Every month, 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 month’s events or happenings. This is the archive of past books of the month from 2021 for your perusal, allowing you to explore books in our collection we’ve highlighted in the past.
December: Songs We Learn From Trees eds. Chris Beckett & Alemu Tebeje
This month, we’ll be moving in to our new physical space in The Community Works, in the heart of the city centre on Park End St. We share this fantastic new space with a few local organizations and businesses, and hope it will grow to be a real community hub and resource for all sorts of local goings-on. One of our fellow tenants sharing this new space is Lula’s Ethiopian and Eritrean Cuisine, serving delicious traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean food. In light of this, our featured book this month is Songs We Learn from Trees edited by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje, the first anthology of Ethiopian poetry in English.
A remarkable introduction to poetry written in Amharic (one of the many languages spoken in Ethiopia), this is a varied and accessible collection which captures poetry from across the entire tradition. Beckett and Tebeje are clearly attentive and sensitive in their translations and framing of the poetry. Their preface lays out the traditional styles of Amharic verse: the rhythmic get’em, religious q’ine, and the semena worq form which means “wax and gold”: poems have surface (wax) meaning, wordplay and imagery which obscures the deeper hidden (gold) meaning. These forms and techniques are evident in the collection’s poems, and it is interesting to see how Beckett and Tebeje navigate them in translating these Amharic traits into English.
What makes this collection so particularly striking is the ground it covers: beginning with folk poetry from the oral tradition, the reader gets a feel for the world that these poems are being written in. There are love poems, praise poems, war cries and prophecies, songs of exile, but also more playful moments as in a boast written in the voice of a flea. The latter half of the collection then introduces 20th century poets, reflective, philosophical voices with frequent reflections on what it means to be Ethiopian.
Finally, a large section of the anthology is given to contemporary and diaspora poets. It is striking to see the themes from the former half of the book echoed in these more modern pieces. There are poems on speech and silence, identity and belonging, the landscapes of Addis Ababa. There are also reinterpretations and new stories to tell: new versions of exile and persecution (including a plaintive poem in the voice of victims of the Grenfell fire, and a poet reflecting on ten years spent in a Somali prison). Clear in these poems is the love and pride for a homeland, its landscapes and people. This anthology is an important showcase of these powerful, modern voices and the poetic landscape from which they emerge.
Why not borrow it at our opening weekend on December 4th and 5th? We’ll be open from 11am til 4pm, with lots of books to browse, librarians on hand to give recommendations, and plenty of opportunity to also tuck into some of Lula’s delicious Ethiopian food while you’re there!
November: A Year in the New Life by Jack Underwood
Jack Underwood’s ‘A Year in the New Life’ is the long-awaited follow-up to his debut collection in 2015, and it does not disappoint.
The poems are dreamlike: One imagines bringing milk to fifteen babies who live in the garden. One recounts the morning you discover you’ve been made a saint. Another describes mind-wanderings during a boating trip or while lying on the floor of a supermarket. And throughout the collection is the presence of a new baby. The poems are funny and unsettling, exploratory and playful, then often veering into the deeply serious. The reader gets the sense of the poet scoping out a new landscape and his place within it. The body is explored as “a wild instrument and family meal”, as “meanwhile meat, / stress-eating granola,” an “unholy loaf”. Even language is coming loose and being reconfigured with the definition of ‘daughter’ explored as “noun meaning weather as in I expect the good / daughter won’t last” but also “verb meaning to become aware / of one’s overwhelmedness as in we were daughtered / by the magnitude of the cave system.” Part of this scoping out is in the juxtaposition of the big scary overwhelm with the familiar, and the whiplash that ensues from that, captured in the magnificently-titled poem, “There is a Supermassive Black Hole Four Million Times the Mass of the Sun at the Centre of our Galaxy and You are Pregnant with our Daughter”.
Many of the poems begin with the lines of other poets: Ye Hongxiang, Anna Seward, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The effect is disorienting, with those poets’ voices so different from Underwood’s, but feels somehow fitting in the context of a collection which plays so much with different perspectives, zooming in and out of imagined worlds.
It might be easy to get lost in all the surreality Underwood builds in this collection, but there is a steady consistency and informality in his voice too which is unpretentious and oddly relatable. And there is intimacy between the reader and poet: “Listen to my voice happening inside you. / Feel the way I pronounce these words / moving them through you like fruits / of different sizes and shapes. Apricot. / I’m going to move the word apricot to touch against your liver. Is that OK?” Not for the faint of heart, this is poetry that gets in your head.
