Lemn Sissay: “Going Places”

Image: Pixabay

After my first poetry post, I have since read two new poems. One being, “The Salutation” by Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), and the other, “I am” by John Clare (1793-1864). Although I enjoyed both, it was the fourth one I read that I felt the need to share.

The Poem

Going Places

Another
cigarette ash
television serial filled
advert analysing
cupboard starving
front starving
front room filling
tea slurping
mind chewing
brain burping
carpet picking
pots watching
room gleaming
toilet flushing
night,
with nothing to do

I think I’ll paint roads
on my front room walls
to convince myself
that I’m going places.

Immediate thoughts

Wow. No, seriously. That’s exactly what I thought. It might not be comprehensive, or insightful, but nonetheless, that is what I thought.

In these few lines and words, Sissay manages to convey a feeling not too dissimilar to what I have been feeling at the moment. Daily life when you have nowhere to go, or no distinct direction can be draining. The routines of life can suck the hopes and dreams out of you if you’re not careful.

With a form mirroring breathlessness urgency; this poem manages to bring to light the vulnerability of being young and trying to make it for the first time. Being a recent graduate trying to find work and not giving up on my ‘hopes and dreams,’ this poem really resonated with me.

The sense of repetitiveness it creates with alluding to routine human actions, “tea slurping,” “cupboard starving” and, “toilet flushing” mirrors the sometimes emptiness of being alive. The simple language reinforces this lack of variety that having a busy schedule can bring. Days are counted by how much tea you’ve consumed, and how much food you can eat from your cupboards out of boredom, rather than countless office dramas.

For me, as I am struggling to get a job, I am taking note of the more mundane things. As a result, I can empathize with the, “mind chewing” Sissay so portrays. Your mind is constantly “chewing” over not being good enough, comparing yourself to others and trying to fill your empty days.

For me, this is a poem about losing hope among the relentless mundane aspects of everyday life. It is a poem that feels vulnerable, lonely and sad. The fact the protagonist feels they have to “paint roads” on their walls instead of having a set path or journey, is revealing. I feel like every young adult, struggling to try and make it for the first time, can relate to the vulnerability which seems to be expressed in this poem.

Lemn Sissay

Before reading, I hadn’t heard off Lemn Sissay. But upon a quick google search, I realized I have read his work before. I am slightly familiar with, “Love Poem,”

You remind me
define me
incline me.

If you died I’d.

however, I had never visited his work properly, or taken the time to find out more about him. His work is exactly the kind of vulnerable, honest poetry that I love to read (and attempt to write.) Sissay had a difficult start in life, he was put in foster care between the ages 12-17 and upon leaving, used his unemployment benefit to self publish his own poetry.

Local authorities placed him in the care of a deeply religious foster family in Lancashire, as his birth mother (who came to the UK from Ethiopia) tried to pursue her own education back home. Being subject to abuse in care assessment centers and racial slurs; Sissay has used his poetry as an outlet to portray life in care and the still ever present stigma’s that are attached to having this background. As care leavers; these individuals are naturally assumed to not have the drive that other young people do. It’s a stigma and generalization that still remains.

He became the official poet of the London Olympic games in 2012, and many of his words feature on public monuments.

Image: The Guardian

As well as being a successful poet, Sissay is also the Chancellor of Manchester University and is a major advocate for increasing care leaver access to higher education. As a care leaver myself, this is a cause very close to my heart.

Austerity continues to affect Britain in many ways, but particularly among care leavers. Cuts to local governments have meant that foster careers and children’s center’s have received less grants over the years, and the support given to care leavers has been slashed. Stepping out of foster care for the first time as young adults, many of these individuals have no idea where to start in life and do not have a family network to support them.

The ‘life’ skills so many of students learn whilst we are at university; are simply not something many care leavers will have as they start independent lives.

I think Lemn Sissay is a real credit to the poetry world and to championing the importance of widening care leaver access to higher education. I’m sad I hadn’t heard of him sooner, but will no doubt be seeking out more of his work.

Book Review: Lolita

Title: Lolita

Author: Vladimir Nabokov

Rating: 4/5

Publisher: Penguin, Penguin Classics

Synopsis

Lolita, is a first person narrative novel, told through the eyes of a middle aged professor, Humbert Humbert. Humbert develops an obsession with a twelve year old girl, Dolores Haze, who he pursues for the rest of his days. Humbert nicknames his prey, Lolita, and attempts to gain greater access to her, in becoming a lodger at her Mother’s house in Ramsdale, New England.

It is here, where Humbert builds upon his disguse of being the studious professor, working on writing his book. However, this is when the access, and consequently, obsession, with Lolita begins. Soon, he will have unrivaled access, as he marries Charlotte, Lolita’s mother.

After a tragic set of events working in his favour, Lolita and Humbert embark on a road trip across America, staying in various motels along the way. Throughout this, Humbert engages in sexual activity with Lolita and constantly rewards her with the ‘things’ she desires – the mundane clothes, candy and magazines that young girls crave.

Eventually, of course, Humbert gets caught and his pursuit of Lolita suddenly comes to an end. The novel ends with Humbert imprisoned but still professing his love for Lolita,

“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Review

Image: Amazon

This novel made me experience a whirlwind of different emotions. Simultaneously, I was in awe of the construction of the novel and the sheer complexity of some of the images and prose Nabokov has created, but at the same time, was reeling in disgust due to the difficulties of the content. Scenes that detailed Humbert’s sexual encounters with Lolita, and his portrayal of lingering desire for young girls in general, left me with a sense of rage and disgust.

