Monthly Archives: October 2014

Can poetry console?

Years ago my father saw the keen, or caoine. It was the 1920s; he was a student at Trinity College. On a trip one Easter, he went a hundred miles west and a whole century back to Connemara and the Atlantic coast of Ireland.There, one morning, he saw the emigrant boat, about to leave for Liverpool. There was a small group of old women gathered on the pier. They were the keeners. They could be hired for a few pennies to come to a wake or a funeral or, as here, to a final emigrant farewell on the Galway docks. As the passengers disappeared on board and the boat drew out—or so my father told me—the old women put their shawls over their heads and began the keen. He remembered it as eerie, powerful, terrible.

. . . All his life my father remembered the keen. But not, I think, as an expression of grief; more likely as a theater of it. It was a ritual that neither resolved nor diminished the anguish of the Irish losing their sons and daughters. But it noted it. The keen’s atonal array of primitive sounds is often mentioned in Irish literature—at the end of Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge, for instance: keening exists there as a rite that gives unquestioned ritualistic and consensual shape to public mourning.  Eaven Boland, Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

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Look at the arms and hands

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #193 1989,48 7/8 x 41 15/16 inches

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #193 1989,48 7/8 x 41 15/16 inches

Sarah-Vide Ericson, Cold Heat, 2014 Oil on canvas 160x130cm

Sarah-Vide Ericson, Cold Heat, 2014 Oil on canvas 160x130cm

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On naming portraits: interview with Cindy Sherman

Interviewer : None of the portraits has a name. They all get a number and the prefix Untitled. Why no helpful titles?

Cindy Sherman: I don’t feel very wordy. Also I didn’t want to project my own narrative onto what somebody else is going to look at. I wanted them to come up with their own narrative. I never wanted to hit somebody over the head with the message. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.

Interviewer: Doesn’t that mean that your audience is almost certain to misunderstand you?

Cindy Sherman: Yeah. Sometimes it’s not the narrative that is close to what I am thinking. And sometimes I’m shocked and disappointed they didn’t get what I was trying to portray. But I realise that’s the double edge of the sword. Of leaving it ambiguous that way.                   Another interview  with Cindy Sherman here

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Writing is a form of repair, discovery, exploration

     All memoir is a form of repair, a way of reassembling the past, word by word. Emily Laidlaw

[ In 1950, Peter (18 months) was snatched from his mother’s arms by his father, Michael. His mother Yvonne, 19, was pregnant with her second child, waiting for her train to depart in Cairns. Peter grew up longing for his mother, abused by his father. He contracted polio. Later he finds his mother, who had remarried with children. One of his other children wrote the memoir of his story. After the euphoria of the reunion of mother and son, an impasse sets in]

He [Peter] told her the stories, answered her questions, and whether he was conscious of it or not his words turned into weapons. Who could blame her if she felt it was intentional, the payback of an injured child? And who could blame Peter if he’d believed his father’s lies, if even as a child he’d absorbed a fraction of them as truth? As an adult he believes it was the reverse: that with those stories he was trying to tell his mother something about Michael, not about her, about the kind of man he grew up with. The old man was so vindictive, he says. His lies drove me towards her, not away. But at the time she didn’t see it that way. With every word and every story, she began to believe her son had found her to deliver the punishment she’d always believed she deserved.

These are the things that mother and son don’t understand, or don’t know how to manage: the shame of losing a child and the shame of being lost. The wariness and suspicion and terror in finding and being found. The moratorium on mourning they’d both endured since their separation, the unresolved grief that froze their hearts. They don’t know, now the separation is over, how to lift that moratorium. They don’t see that they are testing each other, as adolescents and parents do, needling each other for proof of their love and commitment, their fitness for the role of mother and son. And that they need their whole lives, and the mercy of good counselling – rather than denial and the limited time they’ll have – to recognise and name all this, to get past the bad abandoning mother and the damaged unlovable boy, to a place where both of them are blameless, both of them forgiven.

Neither can know the depths and complexities of the other’s suffering. How can they – how can any of us – understand this: . . .

[Peter says] You’re the writer in the family. Why don’t you write this story? And he meant the tale of the polio survivor . . . not the story of the child ripped from his mother. He didn’t know that story himself. …Peter need to make sense of it all.. .to make a recognizable shape to his life. His childhood was the stuff of myth, wild and insubstantial, hard to believe. He needed to make it all real – to pin it down by speaking it and seeing it written, by making it a story. One, perhaps, that he could believe too.

