Saturday, 31 March 2012

Revisiting Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich died this last week. Reading various articles about her, it struck me how we label people - she was an American, feminist, lesbian poet and writer. She was once married and had three children - all boys. She was Jewish by patrilineal descent, but claimed her Jewishness, and living in a liberal, intellectual society, was accepted as Jewish by those around her - even her more Orthodox, but quite secular, in-laws.

I first came across her during a unit of Women's Studies at Flinders University nearly ten years ago. I had an idea for a post grad research thesis and needed to clock up some legitimate time in Women's Studies as it was going to in multi-disciplinary supervision. While I'd written art history papers from a feminist perspective for years, it was the first time I'd tackled general literature within this kind of framework, and it was an exhilarating and, sometimes, scary year. It's where I met Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, which I'm still wandering through in odd moments - enjoying it all the more for not having to write about it academically at the end!

I don't know that I could strictly say I enjoy Rich's poems. I love them. I am challenged by them. There is a raw kind of anger in many of them with which I identify strongly. I admire the fight in them, and the determination to say what is being felt so strongly. I did a tutorial presentation with the other Jewish student in the class on a four page epic, Yom Kippur 1984. I don't know how much justice we did it at the time. I don't know how much justice I could do it now. It opens,

What is a Jew in solitude?
What would it mean nor to feel lonely or afraid
far from your own or those you have called your own?

When I heard that Rich had died, I got my anthology off the shelf and it fell open to that poem. There are other pages marked in the book, but that's the one it fell open to... In the interim, since then, I've had cause to ask myself those questions, and continue to ask them, such is the resonance they had for me. In her essay Split at the Root, she explores the nature of her mixed heritage, the pull Judasim has for her, her sense of her Jewishness regardless of what halachah would determine as her Jewish status, her struggle with what she calls her own anti-semitism coupled with her ignorance of much of what constitutes being Jewish. It is objective, insightful, humourous at times, and - in its sense of struggle - honest.

I've had the book sitting on my desk all week, and I've been dipping in and our of it. In the early poems I found this one, and I keep coming back to it,

An Unsaid Word

She who has the power to call her man
From that estranged intensity
Where his mind forages alone,
Yet keeps her peace and leaves him free
And when his thoughts to her return
Stands where he left her, still his own,
Knows this the hardest thing to learn.

Photo: Gypsy P. Ray,

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Retreating to the Safety of Children's Literature...

It has been an amazingly busy period, these last few weeks, and it's not over yet...not until the end of next week when my workplace and their community celebrate Easter and the load of preparation that I am working on for all of that is over. I'm spending inordinate amounts of time wrestling with Microsoft Publisher documents, so the last thing I feel like doing when I'm at home is sitting in front of another computer screen. Long hours and computer screen headaches have pushed a lot of reading to one side too - which is a MOST peculiar state of affairs. I can't remember a time that I didn't get through many books each week. At the moment, it's one or two if I'm lucky.

For the main, it's been back to the children's literature collection for undemanding stories. I worked my way through my small collection of Marguerite Henry paperbacks - a must for horse crazy young girls... My two favourites are King of the Wind and Palio, the Wildest Horse Race in the World. Both are fact based. The first is a fictionalised story of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three Arab stallions to whom nearly every modern thoroughbred can be traced. The second is the story of a boy, a horse and a race - the Palio, held in the Tuscan city of Sienna every year. I loved them both as a kid, borrowing and re-borrowing them from my primary school library. I was very tickled to find them both years later in second hand stores and I revisit them about once a year. I have a holiday in Sienna at Palio time firmly on my bucket list!

I also reacquainted myself with a novel that won a gazillion awards when it was published in 1963, Anne Hulme's I am David. This is another novel I first discovered in my primary school library and borrowed many times. I hadn't actually read it for a while, and I'd forgotten the quiet strength of the narrative. It is the story of a child reared from babyhood to the age of 12 in a concentration camp, who is given a lifeline when one of the guards, whom he's always hated as one of 'them' but is aware has watched out for him, organises his escape. He is given the barest of instructions, a bundle with bread, water and a compass, and a quick moment when the power is cut so that he can get through the fence and away - first to a ship heading for Salonica and then north, to a country called Denmark. The only thing he knows about himself is his name, David, and the life lessons taught to him by a older fellow prisoner, now dead. He speaks several languages, but knows nothing of the world he suddenly has to navigate and people he needs to deal with, who find they, in turn, don't know how to deal with this boy who is not a child...

My only other reading of substance - and from the other bookcase... - was Lynn Reid Banks' trilogy that begins with the award-winning The L-Shaped Room. If memory serves me correctly, I first found this one in the high school library, and it would have been fairly recently published at that point. I didn't know until many years later that there were two sequels. The first book is an iconic story of self discovery when Jane, the central character, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after her first sexual encounter in her late 20s. She comes from a reasonably affluent background, which she has somewhat rejected, leading to a level of estrangement from her father, although she still lives in his house. On being given her news, he throws her out, and in a moment of martyrdom, she finds a room in a seedy lodging house in one of the less nice suburbs of London, where she meets the other two main characters, Toby and John. It's an interesting read these days - much of it still stands up, although there are some aspects that are a little dated. Making the comparison in general attitudes between now and the early 70s towards single parenthood is interesting - particularly, given that her choice to have and keep the baby is laden with the knowledge that somehow she will have to find work that can be fitted around an infant, or they will both starve, as there was no welfare available at the time. That and other stereotypes are challenged throughout the book - Toby is Jewish, a struggling writer, and John is a British born African guitarist who has not yet come out, even to himself...

