Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Booker Longlist: The Moor's Account

Story and storytelling is at the heart of Laila Lalami's beautiful third novel The Moor's Account. The ability to tell a good story, she urges, is a life-saving skill.
The novel reimagines the first encounters between the Spanish Conquistadores and the Americas, and tells the story from the perspective of a Moroccan slave. It is a work of remarkable seductive persuasion. Lalami presents us with  one of the most compellingly wonderful characters of this year's Booker longlist, the vibrant, flawed, brave and resourceful: Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, sold into slavery and renamed as Estebanico. His account is satisfying on so many levels: it is lively  and direct, in the way of folk wisdom. It takes its rhythms from The Arabian Nights; it is laced with insight and compassion. His account is deeply concerned with morality. A slave to greed before he is made a slave, Mustafa's personal story includes him selling slaves for profit before in an act of humility and self sacrifice he sells himself so that his family might have the means of survival.
In Spain he is stripped of his identity and his dignity: 'the first of many erasures' but his ability with language makes him indispensible to Castilian explorers who depend on his skills to negotiate with the various tribes they encounter. Greed and betrayal underpin much of the narrative action, but Lalami suggests that storytelling is itself a moral act,  indeed, it surpasses that: it is act of faith. And as an act of faith it leads us to the truth, and to a life lived under the eye of God. The novel closes with the following:
"Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories, vague reflections of what we saw and what we heard, what we felt and what we thought. Maybe if our experiences, in all their glorious, magnificent colours, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth. To God belong the east and the west: whichever way you turn, there is the face of God. God is great." Without the saving grace of story we are deeply imperilled and spiritually lost.
This is a novel which rings with all the pleasures of the profoundly familiar and the brilliantly imagined. To read it is to rediscover who we are, what shames us, and what redeems us.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Booker Longlist: Did You Ever Have a Family?

Bill Clegg's novel Did You Ever Have a Family is a work of immense lyrical grace. Absolutely sure-footed, Clegg guides us through the parched landscapes of loss following the gas explosion that wipes out June Reid's family, the evening before her only daughter's wedding. The novel is articulated with great tenderness, unpacking the various ambivalences which surround human intimacy and social hierarchy. Belonging, desire, vulnerability, betrayal, isolation: each chapter brings a different voice to the chorus, sheds a new light on the tragedy. Relationships, Clegg suggests, are incendiary even without faulty appliances. It only takes a little fault, something you learn to live with, to trigger calamity. Even the people on the remotest reaches of this catastrophe reveal the ways in which the disasters they must live with are as much a result of their characters as of fate.
Beautifully paced, each chapter permits another piece of the story to drop into place, which makes for a pleasingly satisfying read. The base note is gentleness. This, the novel proposes, is the way to heal. This is hard-won intelligence. Each character's small, flawed life needs care. Those that give care elevate the novel to something elegiac. Those that withhold it, ground us in the unnecessary small meannesses of everyday life.
The premise of this novel presents Clegg with a technical problem. Because the main event wipes out the family of the title right at the beginning of the book, the action of the novel is almost all retrospective. June's odyssey across America to try and put some physical distance between her life and what remains of it, is numbed by grief. In effect she becomes a ghost in her own life. That Clegg is able to sustain our interest and our compassion for the characters through the rest of the novel, is testament to his skill in observing the detail of ordinary lives. The gap between who June is in this novel, and who she hoped she would be is at the heart of why we care for her. That gap is what motivates all the characters in one way or another. It is what underpins their relationships and enables them to be more fully real than even they feel themselves to be. And it is this, more than anything, that lifts Bill Clegg's novel beyond the ordinary, and makes it something really rather wonderful.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Booker Longlist: The Illuminations

Every so often you come across what reads like an almost perfect novel. From the opening sentence of Andrew O'Hagan's fifth novel, The Illuminations, you know you are going to be taken somewhere thrilling. His central character, Anne Quirk, photographer of the mundane and overlooked moment, is capable of giving even the most despised kitchen utensil a compelling gleam, and so too does O'Hagan in this novel which is crafted so elegantly you forget there is a craft to it, and each page reveals something both recognisably familiar and brand new.
Illumination is at the heart of the novel which explores light in all its moods: dark-rooms and cross-fire, metaphor and truth, levity and gravity. What is revealed shifts according to the light we see it in. But O'Hagan guides us through the dazzle and glare with such tenderness, such candour about relationships, honour, betrayal and love that we emerge from the reading as transfigured as if we were ourselves in love.
The novel is structured around two counterposed narratives of identity: the story of Anne Quirk and that of her grandson, Luke (named for the light) who is serving in Afghanistan. Both stories are fully believable: the disintegrating, fragmented personal narrative of the old lady, dislocated by dementia and most thoroughly realised through what she has created and what is remembered by others; and the disintegrating fragmented political narrative of her grandson, whose interrogations of loyalty and glory most closely plot and unhook the national narratives of identity.
I loved this novel. I loved it for its simple beauty,  and for the fact that it focuses the attention on the smallest particular, and makes that detail reveal something large about us. I hope it makes the shortlist. Indeed I hope it wins the prize, for it would be a worthy winner. And I recommend it to you with all my heart, as a novel that you should read, because it is true and powerful and rich in both sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Monday, 31 August 2015

