Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

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An unusual and fascinating novel, Tokarczuk’s book explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book.

Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages the griefs that accumulate over the years, her vocation of astrology, and the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing. Despite her various physical ailments, she looks after the other homes during the winter, making sure the martens don’t get in and the pipes don’t freeze. Only two other people live there during the winter, Oddball and Big Foot. These are her names for them, as she names almost all the characters.

Then Big Foot turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. He was a loathsome creature in her eyes, a poacher who didn’t care how cruelly he hurt the animals he snared, someone who showed no respect for the non-animal natural world either, cutting down trees for no reason. Yet his death moves her. Oddball insists that the two of them wash and dress the body before the police come. She says:

There we stood in the cold, damp room, in the frosty vacuum prevailing at this dull, gray time of night, and it crossed my mind that the thing that leaves the body sucks a piece of the world after it, and no matter how good or bad it was, how guilty or blameless, it leaves behind a great big void.

Such a powerful way to describe a death. Their call to the police is delayed because not only is the signal spotty, but they often get a signal from the other side of the nearby Czech border instead of their own signal.

Borders are a recurring image, not just between countries, but between a remote community and town, fields and forests, humans and animals, grief and love, one person’s truth and another’s, language and reality. In fields near her house the hunters from town have erected huts they call “pulpits” where they hide in order to shoot the animals that come near, lured by the food the hunters have spread. I’m jarred by the idea of doing murder, preaching murder from a pulpit. Yet it’s so true.

More deaths follow, stranger and stranger. But there are greater mysteries here. What life is worth more than another? What actions are justified by law or ethics, and which one dominates the other? Are we as helpless as we think we are? How do our homes, so meticulously described in this book, reflect us and nurture us and protect us—or not? What is our relationship with the wild, meaning the portion of the natural world that we do not manage?

The title is from Blake, as are epigraphs for each chapter, adding to the fantastical atmosphere. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship. For Janina does have friends: Oddball, her neighbor; Dizzy, her compatriot in translating Blake; Good News, who runs a second-hand store in town; Boros, an entomologist she meets in the woods.

I found this book so rich, so thought-provoking that I not only listened to the audio book, repeating many chapters two or three times, but also bought the paperback book and am reading it. I loved the narrator’s performance in the audio book, but with the physical book I am seeing different things, appreciating different things—mostly to do with language. Thus, I’m continuing the story’s exploration of borders between one sense and another, between the physical and the metaphysical.

Have you read a novel so fascinating that you immediately reread it?

Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck

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I’ve noted before in this blog the curious fact that books I pick up at random sometimes talk to each other in ways that deepen each of them. Lately I’ve found myself reading books about home and the wild and the border between the two.

Visitation highlights different aspects of last week’s book, Abigail, where the teenaged narrator is sent precipitously and secretly to a boarding school far away from the home she misses. The school, a former monastery, is vividly described, its stones, its curious doorways, its atmosphere of age and order. Part of her maturation is to make a home for herself in this bleak environment. Next week’s novel, too, is deeply engaged with these themes, but more about that next time.

The main character of Erpenbeck’s novel is a plot of land by a lake in Brandenburg, and the homes built there, especially a fabulously detailed home built by an architect in the 1930s. The architect comes up with details to enchant his wife: colored glass in the living room windows, a finial he himself carved, a secret closet, a wrought-iron bird in the balcony railing off the bedroom. The succession of people who live in this house and next door mirror the changes in East Germany during the ensuing decades.

At 150 pages, this novel is short but surprisingly intense. I found myself engaging with each character more than in almost any other book I’ve read for years, and this in spite of the way they come and go. The one constant person is an unnamed gardener whose chapters intersperse the others as he goes about his work of planting and building and chopping wood. We have no access to his thoughts and he doesn’t speak, yet I know and treasure him.

There is little dialogue and few dramatic scenes, making this an unusual read for me. It shouldn’t work, but it does. There are events that listed sound boring—locking up a house, sailing on the lake, drying off with a towel, noting the cost of things—but the focus Erpenbeck brings to each makes them a profound experience. Focus, details, and a voice that speaks of joyous and terrible things with a calm compassion.

