Book Review: Half Sick of Shadows (With Giveaway)

Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy
by Richard Abbott

See below for details about winning a free paperback copy of Half Sick of Shadows

In the first half of the twentieth century, Victorian poetry began to be marginalized by the developing field of scholarly literary criticism, which focused on works fitting complex parameters requiring a rather esoteric body of knowledge for successful interpretation. Earlier poets such as Tennyson, whose works were written for and appealed to a broader readership, fell out of favor.

Perhaps post-war audiences “re-discovered” Victorian poetry once it was realized that it often actually integrated and entailed some of the elements it had been criticized for lacking. Given its enduring Arthurian theme, it is no surprise then, that amongst Tennyson’s work, “The Lady of Shalott” should be one of the first rising to resurgence in popularity: countlessly anthologized and appearing in numerous cultural contexts (video, music, theater, art, literature and more) even into our own time nearly 200 years after publication, it provokes wider analysis and re-interpretation than much modernist poetry, whose seemingly impenetrable nature often contributes to its own dismissal, despite its aim of getting people to culture up. While this is a worthy goal and there certainly is no shortage of study for early twentieth-century poetry, it disregards the lesson Tennyson already understood: holding something out of people’s reach won’t allow them to grasp it any easier.

Contemporary author Richard Abbott takes this one step further by incorporating his own already popular literary bents—historical and science fiction—into a highly accessible re-interpretation of Tennyson’s masterpiece, itself based on the life of Elaine of Astolat, a tragic figure within the Arthurian catalogue. Written in prose and sectioned off a few more times than “The Lady of Shalott,” Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows takes us into a world of beauty and cruelty, loving and longing, a world of isolation in which the Lady yearns for her own voice and must choose which sacrifice to perform.

Significantly, Abbott opens Half Sick of Shadows with an awakening, though it is veiled by a “kindly darkness” and marked as the Lady’s birth. It is as smooth and relaxed as Tennyson’s own lead-in, “On either side of the river lie/Long fields of barley and rye,” as it initiates the creation and, later, upbringing, so to speak, of an infant and then adolescent who will be the Lady villagers come to know by way of her song. She, in turn, learns about them via her second-hand observations of the people in a mirror housed with her, and to which she eventually begins to talk and, later, question. Their communication is of the telepathic sort, at least the expressive language is on the part of the mirror, which the Lady silently receives.

The metamorphosis of this re-telling gifts readers the feeling that they are receiving the Lady’s story for the very first time. For those familiar with Abbott’s previous work, the historical may be an expected element, but the speculative angle is a definitive bonus, and done with a subtly that enhances rather than reduces the Arthurian and historical within Tennyson’s version. There is a machination about the mirror, in its gathering of data as the Lady sleeps between instars, or growth states, and during her acquisition of knowledge, and periodically we hear a word or phrase (e.g. gibbous) that injects the story with a small flavor of the author’s previous forays into a galactical colony. Indeed, the Lady travels through time and space as “[s]he ate, and she slept, and she changed[,]” as “[t]he world outside, with its fleeting years, took no notice of her sleep, and changed even more rapidly than she did.” These centuries of growth bring her from a time before people existed and “[n]obody was watching” through the eras until settling into the Arthurian, widening the form of science fiction the book engages.

For me, this speaks volumes about Abbott’s ability to transition from genre to genre: he clearly is comfortable writing in a variety, and with Half Sick of Shadows we see this taken to another level as he combines it into one: history, mythology, fantasy and speculative. Perhaps some might even add mystery and/or romance, for the Lady catches a glimpse of Lancelot in her mirror, and from then on everything she acts upon, whether in pragmatic caution or foolish abandon, is in response to the spell she knows she is under, a magic that will destroy her should she try to look directly at the world outside. The manner in which Abbott expands upon the Lady’s life and events within, simultaneously breaking ground while remaining true to Tennyson as he retains the spiritual within the legends of Camelot, is inspiring and captivating. The imagery and descriptive language is economic yet rich.

