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BOOK LOVE: The Self-Completing Tree by Dorothy Livesay

I started my week of US and Canadian ‘Book Loves’ with a collection of poetry, so I’ll bookend it with another one: my favourite poetry collection by Dorothy Livesay. This was originally given to me as a University text to study, but I’ve returned to it under my own steam countless times since. It was first published in 1986, over twenty-five years ago, but its themes are timeless, and Livesay’s writing is seamless. There is a definite focus on female concerns, but the poems go much further. There are  commentaries on places and people Livesay knew or observed, and on events that caught her eye. In her Foreword she describes her thinking as being dominated by poverty, racism, and war, but this is not a downbeat collection – perhaps because of what Livesay describes as her overarcing theme: ‘Whether a leap is possible, a miracle of changed feeling, changed thinking’. She also says she hopes that this is the collection she will be remembered by. I can see why, and this is one book I’ll never part with.

Here are the last few lines from ‘Invisible Sun’, which begins with a quote from Thomas Browne, that ‘Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us‘:

Oh, my hands have sung, have swung from the
sun’s centre
To be the veins of warmth within a room:
To burn with the work done and the night to
come —
Rounded in sleep, to shape an invisible sun.

 

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BOOK LOVE: Beloved by Toni Morrison

An incredible book. Set in 1873, an African-American mother, Sethe, has killed her daughter rather than allow her to be returned to slavery. Now, the house – 124 Bluestone Road, Cincinnati – is haunted, ‘full of a baby’s venom’. Paul D, one of the former slaves who worked with Sethe, comes and tries to help the family move forward, but in doing so he forces out the ghost of Beloved, who returns to the house as a young woman with baby-like features. Beloved ousts Paul D from the house, and Sethe becomes a slave again, this time trying to do the impossible – to achieve forgiveness from the girl she sacrificed, because, in her own words, she was ‘trying to put my babies somewhere they would be safe.’

On reading this book I felt sickened and strange – but moreover that I was reading something extremely important. Toni Morrison put it like this:

There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to.