October: The Heeding by Rob Cowen
October’s Book of the Month is “The Heeding” by Rob Cowen. (This would have been Book of the Month earlier in the year, but each time I sat down to write the review, I found myself too distracted by re-reading, and ended up either weeping over the pages, or inspired to go out for a walk instead.)
The introduction suggests that the book may be thought of as a “collection of things, of findings and workings out — if not conclusions — around our relationships with nature, ourselves and each other”. Written during 2020, each poem takes a small action or observation as a starting point. Actions such as observing a moonrise, queueing in a chemist, watching an ant, or finding half-a-brick are all given new significance. This is how many things felt in the year, when lockdown forced a shift of focus, and perhaps a shift too in the perceived scale of the world.
Cowen is perhaps better known for his prose writing (his 2015 book ‘Common Ground’ rightfully garnered much critical acclaim) and his poetry is on the same level. Through accessible words he allows us to share his observations, both literal observations of the physical world and also the emotional impact of these experiences. The act of turning on fairy-lights becomes a symbol of neighbourly solidarity, finding half-a-brick leads to a beautiful poem about love, and the appearance of the moon over rooftops tips into a heartbreaking reflection on mortality and parenthood.
The book is illustrated by Nick Hayes, and is a collaboration between the writer and the illustrator. Even without reading the poems the artwork is gorgeous, and similarly the poems themselves would be strong enough to stand without the artwork. Taken together, they are wonderful.
‘The Heeding’ is worth a read, but perhaps one to avoid if feeling particularly emotionally fragile.
September: She Is Fierce ed. Ana Sampson
Gifted to us by the anthologist herself, ‘She is Fierce’ (edited by Ana Sampson) is the most recent acquisition to the library. The first thing that strikes in picking up this anthology of women’s poetry is the ground that Sampson covers in pulling this collection together. The table of contents is peppered with familiar names of great female writers: Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Sappho, balanced against contemporary stars of the current poetry scene: Mary Jean Chan, Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird. Sampson is also attentive to including much lesser-known writers, voices writing from all corners of the female experience, such as the younger poets Amineh Abou Kerech and Shukria Rezaei, and ambassadors of the slam poetry scene such as Abigail Cook.
As diverse and wide-ranging as the voices are the themes covered in the anthology. The collection refuses to stick to the subjects that “female writing” has historically adhered to: “family, friendship, dutiful religion and the prettier corners of nature” (as the Introduction identifies). There are poems here about growing up, protest songs, poems confronting the body, poems that wander the solar system, about being truly happy, about knitting sheep, about queer love, about feeling like a bird. Each section of the collection is prefaced with a thoughtful summary on how the poems speak to each other, with Sampson’s confident anthologizing making sense of the sheer range of experiences on show here.
It’s an energizing read. The title is “She is Fierce” which conjures up the outspoken, unapologetic revolutionary. There is undoubtedly that energy in this collection: Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” and “Protest” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, to name just a couple. But fierceness here is reconfigured to mean so much more than the call to revolution. There is fierce self-celebration in Clifton’s “Homage to my Hips”, fierce self-knowledge in understanding one’s own wishes as a shy person in Dora Greenwell’s “A Scherzo,” fierce love for a friend in “Fiere” by Jackie Kay. The “she”s in the collection are fierce because they persist true to themselves, they speak their own experiences with clarity and claim their place in the world, whatever that may look like.
August: Bear by Chrissy Williams
“Everyone could use a bear sometimes” says the artist in the first poem of Chrissy Williams’s Bear. Bears are the big, scary, wild things in life which art and poetry bring alive and implore you to confront: love, grief, and loss.
Williams’s poems, however, don’t seem as big and scary as they are playful. The collection is a menagerie full of animals and games and experiments. The poems play with expression, seeming to enact the Ian Hamilton Finlay quotation which appears in one poem: “WORDS ARE DIFFICIULT / TO PUT INTO WORDS”. One poem about a park that floods once a year gulps underwater mid-sentence, as “These flooded pathways / < > everything”. “Sonnet for Zookeeper” is in the form of a video game, a chant of the repeated actions as you “Capture the set number of animals to complete the level” which reads almost like a meditative chant:
“crocodile drop lion delete crocodile / drop lion delete crocodile drop”
Williams’s attention to detail is well-observed and delightful, one poem about an encounter with a friend’s little boy in the British Museum and his fixation on the giftshop: “Parthenon bookmarks,” “Centurion pyjamas,” “rubber duck sphinxes,” “Rosetta Stone jigsaws.”
