Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock: “A Poetry Book Review”

Days into Flatspin is Ken Babstock’s extraordinary second collection and it reveals a poet in full flight, fearless and technically brilliant.

Diving into and then beyond what is seen, or the “coma of looking” as one poem calls it, Babstock veers into the inner core of things, animals, and places through portals that exist all around us…. And these are always entry points, always a means by which to go forward and further into… (cover overleaf).

The first time I read Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock, the words rushed through my mind and over my lips: they raced. They carried a voice, dramatic and theatrical. It was easy to imagine Babstock, like poetry slam writer Taylor Mali, performing the poems (see May 2018 review: The Whetting Stone). I was carried by the force of words and rhythms and was left feeling disconcerted. Then I read Days into Flatspin again.

Reflecting on Babcock’s choice of words, I thought of Ursula LeGuin who wrote that words “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it” (The Wave of the Mind). Babstock’s poems brim with energy and they clearly fed energy to me. But that addressed only part of my dilemma, which led me to Jane Hirshfield (please see Ten Windows). Hirshfield notes that “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….”

In Babstock’s second collection, his mastery of these skills – words that create action/energy and words that leave the door open for a remaining question – is clear from the outset. I looked closely at Babstock’s word choices and the work they were doing together.

The first poem titled “Carrying someone else’s infant past a cow in a field near Marmora, Ont.,” ends:

…What was I shown that I haven’t retained?
What peered back long before the cracked
bell of its name

This unknown (unknowable?) is also apparent in the second poem “Bottled Rabbit,” in which Babstock describes an image seen, alludes to a charcoal sketch by Cézanne, a CBC interviewer in Gander, Newfoundland, a play by Pinter, and his great-aunt’s kitchenette. But suddenly, the scene shifts: “The word wore down, thinned to a film on the air in the ear. Morning ate its hinge.” Once more, after the carefully constructed images and linkages Babstock provides, we leap into something surprisingly different from where the poem ostensibly was taking us. He draws us into what is seen but also unseen, what is felt, unknown, unsayable.

My favourite poem in Days into Flatspin, “The Painting on the Cover of Otherwise,”  seems to explain a bit about what drives so many of the poems in the collection toward unsettled feelings.  He begins with an image:

A small pond dug
into a footpath that bisects
a French garden. The neat
hedgerows bent, obey.

And then, he identifies what is missing, things like “wind…litter, heel-scuffs…a sparrow, anything.” Perhaps, like me, you will come away from reading the collection with a new awareness of the dichotomy between what is seen – how we often idealize it – and what is more deeply experienced through what lingers after the immediacy of the moment when we ponder the place “where hard edges slip…unclipped…beyond the vined wall that darkens the middle distance.”

This unfocused middle distance of mystery is what Ken Babstock discloses through a turn, a surprising glimpse that doesn’t provide an answer to our questions, but draws us to a deeper, elusive potential.

The writers among us will have heard Emily Dickinson’s instruction to “tell it slant.” Many will know LeGuin’s advice about making every word a choice; particularly poets will know that every word must work. We have probably also been told to reward readers for reading to the end, to provide a surprise, a twist, something that illuminates. Hirshfield’s suggestion to create a disconcerting disequilibrium is another consideration that pushes boundaries and borders.

Days into Flatspin achieves this triumvirate of advice. The poems begin with what we may each have experienced, but they take us beyond images, sounds, emotion into deeper, surprising places of heart and mind.

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In addition to Days into Flatspin (2001), Ken Babstock has published Mean (1999), Methodist Hatchet (2011; Winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, 2012), and On Malice (2014).

Available through your local bookstore or online: Days into Flatspin

After Fidel: Raul Castro and the Future of Cuba’s Revolution by Brian Latell, “A Book Review”

For a leader to emerge, the only thing needed is the need for a leader.
– Fidel Castro, 1985

After the extremely laudatory Anita’s Revolution (LINK, review posted February 4 2019), readers will find this review offers a quite different “take” on the Cuban revolution. After Fidel, written by former CIA agent Brian Latell, colours the Cuban revolution with American political perspective.