The land was originally intended as the inheritance for one of the mayor’s daughters, but he instead divides the land and sells it. The idea of inheritance recurs, each time a little different, sometimes as the symbol of a family’s continuity, but more often of loss, as with the mayor’s daughter. There are many such spirals—a sentence, a scent, a key—each turn revealing a little more. They pull you in deeper, another reason why this short novel feels so intense.

Visitation reminds me of Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s beautiful novel about a village over a span of thirteen years. Both books make me think about what inheritances are passed on and what are lost, about the so-brief time that we inhabit this world that is our home, and how the earth itself, though changed, persists. Our cares and worries, even in this terrible time, will pass. Feel them and move on.

Do the books you read ever talk to each other?

Abigail, by Magda Szabó

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Szabó‘s novel The Door made a strong impression on me so I leaped at the chance to read this newly translated book, also set in Hungary. Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border.

Gina is bewildered and furious at being sent away from her father and her social life in the city, which ranges from her friends at school to the more sophisticated people she encounters at the home of her aunt, especially a young lieutenant. The General’s sister may be flighty, but she is Gina’s only other relative. Yet Auntie Mimó is not allowed to know where Gina is going. No one is.

Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. When her clothing and few possessions are taken from her, she finds a way to secret a few. She mocks the games and traditions of her fifth year class and later leads them in a series of pranks.

She can only talk to her father by phone once a week in the presence of the humorless Director and the Deaconess; Gina’s forbidden to complain to him. Only later does she come to understand his motives in hiding her away. The war is not going well for the Axis countries and there are fears that Germany will occupy its supposed ally. Thus, this book complements my recent nonfiction reading about WWII.

While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex. My book club read this, as we had The Door, and we discussed the significance of the title. Abigail is the name of a statue of a woman holding a vase in the school’s garden. The girls believe that the statue comes alive to help them, so when they are in trouble they leave a note in the vase. This legend lends a magical touch to the story.

We wondered why this statue, significant as it is in the story, should be the title. I believe it’s for the same reason the author includes several flash-forwards, brief messages from a future Gina telling us how a particular thread will turn out. At first I was surprised that the author would give away these endings; surely the goal should be to build suspense rather than deflate it. Then I realised that the author didn’t want these threads to run away with the story. She wants us to stay with Gina and how she learns to recognise and admit when she is wrong, not least about the Abigail legend which works as a symbol of Gina’s arc.

One of my book club friends asked if this book is for adults or young adults. Publishers and bookstores may categorise it as a Young Adult book simply because of the protagonist’s age, but I would say it is also for adults.

While it’s obviously a book that would appeal to young adults, there’s plenty to interest those of us who are no longer in that age group. There’s the vivid reminder of what it was like to be 15, so sure of things and so often wrong. There’s the vivid evocation of time and place: an ancient monastery turned boarding school in remote Árkod in the last years of WWII.

There’s also the experience of a mind gradually opening to new ideas, to seeing her own mistakes, adjusting her worldview, understanding people from their own point of view rather than what we think they must be feeling.

I can’t think of anything more relevant to this particular moment we find ourselves in. This book has made me recognise how my own outlook and opinions have hardened as I’ve aged. As a result, I’m trying to cultivate again the kind of mental resilience that Gina demonstrates—not an easy task!

There is much more to this book—the subtle use of symbols, the remarkable shifts in characterisation, the minimal yet effective evocation of setting—all of which I plan to examine more thoroughly in hopes of improving my own writing. Still, Abigail is a fun and poignant story for non-writers, adults and teens alike.

Have you read a story set in a boarding school that lingers in your mind?

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, by Lynne Olson

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I recently posted about Sonia Purnell’s excellent A Woman of No Importance about Baltimore-born Virginia Hall who became one of the first British spies in German-occupied France during WWII. She organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies through the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret UK intelligence agency formed in 1940.

I hadn’t planned on reading Olson’s book about Marie-Madeleine Fourcade who also ran a Resistance operation in France, supplying critical information to MI6, the UK’s Special Intelligence Service. Then my book club chose it.

When her partner was arrested in 1941, Fourcade became head of Alliance, a Resistance network she had helped build. Under her dedicated leadership, Alliance expanded throughout both Occupied France and Vichy France (where Hall was based), providing most notably a 55-foot-long map of the beaches and roads along the Normandy coast, showing German guns and fortifications, an invaluable aid to the Allies on D-Day.

