Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Seasonal Reading Selections

Well it's Christmas Eve! We all have our traditions we uphold on this day - from trimming the turkey to a last-minute shopping dash to midnight mass. One of my time-honoured ones, is indulging in some seasonal reading for a magical effect. 

There are certain things I always read on Christmas Eve. Poems of course. Carol Ann Duffy's jolly take on the traditional 'Twas The Night Before Christmas' (in a mini book version I have, gorgeously illustrated by Rob Ryan) is full of Christmas Eve magic. You can read the entire poem here: Another Night Before Christmas
Other must-read poems include first and foremost the magical 'Various Portents', by Alice Oswald, TS Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi', John Betjeman's 'Christmas' and UA Fanthorpe's BC: AD.  (You can read all these poems by clicking on their titles).

Jeanette Winterson posts an annual Christmas-themed short story on her website every Christmas Eve, an event which has become long-anticipated and very special to her fans. Her story from a few years ago, 'The Lion, The Unicorn and Me' (now available as a children's book) is particularly endearing and one of my favourite things to read on Christmas Eve. Check out her website here:

Another short story I like to read on Christmas Eve is James Joyce's 'The Dead' with that famous goosebump passage on snow: 
''It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

And lastly of course, there's this timeless classic, the 1897 New York Sun editorial in response to a young girl's query as to whether there is a Santa Claus or not -  Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus, which has become infamous, and rightly so, for its heartwarming endearing content.

Merry Christmas everyone! 

~ Siobhán

Monday, 22 December 2014

Why Books Make The Best Gifts

Books are the greatest gifts.  I firmly believe this. All my Christmases are marked in memory primarily by what books I was curled in a chair reading: from Roald Dahl's 'The Witches' to 'To Kill a Mockingbird', 'Lord of the Rings', and 'The Hunger Games.' There's an epic quality to Christmas reading - what with all those endless free days to pursue uninterrupted journeys into the fictional world (or worlds) of your choosing. Christmas reading time is the best reading time, the most involving, the most enjoyable.

I always buy books as gifts. I think the absolute best gift you can give anyone is a book. Especially children. There is no better gift for little ones to indulge their imagination and grow their mind at the same time. 

Anyway, here is the main gist of this post -

Why  Books Are The Best Gifts To Give This Christmas:

1. Books are easy to wrap. 
Yes, you won't be cursing odd angles and tricky sticky-tape positions with a book. It's as right-angled and linear as you can get and foolproof even to butter-fingered wrappers like myself. 

2. Books are entirely suitable for all age groups. 
From children to grandparents, there's a book for all and all in the one store. How easy is that?!

3. And there is a book for everyone
Biographies, poetry, travel books - there is a book for everyone out there. Even people who don't read - why not get them a book that will hook and make a book lover out of them! Now that's a real gift.

4. A book is a thoughtful present. 
Which is to say that it requires thought being put into what the giftee in question likes; what their interests are; what they enjoy and really, a knowledge of who they are. A book is not an easy pick-up one-size-fits-all present, but rather a personalised one. A well-chosen book shows that the giver knows the person well and appreciates their tastes.

5. Books are the ideal entertainment for betwixt 'n' between the days of Christmas and New Year's.
When the novelty of the gadgets have worn off and the TV is a big bland bore, books will be like manna from heaven to jaded indulgers. There's no better time of year to immerse yourself in a book than the holiday season - curl up by the fire and make the best use of free time. Or escape from a hectic hinterland by delving into new worlds at the simple brush of a page. Christmas is also a time when we're indoors a lot, books allow us to take our imaginations on armchair expeditions. 

6. Book shopping is NOT in the least stressful. 
Bookstores are calm establishments, even in the midst of Christmas hustle and bustle, like veritable oases in the deserts of materialism mayhem. Walking into a bookstore is a zen experience at any time of the year, but at Christmas its hushed tones are a welcome antidote. See, they are always quiet - no music blaring, no gaggle of gift-searchers in a panic or huffing and puffing toe-tapping queues (book buyers are always a civilised group). People are reading, so there is guaranteed quiet, a golden calm aroma that soaks into the mind like an elixir.  There are even seats (and sofas!) for you to sit and relax with a book, a try-before-you-buy experience. I often just wander into a bookstore to snatch a moment of calm, to inhale a few words of inspiration, relaxation. And books are easy to get, they rarely sell out, unlike say, digital items. You can even buy them from the comfort of your armchair, online, and sweat-free. There are also hassle-free handy book-tokens.