The little details of an intimate relationship are also preserved in poems that recount dialogues and in-jokes with a significant other. For instance, “Where have you put the wine?” re-enacts the inebriated exchange with one person’s nonsensical response, “I’ve put the wine in the oven,” deciphered as “the cold oven” and eventually “the fridge.”
As well as the silly and colourful moments, the poet gets lost in the vertigo of living in the 21st century too. “The Burning of the Houses” experiences the London riots through social media, and the terror and absurdity of that. One poem gets momentarily caught up in the mental wormhole of thinking about the “digital ghost towns,” of abandoned blogs and dead-ends of the internet as it ages 50 years then 2000 years into the future.
The madness and plurality of modern life, and of being alive at all, pulses through these poems – but the collection seems to lean into it, being fixed very firmly in the world (the final poem, “The Invisible Bear” implores the reader to “Plant your feet into the earth / into the Earth”). Staring all the clutter and contradictions in the face rather than hiding from them, it seems to say (and if you’ll pardon the pun), is how to bear it.
July: Odes by Sharon Olds
It’s mid-summer and the time when we all start pulling our bodies out of hibernation (and lockdown!) to emerge blinking into the world. While reuniting with the sun can be joyful, it can also be a source of anxiety as advertising, social media, the media all tells us that our bodies are not worthy of exposure. We are not beach body ready.
Well, to hell with that. Instead, read Sharon Olds’s ‘Odes’ for some powerful, unashamed celebrations of the body. ‘Ode of Withered Cleavage’ proclaims, “I want to praise / what goes one way, what never recovers”. ‘Ode to Stretch Marks’ is fascinated by “the language of aging, / the code of it, the etching, and the scribbling / and silvering” which are “signs, to me, of / getting to live out my full term.” ‘Unmatching Legs Ode’ delights in the shapes and scars of her legs: “the double stem / which lifts the big odd flower of me up / and up”. Nothing is out of bounds in this collection, but nothing is shameful, as ‘Ode to the Tampon,’ ‘Ode to My Fat’ and ‘Ode to a Composting Toilet’ insist.
Olds’s aim is not to make the ageing body beautiful so much as revel in what it means and how it feels to have a body, and experience all the things that come with that. It is a deep dive into the strangeness, triumph, sufferings of living in flesh, enriching our understanding of what it means to be embodied. These poems take what we have understood as “imperfections” or “undesirable” aspects and gives them the dignity they deserve. Bodies are not just cumbersome vessels for our minds and spirits. They have their own rich existence. Olds reflects: “I’m sad they will rot. I wish our bodies / could leave us when they are done with us – / leave our spirits here, and walk away.” By the end of the collection, you’re left wishing the same thing.
June: How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil
Bhanu Kapil’s ‘How to Wash A Heart’ is not a comfortable read, but it is a crucial one. This year’s winner of the T S Eliot Prize, Kapil’s collection is a series of poems which tells the story of an immigrant staying as a guest in a citizen’s house. It gives an honest insight into the experience of being hosted, digging deep into the idea that “it’s exhausting to be a guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever.”
Kapil reflects on the tension between generosity and resentment. At first, it is subtle: tea is given but, “You bang the cup down / By my sleepy head”. Food is a presence throughout the collection, imagined in the mango and pomegranate trees of the speaker’s homeland, but in the host’s house, there is a “heaving plate / of meat,” the pain of “eating too much.” The vulnerability of being at the mercy of one’s host is tense and terrifying: “I understood that you were a wolf / Capable of devouring / My internal organs / If I exposed them to view.”
At the core of the collection is the speaker’s longing to be seen as whole and human. For the host, the speaker becomes an object of perverse curiosity, something to show off to her neighbours, and later to be feared, distrusted, and resented. “The host-guest chemistry / Is inclusive, complex, molecular,” writes Kapil. However, the voice at the heart of the poems resists the speaker being reduced to victim or threat. Some of the most heart-wrenching moments in the collection are when the speaker demands her own humanity, through diary entries or in a dream of waking up “In the arms of the person / I love.”
