Literary Spotlight. Marthese Fenech in Conversation with Sue Burge

MarFenech

LITERARY SPOTLIGHT: MARTHESE FENECH – STORYTELLING HISTORY

 

For this issue I was lucky enough to hook up with Marthese Fenech, who writes historical fiction, a genre I devour and admire!  I love all of Mar’s answers below, she answers my questions as a true and natural storyteller and is the polar opposite of the stereotypes relating to historical researchers – there’s not a mote of dry academic dustiness here but instead an endlessly curious, lively and engaging mind.  If you’ve ever wondered how historical novelists manage to breathe life into their chosen eras and characters, read on! 

 

Mar, lovely to meet you!  You are most well-known for your epic historical novels set in sixteenth century Malta and Turkiye.  Both your parents are Maltese, although you grew up in Toronto.  Did you have a strong sense of your heritage from very early on or was this interest something that came to you as an adult?

From the time I was three months old until well into my late teens, I spent more summers in Malta than at home in Canada. I grew up with one foot firmly planted in each country. In fact, I spoke fluent Maltese before English. Frequent visits to the island piqued my interest in its opulent history (and its delectable ice cream).

Life under the rule of the Knights of St John fascinated me most. The Maltese Islands lend themselves very well to literary descriptions—gifted with four compass points of natural beauty, the smell of the sea constant no matter how far inland one might venture, ancient temples that predate the pyramids of Egypt. It’s easy to find oneself swept up in its architecture and narrow lanes.

In July 2000, I travelled to Malta for a pre-college vacation. I intended to spend my days at the beach, my nights bar-hopping, and every second belly-laughing with old friends. I checked off every box, every day.

But that particular trip became so much more when my Dutch friend suggested we go to the capital city Valletta to check out the Malta Experience, an audio-visual masterpiece that showcases the island’s incredible seven-thousand-year history. The moment the Great Siege of 1565 played out on the screen, everything changed. Suddenly, the battle I’d heard so much about came to life for me as never before.

The Siege tested the resilience and fortitude of this little island and its people in ways I could hardly comprehend. It’s an underdog story for the ages. And just like that, the idea to write a novel based on this epic battle took root. Only it turned into a trilogy because there was far too much to pack into a single book.

Malta-cliffs-1024x682

I think that’s a great definition of a trilogy! 

What started you on your writing journey?  Were you always very sure you wanted to write historical novels or did you/have you tried other genres?  Do you think you might try something completely different in the future?

 

Creating images with words always seemed to be a kind of magic. From the time I could speak, I found joy in storytelling, something as reflexive as breathing.  I remember rattling off tales I invented to my teddy bears, which I would arrange around my room like an audience in an amphitheatre.

My second-grade teacher often gave me “lines” to copy as punishment for being too talkative in class. I’d grow bored and write a story instead—usually about a little girl who upset her teacher and was so very sorry. It often won me back into the teacher’s good graces—though not always.

I was incredibly lucky to have older siblings that read to me, introducing me to authors like Tolkien, Dahl, and Adams. I loved the wonder and poetry within their prose. My dad also told me stories he’d make up, usually involving his own take on Hansel and Gretel. My mom surprised me with a book from the Babysitters Club series when I was little, and it hooked me instantly. She bought me a new one every few weeks until I finished the entire series. I have no doubt all that reading fostered my love of the craft.

The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis had the greatest influence on me as a budding writer. Taking my cue from Lewis, I wrote stories cast entirely with talking animals as I always felt a deep connection with wildlife. Even now, in my Siege of Malta series, I tend to treat our four-legged friends more delicately than my human characters. While I no longer write about talking animals, my Siberian husky has a cameo in Falcon’s Shadow as Louie, a stray wolf-dog who saves the life of one of my protagonists.

While in high school, I went to the movie theatre to watch Speed ten or eleven times between daily visits to Canada’s Wonderland. A crush on Keanu Reeves inspired me to write a thriller set in the very theme park my friend and I frequented—my first attempt at a composition involving actual people. Mostly, I wanted to prove to myself that I could start and finish a novel. It took me two years writing part-time while attending school and working at a restaurant, but I managed to complete it.

Soon after that, the film Braveheart drew me more insistently to the historical genre, a love further reinforced by Gladiator, which coincidentally, is filmed in Malta and features several of my friends as extras.

As far as exploring other genres as a writer, my favourites to read are dystopian and post-apocalyptic. One of these days, I may attempt to write a novel set in a dystopian world. I have a few ideas swirling around in my head. Although sometimes, I think we get enough exposure to dystopian societies simply by witnessing the events unfolding currently in the world.

How do you go about researching your novels?  On your website you say that your great sense of curiosity has taken you to sixty-five countries!  Could you imagine writing about a place you haven’t visited, although I guess sixteenth century Malta and Turkiye are, actually, places you can only visit in your mind!  How do you ensure that your novels wear your research lightly and that the characters stand out as much as the setting?  Any insights into this balancing act would be much appreciated!

 

The research process is one of the most rewarding aspects of the historical genre. I love to dig into the past to see what I might unearth.

 

When I set out to write my first novel, Eight Pointed Cross, I built a home library comprised of history and military texts, including the Siege Diary of Francisco Balbi di Correggio, a Knight of St John, who helped defend Malta during the Siege of 1565. Ernie Bradford’s the Great Siege of Malta also proved to be an incredible resource, providing intricate details of the Siege and the factors that led to it.

I consulted with historians in Malta, Turkiye, Canada, and the US, who answered endless streams of questions and pointed me towards useful resources.

Although research, creativity, and imagination are the keystones of world-building, plot construction, and character development, hands-on, immersive experiences add authenticity.

Initially, I had not planned to visit Turkiye when I began to write these novels. But I struggled to write scenes set there because I could not write from an authentic perspective. It’s not enough for me to read about a place or look at pictures. I need to immerse in it, its smells, sounds, and tastes; its languages, people, and paces. These sensory details then make their way into my scenes. The musty smell of a cellar, for example, might invoke a description of a dungeon. The way a slant of light touches the forest floor might inspire a scene in the woodlands just outside Istanbul.

Battles feature prominently in my novels. As such, I thought it important to feel a fraction of what my characters may have felt while defending Malta during a mid-summer siege.

Eight Pointed Cross Cover

One August day, I took the bus to the seaside village of Birgu, one of my main settings, and spent an afternoon on the wall of Castile—essentially, a stone oven. For three hours, I stood on that battlement and wrote detailed notes describing everything I felt, like the way the sweat would bead and run down my face or arm. I ignored every impulse to find shade or drink water. Though effective, it was hugely reckless and idiotic, and I was rewarded with heatstroke and a day spent in bed, shivering, sweating, cramping, and convinced I contracted the plague.

But it was still nothing compared to what those who fought in the Siege likely experienced. From May until September, defenders boiled tar over open flame and handled incendiary weapons beneath a relentless sun. How the knights endured such heat while clad in fifty pounds of armour is beyond me.

After much consideration, I decided a visit to Turkiye was vital. Istanbul is a living museum, every street-corner a testament to the city’s vivid past.  Lively exchanges with locals inspired a cast of Turkish characters, including a very kind and helpful shopkeeper, an equally unpleasant staffer at my hostel, and five or six kittens that worked together to steal a cooked chicken.

In my first novel, I introduce Katrina, a young female protagonist who wants to learn archery.  For Kat, finding someone willing to teach a girl the bow in sixteenth-century Malta would prove a challenge. For me, the challenge began once she found that person. I’d need to describe her struggling through lessons and finally mastering the skills—skills I did not possess. As I developed her character, I knew I had to learn archery.

And so, I signed up for a two-day workshop, which I thought was a beginner archery lesson. It ended up being an intensive, archery certification course. The other students knew not only each other but all the technical terms. They frequented archery ranges and competed around the country. I hadn’t so much as picked up a bow since gym class ten years earlier. Despite my mistake, I stayed—might as well learn a few things in case of a zombie apocalypse.

Learning to teach archery proved to be an unexpected gift. Kat’s instructor would have to demonstrate the proper technique. As readers discover in Falcon’s Shadow, Kat becomes the teacher. Although it was important for me to learn how to do the thing, it was as important for me to learn to teach it so I could write believably from an archery instructor’s point of view. I could now write with the confidence that comes from experience.

Falcon's Shadow_ebook

Many styles of weapons were used throughout the Siege. I took up axe-throwing and went to a gun range, where I shot a variety of firearms and felt the incredible kickback—something I needed to experience because muskets and arquebuses were the matchlocks of choice at the time in which my novels are set.

Though my books are fiction, they feature actual historical figures—but even when writing a character based on a real person, I need to fill in his or her thoughts and body language. And, in many cases, dialogue and actions. I conduct thorough research on every historical individual so I can develop a clear picture in my mind of his or her physicality, body language, facial expressions, demeanour, and personality.

History helps out by supplying some of the person’s actual dialogue. Of the lines I make up, I try to stay true to what he or she would likely have said. For instance, I wouldn’t have Grand Master Valette, a man of iron discipline and unshakeable faith, suggest a night of carousing and gambling at the local tavern. I might find inspiration in great feats, like Chevalier Romegas and his wild, reckless courage against an Ottoman fleet, or Dr Giuseppe Callus, a Maltese patriot who attempted to negotiate more say for the people in their governance, or I might find inspiration in quiet, sweet moments, like when Sultan Suleiman wrote poems to his beloved Roxelane.

While historical facts should hold, the details should not overshadow the story. The challenge for the writer is getting it as accurate as possible while still keeping the story compelling—a veritable balancing act. Indeed, history supplies the framework, but I weave the plot—connecting my fictional characters to the actual history.

Despite the passage of time, people want and need many of the same things today as they did in the past. Beyond necessities for survival, people crave human connection, acceptance, recreation, fellowship, justice, knowledge, a sharing of ideas, progress.

This realization gave me the confidence to tackle historical fiction—I didn’t have to create characters I could never relate to simply because they lived five hundred years ago. And while living in the sixteenth-century undoubtedly presented its own set of challenges and struggles, the human condition remains the same. The story needs to revolve around the characters and their experiences—the setting becomes virtually incidental.

