Reviews and poems

There must be something about October… It’s been a whole year since I wrote here. However, inspired by my writer friend, the lovely Isha Crowe who blogs at http://ishacrowe.wordpress.com/author/icrowe/ I thought I should start again.

Instead of blogging, or novel writing, for the last year I have been writing reviews, mostly for a great little online magazine or ezine for writers, called Words With Jam. Words With Jam produces a themed issue six times a year covering publishing, writing technique, fiction and poetry, and running great competitions as well as reviews. It also has a regular review-based blog at http://www.bookmuse.co.uk. I have reviewed Negotiating With The Dead, a book by Margaret Atwood on the strange beast known as a writer, and what it means to be one; The Bastard Pleasure, a ‘Belfast Noir’ novel by  philosophy prof. Sean McGrady, a short but dense and lyrical read full of violence and questions of identity; Sightlines, a book of essays by poet Kathleen Jamie, about her various journeys in Scotland and further north looking at our relationships with the natural world, and A God In Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie, a novel set in World War I examining the role Indian soldiers played and how their experiences fed into the independence movement. Right now I’m contemplating what my next review should be as I need to produce another by the end of October. It will have to be short – the book, not necessarily the review – as I plan to try once again to tackle National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) again this November – to finish that *&^!!* novel!

This year has been a year for setting goals. Another writerly-readerly related one has been the 50 book pledge (based at a canadian website) in which I have committed to read 50 books this year. That’s almost one a week. Simple! I hear you cry… except not at the pace I read, and not when you have the attention span of a gnat, as is currently the case here. As things stand I’m behind… not way way behind, but behind enough to make it hard to reach my goal unless I read 15 “Mr Men” books in the next 3 months to achieve it. Needless to say, I have already been reading quite a lot of short books – mostly poetry – to hit my target, regardless of what I might otherwise have wanted to read. However, this has had the strange effect of a) making me realise how little poetry I read normally, a situation that will henceforth be rectified; and – and this is even more unexpected – b) inspiring me to start writing more poetry of my own. If only I’d known that before – to write, you need to read. Sounds obvious now.

Well. So I reach October having added around 10 poems I’m quite pleased with to my lifetime tally. More poems in a year than ever before. Possibly more poems in a year (in fact in about 2 months) than I have written before altogether. I’m not claiming they’re good, mind, just that I am more satisfied with them – the little knotty puzzle of putting words together in a pattern that flows and negotiates a single idea with many metaphors – than anything I’ve done previously. I feel as if I’m beginning to crack that thing called poetry that once seemed so mysterious and elusive. I only wish I could say the same about short stories. I would post a couple of poems here, but that would be publishing and would invalidate their appearance anywhere else (I keep hoping).

The third writing-related activity I’ve been involved in this year – one which I gifted to myself as self-development after two years of promising myself – was an Arvon course in August at the beautiful and very isolated Arvon centre in Devon. Totleigh Barton is an ancient farmhouse (16th Century) and barn with martins nesting in the eves and broad oak-strewn meadows all around. This is the second time I’ve been to a course there, and the place continues to inspire, as do the other course students who attend – this time a wonderful international group who worked brilliantly together – and the teachers. We were lucky to have Clare Allan, author of Poppy Shakespeare, and Tash Aw, author of Five Star Billionaire, to teach us, both of whom were complete stars and hugely inspiring and encouraging. We spent a lot of time laughing as well as writing. I would recommend an Arvon course to anyone.
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The seagull

Harsh in winter flight the bone-white wings
Went screeling across the sky. Set I
To fishing, then, and the light was fading as
I hauled on my oilskins. Ah, fish,
Scaling the waves, how sly,
How slippery unloved existence! No hook
to name things by.

Thoughts of her roam in shoals with
The currents, how she trawled
With her hair for the sunlight,
Wrist deep in dough by the window.
I’d catch her haloed there.

Now heart among the waves
I was, the grave deeps of
Sorrow, flesh cold, and the restless
Sea-souls breaking the surface like
Remembered wrongs in need of forgiveness

Then on the bow a bird came
Lighting out of the cloud bank,
Dark in the eye of the West.
Cocked its head at me
Bold and mortal, as the day dipped
The gold of its beak in the ocean.

I swung it a fish gut, winding
Its slime in an arc through the air
That it caught, fought with, gannetted,
Gulping the glaucousness. Till,
Sheering away, it wheeled
Grey about me, flung like her
Ash to the tear of the wind.

On land again doors hide
The silence of furniture; legs,
Backs crowded together,
Mourners grieving the spaces. I
Lost me without her. Frying the fish
In the dark on a one-ring stove.