Nabokov, in the use of this first person narrative, creates an unrivaled account of a middle aged man’s erotic obsession with a twelve year old girl. This unrivaled account which has been deemed as “unreliable” by critics, means that Lolita’s point of view is swept away under the carpet. As readers, we are never enlightened into her perspective. Thus, there are many unanswered questions. Effectively, she is silenced, which I suspect is the very point. Additionally, the relationship is almost normalised, especially by the use of ‘relationship’ type prose throughout,

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Moreover, the silencing of the victim is achieved in the crafting of this first person narrative. Many (i.e, Stephen Metcalf), have pointed to this as being Nabokov’s critique of totalitarianism under the Soviet regime. Nabokov was a known opponent of the Soviet government and opposed Tsarists autocracy, communism and fascism that he lived through. It is possible, that this silencing of Lolita, the stripping of her identity and childhood, conveys a sense of control not too dissimilar to that used by the Soviet regime.

Lolita immediately gained a ‘classic’ status despite its controversial topic, it was even banned from entering the United Kingdom in 1955. However, its classic status is arguably not due to the story or unconventional theme; but its literary construction. The reader is constantly exposed to a series of complex metaphors and lyric poetic passages that make it easy to forget the shocking undertones of the novel. It can be easy to get swept away by the beauty of the language and forget that something very sinister is taking place on the pages before you. However, as someone that is a sucker for beautiful prose, I appreciated this element.

What struck me as particularly strange and almost sinister, was Humbert’s own self awareness of the horror of his actions and desires. He constantly addresses the reader as “the jury” – putting himself deliberately on trial. But the novel is a monologue of his own account and he always refers to the brutality of his crimes,

“One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimisitc. Taboos strangulated me.”

Vladimir Nabokov

However, regardless of the morality Humbert places on his actions, there is a certain directness in his address to the reader and the narration almost feels like a sit down conversation between him and the reader. There is a sense of intimacy which is enlightening and highly disturbing. Behind everything, and perhaps most of his motivations, appears to be Humbert’s absolute frustration with the restraints of American society,

“….civilisation which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve…”

“We are not surrounded in our enlighttened era by the little slave flowers that can be casually plucked…”

Vladimir Nabokov

I sensed a definitive obsession with what he perceived as the faults within society – for, the one he lived in permitted his relationship with a twelve year old girl. He believes these rules are in place due to the creation division between childhood and adulthood (page 124.)

Humbert as a narrator is truly, and honestly, self reflective which felt like an attempt to appear more human. However, despite this level of self reflection and awareness, he still maintained at the end of the novel that despite his obsession with Lolita being over, he would always crave the same thing,

“I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of my pederoins.”

Vladimir Nabokov

In a way, being able to acknowledge himself as a, “pentapod monster” who did wrong, but still wanting to pursue this, is the mark of a truly disturbed, and possibly incurable individual.

In sum, I found the book incredibly well written and thought provoking. I enjoyed the kind of lyricism Nabokov used and was drawn into the first person narration despite its flaws. There were no barriers or restraint, which made it an interesting psychological insight, as well as a literary joy to read.

This complex first person narration gives the reader nowhere to hide. It is compelling, disturbing and unforgiving. But its craft is a work of art just in itself. This paradox between the beauty of the prose, and the harrowing, disturbing nature of the subject fills the novel with complexity. I can see why this is a a classic; Lolita will linger with me for a long time to come.

July in books

Image: On Chesil Beach (film adaptation, 2017)

Although two and a half books in one month is not a lot too most people – it is more than I have read for a while! Earlier on in the month I told myself I wanted to read more for pleasure – and I guess I have succeeded. Next month’s target will be three books – which should be more achievable as I will have finished my exams!

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)

The first book I chose to read this month was one of the most harrowing books I have read for a while. I feel in love with Atonement when I was studying A-Level literature and have always wanted to read more McEwan and this didn’t disappoint. I read the short novel in about two days and was at once taken back to the writing style which made me fall in love with literature. McEwan has such a rich palette for detail and makes every scene come alive. On Chesil Beach follows the account of a newly wed couple on their honeymoon evening. Flipping from their student days until the present, McEwan tells the story of their upsetting struggle. Subtle but innovative, the story is compelling but nonetheless devastating. A perspective not often covered in literature, but tackled with beauty and elegance, the reader can almost feel the tension prickling through the pages. 4/5

Autumn by Ali Smith (2016),

Considered to be the first fiction book written in response to Brexit, this book (and following series) follows a contemporary criticism of Britain in the aftermath of the 2016 vote. Written in the third person, in prose somewhat resembling poetic voice, it offers a stark criticism of the feeling of Britain in a post-Brexit world. Although being fiction, one cannot help but interpret Autumn as symbolic of Britain’s Brexit sentiment as a historic moment. Leaver or remainer, upon reading Autumn, readers should agree that it is a remarkable work of fiction based on a current, real life political event that everyone should read regardless of political persuasion. Autumn is a set of four books which include Spring, Summer and Winter. Each is a reflection of the moments following the Brexit vote. Stark, yet wonderfully written and reflective. (5/5)

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I cannot really write a review of this as I am only half way through, but I thought I would include a some thoughts anyway. As I was impressed by Chesil Beach, I thought I would continue the McEwan theme. Saturday is set in the post 9/11 age and offers a subtle reflection on British politics in the 2000s; the threat of nuclear war with Iran and urban life in modern London. As expected, McEwan intricately describes every nook and cranny of the life of the protagonist, the neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne and his family. It is a novel set in one single Saturday, but the intricacy makes it feel like a lifetime. I am very much looking forward to reading more of it!