Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, April 17, 2017

Brian Blanchfield, _Proxies: Essays Near Knowing: a reckoning_

VERY MUCH LOOKING forward to the poetry collection that will be the sequel to A Several World, but glad to have this.

The twenty-four essays in Proxies were written, a prefatory note tells us, with two compositional principles in mind: one, they are based only on what Blanchfield could call to mind, without recourse to the internet or "other authoritative sources," and two, they "stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there."

The first principle means that the essays contain their share of misstatements, but Blanchfield provides a useful appendix, "Correction," in which the record is set straight and we learn (for instance) that Sylvia, not Juice Newton, recorded the hit version of "Tumbleweed." (I flipped back to "Correction" on finishing each essay, but I noticed that it would also work well read straight through from beginning to end, so perhaps it could be seen as the 25th essay.)

The second principle means that this is one amazing, delightful, continually surprising, and deeply worthwhile book. A brave book--not in a showy way, but convincingly brave nonetheless--and a beautiful one.

Presiding presences here include Montaigne, recalled in the titles (e.g., "On Owls," "On Sardines," and so on) and in the essays' "que sais-je?" premise; Roland Barthes, especially the Barthes of Mythologies, in the book's willingness to put under the microscope such routine and seemingly (but not really) inane phenomena as minute-taking and academic dossiers; Maggie Nelson, for the unsensationalized honesty of pieces like "On Man Roulette" and "On Frottage"; and the great Guy Davenport, for the whole book's boundary-hopping intelligence, lucidity of style, and clarity of perception.

(By the way, Blanchfield has a wonderful essay on Davenport in the Spring 2017 issue of Oxford American, and you should go read it right now.)

I read the book one or two essays at a time over about several weeks, which worked nicely, but the book has a gathering momentum, becoming as it proceeds more personal, virtually a memoir, so by the time you get to "On Reset," "On the Understory," and "On the Near Term," it actually becomes rather difficult to put down.

Is the rumor true that he has been hired by a university in Idaho? If so, smart move, Idaho.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Mary Hickman, _Rayfish_

VERY NICE AND all that the Academy of American Poets has decided to jump on our bandwagon by awarding Mary Hickman the 2016 James Laughlin Award, but we'll have you know that LLL was on board as long ago as May 30, 2015.  You can look it up.

Rayfish is an undiluted delight to read but daunting to describe.

At first glance, we seem to have fourteen essays, subdivided into six sections, on works of art, largely but not exclusively contemporary, often but not exclusively paintings (Jenny Saville, Eva Hesse, Chaim Soutine, but also Chu Yun, Sally Mann, Merce Cunningham, Kazuo Ohno). So, in one respect, Rayfish is the wild-eyed, somewhat hipper younger sister of Jacques Ranciére's Aisthesis.

However, the book is also streaked with autobiographical episodes--childhood in China, boarding school in Taiwan, near-death experiences--that in an eyeblink resolve into reflections on aesthetics, the ends and means of art. So, in another respect, it is as though we are meeting the scarved-and-hatted transpacific cousin of Dave Hickey's Air Guitar.

Then again--the essays are not essays at all, really. They are poems in prose, quicksilver and agile. They teleport--from one moment to the next, one can suddenly be in a wholly different place from where one thought one was, plucked from the backyard garden chatting with a neighbor and dropped at the Palaz of Hoon. So, in yet another respect, it is as though Ranciére and Hickey magically had offspring that were in turn possessed by the spirit of James Tate.

And then there are the moments that do not sound like anything else one knows, as when the examination of Artemisia Gentilleschi's Danaë and Judith Slaying Holofernes gives way to this:

She dreams. She falls backward. Cloth fills my vision. And I think I'd like to bring, out of the abyss of her figure, all the illumination of arrival. The skin is teeming.  The skin has such great spirit. An entire world of light is at play just under the skin. Your calves become Danaë's calves at leisure, pressed against the grey felt in pleasure, and your bare shoulders could be Judith's shoulders, broad and reflective under skylights. But as my eyes travel up, I realize you wear the wrinkled, gutted cheek of Holofernes's half-severed head. Or you wear the same dropped countenance as the one who watched you. This image denies me body in motion, your buoyant bulk; instead, it offers me a still life of skin, a cap of flesh traversed by color and revealing the threshold of my own body.

The boundary between art and life is soft in Rayfish, sometimes the merest membrane, sometimes not even there.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Bill Clegg, _Did You Ever Have a Family_

ANOTHER BOOK CLUB selection, this one for March. Our main character is June Reid, professional class, late middle age, nice old house in Connecticut. The night before her daughter's wedding, June's house burns down. Her daughter, her daughter's fiancé, and June's lover (quite a bit younger, of mixed race) perish in the fire.

June heads for the Pacific Northwest; quite a bit of the novel tracks her journey and arrival in close third-person. Other sections (some first-person, some close third) fill in the perspective of (for instance) June's lover's mother, her daughter's fiancé's parents, the owner of the motel where June lands, and other affected people. The overall course of the novel involves piecing together What Actually Happened in the fire, backstory on June's relationships with her daughter and with her lover, and her psychological recovery from the trauma.

The novel was tolerable, but all the time I was reading it I kept thinking of another novel of a woman on a journey in the aftermath of a catastrophe--David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress--and of how much better Markson's novel was, more deeply imagined, more authentically realized. Anyone thinking of reading Did You Ever Have a Family should read Wittgenstein's Mistress instead, methinks. Clegg's novel is easier to read but relatively shallow.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Angela Flournoy, _The Turner House_

OUR BOOK CLUB'S selection for February.  It has taken me a while to get around to writing about it, but I enjoyed it. 