This is poetry unapologetic in challenging the limits of our understanding of hospitality and inclusivity. It deliberately offers no answers and no comfortable resolutions. Instead, it invites the reader in to the experience of how it truly feels to be edged out, and the cost of not belonging. In a year where we’ve all been forced to think a bit more about what it means to be at home, it feels an especially relevant lesson to learn.
May: Gator, Gator, Gator by Daniel Bernstrom (illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon)
This week’s book of the month is one of the 23 books generously donated to our Many Voices Collection by Low Carbon West Oxford. Our Many Voices Collection aims to be a rich, diverse resource of books which feature black characters, are written by black authors, or which feature an anti-racist message – and Low Carbon West Oxford’s contribution to it adds a whole new angle with books featuring black characters and an environmental message. Low Carbon West Oxford says:
We are aware of a particular lack of diversity in books about the outdoors and the environment. If kids’ books on the environment don’t feature black characters, the environmental movement will continue to struggle with diversity. We saw a contribution to the Many Voices Collection as a great opportunity to promote the great books that do exist, and enable access to these books for all.
‘Gator, Gator, Gator’ by Daniel Bernstrom and illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon is a perfect example of one of these books. Featuring a black protagonist, the book invites the reader to join the hunt for a gator whose “skin’s like nails” and “temper’s hot like sauce.” Keeping your eyes peeled for any movement in the water or any sign of the “bumpy, scaly, barky” skin of the alligator, the reader is encouraged to explore the swamp for all the creatures living there: foxes, rats, and snakes. The joyful rhyme and rhythm carries the story to its exciting climax, and readers will enjoy the use of sound effects and exclamations throughout which bring the curiosity and drama of the tale to life, perfect for young kids to enjoy.
You can read about other top picks from LCWO’s donations to the Many Voices Collection here.
Come along to the next pop-ups of the Many Voices Collection at Flo’s Place in the Park on 8 May and 12 June to borrow this book, and others like it! And if you have little ones interested in nature, keep a look-out for future workshops-and-nature-walks inspired by The Lost Words which we have coming up later in the summer at Wytham Woods.
April: 100 Words of Solitude ed. Simon & Philippa Holloway
With the one-year anniversary of lockdown just passed, our book of the month this April is 100 Words of Solitude. It’s a collection of a hundred 100-word pieces of writing, in which people from around the world wrote about their experience of Spring 2020. Predominantly in poetry, it brings together rich and varied voices, united by a dimly flickering theme of ‘solitude’ in its various forms. The short wordcount means that each piece is tightly focussed, and together they bring to life the many small moments of observation, reflection and joyfulness experienced by the authors, as well as forays into surrealism and experiments with describing the stretchings of imagination and perception that many of us experienced at that time.
Submission to the collection was open to anyone, and the final selection brings together a mixture of professional writers, enthusiastic amateurs, and those for whom this was a first real attempt at creative poetry. Almost as interesting as the poems themselves are the short biographies of the authors included at the end of the book, a section which reads almost as a poem itself. As a whole, this book provides a reminder of deep shared humanity, even (or perhaps especially) in times of solitude.
100 Words of Solitude is a strange time-capsule of a collection, for a time that has not quite passed into history. Well worth reading.
March: Say Her Name by Zetta Elliott
Zetta Elliott’s collection ‘Say Her Name’ is very much of this moment, being a response to the social movements which gained traction in 2020 around Black Lives Matter. But it speaks to a much older history of racism and oppression, while seeking to empower and energize a new generation of Black women and girls.
Elliott’s poetry is undeniably political, and in that is the personal experience of being a Black woman. The poems recount the everyday microaggressions, describe coping mechanisms of self-care (the simple things that need to be done “to make it through / another day”), and reflect on the human cost to protest and struggle: Appetite is a two-line poem which reads “sometimes I eat my rage / sometimes it eats me”.
The poetry itself is striking, the language is accessible but strong in its clarity. Many of the poems are characterized by short phrasing, line breaks creating a chant or protest song. Where the poems grow lyrical, it is to expound on the magic of being alive, of being oneself, of surviving. Throughout the collection are haiku sequences, a form which is effective in bringing into bold focus a series of simple, profound images or ideas. Elliott uses these to great effect, whether she reflects on ancestry, independence, sisterhood, or the final sequence in the collection: a battle cry to “stop killing us stop / killing us stop killing us / stop killing us STOP”.
The power of the collection is amplified by the bold illustrations throughout. These are as much a part of the poems as the words: they give richness and colour which celebrates the magic described in the poems, but also assert depictions of Black characters which are often so woefully lacking from the pages of so many illustrated books.
