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Posts tagged ‘Rivers’

27. Why Read?

I have what can only be referred to as Magical Realism Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which gives me the great pleasure of thrilling highs while I’m in the throes of a Louis de Bernieres, and a crushing, soul-destroying depression when I’m not.  I scour bookshops, and paw at the covers of books that promise a journey into the deepest jungles of South America, where I might learn how to cast spells from a 300-year-old Indian and where it’s totally normal to have a giant black jaguar as a pet.  The compulsion finds me boring through a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the detriment of my social life and personal relationships – you, my dear, can’t give me anything this book cannot.  It’s a deeply personal obsession.

I’ve thought a lot about why I dive so deeply into books, especially those of magical realism, and why when I think about getting lost in one, I think of a wardrobe, doors through which I escape into another world.  Perhaps the image of a wardrobe relates to a room in a house where a family reside, and it seems the most simple reason for my reading is to explore familial situations I’ve never had the joy of experiencing.  In books like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Of Love and Shadows, I find great comfort in exploring the stories of storied families who have survived for generations on grit and honour.

As I build up in my head my desire for a family, and whether or not it is something I’ll ever really have, these books deliver me into the bosom of a mother who was never actually there, and impart on me words of wisdom from an overbearing father who doesn’t spend his time searching for his own answers at the bottom of the bottle.  In books like The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, I raise a gaggle of children who tug at my shirt tails and climb onto my shoulders as I prepare dinner, and who I boil in a bath of tea so they go to bed smelling of peppermint.  I build a home with my bare hands and spend years turning it into a home that I will pass on to my children, who will live with me there until I push them away because of my cloying love, and who will return because they can’t live without it.

Books introduce us to authors with hopes and dreams and fears just like ours.  In my case, and as with any Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, my voracious appetite for books is borne of a void.  Each time I read a novel exploring the intricacies of family life and of love, the void feels a little less big, the pills of truth easier to swallow because of the inebriating effects of magical realism.

Josh Rivers

Alice Oswald’s poetry of rivers

British Academy Literature Week in Senate House, University of London, 22nd May

Jo Shapcott has described Alice Oswald’s poetry as ‘unsettled and settling in every good way’; the true role of poetry is arguably to act as ‘the great unsettler’ by questioning ‘the settled order of the mind’, it ‘works at the roots of thinking, down to the faint, honest voice at the bottom of the skull’. I cannot allege that one of these exists in my head, but if anyone is capable of helping it to germinate, I suspect it would be Alice Oswald.

Reading or hearing Oswald’s work read aloud is ‘like walking through a garden at night’. It is meditative and rich, especially so when delivered in the poet’s clear, deep voice. She read without glancing down and with punctilious observation of pauses – probably because they are hers. She certainly understands the power of silence, judging by the lengths of the breaks between readings.

Weeds and Wild Flowers

Her work – one example is her collection Weeds and Wild Flowers – is rooted in English landscape and rivers (or ‘fish paths’) such as the Dart and the Severn. ‘The Dart’ contains the voices of people who live near the river and the voice of the river itself, ‘trying to summon itself through speaking’ ‘through the swamp spaces’. As you are reliably told that by the riverside ‘you can hear plovers whistling’, the land is described so vividly and busily that you can watch as ‘an old dandelion unpicks her shawl’ while sitting on a ‘patch of broken schist’. I had to look this up; it is a type of metamorphic rock, so now you know too if you didn’t already. The wildlife are illustrated in either a touching fashion: seals ‘all swaddled and tucked in fat’ in a cave that is ‘a room behind the sea’, and ‘ducks tucked up in self-pillow’, or sinister in their evocativeness – I can still see the eel ‘strong as bike chain’ twisting under the surface of the water.

Oswald initially refused to write a poem about a river with a name as ugly as the Dunt, however, upon discovering a Roman water nymph close by, she changed her mind. The figurine repeatedly ‘made of bone tries to summon a river out of limestone’ and the intonation becomes her vigil. Her 2011 work Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad contains a poem on the Scamander, with Achilles attacking in the background before ‘his last breath silvered the surface’.

To close, she read a series of short poems about water, where she describes dew as lying in ‘transparent sheets’, before wishing that ‘if only I, as a passer-by, could pass as clear as water through a plume of glass’ so that she might know ‘how to balance the weight of hope against the light of patience’. If you are not yet a regular reader of poetry or prone to walking in the countryside, these poems are the remedy.

The Editors