7. A Book is an automatic ticket to me-time, quiet-time, take-it-easy time. 
Giving a book as a gift to someone is as good as a spa ticket. It will guarantee that in the midst of mad festivities, there will be a timely time-out to avail of in there somewhere. 

8.  Books are inexpensive.
Got a tight budget? That's okay. Books are not expensive. There are books to suit everyone's budget.  Bargain books cost very little. And yet every book yields endless priceless wealth.

9. A book is a gift that is actually good for you. 
A book is a gift that flatters your imagination, your intelligence, not your fickle vanity desires or your sweet tooth cravings. A book is candy to the mind, balm to the heart, and carries no unwanted calories or risk of disappointment. 

10. Books are for life not just for Christmas! 
A book may be read within the holiday season but its effect will be ever-lasting, you can be sure of that. A good book will never be forgotten and will ink itself on your soul, enabling you to read life so much better. What could be a better gift than that? 

As Neil Gaiman puts it: “Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them. And it's much cheaper to buy somebody a book than it is to buy them the whole world!” 

Ah, yes.

Happy book-buying and reading!

~ Siobhán

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Lines for Winter, Lines For Life & Death: Mark Strand

~ Mark Strand 1934-2014

I was so saddened to hear of the death of Mark Strand yesterday. Every time a poet dies, I think all fellow poets, including aspiring ones, and even ardent poetry lovers, feel the loss keenly; almost as that of a comrade, a mentor, an inspiration, a kindred spirit. We are all part of the 'connection',  as Strand called it, that poetry creates.

Mark Strand was a Canadian-born American poet and writer. He was the American Poet Laureate in 1990 and the following year won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection 'Blizzard of One.' As well as a poet, Strand was a great writer too. Very interested in art (he studied it at Yale), he published two monographs on the artists Edward Hopper and William Bailey. He wrote prose too, as well as translating works. He has held teaching positions at many prestigious universities including Princeton and Columbia University.  

I first came across Mark Strand when I read 'Eating Poetry', his felicitous ode to the craft. But it was 'Lines in Winter', a beautiful meditative lyric on the season that truly enchanted me. Here was the most simple language, but with a stunning effect. As he said himself of his style: "My preference has always been for simple, declarative sentences, simple words." I bought his 'New and Selected Poems' last year in winter and found it the most perfect accompaniment to the season: white and bright reflections on life, on loss, on absence, and a lot on death.

Strand was often accused by critics of writing poetry that was overtly 'dark' but he  replied to these ripostes, saying that no, he thought it was infact "evenly lit". If ever there was a poet, or even a person, prepared for death, it would surely be him. So many of his poems reflect on death as a great unknown, a riddle-some mystery that he pries into, wondering, questioning, debunking and believing. Some of these meditations end in defeat, some in elated hope.  Strand was an atheist, but there's an innate belief in the power of art and the nature of the human soul running through his work that shines light upon it. There's not so much a fear of death as an acceptance of its mystery, regret for life that has passed, but also a reveling in it, a wondrous faith in its workings.  He put it best when he said: "It’s (death) inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems... The thing to rejoice in is the fact that one had the good fortune to be born. The odds against being born are astronomical."


He has a great many things to say on the nature of poetry and quite eloquently. In a brilliant interview with the Paris Review (which you can read in its entirety: here), Strand makes many insightful points about poetry, here of which are a few of my personal highlights:

~ "When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger . . . in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive—not as routinely there." 

~ "Poetry is always building these connections. It’s not showing off. It’s the verbalization of the internal life of man. And each poet forges a link in the chain, so that it can go on."

~ "Poetry is a high. It is a thrill. If people were taught to read poetry in the right way, they would find it extremely pleasurable." 

~ "I know nothing of the value of my work—all I know is that it’s what I do, and what I love to do."

~ "Well, my identity is hopelessly wrapped up in what I write, and my being a writer. If I stopped writing, I would simply feel the loss of myself. When I don’t write, I don’t feel properly alive. There was a period in my life, for five years, when I didn’t write any poems. They were among the saddest years of my life, perhaps the saddest years."

~ "I think poetry is a fundamental human activity, and must continue. I think the minute we stop writing poetry, or reading it, we cease being human. Now, I can’t be held to that, because there are very wonderful human beings who never read poetry, but I think it’s one of the ways we understand ourselves, and know what it feels like to be alive, so that we don’t turn into machines. It’s complicated, but I think it’s this language, the language of poetry, through which we’re recognizably human."  