Also, I find period pieces tend to romanticize history. We think of a knight in shining armour as noble and without flaws. But reality objects to that image. Were the knights brave? Absolutely. Were they flawed? Beyond doubt. To be accepted into the Order of the Knight of St. John, one had to prove noble ancestry in all four lines. Knighthood was something for which these young men were pre-destined. Unlike the Ottoman system, the European system did not operate based on merit. Someone who embodies the qualities you expect a knight to have wouldn’t be worthy if their lineage did not measure up.

I was very proud to learn that during the Great Siege of 1565, women played a pivotal role in Malta’s defence. They stood on the battlements alongside the men, shooting flaming arrows, gathering cannonballs, and repairing walls. Period pieces often tend to portray damsels in distress that need to be rescued. These women didn’t need any rescuing. I hope my female characters capture this fighting spirit.

Historical fiction allows the reader to not only understand what took place but to be touched by it, to gain empathy, to connect with those who lived it. This genre brings history to life in a way textbooks can’t always manage. It makes the past personal, provides the human side of history, allowing readers to acquaint themselves with historical figures by illuminating their personalities, perspectives, motivations, and emotions. The reader comes to see the characters, know them, care about them, as happens with all genres. Historical fiction is not the mere recounting of facts and details; it is the telling of a story through character. The time in which that story is set becomes secondary.

You seem to be incredibly active, from kick-boxing, snow-boarding and axe-throwing to yoga!  Do you see physical activity as a break from writing or is it the place where you begin to write and problem-solve?  I find walking and swimming help me untangle a poem, is it the same for you?  Do you find the physicality of these forms of exercise help you to get into the heads of the Knights of St John and their warrior lifestyle?

Physical exertion gives me perspective and opens up my mind to so many creative possibilities. Sometimes when I’m paddle boarding in a cove, a scene may unfold in my mind. Hiking also provides great opportunity to work out the details of a setting as I take notice of the sensory details around me—the way the light falls, the way the wind rustles tree branches, the smell of the air just after the rain, the sensation of salt dancing on my hand, the taste of heavy mist.

Before Covid-19 grounded us, my husband and I spent five weeks in New Zealand, and if there was a peak that could be summited, we went for it. Pushing past my edge is invigorating and very rewarding from a creative perspective—whether it’s a tough race, a 20km hike over volcanic alpine terrain, catching a wave, or snowboarding an advanced run, the ideas flow because the emotion and exertion these activities elicit can be applied to any scene. Going for a run also helps me break through these blocks. Some of my favourite scenes have developed during a jog. The key is not forgetting my ideas before I make it home—inspiration to run faster, I suppose.

And sometimes physical exertion serves simply as a perfect reset, a way to step away from the screen, shut out all thought, and focus on myself and my breath.

 

One of the most challenging aspects of being a writer nowadays seems to be marketing.  Often writers are asked to be very active in the marketing process.  How do you deal with that aspect of the writing life?

Mar book launch

Marketing is my least favourite aspect of being an author. I don’t enjoy self-promotion, and I’m a terrible salesperson. In my late teens, I had a commissions-based retail job, and my manager would harangue me for not engaging with customers. As someone who cringed whenever salespeople approached me, I never wanted to inflict that same discomfort on others. But because my job was on the line, I came up with a strategy. I would approach customers and quietly say, “Listen, I know you don’t want me to bother you with information you can easily read on the signs, but my manager—the dude standing over there—keeps giving me shit for not pestering customers, so just humour me and make it seem like I’m telling you the most interesting information you ever heard.” And they would laugh and sympathise, and I’d get a sale. …Perhaps I’m not as bad a salesperson as I style myself. But still.

Signing with an international publisher in 2011 was thrilling because not only had I realized my lifelong dream of becoming a traditionally-published author but I now had a team to do the heavy lifting as far as promotion.

….Or so I thought.

For years, my first novel, Eight Pointed Cross, seemed to languish on shelves and sold only as a result of word-of-mouth or my own meagre attempts at marketing. My publisher did not take an active role in promoting my work, something that now seems to be the trend, unless the author is already a household name.

I committed to learning how to market my work myself. Ahead of the launch of Falcon’s Shadow, I released Eight Pointed Cross as a second edition with an updated, more vibrant cover. I took online courses and participated in too many webinars to count. I listened to marketing podcasts, reached out to experts, and followed authors who had a knack for self-promotion.  I joined author-centric Facebook groups, curated my posts on social media, and even joined TikTok against all impulses. I cultivated a mailing list to send  information directly to subscribers. Had my website torn down and rebuilt from scratch by a professional—though I maintain it. I write blog posts (though not as often as I should). I stepped way outside of my comfort zone and did live presentations, talks, and readings online. I networked at every opportunity and made contacts in the media.  I joined organizations like the Maltese-Canadian Business Network Association (MCBNA) and attended their events, where I interacted with incredible people who share my heritage. Becoming active in the Maltese-Canadian community gave rise to interviews with Maltese media (usually via Skype or Zoom), print articles, and appearances at international book club events and most recently, a very successful book launch at the Maltese-Canadian Museum in Toronto, which over 200 people attended. I reached out to my alma mater to share news about my endeavours. They responded favourably and kindly and often ran features about my work in their newsletters and on their websites. Best of all, I developed deep, lasting friendships with fellow authors who are so generous with their ideas and support.

All this learning-put-in-action set the stage for the release of my third novel, Ash Fall, which came out in September 2022.

Ash Fall ebook cover new

The result? Three number one bestsellers on Amazon. And an entirely new and unexpected skillset for which I am so grateful and able to apply to current and future projects.

That’s such an impressive attitude to marketing, Mar.

Where do you like to write?  Do you have a special place and a fixed process or can you write anywhere and everywhere?  How do you look after your wellbeing as a writer?

 

Ultimately, writing can happen anywhere. I’m not in control of when an idea might come to me, so I can make a writing space out of any environment— a local café, a park bench, a balcony, on an airplane, in the backyard, or during a long commute (provided I’m not driving!).

One drawback for me is that I am very sound sensitive, so whenever I find myself in a place where I cannot control the volume, I am forever grateful to the inventors of noise-cancelling headphones.

If I’m writing at home, I find a comfy spot flooded with natural light and my dog curled up at my feet. Then, I just lose myself in whatever I’m working on.

I was once asked about my writing quirks, of which I seem to have many. Figuring out the time of day that serves best for creative endeavours has also proven beneficial. For me, writing new scenes comes easier in the early morning, while I find the afternoon or late evening optimal for editing.

Sometimes an idea will blossom just as I’m about to fall asleep and past experiences have taught me to always write it down.

When I’m trying to describe a facial expression, I make the expression and hold it as I jot down everything my face is doing. My brow is sure to end up permanently furrowed.

I find reading aloud a very helpful practice when editing because it forces me to read every single word rather than skim, and when I read aloud, I put on accents to entertain myself.

I love writing to music, but the songs can’t have lyrics because they distract me. Epic scores guide my scenes, stir up intricate, emotional passages. The right soundtrack helps me to pace battle scenes and take the quieter scenes slow. My workspace often swirls with evocative arrangements from Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon, Inception, the Grey, Braveheart, Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean, and lately, the Stranger Things season four instrumental soundtrack.

The only time I bite my nails is when I’m working on a new scene or editing an existing one.

As far as wellbeing is concerned, eating healthy, being highly active, and engaging in actual human interaction helps me maintain a balance. Exercise, whether something vigorous or low impact, is a wonderful stress reliever and a great way to generate ideas. Also, humans are not designed to sit all day, hunched at a desk, so getting up frequently is good practice for me. I’ll often put my laptop up on a half wall and stand for a few hours, which became a habit as I healed from surgery this year and had no choice but to stand for most of the day. I also step away from the screen entirely to get outside and walk my dog, which is always the perfect way to recharge.

What kind of writers do you read?  Who inspires you and influences you in the writing world?

I mainly read authors who write in my genre to keep that same flow and rhythm pulsing. I love Iain Pears, Khaled Hosseini, and David W Ball. And while high-fantasy cannot be confused with historical fiction, many literary and stylistic elements bleed into both, and as such, I gravitate towards George RR Martin, JRR Tolkien, and CS Lewis.

In recent years, I’ve become a big fan of graphic novels as well, in particular, The Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan and Niko Henrichon and Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman. As an educator, I love graphic novels as a teaching tool. In the case of these titles, they raise important questions about clashing viewpoints, loyalty, sectarian violence, survival, extremism, the true price of war, and who, ultimately, pays it.

I’ve made professional and personal connections to some outstanding Canadian authors, whose work in many different genres occupies space on my bookshelves as well, including Darcie Friesen Hossack, Karen Connelly, Tina S Beier, and Marsha Skrypuch. One of the most beautiful things I’ve learned as a female author in Canada is that we want to help each other, to lift each other up, like the winds generated by the collective beating of butterfly wings.

As mentioned, I love the dystopian genre and enjoy Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, and John Wyndham. I love the countless what-if discussions that arise from dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. For example, which faction would you choose? Why? At the moment, I have a pretty long to-read list filled with dystopian titles.

I also read non-fiction that centres on human experiences in oppressive states and have found memoirs by Marina Nemat and Malala Yousafzai gut-wrenching, tragic, vital, and inspiring. Their titles should be required reading in our English curriculums.

What’s next for you Mar?  Any exciting forthcoming projects?

 

Malta has cultivated quite the film industry over the past two decades, serving as the shooting location for many blockbuster movies and successful television shows. For years, I’d wish a director or producer or actor would stroll into a Maltese bookshop, beeline for my novel, and approach me about adapting it for the screen. That never happened.

But then, about a year and a half ago, it dawned on me that I am capable. I wrote the novels, after all.

I enrolled in an excellent screenwriting course specifically designed for authors looking to adapt their novels. I have since completed the pilot episode of a potential seven-season series, which is currently in development and has a wonderful executive producer attached, backing of the Malta Film Commission, as well as interest from some renowned directors. Stay tuned!

I’m also mapping out a prequel to my Siege trilogy, which will explore the 1522 Battle of Rhodes that led to the Knights of St John relocating on Malta. And on the horizon is another novel that follows the events of Ash Fall and would culminate in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. But for now, after working on the Siege of Malta trilogy for over two decades, I’m taking a little break from novel writing. Or maybe I can book “research trips” to Corfu and Rhodes.

Finally, my editorial service has gained quite a bit of traction over the past year, so when I’m not working on my own projects, I’m serving my clients and hopefully offering the same quality guidance I was fortunate enough to receive as a fledgling writer when I first started out.

