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.

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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.

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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

The Last Journey (East of the Mountains by David Guterson)

Underfoot, a fine sand shifted and confounded his progress. A strange apprehension haunted his limbs. He changed his direction twice, three times. Low, barren mountains appeared on the horizon. A lunar barrenness, the topography of dreams, stones strewn artfully down an arroyo as if laid by a Japanese gardener, a sinuous bend in the dry bed of stones, one, stone, two, a stone carved in runes… .

Like David Guterson’s award-winning Snow Falling on Cedars, East of the Mountains, is dense with description that uses all of the senses to draw us into place and experience. Besides the extraordinary detail, the end-papers provide a map of the mountain journey to help us traverse the route taken. East of the Mountains is an Odyssey, except we cross mountains rather than sea.

In Snow, Guterson explores relationships between Japanese Americans and their Caucasian neighbours along the northwest coast of the U.S. during WWII. East of the Mountains moves inland but remains true to place, although in this book the relationships involve Mexican migrant farm labourers. Here, the major conflict is within his protagonist Dr. Ben Givens and between Givens and the orchardists and other residents of the area. But East of the Mountains is essentially a character study that reveals one man’s journey toward death and acceptance.

The story is raw with pain: of bereavements; of terminal cancer and dying; a particular gun and the hunting of small birds (with two Brittany spaniels); and Italy during WWII. Balancing the emotions these themes elicit are tranquil orchard scenes from Givens’ youth; love and sensuously drawn passion; and his openness to life’s surprises.

The doctor plans suicide to protect himself from the pain he knows lies ahead and to protect his family from witnessing it. He goes off toward his childhood home among orchards to see it one more time. He hasn’t reached it in this scene where he’s arrived at a rough town. He feels like “a transient pauper, a graybeard drifter, a derelict or vagrant.” He’s on a quest, which he’s beginning to recognize:

Sitting there with his jug in his lap he thought of those Hindu wanderers he’s seen on a public television documentary, mendicants abroad with begging bowls, dressed in rags and clutching staffs, divested of all other property, seeking to meet the world unencumbered, aspiring, always, toward—what did they call it?—atman, the self, God. 

Soon, Givens will wrangle a ride with a trucker. As they share their stories, he comes to another kind of realization:

Ben’s heart recoiled. The lean, spare life of the wanderer, which had held some attraction an hour before, held no attraction now.… He tried to embrace some other end than the one he’d chosen for himself—he thought of dying in a hospital room, imagined languishing in one. He fell silent and stared out the window. There were no good answers to important questions. He tried to picture the shape of Stu Robinson’s [the trucker’s] final days, but he couldn’t even begin.

Throughout, Ben Givens is pulled by his moral centre. Haunted by memories and a promise, he seeks—what? answers to the big unanswerable questions, but he tries. He becomes caught up in others’ lives and surmounts his pain (both the memories and the physical, which run a parallel course).

Inevitably, there was no other subject, and he forced himself to muse on death as though it were simply a form of sleep, warm and full of dreams.

His musing finally gave way to sleep, and Ben dreamed he was traveling in the desert. On a journey whose purpose he couldn’t guess.

The inevitability of death and the bigger questions of meaning and memory, and of promises, thread through East of the Mountains. At times, I thought the detail would overwhelm me, but I’m very glad I read to the end in order to experience the epiphanies of personal discovery. Guterson is a writer who isn’t afraid to probe the big questions, and I’m glad I journeyed through waste- and lush lands sharing the loves and fears and coming to acceptance of Ben Givens.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: East of the Mountains

Zen Travel (Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing: Meditation in Action by Frederick Franck)

A true drawing is a very private dialogue between the artist-within and some facet of the world around him or her.

Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing came to my attention in 2013, already a 20-year-old book. Since then I’ve read it a few times and it continues to speak to me. I recommend it to you, especially the travellers and writers among us.

