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

Thursday, 19 January 2012

brief book blog: 3 on intimacy

In the last couple of days three new (to me) books have come my way. All three are completely engrossing, which is a disadvantage when I'm working from home and disinclined, at the moment, to work.

Each book, in its own way, is about intimacy; one is a novel, one a poetry collection, one non-fiction.

Many years ago now when I thought I was going to marry for the second time, my fiancé told me about a vicar who said at a wedding he (the vicar) was conducting and T was attending: 'I want you to remember that, as you commit to each other now, there will be a time in the future when one of you, without doubt, will leave the other. Whether this is through divorce or through death, it will happen.' It seemed to me then, as it seems to me still, that this was a very wise vicar.

No, it's not gloomy and pessimistic. It's not that it's 'realistic', either. It's simply a very profound reminder, to me, that others are only ever 'on loan': that nothing is permanent, and we need, perhaps, to remember to make the most of this: of each relationship in our lives, and every passing moment. We can do this by committing ourselves to deep intimacy with the process, in its transience.

'In my beginning is my end.' It is not possible to have a beginning that won't lead to an ending, eventually; and each ending introduces a new beginning. That is simply how life is, in its cycles and phases. How much energy we expend, though, wishing it to be different!

Is there any one of you out there who can say with complete and total honesty that you have ever been in a relationship without considering the possibility of leaving it? Life, as I experience it anyway, is a perpetual balancing act of intimacy and solitude, with the balance in perpetual motion too (and we so often forget that intimacy with ourselves has to be cultivated before we can truly be intimate with another).

Anyway, all that's a preamble to Hanif Kureishi's book Intimacy. I'm 3 pages in, and hooked. A reviewer says it's about the 'dissection of male sexual restlessness'. It's primarily about the narrator's leaving of his marriage (maybe not the right book for you if you're feeling vulnerable at the moment; it's described as 'controversial'; 'coruscating'; 'excoriating').

Maybe I'm a masochist: I really enjoy reading about relationship, and I don't mind reading deeply painful and intimately honest accounts of hard things (though I can't stand violence and cruelty) – I loved Dan Franck's Separation, and McEwan's On Chesil Beach, bleak though they both are. One of my big favourites is Dunmore's Talking to the Dead. (One of the reasons I go to literature is to do with relationship: how other people do it; how processes in the human heart are brought to resolution, and if not, why not; how the human spirit is strengthened by facing up to stuff; how we triumph over disaster.)

The blurb says: 'Intimacy speaks to, and for, a lost generation of men: those shaped by the Sixties, disoriented by the Eighties and bereft of a personal and political map in the Nineties.' And it speaks to me, as a woman, interested in men: how different we are, how similar we are.


In the post this morning was Nina Bogin's poetry collection The Winter Orchards (Anvil). Good poetry, for me, is always about intimacy, though not necessarily in the obvious ways; more the way in which we as humans learn to pay deep attention to everything we encounter, and then recreate the sense of entry into that intimate encounter for a reader. Bogin is intimate with everyone and everything she encounters: human, horse, deer, plant, rock. She maps it all. I didn't know her work, and I'm captivated. Here's one:


Black that means rock.
Moss that means comfort.

Lichen that means stone.
Path that means passage.

Rock that means shelter.
Nest that means warmth.

Hoofprint that means flight.
Turd that means food.

Feather that means battle.
Bone that means death.

Snow that means north.
Stream that means thaw.

Fern that means marsh.
Flower that means light.


This one is wonderful, wacky, exceptional, completely compelling. If you're into natural history and its little particular intimacies, you'll love this. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Green Books) is exactly what it says it is, and I am smiling all the way through. It's by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, whose constant companion throughout a serious illness was – yes – a living woodland snail. It's a moving record, too, without any self-pity, of the severe confinement and introspection that comes with illness, and the questions and insights it can reveal.

I've always quite liked snails in an impersonal sort of way, and am gentle with them when they eat my veg, admiring their perfect spiral homes, removing them carefully and putting them over the hedge. But no, I would never have imagined that a book about a snail – a personal memoir, as well as a wide-ranging scientific study of a gastropod – would so engage me. I love it. Must be my age.

Here's what it says on the jacket: 'The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is an affirmation of the healing power of nature, revealing how much of the world we miss in our busy daily lives, and how truly magical it is. A remarkable journey of survival and resilience, TSWSE shows how a small part of the natural world can illuminate our own human existence and deepen our appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.'

In its smaller way it reminds me of that wonderful book by naturalist Richard Mabey: Nature Cure, another 'must read' for those interested in the therapeutic power of the natural world.

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