Our beautiful brains

When I arrived on holiday in Chicago this summer my daughter handed over the three copies of the book I had ordered from the poet Cynthia Jobin. I find it difficult to describe the pleasure with which I sank, jet-lagged, into bed that night and opened A Certain Age. I am not an orderly poetry reader, I started with the last poem Acknowledgement*, which made me laugh out loud, it is so perfectly judged a final comment – but I can’t give away the joke.DSCN8527

This poetry is both accessible and yet also of the highest intellectual standard. Cynthia knows about, and plays with, poetic forms, metre, rhythm, rhyme etc. She handles language with delicacy and certainty, yet all the machinery is hidden, we can sit back, read and listen. I do mean listen. The cream of this publication is the enclosed CD of Cynthia reading her poetry. If you doubt for a moment that you would enjoy this, just try it here, for something short and funny, or this for an observation that hits the spot. One that moves me to tears does not have a recording, so you must read it here, Without You the CatI could go on. She writes with humour, insight and tenderness about the humans and animals in her life, and with heart-aching clarity about grief.

There is no way, in this brief overview that I can do justice to contents of  A Certain Age. Go see, read, listen for yourselves.

The book itself is a treat to look at and handle; the cover, utterly appropriate, is of a tulip past its prime and yet fascinatingly beautiful [little diversion: years ago I saw a photo of an 80-year-old woman throwing a javelin and it reminded me of an ancient Greek sculpture].

You might think that there would be no connection between this poetry and my other deeply satisfying read – Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind. Daniel is a neuro-psychologist and his book is about how to harness the beautiful complexity of the brain, by understanding a little better how it works. Of course some of it is testing reading, but once again, most of it is extremely accessible. What I read has already improved my life.


Two examples, one: Daniel interviews a very senior CEO about the problem of intractable decisions that land on his desk when his managers are effectively stuck. His job, he explains, is not to make the decision, because they, not he (or she), are the experts. He helps them to look at the problem in a different light, ‘I tell them to back up and find out one truth that they know is indisputable’. This can take a lot of steps, and this truth, once arrived at can be very simple, for instance: “no matter what, we cannot serve food that is not 100% fresh”. The managers then creep forward step by step from that point and a solution will often emerge.

the other: ‘Eat the frog’ – an expression new to me, meaning, if it’s bugging you, do it. I carry around, for days (sometimes for months), tasks that I am reluctant to undertake e.g. ringing the tech help of our Broadband provider. Clear one or more of these first thing in the morning, and boy is the rest of the day beautiful. Intellectually, I already knew this, but now I have a little internal instructor that detects my reluctance and says Eat the frog!

I am forever fascinated by the complexity, scope and skill of the organ we use to run our lives. Both these publications stimulate the sweet spots of curiosity, emotion and beauty in my brain. I hope they do the same for some of you.

*You can find Cynthia’s joke here Acknowledgement 

20 thoughts on “Our beautiful brains

  1. Thank-you, HCG – you have written everything about Cynthia’s marvellous book that I could never come up with. I can only say for everyone else reading your review, “WHAT SHE SAID !”
    I am so impressed with Cynthia’s work that words fail me. Also, I am a lousy reviewer, unlike you.
    The pair of you are my writing idols.

  2. Both books sound wonderful. Thanks for the heads-up. And I love the phrase ‘Eat the frog’. I try to do that, but I’m not always successful. That dang Internet gets in the way…

  3. So many frogs, so little appetite. Still one must try! Great expression, which I will add to my collection. As for Jobin’s poetry, I’d not come across her before but the two I’ve read make me want more. Thank you.

  4. Imagine my surprise as I set out to read posts this evening and came upon the cover to my own book! I am very moved by your attention and generosity, Hilary. Someone has said that praise is like sunlight to the human spirit, that we cannot flower and grow without it, and that’s true; as you may have learned, however, it’s difficult to know how to receive it gracefully…one is embarrassed as by an embarrassment of riches. I’ll just say thank you very much—it’s an honor to have my work reviewed by you, a most accomplished author whose estimation I highly prize. I am truly grateful.

    The Levitin book has been on my “consider getting” list for a while. Your review here clinches it, and I’ll be reading it soon. I especially need to learn to “eat the frog”, I think! So much is out there, in the realm of brain science—much of it beyond my ken; but this one sounds right up my street.

    Thank you once again for all you do, especially with your excellent reviews, to inform and to support fellow writers. You’re the cat’s pyjamas, “my little mate”—as our dear friend M-R might say.

    • I understand, I feel very ambivalent about praise, but as it always gives me a boost, I like to give it when I can. I read a lot of books that are either not my genre or don’t quite hit the spot and I simply don’t write about them. So I love it when something, like your poetry, gives me lift-off and I can send some of the appreciation back to the writer.

      The Levitin’s great, and has seriously helped me with my information overload. There is some taxing maths in the middle. He clarifies why we make such poor decisions about odds (e.g. we behave as though driving is safer than flying). You can believe him and pass over that bit lightly or go to the appendix get it step by step. I love this kind of book, I’d be interested to know if it works for you.

      See also my reply to Susanne below.

      • I’m definitely planning to read the Levitin (auto correct keeps changing it to Levity) soon, and will let you know.

        On the business of poems flowing and connecting…that really pleases me. I’ve long had discussions with others who tell me one should have a “theme” for a collection of poems….and I was feeling rather “theme-less.” I had only the fact of who I am and where I am in life, and a stack of poems large enough for a book. I don’t remember where I read that an author is always really writing the same poem/story over and over— maybe that’s the theme that connects them! I’ve noticed that a lot of poetry books simply take the title of one of the poems included, as some kind o collecting umbrella….but it doesn’t always work.

      • Levity? I think he would be amused.

        A young friend of mine won a prize to publish his first collection of poetry. The most difficult task, he told me, turned out to be what to include and in which order to place them. I imagine it is like a play or a novel. It’s not so much theme as a kind of pacing, with strong opening and ending, then a kind of rolling motion between, with each wave leading you to the crest of another. Poetry being so individual, makes this particularly tricky.
        The same poem? I didn’t find it so. I love your narrative ones where a person from the past gets to live again through your eyes. There a long distance between this and, say, the limericks. The voice is consistent, perhaps that’s what people mean.

  5. I take a similar approach to reading poetry as you do. I have a few books of poetry at my bedside that I open randomly and enjoy whatever the fold of the book determines is my choice for the night. Like you, I follow Cynthia’s poetry blog and look for her weekly poem every Friday – reading it when I get home from work is the best way to start my weekend.

    • Yes, I am a dipper too. Actually, one thing I didn’t talk about is how cleverly the book is put together. It is really difficult to get a collection of poems to flow and connect, yet when I was working through the book (forwards and backwards) I keep realising how one poem related to the previous or next one. There’s so much more I could have said, but I react badly to long blogs to I always try to aim below 500.

  6. “Without You The Cat” is really powerful. It caught me, Hillary. Eat the frog, although not described that way, has always been a part of my action plan. Sometimes, procrastination works and a problem disappears. But that is the exception. Better to deal with it. Now let’s see, what was I going to do on my book… 🙂 –Curt

  7. Thank you so much for introducing me to Cynthia’s poetry. Unfortunately I can’t afford to buy books these days. So I keep trawling through secondhand shops. However her blogue has really put a smile on my face, as has yours.

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