Tag Archives: writing I love

History Wrapped in Art and Craft: The Hungry Grass by A. Mary Murphy

A. Mary Murphy’s The Hungry Grass is gorgeous. It sweeps me up with its vivid images. It has altered, forever, my ideas about the Irish potato famine and those who lived through it, died in it, or fled it. Gone are the dry, two sentence descriptions of faceless Irish I was given in school texts. Murphy has given me something so much better. She has given me history wrapped in art and craft. She has brought these people and their world to life. The Hungry Grass

The book length poem is 2295 lines, each with seven syllables. I don’t pretend to understand poets and what would possess a person to submit themselves to such a strict form; I only enjoy the incredible result. Murphy mixes Irish dialect with English and seamlessly embeds meticulously researched details into the work which describes fifteen years in the lives of her ancestors. In the first pages, we see the life of Irish Tenant families before the famine, carried through each season with its particularities, its work, its religious observances, and its customs until a full year passes. Life before the famine is hardscrabble but it is also full of joy. The narrator marries in the spring and by the next spring, gives birth to a child, her little life so precarious and precious. The reader knows what the stakes are here. Love is love, whether it is in 1834 or 2016. And so is hunger.

Although the details place us firmly in the Irish potato famine, the poem’s richness cannot help but tie it thematically to all famines, all mass migrations, all displacements, all droughts, and all victims of soulless and intransigent governments.

The poem starts, “And it is how it happened / before fields of hungry grass / grew up over all the world / pinching us with starvation” and I am hooked. “Pinching” is such an excellent verb to attach to “starvation.” I feel it in my body, in my stomach. I read on and am shown the thousand-year churchyard, the neeps and nettles, the furrows in the soil ready for planting, the Liecester rams, cormorants, perch and corncrakes crying in the meadow and even a trespassing goose. I am fully immersed in this world of the past and given a close up view as it falls apart.

I was fortunate to hear Murphy read from this book last week at an Inanna Publications event at Owl’s Nest Books in Calgary. Hearing her read, hearing the lilt of the Irish, and experiencing the flow of the language coming seven syllables at a time was a delight. Murphy makes use of all the senses to put us in this time and place. I hear the birds and feel the breeze. I am, like Murphy was during her research, in the bog. And I am hungry.

Thank you for this book, A. Mary Murphy. This is art.

Political Writing, George Orwell and the Republicans

An American writer recently advised me not to write politically. I thought, “Surely, I have misheard.” (Truth be told, I actually thought “WTF,” but I’m granting myself a better vocabulary in the retelling). The context was a conversation about the upcoming American election. I had asked what role he thought writers had in the mess. None, he said. Political writing makes for bad art, he said. I countered with Orwell. He said “British,” and thus dismissed my point. I visualized George Orwell rolling over in his grave but I think Orwell would dislike the image. He would probably call it overused, which it is. It is also unclear. It is meant to imply anger and restlessness but could just as easily imply resignation. Roll over, pull the shroud up over your shoulder and ignore it. So instead, I’ll visualize Orwell pushing against the lid of his coffin, desperate to get a word in on this argument. I countered again with Steinbeck. The American writer said, “A different time.” He warned me I could have no commercial success writing politically. As I was about to list a host of contemporary American fiction writers whose work is both political and successful, the real issue came out. He had written something political on social media and lost friends. Sometimes, we are simply afraid.

Writing I love is always political. It has a high likelihood of offending someone. If George Orwell were alive today, I suspect that he would have something to say about the current nominees, both Republican and Democrat. He might write an essay. He might write a work of fiction which touches on the problems of the present. I doubt he would have held back.


Orwell would have braved the haters and the internet trolls and the columnists from Nowheresville who resort to ad hominem attacks and straw man arguments. It would have been a thing to behold. We need Orwell now. But Orwell is dead. The best we can do is strive to be like him.

In Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” he writes, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues” and I couldn’t agree more. Most people know this particular essay as the source of excellent writerly advice like using clear language and avoiding spent metaphors. He laments that “our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Lazy and inaccurate language begets lazy and inaccurate thinking and in turn, lazy and inaccurate thinking begets lazy and inaccurate language. We must break this cycle, and Orwell suggests paying attention to language is a good place to start.

Orwell would demand a specific example. Here is one. Mr. Kasich, a Republican, is described as “moderate.” Moderate is a political label that has become meaningless, just as Orwell notes the word “democracy” has become meaningless. Its use here is inaccurate and lazy. Moderate compared to what? Please, define your terms. The word moderate is being used to imply Kasich is “good” or that, less optimistically, he is the “best of a bad lot” or, perhaps, “not quite as crazy as the others.” But recall the reciprocal nature of the relationship between language and ideas. If, as a result of numerous namings of Kasich as a moderate, Americans visualize him when the word is used, we will have succeeded in further confusing the meaning of moderate. To reverse the process, he must be called what he really is.