Thank you so much for this richly inspiring interview Mar, and good luck with these amazing future projects!

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Marthese Fenech is the bestselling author of historical novels set in sixteenth-century Malta and Turkiye. She has also written the award-winning pilot episode of a television series based on her books.

The youngest of five, Mar was born in Toronto to Maltese parents, with whom she travelled to Malta frequently while growing up.

A former kickboxing instructor, she snowboards, surfs, scuba-dives, climbs, skydives, throws axes, and practices yoga. She lives north of Toronto with her brilliant husband and their equally brilliant Siberian husky.  https://marthesefenech.com/

Green Horses on the Walls by Cristina A. Bejan. a review by Clara Burghelea

Green Horses on the Walls by Cristina A. Bejan. Finishing Line Press, May 27, 2020. 46 pp

Cristina A. Bejan’s debut collection, Green Horses on the Walls (Finishing Line Press, 2020), is a 2021 Independent Press Book Award Winner and the 2021 Colorado Authors’ League Book Award for cover design which is also the author’s creation.

A spoken-word poet named Lady Godiva, Cristina A. Bejan, confers her collection the rhythm and beat of her performative act. Her reading at the Romanian Cultural Institute in March 2022 was an enthusiastic tour de force where Cristina A. Bejan’s acting skills complemented her poetry. Despite the easiness of her performative body language and enunciation, Cristina A. Bejan’s poems require a vulnerable and open heart since they address uncomfortable topics such as the crimes of communist Romania, mental health, and sexual assault. Blending Romanian, French and English, the author portrays the immigrant story of her family and through extraordinary acts of rebuilding, celebration and longing, her hyphenated identity reveals its richness.

Filled with visual and narrative streaks, her poems illustrate figments of a life that was shaped by immigration, separation, communism, trauma, while constantly negotiating the much-needed space to find balance. In her poem, “A Tricky Diaspora”, there is an accumulation of such earnest pieces that pull into forging the joint American-Romanian identity:

I’m from a tricky Diaspora

An assimilate-quick Diaspora

red lipstick, high heels, and skinny perfumed cigarettes Diaspora

The only thing we are known for is not exactly in our history—“Dracula”

Diaspora

Maybe that’s why we say we’re from anywhere than we actually are—“Je suis à

Paris!”

And I can’t actually hear the parental accent Diaspora

A my siblings cannot pronounce our family name correctly Diaspora

A too suspicious and yet too trusting Diaspora

A “Shhh, don’t talk or they will hear you,” Diaspora

A country that you’ve never heard of Diaspora

An “I silently understand eight languages” Diaspora

A no pressure to get married ever Diaspora

A sex is healthy and beautiful Diaspora

An any race is more beautiful than Caucasian Diaspora

Unless you’re a Roma…Diaspora

A politically totally confused Diaspora

This balance cannot be achieved unless there is a delicate, yet forceful, account of prejudices, failed expectations, and cultural taboos that cannot be held back, much as there is a cultural pressure to neglect or overlook such realities. The inherited trauma feeds the pain and consequently lights up Cristina A. Bejan’s poetry.

Growing up with an immigrant parent, and constantly aware of her heritage, Cristina A. Bejan’s other interests in totalitarism, genocide and communism infuse her poetry, as well. In her prose poem, “Opening the Orange Envelope”, the author offers an account of how her grandparents and parents navigated and survived communism, since their abusive arrest and imprisonment as enemies of the state to their legacy:

My father showed us who these packages were going to, with black and white             photographs he pulled out of an orange envelope. When he was sleeping or out of the   house, I would regularly sneak into his home office upstairs and open the orange envelope and peak into a world forbidden to me.

Topics such as sexual assault and mental health are vulnerable and require a certain willingness to address the raw details. In her poem, “Under your mattress”, such revelations are bravely delivered:

Put it under your mattress

The money

The truth

The pain

That’s my Romanian father’s American mantra.

“Cristina, put this 200 dollars under your mattress.

Cristina, don’t tell anyone of the rape, the breakdowns, the sexual harassment.

Just stuff it under your mattress, no one looks there.

The traumatic past as a victim of sexual assault or abuse is further investigated in other poems such as “To my rapist” and “#Simplicity” that not only detail the mixed emotions but also act as an opportunity to purge the pain and come to terms with its legacy. The cathartic power of writing is the path the author embraces on her journey to deliver serenity, without ever willing to forget.

In a collection that recounts her cultural origins and the aggressions of the communist totalitarian regime, while touching sensitive subjects as sexual assault or mental health, Cristina A. Bejan invites her reader on a joyful, sorrowful journey whose vibrancy is bound to seduce their senses.

The poetry collection was also beautifully translated into Romanian by Mădălina Mangalagiu as “Cai verzi pe pereți” (Editura Tracus Arte, 2022) and can be found here: https://edituratracusarte.ro/produs/cai-verzi-pe-pereti-cristina-a-bejan/

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Clara Burghelea is a Romanian-born poet with an MFA in Poetry from Adelphi University. Recipient of the Robert Muroff Poetry Award, her poems and translations appeared in Ambit, Waxwing, The Cortland Review and elsewhere. Her second poetry collection Praise the Unburied was published with Chaffinch Press in 2021. She is Review Editor of Ezra, An Online Journal of Translation.

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Coasting Through Winter. a review of books by Gordon Phinn

Gordon Phinn

Coasting Through Winter

Works Referenced:

This Is Assisted Dying, Stephanie Green (Scribner 2022)
The Philosophy of Modern Song, Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster 2022)
Gangsters of Capitalism, Jonathan M. Katz (St. Martin’s Press 2021)
They Knew, Sarah Kendzior (Flatiron Books 2022)
Untold Stories: How The Light Gets In, Michael Posner (Simon & Schuster 2022)
The Animals, Cary Fagan (Book*Hug 2022)
A Factotum in The Book Trade, Marius Kociejowski (Biblioasis 2022)
Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, Beatriz Hausner (Book*Hug 2020)
Shadow Blight, Annick MacAskill (Gaspereau Press 2022)

*

When a friend recently recommended Dr. Stephanie Green’s very personal account
of her interest in, and commitment to, medically assisted dying, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

The issue had been of great interest to me over the years of terminal patients petitioning the authorities to change the rules and being refused, on through those with sufficient funds travelling to Switzerland where the procedure had long been legal and thence to Oregon where the north American ice had been broken, while those without that recourse settled for anonymous local assistance groups to provide the helium regularly used for party balloons to ease the transition.  That and the likes of Jack Kevorkian, Dr. Death as he a came to be known, following their vision and finding themselves in the legal spotlight. Having some measure of dignified control over your death as well as your life seemed a primary human civil right to me, one from which all others sprang.

Of course this is a very contentious issue for many, perhaps even eclipsing the abortion debate, and its legalisation in Canada, 2016, was a triumphant celebration for some and an ethical disaster for others.  But for the early adopters, as we like to say, the clinicians who felt the call, there were the far more practical matters of studying the government’s guidelines on eligibility and proper procedure.  Dr. Green, it should be noted, had been a maternity nurse for nigh on twenty years and was beginning to wonder what other opportunities might be beckoning from around the corner when the choice presented itself.

Based in Victoria on Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast, where it turns out, the highest number of requests for end-of-life services has now been noted, she began accepting referrals from doctors whose patients were at the end of their ropes and more than ready to take advantage of the new federal legislation of that spring.  Her memoir of that first year, This Is Assisted Dying, is a remarkable document, and will, I predict, be seen someday as a landmark in Canadian medical history.  She carefully illustrates the variety of family situations she encountered in her quest to aid the eligible to end the anguish of incapacitation and suffering that their conditions remorselessly dictated, whether fading away in hospice or home.  While the decision to bring their suffering to a halt, under Canada’s new law, rested entirely with the patient, spouses and adult children often pushed for a last minute reversal, pleading and sometimes bullying for what they thought was sensible and ethically defensible, with the patient’s agonies somehow kicked to the bottom of the list of priorities.  All the patients, I might add, were unconditionally grateful to have their wishes finally acknowledged by the system in which the doctors operated, some going as far as demanding the outraged promptly remove their passionate declarations of faith from the room.

It seems de riguer in memoirs for the author to recount their own upbringing and childhood wounds and confusions, explaining in Freudian fashion their path to dealing with the traumas of others.  While the author dutifully follows this pattern I’m not sure it is in any way relevant to the compassionate action she finds herself in service to.  Such embroideries seem superfluous to the momentous shift in public policy which replaces the god-decides-on-the-length-of-your-suffering dogma to the individual-is

-sovereign-in-assessing-their-situation, which may, in its turn, become the new ruling orthodoxy.

As a recent Globe & Mail article has outlined there are further complications on the horizon, and one of the author’s consultations points this up. A scheduled visit to a potential recipient quickly becomes edgy as the patient’s description of their symptoms and needs seems wonkily unbalanced and looks to be tangled with the disembodied voices of schizophrenia and suicidal fantasies.  While she manages to make a dignified exit with her sanity and bodily autonomy intact, Dr. Green is undoubtedly rattled. As the legislation in Canada is soon to be enhanced and broadened to include those suffering with conditions more psychiatric than physical, with the inevitable disagreements among clinicians over who has lost it and who might one day regain it, depending on new drugs and innovative treatment regimens, such situations might become more the norm that we’d prefer.  While we might fret over confused and inaccurate diagnoses, the hungry and homeless, who more often than not make up the bulk of our untreated psychiatric case load, seem as keen as the physically destroyed to be allowed legal access to the great beyond, where their port of arrival cannot possibly be any worse than their departure point.

*

While Bob Dylan’s enigmatic and prophetic lyrics continue to haunt our collective conscious and unconscious, his writings have yet to reach those dizzying heights.  His new collection of short essays and appraisals “The Philosophy of the Modern Song” might change that.  A bulky and tastefully illustrated volume, it cuts into our perceptions of the ‘modern song’, serving forth pretty much anything from the last hundred years, with a vision as iconoclastic as one might expect from this troubadour of the life incarnate and the mystery sublime.  In his chapters, imaginative and poetic fantasias on the song’s mysterious vibe compete with more sturdy assessments of its place and radiating influence in pop music history.  Iconic rock songs like “The Who’s My Generation” and the “Grateful Dead’s Truckin’” take their place alongside blues and rock n’ roll songs from the 50’s, throw away pop from the 60’s and 70’s and obscurities from the 20’s and 30’s.

