from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?


– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.


Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.


Roselle Angwin

Friday, 17 December 2010

and so to books


Here are the books that, this year, have added something both significant and immeasurable to my life. It seems to me that what a book can set up in the imagination is something akin to a previously-unknown door to a new (though sometimes familiar) landscape; and a book that absorbs me completely enlarges permanently, even after I’ve forgotten all the details, what Manley Hopkins called the ‘inscape’ of my life.

Lindsay Clarke, the novelist, once said in a magazine interview I was conducting with him: ‘Without imagination compassion’s not possible’. This is a blindingly obvious truth, but so obvious I’d never formulated it, and I’ve never forgotten that phrase. In a post-Enlightenment world we are taught to revere the rational mind, which of course undeniably has an essential place in consciousness, but often at the expense of the imagination and the qualities of empathy that accompany it. This seems to hold true in every area of human experience, but before I get onto a rant about the defective collective imagination, the absence of which allows us to objectify and exploit other people, species and the planet, I shall return my attention to books. And I’ll start with Clarke’s newest book: The Water Theatre, in which he redresses the balance. It’s a book that champions the world of the imagination and the feeling nature, although never in a sentimental way; and it is also in some ways an overtly political book, in which friends oppose each other over poetry, politics and philosophy, with initially disastrous consequences; and yet at the end there is reconciliation; redemption, one could say. And growth, that essential component of human consciousness.

Poetry, politics and philosophy are themes to which I return, and I see that others of the books on my 2010 list address this. Afterlife, the novel by poet Sean O’Brien, is a gripping, burning and hard-hitting exploration of these ideas through the lens of a small group of friends, some of whom are poets, who graduated from Cambridge (as did both O’Brien and myself, though I was later in the decade) in the 70s; so it also explores counterculture ideas, drugs, loyalty and betrayal and dissolution. Finally, it’s about values. Think Coleridge, Wordsworth et al updated to a contemporary mindset; and with a very good plot.

Immediately after this I picked up the ManBooker shortlisted The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker. A mistake. Not the book, at all, as it turned out; but reading it straight after Afterlife. The style is so different, and in the first 30 pages nothing ‘happens’. I found it tedious, and left it. When I went back to it a few months later I was so glad I had; it’s a beautiful, tender, reflective novel musing on poetry. Although I don’t agree with all his conclusions on poetry, it’s also a very able exposition of poetry, of creative ability, and of love and the muse.

A very different creature is Juli Zeh’s Dark Matter, in translation (the German title is quite different; this English one is inspired). The book’s a very accomplished work from an enviably young writer – she’s a 36 year old lawyer. It’s a profound psychological and philosophical thriller, and in between addressing matters of quantum physics she also, in her way, elaborates on this theme of the rational and the imaginative, and their apparent oppositionality; also on the ideologies of materialism and metaphysics. Kind of. The plot has a gripping inexorability.

This one’s cheating really, but The Man at my suggestion has been reading David Lodge’s Thinks, so I have been sneakily reading it again, many years on, in between to – why?  To sort of savour alongside the ideas that Himself is engaging with. Thinks is about the attraction between a cognitive scientist, champion of the materialist rational mind, and a novelist who, naturally, espouses the imagination as a primary faculty of consciousness. Lodge is not afraid to get into the arguments; and as the territory of the book is on the nature of consciousness it explores contemporary questions and the possibility or otherwise of definitive answers. From his research into this book arose the n-f Consciousness and the Novel; well worth reading. And it’s to Lodge I owe ‘qualia’.

A friend recommended Between Each Breath to me (Adam Thorpe). Read this book!

Why have I never read Barbara Trapido? The Travelling Hornplayer, I’ve just discovered, is a marvellous book, full of larger-than-life, as they say, characters who are still credible. And another whose plotline, cleverly constructed, starts to take on that inexorable pull to an inevitable conclusion.

Well, this regularly changes, but right now I would say that this book would be on my forever top ten list: The Vintner’s Luck, by Elizabeth Knox. I’m not going to tell you anything about this, except to say that – especially if, like me, you gag on the New Age peddling of angels – it will revise forever your vision of angelic life. It’s also a meditation on the darker questions thrown up by our dualistic notions of good and evil.

I suspect that this is a ‘woman’s book’: Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver. Again, read it. It’s uplifting and inspiring and never schmaltzy.

For poets: W S Merwin’s Migrations – new & selected is one of my two collections of choice this year. Merwin has a gentle understated voice and addresses the large questions unassumingly and quietly. His poems have vision in the most essential way, and he addresses profound issues with a kind of Zen simplicity. I have been looking for many years for a half-remembered tercet by him, to answer a particular personal question about the metaphysical significance of verbs and nouns; and here it is. That alone sends me back over and over.

And the other is the exquisite and luminous Vessel, the long-awaited follow-up to Learning to Row, by Matthew Barton. (This is from the excellent small Brodie Press, who also publish my friend Julie-Ann Rowell, another very fine poet.) Barton’s territory is the natural world, ecological and political concerns, and the personal in the sense of the universal themes of love, loss and ageing. This book has a quieter and more consistent tone than Learning to Row, though the voice is clearly recognisable. There’s a steadiness and maturity (in the sense of ‘good wine’, or cheese) here that adds depth (not that that was lacking before). His language is careful, honed, surprising, and he has a fine sense of timing in poetry in terms of line breaks, use of diction, sequencing and so on. Chiming behind the poems is a quality of enduringness and the transpersonal; by which I mean that Barton does not buy into the transient ‘truths’ of a materialistic age. Like Merwin’s, these poems have vision; are poems that bring together head, heart and soul – that’s a pretty potent mix.

Non-fiction is my staple, but that choice is very personal. One book I wish everyone would read, though, that is a constant for me, is David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous: a lush erudite and urgently necessary voyage through our alienation from the rest of the planet, and prescription for our return. Just the first paragraph of the preface is one of the most inspiring passages I’ve ever read.

One more n-f work, that returns us to my intro, the (unnecessary but recurrent) apparent duality of reason and imagination: Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth; the comparison of mythos and logos. Stocking filler? Although I don’t mean in anyway to denigrate its substance and importance by saying that; it’s just that it’s physically a small book, and although wide-ranging it’s quick to read.

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