Occasionally the screensaver on my Kindle pops up with the dour face of Emily Dickinson. She has become one of the most recognisable faces in American literature. Yet, only recently has her life been transferred to the screen with Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion. The film d’auteur has its tableau moments, which slows down the pace and might not appeal to some viewers. But I found this fitting with the nature of Dickinson’s poetry – her elliptical language could cause images to freeze in the air. I liked too that the film contained sharp, intelligent dialogue in keeping with the dialogic style of many of Dickinson’s poems. At the same time, these dialogues – many between Emily and her sister – remind audiences of the social limitations thrusted upon 19th century New England life, especially for women. Although mostly a contemplative and melancholic film, humour and wit are present in a way that I felt was realistic to the poet’s life (Dickinson scholars are free to differ on this point.)
I’m also grateful to this film for reminding me that Dickinson wrote some poems about the US Civil War. We tend to think of Walt Whitman as the Civil War poet and of war poetry as being a male preserve. But here is a Dickinson sampling:
Things go gay
Pierce — by the very Press
Of Imagery —
Their far Parades — order on the eye
With a mute Pomp —
A pleading Pageantry —
Flags, are a brave sight —
But no true Eye
Ever went by One —
Music’s triumphant —
But the fine Ear
Winces with delight
Are Drums too near —
Since I was a teenager, I’ve liked Dickinson’s work, though I confess that there was a lot I didn’t understand younger. I think her writing and people’s understanding of it has been more helped by cognitive poetics (and other areas of literary stylistics) than by traditional literary criticism with its focus on biography, religion and history. Cognitive stylistics has shown how Dickinson manipulates grammar and word-choice to create different worlds that wrangle with, among other things, ontological questions. Here, I’m thinking mainly of the scholarship of Margaret Freeman, who gives a wonderful analysis of one of my favourite Dickinson poems:
A Spider sewed at Night
Without a Light
Upon an Arc of White
If Ruff it was of Dame
Or Shroud of Gnome
Himself himself inform.
His Strategy Was Physiognomy.
(J 1138, lines 1-6; ms)
I think it’s time to return to this poet and see how I get on with her language and wisdom in my middle age.
I read James Baldwin for the first time when I was 13. My English teacher was keen on contemporary writers and issued us a summer’s reading list, which included Notes ofa Native Son. It was the first essay collection I had ever read. I was catapulted out of my comfort zone of fiction, poetry and magazine articles from the likes of Time and People and into a world that not only employed metaphors and symbols, but dissected them. This world had a social conscience and an eloquence that went beyond the dinner-table rumblings of my anti-establishment older siblings.
A few months later I read Giovanni’s Room. That was my first openly gay novel – though there were plenty of suggestively gay works from Wilde, Forster and Mann. Neither of Baldwin’s books were part of the standard curriculum. There were other African-American writers taught in those days, but they tended to be historical slave narratives. Perhaps Baldwin’s books were too raw in their expression to be official reading material for young minds. I am to this day grateful for my English teacher. Together these works formed a literary coming of age.
With the release of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I’ve been reminded of Baldwin’s life as a civil rights activist. Director Raoul Peck takes us on a journey through the civil rights protests and public discussions on race during the 60s and 70s, with some unspoken allusions to present-day hate crimes in America. Baldwin is positioned at the centre of this sometimes-loose narrative. We watch him on television talk shows, lecturing at all-white university campuses and demurely in the crowd of some of the most iconic marches of the twentieth century. The real treat and reason for seeing this film are the sonorous tones of actor Samuel L. Jackson reading passages from Baldwin’s much-quoted works while images recapture the horrors. Although some of these quotes have been exploited on posters, coffee mugs and Facebook postings, in the context of this film they have re-found their rightful home.
I’m surprised at myself for not writing about film sooner. Between cinemas and television, I must see on average three films per week. On top of that, there were my years of writing and teaching others to write screenplays. Perhaps this delay reflects the fact that 2016 was not a particularly good year for film.
Enough introduction, I begin the film strand of this blog with T2 Trainspotting. Filled with the same sense of fun and visual weirdness as the first Trainspotting, this instalment starts in real time 20 years after the original. Yes, it really has been 20 years. Mark Renton returns to Edinburgh to see his father after the death of his mother. Naturally, he visits his old friends, who had no idea that he’s been working at a low-level admin job in Amsterdam, where he’s been living with his Dutch wife. With these reunions, we get caught up with the characters’ lives. Spud is still a junkie and dealer, Sick Boy – now Simon the man – and his prostitute girlfriend are extorting public figures with sex scandals and Franco is in prison – but breaks out just in time to go after Renton, who stole money from him some 20 years earlier.
While the pacing and music make this an enjoyable dark comedy, the dramatic moments form the framework and give the film an underlying profundity. No truer is this than in a scene where the prostitute girlfriend asks Renton what Simon means when he says ‘Choose life.’ After he explains that it’s a reference to a 1980s anti-drug campaign, Renton offers this fuller answer:
Choose life. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently. And choose watching history repeat itself. Choose your future. Choose reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn. Choose a zero-hour contract, a two-hour journey to work. And choose the same for your kids, only worse, and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s kitchen. And then… take a deep breath. You’re an addict, so be addicted. Just be addicted to something else. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life.