In his analysis, Latell contrasts the characters and personalities of Fidel and his brother Raul Castro. To his credit, he also identifies some of the historic and root causes leading up to the revolution, even reaching farther back to the Imperialist American ideals that led to Guantánamo as U.S. territory and to the Helms-Burton law that rubbed further salt in the wounds of Cubans. These issues, along with the U.S.-enabled Batista dictatorship, set the stage for revolution. However, the bulk of After Fidel, focuses on Fidel’s leadership since the overthrow of Batista and the revolutionary government of the Castro brothers. The analysis is detailed and gradually builds to increased insight into Raul’s governance role and style projects into musings about Cuba and U.S. relations After Fidel as the title makes clear.

Published in 2005, projections were bases on informed analysis and the bias of governments. Now, with a bit of history on the reader’s side, we have a clear picture of the actions and reactions of a Raul-led Cuban government, along with the intricacies of U.S. unfolding policies. However, this does not take away from the intriguing story that the former CIA analyst sets out in the 289-pages, which includes references and index.

After spending much of four years in Cuba plus a subsequent visit, I have my own Canadian and personal biases. Nevertheless, I can recommend After Fidel for its documentation of events as well as for the analysis into the characters of the brothers and how their personalities and individual strengths played into a partnership that survived through to Fidel’s death and set the stage for the shift that has taken place as power was transferred. An updated afterward by Latell would be useful and it is now time for newer policy projections about both Guantánamo and the strangle-hold of the Helms-Burton law.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: After Fidel: Raul Castro and the Future of Cuba’s Revolution

For a recent article that focuses on Guantánamo, please see “A Brief History of Guantanamo Bay, America’s ‘Idyllic Prison Camp’”

 

Anita’s Revolution by Shirley Langer

Anita’s Revolution targets young adult readers. It is a coming of awareness story—both in a personal context as well as a social one. It is also an historical fiction and a teen adventure. But travellers to Cuba of all ages will enjoy the story and gain insights into a past no longer evident, yet still in the memories of people they will meet. Writers of YA fiction will be interested in figuring out how Shirley Langer gets under the skin of her protagonist and how she creates a time and place that readers can experience. Pay attention, too, to her language, pacing, and the literary techniques she employs to keep youth interested and turning pages.

Anita, the protagonist of Anita’s Revolution, is a young teen in 1960 when Fidel Castro announces to the United Nations and the world that Cuba will stamp out illiteracy by the end of 1961. To accomplish this extraordinary goal, he elicits the aid of Cuba’s youth. In 1961 more than 100,000 volunteers answered the call—many of them students, along with teachers and others. They streamed across the island with energy and enthusiasm. The fictional Anita is one of them.

Anita must overcome her own fear given the real danger of volunteering, since counter-revolutionaries have killed a young brigadista. She must also overcome the concerns of her parents. She joins forces with her brother and they win their parents over, even if a bit reluctantly. With others from her school, Anita sets off for training and for the adventure of her life. Anita is a determined girl. Besides the literacy focus, Anita’s Revolution, takes us along on a journey from the innocence of a protected childhood to the awakening of a young woman.

Besides Anita’s personal story, Anita’s Revolution is a social justice story, and a story that demonstrates the very positive difference youth can make in a society. She arrived, not exactly welcomed by the people she would teach to read and write. But when she left, she left family behind.

Anita returned to her suburb of Havana knowing that more needed to be accomplished and wondering how she’d adjust into her relatively privileged life. The story doesn’t end like a fairy tale; it presents a believable girl in a real situation with the ideals and dreams of youth, but the bigger job beyond literacy isn’t finished.

Shirley Langer lived in Cuba for five years in the 1960s and writes with the immediacy of knowing a time and place. She writes with the knowledge of having lived among the people of whom she writes. During my research, I learned that she also lived for a period in the Bay of Quinte region (Ontario, Canada), which is my home. Langer has lived at Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) since 1995.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Anita’s Revolution

Cuba aficionados will also want to see my review of A Simple Habana Melody for a pre-revolutionary novel. And perhaps two of my travel blogs: A Cultural Portal: Windows and Doors and scroll through my travel blog.

Readers and writers of YA fiction, will want to take another look at The Great and the Small, a YA novel by A.T. Balsara that I reviewed last February.

