Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, September 4, 2017

John Ashbery, _Commotion of the Birds_

ODDLY ENOUGH, I had started reading this, published last year, about a week ago. My usual approach with Ashbery is to read eight or nine, then come back tomorrow; that way, I did not become too habituated to the twists and turns, was still susceptible to the surprise that (for me) is the chief delight of late Ashbery. (Other poets, Cole Swenson comes to mind, work best in long pulls.)

21st century Ashbery always put me in mind of 21st century Dylan. Dylan albums from Time Out of Mind on were much of a muchness, even a little hard to tell apart; they tended to rely on the same strategies as the work that established his greatness without adding all that much to that greatness. Yet each one, without exception, has been satisfying. So with Ashbery's books since the turn of the millennium; they appeared punctually, sounded much alike, probably struck no one as his best work, yet I read each one with delight.

This one, too. Strange to think it's the last one. It certainly does not have the valedictory atmosphere of Yeats's "Circus Animals' Desertion" or Eliot's "Little Gidding" or Pound's Drafts and Fragments, nor even that of the last books of Merrill or Heaney. It's more like the oeuvre stopped rather than completed itself...but what could be more Ashberyean than letting the air out of the "late period" myth?

Thinking of the difference between Lowell's Notebook and Browne's Daily Sonnets that I wrote about a week ago, I would say now that Ashbery had more to do with the change than any other one writer. The willingness to work with the aleatory, the stepping away from the ego, the renunciation of the prophet's mantle...the more I think about it, the more vast his influence seems. He was the Great American Poet of his time because he let go of the idea of there being a Great American Poet.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Elizabeth Hardwick, _Sleepless Nights_

THIS IS TURNING into the Summer of Lowell for me. I read this--not exactly a memoir and not exactly a novel, musical rather than chronological in structure, elliptical and impressionistic--because I wondered what kind of glimpses it would afford of Lowell (Hardwick's husband for about twenty frequently stressful years). Not many, it turns out, and the relatively few times we glimpse what I assume is Lowell (proper names are scarce in Sleepless Nights), he seems unpleasant and a little difficult, but not dramatically so. Given the ammunition Hardwick had available (vide Hamilton, Mariani, Jamison, et al.), her tone is remarkably mild.

The most memorable passage, for me, was about Billie Holiday--an unusual portrait in that it avoided the mythologizing that other portaits of Lady Day are prone to indulge in.

What I was most struck by, though, is the prose, which had what I may as well call a pre-Didion elegance, a willingness to luxuriate in unusual adjectives and slightly récherché similes, a bit like James Agee, say. Sometimes this had a doilies-on-the-armrests effect--now that one is used to Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, Roxane Gay--but it can be appealing too.

For example: "The tall trees, altered by the snow and ice, loomed up in the arctic landsacpe like ancient cataclysmic formations of malicious splendor."

Not sure how helpful this is--do any of us really know what an ancient cataclysmic formation of malicious splendor looks like, and if we do not, how are we going to know what the trees looked like? But it does roll musically in the mind.

Hard also to think of a contemporary writer who would risk a Latinate inversion like "To him was given heart disease and to her, cancer." The KJV cadence does lend a certain something, though--it's what James Baldwin has that Ta-Nehisi Coates does not.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Robert Lowell, _Notebook 1967-1968_; Laynie Browne, _Daily Sonnets_

READING JAMISON'S BOOK made me want to re-read some Lowell, and I went with this, the original publication of the sonnets later refashioned as Notebook (without the dates) and then as History and For Lizzie and Harriet. I had not much liked it when I first read it, which must have been in graduate school or shortly thereafter, but I wondered what I would make of it now, with a better understanding, thanks to Jamison, of the titanic struggles Lowell underwent to write anything at all.

Well, I liked a lot of it. There are any number of great lines, and some great poems. What I found myself most thinking of, though, was Laynie Browne's Daily Sonnets, from 2007. I don't think I thought of Lowell at all when reading Daily Sonnets back in 2008 or 2009 (and Browne does not ever allude to Lowell, so far as I can tell), but now all sorts of parallels occurred to me.

They both involve the poet establishing the discipline of writing every day or almost every day, for one thing, and then the discipline of the sonnet itself, which both poets are only loosely tethered to, but which both of them honor in their own ways.

Lowell writes often about his spouse and his child; Browne writes often, though a little less directly, of her spouse and children.

They both include a few translations.