As she grows, so too do the Lady’s awareness, needs, questions, demands and reaching out to the larger world. She observes and bonds, solitary as the association is, with a prehistoric family whose habits she admires and thrills to. It is this family whose actions first lend her an unarticulated awareness of herself as a shadow, only half existing, a theme that permeates the novella along with the idea of voice in its physical form and as metaphor. Upon re-awakening from one of her sleep phases, she comes to realize that the nature of the world’s growth and movement forward necessitates forfeiture, though awareness make it no less difficult. She laments her loss and fate within her existence, and one of Abbott’s most poignant passages gives new voice, as it were, to the idea of futility of life within isolation. Having already questioned the purpose of knowing how to speak if there was no one to listen,

[s]he noticed the Mirror’s stream of information falter and then, almost immediately, restart when she spoke of her beginnings. This, then, was the source of the deception. A little tingle of anxiety pattered inside her … Outside of these walls neither person, nor bird, nor animal could properly see her. Perhaps in truth she was no more than a fiction, an incorporeal figment, no more than someone else’s projection. Her fretful feet rattled on the floor, until she seized on a memory of song, a memory of the last time around.

 Surely I am like them? Surely I am as real as they are? I am not just a shadow. I am not.

 She felt a tentative acceptance from the Mirror, but knew that it was still holding something back. The truth she was given was always partial, always qualified. She flung herself full-length on the couch and … screamed at the unresponsive face in front of her.

 “I’m half sick of shadows.”

It is significant that the author utilizes this most famous of all “Lady of Shalott” lines to so masterfully illustrate the power of powerlessness, which might at times contain a wealth of talented, gorgeous magnificence waiting for the freedom to flourish, or the explosive consequences of destruction felt by some in history forced into idleness as a way of life (women), or blocked from society (poets), a lifetime of being thwarted by doubt and questioning by individuals of how real they actually are. The inscrutable, vexing shadows may eventually drive the Lady to one rupture or the other—determined productivity or her own end—and the growth of Abbott’s protagonist as well as the narrative itself as it progresses, contains an additional message within as to the value of any given circumstance and whose purpose it serves.

One easily noticeable trait about Half Sick of Shadows is that there is very little dialogue. It is only recently that this reviewer  discovered how much stronger this can render a well-told tale, and in this case such a possibility rings absolutely true. Abbott’s technique of utilizing the omnipotent observer—in some stories a gamble that may not always pay—works perfectly, and contains a silence and mystery to the feel of the tale as we move through, lending substance and support to the Lady’s feelings of loneliness and anguish following her efforts to oblige the mirror to answer her and later, access others to interact with her.

“I am Half Sick of Shadows,” Said the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons (Click image)

While quite different to such a work as The Metamorphosis, which also experiences very little dialogue and involves a character cut off from others but remaining cognizant of life and events around him, Abbott throughout expertly utilizes allusion in form and narrative, including when the Lady “become[s] desperate with the need to speak and be spoken to.” As in Kafka’s great classic, the theme of voice is part of how the author explores the meaning of being alive and aware as psychological and physical change occurs.

She knew that her voice was high, reed-like compared to any of his own people, and that she could not form the words properly. The parts of her mouth and throat would not allow anything closer. But it was better than nothing[.]

One needn’t be familiar at all with Tennyson or Kafka to appreciate, understand and thoroughly enjoy Half Sick of Shadows, an amazing study as much as it is pleasing story. Whether re-visiting or new to the legend, readers will cherish Abbott’s novella, an original and enthralling re-telling suitable to current sensibilities, with a blend of Victorian sensory and critical, and the Modernist aim to further pique cultural curiosity. It is a merger in which Abbott splendidly succeeds.

*********

Would you like to win a free paperback copy of Half Sick of Shadows? Simply comment below – even a quickie hello works! – and you are automatically entered into the drawing, which will occur in mid November. (This would also make a great gift!!!)

 Alternately, you may comment at the pinned post in the blog’s Facebook page, located here

Please make sure we have a way to contact you!

Click titles to read our reviews for Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports or Timing

For more on “The Lady of Shalott,” please click here.

About the author…

Richard Abbott writes fiction of several varieties, including both historical and speculative fiction. His historical is set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. It explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His heretofore speculative writing is set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships.