Like Franck, I cannot sit and meditate. I fail to clear my mind of the dribble that pushes its way into any space and silence. Yet, when I sit to sketch, everything disappears except the object of my attention. I slip into Zen-state where an hour or two passes as if it was a moment. Franck explains this magic as he walks readers along the path from his early days of gallery shows to his gradual movement into drawing and eventually to the transcendent moment of the unification between seeing-drawing and the experience of oneness. But I am more writer than sketcher – more years of practice – so besides the sketching advice, I’m taken with the writing advice he offers.

Bashō, the father of haiku, warned his students: “Jot down your haiku before the heat of perception cools!”

And this is the way Franck suggests we draw. See the object, enter it through the pen, and experience oneness with it. He compares this experience with the fleeting, but timeless, haiku:

An authentic haiku must, in one breath, grasp the joy as it flies, the tear as it trickles down the cheek. In its seventeen syllables a haiku must catch the unsayable, the mystery of being and non-being: timeless mini-satori in fleeting time:

This dewdrop universe
Just a dewdrop
And yet,
And yet …
            Issa

This is what the sketcher strives to achieve: the quick rendering and the immediacy of becoming other; the Zen moment (whether it passes in mere seconds or whether it stays with you minutes or more).

A final thought on haiku and drawing: “Haiku transmit neither an idea nor a philosophy; they transmit pure experience into a minimum of words that grasp a moment of grace, be it joyous or heartrending.” When I facilitate writing workshops, this finding the essence of experience is what participants are encouraged to discover through their stories.

One of the reasons I’m back at sketching after a bit of a hiatus is to really see what’s before me when I travel. Like Franck,

… I entrust my bones again and again to flying contraptions to circle the globe. I can’t help belonging to this generation of the restless, the globetrotters, the astronauts, obsessed with seeking, pursuing salvation elsewhere, as if the black-eyed Susans in Provence were more black-eyed than the ones in my backyard.

He ventures at some length to explain why taking photographs is less apt to allow us into a culture, for example (and can actually be intrusive and alienating) than drawing. In addition, with photography, the Zen experience is more elusive and, if it is present at all, passes within the nanosecond release of the shutter and, with rare exception, fails to capture the essential essence of the subject/experience. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to photograph my travels, but I’ll add to those images the pleasure of sitting in parks, standing in doorways or on a rock by the ocean with pen, blank journal page, and a box of watercolours. To give you two representative examples, recently in both Morocco and in Mexico, people shied away from the camera but when I got the sketchbook out, people came over to peek and to talk about the process.

Discovering the essence of the object, its authenticity, and its oneness in a Zen sense, is what painters and sketchers seek. It is what I seek in my humble, clumsy and beginner’s way. It enhances travel experiences and the memories that follow.

 

 

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing

Japan across time (Tale of the Gengi by Murasaki Shikibu)

“She was clever for her age, and she interested him. Difficult and unconventional relationships always interested him.”

In some ways, The Tale of Genji is a coming of age story. A handsome and charming youth, Genji has a way, as they say, with the ladies.

What is old—and this story is old—is new again. Written in the 11th century in the milieu of the political court of Japan, Murasaki gives us a story that is timeless. Just remove it from the privilege of palaces and the political intrigue and we have a story that could have been written today. Murasaki has managed a story that isn’t dated in language, style, or content.

The Tale of Genji has been compared to Gilgamesh and to The Iliad in timeless appeal, and it has the force of Shakespeare. As Shakespeare’s plays are interspersed with poetry, so too is Murasaki’s prose:

He plucked a few notes on his koto, but the sound only made him sadder.

“The waves on the strand, like moans of helpless longing.
The winds—like messengers from those who grieve?”

But the poetry she inserts is not hers. It is attributed to Chinese and Japanese poets of the past (that is, previous to the 11th century). And, like haiku, the quotes are pithy, descriptive, and timeless, and they totally relate to the passages they enhance.

My reading has taken place during the period of recent “Me Too” revelations and accusations. Clearly, while many of the women in this novel were willing participants and, like Genji, shed tears when the affair took a hiatus, there’s often that awful power imbalance. At least in one instance, there are uncomfortable circumstances involving a young girl he’s raising like a daughter. Genji’s behaviour can create shudders, yet Murasaki paints a feeling, sensuous young man who makes his way through a convoluted, political maze and … (ah, no spoiler here).

