Books for which I was thankful this year.
‘Monuments are interesting mostly in how they diminish all other aspects of the landscape. Each highly perceptible thing makes something else almost imperceptible. This is so matter of fact, but I’ve been told I’m incomprehensible: Anne, what do you mean that noticing one thing can make the other thing disappear?‘
—from ‘The Innocent Question’
Through sketches, fables and prose-poetry Anne Boyer’s taut Garments Against Women (Mute Books, 2016) rethreads the genre of conventional memoir and critical essay writing. Boyer addresses ‘the conditions that make literature almost impossible’ and submits history’s materials and strictures to extraordinary scrutiny. Memorise parts of this book, buy it twice, read it often.
I do not think I was alone in finding the act of reading particularly fraught in 2016. Some nights I read gluttonously and some days I didn’t have the patience for anything longer than a paragraph. I resented reading and I resented not-reading. I read because I needed explanations, escape, comfort, rallying cries, distractions, apologies; I wished I could read everything all at once and I wished that I would never have to read again. For me, Common Rest (Test Centre, 2016) offered a voice for this sense of unease and confronted head-on the impulse to seek relief. A new book of poems by Holly Pester, Common Rest considers the confidences, wishfulness and vulnerabilities of dreaming through modern cradlesongs. I mistyped that word as careledsongs in an early draft of this description.
‘someone put me to sleep
backwards in the wrong
house you can look up
and still see a form of it
you can see it if you look
(are you guys still together?
mouth to mouth)’
The poems are published with a vinyl album ‘created from recording sessions of improvised vocals and various-noise making’. In these tracks the notion of a lullaby is realised through Pester’s collaborations with Emma Bennett, Nat Raha, Jenny Moore, Claire Tolan, Vahni Capildeo, Verity Spott and Vera Rodriguez. Delivering an unnerving, skittering complement to the written text, the poems and tracks of Common Rest mark a mesmeric, clarifying, welcome project.
‘The first man took out the gun from his back pocket. No one was looking. He hated that.’
Any contents page that includes titles like ‘A Short History of Creation’, ‘The Time You Cut Off My Hand And Then Prepared it, Pretending It Was Ham’, and ‘Tablescapes!’ has my attention. Published in 2015 and the winner of that year’s Saltire Society’s Scottish First Book of the Year Award, On the Edges of Vision (Queen’s Ferry Press) contains forty stories by Helen McClory. Every piece of flash fiction here reveals something fine-toothed and skirmishing, and this is a collection that retells and twists familiar myths and folktales with verve and dark humour.
‘Home is a collection of contagious objects.
She licks the lid of the project.’
(—from ‘Correspondence as a Writing System’)
Correspondences (Oystercatcher Press, 2016) by Nisha Ramayya considers our age of connectivity and seeks to parse its networks: ‘Tantra may be understood as the knowledge that spreads.’ Much of the power in Ramayya’s second poetry chapbook lies its scouring and teasing of etymologies and the writer’s skilful pursuit of the routes and roots and routs of words. What is it to profess or pursue ownership over words and their exchange? An exciting pamphlet from this new writer.
‘I try to move a large spider but am too clumsy and tear its body apart.’
The zine Encounters With Nature (2016) by psychotherapist and para-academic Charlotte Cooper fuses autobiography and nature writing, and provides an index for the world and for one’s place within it. Earthworms and hummingbirds and the intimacy of sudden portraits—a work of sharp, sure shocks.
An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin (Duckworth Press, 2006) by Rohan Kriwaczek is a thorough, illuminating and completely absurd exercise in fabrication. In it Kriwaczek attempts to trace the evolution of a little-known chapter in the history of music which purportedly has its origins in the Elizabethan protestant reformation and is a ‘combination of pomp, ritual and spiritual expression’. Written with a mixture of deadpan alacrity and dogged harrumphing (‘Though I am both unable and, in part, unwilling to discuss the years 1841-59…’), the Incomplete History includes everything from a biography of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and musical scores to archival photographs and confectioner’s advertisements. A meticulous, madcap scuffle between non-fiction and creative hoaxes.
At one point in Ha-Ha Crystal (Copy Press, 2016), Chris Fite-Wassilak provides this account of the speech bubble:
‘The ways into language are slow and sideways, regurgitating and tethering half-swollen noises, latching them onto passing shapes and floating notions. Sounds get tied to words, a set of letters in which the sound is held latently, to be woken upon reading. These tethers for sound are impressed onto paper, folded into newspapers, bound into books, lassoed into balloons. Language spreads: I grew up surrounded by animated, jabbering cats, mice, sponges and paperclips, never really questioning how they were speaking in the first place.’
It is with such an eye for detail that Fite-Wassilak explores both the deftness and daftness in language via architecture, film and anecdote. This short book contains a complex and engaged study of humour and the ways in which thought can form and unspool—ready your glyphs and your grawlixes and get stuck in.
The miniature postcard-book edition of Nancy Campbell’s How to Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet (MIEL editions, 2014; repr. 2016) features a selection of Greenlandic terms and their definitions, each one accompanied by beautiful pochoir illustrations. The postcards include the words sialliluppaa, ‘to be surprised by the rain’, and unnuaarpoq, ‘there is no night any longer’. As the cards are shuffled and reorganized, one discovers a piece of writing that is part gloss, part game and part romantic narrative. There is tenderness in the simplicity of How to Say ‘I Love You’ but also something wrenching in its attempts to provide explanations for the unfamiliar and endangered. In her introduction to the edition, Campbell recalls leafing through a 1927 Greenlandic-English dictionary: ‘On seeing akaitsanga—officially defined as “take hold (of it) together with me”—amended to “carry me, please”, I wondered what circumstances had led an amateur lexicographer to discover such an error.’ Discovery, comfort and teetering escape: these cards gesture towards a sense of the momentous that lies within a considered moment.
‘Rather than a transparent network of gossamer threads, the golden cape looked heavy and thick, like a priest’s robe. And yet it was made of a material that feels literally, of nothing. When I met with Peers he placed a few threads of Nephila silk on my hand. It was golden bright, but if I closed my eyes I could not feel it.’
Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads (Strange Attractor Press, 2016) by artist Eleanor Morgan is a fascinating book that explores a cultural history of spiders and their silks. As a work of non-fiction I found it struck a perfect balance between personal narrative and far-ranging, rigorous and ricocheting investigation. Also a spider is serenaded. Filled with illustrations, pictures and academic research, Morgan spins a wonderful tale.
In my laggardliness, 2016 was the first year that I did myself a favour and subscribed to various tinyletters—free stories, essays and observations delivered straight to your inbox. My pick of this crop includes activist and educator Sophie Mayer’s archive at http://tinyletter.com/sophiemayer/archive. Fans of Mayer’s work will recognise her blistering, intricate poetics and in each of these new pieces she combines theological, philosophical and philological sallies with precision and artfulness. I would also recommend David Hayden’s fiction archived as tinyletters and available here. His work has been widely anthologised, including in gorse journal and Winter Pages—sign up to be notified of new work at https://tinyletter.com/seventydys and receive glimpses of his uncanny, wheeling stories. Fall into their clutches, regularly.
First posted: Saturday, December 24th, 2016.