Monday, May 28, 2007

Books are Sexy.

Well, if only they were! Because, according to the latest reports in the UK, young males (11-14) are still not reading, or rather: still not able to read. There is something ironical, therefore, in the latest well-meaning, yet as ever misguided attempt by the government to promote reading. GIVE THE SCHOOLS A BOOKLIST TO INSPIRE READING. Of course, bearing in mind that the audience probably can’t read the booklist, let alone the books, I wouldn’t expect a raising of standards anytime soon.

The press has cast a derogatory eye upon this latest venture, noticing that some old favourites appear: is this list anything more than a call for a return to classic novels and the moral, educative qualities of literature? Good boys should read good books. The government has tried to sex up reading in the past. It gave primary schools some very nice posters of famous footballers reading. (Not that anyone believed these footballers did any such thing!) And it got wealthy, inarticulate footballers to talk to youngsters about the importance of reading. (Not that many teachers were convinced that yob culture and greed would bring about a revolution in literary criticism…and it didn’t). So, what of this booklist and the chance to choose 20 free books for reading, approximately one book for every 15 boys?

Well, here is a real opportunity for engaging with the intimacy of literature! 15 boys, all sitting around sharing one book…preferably, Billy Elliott…which is one inclusion. And here are some more scintillating choices:

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything…what?

Jeremy Clarkson, I Know You Got Soul…a book about machines, with fascinating trivia! Top Gear reading by an embarrassing chauvanist.
Robinson Crusoe…?

King Solomon’s Mines…?

Treasure Island…?


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

The Hobbit…?

Roadl Dahl…Boy, Going Solo?

Ricky Gervais, Flanimals of the Deep? A lot of non-literary flannel!

Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony…let’s start with a derivative fourth novel rather than the height of the series: Artemis Fowl!

Dave Pikey, Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People…. please make up your own indelicate comment on this!

Garth Nix, Lady Friday…wouldn’t it help if the reader started with Mr Monday, the first in the series?

The booklist reflects much what is wrong with teaching in primary and secondary schools at the moment. About 86% of the books recommended for boys in the list are by male authors. Selection rests upon a lie that boys prefer to read male authors. Too many of the books pander to stupid humour and boys-own-fantasy, avoiding emotion. Here is another lie: boys do not want books which foster an inner-life. The list includes Nix’s One Beastly Beast, but omits Sabriel, an emotional, supernatural, feminist tale that has had 11 years old males (in primary school) fascinated! Only 1% of the books are by black authors, even though black males are a significant part of the reading reform issue—and powerful authors, such as Malorie Blackman, are totally excluded. Benjamin Zephaniah gets a piece of whimsical poetry included, but not his provocative Refugee Boy! Quite simply, the booklist avoids any attempt at multiculturalism or race issues: it derives in its entirety from the fictional world of librarians and politicians. There is a world beyond the UK too--one to which many boys are affiliated--not that you would really know that from this latest booklist for the Governmental Bookclub (which meets every first Wednesday of the month at an Academy near you, or at Eton).

Quite simply, is there any wonder that real males do not want to engage with the pleasure of the text?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Owen Dodson and Poetry.

Owen Dodson. Books still have a magic of their own. There is a thrill in opening a book for the first time, touching the crisp pages, watching how they fall back as if they have not been touched, so refusing the enquiring gaze. With second hand books it is somewhat different. They have a used story to tell… And that story is often implied, cryptic, too much for a hermeticist to reject! I was intrigued, therefore, to come across a copy of Owen Dodson's poetry in a small second-handbook shop in Wales. Books travel. But how did that copy find a home amidst the rolling green hills of Wales rather than some place in Washington D.C.? I suppose the answer rests with the bold, black free inscription flowing like waves across the title page:

“Your name is Johnny,
My names is Owen,
Hello across the sea.
October 5, 1976.”

Owen, is of course, Owen Dodson. But Johnny? Not a passing acquaintance, since Dodson sent a copy of his photographic book on Harlem to the same Johnny in 1978; and this one came from Dodson’s family home, from his sister, in New York. The inscription to the poetry book suggests an introduction, a friend of a friend and someone not met. Yet, you don’t send signed new first editions unsolicited. So, who was the Johnny, in England, who merited the attention of a 62 year old ex-Howard University professor of drama and major Black dramatist?

The book now exudes mustiness. It belongs to a period when poetry books were published on quality paper and came unevenly cut. In the pockled paper there is a soft grain: a grain that fits the soft, elegiac tone that runs through Powerful Long Ladder. Published in 1946, this volume has a private and public face: it mourns the war dead, but also a world only half-acknowledged, as was typical of the Harlem Renaissance poets. “Counterpoint" is for the magician of that period, Carl Van Vechten, and comes with an ominous refrain: “Terror does not belong to open day”, as if suggesting a secret life beyond the glamour and glitz.
Countee Cullen” is an elegy written shortly after the poet’s death, in 1946, and this touches, like the Van Vechten poem, upon a world of secret desires: Cullen’s love for other Black men. There is a finely crafted short lyric for the Black gay actor and singer, Gordon Heath, who had just appeared, on Broadway, as Brett Charles, in Deep are the Roots:

Nothing happens only once,
Nothing happens only here,
Every love that lies asleep
Wakes today another year.

