Thursday, April 24, 2014

Stephanie Dowrick reviews My Mother, My Father and considers the loss of parents

Stephanie Dowrick - co-host of this Book Club - reviews and greatly admires My Mother, My Father, literary editor and commentator Susan Wyndham's fine book on "Losing a Parent".

Susan Wyndham's My Mother, My Father is a wonderful book that greatly exceeded my keenest expectations. Few books these days are undersold. With an attractive cover and smart presentation, many promise a good deal more than they deliver. Here, the opposite may be true. The book is subtitled “On Losing a Parent”. And, yes, it is indeed about the death of parents and the unfolding effects of that on surviving adult children. What this collection of chapters from 14 gifted writers also offers, though, is a deeply moving, truthfully complex picture of what it means to each individual writer to have had a parent or parents and to have been known (or not) by them. There’s humour and drama and considerably more life here than loss, although the losses are, largely, poignant and sometimes agonising.

Editor Susan Wyndham chose her contributors wisely. Each allows us through a distinctive voice to discover more of what it may mean to survive, to re-make oneself as an adult orphan, and to remember.

Mourning a beloved person makes us all vulnerable, but this can be dramatically intensified when it is the once-powerful parent who is laid low, ill and dying and when the parent/child relationship is – often after many years - abruptly centre stage. Kind Tom Keneally, for example (surely one of Australia's genuinely 'great' writers), remembers his asthmatic childhood and the mother “who never lost her faith in me”. Yet that same mother (who at 94 was still ringing him to check “the latest shift in asylum-seeker policy in that morning’s Herald)” could say things to this formidably accomplished writer that would “transform me, in my sixties, into a sullen fourteen-year-old.”

The pictures of family life that emerge are credibly unpredictable and so are the deaths and their continuing reverberations. Neither the happy nor the unhappy families are alike in this book. And while dying is the pivotal drama of the contributions, it occupies and preoccupies the writers differently. When Mandy Sayer misses her mother she likes “to wear her clothes – or, more precisely, her knee-length pink nighties.” Linda Neil quotes a nurse at the hospice where her mother died a slow death from Parkinson’s disease saying of death, “It’s a strange and precious process that you are lucky to witness.” David Marr opens his chapter baldly: “Their deaths were awful.” His parents’ lives though, as he shows, were not awful; far from it.

Jaya Savige reveals two losses: the mother who died too early; the biological father who had disappeared: “He will never know how she filled her children with awe one day by paddling to the mainland and back on a surf ski…setting out from a small patch of sand to which I would also later return…” Kathryn Heyman also writes eloquently of two devastating losses: the father who “has never been good at talking. Or embracing. Or making eye contact”, and her warm, adored and adoring father-in-law unwittingly making her connection with her own father more, not less unsettling.

In most of these contributions both life and death are secular events. There’s truth for the writers in that. Nonetheless, the standout contributions for me – among these riches – are journalist Nikki Barrowclough’s unforgettable chapter and editor Susan Wyndham’s own exquisite account of her intimate relationship with her mother (“My life without her was unimaginable…”) and her mother’s faith not in Christian Science only but that death would take her to “another stage of experience”.

There are several deaths in Barrowclough’s chapter: the painfully anticipated death of her mother is just the first. That she is able to share this series of experiences with us, and with such grace, is extraordinary. So is her quietly growing awareness that anything we can know about death - and much that we can know about life - is only the beginning of more knowing. What is death? What is the meaning of a particular death in the lives of the people who are “left behind”? Helen Garner writes yearningly of unfinished business (”I never sat my mother down and pressed her about the past…”). David Marr – in this his father’s son – writes of “facing facts”. We can be grateful to all these generous writers for the life that’s in their pages. We can also thank them for a needed, deepening witnessing of death.

