Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Chelsey Minnis, _Baby, I Don't Care_

I'M RELUCTANT TO talk about a book's design before I mention anything else, but the design in this instance (by Quemadura, which I think is Jeff Clark) is conspicuous.

It's a sizable book by poetry collection standards--about 250 6" x 8" pages--but the length is in large part accounted for by white space. Thirty-nine poems, generally six to eight five-line stanzas long--given ordinary typography, we would have a more normal 90-100 page book, I'm guessing. But here no page has more than two stanzas (ten lines), the title of each poem gets its own page, and the volume's title alone gets eight pages.

So, why? My guess: the design fetishizes the poetry a bit by surrounding with such an expanse of whiteness, which ironically highlights the ways the book is campaigning against the fetishization of poetry. As the title suggests, the poetry seems to be making an effort not to be taken seriously, even while the book's design suggests that one one to take the contents very seriously indeed.

I do not mean to suggest that Minnis is not a serious poet--only that here, as in Poemland, she seems to be throwing a snowball at poetry's silk hat, at various notions of decorum and dignity, at anything that seems over-earnest or po-faced or pompous about the enterprise.

The poems in Baby, I Don't Care seem all cut from the same cloth, not only in form (the five-line stanzas) but in tone and technique, a little bit as if Instagram poetry (with its colloquial language about the ups and down of amatory relationships) had been run through an Ashbery-izer (apparent non sequiturs that turn out to make all too much sense, surprising cultural reference points, acute self-awareness). Then imagine the whole thing read in a Marilyn Monroe voice.

Let's fall in love,
just the three of us.
Let's be objectionable and immoral and utterly no good.
Should we lie down right here and fight about it?
Now bring me  those dance instructions. ("Fun and Games")

"Do I mean things or not?" Minnis asks in "Breakdown." I would say no, she does not, unless she does, and that she keeps one guessing is what keeps one reading. The delights seem a little fewer and farther between than in Poemland, but that may just be an effect of the white space.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Helen DeWitt, _Some Trick_

SECOND INSTALLMENT IN my campaign to read more collections of short fiction. Having admired the two DeWitt novels I have read (The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods), I figured this was  a good bet, and it did not disappoint.

I spotted a recurring theme. Anyone pursuing an art needs an array of skills having to do with supporting oneself as an artist--not just covering rent and groceries, as we all do, but also dealing with gallery owners, foundations, publishers, universities, and so on in labyrinthine profusion. One might be extremely skilled in one's art and yet quite bad at the necessary auxiliary skills; by the same token, one might have a rare gift for the auxiliary skills without having any remarkable talent for one's art. Which is the better position to be in, do you think? Either way, tragedy looms.

Gil, the Boy from Iowa who become's everyone's right-hand man in "On the Town" due to his deftness at the auxiliary skills, has by the time of "Climbers" become a famous writer himself; his efforts to lend a hand to an obscure European writer's writer with zero auxiliary skills are both hilarious and painful to read about. A poker-playing music journalist winds up with the copyright to a mega-hit. A painter whose paintings find no takers discovers the clothes she made as a student dressmaker are inexplicably in demand--solving her cash flow problems, perhaps, until it turns out her internationally famous gallerist is a scam artist.

The book's real hallmark, though, is intelligence. Not only do the characters tend to be intelligent, the sorts of people who are comfortably conversant with histograms, Chopin, Botticelli, Barthes, and trigonometric identities, but the stories require the readers to stay on their toes. Like John Keen's Conjunctions, Some Trick would rather risk under-explaining than over-explaining; the reader gets all the needed information, but will have to do a certain amount of the adding-things-up on his or her own. It's stimulating to read a writer who asks quite a bit of you, even though this tendency may keep DeWitt out of the New Yorker (vide supra on auxiliary skills).

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Paul Muldoon, _One Thousand Things Worth Knowing_

WHEN I SAW that a new volume from Muldoon was due next month, I thought, crikey, I haven't read the last one yet. I checked its publication date--2015. Does it really take me four years to get around to reading even my favorite poets? Apparently so.

Muldoon is very Muldoonian here: sly, full of curious lore he connects in even more curious ways, the wickedest rhymer aboveground.

The volume's first poem, "Cuthbert and the Otters," is in memory of Seamus Heaney, and manages to touch a lot of Heaney bases (otters, Vikings, words like "darne," "smolt," and "thole") while remaining a poem only Muldoon could have written, Columbanus cheek-by-jowl with Lily Langtry and Erwin Rommel, a demanding stanza form he handles as effortlessly as a limerick, a narrative line that is all knuckleballs and change-ups.

Yes, I have been reading Tyler Kepner's history of baseball in ten pitches. (Didn't take me four years to get to that one!) I wonder--will Muldoon's long residence in the USA lead to him writing a poem or two about baseball? The sequence of poems here on the American Civil War gives me hope.

The volume ends with another long poem, "Dirty Data," this one even more reminiscent than "Cuthbert" of the classic Muldoon picaresques of the eighties, "Immram," "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants." Nineteen sonnets, rhymed as only Muldoon can rhyme (e.g., "pecs" and "Rolex"), largely about Ben-Hur, book and film. Since the author of the novel, Lew Wallace, was a Civil War officer who later served as governor of New Mexico territory, "Dirty Data" also winds up mentioning the battle of Shiloh, and Billy the Kid, and the translation of Ben-Hur into Irish, and Bloody Sunday, and Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle craze, all woven together as naturally as you please. What, no Rommel? No, but we do get Winston Churchill.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Tayari Jones, _An American Marriage_

PART ONE FELT like an update of If Beale Street Could Talk--an African American couple separated due to the husband's wrongful incarceration. As in Baldwin's novel, there is a pregnancy (but terminated in this case), one of the couple is an artist (the woman in this case), and the narrative energy goes mainly into what is strained and what is enduring in their relationship, with due attention to their families.