Booker Longlist: A Brief History of Seven Killings

No wonder Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, looks fed up in his author photo. Perhaps the first thing I should tell you about this novel is how very misleading the title is. There is nothing brief about this history, a novel of over 700 pages in maybe 7pt type, and there are many many more than seven killings. Marlon James' account of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the 1970s and the cold war politics of the 1980s is a complex and ambitious interleaving of multiple narratives - indeed the cast of 76 characters extends over two pages.What is most remarkable is that there is hardly any plot to this assassination story, only the briefest character development (most notably Nina Burgess - whose story was the one I cared the most about) and barely any description. What there is, there is in abundance and that is Voice: this is a book that is all about the voice.
Its flaw is that hardly any of the voices are sufficiently differentiated - I could not tell at a 'blind' open-the-page-at-random testing whether I was in Papa-Lo's story, Alex Pierce's,  Bam-bam's or Josey Wales's. Everyone speaks with the same disaffected, edgy, interior voice. Their narratives are unrelentingly grim: brutal, ruthless, profane and angry. The rhythms of the book are insistent and rough, the relationships bitter, self-defeating.
I am a reader who likes books that challenge me, I like to read a book that leaves me feeling the world is larger and more imagined than I had believed possible. I am also a reader familiar with the post-modern, post-colonial steer to represent the world in all its conflicting, contradictory, sometimes harsh sometimes magical variety. I understand that a novel might be more than simply about the pleasures of the text, that it might be about life, about story itself. So I would have perhaps considered myself prime audience for a novel like this. But there was precious little pleasure in reading this novel, scant story for a novel so ostensibly taken with the themes of uprising, survival, redemption songs and ganga guns. It's big and baggy and it sags so low in the middle you think you are going to be permanently scarred by the ride.
It left me feeling exhausted, dejected and deeply unsatisfied in my soul. Now, let me go and listen to a bit of Bob and lively up myself before I can embark upon the next novel on this Booker Longlist

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Booker Longlist: Lila

Back in the land of Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's latest novel Lila revisits the story of the Preacher John Ames and turns its steady gaze upon his second wife, Lila.
Lila, whose name not only evokes the lily of the resurrection but also echoes Lilith and Lamia, is as soon as she is named, already marked contradictorily as full of grace, and both fallen and serpentine. She arrives in Ames' life with a knife in her garter and a past full of hardship and it seems she is put there as much as anything in order to question his faith. In Gilead, Ames blesses his good fortune in finding love at this late and unlikely stage in his life. In Lila, we are invited to consider this surprising blessing as it is experienced, no less powerfully, by his wife.
Like Robinson's previous novels, Lila is deeply philosophical, concerned with the nature of love, of redemption, of salvation. And the conclusions she draws here are just as pitiless. Love may not always represent salvation. The hand of intimacy, however longed for, might be as scalding as any hand laid in anger upon a body, suggests Robinson. And so, she urges, we must proceed in love with great gentleness, careful not to judge, just as careful of our own scar tissue as of the beloved's.
The novel is structured with two distinct narrative arcs, the story of Ames' and Lila's courtship and marriage, and the story of Lila's childhood and life before she stumbled into Gilead. Both narratives are shot through with deprivation, hardship, abandonment. But both are written with a kind of radiance and an elegant simplicity that elevates them beyond the merely sincere to something much more revelatory than that, something which marks Marilynne Robinson as a truly unique writer of contemporary fiction. Her novels are a meditation upon the nature of grace, which is to say, upon what it means to be human, at fault, disappointing to those who might nevertheless love us. And because Robinson is so faithfully preoccupied with the relationship between suffering and spirituality, her characters emerge as beloved: shown in a kind of infinite light, they shine with truth.
Regularly, in this novel we are taken by surprise. We experience, with Lila, and with Ames, the consolations of faith, we share in their spiritual insights, and we are brought, in the end to regard them with awe and joy, because they are so humanly, wretchedly lovely.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Booker Longlist: The Green Road

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Anne Enright's latest novel is the accomplishment of making the family the narrator. Greater than the sum of its parts: contradictory, secret, despairing, spiteful, forgiving, in The Green Road the family emerges as a thoroughly credible, absolutely reliable narrator. This is a very elegantly written novel, with a sure-footed sense of the competing loyalties and frustrations that power a family. At the heart of the novel is a reunion, but the intelligence that underpins this novel is that reunion is both unnecessary (for the connections are unbreakable) and impossible (for the slippages are great, the fragmentations inevitable, the hostilities unbreachable.) In a family, Enright claims, what connects us is precisely what holds us apart.
Through the circling narrations of the different family members at different historical moments Enright builds up a picture of the profound unknowability of those we love. We think we understand them, we think we belong to them, but ultimately who they are remains elusive, their motivations inscrutible, their aspirations unthinkable. Rosaleen, mother to this family, is theatrically selfish, begrudging her children's lives even as she desires them. Her children circle around her, leave her, refuse her and indulge her, but they do know know her and she does not, will not know them.
If this sounds bleak, then so be it. Enright's writing is sparse to the point of plain. Her characters are all in different ways spiritually and emotionally impoverished. They show each other no mercy. And yet as readers, again and again we are gently encouraged  by Enright to pity them and the landscapes they inhabit.
And landscape is something else Anne Enright understands and can represent in deft brushstrokes. From County Clare to Mali to New York, she quietly asserts her ability. Each location is thoroughly evoked, reminding us that Enright is not just capable of a bit of  your Auld Oirish but able to transport us beyond what we thought we could expect to something utterly other. The Green Road navigates the uncertain terrains of different identities, different lands, different mindsets but ultimately brings us home, to the family, with all its flaws, its rawness and its ups and downs.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Booker Longlist: Satin Island

