Every week, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the week’s events or happenings. This is the archive of past books of the week from 2019 for your perusal, allowing you to explore books in our collection we’ve highlighted in the past.
18-24 January: Blue Horses by Mary Oliver
Yesterday, Mary Oliver died at 83. We are celebrating her work this week at the poetry library with this, her penultimate collection, Blue Horses. For the uninitiated, Oliver was a Pulitzer-prize winning, much-loved poet who wrote about the world around her and her place in it, nature, creatures, what it is to be mortal… Her work is characterized by simplicity, delight, strength.
It’s accessible and direct, but profound – she said herself in an interview with NPR, “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear…It mustn’t be fancy.” Hers are poems that can knock the air out of you on first reading, but which you can revisit again and again and constantly find inspiration and grace in. The poetry implores you to slow down, walk, pay attention. Reading it is itself a meditative act, but they are also prayers to the intricacy and hope that the natural world can offer. It falls in love with nature and invites you to do the same. Much of her poetry was inspired by long walks. The Summer Day, for instance, begins with musings on the animals she sees, the grasshopper eating sugar out of her hand, and ends celebrating the simple act of strolling, “which is what I have been doing all day. / Tell me, what else should I have done?…/ Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
So here at OPL, we invite you, in her honour: go for a walk. Or better yet, come along with any kids in your life to the nature walk with us at Florence Park this week, where we can help you notice things, listen, appreciate, and create. As Oliver says in Wild Geese: “the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things”.
11-17 January: Wretched Strangers
Both here in the UK and across the pond (and beyond), it is increasingly impossible to avoid conversations about borders and migration. There is paranoia about movement of people, heated debate about where and whether lines can be drawn, there is nationalism and anger and fear. It’s easy to forget in the political fog about the individual human beings who are and will be affected by the outcomes of these debates. Our book of the week, Wretched Strangers (edited by Ágnes Lehóczky and J. T. Welsch and published by Boiler House Press) is an important reminder.
A whopping 100+ non-UK born writers have contributed to this astonishingly wide-ranging anthology. Dedicated to “celebrating the irreducible diversity” of ‘British’ poetry, the collection presents each writers’ voice exploring their experience of home and movement and beyond. There is striking diversity not just in where the poets come from (I haven’t checked but I’d guess just about every continent, with the possible exception of Antarctica, is represented here), but also their individual styles, the voices, and their expression. Poems range from very visual concrete poetry, James Joyce-esque stream of consciousness prose poetry, to more formal styles, to words combined with visual art and photography. Shot through so many of these pieces is a sense of belonging, disorientation, loss or gain of one’s culture or language, family, kinship. It is undeniable and vivid proof that there are as many ways to experience migration and displacement as there are people.
We will be hearing from a few more of these people at our event on 18 January we are collaborating on with Orchestra of St John’s, Somerville College, and Open House Oxford as part of an initiative called Displaced Voices. Join us at 5.30pm at Somerville for a FREE event starting with a panel discussion exploring issues of displacement and the refugee experience. The discussion will be followed by a short performance at 6.30pm across the road at Open House from some Oxford-based writers on their experiences of migration. We will present a brief showcase of poetic voices, reading their work on the subject of displacement, migration and home. This will include short performances from Yousif Qasmiyeh, Nancy Campbell, Mukahang Limbu, Shara Lessley, and Muradi Bakir, sharing their stories of movement in landscapes as far-flung as arctic Greenland and the Syrian civil war, exploring how homes can be left, moved, and made.
More information and details about registration here: https://www.osj.org.uk/event/displaced-voices-panel-discussion-at-somerville-college-and-open-house-oxford/
4-10 January: Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times
Well, we’ve all made it another year crawling the face of this big lump of rock hurtling through space, and here at OPL we hope you’ve celebrated appropriately. These are indeed strange times we live in, so what better way to start the year than facing that head on. Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney) is the perfect way to revel in, explore, and be in equal parts fascinated, horrified, and in love with all the bizarre quirks of the modern age.
The collection, as the editors note in their introduction, aims to capture the way that art and literature in our time encourages us to “make free with the boundaries of realism”. Imagination and play outpaces moralism and ideology and the result is a literary landscape defined by unusual and vivid insights, with poetry being a direct line to the bizarre uniqueness of individual experience.
These poems are all about the individual experience. Poems from familiar names like Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and Seamus Heaney are joined by lesser-known writers, and poets from all over the Anglophone world: India, the Caribbean, Africa… But unlike most anthologies, they are not grouped or categorized – poems aren’t even separated by page breaks. The effect is a wash of human experience. Poems flow into each other and are drunk in, giving real prominence to the words themselves and the images they conjure over the individual Big Name (or otherwise) who wrote them. And those images speak of things scavenged from a landfill, dirty old men, a rival’s house, markets where you can eat “sweet fog from a stick” – dream-like and unsettling, both disconcerting and strangely validating. Reading this collection is reassurance that your own odd experiences, secret desires and fears are perhaps not sounusual after all.
Strange poems for strange times, indeed. This may not necessarily be a feel-good collection, but for us is the perfect book to kickstart the new year. Happy 2019, all.