Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Brenda Shaughnessy, _Human Dark with Sugar_

RECENTLY I HEARD a poet (male, under 40), at a social occasion, abruptly speak with marked disdain of "girl poets": "I call them the girl poets.  You know, Matthea Harvey. Olena Kalytiak Davis. Brenda Shaughnessy.  They're all..." (at this point, rather than rely on verbal description, he made some gestures with his head and hands that might be read as suggesting a kind of deadly cuteness, as of perky middle school girls deciding which former friend to cut dead today). 

Such remarks needed to be challenged, I realized, so I challenged them. "So, are there boy poets too?"  Yes -- Tony Hoagland.  He had a point there.  "Are you just jealous of younger women poets who are getting acclaim?  What about Noelle Kocot?" He adored Noelle Kocot.

I, as it happens, loved Interior with Sudden Joy, Brenda Shaughnessy's first book, and was looking forward to getting to her second, Human Dark with Sugar, my appetite whetted by its having won the James Laughlin Award, the winning volumes in which series are typically worthwhile and sometimes excellent.  But now I approached it with a certain apprehension. Would it be...girlish?

Right in the first poem, there was this line: "It's like having having a bad boyfriend in a good band."  Which does sound...you know.  Not only is it hard to imagine adult women putting the quality of the bad boyfriend's band in the credit column against the badness of the boyfriend, it's hard to imagine even gay young men letting such a consideration enter the emotional calculus.  A girl, however....

Having found one, I was primed to find more --  

It's easy to make more of myself by eating.
and sometimes easy's the thing.

If I had my way, spring would
revolve slowly and solely around me.
Each morning, I'm the earth's
favorite daughter[...]

Three million Richards can't be wrong.

Don't, don't feel like the runt alien
on my ship: I get you.

Sometimes, there were lines that seemed composed to be written in yearbooks:

Throw your love until it sticks, and know
you'll only know it stuck
if it ends up sticking.

You break again
and again because
that's what breaking means.
To be whole.

Sometimes, I wondered if Shaughnessy was in fact purposefully and with tongue somewhat in cheek going for the girlish, as in this from a poem titled, "First  Date, and Still Very, Very Lonely."

I was mortified, really lost.
After that I thought,
I have to meet someone.

Eventually the girlishness was bringing out a boy-squeamishness in me. "Once a month / the next month comes. / Once a month / the boat is broken / because the moon is not./ It means, stay home, human, / if you're leaking. Or does it mean, / There is nothing you need / unsubmerged."  Is she talking about her period?  Eww, gross!

All the while, though, I was also thinking, "if that guy hadn't said anything about 'girl poetry,' you'd be enjoying this right now."  I know, for instance, that I would have been impressed by the sequence "The Loved Body" and would not have felt a flashing amber light at titles like "Dancing in my Room Alone," a light that turned red at the phrase, "Don't turn me back into that seventh-grader...."  As it is, I'm afraid to go back and look at Interior with Sudden Joy.  Perhaps it too, read with my new girlishness-wary sensibilities, will turn out to have been girl poetry.  Or perhaps I need to stop listening to every poet who spouts off....

Jacob Weisberg, _The Bush Tragedy_

HAVING DECIDED THAT I needed to read at least one volume from the groaning shelf of second-term Bush exposés (having read Kevin Phillips's American Dynasty in the first term), I went for this one largely because I was intrigued by the Bush=Prince Hal thesis as noted in a review of the book.

It works well enough.  Scapegrace son, wasted opportunities, father's disappointment, then the great peripateia, son ascends throne, wins big battle...Baghdad=Agincourt? Yes, in a way. Weisberg makes the useful point that though Shakespeare's Henry V ends on a note of triumph, the long-term post-Agincourt story was of a long, futile war that fostered bloody civil dissension in England.

Weisberg sees George W.'s presidency as a quasi-Oedipal struggle not only to prove his father was and always had been wrong about him, but also to be as unlike his father as possible -- to be bold instead of prudent, intuitive rather than deliberative, a Baptist shouter rather than an Episcopalian mumbler, Texas rather than Connecticut.  The tragedy is that he succeeded so utterly in this pursuit as to damn near ruin the country.

There's a missing ingredient to the thesis, though -- Falstaff. Weisberg provides skillful quick sketches of Rumsfeld, Rove, and Cheney in the book, but do they even as an ensemble begin to add up to a figure as compelling, as human, as worth risking one's birthright for as Falstaff is?  Oh, man.  Reading about Falstaff, you mourn having to leave his company for even five minutes, while with Bush's dark triumvirate you feel five minutes with them would be enough for five lifetimes.

I started the book in the summer, finished it after the election, by which time it seemed the gothic chronicle of a gruesome, benighted but mercifully vanished era.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Paul Auster, _Man in the Dark_

PAUL AUSTER'S LIFETIME batting average has been slipping, perhaps.  On my scorecard, Travels in the Scriptorium was a clean single, Oracle Night a double up the alley, but Brooklyn Follies was a flyball to the warning track and Timbuktu a pop-up with a high lovely arc that never got past the infield.  The last time he knocked it over the fence, by my reckoning, is The Book of Illusions.  I'm not sure how to score Man in the Dark.

We have an aging literary critic, August Brill, partly disabled by an auto accident, living with his divorced daughter and grieving grand-daughter (her ex-boyfriend, we eventually learn, was killed in Iraq).  When unable to sleep, he invents a story, and the first two-thirds of the novel is in large part given over to one of these inventions: Owen Brick comes to consciousness to find himself in a USA that erupted in civil war after the 2000 election, and he has been assigned the task of assassinating the person responsible for the war -- which turns out to be the person who invented the story, August Brill.