Curveball coming up in Part Two, though. The woman, Celestial, falls in love with an old (but hitherto non-romantic) friend, Andre. Then, to everyone's surprise, efforts to overturn husband Roy's wrongful conviction succeed, and he is coming home, hoping to resume his rightful place, etc.

Jones changes the point of view from chapter to chapter, circulating among first-person narratives by Celestial, Roy, and Andre. This keeps things interesting, and her style is brilliant throughout, but things get unavoidably soapy once the triangular situation dominates.

Turns out Celestial and Roy were married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout, as in the old Johnny-and-June duet, but the fire has now gone out, as least for Celestial. But does she not owe poor Roy something? "In a way," Andre muses, "the whole black race was loyal to Roy, a man just down from the cross." Celestial resolves to go back to Roy out of duty. Roy, to his credit, decides he does not want the relationship on those terms, and gracefully gives way. Luckily, he too has someone from back in the day in his old hometown who is eager to heat things up again. So everyone is going to be all right, it appears.

What is American about this marriage, exactly? It's screenplay-ready, for one thing, and what is more American than that?

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Sam Lipsyte, _Hark_

OUR LEADING SATIRIST?  He may well be. Paul Beatty and George Saunders could give him a run for his money, but he's in my top three, certainly.

The title refers to the novel's central figure, Hark Morner, a self-help guru whose technique is "mental archery," a kind of mindfulness (focus on the target) plus yoga (followers do various bow poses) wrapped in a Zen/Emersonian discourse. The novel is largely from the points of view of the people around him, though, team-members and assistants from a variety of backgrounds who compete to be closer to the source while juggling the numerous and slippery elements of their private lives.

"Hark" is also an old way of saying "listen up," the cry of the prophet, and the novel repeatedly invokes religious tropes. Is Hark a messiah or a charlatan? A huckster or the real thing, whatever we suppose "real"is? The brilliant touch of the novel is that we don't exactly know, any more than those enthralled by Jesus, Muhammad, or for that matter L. Ron Hubbard knew. A lot of what Hark says at least seems profound, in the manner of Noah Eli Gordon's The Source, without our knowing whether it is as whipped-up-out-of-nothing as Gordon's brilliant pastiche. But do we ever know the difference between real and apparent profundity?

In the true satiric vein, no one in Hark is all that admirable; there is scarcely an unmixed motive to be found. Occasionally, a character seems to be getting somewhere, and a few rogue ions of integrity linger in the air after Hark exits from the narrative. Nothing is revealed, to quote his Bobness (speaking of figures who oscillate between messiah and charlatan), but Lipsyte's insight into American spirituality feels on target.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Jamel Brinkley, _A Lucky Man_

I DO NOT read enough short story collections, I told myself recently, and forthwith took steps, including reading one. Brinkley's first book, A Lucky Man was shortlisted for the National Book Award--not too shabby.

The stories are realist and basically mainstream in technique, though elegantly so. Most are about African-American characters in and around New York City, with occasional glimpses into aspects of that world I had never read about before such as J'ouvert, a holiday Brinkley renders with the hallucinatory clarity that Marcel Camus brought to the Mardi Gras scenes in Black Orpheus.

As with not a few first collections, the stories in A Lucky Man mostly look at characters in their childhood and youth; Brinkley does a particularly convincing job of catching the flavor of sibling rivalry. But the latter part of the book does an equally convincing job with characters past their prime. The title story is exactly that, about a man right on the threshold of a loss of capability and standing, and it is the most scrupulous anatomizing of that particular vulnerability I have read since William Trevor's "Access to the Children." If Brinkley is this good at telling the stories of older men now, while still a young writer, I wonder how good he is going to be in the future.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Meghan O'Gieblyn, _Interior States_

WINNER OF THE 2018 Believer magazine prize for non-fiction book, and an excellent choice. O'Gieblyn grew up in a Midwestern evangelical family. She was at the Moody Bible Institute training to be a missionary when the wheels suddenly came off her faith. A difficult period apparently followed--we don't learn much about it in this collection, but it involved lots of alcohol. The good news is that O'Gieblyn found her vocation, somehow, and turned into an excellent writer.

The excellence of the writing is reason enough to read the book, but I particularly enjoyed it because O'Gieblyn can write of middle American evangelical culture as a former insider, with sympathy, generosity, but also open-eyed clarity. This American species has been scrutinized and speculated about a great deal since the election of Trump, but far too often in a condescending, touristic, drop-in-take-notes-and-leave way. O'Gieblyn writes out of a strong blend of intimacy and critical distance, like Joan Didion writing about the Central Valley in Where I Was From. She has no illusions about what it is like out here, but we midwesterners are not just stereotypes to her--she's a bit like Thomas Frank in that way.

Her essay on Trump's appeal to evangelicals, "Exiled," is the best thing I have read on that subject--in fact, I would say it is the only really insightful piece I have read on the subject. American evangelicals (and some Catholics, and folks like Rod Dreher) have begun to see themselves as living in Babylon. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land where gays can marry? Trump is Nebuchadnezzar, obviously not one of the Chosen People himself, but someone who might be swayed to allow space for the Chosen People  to live by their own law, if he heeds right-hand-man Daniel--that is, Mike Pence. I find this a lot more credible than thinking the evangelicals simply have not noticed or do not care that Trump is a mendacious, womanizing, vainglorious lout. But you can be all that and worse, and still be an instrument of the Lord, if you are willing to listen occasionally to Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar, indeed, is your only hope.