I looked up and there…! At the window
Its eye again! Surely the same
Gull, followed me in from the sea?
Tipping its head to appraise me for all
The world just the way she did.

Her voice – shaping words
Like a bird, with no meaning
But salt and sweet and relief
And yearning – the sound of an end
To my troubles that welcomed me home.

It’s as if we had never needed
Language. Was there syntax when Adam
Found Eve in a long day’s hunting?
Did they fish for the luminous phrase in
Eden’s dark waters, ‘til the day-star’s
Falling ruined the world’s clean dawn?

And the hope that was
born and took flight in me then on
its wings to reclaim her – a soul
drowned in feathers –

Is that a star in its eye or only
the lights of the harbour rekindled?
“I’ll be right with you, love.” Softly I called her,
Reeling in brightness, my own wings unfurling.
“Now – tell me how to begin?”

Some poems on pomegranates

Pomegranate

The soldier boys know nothing
of the world but how to end it;
nothing of books but how they burn.
Fire’s another slow reader
to begin with, then it skims,
remembering all it knows already.

Today the town square’s primordial
with mist and smoke, a smeared
flask of new beginnings; flames
well into their stride are strenuous
with cartloads of the mint and foxed
guilty of being on the wrong shelves.

And last of these, the luscious herbals.
Speed-edited for wormholes
and disinformation, they split, spill
their tinted cornucopias; fruit rises
blazing and exotic then descends
to seed the square with purer black.

Better than scandal sheets or almanacs,
agreed, but maybe we’ve seen endings
enough where nothing grows but hunger;
and soldiers with their sooty bayonets,
they’re known to get bored with embers,
to remember other work they have.

So fades the evening’s entertainment.
Pinched streets begin to fill the way
leaves and ashes clog the fountain
where the daft woman will spend her night,
begging for any fruit to spare, begging
the soldiers for her daughter back.

Alasdair Paterson, published in STRAND 195, vol 10 (3)

The Pomegranate

Once when I was living in the heart of a pomegranate, I heard a seed
saying, “Someday I shall become a tree, and the wind will sing in
my branches, and the sun will dance on my leaves, and I shall be
strong and beautiful through all the seasons.”

Then another seed spoke and said, “When I was as young as you, I
too held such views; but now that I can weigh and measure things,
I see that my hopes were vain.”

And a third seed spoke also, “I see in us nothing that promises so
great a future.”

And a fourth said, “But what a mockery our life would be, without
a greater future!”

Said a fifth, “Why dispute what we shall be, when we know not even
what we are.”

But a sixth replied, “Whatever we are, that we shall continue to
be.”

And a seventh said, “I have such a clear idea how everything will
be, but I cannot put it into words.”

Then an eight spoke–and a ninth–and a tenth–and then many–until
all were speaking, and I could distinguish nothing for the many
voices.

And so I moved that very day into the heart of a quince, where the
seeds are few and almost silent.

by Khalil Gibran (The Madman)

Pomegranate

You tell me I am wrong.
Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?
I am not wrong.

In Syracuse, rock left bare by the viciousness of Greek
women.
No doubt you have forgotten the pomegranate-trees in
flower,
Oh so red, and such a lot of them.

Whereas at Venice
Abhorrent, green, slippery city
Whose Doges were old, and had ancient eyes.
In the dense foliage of the inner garden
Pomegranates like bright green stone,
And barbed, barbed with a crown.
Oh, crown of spiked green metal
Actually growing!

Now in Tuscany,
Pomegranates to warm, your hands at;
And crowns, kingly, generous, tilting crowns
Over the left eyebrow.

And, if you dare, the fissure!

Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?
Do you prefer to look on the plain side?

For all that, the setting suns are open.
The end cracks open with the beginning:
Rosy, tender, glittering within the fissure.

Do you mean to tell me there should be no fissure?
No glittering, compact drops of dawn?
Do you mean it is wrong, the gold-filmed skin, integument,
shown ruptured?

For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken.
It is so lovely, dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.

D. H. Lawrence, from Birds, Beasts, And Flowers

The flower of the pomegranate tree

A quick word about my pen-name.

Anarkali means pomegranate flower, a beautiful pom-pom-like delicate deep orange blossom on a graceful tree. Pomegranates have featured in the myths and legends of every culture, very often symbolising fertility. Anarkali was also the name of a probably fictional dancing slave girl, immortalised in the 1960 Indian film Mughal e-Azam as the illicit lover of crown-prince Saleem, later Emperor Jahangir, and a bazaar in Lahore is now named after her.