I found myself captivated by this part.  A bit of counterfactual history à la Roth and Chabon, a bit of metafictional vengeance of characters on their creator à la Flann O'Brien, a bit of assassination-as-solution à la Nicholson Baker, a bit of many- worlds theory à la Philip Pullman and who knows how many sci fi writers... but Brill grows weary, apparently, of his invention, and about two-thirds of the way through the novel the story abruptly terminates with Brick shot in the head.  And that's that.

At about this point Brill is joined by his granddaughter, likewise unable to sleep, and he tells the story of how he met, married, lost, and regained his wife, the young woman's grandmother.  We also learn here of how the granddaughter's ex-boyfriend, after their breakup, got a job with a contractor in Iraq as a  truckdriver, was taken hostage, and murdered, as abruptly and as brutally as Owen Brick.

No particular consolation emerges at the end, apart from the announcement that "the weird world rolls on"" -- a line from a poem by Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter, whose biography Brill's daughter is writing.

Auster puts me in mind of Roth, in that I read every novel more or less as it appears, even though at this point I can foresee much of what I am about to experience.  In Roth, a protagonist whose age, background, and circumstances have discernible affinities with Roth's own, plus Newark, sex, writing, the decline and fall of the American republic, and (recently) death.  In Auster, a protagonist whose age, background, and circumstances have discernible affinities with Auster's own, plus New York City, obsession, nested narratives, life in the wake of catastrophic losses, and (recently) aging.  

In both cases, however, knowing what I am likely in for does nothing to diminish my enjoyment as I read.  I just like the way they do what they do so much that that dejà-vu factor doesn't matter.  I'll be reading Auster until I die, or he does.

I still don't know whether to score this one a hit or an out.  I don't see myself urging it on anyone, so it's probably not a hit -- but somehow, there he is on base, the sly veteran, taking a lead bigger than he has any business taking...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Timothy Liu, _Of Thee I Sing_

ANOTHER VOLUME I picked up because the author was giving a read in the vicinity.  I hadn't read a book by Liu before, and in fact this is not his most recent, but I liked it well enough to acquire the most recent one (For Dust Thou Art) as well.

Several poems follow the pattern of the first, "Ars Poetica" -- seven to ten short, end-stopped, double-spaced lines, highly disjunctive:

Even then those fissures could be seen.

Once a grand hotel in another age.

Yes it was, wasn't it, he said.

All the world day-trading suicide shares.

Sinking through the valves of sleep.

Crowned by spurts of milky jet.

The craft could be taught but not the art.

"Last Day," "Sine Qua Non," "Sturm und Drang," "Anniversary," "Of Thee I Sing," "La Divina," and "County General" proceed similarly, and I found myself looking forward to these recurring events, each of which gave me the feeling of an irregular polygon rotating slowly in my brain.  Nice.

Between these events were more familiar kinds of poems -- couplets, tercets, lots of enjambment, some autobiography ("Il Trittico"), some politics ("From Sea to Shining Sea"), some wit ("Bisexuality," "Getting There"), some anger ("Archaic Torso," "A Song of Experience), consistently skillful, occasionally passionate.  No rotating irregular polygons, though.

Obviously a versatile and polished writer, but I'm not sure I've found the thing that Timothy Liu and only Timothy Liu has.  Those polygons will keep me looking for it, however.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Joanna Klink, _Circadian_

PICKED THIS ONE up because Joanna Klink gave a reading locally; I was not familiar with her work before, but I'm happy to have made the acquaintance.

The volume is divided into three sections.  In the first, a relationship seems to be ending in some painfully civilized fashion, while winter descends. The climate of the season is no mere backdrop, however, as it usually gets more attention that the emotions of the speaker do, those emotions disappearing into the description the way they do in some Elizabeth Bishop poems ("At the Fishhouses" or "Cape Breton," which furnishes this volume with an epigraph).  What I particularly noticed was the syntax -- long, unscrolling, self-interrupting sentences that were trying to get away from something but kept coming back to it (see "Blue Ice" or the third section of "Raven").

The poems of the middle section are less syntactic than paratactic, marked by a weird lonely daring, an even more marked absorption in the natural world, though this a natural world that at times has a decidedly unnatural gleam to it, Wordsworth's "light that never was, on sea or land," the sea that Coleridge's Ancient Mariner sailed, the sea of Stevens's "Sea Surface Full of Clouds."

In the third section, we're back, almost, but we're not the same.  We've been affected by that alterity which is right beside us all the time but which we step into only on certain rare occasions, that alterity which we inhabited for quite a bit of that middle section.  "Why are things the way they are, and not some other way?" Klink asks in my favorite poem of the third section and the book, "Studies for an Estuary." That other-where where things are some other way, which we perhaps cycle in and out of as we cycle in and out of sleep and dreams, haunts the book, intangible and unnameable.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Allegra Goodman, _Intuition_

THIS WAS THE most recent volume to read for the book club my spouse and I belong to, and I might not have picked it up otherwise, but it did come well recommended; it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Maureen Corrigan of NPR is quoted on the back cover of the paper edition to the effect that "those who dismiss contemporary fiction" need to be bonked upside the head with Intuition so as to "knock some sense and humility into them."

I certainly agree with Corrigan that those who dismiss contemporary fiction need bonking upside the head, but I don't think I would do with Intuition. Goodman certainly does a convincing job evoking the world of a biological research lab. The characters are all plausible, with deftly sketched back stories and believably mixed motives.  The writing is consistently graceful, with a few strikingly memorable bits, like this description of Ithaca: "But then, even Cornell sounded lovely to his ears, the campus split with gorges, boulders sheathed in ice, and all the fields knee-deep in snow." Nice.

And the novel has thematic reach, too -- it turns on the contrast between the pains researchers take to eliminate as rigorously as possible all subjectivity from their experiments, and the inevitable complications of temperaments, ambitions, funding, and personalities swirling among the people doing those experiments. 