Stephanie Dowrick’s most recent book is Heaven on Earth. An earlier version of this review appeared in the Age and in the Sydney Morning Herald.  We would welcome your comments on this or any other book that we are so pleased to recommend; the comments box is immediately below. Also, we do offer book buying opportunities through the links on the upper right of this page and please do use this direct prompt sales link to My Mother, My Father (postage free in Australia).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What would Jesus think about Lent?: an exceptional new poem from Mark S Burrows.

 Stephanie Dowrick writes: "One of my favourite contemporary poets is Rilke scholar and translator Mark S. Burrows. Here is a poem that can be read (ideally, read aloud) with deep appreciation at any time of year but has a particular poignancy when read as Easter approaches." More details of Mark Burrows and his work follow the poem. We thank him wholeheartedly for allowing us to publish the poem here. It is of course copyright.

Painting: Hans Memling (1430-1494), "Christ giving blessing"

    “Amor ubique loquitur."
(Love speaks everywhere.)
        Bernard of Clairvaux

I sometimes wonder what Jesus
thinks about Lent, the long slow
season when we try to get an
honest bead on our mortality –
“ashes to ashes, dust to dust” –
and often lose ourselves in
remorse, discovering that we like
all other creatures are finite and
fallible.  Like them, we crave
comfort and give ourselves to the
shape of our needs, stumbling along
with instincts that sometimes avert
crisis and hold tragedy off a little
but never finally, our intentions
not always noble, our actions
occasionally radiant but usually
flattened by the same measure
of worry and envy, jealousy and
fear, we lament in others.  Perhaps
Jesus isn’t worrying about what
we didn’t do, or blaming us for
what we did so poorly.  Maybe
he’s just confused by why we
seem so unable to be awake
to wonder and fail to be alive
to what is still rising in us all
of possibility and joy.  Perhaps
after all he’s puzzled by our
persistent sadness, by how ill
at ease we seem in this world
that flows on and on without
any work of ours, its beauty
overpouring the boundaries
of what we can ever fully know. 
“Consider the lilies,” he said,
meaning all that rises from
the dust and endures all winter
tucked into that dark bed of soil. 
“Look at the birds of the air,” he
cried, meaning something like
the delight which has little to
do with a way of seeing shaped
by exact or certain knowledge.
“Don’t worry about your life,”
he advised, and finally I begin
to grasp what it might mean
to remember him, his large heart
and soul, his warm flesh, his
kindness to strangers, his sharp
tongue, and wonder why we’re
so often overcome with sadness
and ill at ease in this world he
so loved.  Perhaps he meant us
to think about that wedding
and the miracle which began
when his mother noticed the
empty jugs and called him to
serve, turning water to wine,
the ridiculous excess of it all;
or the way he touched those
lost at the margins and healed
their wounds and lingered
(as his biographers did not)
to know them by name. 
And, yes, how he laughed
as he must have done when
he saw the little man who’d
crawled high up in a tree
to get a better view, and
surely not only then,
and how he also wept
when he noticed how
those busy in the city
of their lives found no
room for the unprofitable
work of grace, how they
refused to belong to others
in the neighbourhood of need. 
I imagine he’s still wondering
why we reserve a single day for
Easter as if love and resurrection
could be so exactly contained,
when they are happening all
the time and everywhere for
those with eyes to see.

Painting by Piero della Francesca (1450-1492)


Dr. Mark S. Burrows is Professor of Historical Theology on the faculty of the University of Applied Sciences in Bochum, Germany.  His research focuses on the monastic literature of the medieval West, with a particular interest in mystical and visionary texts, and the field of poetics.  Recent publications include a new translation of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke’s, Prayers of a Young Poet (Paraclete Press, 2013) - click on the link for our admiring review - and another volume of poems in translation by the Iranian/German poet SAID (Paraclete Press, 2013).  Dr. Burrows was the recent recipient of the “Witter Bynner Fellowship” at the Santa Fe Art Institute, where he served as writer-in-residence in the summer of 2013.  His translations of Rilke's poetry are among the finest in Dr Stephanie Dowrick's In the Company of Rilke. Dr Burrows writes and lectures widely on spirituality, poetry, and the contemplative path.  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Visiting John Keats (and Percy Shelley) in Rome's Protestant Cemetery

Writer Jenny Cartmill, an Australian currently living in Cairo, explores for us Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, "following the peal of bells". She finds there John Keats' grave, among other treasures.