The story includes escapes, tragic losses, and daring exploits. There’s lots of great information, very detailed.

What I missed was a sense of Fourcade herself. In Purnell’s book we get a close view of Hall, what makes her tick, how she responds to her experiences. In Olson’s book it is more “just the facts, Ma’am.” For example, Fourcade’s hardly ever seeing her young children during the war years for security reasons makes sense, and she didn’t know they’d lost their adult protector and had to make their way alone through war-torn France. But surely she felt a complex swirl of emotions, constantly changing, eating away at her resolution to stay on as head of Alliance. None of that comes through.

One thing that struck me strongly in both books was the infighting. I’m not just talking about Vichy versus Resistance. In the UK, SOE and MI6 were fiercely competitive, trying to deny each other resources, sometimes even sabotaging each other’s efforts. Similarly de Gaulle’s Free French group refused to help Virginia Hall’s group or other French fighters and eventually broke with MI6 as well. Also, one of Roosevelt’s conditions for the U.S. joining the war was that de Gaulle not be in charge of the French forces. He chose instead someone else who was not respected by the French military, making the North Africa campaign a debacle. They were supposed to all be on the same side! It’s a miracle the Allies won the war.

Of course, I see the same thing going on in politics today, in country after country. Too many people who are supposed to be serving the country and doing the best thing for its citizens are choosing instead to maximise their own power and fortune over that of their fellows, not caring how much devastation they cause for their country and its people.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. When I started work in an office, I quickly realised that I could divide my colleagues into those who wanted to do good work and those who only wanted to get ahead. It’s been a useful distinction ever since. Not that I’m entirely cynical. I recently learned of a real Lord of the Flies where the shipwrecked boys marooned on a Pacific Island worked together and took care of each other for 15 months. And we are beginning to learn that cooperation has been just as longstanding and crucial in our societies as competition.

I’m encouraged by Fourcade’s selfless devotion to her country and to the operatives she’d collected. No wonder she was designated as a hero by de Gaulle at the end of WWII.

Are you reading stories—fiction or nonfiction—about courage and selflessness? Suggest a few!

Travels with Myself and Another, by Martha Gellhorn

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While I do want to read Gellhorn’s fiction and her nonfiction war reporting, I started with this collection of travel essays. I should say horror stories.

Gellhorn’s hatred of being bored frequently rousted her out of her comfortable home and sent her off to foreign lands. Often she was able to sell the idea for an article to cover expenses. In this book, written late in her life, she recalls some of her most nightmarish journeys.

In all but one, she sets off by herself. In that one, the first in this collection, she heads to China with her then-husband Ernest Hemingway along for the ride. She doesn’t name him, calling him Unwilling Companion or U.C. It’s 1941, Japan has joined Germany and Italy in the Axis, adding a new element to the long-running Sino-Japanese War.

Although the story alone is harrowing and often hilarious, one of its curious attractions is the window into conditions 80 years ago. Of the PanAm flight she says, “We few all day in roomy comfort, eating and drinking like pigs, visiting the Captain, listening to our fellow travellers, dozing, reading . . .” Not like any flight I’ve ever been on, except once when I was bumped up to First Class, when I frightened the person in the seat next to me by weeping my way through the last 50 pages of a tragic novel.

They stop in Hong Kong, much in the news these days, but back then:

. . . the working city of Hongkong [sic] at the base of the Peak looked as if nailed together hurriedly from odd lots of old wood and sounded like a chronic Chinese New Year. It was brilliant with colour in signs and pennants; the narrow streets were jammed by rickshaws, bicycles, people, but not cars; the highest building was an imposing square bank and it wasn’t very high.

The account of the flight over Japanese lines and the mountains in a DC2 is chilling—literally: “Everything froze including the air speed indicator.” And figuratively: The pilot judged air speed by opening his window a crack. “The passengers were given a rough brown blanket and a brown paper bag for throwing up. The plane was not heated or pressurized.”

The longest section of the book describes her solo trek around and across Africa, inspired by a vision of “a vast lion-coloured plain, ringed by blue mountains. Beautiful wild animals roamed across the land and the sky went up forever.” Ruefully she admits that she didn’t even understand the difference between conditions in west Africa and those in the east. Her naiveté lands her in one scrape after another as she traverses newly independent countries and others on the brink of independence.

