Contributors to The Lonely Crowd choose the books they have most enjoyed this year.
It seems I am always catching up with myself, so the books I read are often lagging behind the times. For example, in 2022 I finally read The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark perhaps it was, by then, too late in the day to finally understand such an odd, enigmatic and cruel story; one so strange that its qualities are almost dreamlike. It features a female character who is both aggressive and vulnerable, who crashes through life, flying closer and closer to the sun, a garishly-dressed Icarus; all her actions perfectly outlined yet always inexplicable. I discovered that a film had been made of the book in 1974, with none other than Elizabeth Taylor playing the main character, her legendary beauty borne aloft (in the clip I watched) like a bludgeon. Curiouser and curiouser, I thought, watching that time, those people slip through my consciousness like the objects inside the rabbit hole that Alice fell down.
Speaking of falling, I recently rediscovered the artist, Ana Mendieta. I’d first come across her work via a brief description of a performance piece she’d done in one of those copious books that run through an encyclopaedic array of art movements, artists and works – conceptual art, feminist art, neo-realism, performance, video and so on. The work which stuck in my mind when first encountered was so disturbing, so shocking, so brave and risky that it was the equivalent of a blow to the solar plexus. Mendieta had done this performance piece outside the confines of the gallery and the proper invitation to the event, so its effect was made more ‘real’. This is to say that her ‘audience’ were invited to a social event – a party, a supper – at her apartment. On arrival they found her door unlocked and their host naked, bound, bloodied and possibly dead. In as much as performance, earth and body-art and installations leave no lasting (or saleable) object, much of Mendieta’s art only survives via film or photography. In Where is Ana Mendieta? Identity, Performativity, and Exile (Duke University Press, 1999) Jane Blocker explores the life, work and temporal context of Mendieta’s work in the 70s and 80s. Mendieta, a Cuban exile who lived in the US, produced work which explored identity, gender, place, ritual and religious iconography. She made female forms that are reminiscent of hybrids existing somewhere between Anthony Gormley’s nearly featureless human casts and Neolithic fertility goddess sculptures – except Mendieta’s were elemental; made from mud, sand and fire and were worn away, washed away or burnt out. They are easily passed over, the scale is often modest, created using the artist’s own petite body; reproduced in black and white in some books, an earth-moulded form in the earth becomes a mere smudge of light and shade. Mendieta’s life and career were cut short by her tragic death after she plunged from the window of a New York high-rise apartment in 1985.
To return to the rabbit hole, in 2022 I began a series of poems in collaboration with the London-based artist, Emily Evans. She had already done an animation based on my story, ‘Levitation, 1969’. In an earlier collaboration with a dancer she had explored the myths around witches turning themselves into hares to escape capture. This idea of transformation; of woman as witch, as victim, as prey, combined with the folklore of nature, of landscape and animal, of pursuit and power seemed to come together very quickly in my mind and I began further research into the subject of the evocative and evasive hare. George Gavin Ewart and David Thomson’s 1972 book, The Leaping Hareis an all encompassing guide to the hare; its habits and habitat, its representation in history, art, literature and
Lastly, late in the year, I bought a copy of On Poetry: Reading, Writing & Working with Poems by Jackie Wills. Wills, explains her path into poetry, which she prefaces with the rather dismissive comments of a school teacher, who told Wills she couldn’t like the variety of poetry represented by the three books she carried; The Mersey Sound; Penguin Modern Poets 8 as well as an anthology of Georgian poetry. This resonated deeply with me, as back around the same time (Wills and I are near contemporaries) I submitted a poem to a literary magazine only to receive a rejection letter which informed me that my work was ‘Georgian’. The only use of the term ‘Georgian’ I knew referred to the history, art, fashion and architecture of the late 18th century, so I was understandably perplexed and embarrassed. Thereafter I refrained from such attempts to get published for many years – it wasn’t just that particular rejection, rather its timing, arriving just at the moment when I was tentatively reaching towards more serious attempts to write.
In John Burnside’s essay, ‘A Poet’s Life’ in the Poetry Writers’ Yearbook, 2007 he reveals how his first poems were ‘unfashionable’ because he wrote predominantly about nature. He confesses that he was also ‘incompetent’ – his words not mine. It’s comforting to learn that a writer one admires began in the same messy wrong-headed way.
