Spoken words

I like words.  I like the look and the sound and the texture of them.  And I believe they are capable of more truth and communication than most of the human race typically permits them.  How are you?  Fine thanks, and you?  Can’t complain.  Well I can, and I do.

Presenting poems that make words do what they are supposed to.

‘If Only Out of Vanity’ by Stayceyann Chin If only out of vanity text

Stayceyann Chin’s vision of who she wants to be sounds like fun.  My version is one who can finally dye her hair bright purple (or maybe green) without needing to stew in bleach for six hours.  Defy all attempts to be reductionist with reality (and magic).  Ride a bike with a trailer and bright flags (and possibly a diamond tipped pointy thing).  And cross roads with a brood that knows to look on all sides before it walks.

‘Not your erotic, not your exotic’ by Suheir Hammad Not your erotic, not your exotic text

I like a lot of Suheir Hammad’s work but this one has a particular resonance for me.  For the many times I have felt like my beauty is invisible, replaced by a mirage of almond-shaped eyes and curls.  Every day I add to my list of ways in which who I am is reduced to someone else’s version of what I must be like – a cardboard cut out could replace me without most people noticing the difference.  But some will, because they know I have the kind of beauty that moves (bonus geek points if you know who I’m quoting here!).

‘The Low Road’ by Marge Piercy the low road text

Recently, Maia posted this in solidarity with the defendants in the Operation 8 trial.  If you have no idea what Operation 8 is, this is a basic introductionthis is what wikipedia has on it, and this is the best writing I have found on the subject.  The trial is a farce (ask me how) and I believe the charges should be dropped.  Marge Piercy is one of the most accomplished writers I’ve read.  And few people can read her better than Stayceyann Chin.   I have nothing to add to what has already collectively been said.  Except perhaps to state that I would like to be counted among the thousand who have solidarity with those demanding justice for the raided, Tino Rangatiratanga and Te Mana Motuhake O Tūhoe.


since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

by e. e. cummings (part of  ‘is 5‘ , published in 1926)

Meet the first love poem that made sense to me.  Because most of what people call love I call syntax.  And syntactic freedom makes me joyful.   And just for the record, there is no such thing as the absence of syntax.  But poetry, like life, should be revolutionary: an exercise in building your own.  And paragraphs of kisses can follow.  You see how?

Twilight: racism, misogyny and desire.

I am uncertain of the wisdom of writing about the Twilight saga in any way but, like many of my other decisions, have decided to do it nonetheless.  Mostly because this article was linked to recently on Feministe and I kinda disagreed with bits of it and it got me thinking about why, which bits and how.  I have read all the Twilight books (including the unpublished manuscript for the Edward-point-of-view-version-of-the-first-book) and seen all the movies so far.  I also intend to go and see the next movie.  Why?  Allow me to explain…

My book reading and movie watching taste is varied.  I will read pretty much any kind of writing that comes my way.  This means that while I have read some excellent books I have also read several truly awful ones.  This does not bother me.  I don’t tend to decide the worth of a book prior to reading it.  I also don’t tend to assume that I will like a book based on its politics.  I think Oscar Wilde had a point when he said – “Books are well written or badly written.  That is all.”  This does not mean that the politics of the books I read are irrelevant to me… they add to my personal sense of emotional resonance and enjoyment.  And the politics give me plenty to rant about when describing them to other people.  But literary criticism goes beyond what I like.  I could talk about a number of excellent books that I truly abhor, but I shall desist.

The Twilight Saga books are appallingly badly written.  I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to pay for them.  Some kind soul had uploaded the whole lot onto their livejournal page and I got to read them in amongst writing my thesis.  It’s not often that I find the writing and pace of fiction worse than a PhD thesis on the aetiology of sex offending – but this was one of those times.  So I’m not going to engage in any conversations about the literary value of the books – whether the argument is intrinsic (the book is excellently written and comparable to Wuthering Heights, I’m not kidding, it has been said) or utilitarian (so few books make young people read – we should embrace poorly written drivel for the sake of the youth).  I am however going to engage with the feminist discourse that has surrounded the books ever since their release.

There are two key issues that have come up/come under fire in feminist discussion as regards the Twilight series.  The one focuses on the obviously misogynistic themes of the book as exemplified by the role of Bella and her relationships with other characters in the Twilight world and second is the deeply problematic portrayal of Bella’s decision to continue or abort her pregnancy.  Another point made by feminists of colour (and allies, yay for allies!) focuses on the role of race, colour and indigeneity in the books as seen in the relationships between the werewolves and the vampires.

