Warning

I’m sure I heard that dogs can smell cancer in us – they just don’t know that the information might be useful to us.

There is  a tradition, though, when disaster looms, of warnings given by animals – who will even speak at times. C S Lewis drew on it in That Hideous Strength when, before an impending earthquake he writes:

One had heard his donkey, another her cat, say “as clear as clear”: “Go away. ” 

Paul Farley speculates that the disappearance of sparrows – once so familiar, ubiquitous, companionable – is a conscious withdrawal, as these old friends leave us to rattle off to hell in our handcarts all by ourselves. Of course, if we were still woken by dawn choruses, the unwonted quiet in the mornings, outside our bedroom windows, would be as clear an alarm as you could imagine. 

The poem is, For the House Sparrow, in Decline:

Your numbers fall and it’s tempting to think
you’re deserting our suburbs and estates
like your cousins at Pompeii; that when you return
to bathe in dust and build your nests again
in a roofless world where no one hears your cheeps,
only a starling’s modem mimicry
will remind you of how you once supplied
the incidental music of our lives.

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Warning

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This week on Radio Four the BBC is broadcasting extracts from Svetlana’s Alexievich’s oral history of the experiences of Russian women soldiers in the second world. It’s marvellous – terrible and sad, horrifying, moving and inspiring too. Well worth a listen on iPlayer.

Here’s a review of the book from the Guardian:

[A] sense of absolute directness and immediacy lies at the heart of Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history of the Russian women who fought in the second world war, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Over seven years in the late 1970s and early 80s, she interviewed many hundreds of women, the pilots, doctors, partisans, snipers and anti-aircraft gunners who served on the front line, and the legions of laundresses, cooks, telephone operators and engine drivers who backed them up.Very few of those she approached refused to talk to her. One former pilot, who turned her down, told her that she could not bear to return in her mind to the three years during which she had felt herself not to be a woman. When, in the ruins of Berlin, her future husband proposed to her, she had been outraged. “How, in the midst of chaos? Begin by making me a woman,” she told him. For the rest, the women poured out their memories to her, not simply recounting them, but reimagining them. The simpler the women, the more their stories were “uninfected by secondary knowledge”.

Source: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich review – for ‘filth’ read truth | Books | The Guardian

I have been looking at Svetlana’s books for a few months now, since they started appearing on the bookshelves (Penguin have published her oral history of the Chernobyl Disaster Chernobyl Prayer and a lovely edition from Fitzcarraldo Editions of stories from people living through the end of the the Soviet Union, called Second Hand Time

I didn’t buy because I had enough in my unread pile already, but thought, if I’m lucky, here’s a new Studs Terkel…

Did I mention she’s a Nobel prize laureate too?

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Eating apples #1

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I have just peeled an apple with a knife, paring the skin away in one piece, until it fell away, the shape of the apple not quite lost in the spiral of peel.

I felt as I peeled that it was a properly grown up thing to do – because it took a sharp knife and a steady hand; and because it was what dad would do, with his short bladed grafting knife, flattened at the end to open the slit bark and insert the cutting.

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This was the knife – razor like and lethal – that I knew I was never to touch.

All my life since, apple peeling has retained the sense of something tricky, possibly dangerous. To peel the skin whole, a feat, a craft, a mark of adulthood.

The childish pleasure of eating the peelings hasn’t left me either.

Eating apples #1

Derek Walcott RIP

Back in 1971 my sister – 11 years old – bought me a book of poetry with a title that would now, I guess, be considered offensive.

It had been published first in 1964 and reprinted in 1969. It cost 4/-. A lot of pocket money in those days. I loved it and still have it on my shelves.

The collection of poems  include modern and traditional African verse, some American poets and this – rich, vivid, alert, conscious of both past and present – from Derek Walcott, who has died today:

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Derek Walcott RIP

Murmurations

When we visited Snape late last year I came across this book – one long poem – by Julia Blackburn.

murmurations

It begins:

I am busy with death
And the fact of it
Because my husband died
Three months ago
Almost to the day,
The landscape of my altered world
Divided
Between before and after.

The verses are woven around some beautiful photographs of starlings in formations, flying. Murmurations.

The poet describes the connection between the movement of the birds and her grief:

The way they pull between a celebration of living
And an intimation of things unseen…..

Starlings make me able to believe
That everything will be alright
In its own way
And that is good to know
-If it is knowing –
Perhaps it is more to do with trust.

It’s intimate, poignant and very moving. You can read a little more about it here. You can buy it here.

Murmurations