Storm Glass, by Jane Urquhart

In her Preface, Urquhart describes these stories as her first forays into fiction. As a poet, she had begun to find that her interest in narrative and “subtle explorations of character” demanded a different, more expansive form. She says, “I found that there was not enough physical space in a single lyric poem for what I wanted to say, and not enough breadth for me to get to know what I needed to learn.” Even narrative poetry proved insufficient, and I found it amusing that her first story is about Robert Browning.

I’ve been interested in writers who work in both genres—Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Hardy, to name just a few—exploring what they choose to write as poems and what as fiction. For myself, I sometimes write a story as a poem first, or perhaps after the first draft. By identifying what in the story creates the “concentrated resonance” Joanna Hirschfield attributes to Japanese poetry, I understand better how to focus the story.

I have remarked before how poetic Urquhart’s prose is. These stories, however, hover between poetry and prose, using the syntax and imagery of poetry within the narrative structure of fiction. Her imaginative leaps and way of telling it “slant”, as Emily Dickinson famously said, result in stories that are sometimes like dreams, mysterious and moving in indefinable ways. Some of them reminded me of Italo Calvino’s cities.

Other stories experiment with shifts in time. In “Forbidden Dances”, a woman remembers visiting her grandmother, moving back and forth between childhood memories, present-day adulthood, adolescence, her grandmother’s death. Urquhart eschews the usual structure of a present-day frame containing a chronological flashback, yet I was never uncertain as to when each scene was taking place. The scenes build from the grandmother’s story to her best friend’s story and then into the narrator’s story, all of them interpenetrating and illuminating each other.

The physical setting is important too. In the grandmother’s kitchen, the south window faces the fields of the farm where she spent her adult life, fields now worked by her son, while the north window faces the hill that was the scene of her childhood. I had the sense of an entire life contained in this single room, where she sits in her rocker working at a piece of appliquéd patchwork. Outside is a small wood with a creek which fills the narrator’s imagination. Hirschfield describes some poems as having a “painterly quality, the use of outward presentation to hold inner meaning” which perfectly captures Urquhart’s accomplishment. The first book of Urquhart’s that I read was The Underpainter and her partner is an artist whom I’ve mentioned here, making the quote even more apt.

This story is also a good example of how Urquhart uses imagery and colors to build character and theme. The grandmother, whose father forbade her to dance and insisted she do needlework, spends her time embroidering ladies in pastel gowns who look as though they are preparing to go to a dance. Given her lack of skill, the narrator notes that “the stitches that held them together were unlikely to endure long enough to get them there.” The specificity of imagery and the attention to word choice in this and the other stories add to their power and demonstrate the poet’s skill.

Where Crows & Men Collide, Poetry by Kate Gale

There is a raptor circling in the woods outside, a hawk of some kind. He glides just above the trees and then loops down a little ways into them, up, around, down, up, around. And then he plunges down, swiftly, into the tangle of grey branches and underbrush.

Gale’s poems appear modest and unassuming, yet with attentive reading, they open out into stories that wrap sensuality and concern around seeds of bitterness and grief. I love the space in these poems. They are like jasmine buds that, steeped in hot water, unfurl and blossom, infusing the cup with a heady scent.

She manages to tell whole stories in a few lines. Describing a marriage in “The Tomato Picker”, she says he “could not sleep in their bed/without dreaming of the house/vanishing . . .” and we know what is happening. Many of these poems are about the shifting lines of power within relationships, women who are betrayed by their own bodies as much as by the smiling men who touch them. She uses small, yet precise details to summon emotion, such as the man in “Outside the Window” who catches his breath in fear that the woman inside will touch the hair of the man she is with, just as she once touched his.

Other poems are about teaching, about the stories students tell her, about their own fears in the classroom. I love “My Children are Not Fig Trees” in which she answers the question as to why she does not write poems about her children. She describes caring for fig trees, vegetables, pansies. However, of her children, she merely says, “I hold my breath./I listen to their breathing.” In just two lines, she has captured the whole of my approach to parenting. Amazing.

I picked up the book at the AWP Conference, from the Red Hen Press table. Normally I do not purchase books on the basis of what company published it, but when it comes to poetry and Red Hen Press, I can be pretty sure that I will like the book.

The poem that moved me the most was “Snakes and Hawks”. After an evening with her lover, the narrator wakes to moonlight. From the doorway, she looks back at his boa constrictor and his chained hawk. As she walks outside, she thinks, “only my own body/does not leave me” and it is as if all those lazy, looping circles about coconut ice cream and Thai beer and his pets were a distraction, a preparation, and here is the plunge, and it goes straight to the heart of the matter.

Journey from the North: Autobiography of Storm Jameson

I’m finding the Writer’s Almanac to be a fertile source of reading material. Through it, I’ve learned about many little-known authors, or authors like Jameson who were famous in their day but unknown now. In her long life (1891-1986), Jameson wrote over 45 novels and served as President of the London center of the P.E.N., the first woman to do so. Her first aim in writing this autobiography in the early 1960s is to capture the tumultuous times through which she has lived. Her second aim is to discover for herself “what sort of person I have been,” acknowledging that nothing would be easier than to fabricate, using only the facts of her life, a portrait which would be “intelligent, charming, interesting and a lie” but choosing sincerity instead. The resulting narrative sometimes suffers from this lack of a throughline, but captures the vitality of life as we live it: a jumble from beginning to end, sprinkled with mistakes, false starts, and moments of unreasoning joy.