The impression is of a man very much in touch with his craft and his life, life with a capital L. I must admit I'm very impressed by the honesty of his answers, especially the absence of any airs or graces or worse, erudite vaguenesss. No, he is straight to the point and shows both endearing modesty and noble respect in his position as a poet and his understanding of the craft.

In his poems (*some of which I've posted below), Strand doesn't mince the truth. Sometimes it is stark, and at others, well, it is stunning. Although he talks about death and nothingness, night and dark, he also talks in equal sense, about light and love, being and enjoying.  The poems shimmer with this juxtaposition, just like winter, harsh but beautiful. Something I've often quoted before from Strand relates to this idea exactly: 'pain is filtered in a poem so that it becomes finally, in the end, pleasure.'

And what a pleasure it is to read his poetry which is  contemplative, exact, illuminating and, hopeful. How can a poet who writes lines like: 'The blaze of promise was everywhere',  'Each moment is a place you've never been' and 'that the luckiest thing is having been born' be classified as gloomy? Of course not. More like realistic, unflinching in the face of our greatest fear, reflective and redemptive.

Well, he certainly was paying attention.  And it's in this process of paying attention that
poetry creates something which defies death: a testament of living which lives on. When asked in The Paris Review interview whether he'd like to be read after he is dead, Strand replied that being dead, he wouldn't really care, but 'I mean, I’d really like to be alive after I’m dead. '  

He is of course.  As Borges simply put it: 'when writers die, they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.'  

Rest in peace. 

~ Siobhán


The Coming of Light 

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow's dust flares into breath. 


Keeping Things Whole

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.



Saturday, 22 November 2014

Winter as Wonder: Reflections on November

'The color of springtime is in the flowers; the color of winter is in the imagination.'
~ Terri Guillemets

'How many lessons of faith and beauty we should lose, if there were no winter in our year!' ~Thomas Wentworth Higginson 

'Winter is, once again, the white page on which we write our hearts.'  
~ Adam Gopnik
How are you enjoying November so far? It's such a maligned month isn't it? The month which opens the jaws of winter: sharp cold dark days and long nights. I'd imagine it's not many people's favourite month. Even its very sound 'No-vem-ber' is like a booming negative enforcer of some malevolent kind.

In researching my selections of poems for my poem-a-day blog this month I have to say I've found a lot of negative responses to the month. Maybe none more so than 'November' by Thomas Hood which plays on the 'No' of November to a staggering degree. Here is a taster:

November - Thomas Hood 

No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon!
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day -
No sky - no earthly view -
No distance looking blue ...
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds -

And another along the same lines, from John Clare:

"So dull and dark are the November days.
The lazy mist high up the evening curled,
And now the morn quite hides in smoke and haze;
The place we occupy seems all the world."
- November

November can be a dread for a lot of people. I used to be one of them. Hated to see winter coming, being a Spring girl at heart! I just couldn't accept this opposite season. But I have learned to like its precursor autumn, to appreciate it as a season not of endings, but of new beginnings in recent years. And with winter, I am beginning to see it not as barren and bleak, but peaceful, wise, maybe even magical, with wonder hidden beneath the plain exterior. As John Updike says in his poem 'A Child's Calendar' under November: 'and yet the world/in its distress/displays a certain/loveliness. It does.

First, it is essential to acknowledge that November's (and winter's) accompanying sorrow or sadness or melancholy is not necessarily a bad thing. It is natural to change with the seasons and sync to them. Spring invites new enthusiasm and hope; summer luxuriating, basking in being; autumn reaping and reflection; and winter, contemplation, learning and wisdom. In the poem My November Guest by Robert Frost, he acknowledges that sorrow follows him in this month, but he has learned to accept her presence, and see the beauty she relinquishes: 'she loves the bare, the withered tree... she's glad her simple worsted gray is silver now with clinging mist.'  Sorrow, really a kind of hyper-sensitivity, teaches us how to look more deeply at the world and revel in any mere hints of beauty we see there. Sorrow revels in winter, not just as a fitting mournful landscape, but as one that offers sure signs of resilient beauty. The poet in this poem looks on his sorrow as a way of learning to be in the season, not berate it. So much so that he is able to find beauty and even balm in November too.  *(You can read the poem by clicking on its title).