On the subject of race: When I read the first book I actually burst out laughing when the first-nations-peoples-as-werewolves story arc was introduced – it was just such a tired formula.  Where do I begin: the werewolves were the original custodians of the land, the vampires (the good ones who don’t eat humans) turned up and called it theirs and (like all good liberal vegetarian vampires) formed a treaty with the werewolves that involved the vampires having the right to parts of the land that used to the domain of the werewolves on the understanding that they would keep to the boundary and not kill humans.  This was done in spite of the mutual antipathy these species held each other in.  Only some of the members of the tribe (sigh) turn into werewolves and turns out the werewolf (/aggression) gene gets activated when there are too many vampires around.  The vampires are white and they sparkle (I suppose I should just be grateful they aren’t blue) and are cold to the touch, democratic and stoic and individualistic.  The werewolves are warm-blooded and instinctual with a pack structure wherein there is an Alpha who is in command and the entire pack can hear each others thoughts (thereby lending weight to the Great-Wavelength-of-Colour theory).  Race relations are not engaged with in the books and the portrayal of the Quileute tribe I would describe as racist, imperialist and unforgivably unimaginative.

Now about gender roles: The roles outlined for Bella and her two suitors are typical and banal.  It has been said that Bella is a strong character and what makes her so attractive to readers is that she goes after what she wants and gets it.  It has also been said that the things that she goes after are part of her false consciousness under a patriarchal framework.  I don’t think that there are many feminists who would suggest that the world that Bella inhabits is not a misogynist one.  However, so is this one, so Bella’s decisions are made in a bounded world that has shaped her desires as well her decisions.  The only saving grace I can find is that, on one level at least, what Bella wants is equality.  She may want to be a vampire so she can live all her unlife with her boring controlling stalker of a boyfriend, but she doesn’t want to be the weaker part of the equation that is pitied or protected.  Plenty has been said on the stalker score – anyone who needs to know what should happen in that situation please watch this video of Buffy Vs Edward – so I’ll just skip past that.  Bella’s desires are not revolutionary – they are the desires of a person trying to get the most power they can within an unjust system.  The key point is that they are her desires and if I have to choose between a Bella whose desires fill me with horror and an Edward who acts as gatekeeper to her desire with a driving need to ‘protect’ (cough control cough) her  – I pick Bella every single time.

Oh and about the politics of pregnancy:  I don’t care what Stephanie Meyer’s personal politics on abortion are.  The book presents the abortion as necessary and Bella as being entirely opposed to having one.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with Bella making the decision to continue with her pregnancy even when ‘science’ and other people are telling her that hers is the wrong decision.  Bella has heard what they have to say (she’ll die, she’s being irrational, she’s being selfish and leaving Edward alone etc.).  Pregnant people always make their decisions in a context, and if the context is untenable the solution is to make the context less skewed, not to tell the only person who has the right to make the decision about their body that their decision is wrong.  It has been suggested the world of Twilight is a subversion of the real world because it is the men in her life who’re urging Bella to abort her pregnancy rather than the ones pressuring her into continuing.  Do I need to point out that the issue is not to what purpose the pressure is being applied but the fact that pressure is being applied?  And that in our non-Twilight-world, I have met many men who’ve pressured women into aborting pregnancies when they would rather continue?  Edward wants Bella to abort the pregnancy because the baby is killing her.  I have heard this argument.  I have also heard that the guy is in medical school and doesn’t really want to deal with having a genetic link out in the world even if he does not need to take on any parental responsibility.  Bella (and anyone else who’s pregnant) is well able to make their own decisions based on whatever yardstick they  happen to employ.  And if I don’t like the decisions being made then I have work to do on changing the context (so it is no longer life or death/the odds are improved/whatever the hell else) and live with the fact that other people having agency means that their decisions will be their own.

So that is my rant.  Thoughts?

Good madness

I am the kind of person who when she finds an author she likes, obsessively reads every piece of writing they put their name to.  Or at least every piece of writing that I have discovered that they have put their name to.  I am also the kind of person who pays very little attention to the turn of the Gregorian calendar but genuinely wishes that the change in year brings whatever people are hoping for closer to them.  So in the words of Neil Gaiman: “May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”

Books are a constant surprise.  I astonish myself by what I read and what I don’t and what surprises me when I’m not looking.  So I’ve decided to make a list of books that I want to read this year.  These are a combination of what smart people I know have suggested and what I’ve decided for myself.  Some of them I’m going to have to buy, most of them I’m hoping to borrow.  Either from a library or from you!  More about that later, but for now – the list (so far).

