Saturday, 2 May 2020

What To Read During Your Quarantine

As we continue to wait out the pandemic, we asked a number of Signal poets for any interesting books they'd been reading during the lockdown. Here's a roundup of what came back.

James Arthur
Author of The Suicide's Son
For me, the big discovery of this spring has been May Swenson’s Nature: Poems Old and New. I’d read Swenson’s individual poems before, but sitting down with this collection, I was amazed by how much variety there is from page to page. Also, Swenson’s poems are so outward-looking, full of generosity and interest (check out “Saguaros above Tucson”). And I finally read Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which I loved for its scope and daring. I found the first of the three poems especially moving; it reminded me of Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” except in verse.

Susan Glickman
Author of What We Carry
I just finished The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel—the conclusion to her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Although the books are narrated from his point of view in close third person (hence the occasionally annoying refrain "He, Thomas Cromwell"), her protagonist is oddly reticent, rarely admitting, even to himself, the motivation for his often heartless actions. On the one hand, the blacksmith's son manages to acquire vast wealth and power by disenfranchising both the church and the nobility; on the other hand, he seems to be driven by some unseen force, like a soccer player who in an instant sees the only way to achieve his goal. But in his case the goal—consolidation of absolute authority in King Henry VIII—led to his own death.

Sadiqa de Meijer
Author of The Outer Wards
I’m only halfway through Eternity Martis’ campus memoir They Said This Would be Fun but I can already highly recommend it. Like the author, I attended Western and am of mixed race, but unlike her I do not experience anti-black racism—so I was drawn to the book for the potential common ground, and for the chance to see a familiar place through a new lens. The work has deeply impressed me on both counts. The writing is lucid, funny, suspenseful, and devastating, and combines Martis’ personal experiences with thorough, current research. I am listening to the audio version, read by the author, and it is particularly compelling to hear this account in her voice.

Donald Winkler
Translator of The Hardness of 
Matter and Water
What I’ve been reading: Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, her tale of lives altered and entwined in the course of a 1980s Ponzi scheme, not as impressive as Station Eleven, but still very accomplished; Julian Barnes’ The Man in the Red Coat, an elegant romp through the French (and in part English) belle époque, spinning out from John Singer Sargent’s glorious portrait of the pioneering gynaecologist and man about town Samuel-Jean Pozzi; and having loved his Lampedusa, I picked up Steven Price’s previous novel, By Gaslight, a baroque and engrossing adventure shifting back and forth between Victorian London and Civil War America. In French, Paul Kawczak’s Ténèbre, a gloriously written, dense and dark exploration of the evils of colonialism in the late nineteenth century Belgian Congo.

William Vallières
Author of Versus
I’ve been reading Virginie Despentes' trilogy Vernon Subutex. She’s a 21st century punk Balzac, recording with brutal honesty, derision, and empathy the historical period we’re in. She jumps around from character to character (20 or so in total), reminding us that one of most salient features of our time is a feeling of refraction, of irreconcilable separateness. But Despentes holds those shards together and present us with something resembling a whole. I’ve also had the time to dive into The Map and the Clock, an anthology of English poetry edited by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke. The book stretches from the 7th century to today, and does a thorough job of including unfamiliar and forgotten voices. I love how it presents English poetry as the organic evolution of a tradition, rather than a series of compartmentalized, self-contained mini-traditions that don’t speak to each other.

Nyla Matuk
Author of Stranger
Here are three showstoppers. The London Review Bookshop Sampler #1: Denise Riley is a chapbook spanning the poet’s output from 1977 to the critically-acclaimed Say Something Back (2016) and a handful of unpublished poems. All are beautiful. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s tome, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism is an astonishing work of documentary reckoning, personal memoir, and moral imperative that dismantles institutions such as museums, which she argues are sites of imperial control. Evan Jones’ Later Emperors shows it's possible to write with the "sound of sense" while creating an allegory for our time. Jones uses the Roman Empire as a blueprint for learning from history, But his poems are not judgmental. They let readers see venality and decline, drawing from a range of personas steeped in the capricious nature of twin political valences—power and appetite.