One good point going for November is its position in the calender year as a prelude to December, namely, to Christmas. I distinctly remember one November a few years ago,  sitting by a cafe window, looking at lovely snow photos in a magazine, the evening lit blue by early Christmas lights outside. It was nowhere near Christmas, but there was a feeling of something in the air, a frosty undercurrent of enchanting expectation that conjured up snow and all its sparkly connotations, an eager belief in all kinds of happenings, shimmering on the horizon like the Northern Lights. It was quite magical. And now, November is imprinted for me with this bright blue memory.


When you think about it, November is where our Christmas dreams and wishes take root; where thoughts of the festivities to come slip into our consciousness and germinate seasonal magic. For it does not come from nowhere, but only by expectation, preparation, and much awaiting. And November days sparkle with this electric expectation (always more heady itself than the actual happening.) Just as the trees have begun to twinkle with lights, early strung with high hopes, so do our winter selves begin to look forward instead of back. The light ahead is warm and beckoning, the darkness merely a backdrop for it. And instead of dreading the winter to come, we adapt to it and begin to appreciate it. The days have changed, things begin to look different, no longer in a bad summer-is-gone way, but in a new enlightened winter wonderful way. Now suddenly there are things to like about the dark days, things that lighten them.  

December's magic is dependent on the festivities; it is an expected and assumed magic, and when you're expected and assumed to feel things, often, they fall flat. But November's magic is not dependent on such things, more so on the changes in season, as the first inklings of winter are not all bad. There are dull days yes, but accompanying them gorgeous sundowns and dusks. Look up at dusk and see the sky change an exquisite palette of colours like never before, the frosty temperatures cutting the pigments brighter. The other day I was awestruck by the most gorgeous display of colours at our local seaside, a palette of cool arctic blues: cerulean, navy and turquoise skies, lit by golden sun hues as the evening dipped and fanned, and the water shining silver in response. Another day it was contrasted with primary colours of warm red and amber and yellow in the sunset. And another, I was stunned by a hazy watercolour landscape of dusky peachy pinks offset by cool soft blues. Beautiful. And proof that November, and winter, is not as bleak as it looks. Beneath the surface, it shimmers, it glows.  Here are some of the shots I took: 

'The sunbeams are welcome now. They seem like pure electricity—like friendly and recuperating lightning.' ~ John Burroughs

'Of winter's lifeless world each tree
Now seems a perfect part;
Yet each one holds summer's secret
Deep down within its heart.'

~ Charles G. Slater

'The thinnest yellow light of November is more warming and exhilarating than any wine they tell of.' ~ Thoreau  
'Than these November skies
Is no sky lovelier. The clouds are deep;
Into their grey the subtle spies
Of colour creep,
                                   Changing that high austerity to delight'  ~
John Freeman*(poem below)
These sunset skies are truly something wonderful to behold. Just when you think the light has drained from the days, it comes back in a spectacular show. But it's not just sunsets. Night skies also come alive this season. Stars can be seen more clearly on frosty nights, like diamonds sparkling on a midnight blue backdrop.  November's moon, the frosty moon, is one of the most beautiful of the year, brighter and whiter than in other months, a veritable spotlight hanging in the sky. This year's was particularly brilliant: the nights were back-lit for a week or more, a grand stadium of the wee hours. And of course, there's the fantastic multi-coloured Northern Lights, putting in an appearance this time of year, fixing all eyes skyward. Seems the darker it is, the more colours come out. Or maybe winter is the time our senses are pricked into appreciation and so we see more clearly, more acutely the things we have taken for granted all year, specifically: light, sun and colour. 

'Stars fall and shoot in keen November' ~ Christina Rosetti

'In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.' ~ John Burroughs 

November weather however miserable, always harbours the possibility of snow. And that is something to wish upon, a gorgeous snow-show to  magic up the days. The icing on the cake of winter, so to speak, for what could be more beautiful than snow? More transforming? More magical? (All in a limited picturesque not potentially dangerous quantity I might add!) We wish for snow as we wish for something to interrupt our daily quotidian lives and startle us into revelations of beauty, of magic, of wonder. Snow stops routine, invites hunkering down, playfulness, a suspension of the ordinary, an awed reaction to the elements. There's nothing like snow to stop us in our tracks, both literally and figuratively. It white-washes our familiar surrounds new again. It is winter's blank slate in literal terms.  It is the 'sublime' winter the Romantics spoke of and wrote about, a catalyst of interior contemplation - remember Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight', the winter night creating a 'solitude, which suits Abstruser musings'? EE Cummings in his poem 'Enter No Silence' expresses his wish for snow, for 'very whiteness: absolute peace, never imaginable mystery.' Exactly. Well if there is no snow, we at least have November 'white' weather with misty moments, starry frosts and icy tendrils. November weather is atmospheric weather. Who doesn't love walking along exhaling frosty breaths? Or wrapping up snug to face the elements? Winter weather may be challenging, but it is also enchanting. Beneath its heavy machinations, there is a haven of beauty.