Well and good.  But to borrow Ron Silliman's phrase for a certain kind of poetry, this is a School of Quietude novel. I love Austen, I love Forster, but should people born after World War II be writing Austen and Forster novels?  True, there will be an audience for them.  True, they will sometimes be honored as New York Times Notable Books.  But is this the sort of thing we ought to be hoping for from contemporary fiction?  My answer is -- no.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Jennifer Moxley, _The Line_

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN volumes of poems and book-length poems grows ever more unchartable.  There are either 43 poems in the Jennifer Moxley's volume titled  _The Line_, or 43 sections in her long poem titled _The Line_, a distinction which perhaps matters only to the marketing department at the Post-Apollo Press, which one can scarcely imagine even having a marketing department.  So let's just say it's a good book.

The 43 poems are stylistically of a piece, all prose poems, all with the speaker situated in the intermediate stages between sleep and waking -- a feature I confess might well have eluded my notice had I not been alerted to it by the blurbs (from Alice Notley and Rosmarie Waldrop).  The "line" of the title may be a name for each morning's picking up of the thread of one's life that one released on going to sleep, though "line" suggests poetry, too, even though these poems are unlineated, and lines of descent, the continuation of the work of past poets in the that of the living.

Among the past poets invoked here is Rimbaud, whose "Jeunesse" furnishes the book's epigraph.  Rimbaud may have inspired the hints at synaesthesia ("Fingers the eyes' touch") or the dream-logic shape-shifting ("She was wearing a dress that looked like a book but actually was a baby"), and obviously the lending of attributes to the vowels ("Mimeology"), but The Line particularly resembles Une Saison en Enfer in sounding like a confession steeped in a poetics and suffused with a metaphysics.  "The End," "The Other Life," "The Vampire," and "The Pitiful Ego" seem to emerge out of some autobiographical matrix, but the poems seem less interested in whatever personal experiences birthed them than in the processes that turned the experiences into poems.

For this reason, Moxley seems even more akin to Laura Riding than she is to young master Arthur.  Riding writes of herself, but her experiences seem somehow in the middle distance rather than the foreground, and refracted through the prisms of philosophic and aesthetic speculation.  So with Moxley.  Fairly often ("The Cover-up," "The Local," "The Railing," "Old Systems of Enrollment") this occurs via an Ashberyan second-person-as-first-person ("Perhaps your reliance on inspiration accounts for your failing imagination") in which the poet seems to be writing poems based on observation of herself in the process of writing a poem.

Does it work?  Well, it did for me.  Couldn't put it down.  In that respect, certainly, you'd have to call the volume a long poem -- best read in one go.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

David Shields, _The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead_

THIS BOOK JOINS Art Spiegelman's Maus on the list of fine books about aging, fiercely vital, but exasperating fathers.  Right, yes, I know Spiegelman's book was really about the Holocaust, but do you remember anything about the book better than you remember Vladek, and is the Vladek of Rego Park one whit less memorable than the Vladek of Auschwitz?
Shields's book is largely about the waxing and waning of the human body over the life cycle, the infant body, the child body, the adolescent body, the youthful body in its reproductive prime, and the lengthy, inevitable, and really not very enjoyable decline once that prime is past.  Shields does this with numbers, mainly -- statistics assembled and presented as they might be by an actuary who happened to be a superb prose stylist. But there are also stories of Shields's own body, its bout with acne, its brief morning of prowess when he was a high school basketball player, his injuries, his fatherhood...all progressing steadily to the endpoint identified in the book's title. 
But in defiance of all statistics, all likelihood, all normal expectations, Milton Shields (originally Schildcrout) is still at cruising speed in his nineties, still running, still dating, still writing, still competitive, still likely to take his son down a peg when he deems it necessary, still driving his son crazy.  Milt Shields tracks through the book in rogue counterpoint to its story of quickly passing corporeal efflorescence and long, difficult corporeal withering -- he is ageless, indomitable, annoying.  One could say the portrait is ultimately loving and affectionate, but, erm, Tuesdays with Morrie it ain't; it isn't even Roth's Patrimony.  
Yet ultimately, what is it in the book that has fastened itself to your memory?  Milt Shields.  The reviewer in the New York Review of Books seemed under the impression that Milt's vitality was such that he somehow transcended his grumpy son's vain attempt to bring everybody down, but I wonder if the apotheosis of Milt wasn't exactly what Shields was going for, that apotheosis being achieved every bit as much by the sharp delineation of his flaws as it is by his vitality and refusal to age.  Oh, to have been there had the father of Kafka's "Letter to my Father," Vladek Spiegelman, Herman Roth (or his shadow, Jack Portnoy), and Milt Shields ever sat down for a game of gin rummy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Philip Roth, _Indignation_

WE'VE BEEN HERE before -- late 1940s Newark...Weequahic High...devoted, loving, but too-closely-hovering high maintenance parents...college in the midwest...head-butting with the authorities...not to mention the high-strung, sexually adventurous shiksa...but, you know, if I really minded Roth's tendency to re-juggle a few elements to create variations on his/Portnoy's/Zuckerman's/Tarnopol's bildungsroman, I would have stopped reading him long ago.  In fact, I mind not at all.  I just hope he keeps doing it.

Marcus Messner has come west to get out from under the oppressive, near-neurotic watchfulness of his kosher butcher father and finds himself at Winesburg College in -- well, Ohio, where else?  Not being the reader that Roth or Zuckerman is -- like Portnoy, he leans more to the lawyerly, with a penchant for rights, liberty, and justice -- Marcus does not mention Sherwood Anderson, but he is as incongruous and unassimilable a presence on campus as  he would be in Anderson's collection of linked stories.  