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You probably know the Greek (and Roman) myth of Persephone daughter of Zeus and Demeter (in Roman times their names were Proserpine, Jupiter and Ceres the harvest goddess).  Persephone is abducted by Hades (Pluto) to be his wife and confined to the underworld.  Demeter neglects the earth in her despair, so that it does not grow or produce fruit. Seeing this, Zeus persuades Hades to let Persephone return,  but Hades tricks her into eating just six seeds of the pomegranate, and thus – having symbolically tasted death –  she can only return for half the year, and must spend the other six months in the underworld, creating the seasons of winter and spring.

But this is not the only pomegranate myth. In Judeo-Christian mythology, the pomegranate is sometimes considered to be the ‘apple’ of temptation in Eden, symbol of eternal life as well as forbidden desire. It often appears in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child. To early Hebrews, pomegranates symbolised their faith. It was believed they contained exactly 613 seeds: the number of commandments in the Torah, and pomegranate images were woven into priestly robes and decorated the Temple of Solomon. It is one of the seven sacred plants mentioned in the Bible.

In Islam, pomegranates grow in the gardens of Paradise. They are mentioned in the Qur’an as signs of the goodness and generosity of God and are seen as the symbol of wealth and well-being. Pomegranate as a medicinal food and as a symbolic plant is interwoven in Islamic belief systems. It is said that eating pomegranate cleanses the eater of evil aspirations and that the light of God will be in the heart of whoever eats the fruit. 

Its abundant seeds also represent fertility, and feature in ancient and modern wedding rites  and feast days in countries such as Greece, Iran, China, Armenia and some Arab cultures to signify long life, fecundity and abundance. In ancient Persia pomegranates were believed to bring invincibility in battle.

But the pomegranate is also associated with blood and death. In Buddhism, the pomegranate is one of three sacred fruits, and in legend it was used to persuade a demoness, Hariti, outof her habit of eating children. In Japan, Kishimojin, ‘mother goddess of the demons’, is called upon to cure women of infertility, and represented as suckling a child and holding a pomegranate. In Hindu mythology Kali/Durga’s teeth were said to be like pomegranate flowers (red with blood) after devouring demons. They also appear in funeral rites, including in ancient Egypt.

The pomegranate also appears to ‘bleed’ when cut, associating it with menstruation in many tales. The wife of Orion, in Greek myth, tried to compete with Hera in beauty and was punished, being made to believe she had caused the death of her own children. She threw herself from a rock and the first pomegranate tree grew from the place where her blood spilled on the ground.

So. Death, forbidden love, light, life, blood, fecundity, seduction and temptation. Not much to live up to.

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Dilip Kumar and Madhubala as Prince Saleem and Anarkali in K. Asif’s Mughal e-Azam.

ps: I have done my best to check out these myths but take no responsibility for the accuracy of things I may have found out via Google.

Welcome

Welcome to my blog and to updates on progress with Black Tongue of Fire, a cross-cultural romance set mainly in India, and other incidental thoughts and writings.

As well as drafts and extracts from the novel, I hope to share some thoughts about the issues that arise for me in researching and imagining this story, and the writing process itself.  Black Tongue of Fire  is my first novel, and I have spent the last year writing it, starting during NaNoWriMo (http://nanowrimo.org/) in November 2012, completing 50,000 words in a writing marathon that sprang from despair and anger as much as inspiration, and tailing off in the exhausted months that followed.  I have learnt a great deal – about writing and about myself – in the last 11 months, and become acutely aware of how much more I need to learn. It has been a journey of intense emotion and physical endurance as well as technical struggle and there is a very long way still to go.

Will I ever finish it? There are many more drafts to write and rewrite even when “The End” is finally set down on paper.  And if I do, will it be anything like the book I envisaged in my mind, and will I have laid to rest the demons that drove me to begin it and wrestled with me all through its composition? Here is where you will find out.

First, a small extract from Black Tongue of Fire, Chapter 23: this part set in the badlands of Pakistan, on the road to Peshawar, sometime in 1992.

‘Qasim’s car picks up speed on the road out of Islamabad towards Peshawar. Qasim leans back in the driving seat, the size of his body seeming to fill the space like a snail housed in its shell, his head pressed against the roof, his arm jammed against the door. In front of his eyes a huge double tassel of tinselly fronds sways from the mirror, bound together with a green band bearing the shehada, the declaration of faith. The car is green on the outside too, but inside it is a swath of tattered plastic where the original seat covering has been retained, now frayed scuffed and torn and curling up at the ripped edges. On top of the plastic covering, pieces of carpet have been laid: offcuts of thick Baluch rugs and scraps of old prayer laid on each seat and in the footwells. On the back parcel shelf a tissue box appliqued with metallic arabesques takes pride of place beneath a miniature Pakistani flag.

The car looks gaudy. Qasim is wearing shades.’