One is always a little anxious picking up a novel that opens with a family tree, but Flournoy keeps the narrative trim and efficient by focusing on five weeks in the lives of the oldest and the youngest of Francis and Viola Turner's thirteen children. 

The eldest, trucker Charles (a.k.a "Cha-Cha") Turner, saw a ghost ("haint") in adolescence and again at various intervals as an adult. Sidelined by an accident brought on by one such untimely appearance, he goes through a kind of senior crisis, including a bit-too-intimate course of counseling that threatens his marriage, but achieves resolution by novel's end.

The youngest, Lelah, now in her early forties, has been undone by a gambling addiction that seems about to sink her once and for all, but she too seems to emerge by novel's end--there are hints that the enchantment of the chips has been broken.

Threaded throughout the novel are short glimpses from the family's Origin Story, set in the1940s. Francis has moved to Detroit, leaving his recently-wed young wife Viola and newborn Cha-Cha behind in Arkansas until he can get things settled and send for them. Even knowing, as we do, that he did get things settled and did send for them, the story of their time apart is a bit of a nail-biter, heavy with temptations, uncertainties, contingencies. Nothing about keeping a family intact is easy, one gathers.

Nothing about anything is easy for the Turners, really, living as they do in Detroit during the city's inexorable deceleration of recent decades. A few things work out, a lot don't. They do stick together, though.

The style is swift, sometimes lyrical, Iowa-honed. Good book.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Richard Kreitner & Joshua Cohen

HERE'S AN INTERESTING coincidence. On the same day I read the March 13 issue of The Nation, which contains Richard Kreitner's excellent essay on Paterson, New Jersey--a gracefully-written blend of history, memoir, and reflection on our difficult present moment--I also finally get around to the Winter 2017 issue of n+1, which contains Joshua Cohen's excellent essay on Atlantic City, New Jersey--likewise a gracefully-written blend of history, memoir, and reflection on our difficult present moment. If I had been at home (and not an airplane) I probably would have pulled Roth's American Pastoral off the shelf, or put The  River on the turntable, because it was obviously the right day for me to consider  the Garden State.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cate Dicharry, _The Fine Art of Fucking Up_

CAMPUS NOVELS ARE actually getting better, I think. Consider Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe, May Sarton's Small Room--all worthy efforts, but they were by tourists, basically.

Modern novelists, for better or worse, often spend a serious chunk of their careers on campuses, and thus bring to the genre an intimacy,  a grasp of nuance, a breaking with cliché that one misses in their predecessors. I am thinking of Jane Smiley's Moo, Richard Russo's Straight Man, Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys--the satire remains, as do the Feydeau-like crank-it-up-til-it-explodes plots, but the characters feel more realistic, less caricatured. More of the resources of the novel as a form come into play.

As its title suggests, Dicharry's campus novel features one of those plots (cf. Russo, Schumacher, Chabon, and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim) in which all the wheels seem to come off at once. Our narrator, Nina Lanning, has become the key staff person at the art school where she earned her MFA. Her boss, the school's director, has suddenly become obsessed with a male model who poses for the covers of romance novels. One of the faculty members, whom a court order has banned from entering the building save when his classes are held, keeps sneaking in and cooking bacon all over the place as a kind off transgressive, performance-art sort of gesture. A 500-year flood threatens to swamp the modernist architectural masterpiece that houses the school and all its contents, including an extremely valuable Pollock. On the home front, her husband wants kids, now, and to prove the point that they would make good parents has asked a Chinese graduate student to move in with them.

There's more, but you get the idea.

Does Nina handle all of this with the cool aplomb and quiet adeptness of the ideal university staff assistant? Well...no. Which makes for great comedy--I laughed out loud quite a few times.

But funny as  the novel is--spoiler coming--it becomes moving as well. Dicharry seems to be setting up a comedy-of-remarriage story. The maelstrom through which Nina is passing ("This could the crucial juncture of your psychoemotional journey," one of her faculty friends helpfully points out as several species of shit approach a variety of fans), we begin to assume, will be the crucible through which she rediscovers her creativity, reaffirms her marriage, reclaims her selfhood. But this turns out to be one of those very unusual (in my experience) comedies in which the happy ending involves the couple deciding that no, they should not try to save  their marriage, but let it go. It's surprises like these that make me think Dicharry is someone to watch.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Mary Szybist, _Incarnadine_

I DID NOT know a thing about Mary Szybist when I picked this off the shelf at the Tattered Cover in Denver last Labor Day weekend. Nice cover (Botticelli). National Book Award, hmm. Intriguing title. Graywolf Press. Okay, what the heck.

It turned out to be excellent. The annunciation to Mary is the book's main motif, handled in a cerebral-mandarin-feminist vein reminiscent (for me) of Lucie Brock-Broido, but a little warmer, more accessible, more poignant than that sounds (see "To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary" or "Entrances and Exits" or "Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle").

It's a complicated moment, and Szybist sees it from a number of angles--the power of being acknowledged, singled out, chosen for a world-historical role, but also the sense that one is being commandeered, turned into a means rather than an end, not given a choice--think of "My Life had Stood--a Loaded Gun" seen through the iconography of Mary and Gabriel.

Remarkable formal ingenuity and variety--an erasure poem, a sonnet, a concrete poem, a poem that is a diagrammed sentence--and hardly any move happens twice.

What really hooked me, though--"On a Spring Day in Baltimore, the Art Teacher Asks the Class to Draw Flowers." I would not have thought, going in, that a poem looking at a teacher's sexual misconduct through the lens of Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" could possibly work, but this one was subtly devastating...if that even makes sense. Can devastation be subtle? Having read this poem, I would say yes.