Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Lucy Ives, _Impossible Views of the World_

A GEM THAT kept me guessing. The first sentence--"The day Paul Coral vanished, it snowed"--seems to come from mystery-thriller territory, and we are, indeed, going to learn what became of Paul Coral. But we also find out on the first page that Paul was the narrator's co-worker at a museum, a museum whose guards "had a fierce and litigious union," so we are going to being taking some side-trips into the genre of institutional satire (e.g., Sam Lipsyte's The Ask, Cate Dicharry's Fine Art of Fucking Up, and campus novels in general), and these too turn out to be entertaining.

But there's more. Our narrator, Stella Krakus, is going through a divorce, has a challenging relationship with her quite successful mother, and is trying to figure out the scope of a brief but tantalizing affair she had with an on-the-way-up colleague at the museum...so we have a "woman-at-a personal-crossroads novel going on as well.

But there's even more than that. Sorting through the documents left behind by the vanished Paul  leads to several new investigative byways in the history of the museum and its donors that our narrator, with her Ph. D. in art history, is more than up to sleuthing through. So for a few chapters we are almost into Crying of Lot 49 territory, piecing together historical clues to a rhizome of inter-related stories about wealth, fantasy literature, feminism, the avant-garde, and art patronage from the 1820s to the 1950s.

This novel's Tristero, though, turns out to be more a message for Stella than a global conspiracy, a message Paul (before vanishing) left inscribed in the archive for her to discover, and it promises to get her out of the labyrinth and into something more like fresh air, slate scrubbed clean of butthead husbands and manipulative colleagues.

I hope Ives is going to keep writing poetry, but she also writes a dandy novel.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Catherine Barnett, _The Game of Boxes_

JAMES LAUGHLIN WINNER for 2012. The first of its three sections ("Endless Forms Most Beautiful") is my favorite. Sixteen of its thirty poems (all brief, few more than twenty lines) are in the "I" voice of a single mother taking care of a young son, the other fourteen (all titled "Chorus") in a "we" voice recalling childhood. The "we" poems seem based more on memory of the speaker's own childhood than on an attempt to imagine her way into her son's perspective, and that feels very true to me--virtually every day of caring for my kids put me in mind of something from my own childhood, sometimes in an overwhelmingly immediate Proust's-madeleine kind of way. The counterpoint in this section is delicate but effective.

I liked the rest of the book, too, though not quite as much. The middle section, "Of All Faces," has just one poem, "Sweet Double, Talk-Talk,"  a suite of 24 short poems about a love affair. What was most distinct for me as I read was that the sequence began with "you," then shifted to "he," going from giddy-ecstactic direct address to the lover ("If you want I'll / cover you with my body") to somewhat more distant and doubting speculation about him ("His face is a clue to me but I don't know / what it means"). This did not seem to bode well. I hope things worked out.

The final section in some ways seems to pick up from the first, but the "we" voice is gone, as though it has now been incorporated into the "I" voice as the son gets older, perhaps a bit more independent, so that the "I" voice has time to focus on more of its own concerns.

It's a tender, vulnerable book. I'm grateful to it for reminding me of something I had forgotten, how my late dad would play the game of boxes with me when we were trapped somewhere boring.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Jillian Weise, _The Book of Goodbyes_

THE JAMES LAUGHLIN winner of 2013. Not exactly light-hearted--a good many of the poems are about being in a love triangle with a man referred to as "Big Logos" and B.L.'s other girlfriend, and quite a few are about living with a disability--but even though the situations depicted are painful, a vein of comedy keeps rising to the surface. A dark comedy, certainly:

         The thing about him is

he keeps being the thing. You could never 
count on him. I did. 

That's from the first poem, "Up Late and Likewise," and to me that "I did" almost sounded like a stand-up punchline, to be accompanied with a flourish on a floor tom. Same with "Poem for His Girl," which apparently addresses the speaker's rival for the affections of Big Logos:

I'll tell you which panties
look good on you

psychedelic plaid
with ruffles on the waist

patriotic polka dot

This has a certain stand-up quality too, if we imagine a set up like, "wouldn't it be amazing if you got to give the other woman in your triangle advice about her underwear? You know what I would tell her?" (I'm guessing the advice here is a form of sabotage.)

The darkly-funniest poem, I think, is "Café Loop," in which two writers are having lunch and gossiping about a third writer who may well be Jillian Weise.

Oh, she's had it easy all right.
She should come out and state

the disability. She actually is very
dishonest. I met her once at AWP.