Besides Elliott’s own writing, the book is peppered throughout with poems by other Black women throughout history: Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Phillis Wheatley. The collection is a valuable handbook of Black women writing their own stories, and writing to remind anyone reading to be brave, to speak up, to never forget, and above all “feel something / feel something / feel something.”
Say Her Name is in the Many Voices Collection, a new project by OPL and The Children’s Allotment. To find out more please click here.
February: How To Extricate Yourself by Laura Theis
Any close follower of the Oxford arts scene knows that a debut collection from local writer, poet, and musician Laura Theis is eagerly awaited. And boy, was How To Extricate Yourself worth waiting for. Theis has previous in the music world, her songs characterized by sometimes whimsical, sometimes unsettling, always striking lyrics about unrequited love, werewolves, and recapturing your mermaid roots by sleeping in the shower. Her poetry strikes similar chords, and it’s a delight to have a whole collection to immerse yourself in Theis’s imagination.
There are elements of the tainted fairytale throughout the poems: witches and their familiars, curses and enchantments, but the strength of the collection lies in its firm grounding in reality. Theis’s tone is not fantastical, but often conversational. “Don’t tell your neighbours but / take the batteries out of your smoke detector / you’ll thank me later,” Theis warns in ‘advice from one who’s been burnt before,’ a poem with practical suggestions for taking a dragon as a pet. ‘Medusae’ offers comfort “on the day you wake up / with spiders instead of hair,” and reminds you, “They may stay. They may not. / They are here for now.” In ‘writer in residence,’ the first poet in space and stationed on the moon, writing with “black ink on moonstone / white chalk on lunar rock,” is a lonely imploring to those back home to “look up”. What is so striking about these stories is that even in their fantasy, there is something spookily familiar about them: being haunted by a threatening presence in your own house, feeling dissociated from yourself, loneliness and isolation. We’re all living through what is probably one of the weirder years of our lives. Reading poetry which not only embraces but advises on this weirdness is strangely comforting.
The collection is Theis in her element. She takes the reader by the hand to guide you into a world of monsters and insomnia, but it is a world she knows well. As ‘adaptation’ describes, she “was already expert at simmering in low-level dread / like black bath water.” It is possible to bear the worry and the uncertainty, tolerate the spiders of your hair, adopt the dragon, and live on the moon for a while. Poetry like this is there with us.
January: The Book of Hopes ed. Katherine Rundell
January is always a good time for hope: even in the depth of winter, a hope for all the bright and good things that will happen in the year to come. It’s why we make resolutions, there’s Veganuary and Dry January and gym memberships double in the first month of the year – it’s the hope that we will improve ourselves, hatch into something new. This year we’re all hoping for something a bit simpler, though: just that this year will be better than the last.
The Book of Hopes edited by Katherine Rundell is an excellent place to start in reflecting on hope. In her introduction, Rundell outlines why it’s so important: “Real true hope isn’t the promise that everything will be alright – but it’s a belief that the world has so many strangenesses and possibilities that giving up would be a mistake.” Vaccines and statistics and science can give us hope, but so too can delight and wonder. Even in the darkest times, you can find hope through imagination, which can take you to joyful places, thoughtful dreams, adorable situations. It is the possibility of change and the power of the unexpected that can give us hope, and this wonderful collection reminds us of that.
Though nominally for children and families, this book can be enjoyed by people of any age. Poems, short stories, and brief meanderings have been commissioned from over 100 much-loved illustrators and writers (including Kevin Crossley-Holland, Jackie Morris, Yasmeen Ismail, Jacqueline Wilson, Joseph Coelho…), and the result is kaleidoscopic. Put an axolotl to bed in Catherine Johnson’s instructions to “Never give your axolotl chocalatl in a botl, / Serve it in a tiny eggcup, not too cold and not too hotl.” Visit the town of Hope near Aberdeen in Anthony Horowitz’s poem. Hear Ed Vere describe stumbling across a hare while out for a walk, or learn to fly with a baby dragon in Katie and Kevin Tsang’s offering. Each contribution is bite-sized, for when you need just a shot of wonder, and is peppered throughout with doodles, drawings, and cartoons.
Now more than ever is the time to be reminded of the strange and magical world we live in, and this book is an ideal antidote to despair to keep us going until we can all explore a bit more of that world again. Here’s to a more hopeful, more delightful, and more wonderful 2021.