Beeswing, by Richard Thompson


Every December I publish my playlist, the songs I’ve been listening to that year. I say that songs are stories too, even the ones without words. And I believe that. I’m still fumbling with the most elementary level of music theory, yet each baby step reinforces that belief.

The story I’m obsessed with right now, the one that’s making it hard for me to pick up a book, is a song by Richard Thompson, an English singer/songwriter and amazing guitarist whom I first heard as part of Fairport Convention. I hadn’t heard this particular song before this week, though I understand it’s been around for a while.

In a concert celebrating the launch of his new CD Land of Fish and Seals, Keith Murphy sang Thompson’s “Beeswing”. In it a man recalls being 19 in the Summer of Love and falling for a girl who refuses to be tied down. The chorus goes:

She was a rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing
So fine a breath of wind might blow her away
She was a lost child, she was runnin’ wild. She said
So long as there’s no price on love I’ll stay
You wouldn’t want me any other way.

As my friend Mary said later, the lyrics are so evocative of that time. I was taken right back to myself at 18, 19, 20. Freedom was a word often on my lips and in my journal. It was the beginning of the second wave Women’s Movement and we were ready to shake off our mothers’ strictures. The little white gloves and girdles and pleated skirts we’d been brought up in were laid aside for bell-bottom jeans and tie-dyed shirts.

More than that, more than having the new magic Pill, we felt like pioneers, exploring where our souls might take us, holding hands in the dark, and running wild in the sunlit cornfields.

Keith brought just the right mix of gentle sadness and nostalgia to the song. The way he lingered on certain words and his deft guitar playing made the story even stronger. I remember that we were nostalgic even then, even in the middle of that time, because we knew it would not last.

It was a rare time, a gossamer time, so light a breath of wind might blow it away.

What’s on your playlist?

Waking, by Eva Figes


I’d never heard of this author until my friend Nichael loaned me this book. It’s quite short, only 88 pages, but don’t be deceived. There’s a lifetime packed into this remarkable novel.

Each of the seven chapters takes us into the thoughts of our unnamed narrator at a different point in her life, from childhood to the edge of death. You may be reminded of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, as described in a monologue by Jacques in As You Like It: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon (which refers to a commedia dell’arte figure signifying an old fool), and old age: “second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Figes’s achievement is to translate these into the seven ages of woman. Every chapter invites the reader to fall into the experience of that age, whether it’s an awkward adolescent exploring her new body or an aging woman who feels “the accumulation of failure, loss, nothing has turned out as I intended it should”.

The significance of the title is that these are the her thoughts at the moment of waking, that time when sleep and dreams have not yet drifted away, yet our thoughts are turning to what’s present: our body, others around us, curtains at the window. It is a liminal time, a threshold, when the night’s outsize fears mingle with hopes for the day. We mull over losses and satisfactions, cast upon the night’s shore.

In her excellent book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends enhancing your creativity by writing Morning Pages. These are a few pages of freewriting, i.e., with no set topic. Of course, you could do them anytime, but she recommends the morning, when you first get up, because your unconscious is still active from its night’s work. You never know what will turn up.

What turns up here is stunning. I found myself wanting to cry out over and over: Yes, oh yes, I felt exactly that way. Each paragraph is packed with what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being”—moments of intense emotion, of living fully in the present. I recognised many, mostly ones I’d forgotten about.

I was so absorbed in the experience that it is only on rereading that I see how gorgeous Figes’s prose is, how intensely she uses all fives senses. I also see how subtle her transitions are, both within each chapter and between chapters. They are critical to making this stream of consciousness work smoothly and draw the reader along.

This novel is such a gem I am eager to read more of her work. I’m grateful for friends like Nichael who turn me on to new favorite authors.

Has a friend recommended a book to you that has turned out to be one of your favorite reads?

Delights & Shadows: Poems, by Ted Kooser

Kooser 2

I hadn’t read any of Ted Kooser’s work before, though I’d certainly heard of him. I opened this early collection at a random spot and started to read rather quickly.

I wasn’t particularly impressed: the rather ordinary language didn’t exactly sing to me and the insights—while making me smile—didn’t make me gasp. However, after a few poems, a sense of well-being stole over me, almost a sense of familiarity. Perhaps I had read them before after all? Or had somehow heard this voice?

I found myself thinking of the title of Alice Munro’s 2012 story collection Dear Life. And of Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World. There was something in this short, seemingly simple poems that I needed. I went back and reread them more carefully.