Tiny thing. Limps a little. I mean not
really noticeable. What will you have?

This poem rings all the more true in that anyone willing to crack wise about the things Weise cracks wise about is going to get gossiped about. Even the very affecting final poem, "Elegy for Zahra Baker," the book's longest, which an endnote explains "engages with the case of Zahra Baker whose remains were found scattered across Caldwell County, North Carolina, in 2010," veers into black humor: "Zahra Baker is still missing. I better write some more notes to her before she's dead."

And then, while the poems that one expects to be anguished are often tartly funny, three narrative poems about finches, which at least initially seem to be aiming at a whimsical, La Fontaine animal-fable vein, turn out to be anguished: "I've gone / over the branches and can't find you."

I found myself wondering whether the Josh Bell to whom the book is dedicated is (a) the famous violinist or (b) Big Logos or (c) both. I think he may well be Big Logos, at least, since the dedication is followed by the phrase "immanentizing the eschaton," Eric Voegelin's curt dismissal of any and all utopian projects, and a great nickname for anyone into Eric Voegelin would be "Big Logos."

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Susan Faludi,. _In the Darkroom_

SUSAN FALUDI'S FATHER had a late-life sex-change operation and seems to have thought that his daughter Susan, a highly successful journalist and author, was just the person to write a book about her experience.

There were obstacles, however. Faludi's parents divorced when she was a teenager; the last years were grim, her dad occasionally violent. He had barely been in touch with Faludi in the 20-some intervening years. Moreover, in becoming Stéfanie Faludi, her father has embraced an armful of gender stereotypes that Susan Faludi, as a feminist, has spent her career combating. Finally, Stéfanie was determined to control the narrative, and at first simply stonewalled any questions about any aspect of her life save the one she wanted to talk about, the rightness of her decision to become a woman.

Stéfanie did not really want to talk about being Steven Faludi, for instance, or how that family broke up, nor about being Istvan Friedman, the son of prosperous, socially prominent Jews in Budapest in the 1930s, nor about hiding from the Nazis in 1944 and 1945, nor about being Jewish at all (she thinks of herself as Hungarian, and is especially attached to the Franz Joseph days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, before she was born), nor about the current Hungarian government's willingness to fan the still-smoldering embers of anti-Semitism for political advantage...

...however, Faludi's patience and persistence gradually (the narrative covers ten years) get to all those topics and more, as well as the complex process of electing to change one's sex and learning to live on  the other side of the gender line.  The book ends up being about many dimensions of identity, about what a subtle, evolving, negotiable thing it can be, but also also how it can be an instrument of power and coercion, as with Nazis and (apparently) the Fidesz party in Hungary.

What will really stay with me, though, is how Faludi's relationship with her father develops over the course of the book. Faludi does not offer much commentary on the relationship is changing, but carefully presents her interaction with her father so that we see progress being made, wounds being healed, love finally struggling into expression.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Nicholson Baker, _The Way the World Works_

HERE IT IS, ten years to the day since the very first Loads of Learned Lumber post. I haven't even changed the layout once in all that time--so I hope it has gone from embarrassingly outdated on through mortifyingly obsolete and back around to nostalgically quaint. At least I've been faithful: 595 posts in ten years, better than one a week.

The blog's title, you may recognize, is a phrase from Pope's Dunciad, a phrase that was moreover the chief subject of "Lumber," the brilliant final essay in Nicholson Baker's first essay collection, The Size of Thoughts. That first post, back on May 21, 2008 was on Baker's Human Smoke, so this seemed a good opportunity to plunk down and read this, his second essay collection, which has been waiting on my shelves for a few years.

As any Baker admirer (I am one) would expect, it has its share of quirky subjects ("No Step" is about the written instructions found on airplanes) and idiosyncratic phrasing (one video game is praised for Its "realistic eye blinks and moments of ecstatic mundanity," another for "the cool, insect-chirping enormity of the scrublands"; a speaker at a rally has "a thick asymmetry of graying hair"). But when Baker needs to get serious, as in responding to the critics of Human Smoke, he can ("Why I Am a Pacifist").

Favorite themes recur: memory (the Brainardian "One Summer"), the irreplaceability of card catalogs and newspaper archives, the delights of new ways of learning things (no Luddite, Baker writes appreciatively of Google and Wikipedia). The fascination with erotica reappears in "Sex and the City, circa 1840," about "a curiously fleshy moment in the history of New York publishing." Crucially, Baker's ability to evoke a powerful though ephemeral sense of fulfillment, which is what hooked me way back in the days of The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, is still strong in the last essay, "Mowing."

