) she refers to the “ignominies of literary discipledom” as the narrator is caught as “in the flare of a gaslight” opening a desk “in search of those wretched letters”. Hadley’s article concludes with an insight which, now twenty years on, has a prophetic ring to it:

“It might be possible to argue that a certain quality of shifting discomfort which characterises the narrative of The Aspern Papers represents an important development in James’s oeuvre: that in it he begins to interrogate with a new scrupulousness his own authority as ‘writer’, even perhaps the sources in his own ‘editorial heart’ (the phrase recalls those notebooks stuffed with lists of names, anecdotes, fragments of lives) of the need to write. And his including within his narrative what almost amounts to a perpetual critique of the very fictionalising process and its appropriations of ‘real life’ is highly suggestive for any analysis of his late style.”

Tessa Hadley will be talking about the dark art of fiction-writing at London Review of Books this Friday, 29th September, at 7.00 p.m.

Ian Brinton, 27th September 2017.

Eidolon by Sandeep Parmar (Shearsman Books)

Eidolon by Sandeep Parmar (Shearsman Books)

Pound’s Canto 93 from Section: Rock-Drill is infused with light. From ‘Risplende / From the sea-caves / degli occhi’ to ‘lux in diafana’ and ‘light there almost solid’ there is a quality of ‘Manifest and not abstract’. Also we read ‘in sea-caves / un lume pien’ di spiriti / and of memories’ before encountering the Poundian line that is used by Hugh Kenner as his conclusion to The Pound Era:

‘Shall two know the same in their knowing?’

In Sandeep Parmar’s essay, ‘Under Helen’s Breath’, which acts as the conclusion to this splendidly vivid collection of poems she refers to Virginia Woolf essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’:

‘Woolf’s point is that we essentially cannot know the Greeks because we are so culturally different and their age was not one of aesthetic ‘schools’ or developmental phases but one that was somehow locked crystalline into a monolithic antiquity.’

Parmar goes on to refer to a culture and context ‘lost like the shade and fibre, the milk and memory of a self-effacing tree’ and quotes from Woolf’s essay:

‘With the sound of the sea in their ears, vines, meadows, rivulets about them, [the Greeks] are even more aware than we are of a ruthless fate. There is a sadness at the back of life which they do not attempt to mitigate.

Sandeep Parmar’s poetry possesses some of that monumental light, that merging of the transient with the unchanging:

‘The wind lays down a road
across the waves
hiding us in a mooring of fog
flanks of earth lighten
like fantasy like Leda’s body
to make way for our white ship
of a hundred tiers
and some thousand men’

Some eighty years ago Llewelyn Powys wrote to a young poet, who had sent him a manuscript, ‘Try to leave Fantasy and get down to the reality of pots and pans, out of such inauspicious matter poetry will leap new born’. For me Sandeep Parmar’s poetry does this and with her pen she stirs to life a world that disappeared over two thousand years ago:

under the mountain

Helen falls between two limits
is without documents

She takes a cab—black as a Homburg in winter—
and peels the notes carefully
from her purse the hinges rusting shut
she rolls quiet as water
down a cool glass
as a crow at dusk
walking backwards
stealing spoons
from the verandah

The TV already on (it’s never off)
greets her with a brief message
from our sponsors

Ian Brinton February 1st 2015

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