But why single out Mr. Kasich? Many have argued that, in fact, the Republican candidates are all saying much the same thing. They each espouse racist and xenophobic ideas. Mr. Trump is not an outlier, not within the candidates, the Republican party, or possibly even the American people. Sure, some of the candidates, like Mr. Trump, appeal more to the KKK than others. But that doesn’t mean that the others do not appeal to the KKK. Ironically, in between the bluster and incomprehensible phrases of jingoistic nonsense he has pushed together to create his campaign, he has done something that Orwell would advise. On select ideas, he has removed the mask of codified language, pretentious diction, and economic and legalistic jargon that has long obfuscated the hobbesian brutality of Republican goals. (Orwell would hate that sentence. How about this: Regarding race and immigration, he has been explicit and revealed the brutal end game of Republican policy.) As a result, his audience has found him and responded accordingly and he is winning. Unfortunately, the language he uses still comes from failed thinking. 

It was 1946 when Orwell wrote “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language,” and this statement is equally true in 2016, seventy years later. His essay teaches all writers how to avoid spouting the meaningless drivel that inundates us in every news cycle. And it is well past time that we as writers use his suggestions. We must explain how these candidates defy the American Constitution and demean the American dream. Or rather, YOU must, American writers. It’s your country. Do so clearly, explicitly, using clear language and specific examples. Orwell promises that if you write in this style your thoughts will become clearer and “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

I revisit Orwell’s writing often, particularly The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. I happen to have Volume 2, conveniently subtitled My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943. It is old and held together with an elastic. My copy originally belonged to my older brother. It was one of his high school texts, and somehow, I have come to have it. The passages that he checked off in the index include “Review of Mein Kampf by Adolf HItler,” “Review of The Totalitarian Enemy by Franz Borkenau,” “Prophecies of Fascism,” “Literature and Totalitarianism,” and “Who are the War Criminals?” among others. I expect these were the ones he was assigned to study. My brother went to a Catholic school and was taught by Jesuits. It delights me to know that this work was part of their curriculum. I mention it because there is a whole other essay here on the importance of good teaching and public education, but I’ll save that for another time.

I find something arresting every time I go back into this book. Today, in “Prophesies of Fascism,” I stopped short on these lines in which Orwell, referring to writer Jack London, makes the point that London did not fall into the trap of fascists, that he “knew that economic laws do not operate in the same way as the law of gravity,” but that they can be “held up for long periods by people who, like Hitler, believe in their own destiny.” And people like Trump.

It’s time to be clear, precise and unafraid. We need to call a spade a spade. But because Orwell would hate the phrase, I will revise again. We need to call out candidates as fascist when they are fascists, as facile when they are facile and fraudulent when they are fraudulent. Language is called Orwellian when it is propagandist and obstructionist. But as writers, let us rethink the meaning of Orwellian. Let’s write as Orwell would have. Let us be Orwellian.



Ill Nature by Joy Williams

Joy Williams is a writer I feel I should learn more about. This is an odd impulse for me. I never know much about the personal lives of the writers I love unless they happen to write memoir. I would rather focus on their writing than on them and let the writing stand on its own. I was listening to wonderful interview with John Irving recently on CBC in which he says “I have lived almost entirely in my imagination and have been free to do so because my own life has been staggeringly boring, much as I hoped it would be.” Writers should be allowed to be as dull as anyone else. Nevertheless, many of my writer friends study the lives and habits of writers they admire and even know about their agents and publishers. Last night a colleague told me that a casual email exchange I was in the midst of was with the agent of a group of particularly famous writers. I had no idea. Would knowing have altered what I said? I like to think not. I like to think I write and speak to everyone with the same measure of respect, but I admit I went back and reread the exchange with a new eye and winced over a typo. Oh dear. But I always wince over typos.

Anyway, back to Joy Williams. All of this is to make clear that I know very little about Joy Williams except that I joy williams ill naturefell in love with her essays in Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. Kirkus calls it “savage, serious, hilarious, passionate, loving, and lyrical.” The book jacket says the writing has guts and passion, two things I admire in any writing. Her wit is sharp and scathing. As with A.K. Hellum’s Listening to Trees which I considered in my last post, the essays demand that we become more connected to the natural world. Perhaps I cannot help loving writing that dedicates itself to this theme.

But it is more than that. Look at three opening sentences (and also take a minute to revel in the titles of these essays). From “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp”: “I don’t want to talk about me, of course, but it seems as though far too much attention has been lavished on you lately–that your greed and vanities and quest for self-fulfillment have been catered to far too much.” Of course, she is talking about herself. Saying she isn’t simply reminds us that she is. The shift to second person is brilliant, enabling a kind of dissociated state from which we can see and judge ourselves, and do so harshly. Such capacity for harsh judgement, having been built, stays with us far beyond the first essay when the second person is no longer in use. Williams is no enabler. There is no mollycoddling, no “We’re all doing what we can,” because we’re not. We’re doing nothing like what we can.

