Category Archives: poetry

Women Who Run With the Wolves – through treacle to transformation

Women Who Run With The Wolves : Clarissa Pinkola Estes ...

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman was bought for me by my best friend, a wild woman I love like no other, who now lives on the opposite side of the world. She loves this book so I assumed I would too – plus there’s a quote on the front from Maya Angelou that says, “Everyone who can read should read this book” which is quite the recommendation. I mean, Maya Angelou. All in all, I had high hopes for it, and I took it down from my shelf at a really bad time in my life when I hoped it would have some answers for me.

It’s a 500-page beast of a book so requires some real commitment, especially as it’s much more academic than I expected. I started it when I was struggling in general so that might have something to do with it, but I can’t lie, there were huge parts of this that were really hard work for me. I’m an English Literature graduate and a non-fiction editor by profession so I think of myself as a pretty competent reader but sometimes I felt like I was wading through treacle with this book. It’s hugely well and widely reviewed though so there must be plenty of people who feel differently.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés is an academic, a senior Jungian psychologist (as well as an award-winning poet and cantadora or Latina story-keeper) and so it makes sense that she approaches the book from that standpoint, but an accessible self-help or lifestyle book this is not. It requires patience, study and grit – or at least it did for me, but I’m glad I read it, and I suspect it’s probably one of those books whose true worth comes to you later down the line, rather than in one satisfying hit at the time of reading. I saw one Amazon reviewer say that they bought it in 1994 and finished it in 2004, which they considered an enjoyable reading pace for it. They likened it to a bible rather than a regular book and I think there’s probably something in that.

Estés examines folk stories from all over the world with some interesting analysis. My favourite was “Sealskin, Soulskin”, about a lonely man who takes a seal-woman’s pelt hostage in order to get her to marry him. He says after seven summers she can choose to stay or go, and if she goes he will give her back her pelt, but in the end he is too insecure to return the pelt in case she leaves him. She’s desolate, because she has started to dry out and crack from the inside without her pelt. Their son, Ooruk, sneaks his mother the pelt though and with the seal-woman’s health restored they take a journey to the seal kingdom. Ooruk eventually becomes a translator between the seal (soul) and human (ego) worlds. Another interesting story, “The Red Shoes”, says a lot of about addiction and what Estés calls “instinct-injured women” going after facsimiles of happiness.

As well as the folk-story analysis, Estés deconstructs women’s lives in what at times is a fascinating way. She has a lot to say about the interaction of the soul and the ego, the importance of effective rebellion, dealing with anger, grief and forgiveness, and indeed having tolerance for every emotion, which I liked, in the face of the trend for relentless positive thinking.

She has insightful commentary on body image and the patriarchy (and the idea of the body as a practical, useful and soulful thing), survival (becoming strong without becoming cold) and the compensatory nature of dreams.

But one of the biggest things I got out of this book is what Estés says about the life/death/life nature, She talks about how modern culture has tried to write death out of the story of life, or put it only at the end, whereas the reality is that death is a part of life and in itself gives birth to new life. She stresses that our lives are cyclical, not linear, and that if we give up trying to always “make the magic last” we will lead fuller, less fearful lives. Death is a part, and not only or always an end, of lives and relationships.

Throughout this book, Estés also has a lot to say about creativity, about how creating is an essential part of the wild woman’s life, and how we shouldn’t cheat ourselves by making excuses about not having time or by “sneaking a life” only in between other more pressing mundane tasks. I think she’s right, and her book gave me the push I needed to carve out more time in my own life for creative stuff (including finally learning how to properly play the guitar).

Estés says in the book that, “Deep in the wintry parts of our minds, we are hardy stock and know there is no such thing as a work-free transformation”. She’s surely right, and this book is nothing if not proof of it.

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The Day the World Ends – not bursting with, or bereft of, gems

When I was offered the chance to review a book of poems by Ethan Coen (one half of the filmmaking Coen brothers) I accepted happily on the grounds that a) it seemed like a gloriously unlikely proposition and b) I love poetry and hate the fact that so little of it gets published nowadays.

The poems weren’t all my cup of tea (I’ve always hated limericks and Coen is rather fond of them) but the collection covers a wide range of topics from farting alpacas to relationship regrets, with an ode to the big-assed women of the world in between. Quirky and irreverent, The Day the World Ends will no doubt please Coen brothers’ fans and those who hate stuffy, flowery verse.  If you cringe at the merest hint of crudity, however, then this collection is probably not for you.

Having said that, it would be unfair to paint Coen’s poems as entirely crude or macho, and to illustrate the opposite view I wanted to share my favourite poem from the collection here, which is called ‘On Turning Fifty’.  Here, Coen shows a gentler, more introspective side without resorting to the flowery or the fluffy. For me personally, this is where he is at his best.

‘On Turning Fifty’

Having arrived I send back word

On what to expect,

What not to expect,

What to avoid,

What to do.

First of all, don’t come here the way I came.

Not through the forties.

The forties are nothing but a good dream gone bad.
I mean:

The deaths?
Not like in your youth when peers’ flameouts

—Drugs, motorcycles, etc. —

Little bothered you, or—

Let’s admit it—bothered you not at all.

In your forties, the Sad Diers

—From cancers, weird blood diseases, the occasional

astounding heart attack—

will give you pause.

These Not-Old who die a-wasting,

Or are smothered by a tumor,

Or detonate,

Leaving stunned young families to pick up the pieces,

Send a message that you now know how to read

And don’t want to.

So there’s that.

Then, professionally

Things get a little drab:

Doing this, doing that—things you’ve

Done before.

Sex ditto.

And just in general the

Idiotic optimism that lit your tripping way forward

Through your twenties and even (if less brilliantly) your

thirties

Dwindles,

And then one day,

When you’re, oh,

Forty-three or forty-four,

It gutters out altogether

With a hopeless pfft

And a little spitcurl of updrifting smoke.

So don’t come this way.
Skip the forties.

“Skip the forties?” you say.

“Go straight to fifty from—what? —thirty-nine?

Miss ten years?”

Well, yes.

You’re not missing anything, is my point.

And once you’re fifty

You can start the long peaceful coast down to white-haired

hardihood,

Wheelspokes humming as age’s breeze

Lightly riffles your hair.

Sure.
Why not.

Why

Waste a decade

Dodging the medical lightning bolts,

Why

Sit grumpily

Through the emotional brownouts,

Why

Squint

And squint and squint and squint until you realize,
Fuck! I need reading glasses!

I’m telling you: the forties are nothing.

The forties are less than nothing.

The forties are the ugly stretch of the Interstate.
The forties are taupe.
The forties are ten pieces of shit on a stick.

All right, so this poem wasn’t about turning fifty so much

As about your forties, your miserable forties.

But if I’d called the poem “Skip your Forties, Fuckers,”

Would you have read it?

Now that you have—

Learn something for fuck’s sake.

Don’t stumble around for a hundred and twenty months

like I did, blindfolded,

Waving a stick,

And the piñata in the next fucking country.

For fuck’s sake:

I’m trying to help you.

Hello?

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Valentines Day – a good enough excuse…

If there’s one day of the year where you can get away with spouting poetry this is it, so here’s my favourite poem, just for you…

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
T.S. Eliot

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep… tired… or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor
And this, and so much more?
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

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