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.

15-21 March: A New Path to the Waterfall

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This month, we’re running another workshop-and-walk session inspired by The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris – a project which aims to celebrate and reconjure the natural world, and vitally, to reintroduce it to children’s lives. It also happens to coincide with a campaign to get a copy of The Lost Words in every primary, infant and special school in Oxfordshire. To celebrate these two very exciting things, all this month we will be featuring a choice selection of nature poetry from our collection.

You may know Raymond Carver primarily for his prose writing – short stories populated with bars, booze, suburbia, kitchen tables, the occasional camping trip but mainly urban landscapes. But when Carver ducked out of his cycle of alcoholism and urban decay in his last decade, he found kinship with the natural world. A New Path to the Waterfall is one of his later collections, with poems steeped in rivers and woods. Whether examining a sturgeon, allowing grief to unfold on a morning of summer fog, swimming with a lover in Naches River, these poems are characterized by slowness. They cultivate patience, observation, and contemplativeness which is then angled to other aspects of Carver’s world: his wife’s hairbrush left behind when she leaves him, the memory of the sleepless, angry quiet of going to bed after a family argument, picking up a suit from the dry cleaners and wondering if it’s the one you’ll be buried in…

These poems, whether they are specifically about nature or not, are meditative to read, imploring you to breathe and experience the world around you in all its detail as it uncurls and emerges. There is fear and hope and grief, but all are experienced with a gentle curiosity which echoes his love and curiosity for the rivers, woods, animals, and landscapes that surround him. Carver ends a slightly earlier poem, ‘Where water comes together with other water,’ with: “It pleases me, loving rivers. / Loving them all the way back / to their source. / Loving everything that increases me.”

It’s impossible not to let that love stir in you when you read these poems, to adopt this slow and patient attitude too as you go with Carver deep into the woods.

 


 

8-14 March: No Map Could Show Them

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This month, we’re running another workshop-and-walk session inspired by The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris – a project which aims to celebrate and reconjure the natural world, and vitally, to reintroduce it to children’s lives. It also happens to coincide with a campaign to get a copy of The Lost Words in every primary, infant and special school in Oxfordshire. To celebrate these two very exciting things, all this month we will be featuring a choice selection of nature poetry from our collection.

It is also International Women’s Day today, so it felt particularly apt to feature a book which celebrates both nature and the female spirit. Helen Mort’s No Map Could Show Them is the perfect embodiment of this. This is a collection of odes to courageous women. From the sex worker in ‘Rachel in Attercliffe’ to the “difficult women…crowding the bus stop with their difficult bodies, / refusing to budge for the light, ” in ‘Difficult’ (a viciously tongue-in-cheek response to an AskMen web article called ‘Why Men Date Difficult Women’), these poems demand that women take up space.

Most of the poems, however, are about the brilliantly unlikely subject of female mountaineers: from the Victorian Jemima Morrell who hiked the Swiss Peaks in all her petticoated glory, to Lene Gammelgaard, the first Scandinavian woman to summit Everest, and beyond. Mort explores their bravery, fear, brilliance, and passion. The mountains are engraved on their hearts. ‘Home’ voices the longing of a woman stuck at home, injured, while the “blackbirds sketch private, airy maps outside”, yearning to be in the snowy alps but instead she waits, her “heart: a compassion, magnetised.”

The determination of these women is apparent in these poems, but also clear in their stories is their love of the wilderness. Nature is their freedom, salvation, calling. ‘How to Dress’ implores you to “put on the mountain’s suit // your forearms gloved with permafrost, / your fingers lichen-light” – forgo “the clothes they want / to keep you in…The sky will be your broad-brimmed hat.” Nature also promises to be the death of them, with the poems verging on all kinds of precipices. This is poetry that urges you to take risks, explore, take the leap (literally and/or figuratively), telling stories which are as gripping as they are moving.

