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“Talking To My Body” by Anna Swir: An Unflinching Examination of Body and Soul

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Czeslaw Milosz, the great Polish poet, writes of Anna Swir, in the introduction to this collection, that she is “a poet of personal life, of love and love’s pains.” This, to me, seems a pithy yet perfect summation of Swir’s form and content. Her writing is such, that once you dip into her poetical waters, it is impossible not to want to embrace fully the limpidity of her poetry. Some may quibble that the plainness and seeming unsophistication of the style may militate against placing a high value on the currency of Swir’s poems. This reader would beg to differ. What may at first appear to be a simplicity, conceals profound truths about some of the fundamental themes in life that affect us all.

The diversity of the subject matter helps to make this collection resonate; whether that be poems about her parents, poems exploring the role of femininity, poems that deal frankly with matters of flesh, sex, ageing, mortality, motherhood, childhood and poems that investigate that greatest of emotions: love. This is poetry rooted in an earthiness, delineating the rich textures of daily-life. Abstraction is considered but these are poems that have a concrete foundation and, in their connectedness, celebrate the indomitability of the human spirit.

It has often been said that poetry is a “broad church”, which naturally means there are many definitions of what poetry is. I have always been fond of the brilliant British poet, Carol Ann Duffy and her belief that “poetry, above all, deals with emotion.” The emotional honesty in “Talking to My Body” rings apparent. It is as if Swir has taken a scalpel to her body and exposed the nest of feelings and tangled thoughts beneath. One gets the impression that these poems are written with an intent to impose some order,beauty and meaning on events. The intensity is manifest. Reflecting on the birth of her child in “Maternity”, Swir writes:

“And suddenly I am flooded

by a high, luminous wave

of humility

Powerless, I drown”

The translators have done a magical job in capturing the intensity and depth of feeling that Swir strove for her in her poetry (it seems fitting that Milosz, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, should have a hand in promoting and praising his compatriot’s poetry). There are phrases that leap off the page, which the keen reader will want to cherish and savour: “How good to own/ a portable sun”; “I want to be clean as Nothingness”; I made love with my dear/ as if I made love dying/ as if I made love praying.” One can discern that Swir is triangulating three branches, which might best be described as: thinking, feeling, knowing. For there is no doubt that these are poems for the mind as much as they are for the body and soul.

Perhaps of equal significance to this compelling collection is the discussion at the end between Czeslaw Milosz and his collaborator in translation, Leonard Nathan; the discussion is as much a philosophical investigation of Swir’s form and style as it is interpretive and makes for essential reading. Of course, the poet should have the final word and Swir’s assertion on what she considers the poet to be will, one hopes, strike a chord and may be a springboard for those yet to discover the limpid,earthy and sapient quality of a supreme stylist: “the poet should be as sensitive as an aching tooth.”

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Dawn

The soft sigh of your breath

Wakes me, turns me

Towards you

 

A tenderness stirs within.

 

Your hair cascades across the pillow

Gently,

Natural outpouring of calm.

Fragile eyelids concealing

Untold dreams.

 

Where have you been?

Where are you going?

 

Unexplored mysteries

Condensing like

Droplets of rain.

 

Outside, the sun pierces the cloud

Heralding a chorus of

Bright birdsong;

I hold you,

Steady.

 

A rock amidst the swirling

Sea of life.

 

 

This poem is from my first collection “Upon The Inward Eye”. Perhaps one shouldn’t look back at what one has written previously but being fascinated by the writing process, it is almost impossible not to. To deny what one has written would be to deny a part of one’s self.  I quite like this poem. As I read it again, the other day, something was irking me and what was irking me was the question of flow. The original poem, as published, has fifteen lines. You will see that this version has twenty-one lines. None of the content has changed but I feel with the new line-breaks, the poem has a more fluid ring to it.

Should I have altered this? Who knows? Or perhaps it is a poet’s prerogative to do what he or she wants with a poem, as long as it isn’t mangled beyond all recognition? It is not for me to say. What I do know is that poetry is a never-ending quest, a joyful quest – sprinkled with sorrow and humour – but a quest for meaning and beauty, nonetheless.

And long may the quest continue.

