Absence, nostalgia and memory

Nigel Kent, Saudade (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019)


In Saudade, Nigel Kent traces lives and their losses, carefully threading themes of love, death and legacy to reflect on how we record and remember our existence. Art, poetry and the body’s demise all serve as frameworks, yet it is absence and nostalgia that dominate Kent’s debut collection.

Five poems are written after well-known artists, including ‘The Maids’, inspired by a 1987 painting by Portuguese-born Paula Rego. In this poem, hands are a powerful and ambivalent force, creating and destroying in equal measure. In ‘Lipstick Smile’, art itself is ambivalent: a father cruelly uses an artistic metaphor (‘like painting/ over flakes of rust;/ the past carries on/ corroding unseen beneath’) to warn his son about his choice of wife. The harshness of this message, as well as the father’s ability (or curse) to look beyond beauty to see what lies beneath, characterises the stark and poignant tone of Saudade.

In ‘Clearing Out’, a woman agonises over the objects that have shaped her life, unable to throw away such distinctive memories. Her insistent refusal, ‘Not yet! Not yet! Not yet!’, will later find an echo in the collection’s powerful non-ending (‘linger, linger, linger’). It is not possessions, however, but poetry that serves as the most pertinent evidence of having lived. The collection opens and closes with performances, which frame the sequence as a poetic memory. The speaker in ‘7.30 p.m. at the Art’s Workshop’ is inextricably bound to her creation: she has ‘iambs/ beating loudly/ in her chest’. Poetry is not the words she voices, but the marks they make on her body.

If poetry is necessary, it is also corruptible. Indeed, the innocence of ‘those naked words/ [that] shivered/ on the page’ will later be twisted into ‘oily opalescence’ by the smooth-talking speaker in ‘The Urban Shaman’. Here, the body (and our abuse of it) reveals the truth: ‘a city of a thousand/ cuts laid bare/ her sleeves ripped back/ to show the weeping wounds/ that she conceals’.

Diverse bodies populate Kent’s poetic landscape, many of which are in decline. In ‘Dignitas’, the subject is naked again, requiring assistance to carry out one of the most basic human necessities, his dignity washed away ‘like the dirt swirling and gurgling/ down the drain beneath his feet’. Another potent symbol for this degeneration comes in ‘Sweet and Sour’, where ‘frayed bags for life/ filled with Kilner jars/ of pickled strawberries’ reveal the layers of our existence. The poet contemplates how long this drawn-out life can last, the heart still beating while the body decays.

iambs
beating loudly
in her chest

‘7.30 p.m. at the Art’s Workshop’

Kent is arguably at his most poignant in the prose poem, ‘Bleak, dark, and piercing cold…’, which takes its title from Oliver Twist. Through a deceptively profound analogy between a homeless man and discarded piece of chewing gum, he shows how bodies can be turned into unwanted stains on a landscape: ‘They spit you out like gum that’s lost its taste, yet they complain it’s you who litters the city’s streets’. The problem won’t go away however much we try to ignore it: the politician ends up ‘irked by the sticky glob embedded in the tread of handmade shoes’.

A tension also exists with technology, which is brought out prominently in ‘Faraway’. In this poem, a worried father checks his phone in the hope that his daughter will have texted. The wait for this elusive message tests his patience, a virtue that continues to dwindle in the modern world. Although technology seems to offer an immediate solution to saudade, in the end it merely reaffirms the absence. This is reflected in ‘Saudade II’ where technology cannot resolve the poet’s longing: ‘I try once more/ to cut and paste you/ by my side’.

Ultimately, reading Saudade is an enriching experience. The reader will share characters’ frustration at an inaccessible past or evasive present/presence, as well as sadness at the body’s inevitable decline. But, more importantly, she will feel quietly invigorated. For Saudade is full of small moments of pleasure and beauty which give us something for which to yearn.


Nigel Kent, Saudade (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019). Available here.

