As 2022 begins, we invited some of our editors, writers and contributors to write about something they had read/heard/watched/seen/played/experienced that had made a significant impact on them over the past while.
It could be something they had recently discovered or something they found themselves returning to time and time again.
Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe
This is the image I return to:
Two men crouched on the hull of a crashed Soyuz spacecraft, talking to a villager on horseback passing by. Irrepressible green in the background, a shock of yellow flowers in focus. And something suspended in the air: confetti or feathers, maybe some sort of debris? But no, look closer: see the ‘V’ that wings make? Hundreds, white butterflies, in flight.
What I love about this photograph is its immediate confluence with another image in my mind—an imagined one, this time, conjured by language in lieu of light. One Hundred Years of Solitude. The first book I remember reading that made me want to write. The first time I’d encounter a writer whose vision of the world pulsed so close to my own truth. The majestic character of Mauricio Babilonia, whose arrival is always heralded by exuberant yellow butterflies. How does he do it, I thought, (how) can I do it?
Years later I’d read that Paris Review interview, in which Gabo divulged his ‘trick’ to writing magical realism: ‘If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you… If I didn’t say the butterflies were yellow, people would not believe it. That’s how I did it, to make it credible. The problem for every writer is credibility. Anybody can write anything so long as it’s believed.’
Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe is a poet, pacifist and fabulist. A contributing editor with The Stinging Fly, she also serves as poetry editor with Skein Press and Fallow Media.
This past year I reread, for the third or fourth time, a couple of Tom Drury’s novels. He’s the author of six, including a trilogy featuring a recurring cast of characters out of Grouse County in the American Midwest: The End of Vandalism, Hunts in Dreams, Pacific.
I first discovered Drury’s novels four or five or six years ago. I read probably the first half of the first Grouse County book, The End Of Vandalism, put it down, thought, Yeah, fine, not bad, I’ll get back to it. In the way of things, that getting back took at least six months, maybe a year.
I finished Vandalism, then read Hunts in Dreams, then Pacific. The effect was cumulative, hypnotic. The next year I went and read them all through again. I’ve reread them pretty much every year since.
The difficulty is in objectively explaining what’s great about Drury’s novels, because any elaboration of their qualities threatens to make them sound generic. They are set in a small town. The characters are a mix of mildly eccentric reprobates and potentially corny templates. (The by the book cop, the drunken petty criminal, the unworldly orphan.) The plot is, at best, episodic. The prose can fairly be described as spare, lyrical, etc.
The magic is in how Drury does it. If each of the books initially seems ambling and subdued, an act of sustained, beguiling offhandedness, such an effect can only be, I assure you, the result of lots of sweat and discipline on the part of the writer.
What are Drury’s novels ultimately about? They are melancholy, poignant, and much stranger than they might seem. I was going to say that they are about how time goes only one way, and everything that happens, happens once, and how you have to ride the beauty and the sadness of that, but that sounds a little grandiloquent for such low-key and gently askew books. So, I don’t know, but each time I read them I get more of whatever it is from them.
Colin Barrett is the author of the story collections, Young Skins (2013) and Homesickness, forthcoming in Spring 2022.
In March 2020, I watched a documentary on Netflix that married two loves of mine: storytelling and activism. Told through the eyes of disabled activist, Jim LeBrecht, and co-directed with Nicola Newnham, Crip Camp illustrates how Camp Jened, ‘run by hippies’ for disabled teenagers in 1971, became the catalyst for the formation of a disability movement in the US and worldwide.
As a writer interested in capturing the authentic voices of disabled people, it was heartening to see that the documentary was told through the eyes of campers themselves. Many of the campers led sheltered lives, cared for by well-meaning but overprotective parents, and were hungry for the usual teenage experiences: sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. ‘I wished I could go to Woodstock, and when I went to Camp, there I was!’ laughed Ann Cupolo Freeman, recalling her time at Camp Jened.
Spending so much time together in close quarters led these young people to question how they framed disability in their own minds; as Jim LeBrecht recalls, there was no need to be self-conscious as ‘everyone at camp had something going on with their bodies.’ The group of emerging activists came to the realisation that society needed to change, not them. Eventually, these activists would play a major role in prompting the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990.
What struck me most was how powerful a strong collective can be. Through working together, these activists changed the narrative of disability and framed it as a rights issue.
