Journey through love (The Whetting Stone by Taylor Mali)

…all the ways that love can come undone

The Whetting Stone by Taylor Mali is as piercing as the knives whetstones sharpen. The poems in his collection  – each in its own way – are stunning and not in the least sentimental. Together, they take readers on a breath-taking journey through love, grief, suicide, loss, and finally back to love.

“Grief Moves,” the first poem introduces a sensuousness and intimacy that leads readers through the eighteen poems that follow.

…before falling into sleep,
how we came together, loss now
a moving thing between us.

It also introduces the “other” of the collection whose “grief…become a kind of need.”

Perhaps the most powerful poem is “Six Stories.” The first stanza reveals the suicide, followed by six short verses, each enlightening the backstory lurking behind the act. Like others in the collection, this poem has been honed to the fine precision of a chef’s knife. There’s not a word out of place; all excess has been cut. The language is precise and concise.

We travel inward with Mali, glimpsing 10 years of marriage, but the focus of The Whetting Stone delves into those that come after. In “Twelfth Anniversary,” Mali shares a light, almost humorous – but extraordinarily insightful – moment that marks (perhaps) the beginning of forgiveness: “And what is more, that I loved you as best I could while you were alive.”

Mali’s skill is as sharp as the knife that surfaces in many poems. One poem I found particularly moving has the longest title: “Things We Both Know / That I Still Have to Tell You.” It ends with a two-line stanza:

You are none of the things
you think you are. Or even alive.

Pain and healing are equally present in the words and what is written between the lines.

The Whetting Stone offers readers an insightful, honest journey through trauma until Mali has a crucial awareness and a shift occurs. He’s ready to let go and writes:

Lover, at last, please leave me, after all these years.
You have cried enough. Leave me to these tears.

Eventually, he recognizes:

She was
not mine
to save.

Taylor Mali’s The Whetting Stone won the 2017 Rattle Chapbook Prize. I highly recommend this thin, extraordinary chapbook.

37 The Whetting Stone

Available through the publisher: The Whetting Stone

or from the author: The Whetting Stone (where you can learn more about him and his writing).

Two Landscapes (The Cave by José Saramago)

Cipriano Algor is “A lover of proverbs, adages, maxims, and other popular sayings, one of those rare eccentrics who imagines he knows more than he was taught, would say that there’s something so fishy going on here, you can even see the fish’s tail.”

To say The Cave by José Saramago is brilliant would be mimicking others, as would saying it is a magical allegory, a unique story by a master storyteller (Nobel Prize for Literature winner), an insightful commentary on society’s shifts and the changing values placed on creators and those of commerce. It’s also an intimate story of one man’s life and dreams and the things he loves: his pottery; his daughter; his son-in-law; and a run-away dog called “Found;” his late wife; and (he has trouble admitting it) a widow he meets in the cemetery. The novel is witty and wise, brimming with aphorisms and wisdom; it made me smile and feel deeply for Saramago’s characters and the situation of their lives.

On the surface, we have a simple story about a generational pottery where utilitarian tableware is made using traditional techniques, where a drying rack and stone meditation bench stand in the shade of a mulberry tree on the outskirts of a rural village. The pots that Cipriano Algor creates are transported in an aged van to “The Center,” a walled full-service complex (residents never have to leave) beyond the rural village and a no-man’s-land of crime-riddled shanties, an industrial belt, and a so-called “green belt, which is not green but a wasteland of greenhouses. An artificial place cut off from nature. Saramago presents readers with two opposing landscapes.

Cipriano Algor does not want to move to The Centre, although circumstances weigh against him. But there are people who want to live in the spreading and towering complex where Cipriano Algor’s son-in-law, Marçal Gaucho, works as a security guard. Marçal’s parents are among those scheming to live in The Center. Tension develops as his promotion as a resident guard looms and the family’s move to the shopping-apartment complex becomes imminent. But other themes beyond the family’s dilemma—a socio-political-philosophical vein—runs through the story.