They both includes tributes to fellow writers (Lowell's a bit more tart).

They both address contemporary events in the world.

For all the parallels, though, they seem utterly different. A lot of this (I think) is down to Lowell's ambition. He sees "the poems in this book as one poem," he writes in an afterword, almost as if the book were an epic, or the kind of epic Wordsworth's Prelude was, in which he views his subjective experience through the lens of history and history through the lens of his subjective experience. Given ambition of this scale, it's hardly surprising that the book is an arduous read. That it is readable at all is evidence of Lowell's strength as a poet.

Browne's book is not easy to read--its WTF score is probably as high as that of Notebook ("cutaneous young swan / Prolong an omen or prone quotidian")--but there's more air, more light...maybe it's more of a success. It feels less effortful, in a way that illustrates a significant shift in American poetry over the last fifty years, I think.

Browne is willing to try homophonic translation, for instance, or "dictionary poems," in which all the words of the poem come from the entries on a particular page of a dictionary, and other kinds of invention strategies that involve trust in the aleatory. There's a Taoist relinquishing of desire for control. Browne notes in an afterword, "I have drawn from devotional practices the sense of the poem as an offering--it is beyond ownership--what may be given now."

Lowell's book feels like heroic struggle, as in our received idea of Jackson Pollock, say, locked in existential struggle with his canvas...a great thing about Jamison's book is that we realize there is nothing at all ironic in the phrase "heroic struggle" applied to Lowell, given what he had to stare down in order to write anything at all.

But Browne's book gets airborne more often, I think...maybe just because she's willing to trust the air currents, and Lowell is always flapping his arms.

It's not so much that Browne's book is unambitious as that it has renounced a certain kind of ambition. And that's one difference between poetry in 1967 and poetry in 2007.

I sometimes fe

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Álvaro Enrigue, _Sudden Death_, trans. Natasha Wimmer

WOW. THIS IS good. Are there more translations in the pipeline? This is only his second book in English, so far as I can tell from Amazon, but I hope more are coming.

An historical novel in which the main episode--the narration of which is interspersed over the whole length of the book--is a tennis match that probably did not happen (but could have happened) between the poet Quevedo and the painter Caravaggio in Rome in 1599. The progress of the match is described game by game; between these accounts, we get documents bearing on the history of tennis, stories from the last days of Anne Boleyn, a quick look at the court of François Ier, portraits of some key figures of the Counter-reformation, highlights of Cortes's invasion of Mexico, and quite a bit more besides.

Many years ago I read Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes, an immense mega-novel set in the same era and with the same interest in what the arrival of Europeans in the western hemisphere meant. Enrigue's novel gave me almost the same sense of immersion in the mental world and atmosphere of an historical turning point, but by flashes and glimpses offered between a description of a tennis match--and in about 500 fewer pages than Fuentes used.

It's a startling departure from the ordinary, clay-footed tread of the historical novel. I had wondered whether a new day for the historical novel was dawning with Bruce Olds's Raising Holy Hell (1995), and Enrigue raises my hopes in the same way.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Emma Donoghue, _The Wonder_

I DID NOT read Room, but I read a chapter from this in Granta and thought, well, worth a spin.

It's a historical novel, set in post-Famine 19th century Ireland. Anna O'Donnell, an 11-year-old Irish Catholic girl in the countryside, has been living without food for weeks, an accomplishment some of her neighbors are willing to take as a miracle and a sign of sanctity. Having a saint, after all, would be a nice thing for the town--pilgrims and such.

Our point-of-view character is an English nurse, trained by Florence Nightingale herself, who has been called in to make sure the girl stays healthy and, additionally, to make sure she is not sneaking food.

Lib Wright, the nurse, arrives keen to expose what she takes to be hidebound superstition, but a kind of Stockholm syndrome in reverse takes place, and she begins to sympathize with and care for Anna. As Lib learns more of what is going on with Anna, the desire to expose her turns into a desire to rescue her. (Deliverance of the innocent from oppression in confined quarters may be a motif for Donoghue, from what I know of Room.) And, as we gradually learn more of what Lib's past life was like, we see she needs to be rescued herself, or at least find her way to a fresh start.

Donoghue does a nice job of presenting the evolution of Lib's feelings, especially the growth of the bond with Anna, and. the happy ending is cheering if not 100% plausible. Well, you can't have everything.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Nathan Hill, _The Nix_

I WAS SLOW to pick this one up, because novels that get the kind of build-up this one did last year are often disappointing, but I took a chance, and whaddaya know, it's excellent. I will definitely get Hill's next.