To judge from Roth's memoir The Facts, he himself had a great experience at Bucknell -- fun-loving fraternity brothers, doting English faculty, generous girlfriend, indulgent landlady -- but nothing goes right for Marcus.  Bad roommates, awful off-campus job, rapidly-escalating arguments with deans that end in sudden vomiting and being rushed to the hospital -- even the oral sex spontaneously and abruptly performed on him during a first date ends up simply causing him more grief.  His fraternity brothers set him up with a scheme to get him out of compulsory chapel that backfires, getting him kicked out of Winesburg, only to be drafted, only to be sent to Korea...

...where he dies.  He is dying over the course of the narrative, apparently, "under morphine," as a chapter title tells us, being desperately worked on by medics as his memories of college unspool.  He doesn't make it.

The novel's most dramatic event,  though, is a panty raid at Winesburg, a snowball fight that releases just enough young male frustration that it intensifies, accelerates...errr, snowballs into a dionysian, hormone-fueled descent on the women's dorms, vandalism, outrages, police, etc. The ringleaders are swiftly expelled.  

An epilogue titled "Historical Note"  contrasts the severe, remorseless, and even (given the draft) potentially fatal punishment given the panty raiders to the half-hearted resistance put up to campus protesters a generation later. Is Roth belatedly indignant about authority's soft hand with the Viet Nam protesters of the late 1960s?  I'm reluctant to think so -- there was no soft hand evident at Kent State, also in Ohio -- but on the evidence of American Pastoral, he doesn't take that generation as seriously as it takes itself.  The college president's post-debacle address to the student body (217-24) is richly indignant, and while reading it, I shared his indignation -- as I did Marcus's, and Marcus is one tightly-coiled spring of indignation, ready to jump out of himself and ricochet all over the room.

Indignation may be the watchword of late Roth, even more than is the drumbeat of memento mori in the The Dying Animal, Everyman, and Exit Ghost.  Exit Ghost sticks in the memory as much for Zuckerman's Election Day 2004 indignation as for anything else, and The Plot Against America is, as just about everyone noticed, as much about the Bush administration as it is about alternate history.  The rage in late Roth is not against the dying of the light but against the criminals in power who have disgraced this country that Roth, in his Rothian way, loves.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Frederick Seidel, _Ooga-Booga_

HOW ODD THAT this should be the next book I finished after finishing Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs.  Spahr's awareness of injustice and oppression and her sense of responsibility and conscience are so acute as to be at times nearly painful.  Seidel seems...well...relatively slack in such matters.

"A naked woman my age is a total nightmare."  Yikes.  A good many poems here about the sexual pursuit, apparently often successful, of younger women,and almost as many about acquiring super-high-end Italian motorcycles and riding them too fast.  Without a helmet, I bet.

Then there's the phrase that provides the volume with its title.  It occurs in a poem called "Barbados," which evokes the island's history of slavery and the continuing effects of racism, racism which Seidel evokes without doing any obvious apotropaic gestures to clue us in that this racism is not at all his.  "You want to consider me racist? Hey, knock yourself out.  Be my guest," the poem seems to tell us.  Then, in "Mother Nature," he writes of native Americans in the meter of..."Hiawatha."  Then he quotes "Hiawatha" to make sure you got it.

Modern poetry is not supposed to rhyme, or at least not rhyme conspicuously, or at the bare minimum not rely on the unstressed-final-syllable rhymes that infallibly call to mind Dr. Seuss or Ogden Nash.  Seidel didn't get the memo:

Her spirited loveliness
Does cause some distress.
She makes my urbanity undress.
I present symptoms that express
An underlying happiness in the face of the beautiful emptiness.

The same poem ("For Holly Andersen") rhymes "cosmopolitan" with "Neapolitan." Whoosh.

Basically, Seidel breaks about every rule.  And the book is great.

Why is this?  I'm still wondering.  "The Bush Administration" and "The Death of the Shah" are as strong as any other contemporary political poems.  Again and again the language is just simply arresting: "My brain is the wrinkles of the ocean on a ball of tar"; "The F-16s take off in a deafening flock"; "Spreading their wings in order to be more beautiful and more terrible."
There is something bracing, too, in his just being as indifferent as he is to what people might think.

Apparently Seidel is and has always been independently wealthy -- that is, he doesn't need foundation grants, or prizes, or plum teaching positions in prestigious schools, or even good reviews (though to judge by the back of the paperback he gets his share).  So he can just let it rip.  (Merrill was in the same lucky position -- which is about the only thing the two have in common, I'd say.) There is something appealing in watching someone who is that free.

Have to admit, though, Adam Kirsch's approbation of Seidel worries me.  Adam Kirsch has the worst taste of anyone who publishes frequently about poetry, and he likes Seidel, it seems.  An ominous sign.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Juliana Spahr, _This Connection of Everyone with Lungs_

THE GENERALLY ADMIRING notice paid to Juliana Spahr's most recent book reminded me that this one had been on my shelves for a while without my getting to it.  So I got to it, and I'm happy I did.

Only two poems: "Poem Written after September 11, 2001," about ten pages long, and "Poem Written from November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003," a sequence of dated poems, about sixty pages altogether.

The first poem contains the phrase that gives the volume its title, and is built around the idea that everyone breathes, a simple enough idea, which Spahr elaborates in a way that's a bit like Gertrude Stein writing "The House that Jack Built," but by the end...well, imagine how difficult-to-impossible it would be to write a poem about September 11th that is true to the horror of that day, but is also just, dignified, honest, and in a grieving way hopeful.  But the poem accomplishes that.

The longer poem is about the drum-beating prelude to the invasion of Iraq, and once again I am reminded of Whitman, of all people, as I was reminded of him by Lisa Robertson. Here, I think it's the simultaneity of the intimate and quotidian with the public and historical, the Whitman of "When Lilacs Last...," perhaps.  This makes for some startling tonal jumps ("During the bombing, beloveds, our life goes on as usual"; "When I reach for yours waists, I reach for bombers, cargo, helicopters, and special operations").  Whitmanian too are the catalogues, in this case the avalanche of information the poet finds herself under as she earnestly tries to keep up with the news ("I speak of David Letterman's shingles..." and of Christie Brinkley, Rachel Corrie, Gisele Bundchen, Elizabeth Smart...).