Make no mistake, this is a survey that stretches to the horizons, forsaking the shallows for deep dives into murky waters, muddy depths where occasional glints make for surprising illuminations.  As something of an obsessive music buff myself I was pleased to be ushered into dusty and uninhabited corners where details of forgotten careers and sloppily hidden sources spring up to slap me awake.  I can only hope the ‘Tell me something I don’t know’ mantra also applies to you.

Uncle Dave Macon’s Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy from 1924, “predates rock and roll by about thirty years” and is “Chuck Berry years before Chuck first duck-walked.”  Also, “The song is related to the talking blues.  It’s like Walt Whitman if he ever was a musician.  The song contains multitudes.”  And really, “How different is this from Kristofferson’s ‘He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction’.  Is it the same message for a different audience?  Or as Sly would’ve said ‘different strokes for different folks’?

Witness Tommy Edwards 1958 ballad It’s All in The Game.  Sure, “Carl Sigman wrote the lyrics, but the melody was written at least forty years earlier by Charles Dawes, who later went on to become vice president under Calvin Coolidge.”  Sigman, “wrote the lyrics forty years after Dawes wrote the melody, and Tommy Edwards had the hit seven years after that.  Sometimes a song needs to find its time.  Other times you have to get it in the street the next day.  As for the game of love, sometimes if you are a spectator you can understand or see the game a lot better than the people who are playing it.”  Amen brother.

What about the Eagles’ Witchy Woman from 72?  You’ve been singing it almost as much as Take It Easy, about that woman in the flatbed Ford telling you not to let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.  Well, in the song bible according to Bob, “In 1954, Bob Luman wrote, recorded and released a rockabilly beside titled Twitchy Woman, and it has remained one of his lesser known songs.  Eighteen years later Bernie Leadon removed the first letter from the title and launched Henley’s song writing career with lyrics describing an hallucinogenic amalgamation of succubus and thaumaturge, equal parts troubadour temptress and Jazz Age casualty, conjured up partially by reading the Nancy Mitford biography of Zelda Fitzgerald in the throes of a flu-ridden fever dream.”  Myself I’d have been happy to line it up with the Doors 20th Century Fox, Donovan’s Young Girl Sunday Blues or Van Morrison’s Gloria.

I could go on, amusingly, historically and genre bending to the max, but I’ll leave you begging for more, just like all the best musicians.  Suffice to say Dylan, in all his magisterial appreciations, spans modern American culture in all its garish sing-song glamour and at times tracks the spider web effects of that empire on the rest of us enmeshed in its seductive charms.

*

Enthusiastically spreading one’s prized culture throughout the known world is a project several empires have eagerly embraced, America being the latest, with China chasing its tail with its own brand of cunning.  General Smedley Butler was one of those enthusiasts.  A confirmed Quaker with an unapologetic taste for the glories of conquest, the kind that is supposed to civilize the savage and make him susceptible to the exported products of the conquering nation.  The Egyptians, the Romans, The Italians, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Turks, the Dutch, the French, the British…they’ve all taken turns at being top dog before exhausting the energy it takes to sustain domination, but not before the profits are banked and the spoils secured for posterity.

The Great Game of geopolitics passes around its party favours to all who can grab while the going’s good.  Hang on to your clown hats and candies less someone else takes them in that smash and grab exercise that is the clash of civilisations.  All these salacious details have been pointed up in many a study and need not be debated further here.  From real estate to mineral extraction, museum bound art and antiquities, exotic cuisines and musical styles, cultural exchange has been regularly expedited by the bully boys of conquest.  The United States absorption of such glittering treasures as they ram the reputed benefits of democracy down the throats of any who dare to resist their operatic insistence is really no more rapacious than their forebears on gunboat and horse, but high tech theft is still theft.

Johnathan Katz’s retracing of Smedley Butler’s empire building trek, aptly titled Gangsters of Capitalism, employs a variety of reports and papers that were saved from careful destruction and many letters from the general to his mom as he made the grand tour as an enlisted Marine, gradually taking on more and more responsibilities until finally leading the charge, decimating cultures that they might more easily be rejigged for Wall Street bankers and their ilk.  Cuba, the Philipines, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti and Shanghai were some of his ports of call as he dutifully subdued local resistance, all the while providing righteous heroic narratives for the newspapers and movie makers back home.  I was familiar with all this mythmaking from Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (2006) but Katz’s take, quoting letters and following Smedley’s path decades later, lends an undeniable and sometimes piquant personal touch.

As the idealistic young Quaker longs to participate in the glories of conquest, then finds himself commanding battalions as country after country falls to Washington’s overwhelming military powers, then sees through the mists of his naivete to become the author of “War Is a Racket”, a fifty page pamphlet designed, it would appear, to stop Americans for falling for the propaganda for the next war in Europe.  A later series of articles for the lefty magazine Common Sense spelt out his position with scalpel like precision: “I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street, …seeing to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.  I spent 33 years in active service as a member of the Marine Corps, serving in all commissioned ranks from second Lieutenant to Major-General.  And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers.  In short I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

That Smedley’s passions still reverberate is shown in the recent film “Amsterdam”, a mad caper comedy, which slots in the story of that 1935 ‘business’ coup, where tycoons like the DuPonts attempted to bribe Butler into leading a group of disgruntled vets on a march to Washington in the hopes of overthrowing the New Deal policies of Roosevelt and indeed Franklin himself, a task he turned down flatly, reporting the attempt to Congress almost immediately.  Smug comparisons to the Jan.6 attack on the Capitol are not entirely out of place.

That the fierce debate between expansionists and anti-imperialists has deep roots, going back as far as 1898, with the annexation of Hawaii and invasion of Cuba on the horizon, is also undeniable.  Kinzer’s later study The True Flag, details some of the passionate rhetoric exchanged in the Senate.  Octavius Bacon of Georgia: “Seeing that the Executive only has such powers as are given in the Constitution, I want to know under what clause the Senator finds the power to seize the territory of a neutral country with which we are not at war.”  John Tyler Morgan of Alabama replied that it was foolish to dwell on constitutional niceties when vital interests were at stake.  Taking Hawaii was ‘absolutely necessary for properly providing for the situation.’  As a precedent he cited Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Florida in 1818, which brought the United States rich new territory that it probably could not have obtained legally.”  Of the newspaper headlines quoted the most apposite is Paris’s Le Temps, concluding that the United States had become “the predestined instrument of that imperialism that is latent in every democracy.”

*

Does the lust for imperial power imperil the checks and balances inherent in democracy, not to mention the ethical standards that a Christian nation should observe?  Does the unbridled ambition for endlessly expanding markets and gargantuan profits ensure the cover-up of corruption and criminal activity in government and corporation?  For Sarah Kendzior the answer would be an unqualified Yes!

Her passionate polemic, fed by shocked disbelief and outrage, is yet another tributary to that sea of sour skepticism that greets every new development in the scandal sheets and podcasts that surround our daily schedules.

Beginning with the revelations in Rush To Judgement, Mark Lane’s sharp critique of the many gaping holes in the Warren Commission report, which I brazenly employed in a high school essay circa 1969, I have been following the trails of conspiracies and cover-ups all my adult life, gradually deepening my understanding of the many tentacles of the octopus as it snakes along the ocean floor well below the conspicuously hobbled radar of mainstream media, as it continues to debunk all the truths that point the finger at those who can always wriggle free, using their hidden connections, wealth, power and anonymous threats.  Conspiracy Theory, a phrase coined by the CIA way back when to get their media stooges to undermine the credibility of UFO researchers for generations, at least until the recent Pentagon admissions, has become the new ‘heretic’ category, joining ‘hippie’, ‘commie’ and all the other slurs that condemn the messengers and deflect the message.

Kendzior’s take is more national than international, reflecting that customary naïve navel-gazing that american critics indulge in, assuming that the exceptionalism they deride is somehow shockingly new and different, as if ruthless power plays and corrupt practices did not exert their nastiness before 1900.

Imperial Rome anyone?  Her angle is mainly how the current culture of conspiracy renders America complacent to the continued rotting of whatever democratic values are left on the table when the elites have hoovered up their share.  While she acknowledges the stink of the sixties assassinations, the 2008 financial collapse, the rancid leftovers of 9/11 and the Iraq weapons-of-deception war, she saves her vitriol for the examined but unpunished criminality of the Trump and Epstein era and the appalling mismanagement and deliberate deceptions of the virus panic.

Though a fearless and focused critic, exposing issues and naming names, Kendzior’s youth, slowly shading into middle age, tells me her Dantesque trek into the dark wood is far from over.  As They Knew breaks much ground from her previous View From Flyover Country and Hiding In Plain Sight, I anticipate further appalling revelations in her next work.  As someone who has stepped into the muddy puddles of mockery and character assassination she will have her work cut out for her.  For now, if you wonder why Operation Paperclip and Operation Mockingbird sound familiar but the names Danny Casolaro and ‘the Octopus’ or Tom O’Neil’s ‘Chaos’ don’t ring any bells, this is as fine a base camp for your exploration as any.  As she writes, “There are grifters and liars and fantasists immersed in conspiracy culture, but there are also many people who simply refuse to surrender their conscience or curiosity to a social imperative to look the other way.”

*

The last volume of Michael Posner’s oral biography of Leonard Cohen, That’s How The Light Gets In, has made its appearance just in time for the holiday season, and along with the new documentary Hallelujah, the display of Cohen memorabilia at the Art Gallery Of Ontario and the surprize appearance of some previously unpublished stories, A Ballet Of Lepers, composed in the 57 to 61 period, when Let Us Compare Mythologies and The Spice Box of Earth were establishing Cohen the poet, it promises to be a Leonard Cohen Christmas for one and all.  I have been trekking through Posner’s almost encyclopaedic reconstruction of the poet’s life and times with something approaching delighted fascination this past year or so.  To say it fills in the gaps of my already bloated knowledge of Canada’s treasured export to the world would be something of an understatement.  With around 550 contributors, many gleefully contradicting each other’s accounts and assessments within the multilayered narrative as the rebel Jewish rich boy quits the confines of his father’s estate, Siddhartha-like, to seek the far reaches of experience and behaviour, charming with song and seductive melancholy.  His assemblage of reputations, for creative dedication, skirt chasing, selfless generosity, scholarly debate and a genuine spiritual humility are only amplified in Posner’s generous display of giddy contradictions.  There were, it would seem, many Cohens for encounter and reaction: the poet, the folksinger, the proud Jew, the label-less mystic, the voluptuary, the unrepentant horndog, the common man strolling anonymously behind shades, the obsessively dedicated worker in song.

