Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 22, 2018

Thomas Powers, _The Killing of Crazy Horse_ (1)

YEARS AGO I read another excellent book on the Sioux Wars, Custer, et al.--Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star, which I would still recommend, a gracefully written and impressively unsentimental book--and I thought that would suffice for me for this lifetime, actually. But in May, B. and I visited Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska, the very spot Crazy Horse was killed, and saw the monument erected to his memory there in the 1930s. I remembered that back in 2010 when this book was published, I had purchased it, shelved it, then forgotten about it (a sequence e of events all too common in my book-buying patterns). Well, never too late for a great book, right? So I found it and sat down with it. Sat down with it several times, actually; at 467 pages, with another 100 pages of notes and index, it's not a swift read.

Powers is an expert on the CIA, on the development of nuclear weapons, and a variety of related Cold War phenomenon, not an established historian of the American West. This book, he tells us, is the late flowering of a "childhood passion for Indians," which had been reawakened by a 1994 visit to the spot where the Battle of the Little Bighorn took place, then by a visit to Fort Robinson: "The killing of Crazy Horse is not abstract at Fort Robinson," he notes (I know what he means), and he decided to find out all he could about  how that death occurred.

His examination involves a lot of context--the society and way of life of the native peoples of the plains, the finding of gold in the Black Hills, the wiping out of Custer and his men, the U. S. government's protracted and almost invariably bad-faith negotiations with the Sioux over several generations. True to the book's title, though, at the focal point of his microscope are the circumstances of Crazy Horse's death, in almost hour-by-hour, then second-by-second detail.

(When I mentioned I was reading this, several folks thought it was another of those Bill O'Reilly books. Couldn't be further from that sort of thing.)

Powers is particularly interested in the native perspective on this event (and on the whole period, in fact). For historiographical purposes, the documentation of the U. S. perspective is a lot more regular, consistent, and available; the documentation for the native perspective, which mainly takes the form of interviews and family memories, is not at all regular, not at all consistent, and sometimes long removed in time from the events themselves. Accordingly, a lot of traditional historians just dismissed it. Not Powers. He has gone to some lengths to track it down (e.g., interviewing the descendants of some of the Sioux who knew Crazy Horse), combed through it meticulously, evaluated it judiciously, and presented it lucidly.

As Powers presents it, the killing of Crazy Horse was not an execution, not an assassination, in some ways not even exactly deliberate, but the kind of murky death-in-custody that we associate with classic instances of the corruption of police power.

To be continued.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Frank Bidart, _Desire_

I BOUGHT THIS a year or two ago--that is, about twenty years after it was published--and I notice that my copy is from the fourteenth printing. I mean...that's pretty damn good, no? The print runs were probably not large, but fourteen printings suggests the book really took hold.

To my own surprise, since Bidart is accounted more a disciple of Lowell and Bishop, I thought of Ezra Pound while reading this. "The Return," for instance, about Roman soldiers in Germany coming across the remains of a legion that had been overwhelmed. Coincidentally, Pound has a poem of the same title, but what seemed Poundian was the focus on a precise but powerfully suggestive historical incident, the structure of the verse, the use of language from an ancient source (Tacitus), and the exploratory, circling nature of Bidart's poetic investigation of the event, which reminded me of Pound's "Near Perigord," also about long-ago warfare.

Some of the shorter poems in the first half of the book similarly put me in mind of Lustra-era Pound, so while I was reading "The Second Hour of the Night," the long poem in the second half of Desire, with its juxtaposition of Hector Berlioz's account of his marriage to Harriet Smithson and Ovid's version of the myth of Myrrha, it was hard not to think of the Cantos.

How crucial an influence upon the the possibilities for the long poem in the 20th & 21st centuries are The Cantos? Immense, don't we have to say, even if you don't much care for The Cantos itself, or for much of it? Who did more than Pound to liberate the long poem from narrative, to suggest other structural principles?

The toxicity of Pound's politics has done a lot to undermine his reputation, all too justifiably I'd have to say, but you couldn't write the history of 20th century poetry in English without him, if only for his importing a version of Chinese poetry into English and for dramatically expanding the possibilities for the long poem.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Dominic Smith, _The Last Painting of Sara de Vos_

I PROBABLY WOULD not have picked this up had our book club not voted it in as our June book, but it turned out to be enjoyable. A bit reminiscent of Colum McCann in having three distinct-but-related story lines in three different historical settings, braided together in rotating series over the whole book rather than in chronological sequence.