Reading Satin Island by Tom McCarthy is a bit like being on a waltzer or a switchback. It's simultaneously thrilling and migraine inducing. It's also over incredibly swiftly and leaves you feeling mildly unnerved, like you're sure there was a point to all that wizardry, but you're not sure whether the point was to leave you feeling defeated. The tropes of the novel are all about surface and depth, truth and falsehood, the raw and the cooked, all of which are suggested and then postponed by buffering. The novel itself keeps on buffering, calling for patience, calling for us to wait and see whether in time meaning will emerge, and the narrative will resume something approaching normal service. There is a sense of shimmering, of weightlessness. There is a sense of pattern, of burnishing something perfect and lovely. This novel, which is deliberately anti-real, nevertheless deals with the virtual shifting realities that we take for granted in our lives, our news-feeds, our online identities, even if we resist it in our contemporary fiction.
The narrator, U, (maybe you, ie us, maybe Ulysses) is a voyager, tasked with the great reveal: the story of our age, deciphering the deeply encrypted codes that make meaning for us. U works as a 'corporate anthropologist' for The Company. A nod to Kafka and to Saussure here. His task, which he never seems to start, which is endlessly deferred (pace Derrida) nonetheless succeeds in conferring upon him status, even applause. The deferrals, by which I mean the novel itself, constitute a series of disconnected observations, proposals, anecdotes, insights, and suppositions, leaving us feeling both overstimulated and under-served. Cleverly though, in spite of its many disparate and unfulfilling parts, the sum total does add up to a shifting yet piercing ethnographic account of our status-addicted tribe (mankind circa 2015).

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Booker Longlist: A Little Life

And here I am, tear-stained and exhausted at the end of only the first of this year's Booker Longlist.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel of brutal beauty and desperate ugliness. Its surfaces are scarred and flawed with trauma: self harming, sexual abuse, betrayal, but peel these away (and that in itself is painful work) and you get to something real and rare: a book rigorously concerned with the deep philosophical questions of love, beauty, goodness.
There is much to admire in this novel which assembles and then rubs down the structures of our lives: art, law, commerce, morality, but, perhaps, not a great deal to like. Except that we do like, in spite of their flaws, its characters: the beautiful and the damned, the gifted and the blessed, the sordid and the good. The central relationships between the four friends: Jude, JB, Willem and Malcolm primarily and then around Jude, other clusters of important friendships: Julia, Harold, Andy and Richard, form architectures of light and strength in which to hold the themes of the novel. Excruciatingly and patiently Yanagihara suggests again and again that the world is one which must be endured before it can be loved.
The time structure of the novel is equally elegant, foreclosing the future, bringing forward the past, collapsing time into the eternal present of the traumatised and because Yanagihara pays such close attention to structures, it works. What persists is story: the stories we tell ourselves and each other about who we are. If friendship is to mean anything, Yanagihara insists, it must be candid. Indeed the moral universe that the novel creates is one delicately, painstakingly formed through the flimsy assemblages of human love: friendship, filial, paternal, sexual. At the heart of the novel is the single devastating question: Can we be saved by love? and around the stone of that single question ripple out others, equally tough: do we owe it to those who love us to stay alive? is it possible to love unselfishly? where are we doomed? and where might we be saved? And because these are the central questions the book becomes more than just an account of suffering. It is a deeply spiritual book, as equally concerned with redemption as it is with damnation.
It is a raw deal this book: it's rare for a book to make me cry, and this one did, quite a lot. But it's also a wise book, and a book that unfolds for us great tenderness, incomparable beauty and the certain knowledge that at the end of it you have experienced something true about art, and something true about love.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

My Heart's Old Malady

I have my heart's old malady. It's a bloody muscle the heart, and I am lost in the foundry of flesh. Love's scum rises to the top. We are making a forgery. Or else we are forging something utterly new.
What can I give you? I give you the summer, salt on the rim of two half-saucer glasses, sleeping beside ourselves under a scribble of stars. Elsewhere in the universe the tsars are ordering the beheading of the clowns. Here, let us step into the light. We open the door onto the carpark under the fumed blue of a bombay sapphire sky. Laughter rises from us, easy as birdsong in this new day. I am lost in love. Am lost.
I give you the earth. Read its maps as relics: Islamabad, Jakarta, Hartshead Moor. I give you the fullest moon the heavens can roll out. Voluptuous as a pearl. Be morning to my pillow,  I say. Multiply my joy. Make me crest. Keep me there.
You offer me your dictaphone, press the play button to let me hear myself arriving in love's unbreakable heart. And there is nothing new. Nothing. Not cabbage, not soul, not a man in black feathers. There is simply me, in only my own skin, behaving just like myself, making it all up out of nothing.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 23 June 2015