In The Cave, José Saramago explores—through the lives of this small group—what it means to create in a world that prefers plastic over pottery, a world where appearance is accepted as reality. It is a story of beliefs and humanity, of knowledge and feelings and how village values and life differ vastly from the narrow rigidity, the blindness of those we meet in The Centre and the impact of advertising and commercialism. Inside, reality is simulated. Residents find the artificial landscapes and “experiences” better than reality. As in Plato’s story of the same name, shadows are what people see and accept. Our protagonist, Cipriano Algor, ponders this blindness:

They say that landscape is a state of mind, that we see the outer landscape with our inner eye, but is that because those [citizens of The Centre] are unable to see these factories and these hangars, this smoke devouring the sky, this toxic dust, this never-ending mud, these layers of soot, yesterday’s rubbish… .

What we see (or don’t see), where and how we live, influence values and actions.

Saramago shares clues as to how complex and totally believable characters are created. He gives us a narrator to love and characters that experience contradictions, especially those contradictions between feelings, thoughts, and actions. This becomes clear when Cipriano Algor faces the widow Isaura Madruga, a distressing situation for both where time stands still and neither character speaks. Here, the narrator enters:

Something must be done. Yes, something, but not just anything. We could and should violate the orderly logic and discipline of the story, but we must never ever violate what constitutes the exclusive and essential character of a person, that is, his personality, his way of being, his own, unmistakable nature. A character can be full of contradictions, but never incoherent, and if we insist on this point it is because, contrary to what dictionaries may say, incoherence and contradiction are not synonymous. A person or character contradicts himself within the bounds of his own coherence, whereas incoherence, which, far more than contradiction, is a constant behavioural characteristic, resists contradiction, eliminates it, cannot stand to live with it.

The silence between the couple is broken and we are left with an enigma. For those “reading as writers,” we can enjoy a few clues to apply to our own thinking and stories from a master storyteller.

36 The Cave

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Cave

A Woman’s—South Africa’s—Seasons

Ben believes their marriage was a failure. Vera sees it as a stage on the way, along with others, many and different. Everyone ends up moving alone towards the self.

Ostensibly, None to Accompany Me is a political story, a story of the unraveling of white South Africa and the turmoil that spreads from the black townships, a story toward integration (of a sort), and toward the time when Nelson Mandela will become president (although his name is never mentioned). But, at the heart of the story, is a woman called Vera when she is at home and with friends, Mrs. Stark when she’s in the context of the Foundation. In this way, we see her as lover, mother, wife, friend and as dedicated, driven, compassionate, and fearless.

The trajectory of Vera Spark’s life parallels the militants’ passion during the long period between the official legislation (1991) and the actual creation of the new government. It is during this period of often violent change that the narrative unfolds giving readers an intimate look of the ups and downs of political life as the exiles and prisoners return and the personal toll of shifts and accommodations. We share Vera’s story as we weave through this morass toward change and freedom and the impact on lives.

At one point, on a trip into the townships, she and her black co-worker are shot, she in the leg. Ben, her husband, fears losing her, and says, “I couldn’t live without you.”

She could not see the violence at the roadside as evidence of her meaning in his [Ben’s] life. She could not share the experience with him on those terms. She was not responsible for his existence, no, no, love does not carry that covenant; no, no, it was not entered into in the mountains [where their affair began], it could not be, not anywhere. What to do with that love. Now she saw what it was about, the sudden irrelevant question, a sort of distress within herself, that came to her from time to time, lately.

Gradually, she comes to a realization (or admission) of what propelled the love affair with Ben and other “indiscretions.” The fallout of that creates a schism between them, as other holes develop between the politicians—old guard and new. In None to Accompany Me we find both personal and social transformation.

Nadine Gordimer (1954-2001), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1991) among many other awards, knows of what she speaks, having been an activist and member of the National African Congress (ANC). Her lyrical—and at times poetical—writing focuses on apartheid and South Africa without a trace of the tract that slips into the stories of lesser writers. Although she takes on a political cause, her stories are literary, giving us fully realized characters that we care about and whose journeys keep us turning pages. None to Accompany Me is prefaced with the words of Bashō: “None to accompany me on this path:/Nightfall in Autumn.” Gordimer takes us through the seasons of a woman as she demystifies South Africa’s political transition from apartheid.

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Available through many libraries or through your local bookstore or online; this link is for the audio edition: None to Accompany Me