Yes, what we have here is a genuine enigma, whose many faces did not add up to any solvable equation but only more folds of mystery:  An icon of Canadian culture about as impenetrable as Glenn Gould,  a world traveler with many psychic passports, each with a smile and a greeting in the native tongue, a chronic depressive always seeking a father figure, a womaniser with a heart of gold.

His standing in the acclaimed song writer leagues remains in flux.  Posner’s witnesses do him a disfavour by restricting their comparisons to Dylan, while other contenders are more or less ignored: Simon, McCartney, Mitchell, Buckley, (Nick)Drake, to name but a few.  Myself, I rate the earlier material much higher than that of the later professional entertainer, doffing the hat and kneeling to stage, mocking his youthful sincerity for bags of cash.  For about a decade his songs evoked the sublime and existed in the realm of the sacred, later he talked up the sublime and sacred as one who regretted his departure from it.  As is said in Zen, a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.

Meanwhile Posner’s gargantuan contribution to Cohen studies will remain unmatched for many a year.

*

Some books slot themselves, sometimes carefully, sometimes giddily, between genres.  Playing with flowers in some as yet unnamed meadow of writerly craft and invention, the authors of such volumes take great pleasure in escaping any attempt by reader or critic to frame the narrative in the descriptors common to literary discussion.  Cary Fagan’s novella The Animals arrives without those ribbons and bows to announce its intentions.  Nominally a fable feeding on the mildly fantastic, the village in which its interactions take their place could be medieval Germany or Sweden with English speaking natives but for the tease of automobiles and modern conveniences.  The city is a distant refuge for those uncomfortable with compact homes on narrow streets.  The hero is a woodcutter with a penchant for models, many of which decorate the displays of local shops.  His one true love is a schoolteacher whom he courts from a distance until the last line where, after many travails, he seems to win her heart.

Such a romantic denouement might be more satisfying if their circuitous route to relationship commitment were not hampered by the presence of wild animals, such as wolves, minks and bears in village homes did not constitute such a repeated obstruction to civilised behaviour.  The reek of the fairy tale, with its magical surprizes and gruesome violence, is never far from the reader’s nostrils.  The calm unruffled prose of subdued linearity which conveys this contentious mix neatly removes any threat of the post-modern from the mix, leaving one to contemplate the indignities deployed with authorial invention without that particular safety net.

Surprising as it may seem I am not one who objects to being puzzled in the course of a fictional unfolding.  I am, in fact, all too easily delighted.  From time to time I have been accused of being a push-over. Well, throw me in the jigsaw and let me part the waters of the mystery.  I came away from this one with an increasing admiration for Fagan’s subtle blend of the trite and surreal.  With his quiet under-the-radar track record, a quality the uninitiated might not know, I should have guessed.  This is not a novel to be put down and avoided, as the old joke goes, it is one to be picked out and treasured.

*

Books about books, books about bookselling, books about collecting books and repeatedly buying new shelving, books about the love of literature superseding all else.  For our crowd, what’s not to like?

The perfect accompaniment to afternoon sun slipping through the dining room window with a dusky red or Belgian ale to wet the whistle, Mozart quartets or Jacobean lute to serenade the already soothed nerves, what in all our blessed creation could be better?

I am sure some of you have suggestions, and may I suggest you compose an essay in praise of that particular learning as I would delight in reading it.  In the meantime we have Marius Kociejowski’s memoir A Factotum In The Book Trade to revel in, a series of exquisitely rendered reminiscences of a life lived in service to the bound pages of text and the rapscallions who trade in them.  While much of the worship is devoted to that category of literary exchange only the snobby posh can afford, the first edition and the antiquarian, the relish is real and the combat with the uncivilised other unending.

The author’s long employment as an assistant in various bookshops, some of great renown, mostly in that city of deep literary provenance, London, and tucked within the sanctified pocket of Cecil Court where the names of saints like Bertram Rota are whispered by the cognoscenti, and where his undistinguished childhood in Canada was smoothly disposed of, provides the ambitious sequence of anecdotes, some amusing, others overlong, some scandalous and some a profligate admixture of each, shapes an often enthralling narrative of posturing eccentrics and obsessives, each more debilitatingly wonky than the last.  Old, smelly clothes, sardines straight from the can and vodka for dessert: welcome to the world of bibliomania.

Unlike the tawdry parade of money grubbing owners and collectors, it was “all about books and people” for the ever put-upon factotum of the title, a poet and travel writer of some distinction whose works I am now keen to consume, having delighted in his rare picaresque recountings of the prideful and paranoid that the business attracts.  Without putting too fine a point on it, these tattle tales of shameless behaviour reek of the young idealist gone sour with dreams shattered.  Other career paths have their own pitfalls I hear, but automobile assemblers, waitresses and bus drivers rarely commit themselves to print, so it falls to the artsy and scholarly to give us the goods.  Poor babies all.

*

Is it possible that two poetic utterances specialising in classical allusions might appear in our snug harbour, ready to tie up at the pier and disgorge their rarified contents?  It would appear so, and having just read an article on the Greek poet Ovid and the success of his first book of poems detailing methods of picking up women in public spaces, I was keen to be saturated, at least temporarily, in such racy behaviour.

With such section titles as The Importance of Human Romance and The Orgasm Elegies in Beatriz Hausner’s Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart I felt the gods were guiding me, perhaps ones of ill repute.  The sensuous music of Hausner’s lyrics is best experienced with the live unfolding of her incantatory declamation, one example of which I was fortunate to attend.  As a listener one is gradually submerged in the warm waters of evocation as the textures and rhythms wash one into the dream.  As a reader the language takes longer to entwine the little you gamely trying to stay afloat in its magic as the intellect takes some pride in untying the knots of the obscure and obfuscatory.  Once that effort is retired, however, the reader, now a spy in the house of love, can delight in the carnival caress of unknowing and be seduced by the siren song drawing you ever onward.

Begins the Bright Season

heal this wound start to rest easy in your company

turn around make your case for the importance of human

romance between these legs you and your veins where

flows the liquid spice welling at your sex as the tie is

wrapped around your wrist in order to be joyous again

indeed – blood and fear and reticence hardened once

when silence echoed.  Repent the mournful sounds.

stop.  Between your eye is my heart.  See this, we

stand at the beginning of the bright season indeed and

remember the black herons were perched on black rock

they cackled their song.  Let me be the expert of your

ecstasy and repeat make your case for the importance

of human romance you who are kingly come indeed do

lie here and let us be you and I here as we stand at the

beginning of the new day we will dance among

us and with ourselves dance dance dance

*

The spectre of the tragic haunts the lyrics of Annick MacAskill’s Shadow Blight and although I was heretofore unfamiliar with the figure of Niobe in classical myth, whose loss of her children turned her into stone, I felt drawn closer to those fires of grief where we warm ourselves with the relief of distance.

Knowing but ultimately rejecting the power of myth over our lives, I wished to stand free of such encumbrances but the poet’s identification with the suffering of Niobe, and by extension, all women, called me to salute her nobility of intent.

Yet when the author, citing Ovid’s Metamophoses as her primary literary inspiration for the project, declares Niobe to have been the proud mother of twelve or so children, taunting her friend Latona for having only two then finding that Latona, former consort of Jupiter, now possessed with the lust for vengeance, orders her son and daughter Apollo and Diana to kill Niobe’s children, whereupon her husband commits suicide and she, understandably sorrowful, turns to stone, one is more drawn to the realm of satire than that of the tragic.  Teasing your girl pal for her lack of issue is, perhaps, a rash error to be immediately retracted.  And if she is a babe of the elite, however constituted, an insolence above and beyond the call of stupidity.

Can one, in this modern era of prideful rationality, be a heretic of pagan myth as well as Christian dogma?  Mea culpa I guess.  I will not be “shut up in stillness” as MacAskill intimates.  Yet her efficacy in expression still holds my admiration, as exemplified in the following.

Small Warblers  (after Dioreann Ni Ghriofa)

I did not know that’s why they were there,

suddenly, and everywhere, in the trees and on

the sidewalks, inconsequential and familiar,

yet sparkling, like perfect round jewels

with the most remarkable prismatic calls.  Like a brook, winding

through winter and spring, spilling,

across cities and mountains and along the Atlantic

and before every window I would find.  I started noticing,

as of blinking through a mist, searching,

thinking of God or romantic love, their sounds

like noise or music, and sometimes

these things were indistinguishable, as in a baby’s cry.

Their ordinariness does not diminish them.

Now I tilt my head, and listen.

Return to Jounal

Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit.  Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.

Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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‘If She Must Be a Myth’. a review of Heather Clark’s Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. by Dr. Suzanne M. Steele

‘If She Must Be a Myth’
Review of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath
by Heather Clark, Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.

The old comparisons to Medea and Electra no longer hold. If she [Plath] must be a myth, let her be Ariadne, laying down the threads, leading us out from the centre of the labyrinth. Let us not desert her.

~ Heather Clark, Red Comet (937)

I’m just finishing this brilliant yet very heavy (literally at 1100 pages, and figuratively) biography of Sylvia Plath by the American biographer, Heather Clark. To say it is a tour-de-force is an understatement. And yes, it does what Clark sets out to do, and that is shift the focus from her death, despite its ever-presence in the collective literary conscious, to a rich, rich life filled with good and loyal friends, people who cared for her deeply with friendship (and financial assistance), even to her final days/hours. The carefully detailed description of this care certainly corrected my previous understanding of Plath as a woman I had been under the impression had been left wholly abandoned, sick, to die alone; many people were absolutely present for her, even hours before her death 24/7, and this speaks of how worthy people felt she was.

The miracle of Plath, I realize as I read this 1100-page hard cover book (ouch, I had to use a pillow on my lap), is that she wrote anything lasting at all, never mind what many believe to be the very best of 20th century poetry, given the circumstances of her post-marriage, quotidian life and her times as a woman of the 1950s – early 60s. And of this poetry — the very best of her best— she wrote while weighted down by tremendous grief and loss at her husband’s desertion and the knowledge of his comparatively breezy life with another woman/women, coupled with his increasing fame and rising financial fortune. And oh, the irony that a woman’s best work comes from a man’s absence.