One story line is set in 17th century Holland and concerns Sara de Vos, married to a painter and a painter herself. They endure a series of bad breaks, the worst being the death of their only child, a daughter. A painting Sara makes to commemorate the lost child, At the Edge of the Wood, has become her only known surviving work at the time of Storyline Two...

...set in 1950s New York. At the Edge of the Wood was purchased by a merchant named de Groot and  has remained in that family for over 300 years. Current owner Marty de Groot is a successful lawyer in addition to having considerable inherited wealth, but suffers from anomie until he discovers his family heirloom has been stolen and replaced with a skillful forgery. He finds out the forgery is the work of Ellie Shipley, a young art history doctoral student whose dissertation is floundering. Under an assumed name, he first hires her, then courts her, plotting a terrible revenge.

Third storyline: Sydney, Australia, the year 2000, and Ellie Shipley, now an eminent art historian for her work on women artists of the Dutch Golden Age, is organizing a major exhibit, and finds out two copies of de Vos's most famous painting, the original and her youthful forgery, are on their way to Sydney. Marty de Groot is still alive and is bringing his painting (is it the original or the ]forgery?) himself. Questions will inevitably be asked. Will she be exposed and disgraced?

Smith obviously did a lot of research for Story Line One, but what with all the details about food and furniture and guild rules and tulips, it feels a little too worked-up. There is more attention to the background than to Sara, who remains two-dimensional.

The Marty-Ellie agon was compelling, though. Their relationship is born in a cloud of dishonesty, dissimulation, betrayal, and corruption, but nonetheless has something genuine in it, something they both badly need: the jolt that would get them out of their respective ruts.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Lucie Brock-Broido, _Trouble in Mind_

IF I WAS asked to recommend a Brock-Broido volume, I would probably go with The Master Letters, a bravura performance that shows her range and ambition. I have been wondering, though, whether Stay, Illusion might be her best, really, confident of its power, a foundation-trembling Bach organ performance. My favorite, even so, is this one.

It's intriguing, for one thing. Why the cover with a detail of the same painting that she used for the cover of her first book? Why the title reference to a famous old blues song? (Brock-Broido's cultural reference points tended to skew high rather than popular.)

For another thing, it's intense. "I" occurs in almost every poem, and the "I" has a coherence and consistency over the book that feels confessional even though nothing very specific is revealed. The second person comes up, too, in some very arresting ways:

     For a poem to be true, it must "come from an Ever."
If you don't fathom that, then you should not be reading this.

I wasn't sure I did fathom that, actually (it's from Stevens it turns out), but I kept reading, and I was soon found out, shortly after Brock-Broido dropped in a glancing reference to the West Bank:

     You did not dream I held political
Ideals, did you. [She was right, I did not.] You should not be reading this and are.

What is it about this book? Imagine a Victorian collection of fairy tales, tending to the disturbing end of Hans Christian Anderson, say ("Little Mermaid," "The Red Shoes," "The Snow Queen"), in an ornate edition with hand-colored illustrations under tissue paper, elegant but just a little frightening, the sort of thing Edward Gorey would keep on a special shelf. Then imagine that that book had a child with The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.  Trouble in Mind is a bit like that.

Something terrible and searing has happened, something on the order of Dickinson's "I never lost as much but twice," some erasure, separation, I don't know what. Dickinson does not seem ever very far away in Brock-Broido; "The Deerhunting" seems like a recasting of "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun," for example. Brock-Broido does not go in for Dickinson austerity, the whitewashed walls in winter light--she likes her jewels and embroidery--but she can drop you in the abyss the way Dickinson does.

Like a madrigal, a pastoral
In the pocket of my houndstooth vest,

You are the only beauty in this
Celestial torture I will call my own.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Rachel Cusk, _Kudos_

CAN THIS REALLY be the end? If so, it ends on an unnerving note, Faye swimming in the ocean as a naked man on the beach locks eyes with her and pisses "a golden jet" into the sea.

The novel begins with a conversation with an airplane seat mate (shades of Outline) en route to a literary festival (shades of Transit). The festival in Transit was just one chapter, however, and in Kudos the festival occupies the whole book. My best guess is that the festival is in Lisbon (a European capital by the sea, steep hills, jacaranda trees). The festival's--any literary festival's--task, as one character puts it, is "the attempt to make a public concern out of a private pastime," the writing and reading of books.

Ordinarily, writing and reading are solitary activities; Kudos is about the economic and social bustle that goes into the commodification of those activities: the translators, the editors, the publishers, the festivals, the panels, the interviews, the prizes (kudos is Greek for "honor")... and let's not forget the patronage. One of the writers Faye meets has recently been a guest of what sounds a great deal like the Santa Maddalena Foundation (see Tomaz Salamun's The Blue Tower), and it does not sound like she enjoyed herself.