 


1-7 March: Thames: An anthology of river poems

 

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This month, we’re running another workshop-and-walk session inspired by The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris – a project which aims to celebrate and reconjure the natural world, and vitally, to reintroduce it to children’s lives. It also happens to coincide with a campaign to get a copy of The Lost Words in every primary, infant and special school in Oxfordshire. To celebrate these two very exciting things, all this month we will be featuring a choice selection of nature poetry from our collection. First up, Thames: An Anthology of River Poems edited by Anna Adams.

This slim collection includes poems from across five hundred years of the river’s history – from William Dunbar’s Thames “where many a swan doth swymme”, through Thomas Gray’s “hoary Thames” on “his silver winding way”, to Adams’ own modern Thames – the “serpent soul of London”, “grey and old, gold and immortal”.

The poems are arranged broadly chronologically through the river’s history. Pope, Spenser and Dryden are perhaps a little hard-going for a casual reader, but the images they create permeate softly through the later poems like rainwater through Cotswold limestone. There come familiar voices: Blake wanders thro’ each charter’d street, Wordsworth stands upon Westminster Bridge, and Rudyard Kipling imagines ancient giant tigers stalking down // through Regent’s Park and Camden Town.

Newer and less familiar names present their views of the river too: Pauline Stainer’s Thames wears “its oiled silks”, and further downstream, Lavinia Greenlaw’s “River History” describes a horizon broken by “a forest of cranes that unloaded meat, cloth, tobacco and grain from countries my old school atlas still colours pink”. Finally we reach Ruth Pitter’s elegiac The Estuary, where “light, stillness and peace lie on her broad sands”.

Writing from Oxford, it is difficult not to bristle a little at the emphasis on the Thames as “London’s River” – there is scant mention of the river beyond the capital. But most interesting to me is the way the collection chose to depict the Thames (and the city) at the end of the last century. Published in 1999, it captures something of the optimism of two decades ago. In his preface, Ian Sinclair describes the “lurid ceramic blue” of the Thames in “computer-enhanced Millenium Dome prospectuses” (a sentence which seems very firmly rooted in past decades).

The London described here is bold and new, hopeful and regenerating; we see her as she catches sight of, and admires, the long reflection of her history as it sparkles in the neon-lit ripples beneath Hungerford Bridge.

 


 

22-28 February: You Got To Burn to Shine by John Giorno

 

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It’s LGBT History Month so all through February we will be featuring poets who belong in some way or other to the LGBT community, celebrating their lives and their work. This week, our book of the week is You Got To Burn To Shine by John Giorno.

Giorno’s life as a gay man is explicit in his poetry: frequently sexually graphic, occasionally tender, and often ringing with anger and justice and the consequences of living on the margins of society. His poetry is charged with simple, direct language organized in long columns and repetition: “Whatever / happens / it will seem / the way / it seems / now, / and it doesn’t matter / what you / feel, / how perfectly / correct / or amazing / the clarity, / everything / you think / is deluded / everything you think / is deluded / everything you think is deluded, / life / is a killer.” The words are often bitter and nihilistic, but repetition grants them a persistence, a chant like a prayer.

Giorno’s poetry has urgency and viscerality. And you get the impression from this collection – the poems and the interspersed prose mini-essays – that he lives his life with that same urgent desire to connect with people. Giorno speaks frequently of the important of speaking directly to his audiences: “Spoken word, using breath and heat, pitch and volume, and the melodies inherent in the language, risking technology and music, and a deep connection with an audience, is the fulfillment of a poem”, he says.  This is why he created recordings of his poetry by setting up a record label, Giorno Poetry Systems, and released LPs and videos and cassettes and CDs, and in the 60s created the concept of Dial-A-Poem. Dial-A-Poem was an ingenious service in which members of the public were encouraged to ring a phone line connected with individual answering machines. These answering machines would play fragments of live recordings by various poets and callers could dial in anytime to listen.