I may not live to see it, but I hope Baker gets a Library of America volume eventually. He may be a miniaturist, but so was Max Beerbohm, and who would deny Max his laurel crown? Besides, anyone who got Leon Wieseltier as steamed as Baker did has earned a spot in the history of American letters.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Natasha Trethewey and David Lehman, ads, _The Best American Poetry 2017_

ED HIRSCH (LAST year's guest editor) and Natasha Trethewey both strike me as good choices for this particular job, but I wish they had not been chosen in consecutive years, because their tastes run in very similar channels. Fourteen poets appear in both the 2016 and 2017 volumes, which seems to me a bit higher than average, and most of the poems first appeared in long-legacied, via media journals titled The [X] Review, where [X] = a state or a university or both. Hirsch includes more sonnets than Trethewey (but Trethewey has sonnets), Trethewey more topical poems than Hirsch (but Hirsch has topical poems), and the tilt for both is towards personal content with a bias towards the elegiac in plain-but-literate language arranged in longer sentences.

All of which makes for good reading, I acknowledge, but having these volumes back-to-back suggests the spectrum of American poetry is a lot narrower than it is. Since no poet-editor is ever, ever going to pick 75 poems that truly represent that spectrum in its fullness, I wish David Lehman would mix it up every year, as in the great Creeley-Komunyakaa-Hejinian-Muldoon run of 2002-05. I'm not going to fetch them down from the shelves to check, but I'll bet there were no years with fourteen repeaters in those volumes.

Enough griping. Sorry. It's a good collection. Trethewey includes some longer poems--her 75 poems require 170 pages to Hirsch's 146--and they're really interesting (those by Monica Youn, R. T. Smith, John Murillo, and Joyce Carol Oates deserve particular mention). A feeling of stressed-and-strained spirituality shows up frequently, in prayers (or near-prayers) by C. Dale Young and Pamela Sutton, Christian Wiman's "Prelude," and Maggie Smith's "Good Bones," which makes me wish the U.S.A. had a refrigerator, so I could put it there under a refrigerator magnet so everyone would see it every day.

Sllghtly weird thing: two different poets (Aracelis Girmay and Rowan Ricardo Phillips) use the same self-addressed imperative Elizabeth Bishop used in "One Art"--"say it." Is this a trope now?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Joseph North, _Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History_, part two

WHAT THE DOMINANT historicist/contextualist paradigm needs to make it more truly political, North argues, is to incorporate more criticism; doing that, he claims, would involve a greater engagement with aesthetics.

Surprising, no? At first blush, it looks like North wants a rewind to the 1950s.

Not really, though. As an academic discourse, North writes, criticism was "defined precisely by the strength and directness of its connection to the world outside the academy" (5). He associates it with "public intellectuals." He does not provide much in the way of specific examples, unfortunately, but I am guessing he means  figures who wrote about literature (a) for non-specialist audiences and (b) with a view towards changing how people thought and what people did about questions of the day: Coleridge and T. S. Eliot from the right, say, Matthew Arnold and Lionel Trilling from the center, George Orwell and Dwight MacDonald from the left. (For contemporary figures, maybe Rebecca Solnit? Mark Greif?)

Neither does he means by "aesthetics" what one might immediately assumes he means. The historicist/contextualist paradigm has been pretty rough on aesthetics, seeing it (following Bourdieu and Raymond Williams) as a covertly ideological instrument. North does not disagree, but he sees that critique as really addressing only the  "idealist" aesthetics derived from Kant that saw art as disinterested, autotelic, transcendent, and such. The aesthetics he would champion would be a "materialist" aesthetics, part of an "aesthetic education."

Here, too, some specific examples would have been welcome. I kept thinking he was going  to bring up Schiller on the topic of aesthetic education, or Jacques Rancière as an example of materialist aesthetic thought, but no. The focus is strictly Anglo-American throughout, unfortunately. For my money, Rancière is exactly what North seems to be hoping for. But that's just my guess.

I think North is right that the discipline is looking for ways to step out of the historicist/contextualist paradigm--his longest chapter is full of examples of scholars pushing the envelope a bit (I certainly concur in his high opinion of D. A. Miller's book on Austen)--but, true to his premise, he does not expect the paradigm to shift until the neoliberal order cracks up (192-93). So, the paradigm may be with us for a while.