I am here to learn about patience. When I put my head to your chest to hear your heart beating and there is no sound, is that because I am deaf on the side of your heart or have you indeed no heart, my infidel?
You bring to me your songs of the desert, of redemption and revisitation, and I feel the flimsy but sure desire to be in another place, a shatter of sun above us, the presence of the self: yours and mine.
If I am still, I fancy I can still hear it. My name in your mouth as you brought me into being. Something bloody on the tongue: fluvial, elemental. You unfolded your desiderata and laid it in oils upon my skin so that the words would always belong to me. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Go placidly in it. Strive to be happy.
An apple drops between us, entirely itself before itself becomes known. I hear a crow lift its wings and beat the air into submission. I hear a lark ascend on the notes of its boundaries into the sky. I walk barefoot through the garden of your stories.  You put a finger to my lips, reminding me that I am here to learn about patience. Your mouth smashes into mine, promising me a sudden change of heart, and even as I am falling I wonder if your kiss is just another way of telling me to be quiet and remember what peace there may be in silence.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Your Illicit Self

Let a wand of feather guide me, as the sun fastens long shadows to the side of the motorway. I am making my way towards you. A wren flies across my path, her low zigzag making light of the situation. If you can call adultery a situation. If you can call rapture a situation. The way is lit by the shine of you, the evening's glow elongating the day. I'm restless, as I'm meant to be, anticipating the exchange of small incendiary sparks between us. Imagining the gloss of your smooth planes, the subtle scent of you, bugle maybe. Foxglove in the rain. Did I tell you I am a pluviophile? I want to wear you on my pulse points, the base of my spine, my wrists, my throat.
Let's blow it all, all this evening's gold until we can lie together, full spent, light and airy, as the breeze moves the curtains in this rented room and the day blesses us for her darlings once again. Who knew as I set out the day would shift from brave to brazen, to offer us something so unexpectedly tender, so  poignant. Who knew the wand of feather would guide me to a nest as sweet and purposeless as this?

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Monday, 8 June 2015

Then I'll Begin

I was conceived on a dustbin, while old ha'pennies rolled in the dark arcades, horses came in for betting men, and a woman with her eye on the main chance opened a book for how long the whole affair would last.
It was the night of the eclipse. The full moon hid her face behind a fan of brushed silk and out I fell from him into her. It was something like chasm, something like fulfilment. Sequins popped in the sky,  rude streamers unfurled from the mouths of the angels,  and the music-hall pageantry of the stars winked and made slow applause at my soiled beginnings.
It is of no matter. There are in this world blind babies wrapped in banana leaves, and odd man-shaped things dropped on forest floors. Where the child lies hid changes from one moment to the next. Here she is crawling under a patchwork quilt. Here she is creeping under the lid of a grand piano stranded on the stony beach. Temperament may play a part, but so too do circumstance and company. A dustbin lid rolled, like a cymbal, crashing out the news of my arrival.
I was born to a child-hearted woman, enamored of old 78 vinyl records and men in fedoras with knives in their socks. With delectable symmetry, once again there was a lunar eclipse. A coin flipped in the sky's palm and myself was unleashed. A thumb brushed away a tear, memories blurred, like some sort of colouring-in porn. The blushing moon rented us for her darlings, a spire glowed gold on a country church, Godmothers counted their blessings. There. That is all there was to it.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Friday, 17 April 2015

In Case of Fire Break the Glass

Complete me I beg of you. Fill my dark spaces, cram me so full of you I can barely breathe. I was born to kiss your feet, to run my tongue the length of the sole of your foot. Kiss me long enough to make time forget herself, and stand sucking her thumb in a daydream. Take me down the wet steps of your imagination. Obliterate me, cover me in the shine of you. Outside the sun is a pewter disc blackmailing the afternoon's sister into parting with her wealth. Bring me your hopes, cross my heart with your fingers.
I offer you myself unhinged, open, my doors splintered and wrecked. Enter me at your own risk. Welcome to the dark side. Let me light the lamp made of the minotaur's hoof. Don't flinch. If I give you a dangerous wink, kiss me immediately. I must not be allowed to speak.
Smelt me in your fire, melt me in the fluxy lusty salt sweet waters of you. Make me burst with light.
Come, let us enter your tomorrows and just for now make ourselves a temporary camp there.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Road