Giorno’s determination to connect with the people around him is powerfully clear in his poems, in his work with Giorno Poetry Systems, and particularly through his AIDS activism. Though HIV negative himself, Giorno lived through the 1980s AIDS epidemic, losing many peers to the disease. ‘AIDS Monologue’ in this collection describes his founding of the AIDS Treatment Project, which exists to give money, solidarity, friendship, “compassion without partiality directed at every individual person with AIDS”. Whether through poetry, art, activism, or simple humanity, Giorno’s message is clear: reach out to others, spark connections, put yourself out into the open and risk catching fire. You got to burn to shine.

 


15-21 February: Poems, Elizabeth Bishop

 

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It’s LGBT History Month so all through February we will be featuring poets who belong in some way or other to the LGBT community, celebrating their lives and their work. This week, our book of the week is Poems by Elizabeth Bishop.

A fantastic, comprehensive collection of Bishop’s poetry, this includes her writing from early, outward-looking observations of landscape and place to her later, more inward-looking reflections on life and loneliness. Her voice is singular, distinctive and clear and her keen eye for detail can be heartbreakingly perceptive. ‘Filling Station’ describes the dingy forecourt of a petrol station, notices the “wicker sofa” on which sleeps a “dirty dog”, a “big dim doily” draped over a table: “Somebody embroidered the doily. / …Somebody arranges the rows of cans / so that they softly say: / ESSO-SO-SO-SO / to high-strung automobiles. / Somebody loves us all.”

Sadness and bereftness pervades Bishop’s poetry. She lived a full life, travelling widely, teaching at Harvard, winning poetry prizes – and yet she asked friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Her turbulent and several long-term relationships with women inform much of her poetry, though she is often evasive as to her sexuality and the gender of her lovers (not least because of the mid-20th century hostility against and prejudice towards homosexuality). Nonetheless, the poetry is tender and full of love. ‘The Shampoo’ for instance describes washing her lover’s hair, “The shooting stars in your black hair / in bright formation…Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin / battered and shiny like the moon.” In ‘Breakfast Song’, she aches over the idea of dying before her long-term (much younger) partner, Alice Methfessel: “How can I bear to go / (as soon I must, I know) / to bed with ugly death / in that cold, filthy place, / to sleep there without you”. The poems are specific, about Methfessel’s eyes, “awfully blue / early & instant blue”, but they have a universal quality in their longing and yearning for connection with another person.

Possibly her best known poem, ‘One Art,’ is the swan song of her relationship with Methfessel. This is a poem for anyone who’s prone to misplacing things, imploring: “Lose something every day. Accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. / The art of losing isn’t hard to master” but ends more poignantly on losing a lover, that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Loneliest person who ever lived or not, here at OPL we are so grateful to Bishop for having written her experiences of solitude and loss. It helps us feel less alone.

 


 

8-14 February: Other Lovers by Jackie Kay

 

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Ahh Valentine’s Day. And whether you’re all nested in a cosy relationship, or living the single lifestyle (or anywhere, really, on that spectrum), it’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it. Fakery abounds, capitalism cashes in, and there’s lots of meaningless gabble about luuurrrve. Poetry is the perfect antidote to that. And not the kind that you find in Hallmarks cards. Our book of the week, Other Lovers by Jackie Kay, celebrates and explores all different kinds of love in their rawest and diverse forms – not a mushy love poem in sight.

Other Lovers has poems about romantic love, but usually recounting the agony of longing, as in the frustration of waiting for a call in “Dusting the Phone”: “Come on, damn you, ring me. Or else. what? // I don’t know what”. There is the dance from singledom to relationship to heartbreak: from I to we to emerging to “a whole new life” in the title-poem “Other Lovers”. But there is also the painful, ungraspable, ineffable, complicated love between a child and mother in “Keeping Orchids”. There is even a sequence of poems about Bessie Smith – long-term hero of Kay’s – spoken of with a tenderness: “a blue song in the beat of her heart”. This sequence mythologizes Bessie Smith, “the Empress”, and adores her power and strength, her “cast iron” voice. Smith was also a queer icon for Kay. In an interview with the Scottish Review of Books, Kay even recalls reading “a biography of her at fourteen, and it described these sexual relationships she had with women, and I was just starting to think about that then, so she was like a role model, although an unlikely role model that ate pig’s feet and roared at people.” Now, in the midst of LGBT History Month, it seems apt to acknowledge queer love as another form of love underlying Kay’s collection.