Spahr is trying hard to understand, to determine the right thing to do and do it.  This is political poetry, but it isn't poetry of witness, quite, unless watching th enews is a kind of witness -- Spahr repeatedly reminds us that her own personal situation is pretty nice, living in Hawaii with a couple of people she loves (her solution of the problem of the English language's lack of a second person plural is simple but effective, I think).  It isn't the poetry of exhortation, either.  And it isn't even the poetry of "I sure am a damn sight more sensitive to the world's suffering than you are, you big oaf" -- naming no names.  

She does seem to be asking a lot of herself, and the poem does in some ways foreground how much she is asking of herself, how hard she is trying to grasp her degree of complicity, as an ordinary U. S. citizen, in the approaching war, and I did feel often enough that she was setting an example I should be trying harder to live up to. But she didn't seem to be trying to make me feel that way -- and she was honest enough to admit that in many ways she is in as lucky a situation as a person could be in.  Well, I need to read the new one.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Christian Hawkey, _Citizen Of_

AS A FAN of Hawkey's first volume, The Book of Funnels, I was looking forward to this one, which I have only now gotten around to (it came out last year).  I will certainly be on board for the third.

I have some questions -- why the extra-large "O" in the word "of" on the book's cover?  Not merely an accidental design feature, I'm guessing, since other "O"s centered by themselves on an otherwise empty page demarcate the sections of the volume. "O"s also saliently occur in a few of the poems, not only in its usual (and here obviously self-conscious) rhetorically poetic role ("O my / beloved star-nosed mole / can I clean the soil / from your black, sightless eyes / [...]") but also as an image:

The black hole was not aware it was a hole
until it was uncovered. Then it became

a manhole, through which I fell through,
over & over. I tried to move the hole

but there was another hole
beneath it, which I fell through,

over & over, an O.

That's from "Hour," specifically the poem so titled on p. 82 -- there are eleven others titled "Hour," and another five with "hour" in the title, e.g., "Hour of a Mouth Packed with Flowers."  Is this the "O" a clock face, the twelve poems titled "Hour" the twelve hours marked on a clock face, the five...

Ehnnn.  Never mind.

Cleverness of some description is no doubt going on, but what kept me reading is the sheer power of Hawkey's verbal invention from line to line and poem to poem.  You literally can open the book, plop your finger on the page, and be relatively confident of finding something new and arresting.  One I liked, from "Debouchment as a Form of Stereognosis":

At least the bird's brain was focused
on something, something precisely the size of its brain.
[i.e., "a small grain of blonde millet"]
He closed his own eyes.  He gave it a try,  It was a vague,
gelatinous shape, like a milk-eyed infant king, or a huge collapsed pore
but that was as far as his lens would zoom.

"Stereognosis" means discerning the form of an object by touch -- is our man here trying to achieve knowledge of his own mind by imagining handling it?  It seems a Hawkeyan enterprise, I would say -- "The Enterprise," by the way, is the title of the volume's final poem, separated from the rest by its own "O", and in which the speaker seems both on the noted starship of that name and on a journey to the remoter provinces within his skull.

"Milk-eyed infant king." I don't know why I love that, but I do.

"Debouchment..." continues, "I pulled back / my forehead from the glass." This sent me back to a poem earlier in the volume, "Unwritten Poems," with the lines, "Another was little more than a smudge / left behind by a forehead resting / on a pane of glass."  Surreal Hawkey may be, but he certainly notices a lot -- not just the smudges on windowpanes, but the reasons they come to be there.

Also loved the way "Alien Corn" riffs off a phrase from Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" in a way that uncannily evokes another Keats poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."

I occasionally hear complaints about the quality of contemporary poetry -- those people just aren't looking hard enough. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lisa Robertson, _The Men_

THE MOST INTRIGUING book of poetry I've read in a while, I'd say.  Is it a long poem, The Men, in five sections ("Men Deft Men," "Evening Lit the Gnat," "A Record," "Of the Vocable," and "True Speech") or a collection titled The Men, containing five poems? I incline to the former view, both because of a variety of internal unities and because I am a man, and as a man I like large projects with many distinct parts, as Robertson notes: "How boring and fascinating the men. / I do this for them with structure and bigness."  And yes, structure and bigness are the royal road to my heart as a poetry-reading man.

The Men reminds me in passing of Ben Marcus ("Prior and excellent head of the boy/.../ I'm ready to believe / when speech slips out of the animal's head / it seems normal") and of Mathias Svalina's Why I am White, which also plays a fantasia on a much-discussed category of identity, but I am above all reminded, of all people, of Walt Whitman and "Song of Myself."

I think this may be because of Robertson's confident and capacious first person pronoun -- "I love it exceedingly and I satisfy my judgement," "I saunter somewhere" -- and because of her catalogues -- "hydromel in wildness and hydromel in the form of the world and hydromel dripping from the face, your face, the face of the men, hydromel filling the boats in the interminable night" -- or even because of some group swimming (62).  

(Hydromel, by the way, is "a mixture of honey and water that becomes mead when fermented." I take the image to function in the poem as shorthand for the relationship between men and alcohol.)

I think The Men most reminds me of "Song of Myself" because Whitman, as a man, felt empowered to speak of all men in general, and Robertson, as a woman, feels likewise empowered to speak of all men in general, in the process noticing some points Walt did not mention:

Let the thought here be planted
That the men want to float
Just the pink tip of their
Thing touching the firmament

My god, how did she know that?  But perhaps Walt did mention this, depending on how you look at the "headland" passage in "Song of Myself."