As to how I happened across such an ancient story, I read an article by Joe Fassner published on Atlantic online, January 23, 2018 in which he discusses The Written World, by the Harvard professor Martin Puchner who calls The Tale of Genji a “foundational text.” Fassner quoted Puchner:

The book was written about 1,000 years ago, at a time when a lot of literature was still produced by scribes, collected from various sources and cobbled together by editors. The foundational epics and religious texts in circulation then were very different from the reading material we’re used to. In that context, Murasaki’s diary felt to me like a turning point in the history of literature—it sounds so recognizable, so intimate, so modern. The fact that someone living in an extremely different time, halfway around the world, a thousand years ago, could whisper in my ear in that way—it’s magical.

And that is what Murasaki did for me: she whispered in my ear during nights of bedtime reading.

She wrote her story at a time when women were not taught to read and write (apparently by listening from behind the paper screens to her brother’s lessons). Her topic is modern in subject and theme. The writing is accessible, despite the gap of eons and culture. And, adding to the magic, the story is illustrated with woodcuts that were first published in the 1650 edition of the Illustrated Tale of Genji. The world’s first novel is also one of the greatest, even if you’re not a Japanese aficionado, but if you are, you are in for a special treat.

31 The Tale of Genji

Note: I cannot locate a source for the edition I borrowed from the library (Vintage Classics Edition, June 1990) that is annotated and illustrated. The link (kindle edition) I’ve provided is also copyrighted by Edward G. Seidensticker and is most likely the closest to the version I read.

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Tale of Genji

Secrets & the Father (The Only Café by Linden MacIntyre)

“In war and politics there is a selection of facts.”

I opened this novel-based-on-facts three days ago and whizzed through all 418 pages. From the epigraph by James Joyce – “Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned” – I was hooked. Linden MacIntyre’s The Only Café is a book of secrets, secrets kept, lost, delved into, and secrets like ghosts that haunt.

At the story’s heart are war, Lebanon, a son bereft of family, and the strange turns life takes, turns that seem to be life-saving but that become life-destroying. It is also the story of that man’s son and the unraveling of a mystery. Clues come in a request, read as an addendum to a will, for an out-of-character “roast” to be held at The Only Café. They also come in clippings tucked into twenty-years of diaries that are in sparse notes-to-self jottings.

Like all good stories, this one has more than one thread running through: they intersect; split apart. And the story contains echoes. One that particularly haunts is the image of a woman with a basket of children’s clothes and pins that go flying.

Themes and sub-themes also run through. Like The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar (memoir, recently reviewed) this story explores the impact of an absent father. Pierre Cormier, however, was absent even before he disappeared.

One of the most disturbing threads exposed and returned to in the story is the massacre at Sabra and Shatila camps, the numbers beyond comprehension. And although a civil war was playing out in Lebanon, Lebanese are far from the only culprits in the unfolding of horrors. And this is where Ari comes in. Like Pierre, Ari has Middle Eastern roots, although Canadian-born. With Ari the mystery deepens and questions darken.

As in The Return, The Only Café makes me aware of how superficial my sense of history and politics is. I knew scant facts about Libya’s politics and revolutions except perhaps about the Lockerbie bomb and its link to Libya and a bit gleaned from the news about Qaddafi’s dictatorship. I know even less about Lebanon, although I attended a reception at the Lebanese Embassy in in Washington D.C. while participating in an international conference. My dearth of knowledge is an uncomfortable admission. However, these two books have filled in many gaps.

Readers learn details of life in Lebanon, hints about the secrets refugees carry, and the complexity of memory (how facts shift and half-truths are essential for survival), about marriages that fail and those that hold promises, about the world of work and friends and lovers. Linden MacIntyre’s The Only Café can be read on many levels, but regardless of whether you skim or do a bit of side-research, you’ll think about the characters he creates on history’s slate and see that the essential truth in fiction is truth.

(Linden MacIntyre was host of the fifth estate and a distinguished journalist as well as an award-winning author.)

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Only Café