. . .    But outcomes in writing are never neat or predictable .. . Slowly, I began to see that the events that ruled my mother’s life, though hidden to me, had also ruled mine. That I too was stuck, we were all stuck, at the instant Peter disappeared. We were born into the grief of it, the shock of it, and how could any of us have known? Even our mother hadn’t known, as her arms emptied on that morning in 1950, that this moment was a fine sharp point on which all our lives would turn: hers, Peter’s, my own father’s, those of us yet unborn.

Kristina Olsen, Boy Lost: A Family Memoir University of Queensland Press, 2013.

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Making poetry relevant . . the individual subjective experience

Ultimately, the key to the survival of any form of poetry is whether its practitioners can continue to make it relevant as patterns of human thought change. We cannot now imagine that anyone would seriously write an epic about a predatory monster and a hero-king; we do not live in that world anymore. We can, however, imagine an epic about the pain a living, thinking creature experiences when it is called a monster. Privileging the individual’s subjective experience is typical of contemporary thought, in the realms of philosophy and politics as well as in literature. The poets who can grasp and mold the currents of their time into shapes that gesture to the past as well as fully embodying the present are the poets who will be timeless. [Anne] Carson and [Alice] Oswald, for my money, are foremost among them. Eleanor Franzen (more here)

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Do not despise your inner world.

Do not despise your inner world. That is the first and most general piece of advice I would offer… Our society is very outward-looking, very taken up with the latest new object, the latest piece of gossip, the latest opportunity for self-assertion and status. But we all begin our lives as helpless babies, dependent on others for comfort, food, and survival itself. And even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve. As we grow, we all develop a wide range of emotions responding to this predicament: fear that bad things will happen and that we will be powerless to ward them off; love for those who help and support us; grief when a loved one is lost; hope for good things in the future; anger when someone else damages something we care about. Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them. Perhaps males, in our society, are especially likely to be ashamed of being incomplete and dependent, because a dominant image of masculinity tells them that they should be self-sufficient and dominant. So people flee from their inner world of feeling, and from articulate mastery of their own emotional experiences. The current psychological literature on the life of boys in America indicates that a large proportion of boys are quite unable to talk about how they feel and how others feel — because they have learned to be ashamed of feelings and needs, and to push them underground. But that means that they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions, or to communicate them to others. When they are frightened, they don’t know how to say it, or even to become fully aware of it. Often they turn their own fear into aggression. Often, too, this lack of a rich inner life catapults them into depression in later life. We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.

What is the remedy of these ills? A kind of self-love that does not shrink from the needy and incomplete parts of the self, but accepts those with interest and curiosity, and tries to develop a language with which to talk about needs and feelings. Storytelling plays a big role in the process of development. As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art, music — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. So my second piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: Read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and lives of those you love. In that way, you will not be alone with an empty self; you will have a newly rich life with yourself, and enhanced possibilities of real communication with others.    Martha Nussbaum (more here) 

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The inner life

.. [T]he tension between interior, creative life and exterior, “normal” life is a great source of conflict in any real artist’s life. It can take great willpower – great selfishness or great sacrifice- to resolve the conflict, and any resolution is unlikely to be lasting.

. . . But of course, almost everything in society militates against interior life. We are more rushed, more social and communicative, less reticent about matters that once stayed private, and more forcibly subjected to the standardizing forces of the media and the market.

Sebastian Smee The Australian Literary Review December 6 2006

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The painted moment

[In ] Vermeer’s view of Delft across the canal . . . The painted moment has remained (almost) unchanged for three centuries. The reflections in the water have not moved. Yet this painted moment, as we look at it, has a plenitude and actuality that we experience only rarely in life. We experience everything we see in the painting as absolutely momentary. At the same time the experience is repeatable the next day or in ten years. It would be naïve to suppose that this has to do with accuracy: Delft at any given moment never looked like this painting. It has to do with the density per square millimetre of Vermeer’s looking, with the density per square millimetre of assembled moments.        John Berger The Sense of Sight


Johannes Vermeer 1660–1661Oil on canvas

Dimensions 98.5 cm × 117.5 cm (38.8 in × 46.3 in)

Location Mauritshuis, The Hague

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Listening to the story

Sister Margaret Ryan on listening to survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires

‘When you’re listening, what you’re doing is letting the people hold what’s lost  in their arms. You listen and you let them talk about death, or about the loss of their home. You allow them to cry and you allow them to grieve. People say they’ve told their story 500 times, they’re going crazy, but they’re not. They’re holding  that thing they’ve lost until it’s the right time to let it go. When they’re ready they will give that person back to God.’                   Quoted in The Sunday Age 12.10.09

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A place where the eyes can rest


Sarah Tomasetti, Haifoss, Oil on fresco plaster, 50x70cm 2013


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