Thursday 25 July 2019
Tania Hershman casts mysterious and magical spells in her latest collection of short stories and flash fiction. She somehow manages to be forensic yet lyrical, playful yet profound, disturbing yet compassionate. Her scope is daring, unique and revelatory, investigative and sharp; continuously, entertainingly experimenting with ideas and with words; searching for meanings in stories about religion, science and love (nearly always love); the alchemy of life examined in startling ways, robots and octopi, the human spirit tested but winning through. It’s a beautiful book.
Like all truly original ambitious books that I’ve loved and savoured, there are some parts I don’t get or respond to – I think of writers like Dostoyevsky and Joyce that I consumed too quickly in my teens, whose books were so wondrous that it felt okay to skim over certain passages. Here there are occasional very short stories that don’t quite touch me, their meaning too slight or obtuse, frustratingly out of reach. But when Hershman’s experimentation is wedded to character and emotion, as it nearly always is, reading becomes a thrilling experience. The rogue scientific nun, Emmylene in ‘God Glows,’ who happens on the essence of love through her tests on other nuns’ blood, is a character who will long stay in the memory.
There are several near-future dystopian stories – the domestic servant disconsolately apart from her land replacing a discarded robot in ‘Something Like a Tree,’ tending the grandmother of the house, who is slowly dying, so 'when she tries to breathe there is a dark deep knocking from inside as if something wants to leave.' In ‘The Special Advisor,’ there is the chillingly mundane world of dumbed-down subservience at work – following orders in a shadowy totalitarian state, bringing to mind Hannah Arendt’s observation about the ‘banality of evil’ – its central character employed to witness and advise on an array of inexplicable executions. Written in the second person to heighten the sense of existential dread, the witness/advisor is disturbed but doesn’t know what to do, a way out offered near the end by the predecessor in the post, who simply says ‘you don’t have to.’
If the flash shorts can sometimes seem oblique, they can also be spellbinding and moving. In ‘A Song for Falling’ a woman starts by composing songs for standing, and for sitting. After life engulfs her and the songs dry up, at last a single note appears, ‘a small small song ... for breathing, for taking the next breath ... a song for how to live now that you know what life can do to you.’ In another beautifully spare story, Carly, ‘a lonely child,’ ‘seems to have more of everything, more features than usual, diffused, extra, spare. And yet there is not enough of her. Not enough of her to make her way in the world.’
I found myself thinking of Barthelme, Borges and Lydia Davis in the wit, brevity and range of the stories, of Atwood in the disturbing science fictions, but Tania Hershman’s voice and vision is all her own. It’s a book I’ll enjoy giving to friends, for them to savour, to have their senses ignited, to be in thrall to.
About the reviewer
Alan McCormick lives with his family on the Dorset coast. He’s been writer in residence at Kingston University’s Writing School and for the charity, InterAct Stroke Support. His fiction has won prizes and been widely published, including Salt’s Best British Short Stories and Confingo. His collection, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, was long-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. See more at www.dogsbodiesandscumsters.wordpress.com.
Tuesday 16 July 2019
At the start of this collection, Levine’s third book of poetry, Ilya Kaminsky’s foreword focuses upon writing which keeps its secrets, evading comprehension, in order to transcend language, to explore the spaces between words and their meanings. He asks, ‘What is clarity?’ Upon reading At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered, the question itself becomes elusive.
Let me indulge in a metaphor of my own to explain: I began reading Levine’s poetry like walking a river. Following it with my eyes, not really understanding the course or predicting the direction it would go. In order to appreciate the poetry, I realised I had to lie down in the water, to let it flow over me. In doing so, I captured phrases I found evocative, words strung together in abstract ways, the sounds they made, the images which they created, the moments of absolute clarity washing over me and then vanished, gone. This may sound awfully la-de-dah, but Levine seems to encourage the reader to let go of the instinctive need to fully comprehend in order to enjoy, to disassociate from obvious signage and accept the lack of direction; to be open to interpretation.
At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered is a mystical, cosmic, effervescent collection of verse. There is much music and romance within its poetry, from the sounds in 'Low-Hanging Orb, Smudged Green' ('With ice-cold spoon, / snap the world open to the pulp'), and the musicality of 'soft water - soft as the light, white breath of horses' in 'Egg of the Universe' - to the words of love in 'He Delivers Unto Her His Blessings': 'There is much to celebrate. She invites moments of unaccountable happiness.'
There are many beautiful, almost hypnotic lines and a central theme of light running throughout the writings, such as in 'Other Effects': 'No light I know as light, but winter sky on ice stealing the sky’s milky hue.' The collection is heavy with prose poems like this. Emotive, imaginative, like incantations, they create a dream-world, where the reader emerges not quite sure of what made sense or how it all fit together, but left within a kind of whirlwind made up of spools of film, with each image capturing another vivid image, all rushing past and evading capture.
In 'Although Madame Did It on the Grill,' the poet writes: 'Raking coals, straddles amid licks of flame, sparks rose up / from the earth, arced across the sky turning overhead in bright pinwheels,' and later in the same poem, 'and all that night, throughout the world, a terrible noise of sheep bleating and of bells from the church towers, of wooden houses cracking, and the cries of men and the cries of women.' It’s artistic, vivid, nightmarish - like hopping out of a Monet and into Edvard Munch.
Indeed, Levine is often inspired by works of art. His subjects are abstract, but beauty and meaning find their way through the language. In the final poem in the book, 'Getting It Right,' Levine concludes with a lasting, entrancing couplet: 'I move the camera and your life comes out of you in colors, / I move it again, it goes back in.' It’s a beautiful image, fully in focus.
Returning to the initial question asked by Kaminsky: 'What is clarity?,' the richness and translucence of Levine’s writing makes me wonder: Does such ambiguity make poetry more accessible? If we are not busy trying to understand it, are we liberated – free to take the words, phrases or parts which resonate with our own minds - leaving the rest for another reader to find meaning? By throwing off obvious meaning, could this create a more impactful poetry? It’s a good question. And I’m sure the answer is here … somewhere.
About the reviewer
Victoria Pickup studied a BA in English and MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. A freelance writer for seven years, she continued to write creatively and in 2008 won the Café Writer’s Award with a poem inspired by travels in Bosnia: ‘The Chicken that Saved my Children.’ She was shortlisted for the Poetic Republic (MAG) poetry award in 2009 & 2010. Victoria now lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and, of course, a pet chicken.