Once again, the novel's attention is chiefly on the stories Faye is told by the people she meets, some of them new acquaintances, some of them longtime associates, and one of them someone we have already encountered (Ryan from Outline, who in the meantime has had a great publishing success that has not made him more likable). The tone (it seems to me) is more satirical than in Outline or Transit, probably due to the setting, which seems to encourage posing. In Kudos, Faye seems like a Lillian Ross or a Janet Malcolm, someone who can keep people talking long enough to hang themselves with their own ropes. Several of the people on the novel are supposed to be interviewing Faye, but they always end up dissecting themselves.

It's the summer of the Brexit vote, but that topic does not come often; Faye has remarried, but we learn even less about that. (Once again, Faye's name occurs in the text exactly once, p. 227).) The novel carries a feminist ground tone, though, expressed not so much by Faye as by several of the women writers she meets, some of whom seem a little self-important, but who collectively create a discernible change-has-gotta-come mood. The whole festival--especially the long mid-day meal scene, pp. 123-66--does sometimes seem simply a pissing contest among prickly male egos. Maybe that is what the final page is about.

This is the third novel I've read in recent years that prominently features a book festival (counting Outline and Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers, partly set at the Frankfort book fair) and so far none has given me the slightest inclination to attend one.

Can't believe Kudos is the last one. I'm saddened. We should at least get to meet the new spouse, I think. The man from second-to-last episode of Transit, do you suppose?

Friday, June 15, 2018

Lucie Brock-Broido, _A Hunger_

INTERESTING TO SEE how much of the distinctive voice is already audible here in  the first book. The fascination with alliteration, for instance:

You, born walking on this earth, accidental

American thing, wound in this rock bed gorge,
Watched wordlessly as ice washed over
You till the world was frozen & waited

For the girl to find you there [...]


The audacity of the imagery, too, that Donne/Dickinson willingness to risk sounding mad--"A train like a silver / Russian love pill for the sick at heart passes by / My bedroom window in the night at the speed of mirage"--that's in the very first poem.

And her elegiac mood, the contemplation of things irretrievably gone ("what is lost / cannot be gotten back"), most emphatically her own childhood. The word "girl" occurs some seventeen or eighteen times, I think. "Jessica, from the Well," one of her best-known poems, certainly reads well as a free-standing piece, but in this volume it also engages with a several other poems about experiences that divide us from past selves.

There is even a poem foreseeing her own death and reincarnation, and becoming a creature famous for leaving old versions of itself behind:

I'll be a locust by then, learning in the next life how to fly transparently, how to deposit my old skins on the outside of the screened-in porch in some pastoral set in the last open space in America a hundred years from now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Riad Sattouf, _The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985, trans. Sam Taylor

EVEN BETTER THAN the first volume. The standard for graphic memoirs has gotten high in the last couple of decades, but the way this one is shaping up, it can stand alongside Spiegelman, Bechdel, and Satrapi.

Volume Two takes place almost entirely in Syria, with one chapter for a visit to France. Young Riad, still cherubically blonde, starts school, with the first week devoted to learning the national anthem, and finds out the hard way that corporal punishment is a routine element in a Syrian classroom. He also learns to read, in both Arabic (helpfully illustrated) and in French (thanks to Tintin).

 Riad's French mother is showing the stress of the constraints and deprivations of Syrian village life, but his Syrian father has ambitions--the building of a luxury village on some land he owns--that will require staying put. He keeps angling for the support of those in his family who are well-connected, without much apparent success. From Riad's perspective, the situation of these family success stories does not seem so enviable; their houses are palatial but mostly empty and badly built, the plaster already cracking. The cousins of his own generation that he meets are demons.

One exception is Leila, daughter of Riad's father's much older half-sister. Leila, recently widowed, is back living with her family. She encourages Riad's interest in drawing (Dad wants him to be a doctor)  and gives him quick lessons in perspective. Tragically, she is the victim of an honor-killing. The Sattouf clan decide to turn the killers, Leila\s father and brother, over to the aurhorities, but the authorities find that, well, honor is honor, and release the murderers after three months. The village sees the killers as upholders of traditional values, the Sattouf clan as "weak."

 Last panel: Riad, his mother, and his little brother look aghast as the freed filicide father ambles down the road, free as a bird, dementedly mumbling "Ahh, that's good." Time to leave Ter Maaleh, everyone seems to be thinking, save Dad.