'It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it.' ~ John Burroughs

'And when comes the winter snow monotonous,
I shut all the doors and shutters
To build in the night my fairy palace.'
~ Charles Baudelaire 

Winter is the season when the home becomes the hearth. It is a time of retreat into the interior places (and spaces), the 'fairy palaces' of our lives. I personally like to use this season for reading, writing, (and dreaming).  A time to cosy by the fire yes, but also to contemplate, to burrow deep, to reflect on the year past and formulate hopes for the year to come. There's a great Rumi quote about winter that goes: "And don't think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It's quiet, but the roots down there are riotous." I love this idea. Now's the time when our cores are nourished and our 'roots' are riotous planning growth, developing their sloping strands, eager to grow into the year ahead. On the surface, winter is till, but look deep and there is frantic movement. In the hush of snow and silence of the dark, things breathe into being. Ted Kooser and Mary Oliver have poems that echo this sentiment using trees as subject matter (*see below).  But it is a line from an Alice Oswald poem 'Owl Town,' that has completely enchanted me and changed my view of the season entirely: 'a wood of wishbone trees'. But of course! Look at how winter trees are exposed to the sky, their branches stretched and straining upwards, curved in delight, in valiant u's of hope. What a magical transformative way of looking at what seems bare and barren. And the season. See, everything about it seems to point to: wishing. 

'Bare branches in winter are a form of writing.' ~ Billy Collins, 'Winter Syntax'

'Every object pleases.... the straight light-gray trunks of the trees... how curious they look, and as if surprised in undress.' ~ John Burroughs

Adam Gopnik echoes this view in his book on the season 'Winter' (my staple read of the season.) It is a collection of essays 'five windows into the season' in which Gopnik puts forward different concepts of winter: romantic winter, radical winter, recreational winter, recuperative winter, remembering winter. In romantic winter, he argues that winter has been romanticised by artists and writers and dreamers alike, for this reason it is he says the season of the imagination:  'Winter is the climate of the imagination. Winter displaces us from the normal cycles of nature - nothing's growing - and with our dysfunction from nature comes our escape into the mind, which can make of nature what it will.' He sees the season as a 'positive, and even purifying, presence of something else - the beautiful and the peaceful, yes, but also the mysterious, the strange, the sublime.' The season he states, has been defined by 'absences (of warmth, leaf blossom) but can be imagined as stranger presences (of secrets, roots, hearths).  It is truly a season of what we make it, think it, dream it. It is a time of epiphanies, of hopes, of dreams, of making blueprints for the year to come. For as Gopnik says, 'Winter is, once again, the white page on which we write our hearts.'  It is. A beautiful blank slate. Not the blankness of an end, but the brightness that precedes a new beginning. The 'oblivion', according to Mary Oliver that 'is full of second chances'.


I've been enjoying November so far. In fact, it seems to be speeding by and I find myself willing it to stay. The days aren't just longer, but seem deeper too, thinking terrain. There are treasures to be found in them. I can only hope that the rest of winter will be the same.

Andrew Wyeth says of his seasonal preference: 'I prefer winter and Fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.' Something waits beneath it. I think it's this 'something' that provides the magic of the season. Nature's lessons of growth. The light's refusal to go away. The beauty that is present in apparent bleakness. The warmth the cold can generate. The infallible hope. All of these potent patents of the season have almost won me over I must admit. Winter may be a season that is hard to love, but it does offer wonder. I am still looking forward to spring, but now I'm letting the cold of winter sharpen my senses to the world around me, bring my attention to the seasonal show now playing, the perks to be found in its performance. Spring may be a giddiness of growth, a proof of hope, a green fire fueling enthusiasm, but Winter is a wise and wistful teacher, it has lessons of grace and patience to offer, and I am listening, finally. Spring begets new growth, but winter paves the way. Spring is all shoots and buds, but winter's work lies deep in the roots; it is a season of interior growth.