Far from the Spaceports introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

*********

You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

*********

A copy of Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

*********

Author photo courtesy Richard Abbott

Advertisements

Poetry in Bloom: “The Lady of Shalott”

Today we start our New Year’s resolution a mite early with a series-in-development, one that gives us a space here at Before the Second Sleep to advance more deeply into the realm of poetry, territory we’ve not had much previous occasion to explore. Given our love of poetry and the enormous opportunities one has as poet as well as reader, we have decided it is high time to move forward.

The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, one of three interpretations of the character by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons

It is fitting to open with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” partly owing to our considerable affection for all things Arthurian, going back to childhood. This new direction has also been inspired in part by a review upcoming, for a “retelling and metamorphosis” of the ballad.

The works of Tennyson, Poet Laureate for over 40 years, reflect a reality about poetry, in that while in his lifetime his words were exceedingly popular (even when savaged by critics), following his death they receded a bit into the shadows. Dr. Stephanie Forward notes that “with such adulation [as the poet received in his lifetime] a subsequent decline in his reputation was probably inevitable.”

Following two world wars and re-examination of Tennyson’s place within Victorian society, his work began once more to be recognized as amongst the greatest in English literature. As literary tastes change and peoples re-discover the values within what came before, perhaps his poetry again shall wilt and bloom in a representation of the ongoing and also inevitable death and re-birth of the artistic design of our world.

“The Lady of Shalott” is loosely based on the life of Elaine, who appears in Le Morte d’Arthur as a noblewoman enamored of Sir Lancelot, later dying from a broken heart following this unrequited love. Tennyson writes of a Lady confined to a castle and subject to a curse that bars her seeing outside save for what is reflected in her looking glass. “Shadows of the world appear” describes how she witnesses life outside via those images, weaving her portrayal of them onto a loom, though becoming weary of the poor substitute the glass provides. “I am half sick of shadows,” she cries, determining that she shall leave her tower, even if it means facing the consequences within the curse.

Below are stanzas excerpted from “The Lady of Shalott,” first published in 1833 in Tennyson’s collection entitled Poems. For the ballad in its entirety, click here, and be sure to have a quick glance at Schmoop’s “Why Should I Care?” section—a brief and easy-to-read segment that may pleasantly surprise you.

Excerpt: “The Lady of Shalott”

[from] Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

Part II

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered Camelot;
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

[from] Part III

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

[from] Part IV

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

 

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, via Wikimedia Commons

*********

For our review of Richard Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows, click here.

On My Retrieval of Apple Pie from Sweden (A Chat with Author Anna Belfrage)

A few weeks ago (or is it months?) I had a chance to visit with Anna Belfrage, award-winning author of The Graham Saga series (links to reviews below) as well as her newest, The King’s Greatest Enemy, the first of which, In the Shadow of the Storm, I have reviewed and you can find here.)

I was delighted and flattered that the chocoholic Anna Belfrage baked a scrumptious apple pie in honor of our role reversal. Usually, you see, I’m the one asking her questions, but this time she’d decided she wanted to pick my brain a little bit. So pick she did ….

An author’s best friend…

…is a good reader. Today, I’ve invited Lisl to visit, precisely because she is just that – a good reader. She also happens to be a very good writer, which is apparent not only in her excellent reviews but also in her poetry and those snippets of prose she has chosen to share. If you want to experience Lisl’s writing (and fab reviews) at length, do stop by her blog, Before the Second Sleep. In honour of the occasion, I’ve baked us a nice apple-pie. Plus, I might add, my home-made custard is to die for.

It is so nice to see you here with me, Lisl, what with you being all the way over in Alaska!

Thanks so much for having me, Anna! I’m loving your weather—makes me feel so at home.

Moose's Tooth
Moose’s Tooth in the Central Alaska Range (Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Ha! I imagine it does…Speaking of Alaska, what is it like to live there? I suspect you too struggle with myths along the lines that polar bears wander down your streets in full daylight (at least it’s a myth here in Sweden).

Well, it can be somewhat isolating, especially if one doesn’t have many connections to Outside, as we call it. I don’t have television programming, for example, which is why I rely so much on the Internet, because I want to know what’s going on in the world. But that’s just me—we do have television here! It’s also really lovely in summer and winter with loads of stuff to do.

