Monday, 4 November 2013

the coloured books

Sometimes (not often, for me; but still, sometimes) only a big book will do, by a writer long dead. Other times a slim book, as contemporary as they come. Times, even (lunchtimes, perhaps), a magazine. And then there are these slippy things – barely books, not pamphlets – that would fit snug in a shirt pocket, that you could slide under a closed door in a draughty house, even though each – with 48 pages: enough for a spine – is more substantial than it appears.

Now they are seven. And as well as continuing to be available separately, they now come as a boxed set – that is, they have a place to stay warm and safe, rather than getting muddled with last week’s newspapers or falling off the edge of the table and vanishing through cracks between the floorboards. All by Judy Kravis:

tell the bees (2007): a diary, March to September, of the year JK quit academe (‘Well, the affiliation with groves had me for a while. But the groves turned out to be treeless, the shade was battleship grey’) and started bee-keeping. Weather, music (‘Scarce sun despite dramatic sunset yesterday. Tadpoles waiting in the pond. Beethoven wild in the early trios’), dreams, cooking, shopping (‘Did you know your shoe shelves had slipped? I asked the woman behind the counter. It’s Monday, she said, smiling’), last essay-marking (‘Some sludge. Some wild flings in the direction of Ionesco. Some wikipedia. Some toothache’), blackberrying, neighbours (‘he’s a chancer, he’s like a lighthouse in a bog, bright but useless’), cutting back bracken (‘It leaves your forearms tingling later in the day’).

bunch of monads (2007): ‘One packed universe after another, tiny separate adventures, a high-end hum, intermittent, like morse code. Another breathless diary zone, in poem form. A monad is the simplest knowable unit of life. Like atoms, only bigger and older.’ A poem per less-than-a-page, hand-carved, finely balanced, yet full of distances. ‘A bedrock sort of life / should be fond, sturdy / undeniable and full / of fissures’.

the pataphysics of making bread (2009): diary, September 2005 to September 2009 with gaps of many weeks, centred on the ‘kneading parlour’. It’s physical, repetitive work: ‘The whack of dough on marble, the fold and push again and again. How you know when it’s dry enough but still moist, the proverbial earlobe consistency, or your three loaves have had maybe twenty minutes kneading and that could be enough. The notion of enough and how it doesn’t rhyme with dough. This is what start’s a baker’s day.’ As JK kneads she listens to the radio (Woman’s Hour, Desert Island Discs, Yesterday in Parliament), observes the weather, mulls over an email from the wandering Rafferty (‘There’s a special terror to being ill in a foreign language’). Surrender to the rituals, followed by the recording of this: ‘now the elasticity has settled into bread, and the smallest additions – salt, molasses, kefir, a little milk, pumpkin seeds – have distributed themselves. Writing down the process has brought it forward in my mind; I know it as I didn’t before, wordlessly, biblically.’

how to write round things (2010): ‘This habit of knowing my life by the days I / write and losing it by the days that get / away, hearts full, pulse / racing’ – more brief poems, discovering their own processes and rhythms but open to those of, say, overheard speech. counting your chickens: ’between the mist on the frost, first / and the trees behind smoke, later’.

local: three stories (2011): what it says on the tin, and if they feel like offcuts from a documentary of daily life I’d still say that the shaping and phrasing and the whole way of telling make them stories. The longest is the first, ‘Where the market place begins’: ‘I go down to the market place to stand in the current of human life, to sell eggs, to see what I see. To shed my solitude. For a solitary I’m talkative. Anything can set it off. A fish mouth, a gust of wind.’ Shopping, gossip, characters (‘Dutch is a genial hairy man; he likes people to linger’); the context of the ‘downturn’ is in there, the place now ‘a modern desert town’ after the Celtic Tiger years (when ‘Housing went up faster than a wartime cemetery’), but ‘I prefer egg boxes to soap boxes’. The middle story has a lot of gooseberries in it (Anna Karenina, I suddenly recall, includes scenes of jam-making). The third one is about horses and judges, with a side helping of opera.

strangeness (2011): odd little things, centred on the pages both horizontally and vertically, as if there was a fixed point around which everything coheres. Fat chance. ‘You think it’s a slope / but it’s vertical and as you start to / climb the vertical inverts and / you have the opposite of / handholds, footholds / and hope. // You mean I live here?’ The symmetry of these ‘elementary tales’ (they put me in mind of egg-timers) is unsettling rather than calmative. Often deeply funny: ‘Take a run at it. / Go visit Z. / Every tale has a Z. / His heart is so open / he’s easy to stab.’

flashes and floaters (2012): flash fiction, prose poems? I’ll pass; I find both terms awkward. Short (though as long as a page and a half) monologues or paragraphs of observation/ reflection that drift and snag (‘A certain bluntness can be unnerving in the land of proviso’) and pick up speed again. I like these a lot. (A number of them are uncannily similar in form to the bits & bobs, passages in a variety of voices, that make up Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist, coming from CBe next February.)

That’s their nesting box up on the left. 7 x 48 = 336 pages, each to be taken slowly. You can get them from Road Books, run by Judy Kravis and her partner from a place that may or may not exist (Garravagh, Inniscarra) in County Cork, Ireland. Possibly also from Bookartbookshop in London N1. Road Books do other books too, and artists’ books, and 3-D objects.

I like, of course, the modesty of the coloured books: presentation and size and the lower-case titles all of a piece, and their not making any claim on me. I like the way JK seems to find a new form and then play with it, finding out what it can absorb, what butts up against it. The books are various but there’s a coherent aesthetic behind them all, which may be just a posh way of saying that I like the author’s turns of phrase and the cast of her mind.

1 comment:

John Self said...

Hm. It is not a coincidence, I presume, that these books look exactly like the Penguin Syrens series from the mid-90s.