Sarah Fitzgerald is a writer, blogger and inaugural Play It Forward Fellow. She writes about disability from a rights-based perspective. She has written short stories and poems, and is currently writing a novel.
I am drawn to the sea. I swim in the Atlantic at Rinville in Oranmore where it’s easy to get entangled in seaweed as you move. It is a busy sailing pier where swimmers wear buoys to alert boats. We’re like a swarm of bright insects thrashing about, but unlike the boats, my reason for being there is entirely impractical. Boats seem to know what they’re all about, I especially love the currach’s delicate construction and hardy soul. Over the last year I have been returning to Paul Henry’s Launching the Currach at the National Gallery.
I first visited the Gallery for a Joan Miró exhibition in 1996 and since Pandemic the entrance is again on Merrion Square. This brings you through the Beit wing, where you are quickly faced with Henry’s painting. Galleries always seemed filled with interiors of unfamiliar places to me, or portraits of the rich, so Henry’s painting is reassuring in its familiarity, like seeing someone you know intimately on television though the lens creates alluring distance. In the painting the men grasping the boat seem powerful and fragile against the sea’s mad froth. The post-impressionist brush style adds tension. I am most comforted by the palette (though apparently Henry’s wives mixed his paint as he was colour-blind). Taupe, muted browns and greys reminds me of being submerged in the sea where I momentarily stop thinking. I returned to the painting a few days ago and Henry’s currach still seems vital. The boat’s mission remains unknown.
Elaine Feeney has published three poetry collections. Her novel, As You Were, won the 2021 Dalkey Book Festival’s Emerging Writer Prize, The Kate O’Brien Prize and The Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize.
There are seven of them, their lives held in ten lines. The beat is jazz. The thuck of the cue on the balls, the schluck of the colour-sucking pockets. A four and an eight, then another four swinging into a three-three-three and a three-three-three, then black sinks, tock-tock, in two.
A chorus, pooling everything. Even the lines are shared. Only one—the Alpha—starts and ends on the same one. But it’s not his, because he doesn’t close it, his loyal lieutenant takes the cue, then—
It’s his story and then—
The clever one in the shadows, then—
The star of track and field and green green baize, then—
The crooner, the—
Sexy one that got them banned, and then—
I blame Paula Meehan. Golden Shovel, she said in May. Explaining, because I’d never heard of it. A poetic form initiated by Terrance Hayes to honour the poet and activist of colour, Gwendolyn Brooks. Take a Brooks line, put each word from it at the end of a new line. Read the new poem horizontally, Brooks vertically. Literal intersection. A pooling of words, imaginations, spirit across spacetime.
We Real Cool, Paula said it came from. I got off the phone, googled. Found the pool hall and Brooks’ ur-line. The Players, their Shovel, their young blood chorus seven We, their too-soon ending. It landed in me and it’s still there. Very sad. A poem for this past year, and the previous one, and maybe more to come.
Mia Gallagher is based in Dublin. She writes novels, stories and non-fiction and has devised, written and performed for the stage. Mia is a contributing editor with The Stinging Fly and a member of Aosdána.
Corpsing: My Body and Other Horror Shows by Sophie White turned out to be a lot of people’s favourite book last year. When I first came across the title, the words ‘body’ and ‘horror’ jumped out at me — one of my favourite things to write about and my favourite movie genre. I knew I’d love it.
In my second year of college, I signed up for a seminar about representations of the body in Irish literature and since then, I always pay attention to how bodies are portrayed in what I watch and what I read. If I was to do that seminar today, I feel like White’s book would be prescribed reading.
Apart from feeding my already-existing fascination with all things macabre, the book introduced me to a myriad of other media that continued to entertain me throughout the year. As soon as I read the final words of this book of essays, I made a dash for the podcast hosted by Sophie White along with Cassie Delaney and Jen O’Dwyer and looked up every musical reference in the book.
The Creep Dive is now my favourite podcast, always on hand with the strangest stories and Joni Mitchell’s album, Blue, plays to make hard days easier. I tried the Manchego cheese with honey, as suggested, too, but it would seem my taste buds have yet to mature. Who knows when I would have learned this about myself if I haven’t read this book?
Sara Chudzik is an inaugural Play It Forward Fellow. Born in Poland, she moved to Limerick when she was 12 years old and is an NUI Galway graduate. She currently lives in Dublin and is writing a novel.
Who burnt ya… ?
