Head Explodes: Mahler, Kiran Ahluwalia and Tinariwen

By Rob Packer

The true sign of a great book, whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction, is that it changes your perspective, that it influences you for weeks after you put it down, that it opens your eyes to the new, or makes you remember what you didn’t realize you’d forgotten. Open City by Teju Cole (my thoughts on it here) is turning into one of those books and it’s not giving too much away to say that a Mahler symphony appears at a key moment towards the end of the book (beautifully described, by the way). I didn’t realize, though, that Open City had left a subtle itch on the Mahler part of my brain. Last Sunday, I had to scratch it and decided to listen to Mahler’s symphonies one by one.

I queued all ten of them up on Spotify and when I do this a “listening project” like this, I usually put another track between the albums or symphonies like the lemon sorbet you sometimes find between your starter and main course at posh dinners. And with something like Mahler’s symphonies with their different emotional calibrations, a track by TV on the Radio, Hot Chip or Rihanna works perfectly to know it’s time to move onto the next symphony or to turn it off and go to bed. It doesn’t always.

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“Bee Journal” – New Poetry by Sean Borodale

By Rob Packer

A honey bee (Wikipedia Commons taken by Maciej Czyżewski)

If bees didn’t exist, poets would have had to invent them: mechanical, organic, strange and beautiful, they make honey—for centuries one of man’s few sources of sugar, until sugar-making techniques were developed in Asia—, they sting but so doing take their own life and they live in a highly ordered caste society that at first glance look chaotic.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that they have a long history in poetry: in Virgil’s Georgics (worth reading if you haven’t already), the bee colony seems not too far from Platonic Ideal City and stands as Rome’s model for the future after the chaos of its civil war. Shakespeare also comes to a similar Virgil-inspired moment in Henry V when the Archbishop of Canterbury gets Hal off to France with a judicious bee metaphor. In today’s post-Renaissance individualism, however, the bee colony as very deterministic model for the polis sounds tasteless, with its echoes from Brave New World to The Matrix. And the analogy may have fallen out of fashion amongst male poets, once science proved that the ‘bee emperor’ is a queen—listen to this essay by Adam Gopnik for more. But the fascination with the strangeness and our need for bees continues to this day from Sylvia Plath to Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees (2011) and this year’s Bee Journal by Sean Borodale. Read more of this post

Street Art?

By Rob Packer

Was anyone else at the Brooklyn Book Festival (or anywhere else in Brooklyn) earlier to decipher this? Or to read the rest of it?

We turned my computer through 180º before we could work that it probably says STREET ART. But did anyone see the rest?

A Literary Map of Manhattan

Thanks to literaryman.com for posting this amazing map of Manhattan.

Teju Cole’s “Open City”

By Rob Packer

Open City by Teju Cole

Last month, I attended a joint reading by Jeet Thayil and Teju Cole at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was a stellar pairing between two debut novels and the two cities depicted in them: Mumbai in Thayil’s Narcopolis (2012) and New York in Cole’s Open City (2011). Over the following day and a half I was in Edinburgh, my friend, her sister and I kept coming back t othe reading as we evaluated and re-evaluated our festival highlights. We all had lots, but we were all agreed that Cole and Thayil came high in any list of favourites.

Open City is the monologue of Julius, as he goes on walks through the streets of New York, cataloguing meticulously what he sees and thinks and interleaving it with memories of his childhood in Nigeria. These walks are not just the narrative: Cole captures it in the flow of narrative form as well. The stream-of-consciousness prose reflects the contingent fluidity that an aimless walk around Manhattan actually produces. On a good day (like last weekend) it’s a sublime experience, where thesis, antithesis and synthesis pile up unexpectedly one on top of another in the world’s most impression-dense city. In an article for the FT, Cole described composing an article as “writing as diving”: Open City works as “reading as diving”—so much so, that I read most of the book on one transatlantic flight. Read more of this post

Father Tyne: ‘On the Toon’ by Sean O’Brien

By Rob Packer

November by Sean O’Brien

Is there a trend towards epic in contemporary British poetry? Maybe it’s just my taste (or my local library’s, or prize judges’) that some of my favourite recent poetry collections are or include longish poems with clear epic influences: even stranger is that all of them came out this year and last. There’s been ‘Elsewhere’ in David Harsent’s excellent Night; the incomparable Alice Oswald’s reworking of the Iliad in Memorial (and her 2002 Dart); ‘The Fair Chase’ starting John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone (I won’t have time to write more about that collection unfortunately: it’s very good though); Simon Armitage’s adaptation of The Death of King Arthur (I didn’t enjoy this one so much and found it bathetic in parts: if you haven’t read Armitage before—and you should—, start with Kid, Seeing Stars or his Sir Gawain); and ‘On the Toon’ which closes Sean O’Brien’s November.

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Too Much Information: W. B. Yeats and Kebabs

By Rob Packer

Etymology is generally considered to be one of those unalloyed “good things”: after all, a lot of people like to use it to show how erudite they are (by using words like erudite, for example, when poncy will do). And when you’re growing up, it really is useful to remember that the horizon isn’t vertical. It’s also particularly helpful when learning languages: for example, vocabulary lists really are easier when you realize that a Spanish propuesta or desayuno is really an English proposal or breakfast from a different angle and that Vergangenheit and Zukunft in German really mean time that’s “gone for good” and “to come”. These aides-memoires do have a habit of ending up a little inane, though, and I’ll never forget being told by my school Russian teacher about the similarity between zavtra (tomorrow) and zavtrak (breakfast)—but it did the job and have used it most recently in Kyrgyzstan.

Sometimes, however, etymology sits within a word like a stink bomb, ready to explode at the rustle of a dictionary’s page. Nervous readers should look away now: there is half a chance I’ll ruin one of the English language’s greatest poems.

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