Robertson tends to give men a break, even when a break is not really merited ("The problematic politics adorable"), but points out some necessary home truths. "They cannot resist their own honour." "Men, we are already people." As someone old enough to remember Robin  Morgan's Monster, I appreciated -- loved! -- Robertson's tone, exasperated but wanting to help if we could be bothered to listen.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Geoffrey G. O'Brien, _Green and Gray_

O'BRIEN, LIKE HASS, teaches at  Berkeley, or at least did when this book came out last year. You wouldn't call him a "School of Quietude" poet, I'm guessing, though on the other hand some of his effects are quite reminiscent of Ashbery...if you model yourself on an avant-garde poet, are you therefore also an avant-garde poet?  Or a just a new species of quietudist? Hmm.

Not that I didn't enjoy the book -- I did.  But doesn't this --

You'll be asked questions, no doubt
will bleed privacy, will be allowed to leave
only the previous moments, may
in next ones be privileged to see
the permanent dissolve, passings
of orders from one hand to another
or by a look; in any event 
a chain that will concern you.

--sound like Ashbery, the parodically officious-yet-trying-to-be-kind tone, the apparently clear phrase that offers an enigma ("permanent dissolve")?  As in Ashbery, the vocabulary is familiar, the syntax elegantly conventional, the phrases seemingly transparent, yet the whole poems resist resolution into any unified meaning.  Which is exactly what I like about them.

In "They Met Only in the Evenings," a prefatory note mentions, all the lines are based on phrases from the Patriot Act, with a word from an English translation of Genet's Querelle substituted for one word in each line.  Which sounds like the sort of thing Ashbery might have gotten up to circa The Tennis Court Oath.  So not exactly a new thing, but a good idea at least.

"Hysteron Proteron" does not sound like Ashbery and is one of the more arresting poems here, as well as the longest.  The title refers to a rhetorical device in which a later event is named before an earlier-occurring one, and the last two pages are a dizzying rewind from 9/11 to Eve via various images from poems and lines of poetry, with Pynchon and Melville cropping up as well. I don't know why Milton's "pansy freaked with jet" is altered to "flower freaked with jet," but the accumulation of lines with towers, jets, falling, and death really sucks you down the whirlpool into the primordial soup...not what you would expect from a 9/11 poem, but it's one I expect to remember.

Robert Hass, _Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005_

ANOTHER PRIZE WINNER, National Book Award for Poetry in 2007.  I am obviously the kind of reader who motivates publishers to plaster those gold and silver medallions on their books.

Well, so be it.  The odds are undoubtedly against the National Book Award winner for poetry being the best book of poetry of the year, but on the other hand the book will very likely have a redeeming feature or two, at least.

I had only read a few anthology pieces by Hass before this (e.g., "Meditation at Lugunitas"), so he was something of an unknown quality for me, and I was definitely impressed.  He seems to be more or less a "plain language" guy, but one capable of stimulating leaps and swift, surprising closures -- an old dog more than capable of suddenly giving you a wink and executing a new trick.

I recently read an essay by Ron Silliman (on Ashbery's Three Poems) that contrasts the poets who seek to reinvent the way poetry is composed with "School of Quietude" poets who generally stick with more familiar or more traditional approaches.  I'm guessing Silliman would consider Hass a "School of Quietude" poet.  Which is OK with me, I think.  I'm old enough to appreciate a bit of quietude, if it's as skillful and intelligent as this. 

I need to scout out the volume with "Meditation at Lagunitas."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Anne Enright, _The Gathering_

LIKE REMAINDER, THIS one won a prize -- 2007 Man Booker.  A story of childhood  catastrophe/trauma that crucially shapes the protagonist's adult life, leading to strain in her marriage, concealment and resentment among her family, a brother's suicide.  

Does it seem an awful lot of Booker winners have a theme like this?  The Inheritance of Loss, The Sea, The God of Small Things, all involved long-term effects of some disaster in someone's childhood.  Atonement -- wait, that one didn't win.  How did that happen?

Anyway, I enjoyed the narrator's voice in The Gathering -- had that cutting Irish humor that spares nothing and no one, not even the narrator herself -- and things came together in a moving yet mostly believable way at the end.  It was something of a downer, though, a long gray day of a novel that seems endless.  I'm in no hurry to pick up another Enright.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tom McCarthy, _Remainder_

I PICKED THIS one up because it won a prize, of sorts -- most interesting novel of 2007 according to the editors of Believer magazine.  And it is certainly interesting.

The narrator, as a consequence of severe injury in an accident that, for legal reasons, he can't tell us about, but which seems to involve falling airplane parts, find himself millions of pounds richer but also "not himself," so to speak -- that is, an arduous course of rehab that involves analyzing and mindfully, painstakingly executing even his most natural, spontaneous actions has left him feeling as though he no longer fully inhabits his own personhood.

So, he begins spending the money constructing enormous  "re-enactments," with sets, scripts, actors, etc., that allow him for a few seconds or minutes at a time to feel that he is himself again.

The novel raises one good question after another.  Is the narrator an artist?  Is all art mainly an attempt to recapture some fleeting sensation, heavy with meaning when it occurred, that is of its nature not really recoverable?  When, in what conditions, are you "yourself"?  If you have a guess what those conditions are, can you contrive them, artificially (by art) bring them into being and thus through massive effort be yourself?  If you knew you could create a situation in which you could "be yourself," what would you sacrifice to create it?

All wrapped up with a disturbing if somewhat open ending.

By the way -- is there some large trend towards protagonists/narrators with some neurological glitch, some kink of cognition and/or memory that shapes the narrative decisively?  Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn qualifies, with its Tourette's Syndrome narrator, and this one does, since the narrator (does he have a name? can't find one) has some kind of neurological impairment due to the accident.  Then there is Mark Shluter in Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, who has something a lot like what the character in the new Rivka Galchen novel has.  Not that I've read it yet, just a review  -- nor have I read The Raw Shark Texts nor The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime, though those are obvious other examples.