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Leonard Cohen: He’s Your Man

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Listening to a song by Leonard Cohen or reading a line of his verse is a deeply immersive experience – enchanting and enlightening in equal measure – suffused with wisdom and grace, witty and subversive. This biography has a similar feel. Sylvie Simmons’ thoroughly-researched paean to the “Bard of Montreal” is steeped in admiration for her subject; the writing flows effortlessly and the reader will quickly become absorbed in the diverse tapestry of Cohen’s life; the rich Jewish-Canadian/Russian/Lithuanian heritage, the influences, the environment etc. There are plenty of revelations – so much so that as I read, not only did I think Cohen’s place as one of the most compelling figures of culture, music and poetry of the 20th/21st centuries is lucidly re-affirmed but his life brings to mind a line by Albert Camus, on the nature of personality and self, “We continuously shape our personality all our lives.”

Simmons is especially good at highlighting the themes that run like constant refrains in the fabric of Cohen’s life and work; sex, love, relationships, religion, depression, power, compassion etc. whilst accentuating what is, perhaps, his most salient trait: his resilience, “Leonard was a lover, but when it comes to survival he was also a fighter.” At times, it feels like there is a sense of destiny to Cohen’s actions, a knowingness laced with humility; anyone who has had the fortune to see Cohen perform live will testify to this. The blend of intelligence and humour is palpable, the mix of power and vulnerability hugely magnetic. Somehow, it feels no surprise that the flaneur who walked the streets of Montreal as a young man, questing for knowledge and fresh experiences would always end up as a legendary troubadour, displaying his gifts of observation and insights – about the great issues of life – to the world. His avenue? The open road of the globe.

The infectiousness that Sylvie Simmons has for Cohen shines out so much that one wonders whether she hasn’t been mesmerised by his fabled hypnotic powers. She is equally good at showing what makes Cohen tick as a man and as an artist. Yes, she is a fan but she writes with great skill and sensibility, “the great songs, the ones that keep drawing us back again and again are mysteries.” In many ways, Cohen’s output can best be described as a type of “assisted living”. Like Samuel Johnson’s perceptive quote on writing that it “enable[s] the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure”, Cohen’s songs have a similar pull. Or, as a fan from Cohen’s tour in 1974 starkly puts it, “I was suicidal and I put on one of your records and you saved me.”

For many, this book will just confirm what Leonard Cohen already is in their eyes: a man blessed with a singular talent for poetry, lyricism and songwriting. The eloquence and compassion – central elements of his character- are manifest. As ex-lover and fiancée Rebecca de Mornay articulates, “he is so fully present, with compassion for the underdog, as well as genuine compassion for the enemy – which is very hard to do and hard-won.” Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this terrific biography is that Simmons has unshackled Cohen from “banal” stereotypes that have attached themselves to Cohen over the years, like hackneyed labels which have become threadbare through repetition, and presented a rounded portrait of a highly sensitive, charismatic and intelligent man, whose greatest gifts have been for language and distilling experiences with a finesse of expression. In a nutshell, the opening line of this biography captures the essence of the man perfectly, “He is a courtly man, elegant, with old-world manners.” This is the kind of the book that will make readers want to rush out and grab some of Leonard Cohen’s books or listen to the albums. There can be no greater tribute.

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In The Realm of Love: A Poet Enchanted by Love’s Language

In an epigraph to this astonishing collection of poems, Carol Ann Duffy quotes from Shakespeare’s play, Two Gentleman of Verona: “Now no discourse, except it be of love;/ Now I can break my fast, dine, sup and sleep/ Upon the very naked name of love.” This is an apposite quotation for the book feasts upon the idea of love with a searching intensity, hitting the reader in the solar plexus by dint of that supreme poetical mix of thought, feeling and language – that makes poetry the most personal and emotive of art-forms.

Duffy’s skill as poet is on full display in Rapture. Not only is she a master of the poet’s craft in her command of assonance, alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, repetition, metaphor etc. but she is in full control of form, ensuring that the poems are accessible, without losing their heft, and that content and meaning are never lost. Perhaps this explains why Duffy’s poetry has always been popular. She is able to explore complex subjects (and is there anything more complex than love?) without being overwrought. The music is in the words and like a painter who selects the right hue for their composition, Duffy uses the mot juste for the emotion or aspect of love she analyses. Whether concentrating on love’s ecstasy or love’s despair, the poet’s gaze is never less than unwavering.

