REVIEW: Salt

CHRISTINE COATES reviews the new collection by Louella Sullivan.

Salt by Louella Sullivan

A slight volume at just 35 pages, Salt is a delicately woven account of pregnancy and birth. Louella Sullivan’s poems are honed to their elemental value – each one a grain of salt. Giving birth is universal; we are all born, many women have given birth, and yet this journey is profoundly intimate. The image of salt is used throughout – salt of the sea, salt of tears, the saltiness of uterine waters, the embryonic sea.

Birth is regarded as both an inner and an outer journey; it is a journey to selfhood, a separation, when the child lives “beyond her fingertips”. The mother sees herself as a pilgrim on this journey. And ultimately, as the poet Cecil Day-Lewis noted, a letting go:

Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

Sullivan describes birth as transformational, a rite of passage, a threshold to cross, transmuting from one state to another. The poet embarks on the journey consciously, willing the conception –

After I lie still, my hips tilted upward in prayer
Willing you across the threshold
You are eager to be born
I am impatient to meet you.

Yet the path to motherhood leads a woman very close to death. Once pregnant the poet experiences herself being underwater, being unconscious, turning inwards, merging, there is a blurring of boundaries. This identification with the foetus and then child is carried through the poems;

I look away
Hold my breath in
So she can
Breathe instead.

Sullivan employs images of creation, of the earth and the universe; the foetus is floating in its own cosmos, in its own world of water. Birth is compared to the geological upheaval of earth at its birth, the fire and blood of creation. Yet pregnancy is also mythological; the pregnant mother is linked to the sacred goddess, to fertility deities. But having given birth, she experiences the goddess being thrown back to earth.

When she forges her way out
In blood and fire
I pass onto her
what remains of me
then fall
like a goddess flung to earth
suddenly mortal.

Woven throughout are the feminine images of sewing, of threading, knitting and spinning. In Feeding time, the image of threads conveys becoming undone and being stitched together again:

Her kneading fingers
knit the threads
frayed from the day
and with her lips
she stitches them lushly
back to my heart.

The pregnant body and the baby within are described as continents that collide and separate, a body with a surface of ridges and furrows that will one day tell its own story:

One day when these scars
(and my hair) are silver soft
I will run my fingers across them
looking for the places where you are still part of me.

The body is both receptacle for the foetus and a surface for writing on, where stories are written and told. I love how the body also becomes a receptacle for language, how the body becomes the narrative and the narrative the body.

Instead I say: I grew you
in there y’know
– him too –
Her silent fingers
on my white scars
I know mommy and these are the stories we told you.

Salt is published by Aerial Publishing. Read four of Sullivan’s poems, published by AERODROME, here.

BOOK CLUB: The Pigeon Tunnel

BILL NASSON is enthralled by the cryptic, shadowy patchwork of memories that form spy novelist John le Carré’s masterful memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel.

The Pigeon Tunnel

In his recent mammoth 652-page biography of John le Carré, one of the world’s major writers, his biographer suggests that the reason that he continues to practise his craft well into his mid-eighties is that ‘writing has become a form of addiction for him’. Or perhaps, as Adam Sisman concludes in his 2017 John le Carré: The Biography, his compulsive book production is ‘his way of ordering an untidy life’. Indeed, his most recent act of psychological settling, published earlier this year at the age of 85, is the novel, A Legacy of Spies.

To read it is to be reminded that Le Carré has lost none of his masterly narrative grip and fondness for edgy metaphors. His casting of the spell of an atmospheric story continues to pull in the reader as if in some modern version of Coleridge’s eighteenth-century Ancient Mariner. Come to that, today John le Carré has become something of an Ancient Mariner himself. And while a famous literary figure, he remains a shadowy, little-known personality. In that sense, he might be seen as the J.M. Coetzee of his artistic genre – the Cold War and post Cold War spy story.

The unusual title of this collection of John le Carré’s non-fiction writings, The Pigeon Tunnel, has a lengthy pedigree. Both the author and his biographer, Adam Sisman, reveal that it was the original working title of virtually every book he has written. It entered Le Carré’s imagination in the early 1950s when he found himself witnessing a pigeon-shoot in front of a fancy casino in Monaco. Cradling shotguns, the beady-eyed rich basked on the seafront lawns while pigeons which were shoved into dark underground tunnels beneath waggled out into the bright Mediterranean sunlight. As the birds fluttered skywards above the sea they were shot by the hotel guests. Pigeons who escaped the cruel fire then did what pigeons tend to do – they flew back to the casino roof where they had been bred, only to be captured and inserted into a tunnel to run the deadly gauntlet once again.