Freshly arrived in Rome from Cairo, I headed towards the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. A bit like taking coals to Newcastle, coming to see another pyramid: this one dating from around 16BC when things Egyptian were in vogue in imperial Rome. And it is a fine thing in itself, although living in Cairo I’ve become a bit blasĂ© about pyramids.  The hundreds of abandoned Roman cats stretched out on its stones look rather relaxed about their historic shelter, too. But it is their neighbour, another haven for the banished, that I’ve really come to see: the Protestant Cemetery of Rome. I’ve visited every few years since first standing outside its inexplicably locked gates in 1986 in the disappointing rain, craning to see Keats’ grave through a tiny grated window.

Officially called the "Non-Catholic Cemetery" to better encompass the varying beliefs of its occupants, it’s nestled on a slight hill just outside a remnant of the old Aurelian city wall.  In 1738 when it was established, non-Catholics couldn’t be buried within the consecrated land of Rome;  apparently even references on their gravestones to salvation weren’t doctrinally tolerated until 1870 and the end of Papal rule. Because of its outsider status and the lack of enduring links to the living in Rome, the cemetery had grown more and more neglected and bedraggled over time. In 2006 it was placed on the World Monument Fund’s 100 most endangered sites list. But from that nadir, concerted international efforts have been made to raise funds for repairs and maintenance. Magically, you can now become an official Friend of the Cemetery to help preserve it. Volunteer guides show you around generously.  It looks more loved and tended than I’ve ever seen it.

"An angel leans her head on a grave in despair."

It’s a surprisingly life-affirming place once inside; full of poetry and sculpture.  The high, Sienna-pink walls enfold an anarchic jumble of over 2500 memorials to people who, for one reason or another, died in Rome or wished to be buried there. They are from all over: England, Russia, Scandinavia, North and South America; even fourteen Australians. There are famous Romantic poets on the Grand Tour who succumbed to the cruel diseases of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, soldiers, artists, archaeologists - including one who helped decipher the Rosetta Stone - students, diplomats and travellers surprised by death en route. Tall Cypress pines, green hedges and stray flowers grow haphazardly and comfortably between the graves. Some are marked with simple plaques (“For Mary, who loved this place”); others are remembered with life-size marble statues.  One is of a young woman lying in her wedding dress and veil; the inscription says simply, sparsely, that it was sculpted by her fiancĂ©.  Another is of a small Serbian boy reading a book. In one, illustrated here, an angel leans her head on a grave in despair, her huge stone wings draped round it in utter dejection.

Sometimes single fresh roses lie on the stones. There are thickets of Orthodox crosses, the occasional Star of David, and even a perfect cube balanced on its corner, commemorating an Argentinian architect in his own way.

"The young English poet"

John Keats’ grave is set off to one side on a grassy patch next to that of his friend, the painter John Severn. Both are surrounded by bright clumps of daffodils, daisies and cyclamen.  The 1821 inscription reads,  “This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a Young English Poet, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Historians say that only the last line was requested by Keats. His friends, upset for him at the lack of recognition and harsh critiques of his work, added the preamble. 

Another friend of Keats, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (who, incidentally, wrote the indelible Ozymandius about Pharaoh Ramesis II), is buried not far away.  He’d once said about the cemetery, “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.” He drowned in southern Italy a year after Keats died, a folded-over volume of Keats’ poetry in his back pocket.  He was cremated on the beach, except for his heart which was sent (a little gruesomely) to his wife, Mary Shelley.  It was found among her belongings on her death in 1851, wrapped in a page of "Adonais", Shelley's elegy to Keats. The interplay of lives and places in this part of the Eternal City, beyond the Pale, is tragic and fascinating even all these years later.