We start with a quick chapter in which a woman in her early sixties, fed up with the mendacity and bad faith of a (Trump-ish) presidential aspirant in her vicinity, heaves a rock at him. She instantly becomes an object of national fascination and (among the Trump-figure's followers) odium.

Here we meet Samuel Andresen-Anderson, early 30s, blocked writer, failing academic, thwarted lover, online RPG addict...Sam is a mess, we have to say, and moreover something of a cliché. The not-so-young-anymore male writer who has come a cropper is a familiar figure. Chip Lambert in The Corrections, "Dave Wallace" in The Pale King, "Joshua Cohen" in The Book of Numbers, to say nothing of the older versions in Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, Richard Russo's Straight Man, Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members.... It all goes back to Stephen at the beginning of Ulysses, I suppose, unless it goes back to Lucien de Rubempré in Lost Illusions.

Sam is the son of the rock-heaver, it turns out, who abandoned the family when Sam was quite young, much to his anguish. Sam's publisher, who is about to drop him (and require him to pay back his long-gone advance), offers him a chance to get back in the game by writing a savage tell-all memoir about his radical harpy of a mother. Sam decides to go along with it.

This project, much to the novel's benefit, gets us out of sad-male-writer world. Pursuant to the tell-all memoir, Sam recalls his childhood, richly and memorably evoked by Hill, and then digs into some research work about his mother--at which point the novel really opens out as Hill reconstructs the life of the mother, Faye. Faye was a small-town Iowa girl who as a freshman at Chicago Circle wound up at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, a historical vortex Hill does a nice job of recreating.

Hill has a Dickensian deftness in caricatural minor characters--Sam's publisher, Guy Periwinkle, for instance, or Sam's full-blown-nightmare of an entitled/aggrieved undergraduate, Laura ("I pay your salary and you can't treat me like this!"). He even brushes genius in creating some of the not-so-minor characters--Sam's RPG buddy Pwnage, for instance (Hill's narration of addiction to online gaming rivals comparable passages in Infinite Jest), Faye's college friend Alice, and especially Sam's boyhood companion Bishop Fall, unique and unforgettable.

One thinks of Dickens in again when a series of not very likely coincidences resolve the plot in the closing pages, but by that point I was ready to forgive a great deal.

A "nix," by the way, is a kind of bad sprite or curse hanging around in the wake of a past mistake or dropped responsibility, and atonement for such lapses eventually surfaces as a theme--very convincingly, I think.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Postscript on Jamison, _Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire_

JAMISON QUOTES FROM several of Lowell's 1977 obituaries: "fairly generally considered the most distinguished American poet, and indeed the most distinguished poet writing in English, of his generation" (the Times of London); "the most considerable poet since T. S.Eliot" (1974 Pulitzer Prize citation); "he dominated American poetry of the last 30 years" (Boston Globe); "the foremost American poet of his time" (Washington Post).

This got me wondering. Would any poet alive today be called the foremost poet of his or her time? Ashbery, perhaps? He's in the Library of America. But on the other hand, I know plenty of people who are poets that don't read Ashbery. Merwin is in the Library of America, too, and I think he is read even by quite a few people not professionally engaged with poetry, but he doesn't seem to loom over the landscape. Billy Collins and Mary Oliver have large readerships, but would you say of either, as the New York Times said of Lowell, that in their "poems we were obliged to relive so much of the history and so many of the terrible emotions of our time"? I don't know. Alice Notley? Ron Silliman?

But...maybe it's less that we lack a #1 Poet than that the role simply evaporated after Lowell. Strong American poets, pace Harold Bloom, no longer seem commensurate with each other, somehow. We stopped thinking about who was the best poet in the room because they were all in different rooms.

Or is it that poetry has somehow slipped beneath virtually everyone's radar? I was in grad school when Lowell died, and everyone in the English Department, and a good many people in other departments, knew who Robert Lowell was. But there are any number of poets with long-developed careers writing today whose work I (for one) find as rewarding to read as that of Lowell--Cole Swenson, Jorie Graham, Lucie Brock-Broido, Jennifer Moxley--but whose names probably half of my departmental colleagues (or about half of any English Department, for that matter) would not even recognize.

The longer I ramble on with this, the more I think it's just as well, maybe better, that we do not have a #1 Poet. But even so I wonder why we don't.