Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Chris Nealon, _The Shore_ (2 of 2): The NWTI

A LINE ON p. 69 of Nealon's book of poems set me thinking.

But I know a dozen teenagers with better politics than Auden

Has Nealon hit upon a simple, linear way to describe the politics of canonical poets? We can simply judge how many teenagers within the range of acquaintance of, say, a college professor would have better politics than Poet X, or Poet Y, or Poet Z.

W. H. Auden would have a Nealon Woke Teenager Index, or NWTI, of 12. Robert Lowell would probably not do as well, perhaps in the forties or fifties--good on Vietnam, but that homophobic stanza in "Skunk Hour" is going to hurt him. 

Elizabeth Bishop might not do even as well as Lowell, given her somewhat scoffing attitude about the women's movement and her support for the 1960s military coup in Brazil. The minstrelsy/blackface imagery in Dream Songs could put John Berryman in the low one-hundreds.

Ezra Pound or W. B. Yeats would be in the high three figures, perhaps, eight hundred, nine hundred. We might have to establish an upper limit for those cases in which the poet has worse politics than any teenager one is likely to meet in the 2020s, like Pound or Yeats. Or Alexander Pope: "Whatever is, is right"? Okay, boomer.

Speaking of Pope, going deeper into the past could raise some interesting discussions. Shelley's revolutionary principles could get him down to eight or nine, even, lower than Auden, but his gender politics could ratchet him up to the thirties or forties. Charlotte Brontë's gender politics could bring her down to the teens, but Shirley's take on organized labor might put her in the nineties. Jane Austen might demonstrate a similar mobility. William Blake may be the only zero in the canon. 

Perhaps we need not even confine ourselves to literary figures. How many teenagers  does one know with better politics than Napoleon? Or Alexander Hamilton? What would Lincoln's NWTI be?

Chris Nealon, _The Shore_ (1/2)

SOME YEARS AGO, I read Christopher Nealon's Foundlings, a brilliant study of some instances of the LGBTQ sensibility breaking (or almost breaking) the surface of public culture in the decades before Stonewall. I only found out recently that Nealon is also a poet--he was one of the readers at a Zoom poetry reading I caught this spring. And a really good one, at that.

The Shore contains five poems, all of them a bit longer than average--ten to twenty pages. Part of the length is accounted for by Nealon's use of "one-line stanzas" (as I think he calls them in one of the poems), single lines standing all by themselves as a sort of moment of their own in a thought process--"Down into matter, flux, the green world" or "The whole taut net of the social order." This generates a fair amount of white space--some pages may have only ten or twelve lines--even allowing for that, though, the poems do feel like "long poems," taking their time, unfolding a thought, crossing it with another, then wait-a-minute-what-about-this, then touching on something from a lifetime of reading, then connecting an old memory.

The effect reminded me of the soliloquies of Henry VI or Richard II in Shakespeare's history plays. Nealon's poems have the same process of opening up of a thought, but are also similarly erudite (helps to know who Ascanius and Hocquenghem are, for example), lyrical ("a hint of lemon in the eucalyptus"), self-aware, willing to probe old wounds, also willing to test out new ideas--"branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain," as Keats says. 

When Henry and Richard give their major statements, they are both insiders and outsiders--royal, but deposed--abject and commanding the heights at the very same time. Nealon's exploration of queerness (throughout, but especially in "You Surround Me"), whiteness ("White Meadows") and the perils of our late capitalist moment (throughout, but especially "The Shore" and "Last Glimpse") have that self-aware clarity that Henry and Richard have when things have gone completely to hell, and might even persuade one that the insight gained is worth the cost of things having gone to hell.

Nealon also offers up a line I feel like commenting on at greater length--but that can gets its own post.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Sophia Rosenfeld, _Democracy and Truth: A Short History_

ROSENFELD PRESCIENTLY ADDRESSES a problem that has only grown more acute in the year-plus since this book appeared.

Democracy works best with an informed citizenry. When decisions depend on a majority vote, we hope that as many people as possible have as much of the relevant knowledge as they possibly can. That is why free speech, freedom of the press, and universal public education are democracy's indispensable  corollaries. 

However, many kinds of knowledge are such that relatively few people can master them. Particle physics, say. How hedge funds work. The philosophy of Wittgenstein. In these areas, we usually have to rely on experts  for what knowledge we have.

But can we trust experts? What if a majority of us think, no, we cannot trust experts, they are trying to manipulate us? 

Or--what if information is pouring out in such an unceasing, prolific fashion, 24/7, that we hardly know which expert to trust?