This trend seems even taller & wider than that of ten years ago when every other novel included at least an episode, perhaps several chapters,  in post-Iron-Curtain Eastern Europe. 

And then some films as well -- Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

There are precursor texts for this: Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," Gogol's "Diary of  a Madman," Faulkner's Benjy Compson.  But why so many all at once, just now?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jonathan Lethem, _Motherless Brooklyn_

ANOTHER BACK CATALOG foray, as the only other novel I have read by Lethem is the book that followed this one, The Fortress of Solitude.

Motherless Brooklyn is a fine novel, and a prize-winning one (National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction) -- yet its winning that prize surprises me, because it's one of those honors that normally goes to literary fiction rather than genre fiction, and Motherless Brooklyn sure seems like classic noir detective fiction to me.  

Some literary fiction is obviously inspired by or modelled on genre fiction in general and detective fiction in particular -- Auster's New York Trilogy comes immediately to mind.  You would not actually mistake City of Glass for an honest to god detective novel, though, would you?  The metafictional games, the lack of resolution.... 

The blurb on the back of my copy of Motherless Brooklyn calls it a "compelling and compulsive riff on the classic detective novel," and a "homage to the classic detective tale," but in what respect is it a "riff" on or "homage" to the detective novel rather than, simply, a detective novel?

I can imagine someone asking, "if it's a good novel, who cares how you classify it?"  Reasonable point.  Classifying it as one thing rather than other does have practical consequences, though, such as where it is placed in the store and whether it will get serious consideration for, say, the National Book Critics Circle award.  So what makes a detective novel a "riff" on rather than an instance of its own genre -- hence in a more prestigious if typically less lucrative category?

Maybe our narrator?  Our narrator, Lionel Essrog, is quite a bit more interesting than Philip Marlowe (in my opinion) or Easy Rawlins or whoever we are following around in James Ellroy, not only because of his Tourette's -- did this book inspire the TV series Monk, do you suppose, with its neurologically-awry detective? -- but also because he develops and finds himself in the course of his investigations in a kind of frantically compressed bildungsroman.

Great ending, too -- although that alone makes it seems more genre fiction than literary fiction, as our literary fiction writers seem to have entirely misplaced the whole art of ending a novel.  So many novels that I very much liked -- Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, Jennifer Egan's Look at Me, Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, anything by Zadie Smith, even The Fortress of Solitude for that matter, left me thinking, "hmm...what?...that's an ending?"

Someone I once talked to had a theory: novelists sell a novel on the basis of the first few chapters, which consequently they slave over, get other opinions on, polish to a fine sheen and so on, but once they have a contract on the basis of those chapters it is in their interest to finish the rest as expeditiously as possible, and so we are now in the era of under-achieving endings of novels.

This could never happen with genre fiction, though -- you couldn't write a romance or a mystery unless you knew how it ended.  

So, since Motherless Brooklyn has a corker of an ending, it must be genre fiction?  Hmm, that won't work either, will it?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Marilynne Robinson, _The Death of Adam_

   FOR A FEW years, Marilynne Robinson and Jorie Graham must have been colleagues at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  And how did they get along, do you suppose?
   The subtitle of Robinson's collection is "Essays on Modern Thought."  So, what does she think of modern thought?  Not much, it turns out.  "I am sure I would risk offending if I were to say outright that modern thought is a failed project.  Still, clearly it partakes as much of error as the worst thinking it has displaced" (p. 69).
   Robinson dislikes that Darwin and Nietzsche and Freud, for instance, routinely get a great deal of respect and credit as founders of modern thought even though, if we take the trouble to read them, we find a lot of their ideas are definitely daft, and even though, when we trace out the effects of their historical influence, we come across much that is cruel, evil, unjust.
   She also dislikes that older thought -- religion, for instance, more particularly Christianity, and especially particularly the theology of John Calvin -- routinely gets dismissed as unenlightened and neurotic and without intellectual interest by people who never bothered to try to understand it, or gets dismissed as cruel, benighted, and oppressive in its influence on events by people unaware of the roles religious people have taken in, say, the abolition of slavery or German resistance against the Nazis ("Dietrich Bonhoeffer," "McGuffey and the Abolitionists").
   Well, more power to her.  Her discussion of Calvin -- rather cleverly camouflaged in an essay titled "Marguerite de Navarre" -- is a dazzling revelation if all you know of Calvin is "TULIP" and Balzac's historical novels -- such was the state of my knowledge before reading her essay.
   She seems awfully peeved for a lot of the book, though -- testy, impatient, even a bit defensive.  I wonder if this an effect of being a believer who necessarily spends lots of time around extremely well-educated people, secular-progressive-academic-vegetarian-recycling sorts of people, who tend to be unbelievers.  Most citizens of the US are believers and not at all embarrassed about it -- but in a college town like Iowa City, you would be encountering big clumps of the sort of people who read the neo-atheist apologias of Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and such, or at least read the reviews of these books and get reconfirmed in the idea that religion is bosh for bozos.  Frequent encounters with such folks seem to lie behind such testy testimonials as "Puritans and Prigs" and "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion," where Robinson gives those who think believers are dim-witted a good poke in the eye.  So to speak.
   I wish she had given fewer pokes  in the eye and more of the lyrical and moving, as in the beautiful, powerful essay"Psalm Eight," or even just more of the historical insight of "Marguerite de Navarre."  Oh well.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Jorie Graham, _Sea Change_

JORIE GRAHAM REMINDS me of W. B. Yeats -- not that she sounds like Yeats, because she doesn't at all, and even though they have some thematics in common (being in a body and living in time, the intersection of the individual and history), I don't mean that either.  She reminds me of Yeats in that he was perhaps the greatest poet in English of his time, as she may be of hers, and yet his poetry had little obvious relationship to the other great poetry of his time, as little as Graham's does to the other great poetry of hers.  They both seem apart, isolated, great as they are, and bound to stay that way.