Plath was raising two very young and frequently ill toddlers alone in a foreign country. She had money worries, struggles with conventionality, the pressing need to be with a man (it was the early 60s and to be a single mother was unthinkable as only 2% of UK women were at the time), the horrendous cold of the 1963 winter, and UK housing (it may have been Yeats’s house, but the heat wasn’t working, and the bath was filled with brown sludge). Then there was the woefully inadequate psychiatric care of the times; Plath was a stew of prescribed antidepressants, sleeping pills, and OTC pharmaceuticals at the time of her death, for which many of the contraindications were not fully understood at the time.

Plath’s friendships ran deep, and as the author illustrates, these were loyal and good friendships, many with other women. One of these was with Ruth Fainlight, an American poet living in the UK at the time of Plath and Fainlight’s meeting (she still lives there). Both very young and brilliant poets, they were married to men who quickly became more ‘famous’ than they, despite their talents. Fainlight was married to Allan Sillitoe, author of Saturday Night Sunday Morning (made into a film with Albert Finney in 1960), and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (another novel turned into a film) and much more. Both husbands, Ted Hughes and Sillitoe, were working class men who broke through the upper echelons of the British class system through their art (the chip on the shoulder and how fame only partially mitigates it is not explored deeply enough in this book I believe, and actually may not have been understood quite enough by Plath). The friendships between the couples were close, yet sometimes I wonder if Fainlight and Sillitoe were at an advantage, since they engaged in different genres (poetry vs. prose/drama) than the Plath/Hughes poetry sweepstakes.

Fainlight and Plath found in each other a comradeship as outsiders, talented women of great ambition who worked against a tsunami of sexism, dismissal, and cultural expectation. Undoubtably they would, as Americans, have been labelled outsiders in the UK — yet another barrier. Certainly, as the author of the biography illustrates over and over, Plath’s ‘Americanism’ — her beautifully coiffed hair, her figure, her clothing, and how she kept her home sparkly and beautifully decorated (in contrast to post-war, dreary Britain), etc. — created real barriers for her as she lived in a cold, grey climate of mediocrity (oh the food!) among people still reeling from the war.

I myself remember, as late as the 1990s, while living overseas, hearing the denigration of Americans. They were mocked for their shiny looks, their enthusiasm, their ‘over-friendliness,’ and I recall that they were criticized especially for their nice teeth.

To be compared to one’s more ‘famous’ or distinguished or accomplished husband is beyond disheartening — especially if one is equal to or more talented than said husband. I’m afraid that I too am guilty of perpetrating such nonsense. In 2014, I met Ruth Fainlight at the Robert Graves conference in Mallorca (my PhD focuses on Graves’s WWI experiences). Because I was friends with RG’s son, William Graves, I was invited to many meals and social activities, which Ruth was also part of. I remember sitting next to her, introducing myself, and asking her about her interest in RG. Fainlight and her husband had known RG well; they had gone to Mallorca to be close to him. Fainlight was a poet, she told me. Then she told me that she was Allan Sillitoe’s widow.

Well, I am ashamed to say that I gushed about Sillitoe’s Saturday Night, and asked way too many questions about him rather than Ruth’s work (which I ought to have at the very least googled and studied in detail that very night out of sheer courtesy). And thus I played into the stinging hand of sexism and being in the shadow of fame that dogged Plath, and, I suspect, Fainlight, for most of their creative lives (Plath, as we know, promoted Hughes heartily from the very beginning, typing his work, sending it off, celebrating his victories; I suspect Fainlight had done the same). I feel I owe Fainlight an apology (and shall do so via email later today).

I am lingering in the latter pages of Red Comet, wanting to finish it yet also not. The author’s analysis of the poetry is extremely good. When I first saw it in 2020, I honestly wondered why one might need to read another Plath biography. Well, the author has managed to disentangle Plath from the pity of pathos, and has created a clear-eyed record of brilliance despite all. Still, this is a cautionary tale for any woman who might (even to this day) believe she can ‘have it all’; that is, as a mother, wife, human being, and — horror-of-all-horrors — as an artist.

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Writers’ Wives. non-fiction by Eva Salzman

EvaSalzman

Writers’ Wives

The Victorian writer’s equivalent of a Reader’s Wife photo might resemble Coventry Patmore’s homage to his first wife, Emily, that “Angel in the House”, which is also the title of a work for which he should surely be remembered. Men like Millais, Ruskin (who was shocked on this wedding night by his wife’s pubic hair), and Tennyson all shared Patmore’s enthusiasm for a particular kind of wife. According to Katherine Moore, author of Victorian Wives, she had to be “without self-pity or rebellion or reproach or any hint of ugliness or failure. She  did not have much sense of humour perhaps, but this was not required of her.” However, adds Moore, Milton’s “He for God only, she for God in him” didn’t really work in Eden either.

Patmore had two more wives (the first one died decorously young and beautiful). Then, at the age of 70, he fell in love with a poetess — an intellectual who was totally unsuited to domesticity and wife-hood, as he and a whole lot of Victorian stuffed shirts understood those terms. Shame.

Coleridge married Sarah, but Asra was his muse. H.G. Wells stayed good and married even while falling in love with and carrying on his affair with the more literary and, no doubt, altogether more challenging Rebecca West. Boswell, in search of a wife, discounted some who yet did splendidly as mistresses.

To fall for the “other”, the unattainable or distant one, is equally a woman’s prerogative (take it from me), but the satisfaction may be less if there is no one minding the hearth and little ones at home. Anais Nin sensibly kept her banker husband (or should I say he sensibly kept her), but there seem to be fewer successful arrangements this way around, partly maybe because most men do not so easily forgive a woman’s infidelity. That sort of tolerance takes generations of practise and training, a few carrots, and more than a few sticks.

According to Virginia Woolf, the American Gilbert Imlay loved Mary Wollstonecraft, but was also “exasperated by her intelligence…her quickness, her penetration.… [It] harassed him. She saw through his excuses; she met all his reasons; she was even capable of managing his business.” If women are going to say the unsayable, they are first supposed to learn how to make it sayable. Or they can just let somebody else say it for them.

The history pages are strewn with the names of intellectual helpmeets who were often not these writers’ wives — but there were usually wives to boot (if you’ll pardon the expression). Perhaps to be the “other” was preferable to some women, since then the hard work of basking in a husband’s glory — not to mention facilitating his career by erecting (pardon, again) and maintaining a secure and protective domestic structure around the preoccupied and fragile creative mind — could be safely entrusted to the wife. George Meredith’s first wife, Mary Ellen Peacock, a widow when he met her, was attached enough to her independence to say no to his marriage proposal six times.

She was the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock and a writer before she ever met Meredith. Regardless of the merits of her contributions to the canon of Victorian literature, Meredith rated them enough to eventually publish versions under his own name. Naughty boy.

Ah, I hear you say, versions. Working as an editor at The Printer’s Devil magazine, I recall excising much purple prose from the work of one established writer. The end product always stayed in the writer’s ownership, nonetheless. It’s called editing, though it’s curious how an editor’s powers vary, depending on the sex of the writer being edited.

I was accordingly edited by the Devil, but never allowed to deliver the Sermon, which was the Editorial heart and soul of the magazine. I was permitted to develop ideas, edit material from the slush pile, stuff envelopes, and perform administrative tasks. I was always allowed to tidy up. Once, when I picked out a story from the slush pile, my male colleague tried to pass it off as his discovery, thinking — mistakenly, as it turned out, hilariously — that the writer was someone famous writing under a pseudonym. The greatest privilege I was granted was working on the Introduction, but that had no byline.

Who was it that said one can’t be a writer if one has to do the laundry? By this what was meant, presumably, was not that such humble tasks were beneath the artist, but rather that one’s time is limited, and a writer — that most inventive of procrastinators — is only too willing to be lured by the interminable list of tasks which make up our ordinary lives and that manage to keep him away from his desk. Sorry, I meant to say her desk.

Anyway, Walden Pond didn’t seem to contain adequate wetness for Thoreau’s laundry because he sent a pile to his mother each week; but hell, that shouldn’t stop us from admiring his experiment in self-sufficiency (who would argue that his mother’s contribution counted in such matters weighty and profound?)

The desire to serve the loved one is strong, but often the one being served ends up loathing their servant. I remember watching a journalist friend contemptuously shrug off his partner’s solicitousness when he came home from work (though she works too) — you know, slippers and so forth. Maybe he was just embarrassed because I was there.

Henry James writes of an incident described by the writer Prosper Mérimée, living with George Sand at the time: “…he once opened his eyes, in the raw winter dawn, to see his companion in a dressing-gown, on her knees before the domestic hearth, a candle-stick beside her and a red madras round her head, making bravely, with her own hands the fire that was to enable her to sit down betimes to urgent pen and paper. The story represents him as having felt that the spectacle chilled his ardour and tried his taste; her appearance was unfortunate, her occupations an inconsequence, and her industry a reproof — the results of all which was a lively irritation and an early rupture.” Rarely have I read such an exact articulation of the paradox of women’s lives, and how men view the domestic roles which are supposed to be a woman’s prime allure.

I think that my mother is right; I need a wife. But what do I do if I only fall in love with men? Besides which, a traditional wife might not suit my style — my writing style, that is. I wouldn’t dream of having a wife who didn’t make an important contribution to my work, either as intellectual companion or active muse. My requirements wouldn’t be as stringent as U.A. Fanthorpe’s: “Must be in mint condition, not disposed/ To hayfever, headaches, hangovers, hysteria, these being/ The Poet’s prerogative./…Must be visible/invisible…/…In public will lead/ The laughter, applause, the unbearably moving silence…/…” (“The Poet’s Companion”).

Is there enough compensation in playing amanuensis in the literary myth? It’s not easy being a muse. We have our own ideas about our beauty and splendour, after all. And to be passive and grateful is the hardest work I know.

Sometimes, the woman’s very existence is essential to the man’s writing. George MacDonald and William Godwin are two men whose dicks didn’t go limp  — to quote an Australian male friend of mine — under the weight (sorry) of strong and wilful women. The marriages of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Robert Browning worked for all concerned. Louisa May Alcott’s mother suggested that not all played a conventional hand. Says Boswell: “A great part of the happiness of lovers and friends consists in the high opinion which they entertain of each other.”