Below are some poems I've mentioned above. And after those, a beautiful song which I think sums up the feeling of winter wonder exactly: tentative, fragile, subtle, sparkling, whimsical, wonder-ful, magical, warm.

For now, 

wading in wonder,

~ Siobhán 

November Skies - John Freeman

Than these November skies
Is no sky lovelier. The clouds are deep;
Into their grey the subtle spies
Of colour creep,
Changing that high austerity to delight,
Till ev'n the leaden interfolds are bright.
And, where the cloud breaks, faint far azure peers
Ere a thin flushing cloud again
Shuts up that loveliness, or shares.
The huge great clouds move slowly, gently, as
Reluctant the quick sun should shine in vain,
Holding in bright caprice their rain.
And when of colours none,
Not rose, nor amber, nor the scarce late green,
Is truly seen, --
In all the myriad grey,
In silver height and dusky deep, remain
The loveliest,
Faint purple flushes of the unvanquished sun.  


Walking Beside a Creek - Ted Kooser

Walking beside a creek
in December, the black ice
windy with leaves,
you can feel the great joy
of the trees, their coats
thrown open like drunken men,
the lifeblood thudding
in their tight, wet boots.  


Last Days - Mary Oliver

Things are
    changing; things are starting to
        spin, snap, fly off into
            the blue sleeve of the long
               afternoon. Oh and ooh
come whistling out of the perished mouth
     of the grass, as things
turn soft, boil back
      into substance and hue. As everything,
          forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:
              I too love oblivion why not it is full
                   of second chances. Now,
hiss the bright curls of the leaves, Now!
    booms the muscle of the wind.

 'Northern Sky' ~ Nick Drake:

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Boo in Books: Storytelling Magic

Last night I attended a stage production of one of my favourite seasonal reads, Bram Stoker's Dracula, in the form of Jonathan Harker & Dracula, an one man tour-de-force re-enactment of the classic novel. 

I was a little skeptical as to how it would play out  - but no need - the performance was absolutely magnificent, spellbinding even. Better than I ever expected. Because it revolved mainly on the magic premise of authentic, dramatic, impassioned storytelling. 

The stage itself was sparse - the only props a red velvet chair and chaise lounge which would double as coffins and carriages, ships and horses when needed. But it didn't matter. The performance was more than enlivened by the background screens and sounds setting the scenes - from wolves howling under moonlight to the shadowy interior of Dracula's castle, an insane asylum cell, a ship at sea and the rocky outcrops of Transylvania. Each of the many characters that people Stoker's novel were brought to life by actor Gerard McCarthy so astutely with just the basic aid of lighting and accents, that there was no need for costume changes or other actors. Although the production was minimal, the execution was brilliant.

The audience's disbelief was well suspended from the first few minutes when Harker's coach traverses across Transylvania: a land of darkness, howling wolves, superstitious villagers and mysterious coachmen. And from there, the imagination constructed the world of the narrative being told us. We were in the story from the get-go and reluctant to leave it at the interval at which I overheard someone remark: 'I'm a nervous wreck!' -  a testament to the story's (and our storyteller's) captivating power.

The whole performance, which stayed true to the book entirely (a welcome first for a Stoker adaptation) was a triumph. It just goes to show you the power of a good story and a good storyteller. I found myself thinking throughout, if this were a film we were watching, would it be as good? As believable? As atmospheric? As completely absorbing? No way. With movies, there is always a distancing disbelief. A look away from the screen and we know we're in fantasy land. From the moments the credits and score roll we know we are being ushered into make-believe land. But not so with storytelling. It is far more immediate and dramatically direct. Its roots in our culture are too powerful I suppose to dismiss it as mere entertainment. It mimics reality too well. There are truths within storytelling that may prove unfathomable in another medium, but not in spoken word form. It has a special power to hook us.

Stoker's classic gothic tale in all its spookiness in this performance, had taken on new life; or rather come newly to life. I loved every minute of it and even though I knew the plot well and always what was going to happen next, I was in a state of tense suspense the whole way through. There was no straying from the fixation it had - no one left the theatre for a bathroom break during the performance, no one spoke or fidgeted or ate or drank or even moved (now, what movie can claim those feats?). There was one point midway through that I became aware of the suspended state we were in - the simple act of telling a story had submerged us in it. Magic. Like Dracula's victims, we were entranced, unable to look away. 