Percy Shelley: “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”

Next to Shelley’s grave, I’m struck by a newish plaque with a Japanese poem in the corner that I hadn’t noticed on earlier visits.  It was put up by the Canadian Government in 2000 in honour of an Ambassador, E Herbert Norman, who, it said, died tragically in Cairo in 1957. 

Curious about this man whose life spanned such disparate but familiar places, I’ve tried to find out more about him.  It turns out that Norman was born into a Canadian missionary family in Japan, was a scholar-diplomat who was part of the historic post-war rewriting of Japan’s Constitution and who helped interpret Japan for the West. In the McCarthy era, however, he was hounded for possible Communist links from his student days in Cambridge in the 1930s.  His own Government exonerated him fully.  Posted to Cairo in 1956, he worked feverishly during the Suez Crisis to persuade the then Egyptian President, Nasser, to allow Canada to help resolve the crisis by establishing the first United Nations Peace-Keeping Force on the canal.  But one morning during that unimaginably tense time, the old allegations of disloyalty were raised again.

Whether because of this, or the pressure of overwork or for other tangled reasons, Norman drove to an eight-storey apartment block which still stands overlooking the Nile, called in to see his Swedish colleague and friend on the second floor who was not in, took the lift to the top, took off his jacket and watch, and jumped.  I’m left feeling strangely affected and sad, even though it was another time, another political world.

Why was he buried in Rome?  It seems his wife requested it, as they knew it from earlier visits.*  And it is a fine, peaceful place, where he is clearly not forgotten.  The haiku on his plaque reads in translation:
“Well, then, let’s follow
the peal of bells
 to the yonder shore.” 

It was written by the poet Hakurin in 1817 as part of a tradition of composing a haiku when on the verge of death.  I imagine Norman would have liked its reassuring calm.

I go out the gate and join the workers strolling to lunch, glad of the gentle reminder to listen for the bells, but keen in the meantime to head back into the everyday din.

Jenny Cartmill

*Brisbane-born Jenny Cartmill is a writer who has lived in Cairo since 2012 with her husband and two sons. She writes, "I am indebted to Nicholas Stanley-Price, Editor of the Friends’ Newsletter and author of a new book on the cemetery, for some of the information on Mr Norman’s grave."

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Jan Cornall on Memory, Memoir and Marguerite Duras

Poet, memoirist, singer and legendary creative writing teacher Jan Cornall is an inspiring woman in her own right. In this post she talks about her heroine and inspiration, Marguerite Duras, who would have been 100 years old this year (2014).
When Walter [Mason, co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club] asked me to write about my favourite memoir, I knew what book it would be. I also knew I should write about something else, because surely by now I must be over my obsession of all things Durassian. I could for example, write about the various memoirs of Diana Athill or Anne Manne’s brilliant work, So This Is Life.

 What about the many works of the queen of creative non fiction, Annie Dillard? or the Burmese author Pascal Khoo Thwe’s From The Land of Green Ghosts?  But no, it’s not possible, for I must turn once more to my literary hero, even though her famous novella, The Lover, while not technically a memoir (though regarded as autobiographical), did in fact have its beginnings as such.

The story goes, that at the age of seventy, after almost dying from an alcoholic detox treatment, the French writer Marguerite Duras found some old notebooks and a photo album in the back of a cupboard in her house in Neauphle le Chateau.

Marguerite Duras
She immediately became consumed with writing pieces to go with the photos, and on typing them up, her companion Yann Andrea convinced her it should be a novel. He sent it off to the publisher, Editions de Minuit, who recognising its potential, increased its usual print run to 25,000 copies, only to sell out on the first day.