Reading Challenge 2021

Photo by Polina Zimmerman

A new year beckons and bookworms around the world will be eagerly planning their 2021 reading, scribbling new additions to sprawling lists, and stacking piles onto piles onto piles…

We’ve got an additional offering to help structure your New Year reading: the annual Briefly Reading Challenge. There are 12 categories which we hope will extend and enrich your 2021 page-turning. The aim is to open you up to new opportunities, genres, styles and themes; these aren’t the sorts of prompts that will restrict and limit you to specific or arbitrary selections.

Use this list as you wish: read one book from each category, in order, reverse order, or no order at all; read two, three, four or more books from one category that really takes your fancy; or skip straight to the bonus prompts if you’re feeling rebellious!

Whatever you choose to do, good luck and happy reading in 2021!


The Briefly Reading Challenge 2021

  1. A book made into a film (if you’ve seen the film and not read the book!)
  2. A book to heal the generational divide
  3. An epistolary novel
  4. A book about mental health
  5. A book you can read in one day
  6. A book about cooperation
  7. A book you’ve owned a long time and (still) never read
  8. A book written in or about prison
  9. A book that was banned
  10. A book that teaches lessons from history
  11. An author from your hometown
  12. A book set somewhere you want to travel

BONUS:

  1. A book about a dystopian future
  2. A book that offers hope

Don’t forget, you can follow @BrieflyWrite on Twitter to stay up to date with all things Briefly!

Kickstart Your Reading with this Four-Week Challenge

With so many “must-reads” out there, which should you pick first?

Most of us have more time on our hands at the moment. And reading is one of the best ways to make the most of it.

If you’ve fallen out of love with books, it’s time to get the reading bug back!

Get the stats working for you

Like many bookworms, my reading has often been sporadic. I will read any book in any form: fiction or non-fiction, horror or romance, paperback or e-book, classic or contemporary. It’s rare I don’t have at least four on the go at any one time.

I would guess that I finished more than 50 books in 2019. But since I didn’t record them, I have no idea what percentage were written by women, or how many different cultures I explored.

Similarly, I would struggle to say whether I read more first- or third-person narrators, and whether I spent more time in the past or future.

Of course, you may wonder why you should be interested in this data. After all, you read in order to enjoy a good book not so that you can create pie charts.

This is the argument I repeated to myself for years to justify not tracking my stats.

To be clear, I firmly believe reading is about feelings not maths. It boils my blood when I see an article like “Ten tricks to hack any book”, invariably written by some “self-made entrepreneur” who would sell his grandmother’s kidneys if the price was right.

Reading is a pleasure not a commodity. But having a greater awareness of your preferences allows you to enjoy reading more.

Keeping track of your books isn’t just statistical. Here are four major benefits of recording your reading:

  • It helps you read more widely and therefore experience more cultures, genres and styles
  • It opens your eyes to subconscious prejudices that may be creeping into your choices
  • It makes it easier to remember everything you’ve read
  • It motivates you to keep reading!

Picking the right books

Reading opens the door to new cultures, new experiences and new ways of thinking. And the best way to do this is by making an effort to include writers, themes and viewpoints you might (unintentionally) be neglecting.

There are an overwhelming number of challenges available online though, bizarrely, many seem to restrict rather than extend your reading.

This should not be the case. Categories like ‘A book with the letter X in the title’ or ‘A book about the medical profession’ are far too arbitrary and won’t help you become a better reader.

These sorts of challenges dictate to you, rather than help you make more informed choices.

The following four-week challenge was born out of this frustration. Its six categories are open ended enough not to constrain you, whilst still offering a framework to guide your selections.

The Challenge

How many categories can you tick off in four weeks?

  • A “classic” you’ve not read before
  • A book with a child narrator
  • A book recommended by a friend or relative
  • A book that’s been sitting on your shelf unread for a long time
  • A book set in a location significant to you
  • A prize-winning book

Here’s what I’ll be reading:

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (recommended by my sister)
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (has been sitting on my shelf for at least ten years)
  • Yuki chan in Brontë Country by Mick Jackson (set in Haworth, West Yorkshire)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017)

What books have you picked? Leave a comment below!