STANDING FEMALE NUDE

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By Carol Ann Duffy

Fifteen years minimum, banged up inside

for what took thirty seconds to complete.

She turned away. I stabbed. I felt this heat

burn through my skull until reason died.

~

I’d slogged my guts out for her, but she lied

when I knew different. She used to meet

some prick after work. She stank of deceit.

~

I loved her. When I accused her, she cried

and denied it. Straight up, she tore me apart.

On the Monday, I found the other bloke

had bought her a chain with a silver heart.

~

When I think about her now, I near choke

with grief. My baby. She wasn’t a tart

or nothing. I wouldn’t harm a fly, no joke.

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Duffy is a Scottish poet, born in 1955. She is the first woman, first Scot and first openly LGBT person to become Poet Laureate in the United Kingdom.

She is very popular and her poetry is widely used in high school and university courses in the UK.

“ Standing Female Nude “ is her first poetry collection, published in 1985.

She writes in many voices, as a war photographer:

“In his darkroom he is finally alone

with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.

The only light is red and softly glows,

as though this were a church and he

a priest preparing to intone a Mass.

Belfast. Beirut, Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass”

from ‘War Photographer’

as a nude model:

“Six hours like this for a few francs.

Belly nipple arse in the window light,

he drains the colour from me. Further to the right,

Madame. And do try to be still.

…The bourgeoisie will coo

at such an image of a river-whore. They call it Art.

~

Maybe. He is concerned with volume, space.

I with the next meal.”

from ‘Standing Female Nude’

and as in ‘Human Interest’ (above), as a man who sees his woman as a chattel and violence and murder as his entitlement.

Duffy’s work touches on issues of feminism, gender, violence and politics in very contemporary accessible language. Duffy was brought up in a Catholic household, and while no longer religious, she learned from it a sense of the ritual of language. She has said “ Poetry and prayer are very similar. I write a lot of sonnets and I think of them almost as prayers: short and memorable, something you can recite.”

Much of her work has a disturbing edge to it. In another poem “Education for Leisure” she gives voice to an alienated teenager:

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.

I have had enough of being ignored and today

I am going to play God.

She has said that she likes to use “simple words, but in a complicated way”.

I find her poetry very powerful and striking. You can see why it’s used in education syllabuses. I think young people would be attracted by it. I read this collection in March and can definitely recommend it, specially to people that don’t read much poetry.

I love discovering new poets. Let me know in comments who your favourites are.

Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land

by Robert Crawford

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“ Eliot’s life was no neat progress towards literary canonisation, towards a form of sainthood or simply towards a Nobel Prize. It was much rawer than that, more jagged, frayed and damaged.”

This is a marvellous biography of Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of my all time favourite poets.

Eliot was born in 1888 in St Louis, Missouri into a loving and privileged family. Although affectionate, his parents were very morally strict and religious. This atmosphere, as well as his own reserved, shy manner and precocious intellect, served to isolate young Tom from his peers and from life really.

Born with a congenital hernia, Eliot wore a truss for many years well into his teens.  Sexually, he was totally inexperienced and even repelled by the idea of sex. His strait-laced upbringing didn’t help. Eliot’s father described syphilis as “God’s punishment for nastiness” and hoped a cure wouldn’t be found or “it will be necessary to emasculate our children to keep them clean”. Ouch!

Eliot discovered Paris and French Symbolist poetry, specially that of Jules Laforgue at the age of 19, and this passion unleashed in him a new way of writing poetry and a way to express his torments, if not to surmount them. It also helped to find a way of thinking and feeling aeons away from his parents’ straitened lives.  Eliot might have been timid in life, but not in his writing where everything was on the table.

“Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table;”

opening lines to “ The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

For anyone not familiar with Eliot’s poetry I would recommend reading the Prufrock poem which can be googled. Written in 1910 when Eliot was only 22, it still astonishes in its use of language and its powerful imagery.

Eliot married at 28 and was still a virgin at his wedding. Both he and his wife Vivian were totally unsuited to each other and made each other’s life a misery. It was from the disaster of this marriage, which led to Eliot having a nervous breakdown, and his wife to descend into mental illness, that “The Waste Land” was born, one of the most powerful poems of the twentieth century. The last and perhaps most powerful section of the poem “What the Thunder Said” was written in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Eliot had gone to recuperate.