The brilliant stroke of this ‘memoir-ic’ work is its focus on an image that was not in the album,that could only exist in memory. Duras called it the ‘absolute photograph’.  It’s an image of a young girl on a Mekong ferry. Duras said: ’The photograph could only have been taken if someone could have known in advance how important it was to be in my life, that event, that crossing of the river.‘  Pictures such as this one —a young girl at the crossroads of her life, on the threshold of adulthood, are gold for memoir writers, for without them we have nothing to say, nowhere to go, no story to tell.

Marguerite Duras was born Marguerite Donnadieu in 1914 in French Indochina, the federation of colonies and protectorates which from 1887-1949 included the regions of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Duras’ parents were schoolteachers in the French Civil Service and moved often within Indochina to take up their various postings.


In Phnom Penh, Marguerite was seven years old when her father died.  Choosing to remain in Indochina but refused a widow’s pension because of bureaucratic problems, her mother continued to work on the low teacher’s salary and raised Marguerite and her two older brothers as best she could.

They moved again, back to the Mekong River towns of Vinh Long and Sadec in Vietnam and under an assisted scheme for French civil servants, also took up land in Prey Nop (Cambodia). Duras’ mother poured her life’s savings into establishing a rice paddy farm, which she believed, would make her a millionaire, but the first crop was ruined when the land was flooded by the sea. The flood was an annual occurrence (which the corrupt land agents well knew) but Marguerite’s mother refused to bow to the forces of nature. She borrowed money at exorbitant interest from Indian loan sharks and hired hundreds of workers to build retaining walls from mud and bamboo. The rice was planted again and the walls held fast, until burrowing crabs caused them to collapse and the crop to be destroyed once more.

It was around this time, when Marguerite was fourteen or fifteen, that she met a rich Chinese man on the ferry.  At first out of curiosity and later in an attempt to save her family from poverty, she began a relationship with him. How far that relationship went we will never know, as the line between truth and fiction in Duras’ writing is always blurred.

The narrative of The Lover circles back again and again to the absolute (absent) photograph, the image of the girl on the Mekong, bringing with it scenes, scenarios and snippets from Duras’ early life to swirl, eddy and flow like the river itself;  inviting the reader to enter her non linear, sense associative world of memory.

When first released the experimental, accessible nature of  the writing in this fictional memoir contained a raw truth and vulnerability that moved its readers. Reviewers called it ‘absolute literature’ and ‘spoke of the grace, the radiance and inner drive that carries the words.’

Duras herself described it as ‘ecriture courante, an invisible force that appeals to the imaginative linking of disparate elements” which she calls” an ideal writing, one that she had sought for some time and finally achieved in The Lover.’

In the end scenes of The Lover the echoes of the absolute photograph are there; the girl is on a steamer heading for France, water all around — always the image of water. Duras left Indochina when she was eighteen never to return, carrying with her the sensory impressions and events of her childhood which were to inform not only the content, but the rhythms, tone and form of her future writing.

In 1984 when The Lover won the coveted French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt (which Duras felt she had deserved much earlier in her life), she disassociated herself from the book and a few years later wrote another version of the story called The North China Lover. While her publisher was appalled that she would ‘rewrite‘ her biggest success, for the fanatical fan like myself it simply throws more light and intrigue into the mix.

Duras has a cult following, no doubt about it, and thousands of academics have written treatises on her work. A few like myself have even gone following her footsteps in Indochina, as I will do again this year with a group of writers, exploring Vietnamese culture and landscape while drawing on Duras’ writing for our inspiration.

Jan Cornall exploring Duras territory in Cambodia.
For me the trip will have a two fold purpose: to share my obsession and discoveries with others, and to work on my own memoir about searching for Duras in Vietnam. My compass and map for this work is none other than The Lover. If  I can succeed in weaving together the strands of feeling,  memory and image as Duras has taught me, then perhaps I can finally leave her alone and find another hero to follow. 
Jan’s trip Indochine Journey heads off to Vietnam Aug 16-30. Information here 
Read more about Jan’s obsession with Marguerite Duras and the process of writing her memoir, My Mother Duras, here
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