“Tattoo” recounts a moment at a yard sale: seeing an old man whose tattoo of “a dripping dagger held in the fist / of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise”, a lingering ache “where vanity once punched him hard”—a brilliant line. Note how the images do double duty: a bruise that is the blurred blue of an old tattoo and also a lingering ache, a punch that vanity requested being also like the needles that poked ink into his skin.

There is no mockery here, only fellow-feeling as the author notes the traces of youthful arrogance. The man is still strong and has “the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt / rolled up to show us who he was,” yet we see him as an old man, “picking up / broken tools and putting them back,” the broken tools again doing double duty. And the final line takes us back to the image at the beginning, now shimmering with all that we have learned about this man and all men in just these few lines.

There is a depth of compassion in these poems and a recognition of the small moments that illuminate what it means to be human. In “At the Cancer Clinic” we see a woman being helped across a waiting room by two others, perhaps her sisters, to where a nurse waits patiently. There’s the slight chuckle at calling the nurse patient, the sympathy at the woman’s slow progress, and then the surprising ending that elevates the scene into an evocation of what is best in all of us.

Another poem I loved is “Skater”. Having myself not started skating until middle age and being quite proud that I finally managed a waltz jump—a baby jump, the easiest of all—I thrilled to this joyous description of landing it, of how that experience changes you. Adding to the joy are the bright colors and the image of her skates braiding a path on the ice, echoing her ponytail in the first line.

My friend Dave has much to say against poetry that seems like prose. When I read the last poem in the book, I thought of him and how this could be prose if written without the line breaks. However, reading it again I saw how the images of time and fading light suggest the idea of aging, even death, with calm acceptance, even perhaps with gratitude for a life well lived.

A Happy Birthday

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Have you read any of Ted Kooser’s poetry? Do you have a favorite poem of his?

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles


Since I was due to visit Lyme Regis, I decided to reread this 1969 novel which is mostly set in that seaside town. Of course, my first memory from reading it almost 50 years ago was the gloriously romantic opening image of a woman, dressed all in black, staring out to sea from the end of the Cobb.

The Cobb in Lyme Regis is a mole, a grey stone wall that curves out into the sea like an arm protecting the harbor. It features in Jane Austen’s Persuasion where it is the scene of Louisa’s downfall as she attempts to jump into Captain Wentworth’s arms.

Fowles’s mysterious woman is Sarah Woodruff, a disgraced woman who according to gossips had run off with and been abandoned by the eponymous officer. She’d met him while he was recovering from a shipwreck in the house where she then worked as a governess.

She is observed by Charles Smithson, a privileged young man who considers himself a Darwinist, and his fiancé Ernestina Freeman, whose conventional views belie her surname. As part of his scientific pursuits, Charles hunts for fossils, reminding me of my recent reading about Mary Anning. He leaves Ernestina at home when he goes on these expeditions, so is alone when he encounters Sarah later and resolves to try to help her.

While written in the style of and using the conventions of Victorian literature, the story is narrated from the point of view of a modern-day man. With epigraphs and footnotes and commentary in the text, this narrator provides social and historical context for the struggles of his Victorian characters, sometimes criticising them, sometimes commiserating with them. He also openly discusses the problems and choices the writer faces in putting the story together.

This self-consciousness places the book in the wave of postmodern metafiction in the 1960s. Another metafictional aspect is that the narrator provides three possible endings.

While the “I” of the narrator calls himself a “novelist”, it seems to me he is instead yet another character rather than Fowles himself. He even shows up as a character near the end.

Thus, Fowles has quite a few plates to keep spinning. He risks losing the story’s momentum with his digressions about Victorian mores and morality or the clash of religion and science.

Yet these challenges for the reader play into the theme of free will, the monster released from its chains by Darwin and his colleagues. What are the risks when the strict conventions of religion and social convention are shown to be shams? How do we comprehend the world—or the world of the novel—when the framework we’d always used begins to dissolve? When are we most free, when we are “working well within a harness” as Frost says or when we take responsibility for living an authentic life per Kierkegaard?

The other main thing I remembered from when I first read this novel was which of the three endings I preferred and what that said about me. Reading the book now, I find it much more complex than I remembered. It is the sort of book that repays multiple rereadings.

I plan to read it yet again to see how Fowles manages the omniscient point of view—the sort most rarely used these days. It’s an interesting choice, setting up an omniscient narrator—albeit one whose power and knowledge he undercuts now and then—for a story of the time when people were coming to terms with the idea that there may not be an omniscient and omnipotent god.

What novel have you read and reread, finding more in it with each rereading?