Look at this opening sentence from “Neverglades”: “That the Everglades still exists is a collective illusion shared by both those who care those who don’t.” I read this essay and other works by Williams about Florida before my own visit there. It altered my vision. I knew what I was seeing was a sad shadow of what used to be, a pathetic remnant of a once glorious world “so depleted of its original abundance and ecological function that it was no longer the Everglades at all. The gentle, natural, rain-driven sheet flow that once sustained it had been replaced by erratic pulses of water, which came in gorged polluted flushes, too much or too little, and always in the wrong season.” So much is conveyed in so few words–specific detail, the concrete comparison between past and the present, loss, even grief.

And from “Sharks and Suicide”: “There’s something out there waiting for us, and that’s the truth.” The essay captures our paranoia, our fear. “Wasps or abandoned refrigerators. Dehydration, myxedema, and the three-hundred-year-old elm on the curve. Explosions, and wrecks and electrocutions. Funny-tasting meat treats.” Zeroing in on sharks, she notes that sharks are “known to create concerns out of all proportion to the amount of injury or loss of life incurred statistically.” Sound familiar? Isn’t this sort of like what’s got us all taking our shoes off at the airport and having our hand lotion seized? But wait. This was published in 2001. Williams is not only scathing, savage, hilarious and all the other adjectives; she is prescient.

Is this about Williams or is it about the writing? Is my distinction artificial? Probably, especially when it comes to personal essays. It’s impossible not to learn about a writer who writes personal essays. I will move on to her novels now. I’m particularly interested in a work called The Changeling, a novel published in 1978 that went out of print and was finally reprinted thirty years later. The internet says that it got scuttled by a particularly bad review in the NYT but that it was ahead of its time. I’ll get back to you. I have an idea that it probably was.

Joy Williams. Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. New York: The Lyons Press. 2001.

Listening to Trees by A.K. Hellum

It feels right to start a series of blog posts about writing I love with a book about trees. Without trees, we would have no books. And Listening to Trees is a heartfelt homage. It is aware of itself as the product of its very subject and is printed on recycled, ancient forest-friendly paper. The book feels good to hold. It is a little slimmer than most and can be held with one hand as you adjust your light or pull a soft blanket over your lap. The design is gorgeous–a line drawing of the rings of a tree trunk that become the title and the author’s name in a quirky cursive.

listening to trees

A.K. Hellum is a fellow who loves trees even more than I do. I have been known to hug a tree, to put my ear against a tree and try to hear the sap run, to lean against a giant cedar or redwood and think about the centuries it has stood, to lie on the ground and look up at leaves swaying in the wind. According to the back cover, “Listening to Trees tells the story of a man’s lifelong journey to salvage the world’s declining forests. In this enlightening account of Hellum’s’ half-century career as a forester, we become privy to our environment’s fragile state-of-being through stories of forests that have been stripped of their resources and improperly regenerated over the span of lifetimes.” This is a memoir. It is a love story. It is a plea to listen to trees.

In the preface, I knew I had found a kindred spirit when I read, “I feel that I am among friends when I walk in any forest anywhere. That is more than many of us can say walking in cities. The disappearance of our primeval and ‘messy’ forests is to be mourned for they connect us with a sense of reality and help people to be grounded in their lives. To write about forests has been a journey of self-discovery.” He argues that we are losing our relationship with forests.

Years ago, I reconnected with an old friend from high school who had earned several graduate degrees and worked in a lab that genetically engineered trees. I asked, “So they will be uniform and straight for the mills?” He scoffed. There is more to it than that, he said. I’m not so sure. Forests aren’t supposed to be convenient. They are not for us. They are of us and we are of them. But who cares about such distinctions anymore? Hellum does. A forestry instructor I knew years ago used to teach a course called “Forest Management.” She told me she started her class by telling her students that trees don’t need to be managed. They manage themselves quite well. Then she asked what they would like to talk about instead for the rest of the semester. Another kindred spirit. And yes, she was nearing the end of her career and getting a bit snarky, but she made the point, the point that had to be made. Trees know what they are doing. Like her, I like my forests unmanaged, but these kinds of forests are increasingly hard to find. A few years ago, a made my way through the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy in the southern interior of British Columbia, a glorious five-day slog through some of the last remaining pristine wilderness. Now that was a forest.

Open any page at random in this book and you will see a writer with a keen eye and a tremendous ability to get his observations onto the page. Birch and larch “represent light and youth and are, therefore, forever graceful. Aspens are like chameleons, changing from season to season. Using feminine gestures they strut their colours in spring and fall with a hint of vanity and exude perfume in springtime when their buds break open. In the east breeze their leaves tremble nervously, but they can also be opportunists, moving quickly into disturbed habitats when the chance arises.” Lovely. He goes on to write, “Then there are the poplars that remind me of the newly rich–unkempt, large, and fast growing, flaunting their power through pure size, even though their life spans are normally short.” His description of butterflies will leave you breathless.

At the end of the book, Hellum writes “I feel eternally thankful for the gifts that forests have afforded me directly and indirectly. I feel privileged to have been awarded the opportunity to relate to forests. My advice to future foresters is to rekindle that intimate feeling–it can be called love–that is needed for us to care for forests in our trust. We desperately need to be professionals rather than just employees.” Amen.

A.K. Hellum, Listening to Trees, Edmonton: NeWest Press. 2008.