Take something precious, the road whines. Take something overflowing, something pouring from a broken urn, something beyond the realm of the ordinary.
I put my ear to the hot asphalt and listen to the buzz and whine of this traffic of words. Fantasy empties out into language. The road buckles beneath my ear. My body, always living in the fast lane, responds with its own minute vibrations. My hopes are like a still life, petals falling next to pewter spoons; the ghost of a pheasant connects my mind's eye with my body's. On the reality of the road's surface I see a dancing woman on a fully laden table; the tinfoil disc of a fish-eye in a mackerel's head; a stargazer pie for the guests.
You drag your disabled nightmares before me on parade. Here they come, the lamenting eunuchs, Beatrice beating her copper drum, the king's god-cub dressed int he tattered furs of his crimes. You place your mouth against the curb and whisper to me: are you bereft or replete? But your words no longer make sense. I am all spirit now. I am staring into the bright lights of the night riders, juggernauts, moons, bikers. I am doped up to the eyeballs and all I can hear are the road's whined imprecations: take something precious if you go, if you go, take everything.
I see the decapitated body of the stag at the road's verge. I see a thousand black caterpillars unpicking the road's white running stitch, and I hoist myself upright, buckle up my silken kimono, my dreamcoat of cash and crimson, lined with all its photos, its memories of lost loves and orphans. I spit on the jewels and gems on each of my fingers and polish them. They withhold their lights, sulking on my fingers.
You reach for me, about to complain again that he has stolen my life from you. About to beg me to come now, come home, come again. But I am the Queen of Chaos, given to embracing the hectic, given to embracing the emergent. I care no more for you laments than I do for your pleas. I set my unsteady foot upon this shrieking road. I see the musicians with their broken strings give each other the nod to recommence their performance. My head is wrapped in the colours of their music, wreathed in the lemons and greys of G sharps and A minors. I am groping in the dark, shambolic, careening out beyond the empire.
The eunuchs, who have pierced the cloth of unknowing, gather up the black silk of the road and follow me to my funeral. There are books I can never read cairned in tottering piles upon ghost shelves. I see the letters burning in the grate. The words curl and char. I am going. Stepping out onto the highwire. Who knew the road could be this narrow? Who knew it would swing this wild?

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Saturday, 11 April 2015


The sea's gifts are oiled and salted, swollen for your mouth's bliss. We have lived too long under the locked lid of winter. Let's crest the season's early warmth and take ourselves down to the harbour. The Jump sisters will be there, Eliza dragging her piano over the cobbles, Charys with her penny-whistle-cheeks, puffed out pinkly, her crinoline billowing in the wind. It whips up out of nowhere. I see you cast your eye up at the scoundrel clouds rolling in. Tread lightly past the sisters. If they see you they will demand impossible tariffs: a silver coin from a fairy princess, gold from a pirate's tooth, blood from the moon. Don't purse your mouth, they'll want that open too.
Follow me down onto the rocks, let's see if we can prise their secrets from them. Bring me the sea's green anklets for my feet. Undress me. I want to dance naked for you in this sheltered spot, and then collapse at the sea's dirty petticoat, put my mouth there to see if I can taste what is hidden beneath its wet skirts.
I can feel the ghosts of all my lovers coming for me, leviathans, travelling silently, unseen. A curlew lifts itself on song alone. The host seagulls heckle their generous, yet unwilling, appreciation I see you now for who you are, stripped of context, connotation, consent. We are supplicants to the wind. My pleas disappear upon its breath. Secrets, trust, who will tell? Not you. Not me. This is ours. We have made it between us. Let me feed you oysters, their sea-clean spunky flavours, ready for your mouth's bliss.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Open Hearted

I open my heart, open my eyes, in the drowsy dirty morning. It's Thursday. The light makes a triptych of foxed mirrors on the wall. Look away, should they crack that will be your fortune told. And say you will be mine, beats my heart. There is no ending to its pleading. As always, it grasps what I fail to understand.
Open my heart, open my eyes. Friday. The day opens to a curtain of rain. And say you will be mine. Say you, baker, will be mine. Say you will make me rise like dough under your hands.
Saturday dawns. I open my heart, open my eyes. Let the light in through the crack beneath my bruises. Blood darkens the beginning. And say you, sleuth, will be mine. Discover my liaisons. Note my shortcomings. A taxi rolls discreetly down the rain-freckled road.
On Sunday it is open sesame, open all hours, open season: we go to a Church strung with tangerine silks. A dwarf is playing hymns on a piccolo. Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways.
At home the world is beyond sense. The red mullet guts the cat, the goldfish eats my cheese rolls, dogs knock up goat goulash for our dinner. At the crest of the week's plural pleasures on Sunday singularity slides in and undoes her corsets.
Life has come at me, knocked me open in every way she can think of, but I have remained upright, and I have tried to love you. I put my mouth to the trumpet and blow the fierce note of our agreement. That I will open my heart, open my eyes, open myself to all the guises in which you think it will be suitable to love me.
That I think anything at all these days is in itself a miracle. The bruises stay beneath my skin like a map. I am covered in your fingerprints and the blood pulsing in my veins is touched with madness. Your reputation is as bloody as a bowl of raw liver. I spit a fighter's mouthful of red as elegantly as any moonshiner. You have laced my corsets too tightly.
The world is flat you whisper to me as you dangle me over its edge. Your voice scours my comprehension. You tell me the mullet is a secret agent. Didn't you know? you say. He has decoded all your dreams and sold them back to me. Don't despair. The best of the worst is still to come. It only takes forgiveness for you to open your heart, open your eyes, open yourself to me again, on this sweet drowsy dirty morning in which we still astonishingly find ourselves together.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Begin Again