The collection is a love-letter to the multiplicity in people, the many ways to be and love and be loved. Being both black and Scottish, many things in one, Kay recounts in ‘In My Country’ the experience of being accused of not being from ’round here.’ She is asked ‘Where do you come from?’ and answers ‘Here…Here. These parts.” These are all the parts which make her up: black, Scottish, queer, heartbreak, music, love…

This Valentine’s Day, let us appreciate and celebrate all the parts that make us (and the people we love) up.

 

1-7 February: Otmoor by David Attwooll & Andrew Walton

 

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If you were inspired by our session last weekend about The Lost Words you could do far worse than a bit of bird-watching in Otmoor. Just outside Oxford, this area of wetlands is a gorgeous spot for seeing wading birds, songbirds, and (this time of year) starling murmurations. And you could also do far worse than take along this little book of poetry as a companion.

David Attwooll, recently passed away, was a local poet who worked with Andrew Walton to make this beautiful collection. Walton, originally from Otmoor, has created stark, etched illustrations of the landscape. They perfectly echo the almost primal nature of the poems, which beat the rhythm of “a tightening tide felt / here in the country’s navel / a hundred miles from the sea.” If you listen closely, you can hear the waterbirds’ calls, “the sound of a pattern / intricate and oriental // chatter of circling stars / in daytime when no-one sees”. This is a love-letter to Otmoor, but also a prayer to stop, listen, look, and let the wildness overtake you.

So yes, it’s cold, the snow is melting to a bleak slush, but now is the perfect time to take a minute and notice the natural world as it breathes and survives around you. Best of all – take a trip out to Otmoor. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a murmuration and watch the flocks transform (as Attwooll describes) “as filings magnetise, or continents fold / and drift, framing new maps, possible worlds”.

25-31 January: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris

 

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There’s been a lot of buzz about this book since it came out a few years ago – and it is worth every ounce of hype it’s gotten. If you haven’t already picked it up, you are in for a treat – not just because of its poetry which is delicious and profound, following in the footsteps of Gerard Manley Hopkins in its use of sound and rhythm to magic imagery from thin air – but the literal act of picking the book up is itself a delight. It’s a beautiful object, gilded, meticulously and luxuriously illustrated – and does entirely what it is meant to do: enchant, inspire, and conjure the beauty of nature.

Macfarlane and Morris created this spellbinding collection in response to the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary which introduced new words such as “broadband” and “blog” while words relating to the natural world (acorn, wren, otter, willow, to name a few) were lost. The dictionary, reflecting the frequency of words in the daily language of children, threw into undeniable relief the idea that children are losing touch with nature. Enter ‘The Lost Words’. This is a magical collection of acrostic poems by Macfarlane, gorgeously illustrated by Morris, which re-conjures these words, brings them back to our hearts and minds, and helps children to discover the natural world around them.

To further this mission, the library itself is running a session this weekend in our very own Florence Park in East Oxford. After a chat about the kind of creatures, creepy-crawlies, and all manner of living things we might see (and a bit of binocular training!), we will head out into the park to explore. Nick Boyd, resident nature-expert, will lead the walk, teaching you how to look and listen and notice the living world around us. We will then return to Flo’s to create our own Lost Words-inspired poetry with the help of poet Phoebe Nicholson. Collage and craft materials will be available to illustrate and decorate your spells!

Places are limited but if you miss out this time, never fear! This is a pilot session for a longer series of workshops we’re planning for the spring, so keep your eyes peeled for our future plans to celebrate this lovely collection – and nature itself!

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18-24 January: Blue Horses by Mary Oliver

 

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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”.

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11-17 January: Wretched Strangers

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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/


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4-10 January: Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times

 

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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.

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