This morning I am thinking of beautiful writing, of beautiful writing by women, and how what I’ve read in recent months almost always has an interesting context. A textual construction deeply grounded in the quotidian. I’m not surprised. I’ve also been looking at textiles, mostly in photographs and in illustrations in archaeology papers, and I see how the work women do in the most practical ways has beauty. Their baskets, their weaving, their quilts, even the cordage used to bind tools, keep skins together for clothing, shelter, suspend fishing hooks in water, tether animals, anyway, the work of their hands and minds has always entranced me, made me feel part of a community through time and history.
I read a lot. 3 or 4 books a week. I don’t keep a list but mostly I can remember what I’ve read, or at least let’s say there are memorable books that I think about long after I’ve read them. Lately I’ve been reading non-fiction, which is often considered a genre but honestly? The book I’m reading on hand-dyeing has very little in common with Sinead Gleeson’s extraordinary Constellations: Reflections From Life. Turning to my dictionary doesn’t help much. Classification is defined this way:
1.The action or process of classifying something.
‘the classification of disease according to symptoms’
1.1 biology: The arrangement of animals and plants in taxonomic groups according to their observed similarities (including at least kingdom and phylum in animals, division in plants, and class, order, family, genus, and species)
‘the classification of the platypus was one of the critical issues of the 1830s’
1.2 [count noun] A category into which something is put.
‘new classifications for drivers of commercial vehicles’
So. Is that clear? Not really. And I guess it doesn’t matter although sometimes it does. Right now it seems to me that the conversation about nonfiction usually means memoir. Yesterday I read Katherine May’s Wintering and yes, it’s a memoir. It’s also an investigation into weather and depression and the meaning of winter. I loved Beth Kaplan’s Loose Woman: My Odyssey From Lost to Found, an account of how an aspiring actress finds herself, literally and metaphorically, living with and caring for a community of damaged men in France. It has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, a through-line, and it is both heart-felt and well-crafted. Constellations is a collection of essays which has its own narrative coherence, though it’s not as structurally evident.
As an undergraduate, I remember reading a translation of “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”, or “Lament for Art O’Leary”, a gorgeous and heartbreaking poem written by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an 18th c. Irish noblewoman grieving the murder of her husband at the hands of an Anglo-Irish army officer. So I was always going to read Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s stunning A Ghost in the Throat, in which she searches for Ni Chonaill’s life (reduced to shreds in the historical record) and makes a text of shimmering beauty, like the quilts I remember seeing at Kilkenny Castle in 1979, pieced of silk and taffeta and fine linen, each scrap a footnote or gloss on domestic life, on broader history.
An ache, this salt-sorrow of mine,
that I was not by your side
when that bullet came flying,
I’d have seized it here in my right side,
or here, in my blouses’s pleats, anything,
anything to let you gallop free,
o bright-grasped horseman, my dear.
The other day, I wrote about Kathleen Jamie’s essays, their durable and practical beauty. And there’s Susan Olding’s Big Reader— essays about reading, yes, and loss, and how we are shaped by books, how they shadow us in our daily lives.
This morning I am grateful for women’s writing, women’s work, their vessels and twine and the patterns they impose on both the daily and the divine. Tall flowers, groundcovers, medicinals, ornamentals. A shelf of their books, kingdom and phylum, genus and species, fieldguides to the life I am living.