On his thirtieth birthday, Dylan Thomas went for a walk in Laugharne while the rest of the town was yet to wake. He wrote a poem for the occasion which begins,
It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set foot
In the still sleeping town and set forth.
As he crosses the border of the town the heron dives for a catch, the weather turns and his thoughts travel inwards. It’s a riotously noisy poem set at a time of day that we imagine is quiet.
Last night – Dylan Thomas Night to those who celebrate – we herons raised a glass of whisky to him. It has become a tradition to break bara brith and be merry on this important occasion and to invite Richard Burton into the room for his magnificent reading of Under Milk Wood.
And while I’d love to give the impression that I spend every evening in the realm of great poets, pondering phrases like ‘heron priested shore’, I must admit that my mind has been on another great artist this week: Britney Spears. Much as the publication of The Woman in Me may have led me to skip round the shop in knee-high socks practising my favourite dance moves, this does not do justice to the book, which takes a sharp look at the patriarchal and misogynistic structures that controlled and exploited Britney Spears. The Woman in Me is a searing indictment of her treatment and of the systems that seize ownership of women’s bodies.
I have also been reading Decolonising My Body by Afua Hirsch. Hirsch’s first book Brit(ish) explored the implications of that question: ‘Where Are You [Really] From?’. Her second emerged from being asked by people ‘How do you keep engaging?’ even as that becomes harder to do and physically exhausting when racism and inequality are so prevalent. The question leads Hirsch to an examination of Eurocentric attitudes to the female body and to find resilience in unlearning these and learning about her African ancestors’ traditions.
The final book from Hilary Mantel, A Memoir of My Former Self, also addresses the treatment of her body, including a searing response to how society regards childless women. As well as the personal, the book brings together her superb Reith Lectures, her witty film reviews – “It is not the advent of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that has spurred me to retire, though the provocation is great” – and her essays on art and history.
I offered plenty of unsettling, unnerving and unlikely tales in the previous newsletter so if you’re gearing up for Halloween there are some suggestions here and here. Of the myriad new fiction titles published in the last fortnight may I recommend:
- Tremor by Teju Cole: Tunde, a professor of photography at Harvard, has begun to feel the tremors, the violent undercurrents, that run through western culture and “to experience the museum itself as a zone of sustained shocks … a feeling of moral whiplash”. Cole’s novel is itself a gallery of art, literature, music and history, scrutinising and dissecting every artefact minutely, and defies conventions of genre or even summarisation.
- The Pole and Other Stories by J M Coetzee: the 83-year-old Nobel laureate returns with a collection of stories about art, music and their role in our lives; the Pole in question is Witold, an aging pianist determined to seduce Beatriz, an artistic patron – what follows is a study in intent, consequence and the (mis-)translations between the two.
- Near Distance by Hanna Stoltenberg: even if your mother left you when you were a child and barely speaks to you as an adult, she’s the person you call when your life falls apart, right? This is a beautifully written story about connection and family and what gets left unsaid.
And, if you are looking for some corresponding poetry Mothersong by Amy Acre takes an undaunted look at being a parent and the nature of home.
We enjoyed a glorious evening of poetry last week with poems from Adam Elms, Jan Swann, Anna Maughan and our headline act, Carrie Etter. Carrie’s writing and performance style was so generous and moving – she held us all spellbound. Our next Poetry in Herons features Gillie Harries and Dominic Fisher at 5pm on 18th November. Do RSVP if you’d like to come along.
Wishing you all joy on a heron priested shore.