Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Katherine Anne Porter, _Pale Horse, Pale Rider_

RE-READ THIS LAST week for the book club, not having looked at it since I read it for a modern American fiction class in college some few decades ago, and was struck by how good it was. Three lengthy (50+ pages) short stories, or more what James called "tales," two about a young woman named Miranda breaking away from her upper-class Southern family and trying to make her own way (apparently autobiographical). The second of the Miranda tales, and the title story of the collection, is about Miranda catching the great influenza of 1918, and contains the best description of hallucinatory dreaming this side of De Quincey.

So, made me wonder--given the rocket boost that feminist scholarship has given the standing of many  once relatively neglected women writers since I was in college (top-of-the-head list: Elizabeth Gaskell, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Rhys, Dawn Powell, Mina Loy, Shirley Jackson), why not Porter? Not that she gets none whatsoever--some 500 items in the MLA International Bibliography--but Cather comes in at 2300.

Is it because there is just one novel (Ship of Fools)? I think, though, that even now a lot of her short stories get anthologized.

Something a little too cool, a little too analytically detached or Jamesian in the tone? You could say the same of Flannery O'Connor, though, and her reputation seems secure for the moment.

Did she commit some political misstep in the 1960s? I've known folks who dislike Elizabeth Bishop because she supported the mid-1960s Brazilian coup.

I can see why Pearl Buck (American writing about Chinese peasants) and Mary Ward (wrong, wrong, wrong on women's suffrage) are still waiting for their revival, but why Porter?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Chigozie Obioma, _The Fishermen_

ON THE ONE hand, here is a novel of a fully contemporary Nigeria, with the World Cup, Peugeots, office jobs, and election rallies, but on the other, we have a tale as dark and terrible as anything in Genesis or Greek mythology: lethal sibling rivalries, ominous prophecies, devouring revenge.

One often encounters the weird and elemental in Nigerian literature--Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri--and likewise one can think of plenty of examples of classic mimetic realism--Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Chimananda Ngozie Adichie.  (Is this a Yoruba-as-opposed-to-Igbo thing?) Obioma seems to be channeling both at once.

How does he pull this off? It helps, I think, that his principal characters and narrator are children, for whom plain quotidian details have a kind of distinctness and glowing presence, who can feel the wonder in the arrival of a helicopter and sense something demonic in the local homeless man given to   oracular pronouncements:

He smelt of rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus, and of bodily fluids and waste. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear he sometimes wore. He smelt, too, of leaves, creepers, decaying mangoes by the Omi-Ala, the sand of the riverbank, and even of the water itself [...] But these were not all; he smelt of immaterial things. He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls. He smelt of unknown things, of strange elements, and of fearsome and forgotten things. He smelt of death.

Fearsome and forgotten things, right alongside cinderblock walls, homework assignments (Things Fall Apart, naturally), and juvenile courts. The Fishermen is not quite like anything else, and I expect it will stay in my mind for quite a while.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thomas Frank, _Listen, Liberal, or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?_

IT'S THE QUESTION of the year, and I suppose of the next four: What do all those salt-of-the-earth folks see in Donald Trump? That question--or its ancestor, i.e., what do all those salt-of-the-earth folks see in the Republicans?--lay explicitly or implicitly at the heart of several books this year, and I have been reading a few of of them.

Let's start with this one by Thomas Frank, whose 2004 What's the Matter with Kansas? perhaps founded the genre. Trump is mentioned but once by name in Listen, Liberal, and Frank's answer to the question has little to do with what Trump is offering. Instead, it has much to do with what the Democrats are not offering, namely, attention to the issues of the working class (of any color or any region).

Frank argues that an influential cadre within the Democrat party, going back to the McGovern reforms of the early 1970s, believed that the Democrats could prevail nationally by being the party of the educated liberals, the professional class, women, and ethnic minorities, and thus could stop kissing the ring of crusty old labor types like George Meany. In other words, the Democrats had, in a way, told the Reagan Democrats to get lost before even before Reagan came along to scoop them up.