  1. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
  2. Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
  3. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  5. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  6. The Shattering by Karen Healey Thank you Karen!
  7. The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels Thanks Chally!
  8. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
  9. Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto by Alfred Taiaike
  10. Colonising Myths – Maori Realities: He Rukuruku Whakaaro by Ani Mikaere
  11. Your Average Nigga: performing race, literacy, and masculinity by Ashanti Vershawn Young
  12. The Time-traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  13. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins Thank you library.
  14. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  15. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  16. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
  17. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
  18. Vida by Marge Piercy
  19. Woman At The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy Thanks Chally!
  20. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood
  21. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
  22. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai Thanks Ma!
  23. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini Also Ma!
  24. The Days That Run Away Like Wild Horses Over Hills by Charles Bukowski
  25. The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities by Ching-in Chen Yay internet shopping!
  26. Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein
  27. The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould
  28. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever By James Tiptree Jr. Thanks Chally!
  29. Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree Jr.
  30. Koiwi, Koiwi by Hinemoana Baker
  31. Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
  32. The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman Yay internet shopping!
  33. Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman Yay internet shopping!
  34. Poet in New York by Frederico Garcia Lorca
  35. The Collected Poems Vol. I by William Carlos Williams
  36. * Chemistry by Damien Wilkins Thank you Opshop.
  37. * Conquest: sexual violence and american indian genocide by Andrea Smith
  38. * Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence and Belonging (Gender, Culture and Politics In The Middle East) edited by Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, & Nadine Naber.

So stands the list of books that I know as of today that I want to read within the coming year.  I have cheated and put ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ on there even though I have already started reading it.  I do this when I write a list, it makes it less daunting because I know that at least one thing is going to get ticked off reasonably quickly.  Yes, I am a strange person.  I have also pared this list down to mean that here sit only the books that I want to read within the year, not books that I need to read at some point.  This I have done by a combination of taking an emotional forecast of the year and the book and matching them to fit.  How comfortably, the year will tell.  I have also left space on this list for fifteen books that other people suggest to me so that I can read things that people think I would enjoy.  So if you have suggestions, be pleased to share them here and I shall put them on the list.

I am probably going to be able to find at least some of these books in lending libraries.  But some I will need to buy… so here is my suggestion… if you feel you can spare any of them and have them, send them to me!  I shall read them and return them in the condition received and you can have a choice of a) a zine, crafty item or food that I make; b) a book on my shelf that you’d like to read; or c) something else entirely that you wish for or need that is in my power to give.  This would be a good place to mention that all my life I have depended on the kindness of (those who started out as) strangers.  Bonus crafty present if you recognise the reference!

I like books, swaps and book swaps.  Also presents.


blah (who’s giving me this book, usually with thanks!) blah  (book read and reviewed with link to review) *blah (book added to the original list post conversations).

For the benign indifference of the universe

I have a twisted love for the absence of grand design.  It comes from being an atheistic hindu.  You know, I don’t believe in the intentions of things (even though occasionally the way they behave makes me question this generosity) and I have not the arrogance to think the universe is conspiring against me.  I find it comforting to think of the world as benignly indifferent rather than actively evil.  I suppose this denies me the luxury of believing the world to be deliberately helpful, but I’m okay with that.  So this poem makes me happy.

The More Loving One

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

W. H. Auden (Orginally published in Homage to Clio, 1960)

Thought fox

My friends and loved ones call me a crazy silly person.  One of the reasons they cite in support of this diagnosis is my ability to meta-analyse.  Actually I do them an injustice.  It’s more my inability to not meta-analyse everything that amuses (and worries) them.  I like analysis.  And I love the analysis of the analysis.  And the analysis of the conversation about analysing the analysis.  I especially love the following poem and its meta-analytic Hughes.  (The people, they be I right.  I be very crazily silly.)


I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Ted Hughes (Published as part of his first collection ‘The Hawk in the Rain’, 1957)

As you can see, it is a poem about writing a poem.  And it is, in my opinion, the best poem about writing ever written.  It is certainly one of the most successful poems Ted Hughes ever wrote.  And that is saying quite something.    One of my favourite things about this poem is how un-tortured it is.  It is entirely devoid of any writerly angst about the creative process.  I do so love this fox.  Sinister and mysterious perhaps, warm and focussed certainly; but above all: effortless.

Villanelle done well

Poems come in many forms and intents.  And there are people wiser than I who have studied the subject longer and can argue about what makes a poem work.  What follows is merely one that works for me and has had my abiding love for a tidy dozen years.

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

By Sylvia Plath

(First published in the August 1953 edition of Mademoiselle.  Typically included in the biographical note appended to The Bell Jar.)

The internet will tell you that there are excellent reasons why this is a successful poem.  For me it comes down to this: it is a mad girl’s love song.  The voice is clear and weightless and nicely highlights the weight of the words.  The echoes of the rhythm accent the sanity of what is being said – between intellectual meta-analysis and streaming ribbons of consciousness.

There is a lot to be said for self-aware and irreverent madness.  Especially when most of the world is so keen on othering itself from it.  That is what makes this a love song.  A poem would be too fettered; it’s a song that is stuck in your head even when you haven’t heard it for years and never ever knew the words.  But you know what it means even when you can’t remember what it said.

What appeals to me most about this one is the ease with which the verses weave through sophist solipsisms and undeniable realities until the end where I am the mad girl.  And she has written my song.