The myths I hear most are how many people don’t realize we don’t have penguins, they think we might not accept American money and are surprised to learn we have cars. At one time I worked in a small specialty shop frequented by tourists and loved hearing these silly things—typically they came from people who genuinely wanted to learn about Alaska, and interacting with their sincerity and friendliness made that one of my favorite jobs ever.

Like me, you live in a place where the seasonal differences are not only due to temperature but due to lack or excess of light. Do you think the dark of winter vs the endless light of summer has a permanent impact on the people living that far north?

Oh, definitely. People form habits and patterns based on these conditions and as part of our culture they are so ingrained we joke about them while simultaneously don’t even notice, if that makes sense. For example, the Summer Solstice is observed by just about everyone, even those with zero interest or real knowledge in the history behind it, because it marks a transition in our year when we psychologically start prepping ourselves for termination dust and the coming of winter. There’s an old joke (one of many) about how you know you’re an Alaskan, because you make your Halloween costume large enough to wear over a coat.

keplerPeople who run into you on FB and the like, will probably mostly know you as a book reviewer – one of those readers who highlights aspects of the book not even the author may be entirely aware of. I get the impression you read very carefully. Does this mean you also read very slowly?

I don’t suppose I read slowly, though certainly I’m no speed reader. Overall it probably depends on the book. I think I do read carefully, which is a natural habit but there are others to thank for helping me develop my skills, including a particular professor. She engaged our classes rather than lectured and with her we learned so much regarding reading and writing about literature. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers her fondly.

In my reading I use a great deal of what I learned to this day, even with casual, not-for-review reading, though it doesn’t necessarily slow me down. Having said that, there are some books I do read more slowly, especially if it’s new information or a lot of characters to familiarize myself with.

Do you read more than one book at the time? If yes, do you read similar genre or totally different genre?

For better or worse, I do this a lot. At one time I tried to give it up, but finally just accepted the habit. It can be overwhelming on occasion, but then comes the satisfaction of closing up that last page of one book, then another and then another all within a short period of time.

Whether the genres are similar or different just depends upon circumstance—if I happened to have seen a book that looks really great, for example, and can’t wait, like a book on Kepler I recently came across. Now you’ve got me thinking about it, I think most of the time they aren’t the same, but perhaps there is always some connection: something in, about or related to one book leads me to another. What I can say for certain is that except for review books, which I read in order of when I received them, books choose me, not the other way around.

I have recently noted a certain fascination from your part regarding graphic novels – the modern day version of what I used to call comic books.

I first read Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale in a lit class in which we discussed the controversy of placing Holocaust memoir in graphic novel form. I thought it a great way to engage readers on all levels. Later I came across Satrapi’s Persepolis and Persepolis 2, of growing up in an Iran adversely affected by the 1979 revolution. They could be painful to read but by the genre’s nature the pictures show more than just events: we as readers gain greater dimension to the author’s insight, including images of herself as she perceives herself. It is very, very powerful.

I can’t say I’ve read a ton of graphic novels, but you’re right; largely thanks to Turtle they are becoming more of a presence in my reading repertoire and it seems a shift is indeed occurring.

What brought you to your love of reading, and what books were fundamental to igniting this passion you have for the written word?

witchHonestly, I don’t really know how I came to love reading in the first place, though my parents modeling it as a worthy pursuit—they were both enormous readers—surely played a large role. I can remember, even picture in my mind, books I found on shelves and flipped through, books about a boy in a jungle and animals that talked. Like now, perhaps the books beckoned to me and I couldn’t resist. Various people habitually brought me books as well: The Witch of Blackbird Pond; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Island of the Blue Dolphins; Strawberry Girl and The Cricket in Times Square were just some from my mother. My father also brought home books for me, most memorably Francis Marion: Swamp Fox of the Revolution. Even my older brother—horrible in my then opinion– picked up books he thought I might like. I still have from him Galahad: Enough of His Life to Explain His Reputation and The Favorite Poems and Ballads of Rudyard Kipling. The Crystal Cave and The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself both also surely went a long way toward my own writing, possibly because they both instigated a deeper delving into myself, owing to my fascination with and curiosity of their subject matter, but also they spoke of times I instinctively felt a close connection to, and it seemed almost as if I was trying to discover who I was, and why what mattered to me, did.

