Vultures

This poem by Chinua Achebe resonates.  Love is where it falls and this poem meditates on the good and evil that often co-exist.  There is a glimmer of hope and affection in the most unspeakable people but this may mean that in those we love resides a capacity for horrible things.

Vultures

In the greyness
and drizzle of one despondent
dawn unstirred by harbingers
of sunbreak a vulture
perching high on broken
bone of a dead tree
nestled close to his
mate his smooth
bashed-in head, a pebble
on a stem rooted in
a dump of gross
feathers, inclined affectionately
to hers. Yesterday they picked
the eyes of a swollen
corpse in a water-logged
trench and ate the things in its bowel. Full
gorged they chose their roost
keeping the hollowed remnant
in easy range of cold
telescopic eyes …
Strange
indeed how love in other
ways so particular
will pick a corner
in that charnel-house
tidy it and coil up there, perhaps
even fall asleep – her face
turned to the wall!
… Thus the Commandant at Belsen
Camp going home for
the day with fumes of
human roast clinging
rebelliously to his hairy
nostrils will stop
at the wayside sweet-shop
and pick up a chocolate
for his tender offspring
waiting at home for Daddy’s return …
Praise bounteous
providence if you will
that grants even an ogre
a tiny glow-worm
tenderness encapsulated
in icy caverns of a cruel
heart or else despair
for in every germ
of that kindred love is
lodged the perpetuity
of evil.

Chinua Achebe

‘Vultures’ by Chinua Achebe is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Chinua Achebe 1930-2013 Nigerian Author

 

 

Snow Falling on Cedars

Any story which has a protagonist of left or liberal views fighting for justice or equality is a story I am predisposed to like.  I enjoyed the book, ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ by David Guterson and I was interested in seeing the film, even though many a significant novel has been ruined in the translation to the screen.

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The story is told in two time periods.  In the 50s when a death of a local fisherman looks like murder and the chief suspect is a Japanese American.  He is arrested and the novel covers the trial and outcome. Watching it all is Ishmael Chambers, a journalist with a special interest in the fate of the family of the accused.  We discover the reason behind his interest in the flashbacks when Ishmael was a boy.  His father, Arthur, is the crusading editor of the local paper.  Ishmael is in love with Hatsue, a Japanese American, and his attempts to get close to her suffer after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

I preferred the book but I was pleased to see that the courageous stand of Arthur, in refusing to join the mass outbreak of condemnation of the local Japanese population, survived in the film version.  At a time of open hostility to the ‘enemy within’, it took a good deal of courage to stand up for what is right.  In Arthur’s case he risked his livelihood since unpopular positions in newspapers affect sales.

The book was marketed as a crime and mystery novel, which I suppose it is, but the central story of love across cultural boundaries and the fight for justice were more important elements for me. ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

 

 

For Today I am a Boy

This novel by Canadian writer Kim Fu explores identity and the cost of trying to live up to other people’s expectations.  Peter is the only boy among four children, the much longed for boy of parents whose Chinese roots favour the male child over females.  It is a pity, then that Peter does not feel like a boy inside.  His yearning is to be a girl.  He looks at his sisters and wants to be just like them.

We learn about Peter’s journey to self- expression through a childhood of not fitting in to an awkwardness with the world as a young adult.  His sisters take different paths and Peter as observer seems stranded, unsure of what he wants and how the world will receive him.

Novels about identity are appealing to me and, in this case, I understood the title to be a reference to the Antony and the Johnsons song.  This is just as well as the cover of the UK edition is unappealing.  Compare it to the Australian version (my favourite) and the Canadian version (not entirely successful, in my opinion, but at least an attempt to capture the subject matter).

Two Boys Kissing

I recently read ‘Two Boys Kissing’ by David Levithan.  I thought it was an amazing story.  A Greek chorus of gay men, who died from illnesses connected to AIDS in the 80s, comment on the lives of young gay people in a small American town.  Central to the novel is the attempt by two young men to beat the world record for kissing.  This record attempt brings out support and hostility from local people and forms the central narrative around which other relationships are scrutinised.