I’m reading some of her novels, but it is really this autobiography that captivates me. The book clearly conveys the image of a strong-minded woman who is not afraid to admit her mistakes or to admonish others for theirs. Impervious to advice, bull-headed, Storm barges her way through life, making—and often suffering from—her own decisions. For example, as a young woman, she gives in to her mother’s loneliness and refuses a prestigious London job writing for The Egoist, a position that is then offered to Rebecca West, who of course went on to literary fame and a place in the canon. Still, Jameson says, “Believe me, who should know, The Egoist and the world of letters got a better bargain.”

Her native Whitby is her great love, though restlessness repeatedly drives her to London and abroad. Being an admirer of that Yorkshire town myself, I was charmed by her descriptions of the town of her childhood at the end of the era of shipbuilding that supported her family and Whitby itself. Her relationship with her mother is as eccentric as everything else in her orbit. Acting almost as a bashful lover, she cannot resist giving expensive gifts to the perpetually dissatisfied woman. Twice married, Jameson later solves the parenting dilemma by boarding her young son with a woman outside Whitby while she herself lives in London, working and writing.

Jameson’s acerbic comments on writers and publishers whom she knew make me wish she’d expanded those sections. Many of them I’d never heard of and am now looking up. At one point she describes a meeting with John Middleton Murray, which gave me a start because I’ve also been reading Katherine Mansfield’s letters, spacing them out so I can savor them. I was shocked to realise the two women were contemporaries. Somehow I hadn’t made the connection.

The tale Jameson tells avoids bathos and hand-wringing; she’s too tough for that. Yet when, for example, her rage over the waste of the Great War slips out, it is profoundly moving. Moving, too, is her chagrin at having been too self-centered to appreciate her brother, killed just before the Armistice, while she had him.

Another section which brought me to tears was her visit to Prague in June of 1938 as a delegate to the P.E.N. Congress, just after Hitler’s invasion of Vienna. The Czech people she meets display a heart-breaking confidence that England will honor its promise to protect them, while Jan Masark, the Czech ambassador, cheerily says, “‘Who cares if you rat on us? . . . We have our army.'” Later, in the streets of Prague, she sees this army: “the Sokol striplings, carelessly lively and free-stepping, the girls hardly less broad-shouldered than the boys . . . Trained in groups, in villages and small towns, to the same music, when they came together for the first time in the Stadium they moved as a single body, a vast ballet.” She calls them “confident children” and her companion says, “‘See how gay they are . . . and proud, like dancers. When we train them for the Sokols we take care they are not stiff like Germans. It is a free discipline.'” Knowing what happened afterwards makes this hard to take.

I found Jameson’s personal view of the home front throughout this second war, its runup and its aftermath, enlightening and quite different from official histories. I’m not sure I would have liked Jameson if I had met her—she is very quick to voice her opinions—but I appreciate her lack of self-pity, her generous observations of others, and her flinty Yorkshire individuality.

Highlights of AWP 2011

This week I attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference for the first time and was blown away by the insights and camaraderie showered upon me. The book fair alone was rewarding enough: hundreds of literary magazines, presses, MFA programs, and literary organisations filled four large rooms. Finding time to wander the booths was a challenge given the many readings and workshops going on all day and into the evening, not to mention the parties and receptions and conversations in the lobby and hallways.

I enjoyed hearing many of my favorite writers read and talk about their work, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz (see my blog about his first book here). Joshua Ferris, whose first book I blogged about here, read a new story in its entirety, and Salvador Plascencia, whose amazing People of Paper I blogged about here, gave a hilarious non-reading, in spite of the early hour in which he described being “barely literate”. Other readings I was sorry to miss included Rae Armantrout, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Strout, Howard Norman, and Stanley Plumley. The WAMFest performance, featuring singer/songwriters and novelists John Wesley Harding (who writes as Wesley Stace) and Josh Ritter surprised and touched me with the intersection of music and prose. Stace’s new novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer about a folksong collector in the early 20th century was of particular interest to me given my interest in Cecil Sharp, Mary Neal and Maud Karpeles. Stace said that sometimes a story is just too big for a song, while Ritter described a song as a hallway with many doors, and said that in a novel one can open them and explore what’s inside.

The hardest part was choosing among the many enticing workshops in each timeslot. Some offered practical advice on issues such as copyright, while others explored aspects of the craft of writing such as the lyric essay and metafiction in Latino writing. As I’ve been interested in the influence of place on writing, I benefited from the workshop on the effect of the environment on Appalachian writers. As a poet, I enjoyed hearing poets talk about using the past in their work and the relation of new research on the brain to poetry. However, the workshop that most thrilled and inspired me was the one on Leaping Prose. Bly’s book Leaping Poetry has been a huge influence on me, so I loved hearing Peter Grandbois, Carol Moldaw, Kazim Ali, and Carole Maso translate Bly’s ideas into prose, using their own and others’ stories as examples.

Scattered through the schedule, too, were tributes to writers by those who knew them. I enjoyed the many personal anecdotes related in the celebration of Elizabeth Bishop and Ai, but most moving to me was the tribute to Paul Celan. John Felstiner and Susan Gillespie read letters, recently translated by Gillespie, between Celan and his friend, Ilana Shmueli, written during the last months of his life. Ian Fairley, who has translated several collections of Celan’s poems, used three poems to talk about the complexities of translation, exploring the multiple meanings of a single word and how alternate meanings can shadow the chosen one. Since I’ve been working on translating Italian poems, I listened open-mouthed to Fairley’s soft voice describing etymologies and shades of meaning, what influences a poem and what is left unsaid, how Celan uses poems to give himself a face and how every reader becomes a translator. Gillespie also discussed talked about translation, about needing to bear towards the words and take our bearing from them.

Every writing conference I’ve been to has energised me. Just being around and talking with other writers gives me boost, reminding me that I am a writer, one among many perhaps but nonetheless a writer. From AWP I brought home pages of notes, piles of books, many memories, and a recharged spirit.