Dracula itself, the novel, to many, is an outdated Victorian yarn by now, not in the least scary what with all those gory vampiric entities filling up our minds today. But I beg to differ. The horror movie genre relies on shock tactics, on visceral reactions to graphic imagery and violence; the book genre relies more on a building-up of atmosphere, a creepiness that just can't be shaken a long time after reading. It is more affecting in that it is articulated in detail and is open to personal interpretation, which may be far worse than any movie director's. Dracula is one such example. Its creepiness and strangely 'Other' atmosphere is perfectly rendered, enough to rival any modern day piece. The atmosphere evoked at the beginning of the novel, while Jonathan Harker is traveling through a strange land to meet an even stranger person, effectively establishes the setting and feel of the novel:

 "I struck a match and by its flame looked at my watch; it was within a few minutes of midnight. This gave me a sort of shock, for I suppose the general superstition about midnight was increased by my recent experiences. I waited with a sick feeling of suspense. Then a dog began to howl somewhere in a farmhouse far down the road - a long, agonized wailing, as if from fear. The sound was taken up by another dog, and then another and another, till, borne on the wind which now sighed softly through the Pass, a wild howling began, which seemed to come from all over the country, as far as the imagination could grasp it through the gloom of the night..."


Maybe the creepiest passage in the whole book follows shortly after when Harker, kept against his will in Dracula's castle for a few days, beholds a very strange incident when gazing out his window at night:
"What I saw was the Count's head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and movement of his back and arms. In any case, I could not mistake the hands which I had so many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall..."  

Of course this scene could be rendered by special effects in a film, but runs the risk of appearing silly or ridiculous. But in the book, where everything is taken at face value, where we rely on the narrator (and in this novel, most especially so, since Harker's voice is one of fact and logic, the epistolary structure reinforcing this) the scene comes as a shock, in its otherness and juxtaposition with reality. I don't know about you but it sends a shiver up my spine everytime I read it. And to hear and watch it re-enacted, added a whole new level of creepy. There was no background image for shock effect, just the word themselves carried by an utterly disgusted and fearful Harker were enough to conjure the grotesque feeling this induces. (That's another thing about the performance - Jonathan Harker became more of a presence. We thought more of him as a real person and not just our narrator; in the book he was our eyes and ears, here he was our heart and our hope, our vital link to the familiar.)  

The fact that Count Dracula is not present for the whole middle of the book, lurking in the background as a shadow, literally (and bats, storms and moonlight), mentioned in references and appearing in brief cameo moments recited in letters and diaries - ratchets up the fear factor considerably. We are left to imagine his comings-and-goings and jumpily await an inevitable confrontation.  There is no gore in this book, no gratuitous violence, no jump-out boo moments, but the creepy atmosphere is relentless, set mainly at night and wandering in and out of reality and dreams and different character's accounts.  It all makes for a kind of surreal effect, where the storyteller has whisked us into his world expertly. The letters and diary extracts in the novel give the illusion of reality, helping to create a very believable world. At the end of the show last night, a surprising added fictional extra provided the final slice of reality biting: a letter from Jonathan Harker to Bram Stoker telling his story, hinting that the novel was composed on the basis of this correspondence. For a moment, I could nearly have believed it, ha!

When I was younger, for Halloween enjoyment, myself, my sister and cousin used to scare ourselves by reading horror tales aloud in candlelight. (Reading them ourselves, wasn't near as atmospheric.) There was something about the words on the page being spoken, incantations almost, that brought them more to life, and the goosebumps to our skin. Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' was a frequent favourite, the tense atmosphere bubbling to boiling point when read aloud. I can still, to this day, remember the chills. Perhaps storytelling is a kind of spell then, for there is magic in the result.

Another gothic staple that never gets old of course is Edgar Allan Poe's narrative poem 'The Raven'. Now this gloomy piece of gothic grandeur translated to film would never work, but read aloud is quite the spine-tingler. The language, the rhyme and the rhythm all work together to create the mournful beguiling atmosphere. I found a version read by Christopher Lee (posted below) which is perfectly goosebump-inducing. The background music too highlights the dramatic darkness of the scene and eeriness of the setting. Do give it a listen - preferably in a darkened setting. It's the next best thing to Bram Stoker I think.

Happy Halloween!


*If you enjoyed this post you might also like these previous ones:

 Spooky Reads: Scary or Not?
 Vampires 101

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