Year’s Best Reads 2019

This year I contributed two reviews to Sacred Trespasses’ “Year’s Best Reads 2019” roundup. I am grateful to Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais for publishing my thoughts. I reviewed Inez Baranay’s literary science fiction novel Turn Left At Venus, and Behrouz Boochani’s prison memoir No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.

“Whoever was tortured, stays tortured,” wrote Jean Améry, a victim of brutal Nazi torture during the Second World War. Lest we forget. If the refugee processing center at Manus Island were a prison in that war, would we not remain appalled by it? From reigns of absolutism will come the worst and most enduring crimes.


Persona after persona walls off history
And the kindness
The kindness the human sympathy
When the prisoners of war were found
In that other Japan,
The one no longer real nor known
But inherited in families—

The American sailors on their monstrous warship
Took living skeletons aboard,
Walking dead who had nothing but what they clung to.
My grandfather had a tin water bottle etched with names
Of men in Changi, the bottle given him as a gift
Because he had nothing, and the giver had something—
The kindness

When the Americans found them, when they wept agape
In the rift between hell and earth at the port—
I tell you, this does not die, this war sickness,
It is true what they say, it lives in generations,
A wicked nausea nobody can bear alone—

When the Americans found the prisoners
They wept in horror and confusion at the state of them,
The dead returned—to return to death,
And the sailors took off their shirts and passed them
Across the threshold,
For the dead arrive with nothing.

How often have I watched my mother cry at her memories?
The thing fought for, whatever it is,
Must be a freedom so slippery that no mind can keep it—
But at least between us, my mother and I,
We steal back kindness from this tireless pain—

It still matters to keep our dates, to remember
Toward him.

Possession of the Senses

To write a blog in 2019 feels anachronistic. Rapidity and noise are the order of the day. This morning I read that Facebook plans to launch a currency—a cryptocurrency—named Libra, and I read yesterday about their Horizon project which will perhaps at last create a viable virtual reality, packaged as a game. We must—mustn’t we?—find new ways to make money. Keep all mouths fed. VR games were in video game arcades when I was a teenager, and I put on the mask and entered the space—1992 or ‘91, I guess. A novelty, just a novelty. I think it cost 10 dollars. I can’t remember the game, something involving a gun—a quietened space, a gun, a motion of the head this way and that. Walk without legs, shoot without bullets, or consequence. It all meant something very different back then.

There’s something I want to say, but I don’t yet know how to say it. I can feel it wriggling and crying out in my belly and heart, something. It feels like Ted Hughes’s flopping flapping crow. Edie the kitten is in my lap trying not to fall asleep. It’s time for her nap, but she keeps getting up to find things to chew on. There’s something I want to say, over time. Am I patient enough? Over time, yes—surely. Sure. Say it, go ahead and say it. Is this why we write? The writing keeps time for us, it remembers.

The title of this blog comes from an interview with the writer W.G. Sebald, which remains available on Amazon, of all places: The Questionable Business of Writing. Toby Green asks if restlessness and destructiveness have a relationship in Sebald’s work, and Sebald, affirming the point, adds:


“Right now we can hear the traffic outside, the noise of the generator, the aeroplanes above–this proliferation just makes rigorous thought that much more impossible. It is impossible to imagine Wittgenstein thinking out a problem in front of an audience today. Impossible. [Toby Green]: How do you feel that this growth of noise has affected our perceptual abilities? 

Sebald: Enormously so. I received a letter from a librarian after the publication of The Rings of Saturn , claiming that he had seen archival material that said that the Battle of Sole Bay—off Lowestoft—had been heard in London. Newton heard it from Cambridge. This sort of thing is inconceivable today. We can barely even imagine how it was then. It just shows how much we are losing possession of our senses, and how much noisier our world is now that it ever has been before. It has got much worse in the last ten years.”


The link to “Newton” in the original text, reproduced above, leads here:

I would shelve this book over and over when I worked at the State Library of Queensland, 25 years ago. It’s a big book. Heavy. Popular, yes, and usually left on the floor after perusal. The Cindy Sherman book, too, but it wasn’t as heavy. I don’t blame the reader for not moving them. Helmut, Isaac—the great photographers of physics. Nowhere on the Amazon list is Isaac Newton,  presumably because he hasn’t published recently or his publisher hasn’t put out a new edition. Already things are getting out of hand. A proliferation of links, things to look at, paths to follow, memories and wonderings … Noise. I’m adding to it. Click my links, click their links, and theirs, and theirs.

The only thing I want to say today is that the title for the blog comes from Sebald’s response: 

It just shows how much we are losing possession of our senses, and how much noisier our world is now that it ever has been before.

Anachronistic to write a blog in 2019, but perhaps it is a way to gain some possession of my senses, if only for the length of a blog post, from time to time. I was inspired too by long-time reading of Ursula K. LeGuin’s blog. Gain a little space. Her cat’s name was Pard. Of course my chosen title has other meanings—Possession of the Senses—but I barely know what they are, I just feel them. There’s no need to know yet. Writing is a way to find.

I am sitting in my dining room in Santa Fe, New Mexico, looking at two hills which are known, I’ve been told, as Sun and Moon Mountain. I don’t know which is which. It’s autumn, a cooling afternoon. There is a kitten asleep on my lap, stretching, gaining my attention. Now in the space of a few words she has dozed off. A month ago I could hold her in one hand. We sat together in the bathroom playing with Fred’s old toys. We made a game of leaping off my shoulders. Now she is twitching, her little white paws running, her long black mouse tail swiping this way and that.

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