Book reviews 2018 - #3 And then we became

There are many ways in which a poem may reach us.  Perhaps a single phrase from a single line arrives unbidden - quoted in a film, perhaps, or a play.  Perhaps our gaze is caught by a poster on the underground; perhaps we receive an unexpected gift from a friend or loved one; perhaps, long ago, at a teacher's behest, we recited and absorbed something that now lives at our very core.

(Clive James, in his magnificent 'Cultural Amnesia', suggests that learning poems by heart is one of the most wonderful things a human being can do with this thing we call life.  Correspondingly, he laments the disappearance of such learning from most educational processes as one of the great losses of our time.)

Poetry has this kind of power.  Not everywhere and for everyone, of course.  Many people find poetry 'difficult', or they just don't like it.  You can't read a poem in the way you read a book, say, or a magazine article.  A poem is more like a painting or a piece of music: if it captures you (for reasons that you may not fully understand) you return to it again and again, appreciating it more each time.

Which is by way of saying: a poem (or a poet) has to reach us at least twice.  Firstly, it has to find us, it has to navigate the noise of the universe and make itself available.  Secondly, having found us, it has to wend its way into our soul, overcoming our barriers and prejudices, our distractions.

This dual process is a considerable challenge for the poem or poet, all the greater in these days of incessant content, of relentless distraction, of overwhelming noise.

It is a challenge magnificently overcome by 'And then we became', by Devorah Major.

It reached me in the first instance by way of City Lights and Paris.  City Lights is the publisher whose work I have been following (and, for my sins, collecting) for more than thirty years now.  I can barely remember how I met them: it might have been William Burroughs, or Jack Kerouac, or Allan Ginsberg.  There was a thread going on, those years ago: drugs and literature, the American Dream, Henry Miller, the first full rebellion against consumerism, the whole Fear & Loathing, Ken Kesey, LSD, Denis Leary, Tom Wolfe thing; a feeling - my feeling - that what had been and was happening in the cultural mind of that still-young country was so much more exciting and interesting and frankly important than whatever deadness was afoot on this side of the pond.

And City Lights seemed to be at the very heart of that mad pulsing.  Follow the pulse.  Follow City Lights.  A guide, a curator.  A torch.  Follow the light.

What wonders they have shown me!  They may have started all white and male and drug-crazed, but what they really champion is the plurality and wonder of the human condition, in all its forms and guises and voices, most especially those voices that - for whatever reason - are marginalised by the mainstream.
City Lights has introduced me to the voices of indigenous Americans, to obscure South Americans, to Mexican and Spanish and Italian and French voices, to black voices, to female voices, to voices I might never have found on my own but who - having reached me - could speak to me.

An important part of my relationship with City Lights is that serendipity should have its full play.  I would never, for example, buy a City Lights book over the internet: they have to find me, in a second hand bookshop, or tucked into the dusty basement of remainders, or slightly out of sight in the poetry section.  (It is a far more common experience for me not to find a City Lights volume in the bookshop; but that is part of the pleasure.)

So I was somewhat trepidatious about heading to Shakespeare and Company during my recent trip to Paris, since I knew in advance that they stock City Lights.  (Actually, they do - and are - much more than that: but I'll let their website do the talking.)  Only somewhat, mind.  In truth, I was almost ridiculously excited: what would I find?!

More accurately: what would find me?  What would reach me?  It turned out to be Devorah Major.  Part one complete.

Part two?  Over to you Devorah:


under the brightest full moon

i am less than a microscopic speck
on the edge of the universe's lens

how can a grain of sand be sentient
how can a drop of rain dream

but here i am, singing through the night

Just - wow.  (And - wow.) Or this:

Yoruba Woman (extract)

i don't know if you would
recognise me as yours
if we met in my now
but i am glad to be this me
born in america
carib, irish, slavic, jew born
african woman that i be

this is not to say
that i am glad you were stolen
or celebrate the way you
were torn from your bloodline
stripped of your legacy

i do not revel
in the loneliness
that kept your lips tight
your back hard
your heart scarred

but the me that is
that weaves these strands
that finds me free
and headstrong

the loudmouth me
wide hipped frizzy hair
soft belly me
who has found a home
inside this peanut skin
would not be here
without your crossing

This, for me, is the kind of thing that poetry is for, is all about.  Power.  The power to reach your soul.  To reach my soul.

Thank you Devorah.  Thank you City Lights.  Thank you poetry.


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