“The gift of writing is to be self forgetful…

…to get a surge of inner life or inner supply or unexpected sense of empowerment, to be afloat, to be out of yourself.”

– Seamus Heaney.

Advertisements

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead

“After lunch I’ll go out in the boat again; I might see something interesting. There should be a lot of interesting things around after a flood like this. Surely in all this water someone must have drowned.”

Offbeat, droll, macabre. Whimsical, charming, strangely delightful.

Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead is the last book that I was truly smitten by.

(At this point, it might be worth noting that the word “smitten” is the past participle of “smite,” which means to strike with a firm blow. It is equally correct to say, She was smitten by the handsome boy; she was one smitten kitten, as it is to say, The town was smitten with an outbreak of influenza—or madness; or murder.)

I don’t write too many reviews these days—I might start calling them “For Your Consideration” pieces—but this dark, enchanting book, and the sometimes ghastly, sometimes lovely, Willoweed family it follows, has lingered with me long after I first read it.

First, there is a flood.

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows…. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”

Then, there is a death.

Well, many of them. The sorrowful hens commit suicide, the peacocks are drowned. Then Grumpy Nan who lived in the cottage by the mill croaks it. Then Mrs. Hatt, the doctor’s wife. Then another, and another. It is all very strange. It is all very dark and funny and matters terribly and doesn’t matter at all. Life goes on.

“Upstairs Emma sat on her bedroom window-sill and combed her marmalade coloured hair. She closed her eyes and forgot the sad, drowned sights of the morning. A feeling of deep satisfaction came over her as she felt the warmth of the sun and combed her hair, dreamily…. “Oh, how I would love to go to a dance and wear a real evening dress,” she thought, “but nothing like that will happen—no dances, no admirers. I shall just be me, and nothing will happen at all.”

Yes, it is a weird little gem of a book.

I was surprised to read that it was first published in 1954—by a woman born in 1909 and raised in an English country house with servants and a governess. Its simple, playful sentences, steady accumulation of strange details and observations, non-sequiter dialogue and diversions, and surreal images encountered by her characters as mundane or a nuisance, seem to predate the postmodern writing of the 1960s á la Donald Barthelme. Others have compared her to Angela Carter and consider Comyns a neglected genius. Still others have said she is not like anybody else at all and that is fine by me too:

“Barbara Comyns is always being compared to writers X, Y or Z “on acid.” The acid part is a cop-out; her voice is clear and direct, even when describing surreal or hyperreal situations, and her crisp descriptions are not kaleidoscopic or druggy in the least. The comparisons to other writers, apt or not, are never a list of her formative influences; she didn’t have any.” – Emily Gould, writing in The Awl in 2010. 

What is certain is she has been largely overlooked, and I feel lucky to have happened across her.

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead was banned by The Irish Censorship of Publications Board (though what book wasn’t, one might ask). I happened to hear about it one night, deep in the interwebs, when I came across Dorothy, a publishing project who reissued the by then out-of-print novel.

“Dorothy is dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women. We want to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.”

“Marvelous!” I thought. And it really was.

For your consideration:

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead

 

 

As the hand I could have written with flew away from the wrist…

Sky Burial
by Ron Koertge

Q. You’re Such a Disciplined Writer. Were You Always That way?

A. When I was in graduate school, I worked part-time at a local library. I ran the used bookstore in the basement. The money came in handy. There was plenty of time to study.

I learned to know the regulars who talked about living with pain and waiting for bland meals to be delivered.

One sweltering afternoon I read about Tibetan body breakers who dismember corpses with their hatchets and flaying knives so the vultures will have an easier time.

I imagined my own body and the monks asking, “What did this one do?” And the answer would be, “Not much.” As the hand I could have written with flew away from the wrist.

For now, Portland Oregon

A short essay I wrote is up on Orion Magazine’s website.

“My husband wants land. He digs through websites, hoping to uncover a patch we could afford. I want it too but it hurts to see him look at places someone else will live on, or subdivide. It’s not our time, yet. We plant pennies in our bank account and watch them grow too slowly. In the meantime, we live in a condo in the city….”

[continue reading at Orion]

The Big Pink in a Portland Mist.

I love The Place Where You Live feature; I’m glad they brought it back.

And I do love Portland, Oregon—even on days like this one.

Ragtag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading roundup

(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).

I haven’t done too badly on the procrastination front lately. My catastrophe of a kitchen is testament to the fact that I have actually been writing as opposed to defrosting the freezer and cleaning the oven while telling myself that thinking about my story is the same as writing my story.

I was interested/excited/curious/ when I scanned the headlines declaring 2014 to be the Year of Reading Women. I haven’t had a chance to delve into any of the debates this may have engendered but I welcome the discussion. Will have more to say on this sometime soon no doubt.

I also found myself in the fascinating – if unlikely – world of picture framing while researching some finer points for my story. The Frame Blog is so good. Who knew?!

rossetti-frame-top-left

Lastly but not leastly and most lovely. My friend Emily has four poems in issue 11 of The Economy magazine. Do read them.

THE ECONOMY  ISSUE 11

Woody Guthrie’s New Years Rulins

I like these rulins, share some of them. I hope I do good this year.
New Years Rulins

1. Work more and better 
2. Work by a schedule
3. Wash teeth if any
4. Shave
5. Take bath
6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
7. Drink very scant if any
8. Write a song a day
9. Wear clean clothes — look good
10. Shine shoes
11. Change socks
12. Change bed cloths often
13. Read lots good books
14. Listen to radio a lot
15. Learn people better
16. Keep rancho clean
17. Dont get lonesome
18. Stay glad
19. Keep hoping machine running
20. Dream good
21. Bank all extra money
22. Save dough
23. Have company but dont waste time
24. Send Mary and kids money
25. Play and sing good
26. Dance better
27. Help win war — beat fascism
28. Love mama
29. Love papa
30. Love Pete
31. Love everybody
32. Make up your mind
33. Wake up and fight

Memoir in ‘E’

I never cared for the name Edna, and I still carry the unreasonableness of a child who appraises a person by the name assigned to them against their consent or knowledge at birth. Why, for example, couldn’t her parents (she was a lady in our church) have called her Effloresce which means to blossom, to flourish, which is not unlike rejuvenation, which is the lovely meaning of unlovely Edna (she was the first woman I ever saw play a guitar and she had the blackest hair).

Memoir in ‘C’

Cant (kant) n. 1. whining, singsong speech, esp. as used by beggars 2. the secret slang of beggars, thieves, etc; argot 3. insincere or almost meaningless talk used merely from convention or habit — to use cant, speak in cant — adj. of, or having the nature of, cant —

CAN’T (kant, känt) can not cannot can’t

I can’t

I can’t

I can’t

CAN  I’m trying to say you more. My tongue trips on your consequences. First I need to learn to say – and mean – I deserve.