I know you have a son – and that he too is a voracious reader. How have you transferred over your love of reading to him?

I did the easiest thing any parent could do, but what is also the most powerful—I read near and to him. I never gave him any kind of spiel about how important books are, and didn’t have to act enthusiastic because I really was. Before he was born I read aloud—partly because I’d heard about how babies can hear their mother’s voices—but also I really enjoy feeling the words as I read. After he was born I continued to read to him, at that time whatever it was I was reading. As it turns out talking or reading to babies triggers an amazing series of events within the brain that in turn opens windows to further development. I remain in awe of how such a simple, pleasant act can benefit such complex systems.

Turtle has been a library enthusiast his entire life. Very early on he shared plots, illustrations, criticisms, favorites and so on with me, and we still read to each other. Over the years we have developed our own special little traditions or funny jokes, a development covered in Mem Fox’s wonderful Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever. Simple to read, colossal in guiding children toward reading and other success.

I also try to support the idea that what he chooses matters—ask questions, let him read funny or other parts of note to me, discuss ideas that arise from readings—and have always let him choose his own books from the time he could. Unless it’s for school I never make him finish a book he isn’t enjoying—how is that reading for pleasure?—and provide a nice place for his collection as well as comfortable spots to curl up and read.

What would you consider are the main benefits of instilling a love of reading in a child?

Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, there are some very practical benefits. While nothing is fool proof, I have nevertheless seen over the years that children who enjoy reading are less likely to be drawn into negative behavior. They also have a larger vocabulary, especially if they have been read to because they’ve made the connections between how a word looks as well as sounds, and are more confident about experimenting with new words. Children develop better communication skills and academic achievement tends to be higher. Perhaps best of all, it fosters loving relationships between people who truly share when they communicate.

Are there books you wouldn’t allow your son to read? And if so, why?

Well, I’ve found there are goalposts that have to be shifted a bit periodically, as well as maintained.

dh-us-jacket-artI don’t own a single book I wouldn’t let him read, primarily because we have always been able to discuss different topics, even if my side of the conversation was/is delivered with age appropriateness in mind. Having said that, I will say that when he was younger I might have had some difficulty with this “policy” of mine I have maintained because some books—specifically history—might have been really scary for him. Some of them are scary for me. As for books we don’t own—as far as I know, no, though that is said with some relief at him having reached this age, when I feel he is ready to read some of the more disturbing historical events.

Most parents worry about sexual content as well, and though that is a concern for me, I have to let him learn to be a responsible reader. Plus, I’ve tried to communicate that he’ll never get in trouble for asking me questions. In support of that I attempted to go beyond the standard “You can ask me anything” by communicating that while many kids ask and tell each other lots of details, much of this is incorrect and can lead to real trouble. He agreed the possible awkwardness of asking mom is way better than trouble encountered from following bad advice. I periodically re-inforce that with how I respond to books we read together, though we haven’t come across any real sexual situations in the books he chooses. Swear words, yes, and we’ve had decent conversations about appropriate—and not—places to say that sort of stuff. Hopefully this will keep working with continued maintenance, which is the real point.

I note that quite a few of my “new adult” acquaintances never read – they spend their time on social media and streaming movies instead – or channel-hopping between TV shows. Personally, I worry this leads to a general lack of reflection. Would you agree? And do you see a similar trend?

Sadly, yes on both counts. I suppose some people are more inclined to reflection than others, so even movies could trigger that for them. However, film can’t convey what words can, so a lot will get missed. And of course there’s the danger of shutting down imagination—if the film production company tells you what a dragon looks like, why should you try to imagine it? It creates lazy thinkers, in my opinion.

Nowadays I become really happy when I see people exchanging ideas or engaging in healthy debate, largely because it’s sorely lacking anymore. Even many families act, as someone wrote recently, like a group of people who happen to live in the same house rather than as a cohesive unit. We’ve got a rule we hope can create a positive difference: Read the book first.

You are not only a reader, you are also a writer. Tell us a bit about this!