Thus, our ability to distinguish real knowledge from its deceitful simulacra, our ability to discern and then act in accordance with the truth, lies near the core of democracy, and that ability is always under a lot of stress. 

Rosenfeld is in one respects picking up on what Richard Hofstadter was addressing in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics, though a bit less polemically and with more contemporary examples. And contemporary examples abound all over the world these days, from Brazil to India to Hungary to right here in the good old USA. Climate change, COVID-19, and publicly-funded health care are all topics on which the experts can say one thing while Trump and his epigones say, "nah, that's all bullshit," and too often just enough people will prefer the blusterer to the experts.

Have to say, my very favorite part of Democracy and Truth is Rosenfeld's answer (pp. 140-46) to the many pundits who found in Trump's post-truth tactics a reverberation of various post-structuralist critiques of knowledge. With Derrida having died in 2004 and Foucault in 1984, you would think that these two would no longer be to blame for everything op-ed writers found to dislike in academia, but no...they remain popular targets for a certain kind of grouch who misses the  days of Lionel Trilling. Rosenfeld very convincingly points instead to the dropping of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and the subsequent rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as the turning points, rather than Of Grammatology and Les mots and les choses.

Cathy Park Hong, _Dance Dance Revolution_

WITH MINOR FEELINGS making a splash, there is reason to hope that readers will be inspired to check out Hong's poetry. This one would certainly be worth your while.

Dance Dance Revolution is a poetry collection, but it has a novel-like premise. One of the book's voices is a historian (Korean father, American mother) who grew up in Africa (their father was with Doctors Without Borders). In the course of their research into the Kwangju massacre (a bloody government crackdown on a student protest that occurred in South Korea in 1980, comparable to Tlateleolco in Mexico or Tiananmen Square in China), the historian tracks down a woman was one of the inspirational figures in the protest, its La Pasionaria. This woman is now working as a tourist guide at some deluxe resort town, located in a desert and filled with replicas of world historical sites, something Las Vegas or Dubai.

Good so far? Okay. Dance Dance Revolution includes some passages from the historian's journal and his/her/their notes to some of the guide's discourses (the poems in Part V might be from the historian...I'm not sure), but the greater part of the book consists of poems in the voice of the guide. Some of these are about her present circumstances, some about her memories of Korea, of Kwangju, and of the Ginseng Colony, which seems to be a short-lived experiment in community that started up after Kwangju.

The guide's poems are in an extraordinary hybrid language that draws on the vocabulary and syntax of several different languages at once, sometimes even on different historical eras of the same language. Finnegans Wake is the only handy analogue, but Hong's language is quite distinct from Joyce's--fizzier, saltier, more staccato. Its music is its own.

Within this polyglot nova is a meditation on dissent and resistance. The book was published in 2007, but is set in 2016--presciently, I'm thinking, given that was the year so many folks had to start thinking hard again about dissent and resistance. With so many thousands pouring out in the streets again, this would be a great time for people to pick up Dance Dance Revolution.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Wesley Yang, _The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays_

YANG’S TITLE MISLEADS slightly, I would say. The deliberate echo of the title of W. E. B. DuBois's famous analysis of the African American situation led me to think that Yang's book would be about the Asian American situation. Some of it is, but most of it is not.

The first three essays are, and they are very striking, especially the first, "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho," Yang's unforgettable response to the devastating school shooting at Virginia Tech. I read this piece in n+1 when it appeared, and it its the main reason I took a chance on the book. The essay takes you inside the experience of being an American minority as only a handful of essays do, and in this case it is an American minority that has gotten only sporadic attention and even today is still largely obscured by clichés and stereotypes. "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho" leads off the volume, and the two essays that follow it in Part One, "Paper Tigers" and "Eddie Huang Against the World," are only a subtle shade less intense. As a group, they are revelatory.

That's about it, though. The final three essays in  the book, which constitute Part Four, are about whiteness, Yang engaging somewhat skeptically with critical race theory but not touching much upon the issues raised in Part One. Parts Two and Three are simply general journalistic pieces. Part Two is four personality profiles (the one on Tony Judt I especially appreciated), and the three pieces in Part Three are about being an under-40 male sexual subject in the 21st century. Interesting stuff, well-reported and skillfully written, but not about the souls of yellow folk, really.

I may be missing a connection in Part Three--being a male Asian American in the 21st century may entail a certain anxiousness over one's sexual charisma, as presented in Adrian Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings. That topic does not really come up explicitly in Part Three, though.