Lawrence and Frieda argued on an epic scale, yet he told her to go ahead and have whomever she wanted (not that she would have waited for his permission). She never stopped insisting on her importance to Lawrence’s work — nor did Lawrence, in his own way. It is not suggested that she was his co-author, but Lawrence asked her opinion and she helped him re-write, sometimes insisting he was missing the point; due to her, Paul Morel was re-named Sons and Lovers.

Replying to the editor Edward Garnett’s negative response to The Sisters (later to split and become The Rainbow and Women in Love), she took the blame for the women’s “wooden characterisations,” according to Brenda Maddox, author of The Married Man: A Life of D.H. Lawrence: “They are me, these beastly, superior, arrogant females!” She also asked for Garnett to trust her, that “the new book would be all right after revision… Garnett was unpersuaded. But, after nine months together, Lawrence and Frieda were mutually convinced that their imperfect union had catalysed his gift and was turning a good writer into a great one.”

Joyce also fell for the earthy sex goddess type of muse who was not to be consigned to a mistress’s flat the other side of town, nor an island the other side of the earth. Unlike the baddies of this story, these men gave themselves permission to both love and marry their erotic obsessions — even if you could argue that this course of action contributed to their later impotence. Lawrence’s terror of being consumed by such a woman was in itself essential to his oeuvre, and puts me in mind of the writer’s tendency to order his private life to facilitate his art.

Joyce compared himself with Heine, who also sported an uneducated mistress. However convenient it might have been for Joyce to view Nora Barnacle as illiterate and as his own creation — his own “portable Ireland” as Brenda Maddox puts it in her biography of Nora — the truth was quite otherwise. Aside from one often-quoted letter of stilted style, she appears to have written as she spoke, spontaneously and passionately, and her often unpunctuated letters led the Joyce scholar Phillip Herring to conclude that Nora must have been an important influence on the Molly Bloom monologue at the end of Ulysess. (As an aside, this may  explain why I spent so many years in an unsuitable relationship with an impossibly sexy dolt of an Irishman, with a voice to die for, and whose ordinary speech  I wanted to capture and keep — that’s my excuse, anyway.)

Nora knew Joyce’s poems by heart. When it came to their spectacularly obscene letters, Nora boasted that she could outdo Joyce in filthiness, and he seems to have agreed. She may have found Ulysses hard going, but her aversion may have been due as much to recognition. “Too many of the lines were her own. She may even have written some of them.”

How much of Wordsworth is Dorothy (the joke goes that his original line was “I wandered lonely as a cow…”)? Did Vivienne Eliot contribute to The Wasteland? (We might even wonder whether her subsequent history was at all in consequence of having never received any credit — for that’s enough to drive you crazy.) We may also wonder about the daughter of Milton, who played his scribe, and about Jane Carlyle’s missed chance; she was certainly equal to her husband when it came to hypochondria, that mark of the true writer.

Al Alvarez told me that Sylvia Plath wanted to be a good wife and mother — which seems to me rather beside the point. Certainly, she was determined to excel in everything she did, including being that perfectionist wife, which must have contributed to her end. The efficiency with which she wrote, played secretary and administrator of not only her own work, but that of her husband, was quite staggering. And yes, it was of her own choice. Perhaps a small part of that initial genuine pride she took in her husband’s work came partly from the fact that she had a hand in its delivery to the outside world. Unquestionably, both writers mutually affected each other’s work in an inextricable way, since part of the relationship was based on that shared vocation.

Someone once pointed out to me how women always scrupulously acknowledge their sources in their conversations, while men naturally just adopt such things as their own. The proof comes on the delivery of some choice epithet you’ve only just heard from someone else — in fact, from the author who was yourself. Nothing wrong with that sort of plagiarism except when the plagiarist swallows whole another author whose fame lay in children or domestic skills.

The successful tenets of midwifery, originally considered a lowly profession, were eventually confiscated by “learned” scientists to be published as their treatises. This is a classic example, especially since these same learned men had originally dismissed the profession and its “heathen charms.”

All writers borrow and steal from each other. It can be part of the initial creative fever, and perhaps it is churlish to unravel who wrote what. I guess if you’ve played second fiddle for too long, it makes you churlish. If we have two writers, then two visions of equal significance and import will end up battling it out. Who gets to be muse and writer? Who gets to put their name in the annals and who gets to be passive participant of a literary myth — as appealing as this may seem?

The formula goes wrong. The writers’ wives, who are themselves writers, share their body and soul as well as ideas and phrases, and chances are they will be the unacknowledged ones, the forgotten ones. Only afterwards, when the possessions get divvied up, does one wonder whether the rightful owner is getting her due, by which time any such claims begin to sound like sour grapes. In the first flush and excitement of love, certainly no one was going to be bothered by thinking about who said what first.

A writer’s most passionate affairs are maybe just metaphors for his/her relationship to literature — though some may claim it’s the other way around. A man’s lust for his muse grows out of his being convinced that this muse, and that lust, will lead him to great literature.

So, when I say I long for a lover, I mean that I am longing for the literature I will make because of him — arising first from passion, then from marriage, childbirth and then divorce. I love you means I love you for making me feel like such a brilliant writer, for exciting me into seeing the world anew, for coming up with phrases I can nick and call my own, for mediating the world through the lay person’s view, so that no one can accuse me of being detached from real life.

Re-reading Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Adrienne Rich is struck by the “sense of effort, of pains taken, of dogged tentativeness, in the tone….I recognised that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and in other women. It is the tone of a woman…determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached and even charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity. Virginia Woolf is addressing an audience of women, but she is acutely conscious…of being overheard by men…she was trying to sound as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare, because that is the way the men of the culture thought a writer should sound. No male writer has written primarily or even largely for women, or with the sense of women’s criticism as a consideration when he chooses his materials, his theme, his language. But to a lesser or greater extent, every woman writer has written for men even when, like Virginia Woolf, she was supposed to be addressing women.”

“Must be well-read,/Well-earthed, well able//To forget her childhood’s grand trajectory,/And sustian with undiminished poise/That saddest dedication: lastly my wife,//Who did the typing.”

*Previously published in Mslexia Magazine, Issue Number 2, Summer 1999

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Eva Salzman’s books include “Double Crossing: New & Selected Poems” (Bloodaxe) and “Bargain with the Watchman” (Oxford).
 
Her libretti and musical collaborations include those with English composer Gary Carpenter, Dublin-born singer Christine Tobin and her father Eric Salzman.
 
Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths (University of London), Salzman has also taught at Emerson College in Boston. Brooklyn and Long Island raised, she is a dual citizen of the USA and UK, living part of the year in London.
 
WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.
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15 August kabul fall. non-fiction, photography by Ahmad Ali Fadakar

ahmad5
 

15 August, Kabul Falls.

I don’t see Kabul anymore. Kabul doesn’t have its own blue sky anymore. And the girls of this city can no longer wear their flowery dresses and skirts. They’ve forgotten their laughter.

It was a dark day for Kabul and its people. I didn’t think at all that the Taliban would take over Kabul, and it was hard for me to even imagine it. Unfortunately, this is what happened. On Sunday morning, August 15th, I went to the German-language class as usual, and I didn’t suspect at all that the Taliban would arrive.

I was in the class when one of my classmates received the news. He said, “The Taliban are in Kabul right now, which means that Kabul has fallen.” This news was very sad for me and for my classmates, especially for the girls. Later, the class was closed and everyone was fearful, especially the girls who were in the same class with me. After that, we all left the class and hurriedly went to our homes.

There was chaos in the city. All the people were scared. People hurriedly went to the Kabul airport and to the passport office. That was a dark day in Kabul. I lost my dreams once again, and not only me but thousands of boys and girls of this land lost their dreams, which is profoundly painful for me.

After staying at home for a few days, I decided to make my way to Kabul Airport. I called a German friend of mine, whose name I can’t mention in this article. She sent me a letter telling me to go to Kabul airport. The letter stated that she was in contact with the German soldiers and that they would let me inside the airport.

On Saturday, August 26, I went to Kabul Airport. There was a lot of chaos: women and children were underfoot. No one had mercy on anyone. I saw this with my own eyes. Finally, I reached one of the gates of Kabul Airport, but unfortunately, I couldn’t enter the airport. Then a strong explosion occurred among the people crowded there. Everyone fled and the gate was closed. 

I saw terrible things: women, children, and young men were covered in blood. I thank God that I managed to return home safely that day. And yet, since that day I’ve been feeling confused. I lost my dreams and myself that day, and thousands of people in this land have experienced the same bitter story. I write this in the hope of liberating Kabul from the oppression of the Taliban some day.

Ahmad Fadakar, Afghan photographer. 

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https://instagram.com/ahmad_fidakar?igshid=NDBlY2NjN2I=

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My battle scars. Non-fiction by Diary Marif

dyiari

My battle scars  

A scar the size of a small spider mars the left side of my head. It holds the memory of a four-year-old boy, who only knew war for the first four years of his life. His playground was an empty field and his toys were cannonballs, found among the ruins.

One day, the boy fell into a deep sewer and slit the left side of his face. He cried hysterically while his mother frantically searched for him. When she finally found him at the bottom of the hole, he was unconscious, severely hurt, with a deep cut that required stitching.

I was that boy, and I have the scar to prove it. It looks menacing, with a tail like a scorpion, full of poison. It earned me stares, cruelty from the kids at school, and eventually the nickname Scorpion.

Every scar that mars my body tells a similar story. I am a child of war, born in the middle of the eight-year Iraq-Iran war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. My family had to move from one place to another since we lived at the epicentre of the war. Additionally, the Kurds tried to hide the identity of their males to avoid them being forced to join the Iraqi army. Being born as an unidentified person, coupled with the battle scars I had collected, traumatized me.

Barbarity and brutality became a routine part of the life of the country; people, including children, turned against each other. Most of my generation has several battle scars. The scars are so clearly visible that I’m still embarrassed by them after three decades. I counted the spots: one, two, and three… I found ten. Each scar represents war and has a deep tragic memory.

Physical and Emotional Scars

Saddam Hussein’s regime used chemical weapons against our neighbouring town of Halabja and killed around 5,000 innocent civilians. My parents managed to escape to a suburban village in Sulaymaniyah City. There was a lot of brutality and violence. One cold grey day in the fall of 1989, for no apparent reason, I was severely injured by a wild boy as I left our home. A boy from the neighbourhood stood two storeys up from an adjacent building and threw a block of cement with nails. It hit me hard on top of my forehead and I immediately passed out bleeding profusely. I didn’t know what had happened to me or who picked me up from the ground until hours later when I found myself on my mother’s lap.