Well, in school I loved to read and had a really great rapport with my English teacher. She encouraged my fledgling efforts, which at that time I think were small and not necessarily directed toward a bigger picture; they just sort of came and I didn’t have any real desire to complete them. This changed at one point, however, when I wrote a short story about two teenage girls during the Salem witch trials. I really liked the tale—secretly though, because I was unsure it was any good by actual standards. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep it, though it has been in my mind lately and I think at times of trying to re-write. At any rate, from there I did start to write more, but the results were most often poems. I later did write down some rough outlines for stories that lately have been repeatedly knocking, so I’ve been working on them.

What is it that attracts you to writing poetry? Which are the challenges vs writing prose?

10-3-14-4My mother was an enthusiastic reader of Edgar Allen Poe—she read and re-read his works a lot, and aloud, especially his poetry. She never came out and said poetry had to be read aloud, but I could hear in her voice what came to pass in the words, the narrator’s passion as he speaks of his Annabel Lee, or the isolated anguish of the man mourning the lost Lenore. Though at the time I wouldn’t have described it this way, I had an appreciation for how so much—events, emotions, information, even entire lifetimes—could transpire in so few words. That they were also lyrical and lovely captured my entire imagination and as I began trying my own hand at poetry, I experimented with different words, explored their meanings and histories, sometimes simply repeating the words to hear the way they sounded as compared to how they looked.

Unarticulated thoughts began to transform into phrases born within my soul, and it was slightly intoxicating. I had never before been able to speak with great confidence—I was a rather shy child—but poetry was akin to a new language possessing the words I needed that my native tongue didn’t have, and it opened the world to me. Though the contexts are not exactly the same, I felt a little like the astronomer depicted in L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire as he crawls under the edge of the sky.

In some ways it seems like poetry comes easier to me, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say poetry is easy. In university, when my writing skills really improved a lot, I was a language tutor and somewhat of an MLA [Modern Language Association] geek. Between that and the papers I wrote, I developed into more of an analytical writer. When I first started trying to expand on my stories this presented a great challenge as creative writing skills were now what I needed, but didn’t really possess.

keatsWriting poetry requires saying a lot with few words, which is true of prose, of course, but the parameters tend to be narrower. Also, a word might not feel right, or could turn out to be much different to what you’d intended and you think, “What do I do with this now?” Although in poetry, this may be a pro because of the separations between poems, despite the relationship uniting them all in one volume. For example, I once tried to write a poem directed at a country—not my own, but one I really do like. I was trying to express anger, but the end result was something so radically different to what I’d aimed for I was astounded. When I thought about it more I wondered that what I had inside me was communicating a different anger that also needed to be directed elsewhere, not at this place I was so fond of. The result was a complete product—with its own challenges toward my intentions, but still a workable poem.

Like all writers, I suppose you also use your writing as a cathartic exercise, i.e. you write with no intention of ever letting those particular words see the light of the day. And yet – in my case, at least – sometimes that writing is so intense it is almost a pity to hide it away. Your thoughts?

Ohhhhhh, yes. The poem I just talked about falls into that category. It feels so very personal, and I have some reservations, but I still thought, “And now I just put it back in the drawer?” Some work is so emotive it just can’t be contained again.

As a final question, which books would you bring with you to a desert island? You are only allowed three and they must last you a life-time…

This is really difficult. I mean really difficult. Just three?

I thought about The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I have a Bevington edition from my university class that could keep me busy for many years. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of Will, but what he did with language was inspirational, and all those plays could really keep me thinking, and probably writing. And let’s not forget the poems!

Possibly Boorstin’s The Discoverers. He covers a variety of topics—astronomy, measurement of time, science, geography, history, key figures in exploration and expeditions for spices, discovery, the opening of China and so on. I’ve read it a few times and each reading grants me a new observation on something that didn’t quite settle in the last time.

Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin. This may come as a surprise for you, given my oft-repeated love of Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave [“Yup,” Anna says]. I do love Stewart’s book and feel almost drained leaving it off, but would have to confess that Tolstoy’s, which I read just once, leaves more room for discovery. Plus it has pictures. OK, well in all seriousness I don’t feel quite so connected to Merlin [in Tolstoy’s book] as with Stewart’s work, but the less familiar material would lead me through terra incognita and perhaps a few wonderful surprises.

Wow, not exactly the easiest of reads…Thank you so much for dropping by, Lisl – it has been most inspirational!

