The Door, by Margaret Atwood

Atwood is best known for her novels such as Alias, Grace and The Handmaid's Tale, but it is her poetry that I have most valued. She writes in clear, compelling language, yet each poem contains a moment of surprise, of opening out into something beyond what I thought I understood. These revelatory connections and enlightenment—moments of being as Virginia Woolf called them, the leaping poetry Robert Bly described his book of that name—are what I look for in poetry. And what she refers to in “Poetry reading” in this volume, a description of a “well-known poet — ransacking his innards”. Understanding his compulsion, why he is not a bricklayer or dentist (“Hard-shelled. Impervious.”), detecting the craft behind the emotion, she is still surprised and struck.

Today poets are sometimes urged to make a single narrative of their poetry collection. Atwood has said that she writes individual poems, not volumes. She does not look ahead to how they might work together. I find the process of assembling a manuscript fascinating, entranced by how a poem changes when you set it next to another. Here, the book is divided into five sections. The first has to do with childhood and family; the second with the role of the poet, a theme she has come back to in several volumes. Writing in the turbulent second half of the 20th century, she has addressed political concerns while denying that the writer has a responsibility to society: “Books don't change the world.”

Yet she is still negotiating this relationship, and the poems of the third section address the wrongs of our society without the biting anger of True Stories but rather the insight of age. In “White Cotton T-Shirt” she remembers being a carefree teen-ager, saying “Ignorance makes all things clean. / Our knowledge weighs us down. We want it gone” yet goes on to write about Joan of Arc and war veterans who have kept “a hoard of buttons cut from corpses / as souvenirs”. Her writing has been called Northern Gothic and there are plenty of deliciously terrible images here. This is, after all, the woman who said that Grimm's Fairy Tales was the most influential book she ever read.

The fourth section seems almost a conversation with the preceding two sections. In poems such as “Enough of these discouragements, she defends the horrors she plumbs. “You wanted fire” she says. In “Another Visit to the Oracle” she says:

What would you prefer?

You'd like me to amuse you?

Do some jigs, or pranks? . . .

That's not what I do.

What I do: I see

in darkness. I see

darkness. I see you.

The last section reminds me that the poems in this 2007 book are those of a woman in her late 60s. Having addressed the horrors and dangers of our world, the loss of childhood and innocence, Atwood gives us the consolations of age, though slyly comparing them to the band on the Titanic in “Boat Song”. She talks of hearing “the man you love / talking to himself in the next room” and, listening, we are given the sense of what it means to share so long a life.

In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Atwood wrote: “Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.” This is what she has done for me, discovered my fears and secret joys and brought them out to the light.

Nothing to Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes

It's not a promising premise for a book: one man's fear of death. Yet Barnes' wit and learning kept me turning pages, nodding and chuckling. The jibes are at himself; he admits to feeling competitive about the age he first woke to death-awareness (a moment Charles du Bos called le réveil mortel): thirteen or fourteen to his friend G.‘s ridiculously early age of four “(four! you bastard!)”. Throughout the book, Barnes contrasts his own approach as a novelist to questions about death and what comfort may be derived from various sources with those of his brother who is a philosopher. Their paths diverged at an early age, which Barnes attributes to his brother being bottle-fed, unlike himself. He goes on to turn this assumption, as with others in this fascinating book, on its head, pulling it apart to try to discover the truth of the matter.

Barnes also looks at how other novelists, philosophers, composers, and so on who are brooders about death make of these questions. He wonders if we would wish to be conscious during our dying, citing Roy Porter who did “‘Because, you know, you'd just be missing out on something otherwise.'” Jules Renard, whom Barnes calls “one of my dead, French, non-blood relatives”, famous for a novel set in his native village of Chitry, experienced three deaths in the space of twelve years: his father's suicide, his brother's sudden collapse while at work, and his mother's drowning in a well, which may have been an accident or another suicide. At his brother's gravesite, Renard notices a fat worm on the edge of the grave seeming to be celebrating. He says, “‘All I feel is a kind of anger at death and its imbecile tricks.'”

That worm returns near the end of the book as Barnes stands over the Renard family grave. This return to certain images and ideas helps to tie together what is essentially a long essay. Barnes hews closely to his main idea—how can we come to terms with our inevitable end?—but the little excursions are what make the book delightful. At one point, he visits the graves of other non-blood relatives. In a cemetery in Deauville, he uses his rental car keys to clear the lichen from the gravestone, but the spacing of the letters is a bit odd, so the name he actually reveals is FORD MAD OXFORD. His graveyard visits lead Barnes to meditate about some reader perhaps cleaning Barnes's own tombstone one day, and to examine what comfort may be drawn from the ongoing life of books, one's creations. Cold comfort, he concludes, citing once-famous authors who have fallen out of fashion and the likely demise of physical books in our online world. He deals similarly with other proposed panaceas: religion, release from pain, the need to make room for others, children and genetic immortality, the famous bird from medieval poetry that flies into a lighted hall and then out of it again.

Barnes is amusing on the subject of last words, admiringly citing an otherwise undistinguished teacher who had decided to say simply, “Damn!” However, he goes on to dash cold water on the most gloriously planned exit lines by describing the reality of the person's final hours. I recently said of a friend that he made a good death, meaning that on his last day he displayed a dignity and courage I'd not expected from him, or from anyone for that matter. In his shoes, or hospital gown rather, I'd have been curled up against the bed's bars howling.

Fear of death—my own death—has never absorbed much of my attention. I've certainly worried about running out of time to do the things I want to do. And feared the possibility of dementia. But a long time ago, before I was even out of my teens and long before starting to study Eastern religions, I made the decision to live every day and as a result don't feel that I've missed out on anything.

