The Wrecking Light [Robin Robertson]

So I read the Fernando Pessoa collection as part of my Portugal trip but this was the first proper poetry collection.  The book itself is different, a sturdier cover, the paper is thicker and stronger, perhaps better to hold the majesty of the words printed upon it in a relaxed spaced font.

Having just finished Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna I was looking forward to this.  Forna’s prose is as beautiful as poetry, but I wasn’t sure how, I mean, how do you read a poetry book?  Do you read one poem a day, take in all it’s meanings? Look up words and learn it off by heart? I don’t know.  So I did neither of these.  It was hot, I took it to Wandsworth common and read it, intersped with podcasts (History of China, Notes from Spain, Shakespeares restless world..), in fact completed it, over a weekend.  24 hours.  That can’t be right? But I loved it.

From the opening poems, including the cold Signs on a White Field, Robertsons poetry is a beautiful trip through a natural and human dreamscape.

in the railway lines
from a train about to arrive.

The Tweed is short, sharp and funny, that you will re-read as you laugh, just to enjoy the humour again.  About Time is a poignant look at lifetime, mundane events are juxtaposed with epic events.

Cat, Failing
And with that
loss of face
his face, I see,
has turned human.

Strindberg in Berlin – A portrait of a man facing up to what he has gambled on and lost (details are in the notes at the end, if you like me, have no idea who Strindberg is)
I’ve now pulled out
every good tooth
in search of the one that was making me mad

The second part begins with a simple brutal scene in Law of the Island and continues with Khalighat a vivid observation on a sacrifice.  Pentheus and Dionysus is an eloquent retelling straight from Greece, beautifully set down, as is The Daughters of Minyas, a much darker telling of the powers of the gods, but told true to it’s tradition.

The Great Midwinter Sacrifice, Uppsala is a haunting description, a man walking through the darkness after a feast.

The poems are all evocative and powerful.  The collection paints a bleak landscape that is punctured with some sharp humour.  I can’t say I understand the binding of the poems to a theme, and that is completely my failing, not the poet.  I have since dipped back in to read certain poems, and indeed merely to pick one out at random to enjoy.  The simple Hammersmith Winter beautifully ends the collection, but not my thirst for poetry.


Ancestor Stones [Aminatta Forna]

Stories that started in one place and ended in another, worn smooth and polished as pebbles countless retellings

Reading Aminatta Forna is like reading a bar of Cadbury’s dairy milk, delicious. (Other chocolate bars are available).  Or if society calls me from afar and demands a more manly metaphor, it’s like reading a cold pint on a hot day.  You enjoy and saviour every mouthful, not wanting it to end and after there’s a warm happy appreciation of what you’ve just finished.

The shadows are solid, sharp, small.  A dog lifts it’s head.  A nose swings our way like a weathervane, marks our progress for a while and then is tucked back beneath a tail.

Ancestor stones tells the stories of four women, four aunts of Abie, daughters of four wives of a wealthy plantation owner.  Each one full of tales from various points of their lives, that together create a tapestry of customs, beliefs and everyday life of these women and a nation, going through profound changes.

For here the past survives in the scent of a coffee bean, a person’s history is captured in the shape of an ear, and those most precious memories are hidden in the safest place of all. Safe from fire or floods or war.  In stories. Stories remembered, until they are ready to be told.  Or perhaps simply ready to be heard.

Written in the first person, but not to you the reader, to Abie, the listener.  Every now and then there are questions, accusations to the westernised young woman that remind you of Abie, as if she too is only just gaining insight into this world and it’s people, to which she belongs.  Abie’s voice is barely a whisper that bookends the stories of the four aunts.

As with The Memory of Love, it is Aminatta Forna’s beautiful, evocative and understated prose that carries the book along and brings the lives of the women, the plantation, and the country to life as each aunt recalls her past.

I started writing down my favourite bits as usual, but had to stop myself, I was almost writing every line

Here boulders are scattered across the sand, black pearls at a Tuareg woman’s throat.  It is morning, raining.  Drops of rain splash onto the water, as though on to a scalding pan.

The aunts are all individual, their lives take different paths until Abie returns to their life, lives that have changed irrecovably, as has their country, but those changes have not diminished their stories

As I watched, a single bat shifted, unfurled a wing and enfolded it’s body even more tightly. For a moment a single eye gleamed at me from within the darkness.

The Verbs of Boro [from Spoken Here by Mark Abley]

anzray: to keep apart from an enemy or wicked company
mokhrob: to express anger by a sidelong glance
zum: to wear or put on clothing for the upper part of the body

egthu: to create a pinching sensation in the armpit
khale: to feel partly bitter
khonsay: to pick an object up with care as it is rare or scarce

gobram: to shout in one’s sleep
gulun: to bend after overthrowing or uprooting
ur: to dig soil (as the swine do), to move curry (while cooking)

gagrom: to search for a thing below the water by trampling
goblo: to be fat (as a child or infant)
gobray: to fall in a well unknowingly

asusu: to feel unknown and uneasy in a new place
gabkhron: to be afraid of witnessing an adventure
serron: to examine by slight pressing

bunhan bunahan: to be about to speak, and about not to speak
khar: to smell like urine or raw fish
khen: to hit one’e heart

And the tender:

onguboy: to love from the heart
onsay: to pretend to love
onsra: to love for the last time

From: Spoken Here – Travels among threatened languages
By Mark Abley

For more info about the Boro / Bodo language, see here

The Hand of Fatima [Ildefonso Falcones]

I was back, back in a tale that was going to engross me and take me over, where I would feel every twist and turnn in the fate of the protagonist.  The young bastard of a muslim girl who was was raped by a Catholic Priest is that protagonist.  Shunned by both of the warring religions in Catholic Spain, Hernando is loved by his mother, Aisha, but despised by his step father, Brahim.  He learns the catechism and prayers from the church Sacristan while at the same time the Koran from the Scholar Hamid, whose name he later takes up.

Hernando’s family are caught up in the revolt by the Morisco’s against their Catholic oppressors and during this he inadvertently rescues Fatima, who he falls body and soul for.  Unfortunately his step father also takes a liking to the young Fatima and in the first quarter of the book she passes from one to the other like a prize mule.
When the revolt is finally crushed Hernando and his family are amongst the thousands dispersed throughout Spain.  Working his way up from shovelling manure at a Tannery to working in the Royal Stables he marries Fatima after Brahim is pushed out of the picture, and there is a brief period of peace in Hernando’s life.  But Brahim returns to wreak revenge at the end of part two and Hernando’s life changes once again, and he focus’s even more intently on his plan to try to unite the two warring religions.

When I say epic, I don’t just mean the arc of the story, the book is over 900 pages long.  After a while despite the sheer horror of what happened at the time, you almost run out of raw emotion to feel it, although there are a few times when my head was screaming for something to happen differently, someone to arrive earlier, for a meeting to end differently.  I had to ignore the pile of unread books on my book shelf, which seemed to look at me accusingly every time I passed them by, they have been moved down out of eye level since.  The other thing was that I didn’t think this was as good as Cathedral of the Sea, Falcone’s first novel, set in Barcelona, which loved.

Still it consumed me, during the bad parts I hated the book and the emotions it made me feel, but carried on turning the pages until I knew Hernando’s fortunes had turned, and during the brief respites of happinesss I turned the pages and enjoyed the prose that opened a window to this period and place.

If you have an interest in the history of Spain, Christianity or Islam, or just want an epic tale that will wrench your emotions through life in 16th Century Spain, then I would definitely put The Hand of Fatima in your own hands.