The story which affected me the most was the story of Peter and Neil.  They are in a relationship but have differing levels of acceptance from their parents.  While one has parents who accept their son’s sexuality without reservation the other has parents who ‘know’ but who will never admit it, use the word ‘gay’ or label their son’s special friend as a ‘boyfriend’.  His need for validation from his parents is moving, especially when it comes to a showdown which he initiates.

What I like about David Levithan’s characters is that they show the full range of the gay experience.  We have the out and proud, the out and determined, the self- defining and the self loathing.  Over the weekend of the story, the Greek chorus makes it clear that progress has been made.  They also make it clear that some things stay the same.  There may be more acceptance of gay youth now but there are still the social commentators who peddle hate and the local campaigners who see diversity as a challenge to their own world view.  I was struck by the fact that the kissing record breaking attempt was thought up in this book by friends who were responding to a homophobic attempt on another of their friends.

This is the cover of the UK edition that I have.

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There is nothing wrong with it, except it doesn’t show two boys kissing.  I can’t help thinking that a story of gay youth should have a cover that celebrates the fact; a book with the title ‘Two Boys Kissing’ should have two boys kissing clearly on show.

This is the cover of the USA edition.

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I am sure publishers make decisions on what will sell but when the title signals itself so clearly, the cover image should be out and proud as well.  Just think what it could mean to gay youth who need books like this.

Night of the Scorpion

This poem by Indian poet Nissim Ezekial speaks of a specific incident, the bite of a scorpion, and the reactions to it and what these say about Indian society.  Some believe that the further movement of the ‘Evil One’ will cause the poison to spread throughout the body, that the pain will purify.  The father in this poem is a rationalist and does not hold with these old suspicions.  The clash of old and new thinking is evoked with the mother stoically enduring the pain.

Night of the Scorpion

I remember the night my mother
was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours
of steady rain had driven him
to crawl beneath a sack of rice.
Parting with his poison – flash
of diabolic tail in the dark room –
he risked the rain again.

The peasants came like swarms of flies
and buzzed the name of God a hundred times
to paralyse the Evil One.

With candles and with lanterns
throwing giant scorpion shadows
on the mud-baked walls
they searched for him: he was not found.
They clicked their tongues.

With every movement that the scorpion made
his poison moved in Mother’s blood, they said.
May he sit still, they said
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.

May your suffering decrease
the misfortunes of your next birth, they said.
May the sum of all evil
balanced in this unreal world
against the sum of good
become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh
of desire, and your spirit of ambition,
they said, and they sat around
on the floor with my mother in the centre,
the peace of understanding on each face.
More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours,
more insects, and the endless rain.

My mother twisted through and through,
groaning on a mat.
My father, sceptic, rationalist,
trying every curse and blessing,
powder, mixture, herb and hybrid.
He even poured a little paraffin
upon the bitten toe and put a match to it.
I watched the flame feeding on my mother.
I watched the holy man perform his rites
to tame the poison with an incantation.
After twenty hours
it lost its sting.

My mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
and spared my children.

Nissim Ezekial

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Iron: Man

I am a big fan of Antony Gormley’s work and have made a point of travelling to see exhibitions of his art in venues from Salisbury to Gateshead.  It follows then that, when in Birmingham, I headed to Victoria Square to see his work ‘Iron:Man’.  I was actually also keen to see a work called ‘Youth’ by another sculptor but a temporary stage, erected for a week long dance festival had completely covered it!

This made me spend more time with the ‘Iron:Man’ sculpture.  It was erected in 1993 and was originally untitled.  I think local people referred to it as Iron Man and then Gormley requested the change to ‘Iron:Man’.  This is now the official title.

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The work of Antony Gormley is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple

I usually have three of four works of art I want to track down or revisit when I return to a gallery and ‘The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple’ by William Holman Hunt was on my list this time.  I must have passed it before, unless, it too, was in Brussels when I last came to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery!

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The painting, from 1860, shows the biblical story, told in the Book of Luke, of Jesus in the Temple.  His parents are shown on the right of the picture clearly worried about his disappearance.  Jesus himself looks unconcerned.  Holman Hunt was after ethnological accuracy in his paintings and he travelled to the Middle East to use local people as models.  It was the difficulties he had with these models that delayed the finished painting.  It was unveiled in 1860 and toured the country.

You can spend a long time in front of this painting.