In typically enigmatic fashion, John le Carré informs us that he is unable to provide a personal explanation of why he has been haunted for so long by the memory of the pigeon tunnel, clearly a grotesque image that has lodged in his mind like a limpet. There is, though, no shortage of clues dotted about in the 38 absorbing pieces which make up The Pigeon Tunnel – its writer’s poignant understanding of the pigeons and their world of entrapment – unable to escape through flight, lacking the guile to dodge their awful fate, and doomed to repeat their deadly spiral. That bleak hint at destiny is there, too, in A Destiny of Spies, reportedly meant to be his last book. In it, the padlocked predicament that befalls Peter Guillam, the stalwart MI6 agent sidekick of Le Carré’s greatest character creation, George Smiley, is illuminated nicely by a line from the Anglican Church’s The Book of Common Prayer: ‘We be tied and bound by the chain of our sins’.

Still, don’t be misled into thinking that the spirit of this cooing nest of Stories from My Life is all searing or broodingly melancholic. For it is virtuoso John le Carré, displaying in his autobiographical non-fiction the renowned trademarks of his famous fictional works like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Little Drummer Girl. This consistently entertaining compilation contains slices of life experience presented in ways that are exhilaratingly inventive and artful, are often cryptic, that reveal a keen ear for the tiny nuances of speech and dialogue, which dabble in fresh turns of the screw, which capture the coded condescension and sarcasm of educated elites, and which switch silkily between credible fact and a fictional re-imagining of some or other incident or person.

Even if there are moments when you may find yourself scratching your head over the depiction of something or other, you are encouraged to suspend any disbelief and to read on. After all, as Le Carré reflects in one of the short essays in this collection, that dealing with the creation of his novel, The Tailor of Panama, he hit on the name, Pendel, for the book’s arch-deceiver and fantasist. Why? Not merely because it was resonant of early immigrant Jewish tailoring families.

More tellingly, it was also after the German word for pendulum, as ‘I liked to think of him swinging back and forth between truth and fiction’. With a shifty Pendel in place, all that remained was to conjure up ‘a decadent, well-born British rascal’ with an eye on the money to recruit him.

Such furtiveness is displayed abundantly in The Pigeon Tunnel, and we know where it comes from. ‘People who have had very unhappy childhoods’, John le Carré writes, ‘are pretty good at inventing themselves’. The story of his life is at one level one of how his boyhood skills at fabrication, concealment and deception went on to become polished professionally in adulthood through work in British intelligence and as a spy, and in his trade as a subtle teller of intricate spy stories.

It is not for nothing that John le Carré is a mask over his real name, David Cornwell. Far more than any commonplace thriller writer’s pseudonym, in the murky world of MI6 espionage it would also serve as a cover name. As the reader is told by this most inscrutable of writers, ‘out of the secret world I once knew I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit’. In its Pigeon Tunnel autobiographical creation, Le Carré’s ‘true stories told from memory’ have no pretence at being ‘pure’. For a creative writer in what he calls ‘the evening of his life… real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance’, and that facility, in turn, is the product of ‘a lifetime of blending experience with imagination’.

Thus, whatever the beans which Le Carré spills in this book are of a deliciously calculating sort. Right towards the end of The Pigeon Tunnel, we are told, ‘I don’t type. I have never typed’. That sense of a hand snaking across a page to compose this or that fluid masterpiece feels right, even oddly reassuring – penmanship is surely something to be expected of an Eton-and Oxford-educated British mandarin, brought up on polished hand-written memos rather than Microsoft Office. But is the claim never to have typed really true? Small wonder that so much of The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life drips mystery of a highly intelligent kind.

With Le Carré’s autobiographical stew covered by this cryptic crust, we get meaty slivers which cover almost 350 pages. There are deftly composed snapshots of his personal encounters with secret police interrogators, spies, terrorists, journalists, war correspondents, film directors and actors, politicians (including Margaret Thatcher and Francesco Cossiga, the president of Italy), political prisoners, Cold War political defectors, and diplomats (mostly devious).

Rich in human insight, they are vivid in detail and written with unfailing panache and often a sardonic edge. Take, for instance, his fleeting acquaintance as an Oxford student with one of his undergraduate peers, a man called Reginald Bosanquet. Decades later, he became the television newsreader, Reggie Bosanquet, famous in Britain of the 1960s and 1970s for his tendency to hit the bottle before fumbling his way through the evening news. Even as a young undergraduate, Bosanquet had a swagger and deep pockets, ‘a private income, a sports car, beautiful women and a kind of premature adulthood to go with them’.