Thanks so much, Anna, for having me and I hope we’ll do this again sometime.

*********

Links to my reviews for Anna Belfrage’s The Graham Saga series …

A Rip in the Veil 

Like Chaff in the Wind

The Prodigal Son (with Chocolate Cake Author Interview)

A Newfound Land

Serpents in the Garden

Revenge and Retribution 

Whither Thou Goest

To Catch a Falling Star

*********

Cover Crush for A Rip in the Veil

Chocolate Brownies Author Interview

Stay tuned for updated review for A Rip in the Veil

(Winner of The Reviews Book of the Month Award)

and

Sunken Pie Author Interview (Of Pies, Books and Other Essentials)

flammarion
The Flammarion Engraving is given its name as its earliest appearance can be traced to its inclusion in Flammarion’s 1888 book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology) (Wikimedia Commons)

*********

Lisl is a contributor to Naming the Goddess and her poetry has appeared at Bewildering Stories and in Alaska Women Speak. She is currently editing her volume of poetry, Four Seasons, and scribbling away at a collection of novellas, tentatively titled Border Dwellers.

*********

Note: This post has been updated to include links to reviews for Whither Thou Goest and To Catch a Falling Star.

Golden Years: Remembering David Bowie

January 11, 2016

It’s still only around 03:00 or thereabouts when I take a break from the solitaire game I’d engaged in before my second sleep, and flip over to an online screen–“just to check messages.” And there I take in something that I have to re-read to get it right, for my brain has seen it as something else, something that ordinarily would come before this terrible news.

David Bowie succumbs to cancer at 69.

Somehow I manage to fall asleep again and even rise when it’s time. I still can’t believe it. As I drive to my morning destination even the sky seems silent, mournful. It hasn’t yet begun its pinkish transition, and there is a weightiness to the clouds that hang over me. Perhaps they, too, need to cry. It occurs to me that the reason my own tears took so long to fall is because with this passing, so too passes a portion of me, of all of us and a moment in our time, and that’s really a little bit incomprehensible.

My mind travels back to my teen years, when I was on the solitary side, mainly because I had specific interests that generally entailed only my own company. I didn’t hate people and had a few fun friends, but when I was with them, I couldn’t do the stuff I wanted to do. I adored music: it has a capacity to find something deep within that hides from the world and allies itself to that thing, almost as if to say, “Here I am, partner.” It shares your sorrow as well as your joy; it can be whatever you want it to be–whatever you need it to be, gesticulating, swaying in ways that match the music flowing, careening, leaping, caressing through the air.

Lyrics are a bonus, especially if a singer or songwriter has somehow managed to capture just those right words for what we’re feeling. Like many teens (at least that I hear of today; my own son does it), I spent long hours listening to favorite songs and writing down the lyrics. I adored the soulfulness of “Golden Years,” for example.

Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel
Come get up my baby
Look at that sky, life’s begun
Nights are warm and the days are young
Come get up my baby

I also wrote poetry and somehow, to me, David Bowie was poetry. His major chameleon-like personas–all of whom had come and long been replaced by the time I came to know him–and lyrics of life, as I called them, because they covered absolutely everything, strengthened the intensity of my own explorations and studies. I practically lived at the library and the pattern tended to be that whatever I read at any given time led me to another must-explore topic. In turn, I wrote about almost everything I read. If Bowie sang about it, I looked it up. That was a little weird to most people, but it gave me great satisfaction.

I was especially entranced by the instrumentals in this song,

“Lady Grinning Soul.”

So I knew all Bowie’s songs by heart and, thanks to an older brother’s rock magazines and manuals, squeezed every single detail I could out of the universe pertaining to utterly everything about this amazing singer. In turn he fed my creativity and expansion even came when I started to draw–a pursuit I had absolutely no talent in. Faces were most difficult and I can recall tracing some of them, though I no longer remember which of the ones I still have were freehand and which not. My father and brother, who were artists, were only too happy to participate in this endeavor, so what might have been a bee in the bonnet that I let go after a week or so, stretched into a yearlong excursion in which I translated many of my thoughts into images.