 

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Paris Wife and who have not read other stories of Kenya’s colonial era, particularly Beryl Markham’s memoir or Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. It’s a juicy read but repetitive in many of its details and expressions. Writers of historical fiction will take note to examine how the author leaps from historical fact into juicy fiction. For writers of bibliography, Circling the Sun provides a cautionary tale. Beware that you can become so engrossed in your research and character that you may slip deeply into your material and repeat phrases and scenes that are iconic and recognizable, leaving this reader scratching her head.

When Circling the Sun by Paula McLain about the flyer Beryl Markham came my way, I could hardly begin to start reading. Having read Markham’s memoir West with the Sun, I looked forward to McLain’s take on this adventurous woman’s life. I had also read Out of Africa by Markham’s contemporary Isak Dineson / Karen Blixen, and watched the movie of the same name many times (partly because I love John Barry’s soundtrack, which captures my mood-memories from a month long visit I made to Kenya in 2010). Another contemporary of Beryl Markham, Idina Sackville, has been written about in Frances Osborne’s The Bolter. Besides these stories, a bookshelf dedicated to African writing and writers brims. So, I curled up in my favourite chair with a tea ready to learn more and perhaps have my eyes opened to a new take on the early 20th century era when Kenya was a British colony and change was rampant.

Circling the Sun focuses on Beryl Markam’s childhood, which is unique—even when compared to that of other settler children—but l learned little that was new, although perhaps a bit more detail. Markham’s young adulthood as portrayed in Circling the Sun is limited to troubled relationships—with both men and women. The bibliography takes us up to her early flying days but doesn’t examine her flight across the Atlantic or her life after the landmark adventure (perhaps McLain hopes for a sequel). The sun Beryl Markham circles in this book is not the one that follows her across the ocean; it is, I suppose, the sun of youth’s annual seasons.

With a publisher like Bond Street Books / Doubleday, I anticipated original information and new revelations about the woman, place, and time. Too frequently as I read, I found phrases and images that felt repetitive from my other reading and Out of Africa the movie. For example, “I was in real trouble now”; “ ‘Oh, Berkeley, I’ve got myself in deep this time’”; and “I…lay my hand on his chest, feeling along the slick buttons of his shirt and the perfect piped edge of the cotton,” which is pretty much what Karen Blixen does to Denys in the movie. Perhaps someone who is not familiar with Beryl Markham’s memoir and with other writing about Kenya, especially during the early 20th century colonial era, might enjoy Paula McLain’s take on Markham’s life. However, if you are looking for a light read about a fictionalized woman during an exciting era, Circling the Sun will entertain you.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Circling the Sun

After & Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield

Let’s begin the year with the poetry of Jane Hirshfield, which is simple, elegant, deep, and heartfelt in the understanding of what it is to be. Subtly, she evokes what quietly resides within, while also recognizing the transience and transformation that is part of each daily life and life span. Writers, whether prose or poetry, will want to think about themes and images as you read (coherence, consistency and surprise).

In After, the beauty and wisdom in Jane Hirshfield’s poetry elicits “aha” moments, a sudden clarity. She challenges us, beginning with the first poem, “After Long Silence”: “The untranslatable thought must be the most precise. / Yet the words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins.

In an essay five years later, she wrote: “To write a new sentence, let alone a new poem, is to cross the threshold into both a larger existence and a profound mystery.” The mystery that is life is a theme she strives to express for her readers and for herself. In the poems in After, Hirshfield coaxes us with her words to enter the mystery.

Perhaps my favourite poem in the collection is the very short (eight-line) poem called “Pyracantha and Plum.” It begins, “Last autumn’s chastened berries still on one tree, / Spring blossoms tender, hopeful, on another.” Who among us—who hasn’t had the pleasure of witnessing spring in an orchard, or even a garden—hasn’t stopped to marvel at the beauty and awe of nature? Beyond the obvious, the poem speaks to time passing, alludes to art, and subliminally layers more. Then, a few pages on, we come to “Bonsai”: “One morning beginning to notice / which thought pull the spirt out of the body, which return it.” In this poem the “turn” takes us to rebirth and into longing.

My final example of her grace and wisdom shared in After comes in “The Monk Stood Beside a Wheelbarrow:”

The monk stood beside a wheelbarrow, weeping.

[His tears] gathered at its bottom,
where the metal drank them in to make more rust
.

You must decide why these lines move you; for me, they speak of grief, loss, and the never-ending surprising transformation that is life.