As a cash-strapped le Carré recalls, ruefully and candidly, ‘we liked each other, but there is only so much time you can spend with a man who lives the life you dream of and can afford it when you can’t’.

There is much else in this book on those with a stifled yearning for more and a genius for deceit. Perhaps the most powerful – and by far the most poignant – is ‘Son of the author’s father’ – a reflection on ‘Ronnie, conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father’. The author sniffs around him, weaving the strands of his glamorous and grubby worlds together, building up the sense of a disreputable family man whose ‘entire life was spent walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine’. As a haunting memoir, it is masterly.

As I was finishing this review, there was news of the death in London of Christine Keeler, the call-girl at the centre of the 1963 Profumo Scandal which resulted in the fall of Britain’s Conservative government. With the Cold War hot, she was found to be sleeping simultaneously with John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War and with Yevgeny Ivanov, the naval attaché of the Soviet embassy in London. It is worth thinking about this as classic John le Carré territory, and what his hands would have made of it as fiction. Except that he would not have needed to make it up.

The Pigeon Tunnel is published by Penguin. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, and was published in 2016 by Penguin.

EXTRACT: The Mind’s Eye

In this extract from The Mind’s Eye, the late JUDITH MASON’s book about art and the creative process, the acclaimed artist explores artist’s block, suggesting various ways of dealing with this frustrating phenomenon.

Judith Mason’s Self Portrait at 90
Judith Mason’s “Self Portrait at 90”.

This is a real affliction and will plunge you into despair at some time in your life. It is peculiar to the creative arts. Carjackers, arms dealers and nursery school teachers don’t wake up wondering how they are going to spend their day and dentists don’t whirr their drills in hopeless reverie. Your muse has returned to his/her boyfriend in the Czech Republic and left you bereft. You could take evasive action. Get drunk, as Hemingway and almost everybody else did. (Pleasant but counterproductive.) You could brood in cafés. (So last century.) Overeat? (Plump ruins your Look.)

But let us be serious about this dark night of the soul. Have you been overworking? Maybe you are running on empty because you need a break, a change of scene, even if it is just walking around a different part of your neighbourhood. Most probably you have forgotten how to play with your creativity and are anxious because nothing substantial or sellable is being produced. Take time out. Don’t touch pencil or brush for a week. Leaving your easel may persuade you that the opening in the arms industry really is your bag.

If blockage has not destroyed your vocation, try playing games with your surroundings in order to ignite new ideas. Russian roulette with a dictionary is a great idea. Open at five random pages and select the most promising subject. I have just this minute found GYRE, IN VIVO, SHEWEL, HARPY, and DEFLAGRATE. Harpies I drew long ago so now I read up on SHEWEL and find a clue to something. It means ‘a scarecrow or mark to scare deer’ so I start scrawling versions and options and soon I am thinking about being a deer, and being frightened, and what shape or form would scare me, and … and … away I go. Move over, Landseer, and your mawkish Stag at Bay!

Another game is to clean your kitchen cupboards. Yup. Take everything out and while you are dusting mouse droppings from corners and eating stale crackers, look at your stored items. Tuna tins? Imagine their containing canned mermaid. Draw the label. Tins of ham? Imagine their dropping over a cliff edge like the Gadarene Swine. (You’re looking for a sort of Andy Warhol/Eugene Delacroix vibe here.) Check the salad drawer in your fridge and paint the rotting leeks in plastic wrap, the sliced cabbage like an MRI scan, the wilted lettuce. Call it ‘Signifiers of the Arbitrary’ and away you go! Now notice that your cat is sitting in sullen fury before the food you have offered it. Tiger, tiger burning bright in the forests of shrimp in aspic. You can make something of that. Then go outside and listen. Try to draw birdsong, the sound of a jackhammer, laughter, a siren. Of course, it is not as easy as I suggest. But use your sense of humour and the absurd. They are tools with which to release lateral thinking at a time when you really dread that you have lost something precious.

As with most forms of depression, artist’s block eventually vanishes, and it helps to accept that it comes and goes. Sometimes artist’s block is a cover for the unravelling of complex ideas from our subconscious. Curiously, the older we get, the less blocked we become. Ideas flow freely and we have a different problem to deal with – the sense that we are clutching at the edge of time by our fingernails. We won’t complete all we want to do, but going out brush in hand makes for a pleasing obituary.