Wills’ book is filled with many wonderful poems by a range of contemporary poets and a few old stalwarts like Edna St Vincent Millay, but importantly she addresses unsettling questions to do with self-confidence and the idea of privilege. In a chapter titled ‘What gives me the right?’ she discusses Jay Bernard’s 2019 collection Surge and his account of the New Cross fire in 1981, before taking account of poets who either innovate in how they write or what they write about. It is a very welcoming book, opening doors to meaning and reason, challenging presumptions about identity and voice; giving permission, it seems, to speak.
My best read of 2022 was This Rare Spirit – A Life of Charlotte Mew by Julia Copus. Charlotte Mew was, to use her own description of Emily Bronte whom she believed a sister in poetry, ‘a self-determined outlaw.’ She lived quite close to Virginia Woolf and was the original Bloomsbury if you will, but she kept herself on the margins. She was the head of a family that needed money and the holder of a secret she could never relinquish. She and her artist sister Anne resolved never to marry so that they could never pass on the taint of madness that destroyed their brother Henry and sister Freda.
Charlotte Mew wrote short stories to begin with, but it is her poetry that prompted Thomas Hardy to declare that she was ‘the greatest poetess’ he knew of. The poet Hilda Doolittle considered Mew to be a brilliant poet of dramatic monologues of varied voices and inverting genders. Siegfried Sassoon said she was the only poet to bring a lump to his throat.
Charlotte Mew kept herself away for literary parties and cliques. She did not court the circuit. She abhorred personal celebrity and except for the odd story written for desperate financial straits, she bided her time; did not write for years after her first published pieces, read, and read and lived and travelled to Europe and then in her forties published ‘The Farmer’s Bride’.
Charlotte Mew believed that the first quality of poetry was emotion.
‘So, when they took
Ken to that place, I did not look
After he called and turned on me.
His eyes. These I shall see’
Julia Copus biographical scaffold on Mew’s life and work does not waste time in ‘perhaps the poet…’, ‘it could be inferred…etc.’ when exploring the poet’s life, work, and sexuality. The research documentation is meticulous and rectifies some poorly made assumptions and translations made in previous biographies but above all reading Julia Copus’s book is akin to walking alongside Charlotte Mew. You are an observer of Charlotte Mew’s life but almost ‘a ghostly double’, as Charlotte herself once considered herself of her literary heroine Emily Bronte.
This is always an impossible job, so I’ve decided to select works from different genres, and that come from small independent writers and publishers.
In poetry, I’m picking Roy McFarlane’s Living By Troubled Waters for its brutal and beautiful exploration of Black Britishness. This tremendous third collection is an incredible fusion of experimentation, formalist craft, precision, and jazz-fuelled moxie. I had to stop reading and take regular breathers when I went through these poems.
My fiction choice is Kalman Dean-Richards’ debut novel, Marco. This darkly comic crime novel is as nasty as it is funny, and Dean-Richards is a master of language, pace and off-kilter detail. I think it’s an important novel in the context of the precarious position of working-class communities and cultures in the UK right now.
In creative non-fiction, I’m opting for Figured Stones by Paul Prudence. This is part geological investigation and part lithic anthropology, but bubbling with the drive of Huxley’s Doors of Perception and Blakean lyricism. We enter a world of rocks, so close and detailed, so full of dynamic clashes and connections, so otherworldly, we are snapped out of our usual sensory and cognitive experiences, ready to begin again with new perspectives.
And finally, in political memoir, Konstantin Kisin’s An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West for its deep and sardonic look at the brutality of the Soviet Union and the liberal beauty of Western Democracy. It’s an hilarious, distressing and poignant hymn to values we need to be more reverent about. A book of graceful strength.
Lindy Biller, Love at the End of the World (forthcoming, 2023).
Biller infuses imagination on every page, sparkles of surreality define motherhood and spirituality. From a boy fighting a giraffe to crying glaciers, each story immerses the reader in sensory details and descriptions that are at once identifiable, but also memorable in their ingenuity.
Photo by John Lavin.