Jim Johnstone
Author of Dog Ear
Two new poetry books—Evan Jones' Later Emperors and Leila Chatti's Deluge—have kept me company during my self-isolation. Jones is a real technician, and Later Emperors is full of historical reimaginings on the fleeting nature of power. Particularly poignant is the final long poem, "Plutarch to His Wife," a retelling of "Consolatio Ad Uxorem," wherein the protagonist considers his young daughter's death. An exercise in finding comfort in a time of suffering, the piece takes on new meaning in our virus-stricken moment. The poems in Deluge can be as mysterious as the sheeted figure haunting its cover. They're also visceral, "crouched and cursing" like the Virgin Mary of Chatti's "Confession." Appropriate, then, that a drop of blood is used to section each poem in the book, small drips before the flood of "Awrah," which explores the concept of disease as punishment.

Joe Fiorito
At the far edge of memory, there was a time when the world was animate; hills breathed; crops flourished or died according to unknown forces; stones pulsed with blood; and all events were either mysterious or banal. I am reading A King Alone, by Jean Giono, the great chronicler of life in the remote hills and valleys of Provence 150 years ago. The book concerns a series of murders, but more than that, it is a social history of ignorance, fear, and wonder; it might as well be about us and our time, because, as the coronavirus shows, we are still not much more than superstitious peasants.

Kateri Lanthier,
author of Siren
I haven’t wanted calming, gentle poems during the pandemic. My daily actions, following public health guidelines, are compliant and co-operative. So, I want catharsis! My 12-year-old son and I just finished reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf aloud. We revelled in the assertive alliteration, the life-and-death grappling, the poetry that’s travelled to us from the distant past. Poetry: what will survive of us. About that echo…I’ve been re-reading Heaney’s book of lectures, The Redress of Poetry. Tempting to tweet passages from his “Joy or Night,” a steely-eyed examination of “last things” in the poems of Yeats and Larkin. On order: fiction by poets! The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson, A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghíofa, and How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa.

Robert Moore, 
Encouraged by a recent Guardian review and warmed by the memory of photos of the author playing chess in the nude with Marcel Duchamp, I’m reading Eve Babitz’s Slow Days, Fast Company. It’s like driving a corvette through a moveable feast with the top down; sun, drugs, sex and a vast, peculiarly Californian carelessness. About 3 percent of the book is beautifully written. And what better company in this plague year than William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy? The ultimate user’s guide to navigating this vale of tears; simple, unadorned and absolutely indispensable.

Derek Webster
Author of Mockingbird
In paper: Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, smoothly updated into modern English by translator Burton Raffel; Timothy Donnelly’s The Problem of the Many, poems that seem to refuse all readerly expectations—but then satisfy in surprising, original ways; Wallace Stevens’ ten-part poem “The Auroras of Autumn” is once again working its elegant magic on me, along with Karen Solie’s profound The Caplie Caves. On my phone: Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, whose smoky presence reminds me of early Eliot; Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things, mind-blowing theo-philosophical essays; physicist Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time; These Truths by historian Jill Lepore is essential reading; and Tim Parks’ entertaining grumble Teach Us to Sit Still.

Catriona Wright
Author of Table Manners
Outline, the first novel in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, frustrated me—the narrator was so remote as to be non-existent. Reading Transit now, I find myself admiring Cusk's technique. The narrator allows other characters to speak, while absorbing their voices into the text, which makes the novel feel like a collection of linked short stories, all centered on the idea of transit or transition, a potent theme for this floating, pandemic-time(less) present. Last summer, in Finland, I bought A Landscape Blossoms Within Me by Eeva Kilpi, one of the country's most famous poets. Since I won’t be travelling anywhere soon, I’ve been re-reading this irreverent, surprising collection. The poems describe a woman’s relationship with her aging body and her carnal urges, in exquisite deadpan: “Love is the most elastic human dimension. / It’s like a vagina. / It adapts to great and small. / Nature never lets us down.”

Laura Ritland
Author of East and West
Absurd, difficult, and strange: Virginia Woolf, writing her unfinished memoir on the eve of Nazi invasion (Moments of Being) or proposing a novel on “influenza” (On Being Ill); Samuel R. Delany's tilted, spinning sci-fi worlds of psychically deranged space-travellers and interspecies sex (Aye, and Gomorrah, and other Stories); Lisa Robertson’s female dandy, Hazel Brown, authoring Baudelaire’s poetry and crossing between Vancouver and Paris (The Baudelaire Fractal). At a time when I feel like I’m barely clinging to the bullet-train of history—swerving in equal measure between boredom and crisis—these books are giving me something to hold onto.

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