Kahlil Gibran once wrote that “poetry is a sigh that dries the tears”. This collection will do that, especially those poems that deal with the grief, the rancour and heartache when love falls. Yet this is poetry that enchants, making the heart soar; poems that the ardent lover and/or any keen student of love will want to absorb, words radiating a depth of feeling and a poet’s delight in language, on full display, shining like sparkling jewels. As the poet writes in “Finding the Words”, on the magic of the three most beautiful words in the lover’s armoury, “I rubbed at them until they gleamed in my palm.”

Rapture is a book that will certainly gleam in the consciousness of every reader who appreciates poetry that is written from the heart, is crafted with surgical precision, truthful yet tender, powerful yet beautiful. Whilst unflinching in examining the many facets of love – desire, faith, betrayal, separation, redemption – Duffy reminds us that love will live on, as sure as day follows night, “the blush of memory”, even when the heart is torn. Sometimes we just have to look elsewhere, including the natural world, before the light comes streaming in once more. Ultimately, even when mind and body have been stripped to the core, love is all, is all there is. Perhaps the greatest accolade that I can give to this book is that it is one that you will treasure, you will read over and over, possibly even give to a loved one. Words are timeless and in Rapture – that springs equally from the mind, heart and soul – Duffy has created a timeless classic, “upon the very naked name of love.”

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Poetry for the Soul: Verses of Freedom

A Review of Wild by Ben Okri

This is a collection to stir the mind, fire the heart and energise the jaded soul. Ben Okri writes from the heart, exploring subjects most people can relate to – love, identity, war, conflict, terror, humanity, the universe – that it is impossible not to fall under the spell of his writing. In many ways this book of 47 beautifully resonant poems is a paean to the natural world as indicated by the title, “Wild” – but it is also a song of praise to the natural aspect of mankind – the pure beauty that lies within – which sometimes gets lost in the strife of life and maelstrom of living. There is music to be heard, if we but listen, “a richer music revealing the whole” (The Soul of the Nation) and if we but open our minds and hearts, “the world is rich/with great love unfound” (The World is Rich).

Okri is a writer who not only revels in the musicality of language but in the symbolism that the word can evoke. In many ways, poetry is the most appropriate medium in which the plea for tolerance, beauty and acceptance of the earth’s incredible riches can best be expressed. Like his other poetry collections “An African Elegy” and “Mental Fight”, Okri’s unfettered spirit shines through. Whether describing the vibrancy of Africa or the diversity that surrounds us, these are poems that have been forged with intense wonder, yet acutely aware of the elements that underpin our very existence.

Dylan Thomas once quipped that “poetry is what makes my toenails twinkle”. Well, if that’s the case, then this is poetry that will make your hair flare. Reading these poems encourages the reader to embrace the boundless capacity of the human imagination and the indomitability of the human spirit. Life, at times, can be bewildering, chaotic and incomprehensible but resilience and the possibility of hope is always present, if we see, feel and listen with our heart and senses. This from “Dreams”:

                                                        “Today is a new chaos

                                                         A new journey. A new city:

                                                         Needing new paths. And new standards”

 A constant echo that struck me as I read this collection was John Donne’s message that “No Man is an Island”. Nowhere is this made more explicit than in the titular poem, “Wild”, “everything should connect with everything”. It is often stated that poetry can act as a lifeboat for the weary soul; give this book to anyone you know who might have fallen out of love with life, living and giving and their joy may be rekindled. Hope springs eternal, as long as there is life. In the midst of despair – in the dark night of being – there is always some magic to be found, “a melody of light that transforms the night.”

The overriding philosophy that shapes this book is best encapsulated in “I sing a New Freedom”:

                                                   “Only those who remain free in spirit

                                                     Will find their way out of the maze.

                                                     But we are children of the stars,

                                                     And we ought to amaze.”

 Okri’s ability to impress upon readers is most clearly demonstrated in the powerful and luminous phraseology he deploys. Freedom of self is a constant theme (if one was going to choose a song to accompany the verse, “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley would be the most appropriate), “In our minds we swim or sink” (from “As Clouds Do Drift”).