The Mind’s Eye is published by Books & Books Press and is available from Amazon as an ebook. Read Gregory Kerr’s review of the book as well as our interview with Mason about her reading habits and favourite books here.

REVIEW: The Mind’s Eye

We remember acclaimed artist Judith Mason who passed away a year ago with GREGORY KERR’s review of The Mind’s EyeMason’s book about art and the creative process.

The Mind's Eye by Judith Mason

In the late 1960s I was a student of Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. I was not a good student; I tended to take the lecturers for granted or to get into conflict with them. I was a difficult student. I think I wasted some splendid opportunities to improve myself. I was a lazy student. It was not their fault I was indolent, but some of the indolence came from a refusal to buy into the current fashions, which were flat, hardedge, and to me, sterile and pointless. I was a cocksure little bastard, for sure, and deserved everything I didn’t get from the brilliant academics who ran the show.

However, there was at least one person on the teaching staff for whom I had nothing but the utmost respect and affection, and that was the astonishing Judith Mason. Judy was teaching senior students in the department, but no one objected if there were gatecrashers at her crit sessions and though very callow and junior, I was a gatecrasher of note. She stuck in the brain like a special kind of revelatory sage, speaking with the tongues of angels and art students. She was not puffed up; she got to the nitty-gritties of the everyday existential crises of being an imaginative painter (and thus a demonstrably frivolous and irrelevant person) in a world of conscientious pragmatism. She took it for granted that we all wanted to slay the beast of painting, to find the path and the truth and the way and the light. She was a shining example of the artist, the ham-fisted wrestler with the craft and sullen business of finding, but she was also something else, something so rare that it intoxicated. She could find the words and the images and the poetics to speak directly to the acolyte. She made sense that was not the elegant sense of the art historians and design lecturers, but the thew-and-sinew sense of the maker.

Reading The Mind’s Eye was to be taken back 45 years into that studio in the John Moffat Building, listening to the dark-haired young woman with the strangely plat accent and the twinkle – the inevitable twinkle – of anti-earnestness sweetening the stern seriousness beneath the monologue. In this publication –  a wonderful companion to art-making –  Mason allows herself the freedom to write as she speaks, from the hip, from the heart and (you’d better believe it) from the head. She addresses all the departments – the neuroses, the need for discipline, the compulsion to form. How does one tackle the metaphysics of the human face, the living anatomy, the stagnant psyche that refuses to paint? What is beautiful? (The answer will surprise you, but you must first draw or paint shrouded things, shadowed things, moving things, harsh, gross and edible things.)

Since I left Wits and her diverse influences, I have been making a living as a teacher of art – theory, education, drawing, painting, even history – and have developed strategies that address a range of issues: conceptual, perceptual, technical, historical, philosophical and psychological.  I am quite proud of the strategies. I didn’t know until I read Mason’s book how very much my well-worn ideas, theories and methodology must have been shaped by her. I kept saying, “But I say that!” and I do, but so does she and so well, and she probably said if first. I shall be setting her text as prescribed reading for my professional students because she says things that absolutely are required drumming-into-the-head stuff for anyone faced with the prospect of making art. She is gung-ho on looking very hard at things and choosing things that do not immediately declare themselves to be lovely. She is stern with base matters like techniques and (contra mode) believes passionately in the dark and numinous power of the creative imagination expressed in a stern and controlled emotion – what Yeats called “the rag and bone shop of the human heart”.

Anyone who knows the history of Judith Mason, as I do –  the clot-fisted schoolboy acolyte who saw her drawings in the 101 Gallery in 1967 (and had a damascene experience right there and then) and who has followed this straight-talking mystic over 50 years of poetics, romance, religion, Africa and her place in it, who has learned from her what it is like to stand aghast and amused at the demented business of making paintings, despite all kinds of logic and reason – will recognise in this pearl of a book much of the commentary that has accompanied her artwork over the years; what she herself has described (if my memory serves) as “the fragments that shore up our ruins”.

From the rich soil of a fabulously informed and intrepid imagination, Mason has grown a history of dark metaphors for our singular place in the evolution of Africa. Her book, despite her disclaimer, “this is not a how-to book. It is a how-to-think-about-how-to book,” is the perfect concordance to that history.

Gregory Kerr is an artist and writer who has served as a professor of fine arts at the University of Stellenbosch. This review first appeared in Ceramics Southern Africa Magazine.

The Mind’s Eye is published by Books & Books Press and is available from Amazon as an ebook. Read our interview with Mason about her reading habits and favourite books here.