Why we sailed and how we prosper
Will be sung and lived again;
All the lands repeat themselves,
Shore for shore and men for men.

The echoes accumulate until they ring behind the ambivalent “you”. Like Auden before him, Dodson had learnt how to use the “you” to imply a personal, private and secretive “he”:


There is no evidence that you loved me,
Or witnesses: there was fire for the letters,
And those I told are promised, sealed.

Once there was a prism even the sun
Could not glory, light came from
Somewhere more abstract than the sky.

But light is the name, there is no other;
This light was human living, not aerial,
Mixed, fragrant, showing even at blazing noon,

Never in a dark so solid nothing
Struck through: sun or star or moon
Or artificial lamp, electric-full.

It is no secret: the somewhere light was you,
Nor the flesh part only, not the bone part merely
But the dream undyed with passion:

You when there was no henceforth
To walk, no now to penetrate,
No therewas to shadow. You in clarity.

The prism still lies near the clock,
But time nestling up to dawn, to spring in afternoon,
Loves hours, only hours, never light.

Powerful Long Ladder is a significant volume which contains a lost imagination that once stretched like human arms to embrace love and death. Dodson gets no metion in the Academy of American Poets. His poetry, like the above examples, ranges from short lyrics to dramatic dialogues, and are often written with an apocalyptic and metaphyscial fire. Dodson's imagination in Powerful Long Ladder is strongest when it is most personal. Its roots are deep, especially at the close when they mix prophecy and politics and reverberate like Baldwin:

Brothers, let us discover our hearts again...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Marechera and the Harrowing of Hell

The First Epistle of Peter speaks of Christ’s entry into Hell. This was an early commonplace of Christianity. Within the literary tradition, the concept became significant within Anglo Saxon literature and then Medieval literature. From the Old English hergian though the Middle English herwen, this descent by Christ became known as the “Harrowing” of Hell.

The Harrowing of Hell lasted three days…from Christ’s death on Friday to his resurrection on Sunday. In true ironical vein, Marechera picks up this detail in Black Sunlight and re-works it as his protagonist’s entry into Devil’s End. Marechera’s Christian education and his English studies at Oxford University would undoubtedly have acquainted him with the “despoiling”and its sources:

I followed him into the tunnel. We passed through huge rooms in which vague human figures were
poised in very excruciating postures. (One hung upside down and dangled by his testicles). Some were on a red hot treadmill. Some were transfixed upside down by huge nails driven into the rock passing through their ankles or their knees. Others—
“Don’t dawdle man…How long are you here for?”

"Three days."

(BS, p.53).

Seemingly, the protagonist of Black Sunlight, whose anti-self is called Christian (during the Devil’s End episode), and whose guide into Devil’s End is named Chris(t), has entered the catacombs for a period of terrorist training. Again, this is a sublime joke by Marechera, one that shows the verbal depth that underlies Black Sunlight. As Christ entered Hell to harry/attack and liberate the good souls, so the initiate in Black Sunlight enters Hell to acquaint himself with modern terrorism and methods for liberating the human spirit. This connection between terrorism and freedom of thought is represented by the mysterious “Franz’s brother”…a double who incarnates the political stance of Franz Fanon. Rather more than this exists, however, for there is a theme that once more extends the mock-Christian framework of Black Sunlight. Marechera was aware of the Surrealist writers who came to believe in writing as an “automatic” process, as something more than a learnt, conscious craft. Christian at his type-writer is literally a type for the artist and his/her struggle for words…words that take many forms and don’t always (as in the case of Black Sunlight) take the form an audience might like. What Marechera enacts within the Devil’s End episode of Black Sunlight is nothing less than a liberation of language. But Marechera pushes beyond Surrealism…more into the realm of Bataille and Bonnefoy, who believed that Surrealism had become a form of conservatism. It isn’t automatic writing, a total surrender to the unconscious , nor an example of paranoia, what Beckett described as feverish writers “covering sheets of paper with complaints against their treatment or verbatim reports of their inner voices”… it is an act of uncrucifying language, an act of terrorism upon parole and the Novel. In essence, Chapter 7 of Black Sunlight is the redemptive chapter amidst a Decalogue of Chapters— it focuses on writing, how the writer leads himself “to the slaughter, to the typewriter (BS. P.77)—to THE GREAT CUNT, the whore of Babylon, Mater-Matrix— yet seeks to harrow, violently fight the encyclopaedia that is reality, and so resurrect a different reality.