Her prose is so clear and she does not spare herself or anyone else. Sometimes, though, I get a whiff of the appeal: stately giraffes drifting through the trees, majestic elephants, the blue mountains she’d dreamed of. In Kericho, at an English-owned hotel on a tea plantation reminds her of a “deadly respectable English provincial hotel”. But out on the terrace “the night sky told you exactly where you were . . . The far off stars were an icy crust; the darkness beyond the stars was more than I could handle. The machinery that keeps me going is not geared to cope with infinity and eternity as so clearly displayed in that sky.” A rare moment of introspection.

These stories are often hilarious, in the way that remembered horrors can be. Her description of wrestling a recalcitrant Land Rover over mountains, trying to read maps that bear little relation to what’s on the ground, while trying (unsuccessfully) to persuade her hired driver to actually take a turn driving seems funny now in the recounting but must have been frustrating and exhausting at the time.

The funniest tale is the one of going to Russia to visit an elderly writer whose work Gellhorn admires. A grateful letter became “pen-pallery”, leading to the writer begging Gellhorn to visit, claiming to be at death’s door. Once again, Gellhorn packed sweaters and warm clothes, remembering the winters in Russian novels, and deciding that the weather reports of temperatures in the 90s (F) must be a mistake. The writer’s tiny apartment is stifling, filled all day long with a crowd of friends coming and going, talking nonstop, only occasionally offering a translation. The bureaucratic run-arounds and the absurd restrictions are all presented with humor, while the real hardship of these people comes through with Gellhorn’s usual compassion.

I have traveled a lot, for work and pleasure, and have some traveler’s tales. These stories, while entertaining, make me glad to be at home.

Where have you traveled? What did you find there?

Walking, by Henry David Thoreau

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Thoreau first gave this talk in 1851 at the Concord Lyceum and continued to work on it afterwards. It was published in the Atlantic Monthly after he died in 1862.

My second book of poetry Terrarium is about the influence of place on our lives and personality—the place we grew up, our place in the family, perhaps the place we’ve always wanted to visit. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the categories of physical places in my life, a three-legged stool: home, society and the wild. With the pandemic, society is reduced almost completely to faces on the computer, leaving me pondering home and the wild and how we do or do not move among them.

First, let me be clear: wild is a relative term. There is no virgin wilderness here in North America, and never was except perhaps when the first people tramped across the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia. There is untended land, here in New England some of it was once farmland, laboriously carved out of the forest, abandoned when the economy collapsed leaving remnants of stone walls in the woods. There are lightly managed forests, with walking trails and sometimes efforts to remove invasive species. These suffice for my experience of the wild.

Now we have learned through new research that there is more going on in the woods than we realised, that trees communicate with each other and form their own society. Richard Powers’s bestseller The Overstory explores these ideas further through several sets of characters.

The fairy tales we hear as children are often about venturing into the wild—Into the Woods, as Stephen Sondheim put it—and discovering our own talents and values as we encounter its dangers. The journey becomes a metaphorical basis for nearly all of our stories, the hero’s journey described by Joseph Campbell.

And then there’s coming home. For many people, the immediate shock of the pandemic’s stay-home orders was to actually be at home all the time, not spending most daylight hours at work or school or the myriad activities that fill some children’s schedules, not going out in the evenings to a restaurant or concert or pub.

For all the decades I was working a day job, the thought of being at home all day seemed like nirvana. I had worked hard to make my home a place where I wanted to be, that fostered my favorite activities and soothed my soul, yet spent most of my days in offices and laboratories. When I retired a few years ago from that job to write, I feared that being home all the time would not be the paradise I’d expected. Reader, it was. And is. Though I recognise that my personality is particularly well-suited to this life.

I also walk. A lot. Aside from the obvious health benefits of exercise, recent studies have shown the positive effects—mental, physical and emotional—of spending time in nature.

So, belatedly, we come to Thoreau. Most famous for his two years in the woods by Walden Pond, he was fascinated by natural history, anticipating what we now call ecology and environmentalism.