Drawing from my teen years
Drawing from my teen years, copied from “Low” album cover

Sometimes this can, even now, amaze me, especially when I look at the drawings I still have. They aren’t really fantastic works waiting to be discovered, not even that great, truth be told. But that’s okay, because what I remember from the time I created them is that I reached deep inside of myself to find what was there, and found…a lot, actually. This remained rather large to me because in later years I was once more to do that sort of reaching, this time to find a massive amount of strength I needed in a big way–and somehow found it.

I didn’t read a lot of poetry then, at that later time. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, and I couldn’t do it then without my voice shaking, at least the poems that meant the most to me, such as Tagore’s “Shah Jahan.” Music, however, was sort of therapeutic because when I belted out enough songs–in total privacy, mind you, because I also can’t carry a tune–I was able to draw some negative energy out and away, or engaged in a sensory kind of satisfaction that relieved a lot of pressure. Who was one of my top picks at the time? You guessed it: David Bowie. Somehow, in different ways, we always manage to come home.

“David Bowie dies of cancer at 69: His death was a work of art.”

Driving away not long after I’d arrived at my appointment, I see the pinkishness breaking through; it’s the latter part of that phase of emerging daylight. I drive a little extra, just for the comforting feel of the motor, singing a very soft version of “Golden Years,” eyes welling up as my heart seems already full of tears and, still, disbelief. I end up in the empty library parking lot. Peering out over the early morning wakefulness of the ducks in their pond, I look up to see magnificent blue pouring all around the clouds. They look dark in some areas, and maybe even heavy with rain threatening to fall. But the startling blue asserts its presence and I shift gears and head toward home once more.

Look at that sky, life’s begun

200419_candle_for_our_dead_heroes_gif38dbefd0a5e7c107c329634219cabb7f

Mr. David Bowie, thank you for the music, and rest in peace.

*********

TJ’s Household Haiku Challenge: Glass

A little over a week or so ago I took up a new challenge–haiku–by way of TJ’s weekly household prompt, in that instance a piano. It was a lot of fun and as we go along he may find he has created a monster as I play at encapsulating everything I can think of into 5-7-5.

Hey, when I had a toddler in the house I was fairly skilled at making up impromptu rhymes and songs about peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, items to chew on and stinky feet, all to the tunes of favorite kid songs. So this should be fun.

This week’s prompt is glass.

[City seen through rainy glass image to be replaced]

Thunder and lightning

Driven to the ground, with tears

On jagged pieces

 

Watching through its fog

As you walk away from me

I see all clearly

OK, let’s look at something a little more, shall we say, celebratory?

Whatever goes in 

your goblet, make it worthy

And may it be fine!

*********

[Wine in glass image to be replaced]

TJ’s Household Haiku Challenge: Piano

I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry in these past months, mainly because I used to write it often, but for some years it fell casualty to the realities of life. Which isn’t to say that poetry can only flow under certain circumstances, such as settling a lot of events in our worlds. In fact I recently began again to turn even troubled thoughts to poetry as I began to deliberately entrust my musings to the brevity of poetic lines.

So tonight it was with some pleasure that I picked up on one of my mind’s threads from a few evenings back, and contemplated haiku. Commenting about the form in a Facebook post I was directed to La vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin, where I found “TJ’s Household Haiku Challenge,” which each week presents a household item for readers to consider and write about in haiku form.

This go round~

[Piano image to be replaced]

 

Here’s what I came up with~

These abandoned keys
and the stories they have told
hanging in the mist

or

As thunderstorm pounds
the ground, scattered people fly
seeking covered calm

I readily confess that the idea of abandonment was influenced by TJ’s caption for this image, and I resolved not to peek in the future–at least not until I’ve written at least one haiku. Maybe more.

*********

Completely unrelated is a haiku (below) I had written about an hour before the FB post, influenced by…well, I’ll hold that thought for now and see what anyone else might say. Of course for some it will be pretty straightforward (especially if they live in Alaska), but others may see in it something I hadn’t even contemplated.

Sky is darkening
Termination dust abounds
as we face demise

*********

Thanks to Kate Martyn for introducing me to this fun, fabulous and marvelously engaging weekly challenge!

Note: This post may also be read and commented upon here.

Note: This post was updated to include the object in the title: piano.