It begins again with us in tears, blustery emotions surfacing, bigger than me, tangling me, braiding me with joy and sorrow and peace each pulled sweet across the last. We four have multiplied, doubled ourselves in our writing, made marvelous octagonal stories in which time herself seemed to forget her purpose and stood still for the sheer pleasure of eavesdropping.
You offered us the shy smile of a brand new moon. And the vision of a barrow of jonquils being pushed like a cart of gold through Essaouira's cobbled streets. Behind us seagulls swarm over the cliffs, bolster the air with their fishhead cries, and land back on the balustrade beside us, bouncing on their yellow feet.
You came wanting your mouths never to be bored. I offered you blue gods reeking of olives. You came wanting a gorgeous injection of life and energy into your work. I offered you the buddha dance on a day of Happiness. You came open to everything. I showed you what it is like to love a thief.
What have we learned? that dreams reveal what we need to know. That what we share is always miraculous and that whatever happens next there will always be beginnings.
The sea itself, loaded with silver light, foams in appreciation.

the copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

No Sense of an Ending

It begins with the rhythm of the sea, something glorious and full of mercy, glittering at the edge of sight. A jar of roses on the table releases its perfume. The palms and pines along the coastline sigh their au revoirs. Salt crusts the balustrades. Seagulls bisect the sky into Euclidean poetry.
The air smells sweet with marram grass and thyme. A subtle ginger note adds to the warmth of this morning, commensurate with joy.
What have we shared? the embrace of storytelling magic, new freedoms, deeply enriching rejuvenations, old friendships affirmed and new ones ignited. We have lived inside and outside each other this week, and made and shared the space in our hearts, where we will always make each other welcome. We have drawn blood from the moon, danced with the Jump sisters down by the harbour, held our writing as a lantern in the darkness and paid for it all with the incomparable silver from a fairy princess. We have braceleted our wrists with fish scales, turned cartwheels on the sand, made music and magic and love together. And for all this, I thank you.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 24 March 2015


All now is well. It is the beginning of our days of pleasure. The simplicity of it: a day backlit with brilliance. Blink if you desire me. There are bees buzzing in the hive of my heart for you. Keep them sweet.
My head swarms for you. I pour perfumed waters from a broken urn, light summer rain, aromatic with cloves and roses, a waft of wild mint on the breeze.
Come with me past the borders of bees. Sssh he sleeps. Let us go barefoot into the wet orchard to the iron bed hanging between two silver birches. I want you to loosen the pull of expectation and corset silks, behold my beauty, my breasts bright in a lozenge of light. Say dance and I will dance for you. Butter my soul with liquid gold. Anoint me. Brim for me.
Let the courtiers and servants lie where they are. Let me be the vessel for your body's joy. Be the best you can be, Beloved. The day's brightness is about to begin. And the doves murmur Bonjour.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Friday, 20 March 2015

On this Day of Happiness

On this day of happiness, I want to melt like a sweet in your mouth. That wasn't really what I intended to be writing to you, but I'm writing it so it must be true. I woke to a window that wasn't there, full of blue light. A picture in a frame of what the day could be. We have reached the equinox, the year's first hinge. Bella is here with her torn dress and her smudged mouth, trailing the bedsheets like a crinoline behind her, defying me not to desire her ruinous magic.
I confess she does look beautiful, bendable, biddable. When she hauls herself across my lap and asks me to spank her I shall do it for you. The cracked mirror above our bed hangs onto good luck by the meagrest of threads. In my dreams I stare at my reflection hoping to recognise somebody, but I am disappearing; I am impossibly tiny behind the sopranos, even in my high heels. I am wearing my scuffed red stilettos. I have come fully equipped for glory. You wrote to me I was your sex goddess and I warned you then that immortals make bad lovers. Oh to be fresh-faced again. To run barefoot through the sand with you, towards the cliffs where we can flirt with God and teeter on the brink of the everyday magic of kindness.
You are my equal. Even Bella concedes that as she wipes your spunk from her breasts. Crazy. She only got them out to see desire light up in your face. The she spits like a sommelier, into her teacup. Ah well, our happiness might be spiky happiness but it is happiness nonetheless.
Come here then, come to my arms. Feel the crenelations across my back, across my shoulders where once my wings were torn. Now there's hardly a scar, just a blur on the skin, as though the light, falling there, had sliced me for its own purposes. Which it has. Here, take off your halo come and learn to lie with me.
Yes come and learn to lie with me. Bella is in the corner going down on the rag and bone man, who has closed his one good eye in ecstasy. The red end of his lit cigarette moves in time to her breathing. From the grubby lining of her camisole she passes me a note without once losing her rhythm. It says you are considering taking orders. So, come. I have summoned up a salt storm for us. Let's improvise around our nakedness; I have torn down the moth-eaten red velvet curtains for you; wrap me in the tasseled silk shawl, take me to the rocks. I want to see my body reflected in the three-way mirror of the sky, the sea and your face when you are coming.
Communicate with me only through touch, let's originate a new braille. Follow the water to find your way. Come outside, quickly, before the light fails us. Let's leave this room,with all its texts of inconstancy: my knickers burning in the grate, my red lipstick melting on the mantlepiece. Here, outside the briar rose releases its perfume of spilled silk and weak tea. The cobalt canal boat sinks into the garden's green embrace. I am stumbling in my scuffed stilettos. I am disappearing. Don't let me fall. If we must live this life, let it be for all the right reasons. Kiss me. I promise you after me everyone else will taste of nothing. Don't mind Bella on all fours with Verve Clinker. There are cracks behind every painting. Touch me here and here and here. You don't know what you do to me, in this place, beneath the voluptuous storm, on this day of happiness.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Love Letter