It really is amazing that someone so emotionally awkward and sheltered from the many realities of life, should have produced such a powerful body of poetry. I think that his poetry became a substitute for life. Language and the power of its imagery and assonance, was for Eliot a means of understanding and escaping emotional distress .

This biography was written in 2015 to commemorate 50 years since Eliot’s death and it is the first one allowed to quote extensively from Eliot’s writing and letters, as well as describing various anecdotes from his childhood and youth.

The book has been superbly researched and written by Crawford, who is himself a poet as well as long time student of Eliot’s work, and Professor of Poetry at St Andrews University, Scotland.

I really enjoyed discovering so much new information about Eliot’s early years. It has certainly made me look at Eliot with new eyes, and to see the high price he and his first wife paid for their ill-fated marriage . This volume ends in 1922, when Eliot has just published The Waste Land. The second volume is being worked on currently.

Recommended for Eliot fans.  5 🌟

Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson 

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” You have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”

“I hate to think what I would give for a thousand mornings like this. For two or three. You were wearing your red shirt and your mother was wearing her blue dress.”

“A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine.”

This novel is beautifully crafted, a meditation on life and death, but more particularly on what constitutes a good life, and how a good man does what he can with what he has on the small canvas of an insignificant Iowa town.

Reverend John Ames is a ‘good’ man, who has led a simple life in a small, obscure town. He comes from a long line of ministers, and he muses on the different theologies and lives of his father and grandfather. The former was a pacifist in World War 1, the latter was a fighter for the abolition of slavery and condoned violence to achieve that end.

In 1956, Ames is terminally ill, and so begins a letter to his young son, who will have few memories of him. Deceptively simple as a device, it allows Robinson to wander through a century of American history, and more particularly different types of Christianity, as well as black and white relations.

At times humorous in a very quiet and subtle way, at others poignant, “Gilead” reads like an elegy to another world.

Recommended. 5 🌟

Burial Rites: by Hannah Kent

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” I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold on to what has not yet been stolen from me… They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say ‘Agnes’ …But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
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“The weight of his fingers on mine, like a bird landing on a branch. It was the drop of the match. I did not see that we were surrounded by tinder until I felt it burst into flames.”

Quotations are from “Burial Rites”.
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“Burial Rites” is a fictionalised account of the life and last days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman executed in Iceland for her part in the murder of two men in 1829. The descriptions of a brutal, bleak landscape are breathtaking. You can almost feel the extreme cold, and wonder at the will power of the characters to survive each day in such a harsh world.
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Agnes is portrayed as a complex and haunted character, and as her story unfolds, you begin to gauge the depths of her suffering, and become more amazed at her strength to endure extreme grief and pain.
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Brilliant book, gut wrenching in parts, the debut novel of an Australian woman when only in her twenties, the research undertaken for it is formidable.
Highly recommended. 5 ⭐️
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Fires: by Raymond Carver

Fires: by Raymond Carver

I learned some things along the way. One of the things I learned is that I had to bend or else break. And I also learned that it is possible to bend and break at the same time.

Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk.

I have a three-by -five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: “… and suddenly everything became clear to him.” I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied.
It’s possible… to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things … with immense, even startling power…That’s the kind of writing that interests me.

The above are all quotations from Carver’s essays.
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“Fires” is an interesting collection of work by Raymond Carver, consisting of essays, poems and stories. The essays in particular I found really interesting, and are a fascinating insight into his method of writing, and the influences on his writing. A memoir of his father “My Father’s Life”, is poignant with the regret of things left unsaid. The title essay “Fires” was really meaningful for me, because in it he names his children as the biggest influence on his writing.

His responsibilities as a father were such, and the menial work he was forced to do was so time consuming that it left little time for writing. Writing a novel was an impossible dream, so he decided to specialise in short stories that could be written in one or two nights, and then refined. As Carver states in one essay on the crafting of his stories: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger.” The rest as they say, is history.

Maybe it’s for Carver aficionados only, but I really enjoyed this book. 4⭐️

This edition published by Vintage in 2009. Original publication 1988.