He begins this essay:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Where he wins my heart comes a little later when he says:

I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together . . . I wonder that about this time, or say between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, too late for the morning papers and too early for the evening ones, there is not a general explosion heard up and down the street . . .

He’s not just extolling the opportunity for exercise, but having the time to “walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” Also, as a Transcendentalist, he considers what we can learn from nature, extolling even swamps and bogs as jewels.

I will leave you to enjoy the rest of this delightful and thought-provoking essay for yourselves. It’s readily available online. It’s time for me to take a walk.

Where are your favorite places to walk?

I Am: The Selected Poetry of John Clare

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Born in 1793 in Helpston, Northamptonshire, Clare came from the rural working class. His parents were both illiterate, and he himself only went to a dame school until he was 12, even then often pulled out to help his father in the fields. Yet when he read a poem—James Thompson’s “Seasons”—he was inspired to write as well and went on to write over 3,500 poems.

Many of his best-known and best-loved poems are about nature. He wrote about the rural world he’d grown up in with nostalgia but not sentiment, and about wherever he was currently living, employing a keen eye and great appreciation for the colors, textures, and ecology of country life. In “The Wren” he lauds the humble pleasures he finds around him:

Why is the cuckoo’s melody preferred
And nightingale’s rich song so fondly praised
In poet’s rhymes? Is there no other bird
Of nature’s minstrelsy that oft hath raised
One’s heart to ecstasy and mirth as well?
I judge not how another’s taste is caught:
With mine, there’s other birds that bear the bell
Whose song hath crowds of happy memories brought,
Such the wood-robin singing in the dell
And little wren that many a time hath sought
Shelter from showers in huts where I did dwell
In early spring, the tenant of the plain
Tenting my sheep, and still they come to tell
The happy stories of the past again.

His poetry was influenced by the folk song culture in his family and village, as described in Georg Deacon’s John Clare and the Folk Tradition. Clare played the fiddle and collected folk songs, fiddle tunes, dance instructions and folk customs. As a folkie myself, I’ve been at many a pub sing and can appreciate the effect of Clare’s cultural environment on his work. I’m also grateful for the tunes and songs he collected and preserved.

His life was not all songs and flowers, though. Clare was shocked and shaken by the rapid changes brought by the nascent industrial revolution. Villages emptied as laborers sought better jobs in town. Worst of all, for Clare, was the enclosure of the commons, a severe financial loss to working class folks who used the land for pasture and agriculture, and an aesthetic loss for people like Clare who loved the moors and the wildlife that prospered there. We’re learning much now about the importance of green space for psychological health, but Clare was sounding the alarm long ago, as in this excerpt from “The Moors”.

Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds & wild as summer flowers,
Is faded all—a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be.
Enclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave,
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now.

Clare wrote many poems to his first love Mary Joyce, whom he met at the dame school, but whose father turned him away. He later also wrote poems to his wife Patty with whom he had seven children, but continued to write about Mary until the end of his life. This excerpt from “First Love” shows his unconventional yet powerful imagery.

I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.
And then my blood rushed to my face
And took my eyesight quite away,

He suffered from mental illness in his later years, but continued to write even in the asylums where he was confined. While many of these poems are about nature and his lost love, he also wrote wrenching poems about his efforts to right himself, as in the title poem from this selection.

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

I come back to Clare’s poems often. I love the way he writes about nature and childhood, his yearning for his lost love and his indignation at the fencing of common land “In little parcels little minds to please”. Reading his work I can imagine myself tramping the moors, looking for jackdaws and starnels, and seeing “An oddling crow in idle motion swing / On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig”.

Have you read any of John Clare’s work? Do you have a favorite poem of his?

Gellhorn, by Caroline Moorehead

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I’ve long wanted to know more about Martha Gellhorn. Moorehead’s biography brings the brilliant war correspondent to life, enhanced by the hundreds of letters Gellhorn wrote during her life, openly detailing personal and professional undertakings as well as her own thoughts and feelings.

At 29, Gellhorn went to Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s Magazine. She went on to cover the twentieth century’s wars, including WWII and Vietnam, conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, only retiring from journalism after covering the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, when she was 81.