An intense question. Confrontational, even. Deep Derry accent. A question that was asked of me and the other Stinging Fly workshop participants. A question that was asked of us, as writers. A serious question. A question that confounded me. Brakes screeching. Who burnt me? What burnt me? Why was I burnt so? Burnt with the gift and curse of being a writer. To live in your head, always. Burnt with love, betrayals, memories, experiences, thoughts, visions, incidents, joys, hopes, interrupted plots, all of it. Burns past and present, that inspire and challenge me as a person and as a writer.
2019 was a year of personal trauma for me. Burnt. A year of sorrow, beauty and the deeper questions. And that was before our Pandemic. In the every day and the epic, I often consider this question. What is burning or lighting me about the world as we now know it, or the shadow, memory, meaning, seed of a story or an idea.
I have discovered that what burnt/burns also lights me. Lighting and burning me with a life of stories and writing.
Lisa Walsh is a working-class playwright and fiction writer from Ballymun. She began writing in 2013 as a participant on the Write On course facilitated by Colm Keegan, at Axis arts centre. More recently, she completed The Stinging Fly’s six-month fiction workshop in 2020.
Arnold Thomas Fanning
In the small hours, in the dead of night, I rise, go to the office downstairs, turn on the Anglepoise lamp on my desk, and write in my diary.
This is an act I return to again and again, have done so for years, so as to settle me and calm my mind, control my rushing thoughts by setting them down on paper in words, thoughts that have been spinning around in my head, keeping me awake, for an hour, or hours.
A balm to me, diary-writing is an act I return to over and over, and I have kept a diary, on and off, since an early age, still possessing many of my diary-notebooks from my past, and ultimately it is the act of writing a diary, not what is written about, that is so vital to the practice to me, as it is the writing down itself that settles, that heals, that has meaning.
This is what is so appealing and meaningful to me about diary-writing, and why I return to it so often, and have done so for so long.
My diary-writing, then, has helped me to settle when I’ve been unable to do so without it, has been a depository of unruly thoughts and ideas that would have otherwise have kept me awake in the dead of night, is, in the core of its nature, a source of consolation, contentment.
A way, then, to be, and to be comforted; simply, and through writing words.
Arnold Thomas Fanning is the author of Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize.
A book that I returned to time and again last year is Jan Morris’s Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere, which was first published in 2001.
An ambling, beautifully written account of the history, customs, trade and culture of Trieste, in the northeast of Italy, it is also a book about Morris herself, who is haunted by the city. Its peculiar power lies in the consonance between writer and place, both full of ‘sweet melancholy’. More than anything, it is an exploration of a state of mind that is free to roam on a warm afternoon in autumn, free to take a seat at a café and watch people strolling by, free to drift through side streets, content to be a little lost, and in this mood of ataraxia to muse on time and transience and change and loss. ‘Trieste,’ Morris writes, ‘makes one ask sad questions of oneself.’
Perhaps this is why the book has meant so much to me during this time of limited freedoms. In it, a writer of great repose conjures a brooding city where feral cats are cared for and where an exile can find peace, a city that exists nowhere but in the meaning she gives to it.
Cathy Sweeney’s debut collection of short stories, Modern Times, was published by The Stinging Fly Press and Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2020. Her novel, Breakdown, is forthcoming from Weidenfeld and Nicolson in January 2023.
Since I landed here in Ireland trying to get a job was like walking with an umbrella on a stormy day. The rain and wind were the reasons that I couldn’t enter employment, the umbrella my hope. I held onto my umbrella for dear life. This storm didn’t pass easily. It lasted for three years. I was tired but my umbrella became stronger and my grip got steadier thanks to all the people who supported and mentored me along the way.
I finally got employed by a Traveller Organisation, working with and for their community.
It was my third day at work and my first meeting.
The meeting was with leaders from the Travelling community. I was nervous and my heart was pounding, almost jumping out of my chest.
After a few minutes the feeling of panic suddenly went. A familiar, friendly, and loving spirit hugged me and said, ‘You are safe.’
Then I realised that I was no longer trying to fit into a group, no longer walking on eggshells, no longer scratching my brain to understand an alien culture.
I was there with them, a buried feeling of being with family was awakening and I realised that I had found my tribe here in Ireland.
That day an almost forgotten feeling of inclusiveness and safety around people inspired me and it will forever stay with me.
Gonchigkhand Byambaa is a Play It Forward Fellow. A social worker and writer from Mongolia, she writes about her culture in an attempt to honour her parents’ legacy and illustrate the beauty and hardship that comes with a traditional nomadic lifestyle.