The Souls of Yellow Folk definitely works as an essay collection--don't get me wrong. But had the book been called The Face of Seung-Hui Cho and Other Essays I still would have purchased it, but would not have had that lingering aftertaste of disappointed expectations.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Joshua Cohen, _Moving Kings_

I AM A great admirer of Joshua Cohen's fiction, and have been for a while--I got in on the ground floor, so to speak, with Cadenzas for the Schneiderman Violin Concerto. I bought Moving Kings about the time it came out, but until two weeks ago it was just sitting undisturbed on the shelf. I've been wondering why it took me three years to read it. 

The cover, in part. This is the first Cohen book with a boring cover. I know books are not to be judged by their covers, but come on, Random House! You can do better than this! 

And in part because it seemed to be the closest Cohen had yet come to a conventional novel. Not fair of me, I know. But there is a moment when a favorite writer decides to tack towards the mainstream (cf. Ben Marcus, or Sonic Youth signing with Geffen, that sort of thing). You fully understand that it is the right thing for them to do, but that understanding has a melancholy edge.

Well, I shouldn't have worried. Moving Kings is less innovative, formally, than Cohen's previous work, but the sentences still reconcile strength and grace, the novelistic eye still lands again and again on the most revealing detail, and the ambition to plumb the depths of Jewish experience remains at the core of the enterprise. 

The first part of the novel is about David King, who is King David to a small empire, a moving business in New York City and environs. His father was a Holocaust survivor who came to the USA; his father's brother emigrated instead to Israel, where he started his own family. So right there we have an interesting contrast between different paths out of the Shoah taken by members of the same family. 

David's family life takes on familiar kinds of American (and King David-esque) complications, marriage, adultery, divorce, kids who are just a bit contemptuous. On the other side of the world, his uncle has a daughter, who has a son, which son is fresh out of the Israeli army (which has its own empire-building complications). The Israeli cousin calls David up--could he find Yoav a job? Send him over, says David.

Trailing Yoav comes Uri, from Yoav's old unit. Both are suffering from PTSD, but Yoav seems to be making the stronger effort to get clear of it--Uri verges on the sociopathic.

As it happens, David's moving business has recently picking up a new kind of work: evictions. Yoav and Uri find themselves assigned to a team doing exactly this--which rhymes, hauntingly, chillingly, with what they had been doing in Judea/West Bank/Occupied Territories. In Israel, the idea was simply to smash; in New York City, they are to salvage what they think can be sold: "Otherwise, the work they were doing wasn't too different."

That was a sentence I had to stop and stare at for a minute or two. Like plenty of folks, I think what the Israeli government is doing is wrong. But is what's going on when someone gets evicted a few blocks away any less wrong? Am I a hypocrite, a coward, to object to the one but not the other?

Are we headed to a big blazing climax? Yes.

So far, Cohen's tacking to the mainstream is working out just fine.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Emily Berry, _Dear Boy_

READING EXCERPTS THAT have appeared here and there from a longer poem called "Unexhausted Time" got me sufficiently interested to buy Berry's first book (she has three out, it looks like). 

Her poetry seems English to me--by which I only mean that I can't think of any Americans who sound much like this. American poetry gravitates to the confrontational rather than the clever, the earnest rather than the fey. You would have to look for a while, I think, to find a recent American poem that opens in any way reminiscent of the opening of "The Tea-party Cats":

We're suspicious of the tea-party cats;
we don't know why. They all turned out so well
today and aired their charming characters;
they were so smart they frightened us to death.

It is easy to imagine a recent American poem that, like "Some Fears," catalogues fears, but not one that includes "fear of colour leaking from vegetables" or "fear of ill-conceived typography." Similarly, it's had to imagine any American poet since Millay writing a poem like "When Will You Carry Me to the Fair," even with tongue in cheek, and even if it ends on the lines, "Lover when will you pull a root from the earth / and show me its straggly ends?"

The hypotenuse that runs between "clever" and "fey" we might call "whimsy," but I would rather not use that word. It would just give you the wrong idea. Whimsy would work on Instagram, but Berry is too dry and scary for Instagram. Too intelligent, for that matter.  Whimsy might well be the word one initially reaches for first in talking about "Hermann's Traveling Heart," a poem about a tortoise in love, but "whimsy" is too close to "cute" to apply. Even Berry's humorous moments, which are frequent, wouldn't pass any cuteness test.

Judging from the excerpts from "Unexhausted Time" that I read, Berry's new work is as many strides beyond her early work as North was beyond Death of a Naturalist, but I certainly enjoyed it, and very much want a look at the second collection.