She was desperate to see things for herself, visiting the front lines, talking with soldiers, looking for the little things that would make her reporting come alive. Instead of talking about strategy or interviewing generals, she preferred to write about ordinary people, just as she had in her first job as a journalist. Hired by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, she traveled around the U.S. to learn how the Depression was affecting people. That experience left her with a lifelong commitment to battling poverty by bringing it out into the open.

Gellhorn grew up in St. Louis, Missouri with a strict father, loving mother, and two brothers. Dissatisfied with this conventional upper middle class life and the narrow opportunities it offered for women, she was determined to create a life for herself. And that life was to be a foreign correspondent.

At the time, it was a highly unusual choice for a woman. Throughout her career, men held her back, officials refusing her permits and visas, publishers refusing to hire her, military officers trying to keep her away from the fighting. Even critics, enthralled by her affair and brief marriage with Ernest Hemingway, dismissed her as a pale imitation of her famous partner.

In addition to her journalism and nonfiction books about war and travel, she wrote novels and short stories, though she found writing terribly hard. Moorehead captures her conflict:

Having hitched her vision of herself so firmly to writing, and having inherited from both parents extremely high standards, Martha effectively created for herself a perilous and demanding world. If to write was her duty, her reason for being alive, then not to write was to fail. To fail as a writer was to fail at life, to be adrift in a formless and uncertain universe with nothing to hold on to.

A headstrong woman, she never backed down from the basic certainties she developed in her youth, many of them from her parents. Although she fell out with her father, who was dismayed by her flaunting of convention, shortly before his unexpected early death, she remained close to her mother, whom she called her North Star.

Passionate about her causes, Gellhorn hated dishonesty, cowardice and complacency. Although she sometimes fell out with friends, she was never happier than when hanging out with war correspondents who had become friends when they were under fire together in various hotspots. Moorehead says of her:

Something of Martha’s occasional deaf ear to the sensitivities of other people was connected, at least partly, to her strong feelings about social life . . . the world was divided between real friends—to whom she was, for the most part, very loyal and devoted—and everyone else, who mattered not at all.

Late in life she became the center of a group she called “the chaps”, men and women forty or fifty years younger that she. Writers and reporters who admired her work, which had recently become popular, they flocked to her flat in Cadogan Square. I’m glad that she was not isolated during her last years when her physical woes were mounting.

The biography is subtitled A Twentieth-Century Life. Indeed, although she was always out ahead of others, few things could be more emblematic of that turbulent century than the life of this remarkable woman who challenged customary women’s roles, stuck to her own moral code, and worked relentlessly at her chosen métier.

Have you read any of Martha Gellhorn’s work?

Harlem Renaissance Poets on Poetry Foundation, Part 2

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This post is a continuation from last week, looking at the work of poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance, in particular those whose work I didn’t know well. There’s a great introduction to the Harlem Renaissance poets and a selection of their work at the Poetry Foundation website.

As you may know, the Harlem Renaissance is the name given to the emergence of a group of Black writers, artists, playwrights and musicians in the early 20th century when the Great Migration brought large numbers of Blacks, especially from the south, to work in northern cities. Clustered in Harlem, artists of all kinds came together, influencing and encouraging each other

Fenton Johnson began writing and publishing before the start of the Harlem Renaissance, and spent most of his life in Chicago, where he grew up in a well-off family. Still, he is claimed by Harlem Renaissance poets as a forerunner. In addition to poetry, he wrote short stories, plays and essays. He worked as a college professor and journalist, as well as editor for several small magazines. Many of his poems take the form of spirituals, such as “How Long O Lord”:

How long, O Lord, nobody knows!
My honey’s resting near the brook.
How long, O Lord, nobody knows!
How long, O Lord, nobody knows!
I pray she’ll rise on Judgment Day.
How long, O Lord, nobody knows!

Other poems capture what it’s like to be a Black man in this society, such as “Tired” which starts “I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization” and builds to “It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.”

James Weldon Johnson (no relation) combined social activism with his writing activities. Head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1920s, he also found time to author studies of Black poetry, music, and theater. He’s known for his realism in his novels and for capturing the rhythms of Black life—schooled and unschooled, preachers and orators. For example, in A Poet to His Baby Son” he sees the beginnings of a poetic imagination, but cautions the child not to be a poet:

For poets no longer are makers of songs,
Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,
Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,
Of the sweet pain of love
And the keen joy of living;
No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,
And interpreters of the eternal truth,
Through the eternal beauty.
Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.
Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way
Or new things in an old language,
. . .