A couple of months ago, we got six chickens. The ‘we’ here is me and my whānau, my clan, my comrades. Chosen. Five of the chickens are a year old and the sixth is two years old with a heart condition. She doesn’t lay. The red of her head is purplepink. We shambled up a coop from the detritus of the garden. A giant green fishing net closed the coop in. We were afraid they’d fly away. Once they come, we realise they can escape in much more covert ways. They live to dig. We develop a favourite. Roxanne. Within a week, she has decided to be free range. The ruff of her chest is bare from the other chickens trying to peck her down the order. She runs up the garden path like a dog to greet us home. The cat sunbathes in the coop. So relaxed she falls asleep. Roxanne tries to befriend the cat. She is the biggest of the chickens now. We pull away the net. The chickens won’t eat the convolvulus. They go crazy for white bread. Everything feels too big until you watch a chicken drinking water. The valley a phantasmagoria of green. Fog stalks the hills. Roxanne pecks me from behind. She is choosing her own order. Finding her place in the family of things.
Emer Lyons is a lesbian writer from West Cork living in New Zealand. Most recently, her writing can be found at The Pantograph Punch, Newsroom, Queer Love: An Anthology of Irish Fiction, and Landfall.
If you haven’t heard of Isabel Fall, start with Emily VanDerWerff’s June 2021 article ‘How Twitter can ruin a life’. I remember being vaguely aware of the events in early 2020, but I didn’t fully understand their gravity until reading Isabel’s own words.
This isn’t a perky, motivational piece. I don’t like that cis people decided to scry a woman’s ‘real’ gender. I don’t like that transmasc people declared themselves the authority on ‘real’ trans art. I don’t like that Isabel had to suffer so greatly to catalyse change in SFF publishing. I don’t like that actually, her suffering mostly catalysed the people responsible wiping their fingerprints from the crime scene.
But I return to this piece, and to Isabel’s story, because I don’t want to forget how the literary world treats trans women just because I have the option to gloss over it.
I am just at the start of my writing career, and I think that’s a good time to get your priorities in order. I will return to this piece and think of Isabel, and every other trans woman writer, for every decision I make going forward. I will always ask myself, before I speak publicly, before I work with a publisher, before I sign a contract: would a trans woman feel safe here?
If the answer is no, going ahead is admitting that I’m not interested in making life safer, better, kinder for trans women.
If the answer is yes, we are all better for it.
James Hudson is a speculative fiction writer from Dublin. His writing is published with Monstrous Regiment, Southword Editions, Pop Up Projects, The Stinging Fly, The Liminal Review and Channel. He works with the Small Trans Library and the Trans Writers Union to improve the accessibility of trans writing in Ireland.
Neo Florence Gilson
The moment belonging to time, it calls for an attentive ear. I felt her gentle hands smothering my face, “Now you sleep mummy, and keep warm, okay!” she said to me, then pulling the duvet over my chest to cover me. My eyelids were heavily drenched in Vaseline. Shshshsh! She puts her little finger over her mouth, leaning over me, kisses me on my forehead. I smile at her, utterly amazed. When did she wake up, what has she been up to? I start looking around the room, everything is still in place, notice the open jar of Vaseline nearby. Omg! We both must have dozed off, at the time for her afternoon nap.
“I sing for you mummy, it’s rainy, its Pouring,” she sings. Simultaneously, raindrops pelting on the window frame. She is recording everything I say to her, now she is role-playing, true to the words “kids learn what they live”.
I want to burst out laughing, but I cannot do that. She does not like it when I laugh at her. Aah, let me play along. She quips, “You’re a good girl momma.” I nod in agreement and say, “Thank you Josie.” Unexpectedly she tells me, “Move to the other side mummy, this is my pillow”. I moved to the other side. I was still enjoying my 3-year-old daughter imitating me. She snuggles beside me, says, “You good mummy”? I smile at her and kiss her forehead and say, “I’m good, my angel”.
Neo Florence Gilson is a Play It Forward Fellow, originally from Kimberley, South Africa. A poet, writer, singer, storyteller, and motivational speaker, she has a passion for influencing youth positively through social upliftment projects. Love, unity, respect, empathy, justice and affirmation are the themes she is most drawn to in her writing.