I am writing this so that it will stay true. Though we are kept apart never doubt that I love you, that you are in my heart. At night I lie awake and run your absence through my fingers: here's the touch of you, your warmth, your tenderness, your brutality: all our conspiracies of love.
I dream of kissing you, of course, in all the lights this room can muster. In the slurred light of dusk your mouth is as dark as a knife; when dawn extends its bouquets of roses and marigolds and my hot sheets are printed with your ghost, I turn and bury my face in them, trying to kindle you from the last embers of an erotic dream.
Everything becomes you in your absence. I peel blood-oranges and search through all their quarters for some secret pip of you. The wet sheets on the line wrap their cold arms around me. The swing in the garden is banging in the storm; Or is that my heart beating? 
Where are you? My mouth misses you.
You left me on a day of such puzzling beauty that I could not match it. All those patterns of chaos and bliss. In my mind I play endless home movies of you walking away from me. You limped out of our life in your lopsided stilettos, like a man proud to be leaving. I watched your receding back and felt love fox into rage: into something vagabond, refined, shattered. We were never that far apart. Your body spoke a foreign tongue – I could only swallow half of what you said to me.
What are we? Skin, books, words, bodies: libraries of sensation and desire. Flick through my song of songs, learn the choruses from the adulterer's hymnal, open my diaries at random and read what you will. I am laid bare for your gaze. Let me draw you towards me with some novel magic.
Perhaps I am not making sense to you, but we confounded sense from the very beginning. We lived in a space where sense was the first deserter. So, simply, I love you. It is beyond me to help it. I love you in ways that humiliate me, exhaust me, excite me. You are my guilty pleasure, my heart's desire. Your rhythms beat within me, make me sob with pent up longing.
I want your thumb to graze my palm, and then your mouth to kiss me there. I want your breath on my neck and your fingers on my throat. I cannot account for all the ways I miss you. I miss you the way a body in love misses its beloved.
So here I am, on my knees by the bed. Not praying, just missing you.
I send you this with all my love. Take care of it. I send you my beating heart, my love, my foolish beating heart.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Eartha Tries a Simple Seduction

Eartha simplifies things by placing a jug of clear water on the table.
Ask me, she says.
Won't you show me the beauty in the cracked and the run down.
She fixes her eyes upon me, and unbuttons her coat. It is February and she is naked under her green coat. She takes my hand and places it on her tarnished breast.
I want to say to her: Can't we put an end to these cliches, but the feel of her heart beating and her nipple stiffening beneath my palm stops my mouth.
There are golden lights in her eyes. I cannot work out how this is searching for simplicity. She bites her bottom lip and my tongues tastes blood in sympathy.
Who says I am literature's whore? she whispers.
I do Eartha, I do. I came to offer you the renewal of the self, but you have brought me here to this land where all my understanding is parsed in a foreign tongue.
When did you ever offer me the renewal of self? she croaks
You are brazen, Eartha. Yes. Let me kiss your palm. You are wanton. Yes. Let me kiss the sole of your foot. You are forever dedicated to Saint Simple. Yes. Take off all your clothes.
And the jug of clean water trembles.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Sense of an Ending

It ends with the door slamming after she is shown out. And then it ends again as the door opens and her shoe is thrown out after her. She makes an effort to rise but he has his foot on the fullness of her dress. Her mistake was in falling.
The sky opens up a red blade. Her prince is watching and waiting for her to rise again. If his fury were not so latent it would be obvious. The princess staggers to her feet, gives him a cock-eyed look. He measures his knife against her throat, hands her a box of matches, invites her to light the emery of his stubble. She knows it is no use, but she lifts her trembling fingers to his jaw. He shudders at the sudden cold.
What did they tell you? he croaks into her ear
She can barely remember. Adrenaline drills into her finger tips.
What? Forgetful my princess? Surely not. Try harder.
He presses home his advantage. Tiny beads of blood rise to bracelet her wrist.
Fancy a shag?
A cormorant lifts itself, heckling her memory.
They told me to hide in the sea.
Which sea? Let's think of words that begin with C.
The sea that surrounded the castle.
For how long?
For the time being and until my presence was necessary.
And when would a princess, who is after all only a thing that begins with C, be necessary?
He closes in. She stumbles through the dirty rooms of his mind, trailing apologies, hearing everything collapsing behind her.
He catches her by the hem of her argument, lays her down in a sweaty band of gold. How can he use all these ephemeral elements to bring his desire to fruition? The thing about women is that they split like fruit. He is an animal toying with her.
Ladies, he purrs, are not protected in the human world. he places a paw on her breast, claws out. The first the mouse knows is the smart of being opened.
He reads the signs, the skin's uncensored diary. He sees a ship going down, he sees how little he means, and how large he is. He beats upon her rib-cage: Open up this door I say. But when the latches of her chest are sprung all that remains is the smell of blood, and the sound print of her voice crumpling the air: Fuck off Perseus. As if all this glory never happened.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Monday, 16 February 2015