Even without sharing Barnes's preoccupation, though, I found the book fascinating enough to tear through it in just a few days. The primary ideas I will take away from this book are his final remarks on narrative and memory.

Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, by Colin Cotterill

I'd heard good things about this series featuring Dr. Siri, the 74-year-old National Coroner of Laos. Set in the late 1970s, the story provides a portrait of life in the new People's Democratic Republic of Laos and its uneasy relationship with its neighbors' new regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia. This historical and political background, though important, is sketched in briefly, a sentence here and there, barely discernible in the flow of the story in which Dr. Siri is called in on three related murders, young women who have been impaled by curiously sharpened épées.

Cotterill shows a Laos that seems less repressive than my preconceptions. Dr. Siri and his old friend, Civilai, carry on amusingly about the absurdities of the bureaucracy without fear of repercussions. They even feel safe enough to make fun of and try to undermine the applications for hero status which they have been invited to submit. Though the serious clerk does pull them up sharp with her own remarks, there are no threats or reprisals.

My favorite parts of the story are these conversations between the two friends, many at the cigarette and alcohol stand behind the market whose proprietor is called Two Thumbs because both of his thumbs are on one hand. When Civilai is asked to go on a diplomatic mission to Cambodia, supposedly just a public relations jaunt, he nominates his friend Siri as his companion. Siri agrees, remembering happy days in Phnom Penh with his first wife, Boua. He assumes his investigation will be wrapped up by then, even though Inspector Phosy seems set on the wrong suspect.

I found the investigation fascinating, with unexpected twists and turns complicated by the unfamiliar (to me) culture. I also liked that in the rush of the story, Cotterill found time for small descriptions that evoke the scenes and the way of life, such as the two-story spirit house constructed by Siri's wife Daeng. The upstairs is for the ancestors, protected with buddhas, incense, and wooden elephants, while the downstairs is for the phaphoom, spirits displaced from the land, their consumer longings appeased by doll furniture, toy tv and miniature Mercedes Benz. The rainy season has stayed beyond its limits, as though to make up for the previous year's drought, and as the story gathers speed we see rain finally begin to seep into a corner of the morgue where Siri's assistants, Nurse Dtui and Geung, construct a dam of sandbags. This corner eventually becomes a pond with a couple of water lilies.

Cotterill handles the mix of humor and gravity beautifully. Civilai, Phosy, Daeng, Dtui, Geung and other characters emerge as people interesting in themselves. Less successful to my mind were the interspersed scenes of a future or past situation involving Dr. Siri. Still, there was much to interest me, and I'll certainly look for more in the series.

Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner

In this astounding novel, we are given the story of Thomas Sutpen, a man who came out of the West Virginia mountains with nothing to his name, arriving in Yoknapatawpha County in 1833 to build a fortune and carve out a plantation, expecting to found a dynasty. We learn about him only indirectly, through the stories that are told to young Quentin Compson. About to leave for Harvard, Quentin endures the wisteria-scented heat of September listening to Miss Rosa Coldfield, whose sister married Sutpen and bore him two children, and his father, whose own father had been Sutpen's only friend. Once in the deadly cold of his Harvard dorm, Quentin and his roommate Shreve, a milk-fed Canadian encountering the twisted kudzu of the South for the first time, continue to try to wrestle the bits of story into a narrative that makes sense.

Each new fragment reveals and occludes the few bare facts, suggesting motives and rationales for everyone involved. New facts shift the pattern in a kaleidoscope whirl. Faulkner has said that no one character has the true story, but the reader can come to it. In last week's blog, I mentioned the impossibility of truly knowing someone's life. Here, where we do not hear from Sutpen himself, we find a mosaic assembled from what these others say about him which may turn out to be the most truthful way to get at the reality of another person and what is in his or her heart.

Faulkner describes language as “that meager and fragile thread . . . by which the little surface corners and edges of men's secret and solitary lives may be joined for an instant now and then before sinking back into the darkness where the spirit cried for the first time and was not heard and will cry for the last time and will not be heard then either.”

I believe this is true, that what binds us together is language and the stories that we tell.

It is almost impossible for me to read Faulkner with my writer's glasses on. This is my third time reading this particular novel, maybe my fourth. Each time (after the first) I thought Okay, now I'll really pay attention. And each time I've gotten swept up again in the dramatic flood of his language: a dizzying, poetic, mad rush of words. I binged on Faulkner as a teen, reading everything I could lay my hands on. I fell into his Yoknapatawpha County as into an alternate world and traced the lineages of the Compson, Sartoris and Snopes families through various novels and stories. I got drunk on his language, his sentences that went on and on yet made perfect sense and could not be any shorter.

Yet in an earlier reading, I managed to recognise that Sutpen is an avatar for the South, the old South of plantations and slavery that seceded from the U.S. and thus instigated the Civil War. Sutpen has that combination of hubris, courage, innocence, and greed; he believes that it is fine to use other people heartlessly in order to reach his own ends. And what trips him up is the fatal flaw that destroyed that South and continues to be the original sin that this country cannot get past.

And I'd marked what he said about women, as Rosa says: “I waited not for light but for that doom which we call female victory which is: endure and endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.”

In this reading I was taken with the structure of the book. Revelations are carefully meted out. The scene of Sutpen's son Henry in school with the dandy, Charles Bon, at the beginning is echoed by Quentin and Shreve at the end. Sutpen as a barefoot child is turned away from the front door of a mansion, setting in action his long quest, and then he himself turns a young man away—figuratively—by not acknowledging him as his son.

Or did he? I still don't know the truth of it. Yes, through all the bits and pieces I can see a narrative that makes sense, but I don't know that it is true. It is only what I'm told.