In August last year, Faber reissued the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, originally published in 2001. Its protagonist is novelist and English lit professor Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, cerebral and ambitious and stymied by his agent’s demand that he be a little blacker in his writing, his middle-class background not being authentic enough for the market (‘One is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience,’ mourns one reviewer). When a debutante publishes a ridiculous ghetto novel to popular acclaim, Monk writes an even stupider, even more ghetto novel under a pseudonym in protest. It’s grossly offensive. He titles it Fuck. The literary world goes apeshit for it. Monk creates a monster.
Erasure is enormously, bitterly funny. Reading a novel about novelists driven demented by other novelists’ terrible novels may not seem like the healthiest pursuit for a novelist, but God, was this cathartic. Erasure gives form and fun to all of the writer’s frustrations and suspicions. It is petty. It is ugly. It is shifty. But threaded through the howls is a deeply affecting meditation on memory and the stories we tell ourselves, as Monk deals with his mother’s failing health, his father’s secrets and his own frailties. I’ve seen Erasure recommended as a parody of novels like Sapphire’s Push, and I’m not sure that’s correct. More than parody, it’s a rumination on art, a cautionary tale, a dig at the industry, and more than a little bit dangerous.
Lisa McInerney is a contributing editor. Her most recent novel is The Rules of Revelation. She has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the RSL Encore Award.
We humans tend to like consulting things outside ourselves; be it priests, or tarot; oracles in different forms, or the night sky. For some of us books and words are the things we cannot do without, that we consult, find excitement in, or solace. For twenty years John Wieners’ poems have travelled around with me. His voice has lingered in my ear since his last poetry reading in 2002, unmuffled by age or time. I keep his collected poems near; for they are a collection of all that might ail a person.
He was a lyric poet amongst the San Francisco Beats. He was the oracle of Boston’s Joy Street until his death, who wrote “for the poetical, the people”.
He has a poem for everything, ‘A poem for Painters’, ‘A poem for early risers’ and ‘A poem for cocksuckers’. Procrastination’, ‘Reading in Bed’, ‘Melancholy’, ‘The Acts of Youth’, ‘Consolation’, ‘Supplication’, ‘Sustenance’ , ‘Larders’, ‘A Poem for Trapped Things’, and ‘Gardenias’.
For every season, and every longing:
Summer days are really over. Bleak winds
Seep over the Hill, whipping memory through
Forgotten parties at the peak of harvest moon.
—from ‘Poetry and the Social’ (1972)
Wieners spun magic and love of poetry. The long breath and the dancing ‘twist of the hip’ in his poems despite deep pain, despite everything, keeps time, and I often find myself having moments of lyric epiphany; perhaps it is why, like desire, like an addiction, or a need for the sacred, I keep going back.
Sara O’Rourke works at The Stinging Fly and is pursuing a PhD in Anthropology.
Last August in rural Galway, sealed against sideways rain in a borrowed holiday home, my friend and I took a half-tab of acid each and listened to Just (After Song of Songs) by David Lang. This mystical-sounding piece, written in New York and sung by a Norwegian medieval polyphonic group, was in fact commissioned in 2014 by the unlikely but actual phenomenon that is the Louth Contemporary Music Society. It is pearlescent, elliptical, utterly bewitching; a twelve-minute list of bounties from the Hebrew Bible:
Just your eyes
And my beloved
Our couch; our house; our rafters.
In my twenties I lived with a man who had been raised on opera, classical music, and—incidentally—theological arguments; my love for him was coloured by a desire for rich experiences, and rewarded with exposure to the kind of high culture that was absent from my own upbringing. I got to know something about Arvo Part, Philip Glass, and Meredith Monk. These days I better appreciate the fact that it will never be possible for me to pass as U in the circles my education and writing bring me into because this bedrock isn’t there, and encounters with intelligent magic must occur by accident. Just is a stilled pool of explosively erotic affect, explosively romantic, on or off psychedelics, and after Galway I listened to it every night for about twelve nights. I still revisit it, in certain moods, regularly.
Niamh Campbell won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2021. Her second novel, We Were Young, is forthcoming from Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Most people think that faith means believing something; often it means trying something, giving it a chance to prove itself. And I found myself coming back to the daily readings of ‘A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke‘ which is not to be ironic as I don’t read the readings daily or at least not regularly but when I do, it seems to be pertinent with a palpable delicacy.
Sometimes it feels like a strange, moody friendship. Days go by. And after this period of silence I return to it as a place of solace. Lines like, “Often when I imagine you your wholeness cascades into many shapes” leave me pondering throughout the rest of the day.