Rafael's Impossible Questions

Can you swallow a live fish? that is what he asked me, just before he disappeared taking with him the family violin and the suitcase full of baby teeth. If there was a purpose to this alarming question I have yet to discern it. I said nothing. You see, at that time I was in my mute period. I did not communicate, not even through semaphore or writing. I folded wings of silence across my mouth. I kept mum.
I followed him to the woods. He would navigate by the stars, using a pair of our mother's embroidery scissors as a sextant. He was familiar with all the constellations consolations. He went looking for the missing sisters. I know that now. I know that he was seeking their ghosts, looking among the badger sets, the broken bicycles, the mushrooms, for their linked arms, linked smiles.
But he never saw me. I was missing in a different way. I would flit around him, begging him to notice. I would take bricks and engrave them with words from my bleeding nails, shatter his windows with them, warm his bed with them.
The forest was the right place for us then. A slattern wind whipped our legs and blew smoke from our inexpertly rolled cigarettes back into our faces. The trees moaned as we carved our names into their trunks. But I would not talk to him, no matter how he asked. Most of the time I could not even work out what his questions meant, let alone how i might answer them.Who abandoned you? he asked, as though I was a feather dropping from a bird. Can you blow a the earth's true note? Can you swallow a live fish? he asked, prising my mouth open to look at the shy red snapper of my tongue, lying there.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 27 January 2015


Light the wings, set the whole bird alight, I beg him.
We are two children, cast out of what remained of our lives. The world around us is almost familiar, almost a forest, but flatter, chewed, charred. Hansel looks at me as though he were a visitor from the lands of light. Light the wings? he repeats, cradling the blue bird to his breast. Light the wings? I can see the bird's staccato pulse hammering under its feathers.
Then we can follow its blazing trail, and it will lead us to the house of plenty, I urge him . Imagine Hansel, the sugar spun windows, the chimney shadowed with burnt treacle, something golden to stor your morning tea with. The bird fixes me with its song-furied eye and spoke in magic:
Mirror mirror on the world, who is the cursed girl of all?
I don't care. I am texting my fairy godmother for a soul candle to light the dark room of my heart. Right now, I need a warm bed, high above the forest floor, away from all the vermin. I punch in the letters. Oh Godmother, it would seem I am trapped in a broken story, and all I have is ash and clinkers.
Hansel takes my arm, and turns my palm upwards. His face, in the shadow of his bird, is as dark as a ghost's, his pale eyeshadow contrasting with the blood on his cheek.
Come to me Gretel. See.
He invites me to touch the bird's soft breast, to feel the braille of its heartbeat beneath my fingers.
We cannot set light to this, it may be all we have.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Not Kissing Independence Gray

My height wouldn't matter if I had a ladder, I thought as I struggled to kiss the man named Independence Gray. It was an inversion of the songline: the only man who could ever reach me, which made me laugh, because Independence really was the son of a preacher man, though one so addicted to the shadow on the grapes that he was completely undone by his religious philosophy. And the shame of that, combined with his astonishing height, formed the coordinates for the downfall of Independence, whom I was still finding it difficult to kiss.
If I were on my own with him, I would go out and improvise a ladder; I'd build a makeshift Corney Reach set of steps and climb up the perilous slope to place my lips upon the brow of the man I like to call my own dear heart. But I cannot do that before all these people.
There is Reckless McClennahan, longing to find the path, turning her torn bits of map this way and that and asking us for improbable post-codes. There is the Original Female Drummer girl with her banners and her Temperance vest. There is Grendel's mother in her boned corset. They will all be quick to spit and judge. So here I stand, helplessly on tiptoes, straining to the horizon, puckering up and knowing beyond all certainty that if only I had a ladder, my height would not matter at all.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace

Will we brace ourselves against the chaos or relax into the storm, turning and tumbling until we are set down again in another place entirely?
Pleasure comes to me in a dream, her harrowed loveliness holding all my desires. She comes monobrowed, antique, dressed in pinks and greens. She comes with a tiny bird hanging from her thorn necklace. She sees not, neither does she covet. Did I say covet? I mean comet, of course. She tears through the night sky, her steel-capped boots ghosting a trail of sparks.
She dips her brush in curdled milk, paints me a white painting, a moon, a bride's book of psalms. Or is it Common Prayer? She paints these solid things to feed me. Here, she says, this is a lettuce. It cleans the blood, and she shows me her back pierced and riveted. Her dark hair is tied up in a hairpiece upon which the butterflies might rest. She is as sad and serious as frozen linen.
Here is my house by the sea, she says. The storms it has seen. She tilts towards me.
Will we brace ourselves this time, she asks, or will we relax into the storm, turning and tumbling until we are set down again in another place entirely?

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele