Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Robin Coste Lewis, _The Voyage of the Sable Venus and other poems_

HAVE WE HIT some kind of golden age for African-American writing? Citizen, Between the World and Me, The Underground Railroad, The Sellout, and this one...and those are just the ones that won big prizes. We could also note John Keene's Counternarratives, Darryl Pinckney's Black Deutschland, Gary Younge's Another Day in the Death of America (unless he counts as British), Dawn Lundy Martin...and I think I'm forgetting a few.

Why so many masterpieces in so short a span of time? I might not have noticed were it not for the prizes, but even so.

The tour de force in Lewis's book is the long poem in its middle section, composed entirely from the titles and catalog descriptions that western museums gave to works of art that represented women of African descent. If Citizen gained its power by describing circumstances that could inspire outrage in the coolest of tones, "Voyage of the Sable Venus" takes the tactic even further by restricting itself to nothing but the chilled-to-frostiness, aspiring-to-objectivity language of art history yet achieving soul-wrenching effects.

The poems in the book's first and third are remarkable too, highly finished, formally sophisticated, clearly not the work of a beginner, even though this is Lewis's first book. They too can get the needle all the way to the bone: "The Wilde Woman of Aiken," for instance, "or "Lure," or "Félicité."

Bad days for the republic, but a good time to be a reader, I guess, as in the 1850s, when The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Leaves of Grass showed up in the bookstores while the nation shuddered into dissolution.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Quentin Anderson, _The Imperial Self_; Peter Nadas, _Book of Memories_, part two

THE REFERENCE TO Quentin Anderson's 1971 book in Jonathan Sturgeon's article on Franzen et al. inspired me to find it, and it was worth the trouble. Focusing on Emerson, Whitman, and Henry James, Anderson finds in the American literary canon a lack of interest in or attention to what he variously calls association, community, relationship. In analyzing this tendency, he mentions individualism (citing Tocqueville several times) and narcissism (citing Freud numerous times), but his analysis is not theory-driven or programmatic so much as it is based on close reading and (occasionally) biographical particulars.

Anderson respects all three writers and obviously spent a lot of time on them, but he sees their fascination with a kind of self-sufficiency, or willed apartness from others, or refusal to acknowledge even any deep need of others as a limitation and a problem.

Part of his thesis is that this strand in the cable of the canon regrettably disables some of its political potential. This point could get a lot of traction these days, I think, but there may be a hurdle to its wider circulation in the way Anderson frames it. See if you can spot the problem:

These three [Emerson, Whitman, James] have a profound extrasocial commitment: their imaginative work ignores, elides, or transforms history, politics, heterosexuality, the hope for purposive change. (viii)

One does not see "heterosexuality" on the same side of the ledger as "hope for purposive change" these days, but heterosexuality is one of Anderson's images of the genuine engagement with the other that progressive politics require.

That blind spot could put a hitch in the stride of the Anderson revival, but I think he has a point in arguing that classic American tends to sideline the power of community.

The most memorable for me of the many memorable scsnes in Nadas's The Book of Memories takes place in the central square of Budapest at the time of the 1956 uprising. The narrator is caught up in the crowd, in the crowd's growing awareness of its own potential--which had a tragic outcome, in this instance, but was nonetheless real:

In those early evening hours the crowd had not yet swallowed me up, made me disappear within it, trampled me underfoot, or taken away my personality as it did so often afterward, but generously allowed me to experience--in the most elementary condition of my body's life, in the act of movement--my kinship with others, what is common to us all, let me feel that we were part of one another and that, all things considered, everyone is identical with everyone else, and rather than all this making the crowd faceless, as crowds are usually described, I received my own face from the crowd just as I gave it one myself. (487)

Classic American lit, for all our celebration of democracy, has few such moments. Ishmael squeezing spermaceti, maybe?

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Michel Houellebecq, _Soumission_

HOUELLEBECQ PUTS ME in mind of my man Wyndham Lewis--brilliant and distinctive stylist, original mind, and classified as a conservative mainly by virtue of our creaky, over-determined left-right political binary. Lewis was not so much a true conservative as he was an unusually skillful satirist of complacent leftist pieties, and Houellebecq too seems keener to puncture the balloons of the enlightened than he is to defend the west, virtue, faith, etc.

Soumission (English title Submission, which is also what "Islam" translates as) imagines that, thanks to a particularly tricky (though not very likely) French electoral logjam, an Islamic party becomes part of a ruling coalition in France. Muslim mores (about polygamy, education, female dress, etc.) are adopted into law.

Sounds dystopian, right? In fact, sounds a lot like Jean Raspail's Le Camp des Saints, which caused a ruckus back when I was in graduate school with its immigration-as-zombie-movie plot line.  Houellebecq's novel, though, seems almost to suggest that the Islamization of the West might be, from a conservative standpoint, just what we need.

The narrator is a mediocre university lecturer, a Huysmans scholar who has an affair with a different student every year. He makes a reasonably good exemplar of the complete moral and spiritual vacuity of the western intelligentsia. He is initially shocked and horrified by the Muslim takeover. He even goes on a retreat at the same monastery where Huysmans became an oblate after his famous conversion to Catholicism, as though in some effort to reclaim core western values.

Thing is--he's just not that into it. His main emotion at that monastery is frustration at there being a smoke detector in his room, preventing his having a cigarette when he wants one.

Then it turns out there may be certain advantages to, so to speak, going with the flow. If he converts, he can reclaim his old position at the university, on improved terms, since the new administration understands the public relations value of having members of the old faculty embrace the new order. And besides, as the new director points out, wouldn't one say that Christianity is a bit... depleted? Out of fuel? Pithless? If conservatives want the social stability of firm morality, no-nonsense patriarchy, clear-cut values, might it not be better to look to a younger, more vigorous faith tradition, without all that weird trinitarian mumbo-jumbo?

So, our man converts. And immediately starts wondering who the university will provide for his wives... matchmaking being part of the new faculty contract. His former female colleagues, presumably, will not be getting such offers.

First, the novel flicks boogers at the left by insisting that Muslims in Europe really do want to impose sharia law and the rest of it on the whole world. Then it flicks boogers at the right by insisting that sharia law and the rest of it are exactly equivalent to what you wish to impose on society. Lewis would be tickled.

The novel is too French to get much of an audience here, I suspect, but I thought it was a brilliant performance.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Eleanor Catton, _The Luminaries_

A LARGE, OVERSTUFFED Victorian sofa of a whodunit thriller, set in the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s, in a decidedly Wilkie Collins vein.

With a post-modernist, twist, however. Cotton has imposed a constraint on her narration in that each character is assigned to a planet or a constellation, and she uses the actual astrological charts of particular days her narration covers to determine which characters will be encountering which other characters. So it's more like Wilkie Collins joins OuLiPo.

The prose of Cotton's update of Collins has the same leisurely, show-and-tell, tending-to-overexplanation paddedness of Collins's own:

Gascoigne did not reply, but narrowed his eyes very slightly, and pressed his lips together, to signify there was a question in his mind he could not ask with decency. Anna sighed. She decided that she would not express her gratitude in the conventional way; she would repay the sum of her bail in coin, and in the morning.

Cotton's plotting is not so well-engineered as Collins's at his best, though. As the book opens, we have a man dead in mysterious circumstances. Even more mysteriously, the Young Male Lead and the Young Female Lead seem to live each other's experiences; when the Young Female Lead smokes opium, the Young Male Lead becomes intoxicated, and when the Young Male Lead is unable to eat, the Young Female Lead loses weight.

Hundreds of pages later, however, the murderer turns out to be the character whose scoundrelly behavior has made him a suspect since his first appearance, and the couple, it turns out, are joined as one because... they are in love.

Can't help thinking old Wilkie would have thrown us a few more curveballs.

I was hoping to get a sense of why Catton wanted to do a 21st century Wilkie Collins in the first place, but I never did. Pastiche for pastiche's sake?

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Airea D. Matthews, _Simulacra_

THE WAY THAT we live now: I don't always pick up the annual Yale Younger Poet book, but I saw this on the new poetry table at Elliott Bay Books and was intrigued by the cover, so I bought it. I was reading it in the coffee shop attached to the bookstore when our younger adult child (whom we were visiting) took my picture and posted it to Facebook. Within a few minutes we found out that our kid is Facebook friends with half a dozen or so people who are Facebook friends with Airea Matthews.

That seems surprising to me, but for all I know it's the new normal.

Matthews's title and section epigraphs invoke the principal intellectual concept of Jean Baudrillard, that the original and authentic are chimerical, definitively unavailable to us, however badly we desire them. But the poems often invoke (by name and quotation) Anne Sexton, one of the great mid-century confessional poets, and confessional poetry typically does hold out the promise of the unmediated, the original, the authentic; it may be messy, it may be embarrassing, but it's authentic. So how square this circle?

The Baudrillard-Sexton conjunction makes the reader wonder how much of confessional poetry is gestural, a set of moves that speak to a certain real but unsatisfiable readerly hunger. Several poems in Simulacra, for instance, mention a father, now deceased, who was addicted to heroin. Is this confessional poetry or only a detail that we tend to read as confessional?

The book's formal versatility (e.g., a poem that adapts Schoenberg's technique of 12-tone serial musical composition) suggests to me that Matthews wants us to think about just that sort of question. Is there a formality to confession? Does form depend on matter?

 "If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein," for instance, crosses the avant-gardism of Tender Buttons with the gritty pain of the Great Migration. The historical pain reflected in the poem could have made the literary experimentation look frivolous, and the poem could have seemed like a parody. But what happens instead is that the defamiliarization that gives Tender Buttons its strange magic makes the losses and hardships of the Great Migration generation visible in a new way.

A memorable debut.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Han Kang, _The Vegetarian_, trans. Deborah Smith

JUST ABOUT ANY Man Booker winner is worth reading, but this one may be a classic.

The vegetarian of the title is Heong-hye Kim, a young Korean woman, raised in a strict patriarchal family, married to a businessman chosen by her father. She has an older sister, who is married to a video artist; they have a young son, and she runs a small cosmetics shop. Finally, there is a younger brother (of whom we see little), cut from the same cloth as the father.

The book is about rebellion, I'd say. Imagine The Awakening, but rather than getting Edna Pontellier's point of view, we get only those of her family and friends as they try to fathom what is going on with her, try to "help" her, correct her, chastise her, take advantage of her, sympathize with her. This strategy makes Heong-hye more difficult to identify with than Edna, but also more enigmatic, eventually more formidable, ultimately more challenging. There is something of Kafka's hunger artist in her, or something of Catherine of Siena...or maybe she's a goddess. She says little, almost nothing after the first of the novel's three sections, but everything she says seems oracular, touched by fire.

The three sections were apparently published as separate novellas in Korean. In the first, we primarily  have the perspective of Heong-hye's husband, annoyed by the possibility that his wife's eccentric diet will spoil his chances of promotion; he sends her back to her family as defective merchandise. In the second, her artist brother-in-law is fascinated by her and seeks to incorporate her weird power into his art, to possess her, but as a mere mortal ends up scorched by his contact with divinity. In the the third, with Heong-hye now in a mental institution, we have the perspective of the sister, whose conformity to the ideal Korean daughter/wife/mother roles begins to shiver and crack as she contemplates her sister's life.

This should be on a thousand syllabusses in ten years' time, thanks in no small part to the translation by Deborah Smith, the fidelity of which I cannot vouch for, but which is swift, elegant, and powerful. Kang has her Rabassa, and her conquest of English-speaking readerdom is assured.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rae Armantrout, _Versed_

TOOK ME A while to get around to this; it appeared in 2010. To tell the truth, I usually skip Pultizer Prize winners.  They tend to be worthwhile without being quite the sort of thing I most like. I was curious about this one, though, because Armantrout seems very left-field compared to most Pulitzer winners for poetry. She was in In the American Tree, after all. As far as I can determine, no one else included in that volume has won either a Pulitzer or a National Book Award--for which prize Versed was a finalist, by the way.

I find myself wondering how this sort of development occurs. I have not read a lot of Armantrout's work, but Versed does not strike me much more accessible or domesticated than her poetry from back in the 1980s and 1990s--a bit so, perhaps, but not dramatically. The poems are still elliptical, elusive, still have a measurable WTF factor:

Repeat wake measurement.

"Check to see."

"Check to see,"

Birds say,

"That enough time

Has passed."

Sometimes there is a vein of dark humor, especially in the prose poems, that could appeal broadly: "I call 911 but reach a psychic hotline." Sometimes, there is a recognizble allusion to popular culture: e.g., Anna Nicole Smith or reality television, as in the lines "One tells the story / of his illness / in such a way / as to make the others love him."

Sometimes there is a cosmo-theological thematic, as in the poem "Dark Matter," or a glimpse at family psychology, as in "Birth Order," but you also wonder if both poems aren't really more about writing than anything else (the latter, for instance, may be about how second stanzas have a peculiar ontological status, inevitably being seen within the contexts created by first stanzas).

So...it just seems surprising that the book got a Pulitzer. Not an unprecedented development (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror got a Pulitzer, for instance), and certainly a welcome one, but how does this happen? Is it just who gets picked as judges? Do attitudes change? How does the unlikely become possible?

The really funny thing is that I keep thinking the poems in Versed address exactly these questions.