Rilke strikes a chord with me frequently, revealing the natural beauty of being and yet bringing to the fore the tragedy of our short lives all at the same time.
To speak again of solitude, it becomes ever clearer that in truth there is nothing we can choose or avoid. We are solitary.
His imagery is complex and subtle. His words pull back the curtain to a deeper part of yourself allowing you to gaze at this landscape from the knowledge where all these moments of emotion originate and come to an end in the thing itself.
Lee Welch completed an MFA at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam and gained his BFA from the National College of Art and Design, Dublin. He is the NCAD Studio Artist for 2020-21 and was recently awarded a residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.
Tonight, like most nights, I’m listening to ‘Lake Marie’ by John Prine. On 28th August, 2021, YouTube drew the song from its vast catalogue; its algorithms having perfected their instincts about me and my taste, which is made of, among other things, country music, gentle French chefs, interviews with writers. I know the date because I texted a friend the next day to mention the song. ‘Lake Marie’ remains a compelling mystery to me. Its verses shift from folk history (two lakes named after two white babies found in the woods by an “Indian tribe” along the Illinois / Wisconsin border); a love song (“I found myself talking to this girl / who was standing there / with her back turned to Lake Marie”); a story of murders set in a true crime aesthetic (“Saw it on the news – the TV news / in a black and white video”).
Besides the chorus, which starts the song in the old convention of Greek tragedy, the song is stitched together by another refrain: “Many years later”. The song keeps jumping through time, ‘Lake Marie’ being the figure of fixity adjacent to which these moments occur. The delirious magic of the song is how, or not at all, these vignettes fit together. It’s everything I want from a poem, for example: fabulous images, elegant expression, fanciful etymology, no paraphrasable core, in Cleanth Brooks’ words. There’s something about the provenance of the lake’s name that inscribes a violence onto it. It’s an escapable edge of the song. My sense, for now anyway, is that the song means to wonder about how one navigates complex, intertwined histories of identity and heritage and; time as linear and time as place. More than anything, ‘Lake Marie’ offers the reminder and the thrill that ‘meaning’ is still, always, of someone else’s making.
Stephen Sexton is the author of two books of poetry: If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin 2019) and Cheryl’s Destinies (Penguin 2021). He teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University, Belfast.
This past year I’ve been reading Shapeshifter by Alice Paalen Rahon, translated by Mary Ann Caws.
While Caws is a hero of mine, something of a Virgil figure to me in my early-twenties meanderings into the woods of surrealist poetry, I confess that I don’t really know much about Rahon. I mean, outside of the book’s jacket copy, exemplary introduction and what I later gleaned through Wikipedia and the usual scattershot array of blog posts and online miscellanea. What I’m fumbling to say is that I picked this book up in a bookshop blind. Tabula rasa.
I’ll spare you the details (please do google), but Rahon lived a life. And in this act of living she produced a compact and glorious body of poetry which reminds us of the surrealists’ principle obsession: love.
she is sweet and brunette
like a plum under the rain
kneeling where the roads meet
where the rosaries pass by
little hearts holding hands
to harvest the lights
and the laughing water
—from ‘Like downy blue embers’
Is it fair to suggest that Paul Eluard and Robert Desnos have possibly slightly fallen out of fashion? To my mind they remain exemplars of the 20th century lyric poem. And while Rahon’s work has undoubtedly been obscured by their shadow, what emerges from Shapeshifter is a poet who is necessary to a deepening understanding of surrealist poetry, and who stands out as one of the most important writers of that great generation of French poets. Vital, necessary work.
Cal Doyle is the poetry editor of The Stinging Fly.
I read A Tale of Two Cities in January 2021, after I had moved country for a new job. That type of relocation, during a pandemic, was a strange experience; the general suspension of passenger flights seemed to reset seas and land-masses to their actual size, while mandatory quarantines made geographic distance feel more expansive. It became easy to interpret the carriage journey to Dover, that opens the narrative, as equivalent to flying long-haul. In those first few weeks of pouring rain and empty streets, of slush and coarsely gritted roads, I enjoyed being led through the melodrama set against the French Revolution, the themes of doubling, deception and being ‘recalled to life’.