My head was severely injured, but there were no doctors or medicine. My mother put a fried egg on the wound and tied it with a rope as a way to reduce the tissue of the scar and heal it. Although she always said the wound would heal, it left two parallel scar lines which will remain with me forever.

The scar on the right side, the one that looks like a waning moon is my third largest scar. In 1991, when I was seven years old, my family fled to Mariwan in Iranian Kurdistan to escape threats from Saddam Hussein. We were sheltered in a remote village called Darzyan. We fled with only the clothes we were wearing and started from scratch.

One day, I went with my older siblings and started working to strip off bark from chinar wood (from a tree used for building) to earn some money because my family suffered from hunger. During the work, I saw a donkey passing us, and my older brother, Ary, told me to take it for myself. Happily, I ran and stopped it, but I did not know how to tame it. I held its tail instead of its head. My siblings shouted at me to leave it, but I insisted on not giving up. After a few hours, I found myself in a hospital. The donkey had kicked me in the forehead.

According to the Iranian regime, we were referred to as Iraqi foreigners and we had no rights to any health benefits. As a result, I was not treated well at the hospital. The scar did not heal well and I was discharged too soon. Every day I bled painfully, and as the hairless wound healed, it took on the appearance of a deteriorating barren land.

I now live thousands of miles away from the country where I grew up during the war, but the sounds of the police cars, warplanes, cannons, bullets, and ambulances still echo in my ears.

Dealing with trauma 

The dark days have passed, but the unpleasant memories may never go away. I do not want to resurface the skin of the scars because the visible scars will always represent my emotional scars.

It had been a long time since I had tried to figure out how to alleviate the trauma of my past to regain emotional normalcy. Doctors’ treatments or counsellors’ advice haven’t helped me much. Later, I came to find that writing and sharing stories were the most effective therapy for me. This helped me not only to talk about myself, but also to share the suffering of my people.

When I started writing my stories in Canada and sharing them with people, I finally  found a way to express myself and pour out my many years of sorrow. It also enabled my readers to become familiar with what happened to me and my people.

Parallels in History 

The other day I phoned my mother regarding her knee-replacement surgery. As usual, we talked through several recent occurrences and events. She quickly stopped talking about her severe knee pain and mentioned the war in Ukraine. She expressed her concerns for the Ukrainian mothers who had fled to neighbouring countries just as we had fled during the Kurdish exodus to Iran in 1991. I recalled my 40 relatives, all cramming themselves into a tractor to flee. After 31 years, I’m encountering similar images, seeing Ukrainian children crammed into trains to Poland.

Many Kurds have similarly expressed their concern for Ukrainians as they remember their difficulties and struggles with brutal neighbouring governments. The painful memories and the scars they came with still remain.

Besides the facial scars, I have emotional scars from the several terrible nicknames that brought me additional pain. They were times I wished I was not born or had died during the wars. My thoughts, feelings, memories, imaginations, and dreams were never those of an average child.

I now realize it was neither my fault nor that of the savage boy who inflicted the pain that caused one of my scars. We were a generation born into war; we became part of the heartless, insatiable machine of war. Now I worry for other children — the ones in Syria, Ukraine, Uganda, and Iraq. They too have become victims of war.

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Diary Marif is an Iraqi Kurdish journalist and non-fiction writer based in Vancouver, Canada. Marif earned a master’s degree in History from Pune University, India in 2013. He is an author at New Canadian Media.  He also wrote in Kurdish for several years and his writing has appeared in the Awene Weekly, Livin, and on KNNC TV where he contributed as a documentary researcher.  Since moving to Vancouver in 2017, he has been focusing on nonfiction writing. He shared his stories with several writers’ groups and wrote the draft of his first nonfiction/memoir, He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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4 poems by Finn Harvor

Finn Harvor

BOY MEETS GIRL AFTER BATTLE 1

Pretty in the morning
Disfigured by afternoon,
The girl lies under rubble
Where a soldier spots her,
Not realizing that three hours earlier
Everything else being equal,
He would have felt differently
And their meeting,
Crump-thuddy
And shot-staccatoed,
Would had led to something more,
A sequel.





BOY MEETS GIRL AFTER BATTLE 2

The shrapnel tore a gouge
From her left eye to her chin.
The artillery barrage
And its concussive blasts
Made the roof of her house fall in.

Then the collapsing wall
Avalanched blocks,
Cracking her skull
And breaking some ribs
And leaving her in shock.

*

Three hours later,
Still alive,
A platoon found her there.
One solider poked her with his foot
The next pretended to shoot
The third gave the girl water
And the fourth 
Looked for something to loot.






BOY MEETS GIRL AFTER BATTLE 3

The soldier kissed her lips
Still glossed
Under the finest
Dust.





BOY MEETS GIRL AFTER BATTLE, THE UKRAINIAN FRONTIER,  (FEBRUARY 24th, 2022)

In the still cold grey
the infantryman Plenkov 
boards an APC
that is still and cold and grey.
The staff sargeant Blatsky,
his eyes bleary 
and thick with
some fog of torment,
barks in a hungover growl,
“We’re going to Kyiv, boys.
There’re Nazis there,
and we’re going to clean house.”
“But, Sarge,” the corpsman Vrinsky plaintively asks,
“You said we were just training. Last night in the mess, you said —”
“Zip it,” Blatsky says, this time his growl with fuel,
“I do what the Captain says. You do what I say.”

The men clamber into the harsh confines 
of the APC (coffin. cabin),
and Plenkov’s buddy Vinshky nudges him.
“Look,” Vinshky grins, thumbing the screen
of his smartphone, fingering, lovingly,
the Tinder app.
“These Uke girls are HOT, pal,
we’re doing these people a favour,
and, in a week or so 
when the fighting’s over,
we’ll be doing occupation duty,
in night clubs —.
This is gonna be great …
I kid you not.”

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Award-winning artist, writer, musician, filmmaker. Finn Harvor’s articles have appeared in many journals, including the Brooklyn Rail and Canadian Notes and Queries. He has presented at academic conferences in Oxford, Bath, Liverpool, Berlin, Seoul, Osaka, and elsewhere. His work has been selected by festivals in Korea, Ireland, the U.K., the US, China (Hong Kong), Kazakhstan, Australia, Greece, Pakistan, Serbia, Portugal, and India. Harvor is particularly interested in the following themes: nature and the anthropocene, addiction, and family dynamics (his late brother’s story is related to these themes), as well as technology and contemporary war. Harvor usually make videopoems that he terms authorial movies; these are movies in which one person creates (authors) all elements of the movie.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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2 poems by Pratibha Castle

Pratibha Castle(1)

Forest Eulogy
 
I choose a druid oak 
to oversee your journey, 
rest my back 
against its gravelled spine, 
sense its heartbeat 
syncopate with mine.

A winter past, 
we savoured wine
sparkled to rubies 
by flickers in the grate, 
crackling bark, guzzling

logs, bone chips 
and ash silky 
as the apple blossom talc 
you loved. 

Next day, you watched 
me fork the log’s dregs 
beneath your favourite David Austen. 

Your last choice patience, 
you rest now 
beside the grate 
in a copper urn. 

Dawn sweeps away the night 
as I gather ash 
and flecks 
in a shovel 
arthritic with rust, 

cradle your pot, 
pad a Gretel trail 
of golden dapple 
to your guardian tree, 
sprinkle ash 
about its knuckley roots.
 
Lift my head to the echo 
in a blackbird’s eulogy 
of your song. 





Dawn Walk at Wittering 

The sea sparkles, 
a glimmer 
of fallen 
stars, glint 
on the horizon 
of coral light. I pause 

at the water's edge, 
bowl my 
hands as 
if dawn 
might be 
cradled like 
a gull’s egg. Waves 

sluice the shore, 
the legs of an oyster 
catcher stood, 
head bent, 
a prophet 
hearkening; 
my bare toes 

scrabbling at lines 
fine as capillaries. 
Mysteries clammed 
in sand and heart 
that, as I watch, disperse. Sun 

seeping through the clouds 
is an ache for my
mother’s smile 
at our chance 
meeting by the Cross 
when, instead of spoiling her 
with tea and craic, 
I hurried on. 


Forest Eulogy appeared in Caduceus Magazine Spring 2021
Dawn Walk appears in A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers (Hedgehog Poetry Press 2022)

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Pratibha Castle, an Irish born poet, lives in West Sussex. Her award-winning debut pamphlet A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers (Hedgehog Press) was published in 2022. Widely anthologised, her work appears in Agenda, Drawn To The Light, HU, Blue Nib, Lime Square Poets, The Lighthouse and Alchemy Spoon amongst others. Highly commended and long-listed in various competitions including the Bridport Prize, Bray Literary Festival, Brian Dempsey Memorial, Sentinel Literary Journal and Binsted Arts competitions, and given special mention in The Welsh Poetry Competition. Her second pamphlet, also published by Hedgehog Press, is forthcoming in 2023.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Plaything. a poem by Susmit Panda

SusmitPanda

Plaything

Zip it! Don’t tell me that the world’s a hard place, man.
I am the youngest of the Matryoshka clan. 

Don’t let no demon child dismantle, one by one
The mother, daughter and the baby son.

She sees, on my behalf, the dark, dark sky;
She sees, on my behalf, how human beings cry.

She dreams, on my behalf, of gee-gees whipped and drowned,
Of chariots shattered, tumbled to the ground,

Whose boom on many a night has often
Rang in my ears so I’ve had to cease laughing.

Don’t tell her though, or it will break her spirit, man.
I am the youngest of the Matryoshka clan.	

This is my space. I’m happy, as far as one could
Within a smallish, hollow drum of wood

Where one has only so much of a weight to bear.
I shan’t, for all the motley world, leave here. 

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Susmit Panda, born in 1996, is a poet living in Kolkata. His poems and criticism have appeared in Boog City, Coldnoon, Indian Cultural Forum, Guftugu, The Boston Compass, and The Journal (London), and are forthcoming in Fulcrum: An Anthology of Poetry and Aesthetics. He participated in the Poesia 2021 World Poetry Day Festival. 

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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