“Wild” is bookended by poems to his mother and father, which seems entirely in keeping with the message of the poetry – that the cycle of humanity and life lives on, “my turn has come round at last”, the wisdom that is handed on from generation to generation, and which is refashioned in turn, helps give sustenance to this beautiful gift that we have been given:

                                                “Plant the secrets of the way

                                                  That I may live

                                                  More wisely every day.”

 Read this collection, let the words wash over you, absorb the optimistic refrain that permeates the poetry and you – the reader – will feel refreshed, eager to embrace a world, that whilst occasionally baffling, is, most of the time, still beautiful.

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A Compendium of Wildean Delights

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “I summed up all systems in a phrase and all existences in an epigram.” A bold claim to make, some may argue, yet when one dips into the magical kingdom of Wilde’s writings, what is impossible not to notice is how “right” he often is. Words for Wilde, were like pearls, to be played with, sparkling in their wit and pregnant with meaning in their durability.

Perhaps this is the most distinguishing facet of Wilde’s oeuvre – the manner in which it has lasted and will continue to endure, seemingly ageless in its appeal to each new generation. A large part of Wilde the legend is due to the fact that he had a more than eventful personal life: he defied traditional Victorian conventions, dared others to follow him, and bestrode the world like the “flamboyant high priest of aestheticism” he professed himself to be. Yet he also wrote in a variety of genres, dazzling his peers and astonishing his audiences with his fierce intellect, playful paradox and sheer love for the English language.

Wilde’s love of language for language’s sake shines through in this collection. Arranged in four chapters: Ironies & Paradoxes, A Duel Between the Sexes, Art for Art’s Sake & Beyond and The Artist as Philosopher, this is a compendium to treasure and chew upon, morsels of wisdom that provoke, entertain and enlighten in equal measure. Some of Wilde’s more famous sayings have entered the lexicon of the English language; there are several here which make you think, “nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul” and “women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them they forgive us everything, even our intellects” – to highlight just a couple. Whether it is poking fun at class, subverting gender stereotypes, mocking man’s vanities or exploring the sheer mystery of life, Wilde always proffers a gem, which makes us think afresh.

Once you have imbibed or perhaps devoured this exquisite potpourri of a book, you will want more. Get your hands on anything he wrote – plays, essays, poems, letters, novel, and children’s stories. He is one of the greatest writers who ever lived, constantly enchanting and forever illuminating. Wilde was not only blessed with that most precious of qualities – kindness – but also a piercing insight, who, through his sundry characters and essays, understood acutely the wellsprings from which laughter and unhappiness, joy and misery, altruism and selfishness sprang. He really did put genius into his work and not just his talent.

 

 

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What does Leonard Cohen mean to me?

This is a question that I have been thinking about a lot recently.

Perhaps, it’s to do with a burning excitement that is building up as I await to see him play London on his latest tour? Maybe it’s to do with the fact that Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre has had a huge impact on my thinking since I became acquainted with it a little over 10 years ago?

Either way, I think that it is an important question. It is a question we ask of everyone at some point, who has had an impact on our lives – friend, lover, stranger or, in this case, artistic and cultural heroes.

I love the fact that Leonard has addressed the fundamental themes of existence – love, desire, betrayal, redemption, connection – right from the beginning of his musical and writing career. The way in which he draws upon various philosophies, religions and cultural ideas, forever exploring and mining what it is to be human. His songs and writings can be listened to and read over and over; they yield so much, yet always offer new meanings. The blend of the earthy and ethereal, the sensuality and the serious, the comedy and the tragedy never ceases to charm.

We can dip in and out of his work at various times of our lives, whether we are 15 or 55, and still discover new truths. Maybe, this is what Leonard means to me. He is timeless. His writings stand apart from time but help me make sense of time. Leonard helps me appreciate that life – while it may be baffling at times – is blazingly beautiful. The wry humour and learned wisdom, etched in his lyrics, enchant the heart and sing in one’s mind.

Thank you Leonard for enriching my existence and thank you to an old friend who introduced me to this incomparable “Troubadour Sans Pareil” on the threshold of my adult life.

Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.” (The Favourite Game)

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