READS OF THE YEAR 2015: Samuel Tongue
Sherman Alexie, What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned (Hanging Loose Press, 2014)
I have a book-buying addiction. This does not necessarily always translate seamlessly into a book-reading addiction and I continue to worry away at that particular problem. Things to do with time management I expect. It shall not detain me here. On a recent trip around the Pacific North West of the U.S.A., I decided upon a rule that would help me handle my book-buying addiction (and the concomitant book-carrying problem) by only buying one book per city visited. In addition, the book purchased had to also be written by an author resident in that city. Thus, on finding myself in Left Bank Books in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, I decided upon What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned by Sherman Alexie. I had read a few single poems of his before but this was the first full collection that I had read in its entirety.
Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur D’Alene Indian (his words) and a lot of his work is situated between cultures, ‘Indian’ and more broadly ‘American’. The title of his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) sums up something of the tensions inherent in growing up on a reservation before attempting to negotiate life outside its boundary lines. Alexie’s voice is disarmingly colloquial and buddy-like, covering everything from joy, alcoholism and despair to basketball and iPads. His sequence of sonnets ‘With and Without’ plays with the suggested form, sometimes interrupting it with bracketed sections that act as a kind of meditation on the contents of the poem and extend its reach outside the fourteen lines, and sometimes simply reading like fourteen numbered sentences:
1) ‘Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, friend to Jack’. 2) Yes, supposedly, you can tell the difference between deadly coral snakes and non-deadly king snakes by reciting a poem. 3) I wish it were a better poem […] 14) I once found a rattlesnake egg. I cracked it open and found a sepia photograph of Emily Dickinson and my grandmother tugging on either end of a snake that was either poisonous or not.” (‘Sonnet, with venom’)
Some of Alexie’s poems, such as ‘Phone Calls from Ex-Lovers’ address the reader explicitly, making us aware we are caught in the act of reading a poem, but, more than this, that Alexie is telling us a juicy story and we are also caught by our own desires to hear its conclusion:
I have, in my entire life, received
Only one phone call from an ex-lover,
And that was in 1988, twenty-five years ago.
Of course, you want to know the details
Of that phone call, and, of course, I am
Going to reveal the details of that phone call
Because I am a poet, or more accurately
Stated, a metaphor-addicted gossip…
The poem itself continues, outlining the consequences of a call from his lonely ex for his current relationship, how this “‘just talking with the ex- thing’ might work.” Alexie slips easily between prose sections, tercets, and a “list of ‘The Top 100 Songs of 1984’, the year I lost my virginity” to prove that, eventually, rhyme is the thing that encodes love and desire into our memories:
There is nothing we want more
Than to remain wanted
By the ones who wanted us before.
Alexie’s deceptively simple poetic style welcomes the reader in for a beer or a pick-up basketball game or a bit of ‘metaphor-addicted gossip’ but then reminds them of the tensions and conflicts that lie deep in American society: “An Indian’s life is a series of losses / But at least I died of natural causes” (‘Possible Epitaphs for My Gravestone’). It is Alexie’s poetic graces that allows for these tensions to be communicated but not simplified.
The Long Dry (Granta, 2006) and The Dig (Granta, 2014) by Cynan Jones
I am cheating here by combining these two books in one ‘Read of the Year’ but, to my mind, they are almost chapters in the same story, across the same landscape. In fact, as I read them one after the other, Jones’ spare and lyrical descriptions of the harsh and beautiful Welsh countryside blurred into one continuous vision: high hills, the mewing of buzzards, long, deep lanes along which a single car meanders through the night. Jones writes in short paragraphs that are pared of extraneous detail and, as such, it is easy to make comparisons with a form of prose poetry, the language always signalling to meanings held off from the page.
In the opening to The Long Dry a farmer discovers a stillborn calf, licked clean by its mother. As he removes it, he notices that another heavily pregnant cow is missing:
Over the hills behind the farm a light started. Just a thinning of the very black night that made the stars twinkle more, vibrate like a bird’s throat and put out a light loud compared with their tininess. He’d noticed the missing cow.
He’d hoped it had got out of the barn and into the field, where there were other cows with older calves out. She was very close to calf and heavy and perhaps went because of the terrible thing of the stillbirth.
Jones sets up this escaped animal, this pendulous mother, as a mirror to the life of the old farm and the young family who struggle to work it. There is no sentimentality in the writing as the shattering events of the hot summer come to a head and the tragedy is so simply and terribly described that it stayed with me long after I had finished reading.
Similarly, The Dig sets Daniel, a Welsh hill farmer, against the everyday stresses of farming life—the inconsistences of weather and environment, the back-breaking work of the lambing season—but adds another dark and harrowing family tragedy as the novel’s backdrop, asking deep and troubling questions of Daniel’s survival amidst such loss. And, as if this were not enough, Jones incorporates the sinister character of a badger-baiter who haunts the isolated fields and valleys, looking for setts to dig out:
He was a gruff and big man and when he got from the van it lifted and relaxed like a child relieved of the momentary fear of being hit. Where he went he brought a sense of harmfulness and it was as if this was known even by inanimate things about him. They feared him somehow.
Needing more badgers for his clients, the baiter targets Daniel’s farm and the two men become fated to come together in a reckoning, each different for the other. Powerful and tremendously resonant writing.
The Passion According to G.H. Clarice Lispector [Trans. Idra Novey] (New York: New Directions, 2012)
I read The Passion According to G.H. on a weekend away in Pitlochry. This detail is important because one must give in quickly to the fact that this is a novel that demands time and space—in fact, it bends time and space around it, disallowing any other distractions for the duration of its reading. The opening sections immediately throw the reader into G.H.’s incessant and awful (in the true sense of that word) search for the meanings to be taken from the events she goes on to describe:
I don’t understand what I saw. And I don’t even know if I saw it, since my eyes can’t differentiate themselves from the things they see. Only an unexpected tremor of lines, only an anomaly in the uninterrupted continuity of my civilisation, made me experience for an instant vitalizing death.
There is no plot to speak of but we follow the ‘tremor of lines’ that run through the antagonist’s anguished exploration of her mind and self, becoming bound up in her ecstasies and terrors of vision. Each sentence rolls back on itself and pitches forward at the same time—it is a dizzying experience in which writer and translator struggle together to convey sense and reference towards us. It was not a question of whether or not I enjoyed reading The Passion; it was unlike anything else I had read before and it swallowed me whole. And trying to make meaning from such vision? G.H. herself offers the hard-won insight: “Living is enough, and that itself ends up in the great goodness.”