The sequels go on to explore darker emotional territories as Jane's child grows and she finds her way as a self sufficient adult, capable of living alone. Ultimately, learning that lesson is what enables her to shake off the shackles of childhood emotional baggage and meet a man with whom she can have a fulfilling relationship for herself that is also good for her son.

Right now, I'm about half way through Paul Gallico's Jennie - one of his delightfully poignant stories that stretch the imagination. Peter, an eight year old child of an army father and socialite mother, much in the care of a nanny, wishes he had a cat...but Nanny won't have cats. Chasing after a kitten in the street one day, he is hit by a delivery truck and seriously injured. Then comes the magic - the reality of which took me a long time to understand (I was given this book by my aunt when I was very small, and it really seemed like magic...) - he is somehow transformed into a large white cat. When Nanny finds him, she throws him out into the London streets. With no idea of what's happened and absolutely no idea of how to be a cat, he commits blunder after blunder, ending up being thoroughly thrashed by an aggro, territorial tomcat. He is rescued by the tabby stray, Jennie, who sets about teaching him how to be a cat. And then their adventures begin. I do remember crying buckets full at the end, but that's a little way off yet! For anyone who's owned cats, the chapter called When in doubt, wash! is just delightful, and demonstrates Gallico's intense observational skills, as it simply couldn't have been written without spending hours watching cats.

Time to bite the bullet and tackle the weekly assignment, but there will be some reading time today, as my time in front of a screen is going to be curtailed to give my head a rest before I head back into the office on Monday for the last few days of insanity!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Catcher in the Rye

Well, despite a ridiculously crowded work schedule that has resulted in the least time I've ever had to read regularly, I'm nearly finished Catcher in the Rye. I have to confess that part of my initial reluctance to get going with it was due, probably, to the less than happy memories of studying it at school. However decades later, it's a very different reading experience.

It occurs to me that the mug of tea is probably singularly inappropriate, as Holden is as likely to drink tea as he is to find life engaging and amusing! However, lacking his preferred Scotch, my tipple through much of the book was tea.

My epiphany with the book came the day I was reading it in the living room one day when Sixteen was home. He's studying this book, remember, and appears to dislike it as intensely as I remember disliking it at his age, or a little less... He walked through the room while I was laughing at a particular passage - I can't remember which now, as I've laughed and chuckled all the way through reading it. He asked me what I was reading so I flipped it up to show him the cover and his jaw hit the floor - "and you're laughing???" I told him that as an adult, it was a very funny read, particularly an adult who has brought up boys and is living with one with a similar background to Holden's. He still didn't get it, so I told him to keep his copy and read it again when he had a sixteen year old boy of his own living in his house. He gave me a very dark look and exited.

The thing is, about that age group, and boys in particular - bearing in mind the three I've lived with and countless others I've taught, including my current student who is also studying this book - is that they know that they are the most interesting creatures in the universe... They know that everything they have to say is both important and witty. They know that anyone who is anyone should want to listen to them endlessly rabbiting on... The reality is, from an adult point of view, that their world view is usually very limited - because they are the centre of their own universe and the majority of their time is spent studying themselves. They study what they have to at school, but rarely take themselves beyond the bare minimum. They take themselves so deadly seriously. When they get together, they talk at each other about themselves. The advent of social media sites like Facebook means that those of us who count some of this group among our friends are privy to the most unbelieveable - at times - collective drivel.

J.D. Salinger portrays this, in the character of Holden - his opinions, his attitude, his 'blow the world, I know better' march through this phase of his life - absolutely accurately. There are just enough moments where he lets us, the reader, see Holden's vulnerabilities, his frailties, and his fears to allow us not dismiss him as a complete tosser, but as the boy he is, as all boys that age are.

My friend who requested a personal mention on this blog - and is now, by default getting another one - spoke of this book as one of many we were given at school about 'teenage angst'. In working through this book with my sixteen year old student, and having the odd casual conversation with Sixteen at home about it, I am seeing it more broadly than that. For starters, when it was published, the 'teenager' - as we understand them - didn't really exist. There were children, and then once children left school and entered the workforce or went to university, they were adults. Young adults, to be sure, but adults. There was no recognition of this period of teens that we now acknowledge, complete with a culture and a somewhat specialised set of issues. That being the case, what we have in this book is the embryonic young man struggling to meet the expectations of his parents, struggling to cope with the grief he still carries about his younger brother's death, and telling us about it via the stream of consciousness inane chatter that you have to plumb deeply to find the small gems of substance - just like today's sixteen year olds.

Interestingly, my student, who is a very different beastie to Sixteen, got it when we discussed this after he asked me how it was to read the book again as an adult. He has a knack for distancing himself from himself and looking at himself fairly objectively when called upon to do so. So, rather than another dark look when I gave him my thoughts about the portrayal of young men Salinger-style, I got a wry smile...