Bill Clinton exemplifies the trend. Frank's chapter "It Takes a Democrat" (on the model of "it took a Republican to open relations with China," since the Republicans would have crucified any Democrat who attempted it) portrays Bill Clinton's presidency as eight years of selling out the former heart of the Democratic Party constituency, with one measure after another undermining the nation's most vulnerable: NAFTA, welfare "reform," sentencing "reform," and financial deregulation.

Obama, Frank thinks, was not a great improvement ("Chapter 8, "The Defects of a Superior Mind"), and Hillary seemed  to him even less of one (Chapter 11, "Liberal Gilt"). Bernie Sanders does not come up, but I suspect Frank found his program a bit closer to what the Democrats ought to be talking about. Frank obviously views with distaste any cozying up to Wall Street or to various internet gazillionaires (see Chapters 9 and 10).

I've found all the books by Frank that I have read cogent and persuasive, and I think he's right this time, too, Can the Democrats re-connect to folks? Mark Lilla in the Sunday Times gave pretty much the same advice, and the scorched earth in the comments section made me think we're not there yet.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Claudia Rankine, _Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric_

WHILE I REMEMBER hearing Don't Let Me Be Lonely praised back when it appeared (2004), I had not read any of Rankine's books before Citizen, so high time I got around to it, no? And this one is actually a bit more intriguing than Citizen, without quite the same level of topical urgency.

It does (did?) have a certain amount of topical urgency, though. Like Alice Notley's Alma or Carla Harryman's Adorno's Noise, or (more obliquely) Peter Gizzi's The Outernationale or Richard Greenfield's Tracer, Don't Let Me Be Lonely speaks to the depredations and anomie of the Bush II era. (That may be his jug-eared phiz dimly visible on the image of a snowy television screen that punctuates the book--his, or that of Alfred E. Neuman.) However, while references to deaths of James Byrd and Amadou Diallo and to the second Gulf War cross the horizon of the text, a lot of the attention is closer to home: depression, insomnia, medication, anxiety about one's liver.

Which may be a clue as to why this volume shares a subtitle with Citizen. Both volumes are interested in what happens to bodies, in particular certain darker-skinned bodies in a society with a particular history at a particular time. The emphasis here falls more medically than in Citizen--there is more about pharmacology and suicide hotlines--and we get more of the background noise of the culture here, with allusions to Coetzee, Zadie Smith, and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, but a continuity is detectable in the multi-layered response to a historical moment, in the wit so dry it burns and so cool it has to be measured in degrees Kelvin.

If this one is a response to the Bush II years, and Citizen a response to the Obama years, will we get another American Lyric on (let's hope) the Clinton years or (please god no) the Trump years?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Kathryn Neurnberger, _The End of Pink_

THE LAUGHLIN AWARD winner is usually a good bet (LLL is looking forward to the appearance of Mary Hickman's volume, which won the honor this year), and The End of Pink confirms the rule. The poems successfully conjoin the confession al and the learned, the abstract and the particular, the plain and the lyrical.

The volume has three parts. Most of the poems in the first part involve the intersection of memories from girlhood, adolescence, or young womanhood with one or another volume out of the history of natural science, e.g., More Experiments with the Mysterious Properties of Animal Magnetism, or Birds of Ohio, or of not-exactly-science (The Symbolical Head) or of just plain hucksterism ("Testimonial"). What gets to count as knowledge, and why, the poems keep asking, with particular attention to the differences gender makes.

Or, we could say, the differences that sexual experience, pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, and motherhood make, as these possibilities create the volume's most compelling through-line. The title poem, which occurs at the end of the first section, turns out to be about just that kind of difference, once we take in its first line, "My nipples are brown now."