Seven years later, she published Come, Thief in which one thief is time’s passage and another is mortality, related themes are attachment and loss. The plum tree is a recurring image as it is in After. Here, it shows up in the book’s first poem called “French Horn”:

For a few days only,
the plum tree outside the window
shoulders perfection.
No matter the plums will be small,
eaten only by squirrels and jays.
I feast on the one thing, they on another,
the shoaling bees on a third.

We see how her perspective broadens and shifts, which continues throughout the poem and the collection. With the shift in perspective, readers will also notice a shift away from the first person, but this does not mean that the poems are less personal. We get the clear sense that these poems come deep from within the poet.

Another poem that is characteristically accessible is “The Decision.” It begins, “There is a moment before a shape / hardens, a color sets. / Before the fixative or heat of kiln” and proceeds to explore opportunities for choice. While Hirshfield’ poems are spiritual in nature, they do not succumb to fate nor do they eliminate responsibility of the individual to act. At this poem’s conclusion, she shows us just how big a small change can be: “As a sandy track-rut changes when called a Silk Road: / it cannot be after turned back from.”

Finally, in “The Promise,” Hirshfield provides a litany of things she wants to stay the same, but that do not, including:

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

And after the litany through flowers, a spider, green leaves, and the earth itself, she concludes with irony that brings a chuckle: “Stay, I said to my loves. / Each answered, / Always.” [Emphasis the poet’s.]

Check out my review of Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, essays by Jane Hirshfield. Also, look for other of Jane Hirshfield’s poetry books.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: After and Come, Thief.

If you enjoyed reading about Jane Hirshfield’s poetry, you might also like these previously published poetry reviews:

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Readers will be drawn quickly into this story of a man caught up in the tangle of personal and societal challenges and his struggle to survive on his terms. Writers will want to read with an eye as to how J.M. Coetzee writes an emotionally moving story without a trace of sentimentality. There is nothing superfluous in Coetzee’s narrative; it is the stark story of one man’s journey (although perhaps an allegory too).

J.M. Coetzee creates an entire life, beginning with Michael’s birth, keeping a quick pace, yet giving readers all the information they need to develop their own ideas about Michael K and his life. We first meet the infant, born with a hair lip, whose mother “shivered to think what had been growing in her all these months.” Then, “Because of his disfigurement and because his mind was not quick, Michael was taken out of school after a short trial” and sent to a state institution until he was fifteen. “Because of his face K did not have women friends. He was easiest when he was by himself.” We learn all of this, starkly, and without elaboration, in three pages. When the narrative opens, Michael is working as a gardener. His dying mother wants to go home to a childhood farm on the veld. Michael, dutiful son, attempts to obtain travel documents, which never arrive. He quits his gardening job at Wynberg Park, City of Cape Town, and they leave without the required papers. On foot, pushing his mother in a make-shift cart, the journey begins.

In Life & Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee has taken one damaged man and written a lucid, spare story of his determination to live his life his way. True to the best character driven stories, Michael changes. Mid-way through the story, Michael realizes it.

When he thought of Wynberg he thought of an earth more vegetal than mineral, composed of last year’s rotted leaves and the year before’s and so on back till the beginning of time, an earth so soft that one could dig and never come to the end of the softness; one could dig to the centre of the earth from Wynberg Park, and all the way to the centre it would be cool and dark and damp and soft. I have lost my love for that kind of earth, he thought, I no longer care to feel that kind of earth between my fingers. It is no longer the green and the brown that I want but the yellow and the red; not the wet but the dry; not the dark but the light; not the soft but the hard. I am becoming a different kind of man….

Nevertheless, Michael’s limitations impede him: “Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness which his understanding baulked, into which it was useless to pour words…. His was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story; always wrong.” Like the best protagonists, Michael is aware and flawed too. But eventually, he does understand something essential in his own immutable way:

When my mother was dying in hospital, he thought, when she knew her end was coming, it was not me she looked to but someone who stood behind me: her mother or the ghost of her mother. To me she was a woman but to herself she was still a child calling to her mother to hold her hand and help her. And her own mother, in the secret life we do not see, was a child too. I come from a line of children without end.

