Loads of Learned Lumber

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 Bolaño, 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.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Erik Campbell, _The Corpse Pose_

IT HAS BEEN ten years since Campbell's previous (and first) collection, Arguments for Stillness, and in the interval he has apparently seen some serious reverses; several poems are about the death of his father and quite a few are about a divorce precipitated by his former wife's infidelity. (There are no poems about the death of Sandy Taylor, founder of Curbstone Press, who published Campbell's first book, but that event too probably played a part in the long wait for the second.)

Plenty of bad news, then, and even the somewhat more upbeat, highly colored poems written when he was still married and living in Papua New Guinea are gathered in a section titled "Canaries in the Mine," as though hinting that already the oxygen was getting thin.

The good news, though, is that the poems are stronger, more varied, tonally and emotionally more complex, and equal to the losses they address. It is exactly the kind of second collection one hopes to see after a promising debut.

The playfully sardonic humor that was the characteristic note of Arguments for Stillness has not entirely gone away--here it appears most often in the several poems featuring the minutes of meetings of the Village Green Preservation Society, in which the League of Young Curmudgeons imagined in the Ray Davies song take on such topics as recent elections and the Kool-Aid Man. Traces of it appear as well in poems like "The Sorrow of the Cold War Re-Enactor" ("Everyday the battlefield is everywhere") or "One Day the Kids Were All Reading Books about Zombies" ("imagine a zombie / being interviewed on the  red carpet: / 'Is that decay you're wearing?'").

The humor now has shadows and hauntings, though. One of the best poems, "Things Nabokov Knew" is about the presence of what could not quite be uttered lying under the perfectly enameled surface of the prose: "So much was hidden in / the hired rooms of paragraphs."

The poems about the most painful memories--one says this with a little reluctance, because of what they must have cost--are probably the strongest. Sometimes they remind one of the trimmed-to-the-bone ironies of Dickinson:

There will be a life
you did not choose;

it will include
many rooms.

There will be a room
you will not leave;

it will be a room
you did not choose.

The poems about the end of the marriage describe psychological turmoil with an almost eerie calm, the syntax negotiating the bends of the enjambments in always surprising, always telling ways.

I was surprised she recognized the allusion,
but it does explain the why behind the crisis

team standing in my living room at 2 a.m., 
trying to give me a raison d'être.

In yoga, the "corpse pose" is performed lying stretched out on one's back. "Like all things practiced," one poem tells us, "it seems simple but isn't." Poetry like Campbell's can seem simple, as in the loosely-stitched "A Partial Summary" (reminiscent, for me, of James Schuyler), or its conversational just-sayin' rhythms, or its frequent invocations of Bruce Willis. But it isn't.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Peter Gizzi, _The Outernationale_

I READ THIS years ago, before I was doing this blog, but I was revisiting it because it contains one of my favorite contemporary (say, last twenty years) poems, "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs." I read it first in Conjunctions, I think, then heard him read it at a reading, read it again in this volume, which I think I bought at that reading or soon after, and still read every now and again.

Hard to pin down what I like about it--as is so often the case--but for the sake of saying something rather than nothing about a poem I hope more people will read, it seems to be about both the urgency and the sacrifice of any art of witness--how one is obliged to try, but the trying is committing yourself to a vanishing.  The urgency of the moment will pass, and no one will know what to do with the archive it cost you so much to compile, that seemed so necessary it drove out whatever other artistic imperative you felt. It will all just evaporate, give itself up to oblivion, with a sweet cry. But it will somehow have mattered that you wanted to record something, wanted to show people something.

So, I recently picked up Gizzi's selected poems, In Defense of Nothing, which of course includes several poems from The Outernationale, and "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs" is not there.

Oof. Damn. I wonder if Gizzi thought it was just too slight, or didn't like it anymore...whatever the reason, an occasion to let folks have another opportunity to read "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs" has slipped.

I have often thought that it would make a dandy anthology poem--it's short and powerful--but that hasn't happened, either. Gizzi shows up in a few good anthologies (American Hybrid, the Rankine and Sewell, and, I just discovered, a volume called The New American Poetry of Engagement), but it's always other poems. Good ones, but not my favorite.

For that matter, while scouring through the tables of contents of a few anthologies of contemporary poetry, I noticed that consensus about which poems ought to be more circulated is elusive. Sometimes two anthologies may have no poets in common at all--I didn't do a rigorous check, but Paul Hoover's post-modern Norton anthology and Billy Collins's 180 Poems apparently do not overlap at all. Some poets show up often, like Jorie Graham and Mark Doty, but the poems selected are completely different in each case.

Is that a cause for worry? Should a canon be coalescing, or is it fine that a thousand flowers are blooming? Need we fear no frost?

Me, I'd like a few fragments to shore against my ruins. Well...I still have my copy of The Outernationale, and it's still a superb book. Engaged, to be sure--"Protest Song" from this book is the poem included in the aforementioned anthology of the new American poetry of engagement--painful, yes, as a lot of Gizzi's work is, but with a difference as well, a knowing, astringent joy, and astonishing beauty.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Miriam Toews, _All My Puny Sorrows_

THIS IS TOEWS'S sixth novel, but I had not even heard of her before I read Curtis Sittenfield's review of this one...perhaps because it's hard for Canadian novelists to get on the radar in the U.S. But if the others are even almost as good as this one, they must be excellent.

Our narrator, Yolanda (Yoli) Van Riesen, has arrived in mid-middle-age with a couple of kids, a couple of divorces, a sputtering career as a writer of children's fiction, an offer to produce an adult fiction manuscript that she is struggling to take advantage of, and a tendency to drink a little more than she should. Her life is teetering on the brink of chaos most of the time.

Her sister, and the primary object of her attention for most of the novel, is her sister Elfriede (Elf), an internationally renowned and beloved concert pianist whose high-achieving husband is utterly devoted to her.

So--which sister is suicidally depressed?


Can Yoli pull Elf out of it? Should she pull Elf out of it? Should she, as Elf so keenly desires, take Elf to Switzerland, where suicide is legal?

Yoli has an enormous deficit in managerial skills, but Toews is beyond deft is narratively toggling between Yoli's memories of growing up (in a small Mennonite-dominated town) with the prodigally gifted but always tortured Elf and Yoli's exhausting efforts in the novel's present to get Elf to see the Bright Side and Get On With Her Life.

Toews likewise excels in portraiture, particularly with Yoli's and Elf's parents and Elf's husband. It is Elf who is most profoundly unforgettable, for the reach of her mind, the energy of her artistic gift, and the depth of her suffering.

This may seem like backhanded praise, but this is a sort of young adult novel for adults. It has the tenderness and emotional wallop of a really good young adult novel, but the narrative depth of Alice Munro. It could take the books clubs of America by storm if word gets out.