Like many texts from the past, it contains passages and qualities that may be alienating, politically and structurally, for a contemporary reader. There is an escapist quality to it; some of the protagonists are too beautiful, too flat, and at times, convenient coincidences abound. But there are moments, too, when inner turmoil, pain and trauma are so acutely observed as to confirm, in ways both reassuring and compelling, that the experience of being human does not change. What I found most arresting, however, is the way that tension is built via flashes of movement, of colour, of glimpses of visual detail and lamplight that rakes across dark spaces. For a publication that pre-dates the beginnings of cinema by about three decades, it was a startling reminder of the ways in which storytelling styles may anticipate, and are arguably preserved, by their suitability to mediums yet to be developed.
Catherine Gaffney is an editor and designer, and greatly enjoys ‘shaping’ narratives, both textually and visually. A recent graduate of the University of East Anglia’s MA in Creative Writing (Prose Fiction), she is currently based in Luxembourg.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin
Violence is a theme in the landscape of northwest Donegal where I grew up. It’s a Gaeltacht area inscribed with the myth of Balor of The Evil Eye who locked his only daughter into a tower on Tory Island and who—in a battle that would forever end birdsong—was slayed by his grandson, Lugh, in The Poison Glen. As a young person I did not question why different versions of a myth evolve or how, in any popular retelling, the incarceration of a woman could become an overlooked and rather incidental detail. I did not question; I fled. Decades later, and in the middle of a pandemic, I returned to the glen and found there, among the heather and rock, a raven—singing. What chance to reconcile narrative is lost when we flee a landscape or a language? What ways of seeing, of knowing, of dreaming ourselves whole again? As I made the final edits to my second poetry collection, I held close the work of our female Irish language poets, among them Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Biddy Jenkinson and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Of the many gifts that 2021 offered, most potent of all was a reconnection with the divine feminine alongside a newly deepened sense of why so many of our oldest stories have been robbed of its influence, and the invitation to turn myself more fully towards the landscape from which my language comes.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin is the author of Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017), Town (The Salvage Press, 2018) and The Poison Glen (The Gallery Press, 2021).
Last month I watched again the wonderful movie Fences (2016), a masterpiece in every sense of the word, directed by the great actor Denzel Washington.
Based on an August Wilson play, the film brings us back to the mid-fifties, and tells the story of a family living in post-World War II conditions: a life full of sadness, anxiety, and turmoil but not without love and hope.
What interests me about the film, in addition to the directing and filming, are the serious conversations which have deep meanings that take place between the family members, especially those that the father Terry (Denzel) throws at his family members. A lesson on the nature of our relationship with others we love under difficult circumstances. The love that surrounds us and makes us warm with it turns into a burden that exhausts our thinking. On the other hand, this love, this burden, turns into energy that makes us able to be patient while we accomplish our life projects. Love is not just feelings and gentle words said, but it is a sense of responsibility, and expressing it can be a tough act, a real act. Executing what you must do, even if you are tired, is in itself the most powerful face of love.
In the end, action is more effective than words although it is important that a sincere word can influence others. But the film asks the words to move away from our life a little and to let the hard work alone express the love for those we love.
Majed Mujed is a Play It Forward Fellow. An Iraqi poet who writes in Arabic, his poetry focuses on love as well as being a stranger in a strange land. One of the founders of the Iraqi House of Poetry, he has worked in the Iraqi cultural press for twenty years. He is the recipient of awards from the Al Mada Cultural Foundation, Iraqi House of Wisdom and Iraqi Intellectuals Conference.
The song I listened to most this past year—and I am not at all sure why—is ‘All the People I Like are Those That are Dead’ by Felt. It’s not that I identify particularly with the sentiment of the title. Although some people I like, liked or even loved are dead, plenty more are still—mercifully—in the land of the living.
But it is a lovely song: young yet weary, and elegant. Listen to it! And its nihilism is of the luxurious, comforting type. The album on which it appears, Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, was released in 1986 when I was 18. It keenly suggests that time. However, I didn’t listen to it. The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories was the Felt album I had. And so, this is a retrofitted nostalgia. What’s more, in my imaginings, I see myself doing things I never did, to a song I never listened to. Yet these showreels of component memories, manufactured after the event, I enjoy generating and watching.
In November, I visited my daughter, now the same age as I was in 1986, and living in the same city that I moved to. ‘All the People I Like are Those That are Dead’ did not play when we walked into any bar, although I half-expected it.
Wendy Erskine’s new short-story collection, Dance Move, will be published by The Stinging Fly Press and Picador in February.