My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;
Grow up and join the big, busy crowd
That scrambles for what it thinks it wants
Out of this old world which is—as it is—
And, probably, always will be.

Countee Cullen went in a different direction, calling for Black poets to work within a traditional framework, naming Keats and Houseman as his poetic models. Yet he wanted to reclaim African arts (a movement called Négritude) and was politically active, becoming president of the Harlem NAACP chapter. He was married to Nina Yolande DuBois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois. No surprisingly, anger at racism was one of his main themes, as in “Yet Do I Marvel”:

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing.

William Waring Cuney’s musical background, attending the New England Conservatory of Music, emerges in his poetry. Infused with the rhythms of jazz and blues, his poems bounce and swing. Here’s the beginning of his tribute “Charles Parker, 1925-1955”:

Listen,
This here
Is what
Charlie
Did
To the Blues.
Listen,
That there
Is what
Charlie
Did
To the Blues.
This here,
bid-dle-dee-dee
bid-dle-dee-dee . . .

It’s interesting to see the different approaches to working within or combining various traditions. I’ll certainly be looking to read more of their poetry.

If you write poetry, what traditions influence your work? If you read poetry, what traditions are you drawn to?

Harlem Renaissance Poets on Poetry Foundation, Part 1

HR poets 2

Books are my primary focus on this blog, with an occasional foray into magazines and music. Today it’s a website. While pretty familiar with the more well-known writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, I wanted to delve into the work of other, less familiar poets. The Poetry Foundation website is a great place to start.

The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of creative and cultural life in the early 20th century, loosely dated from 1916-1935. Partly a result of WWI, a huge wave of southern Blacks moved to northern cities to take advantage of job opportunities and a seemingly less oppressive society. Known as the Great Migration, this influx brought together a significant number of Black artists and writers as a group for the first time. Harlem alone saw over 175,00 new Black residents. This new sense of social and creative community was fertile ground where the arts could thrive.

Claude McKay, born in Jamaica and committed to social justice, is the author of “If We Must Die”, an enduring trumpet call for freedom which begins: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot”. But it is his poem “America” that moves me to tears and stays with me week after week as we ride the current wave of potential change. It begins:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

His love for this country despite its failures is front and center in this poem. Grateful for its gifts, he comes as a rebel but one without malice. Change is coming, he says. It may take time; it may take a lot of time, but it is inexorable.

Like a number of poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Anne Spencer never lived there, but was close to several key figures and worked with them to establish the Lynchburg, Virginia chapter of the NAACP. Her tribute to Paul Dunbar, a forerunner and model for the Harlem Renaissance poets, is brief but wrenching. And her poems such as “Lines to a Nasturtium” are a master class in how to use nature to explore the human heart.

Poet, playwright, and novelist Jean Toomer brings his background to his calls for racial unity. Of both White and Black heritage and having attended both all-White and all-Black schools, his poems combine elements of both cultures. In “Banking Coal” he uses the extended image of banking the coals of a fire with ashes overnight, working it first one way and then another before the shocking but perfect middle:

I’ve seen them set to work, each in his way,
Though all with shovels and with ashes,
Never resting till the fire seemed most dead;
Whereupon they’d crawl in hooded night-caps
Contentedly to bed. Sometimes the fire left alone
Would die, but like as not spiced tongues
Remaining by the hardest on till day would flicker up

He continues to add nuances and layers of meaning without leaving his image, until the stirring end.

Georgia Douglas Johnson lived in Washington, D.C., but her salon became an important meeting place for writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Her poems more than any others I read evoke the despair that comes from constantly having your dreams deferred, as Langston Hughes put it. Being a woman in a male-dominated society is hard enough, but is magnified exponentially by the intersection with race and class. Here is her poem “The Heart of a Woman”:

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

The ambivalence introduced by the last two words—that bars not only confine but also shelter—harkens back to McKay’s difficult love for “this cultured hell”. They, along with my memories of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s (Civil Rights, Anti-War, Women’s), remind me that times of great change may involve destruction but are fueled and formed by love.

Go to the website and explore their work. More next time.

What poets of the Harlem Renaissance have you read?