Michael K is a most memorable character. J.M. Coetzee has won two Booker Prizes (1983 and 1999) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2003), among other honours and awards. If you “Read Like a Writer,” you can read no-one better than Coetzee, and if you creating a character-driven story, take note of Michael’s path.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Life & Times of Michael K

If you like this story, you may also enjoy reading my review of Nadine Gordimer’s None to Accompany Me

 

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński

There is value in “truly describing the world.” In Travels with Herodotus, Kapuśińki shows us how to capture culture, time (present and past), and place. And he shows us – through example – how to write a fascinating, informative, layered story. History and philosophy buffs will appreciate his nuanced writing. Writers who read carefully, as Kapuśińki reads Herodotus, will gain the insights (and how-to) of a master reporter and storyteller.

Having grown up behind the Iron Curtain, Kapuściński had a dream. He wanted to cross a border, not to leave Poland permanently, but just to feel what it was like to cross a border. He had Czechoslovakia in mind. By 1955, Kapuściński had finished his studies and was working at a newspaper. One day, his editor-in-chief asked him what he’d like to do. He told her,

… “I would very much like to go abroad.” …It made no difference which [border], because what was important was not the destination, the goal, the end, but the almost mystical and transcendent act. Crossing the border [Emphasis Kapuściński’s].

A year later the editor summoned him. “‘You know,’ she said, as I stood before her desk, ‘we are sending you. You’ll go to India.’” As a parting gift, she gave him a copy of the newly translated The Histories.

India was an unknown world, a mystery. “I realized then what now seems obvious: a culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of the hand; one has to prepare oneself thoroughly and at length for such an encounter.” Yet, his open-eyed curiosity during his immersion in India is a joy to read (as are his stories of China, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere). Kapuściński might be the best travel writing I have ever read. His stories lack pomp and arrogance; they are immediate, carrying readers directly into experience. And all the while, he probes Herodotus for advice. How does Herodotus do it: go where Greeks had not gone, write with knowledge and insight about what was then unknown?

Stories in Herodotus’ time were oral; they had to hold people’s attention or they would drift away (not so different from today, is it?). He begins one session with the kidnapping of a Greek princess, Io, by the Persians. Kapuściński asks, why: “Because he respects the laws of the narrative marketplace: to sell well, a story must be interesting, must contain of bit of spice, something sensational, something to send a shiver up one’s spine.” In time, as Kapuścińki read The Histories, he abandoned his focus on the people and their wars and,

…concentrated instead on [Herodotus’] technique. How did he work, i.e., what interested him, how did he approach his sources, what did he ask them, what did they say in reply? I was quite consciously trying to learn the art of reportage and Herodotus struck me as a valuable teacher. I was intrigued by his encounters, precisely because so much of what we write about derives from our relation to other people—I-he, I-they. That relation’s quality and temperature, as it were, have their direct bearing on the final text. We depend on others; reportage is perhaps the form of writing most reliant on the collective.

Later, in Ethiopia, Kapuściński notes how he lacks the resources of Western correspondents. He writes, “So I walk, ask, listen, cajole, scrape, and string together facts, opinions, stories. I don’t complain, because this method enables me to meet many people and find out about things not covered in the press or on the radio.” He goes “into the field.” Like Herodotus, Kapuściński is a traveller.

Of course, the writer is a filter and present in the writing, but Kapuściński praises Herodotus for the way he relates information by giving the voice to his informants. Quoting from the beginning of The Histories, Kapuściński notes:

According to learned Persians…Or The Phoenicians say that…, and adding: So this is what the Persians and Phoenicians say. I am not going to come down in favour of this or that account of events, but I will talk about the man who, to my certain knowledge, first undertook criminal acts of aggression against the Greeks. I will show who it was who did this, and then proceed with the rest of the account. I will cover minor and major human settlements equally, because most of those which were important in the past have diminished in significance by now, and those which were great in my own time were small in times past. I will mention both equally because I know that human happiness never remains long in the same place.

Travels with Herodotus is two stories in one. Ryszard Kapuściński weaves tales of his early forays into travel journalism (beginning mid-1950s) with his reading of The Histories by Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BC), that had been recently translated into his native Polish.

Kapuściński is a master storyteller who weaves magic realism, historical allegory, and literary techniques into his writing. He also introduces readers into an award-winning style of journalism. (Kapuściński was a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature and won many other awards.) Travels with Herodotus 2004) provides readers with insights into writing acquired over a lifetime; it is his final book.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Travels with Herodotus