The second and third sections cover different ends of the spectrum. In the second are nine prose poems about "the saint girl" situated among aspirations and temptations. The third is haunted by two familiars, a peacock the speaker keeps tucked behind an ear (and who may be a trace of the dreamlife of the saint girl) and a daughter of pre-school age. In "Peacock and Sister," a little miracle of a poem read in its context in the book, the two familiars merge:

My peacock became a tassel of grass 
and a field, a wind, and also a flower.
It was so sad when she left 
and said, No more now.
But then she put herself behind 
that much smaller ear 
that didn't hear her, 
but had a pretty hydrangea there
and knew it to be pretty, 
so pretty and the petals so soft.

There is quite a bit of pain and bewilderment in The End of Pink, a lot of education that flips on its belly to reveal itself as vanity ("I haven't yet written about Teach for America, / which is a kind of Peace Corps putting silvery-spoon summa cum laudes / in inner city schools"), and a certain amount of cruelty--all of which that pre-school daughter, the volume knows, will someday have to negotiate. But she has that peacock.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Robert Fernandez, _Scarecrow_

ANOTHER GREAT BOOK from Fernandez. Not the fever-tunnel that Pink Reef was--still intense, though, but in a different way. Scarecrow lets you up for air once in a while, but threads of visionary obsession (colors, rhythms) still hold things closely together.

I want to be careful here, because I have noticed that poets under forty are not as keen about being compared to T. S. Eliot as they were back when I myself was under forty (over twenty years ago...let's leave it at that). As with, say, Stevens, these days Eliot's prestige is a little frayed around the edges--all that Anglican, Royalist, Classicist side of him, I imagine, not to mention the poisonous anti-Semitism.

But there is a visionary obsessive vein in Eliot, too. "What the Thunder Said," for instance, or some of the middle sections of Ash Wednesday, or the more hallucinatory passages in Four Quartets--"Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axletree"--that vein.

The jacket flap copy notes, "Taking Dante and other catalogers of failure and ruin (Baudelaire, Trakl, Rimbaud) as its guiding lights, Scarecrow charts situations of extremity and madness." Dante filtered through the Symbolists--exactly. That's the Eliot I'm talking about, and that's the Eliot I love, and that's the Eliot who would make a useful Virgil as you negotiated the landscape of Scarecrow.

The title poem, which opens the volume, could almost  be a brilliant re-mix of "The Hollow Men": the scarecrow, the heat, the dust, the suggestion of a setting in the afterlife ("all detritus of coming near / the realm of the dead"), the abrupt fragment of Biblical language ("Pity / them Lord for they know not / what they do"), the shards of lyricism hinting at both ecstasy and terror:

          I drool
on locust bouquets and steps
of honey. Come 

Meet your master
in the dust; with his
one tooth, he drains
you dry.

If that gave you, as it did me, that weird little feeling at the top of the spine, you need to go find Scarecrow now and not wait until Garrison Keillor reads it on "Writer's Almanac," because...well, you know, because that is probably not going to happen.

John Palatella

THE OCTOBER 10 issue of The Nation was excellent--Naomi Klein on the Orland Letelier murder forty years ago, a photo-essay-with-oral-history of some of the women of the Black Panthers, Ange Mlinko on Denise Riley, Barry Schwabsky on David Hammons--but I was sorry to see that with that issue John Palatella handed off his responsibilities as literary editor.

I'd say his tenure there has been a brilliant one--for me, at least, the back pages The Nation during the Palatella years have been a go-to place for the best ideas on what to read next, especially for translated fiction. I think I read about Alejandro Zambra, Evelio Rosero, Roberto BolaƱo, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Elena Ferrante in The Nation before I did anywhere else. Contributors included folks like Joshua Clover, Ta-Nehisi Coates, George Scialabba, and the amazing William Deresiewicz. And if Palatella had anything to do with getting Peter Gizzi and Ange Mlinko on board for the magazine's poetry department, I am thankful to him for that as well.

Not sure about his (perhaps) final "Shelf Life" column, a tone-deaf (say I) assessment of Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry...but what the heck, I didn't love the back pages of The Nation because I always agreed with everything I read there. I  loved them because they were intelligent, fresh, surprising, and illuminating, issue after issue. So thank you, John Palatella.