Whenever I teach Yeats alongside Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens, Williams, H.D., etc., I always notice how unrelated what he is doing seems to be to what the others are doing.  His work, though involved in his historical moment and his place in numerous and complex ways, does not seem to be incorporating anything of poetry written in English after, say, 1900.  (Even Pound's editorial assistance doesn't keep Yeats from sounding like Yeats, I would say.)  The Oxford Book of Modern Verse that Yeats edited suggests that he just couldn't hear what the great poets of the 20s and 30s were up to.

This may help account for why Yeats is such a dead end as an influence.  The poets whose early work was obviously under his spell -- Auden, Berryman, Lowell, Plath -- had to shake him off in order to do important work.  Delmore Schwartz never did shake him off...en route to becoming a cautionary tale.  Heaney showed a bit of Yeatsian influence early and was canny enough to lose it and follow Kavanagh and Lowell instead, both of whom he could surpass.

Some poets make good influences: Bishop, Pound (n.b. as poet), Williams, even Eliot, I think, but Yeats -- no.  One cannot be much influenced by him without sounding as though one is imitating him, so he is a sort of dead end.

I think Graham is a sort of dead end as well.  Fairly often I come across work that seems influenced by hers, but the influence makes the work in question seem like an imitation, i.e., all too influenced by Graham, unable to do with the approach anything that Graham hasn't already done better.  Ashbery is a fructifying influence, I think, but being influenced by Graham just leads to a sort of off-brand Grahamishness.

Sea Change is more real Graham -- not quite the same as earlier Graham, to be sure, though recognizably her.  Along about Swarm and Never I was beginning to feel that Graham herself was succumbing to Grahamishness, but Overlord was stimulating and so is this new one.

Climate change seems to be on her mind; many of the poems begin with a reference to a time of day, or weather, or a season, and there is pervading sense of a civilization (or an administration) that has jumped the rails.  History hovers behind the lines.  But most often the poems start with a few stacatto bursts, then start unrolling in great sheets of phrases, more dashes and ampersands than periods, of that distinctive Graham phenomenology, witty then stumped, poignant then terrifying, veering from the just-barely-sayable into the unsayable.

She's great.  The greatest poet alive writing in English?  I think so, sometimes.  But anyone who wants to write poetry should be looking for influences elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stephen Marche, _Shining at the Bottom of the Sea_

If by chance you picked up a copy of this novel without its dust cover, you would assume it was an anthology of short fiction from Sanjania, a small island nation in the North Atlantic.  Everything about the volume, from the introduction to the "biographical notes" and "acknowledgements" on  the final pages, maintains this illusion, and "illusion" we have to call it, because Stephen Marche invented Sanjania, its history, and all of its extant literature, and the authors, scholars, and critics of that literature are his inventions, too.  

Nabokovian in its ingenuity -- Sanjania as Nova Zembla, 19 different John Shades, eight or so Kinbotes -- but with a tablespoon of Deleuze and Guattari on minor literatures, inflected with reminiscences of the literary histories of Australia, the Caribbean, Ireland, and Anglophone Africa.

There is the early popular vernacular literature, the dawn of realism, the ambition to follow the lead of great literary innovators of more powerful countries, the nationalist struggle, the attempt to reclaim with pride the vernacular for its associations with the oppressed, the attempts to evade the censorship imposed  first by the colonial masters and then by the dictators spawned by independence ("Caesar Little"... a little Caesar, clever touch!), exile, faculty positions at Bard College...

It began to bother me that Marche's skillful writerly gamesmanship takes for granted that the literary histories of post-colonial societies have, as it were, an isolatable and mappable cultural DNA that can be, as it were, cloned.  That the suffering and struggles of small, subaltern cultures can be reduced to quintessential episodes and personalities, their literatures persuasively mimicked...it began to feel condescending, in a way.  What about the writers in Australia, or Trinidad, or Kenya who actually had to wrestle with whether to write for a national or international audience, or who wound up imprisoned for what they wrote, or who had to endure exile?  Can it be OK to whip up a frothy literary fantasia based on all this actual pain?

About the time I was formulating these questions, I read a selection purportedly by Leonard King, purportedly the living lion of Sanjanian literature, purportedly nominated multiple times for the Nobel Prize, etc.  Titled "Histories of Aenea by Various Things," it's a tribute to his late wife, organized around various objects, places, and moments in their shared life.  It was deeply moving -- unforgettable, in fact.  Yet -- there is no Leonard King, no Aenea King, the island they inhabit is imaginary, so for whose loss, by whose grief was I moved?  Nobody's.  It was all the astonishingly powerful sleight of hand of fiction.  

But would I say Marche's story is somehow parasitical on the real grief of real widowers?  I would never say that.  I mean -- that would be to decry all fiction in general.  So was I not equally off-base to get my knickers in a twist because the whole of Marche's novel is parasitical on the real oppression faced by real subaltern cultures?  I was, I think.  

Can one be frothily literary and yet honestly address real pain?  Well -- Nabokov did.  Marche is not in that class yet, but he's someone to watch.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

David Foster Wallace, _Consider the Lobster and Other Essays_

SPEAKING OF BACK catalogue, I really ought to read Broom of the System and Girl with Curious Hair, having now caught up on DFW's other work to date by reading Consider the Lobster, which I enjoyed tremendously.

DFW is awfully fond of referring to things by their initials, so I'll follow his practice as a sort of homage.

As elsewhere in his work, DFW is preoccupied in this essay collection with our anxious search for the good, the beautiful, and the true in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, anxious because (a) a great deal of serious philosophical inquiry from at least Nietzsche onwards has powerfully undermined the assumptions and arguments that upheld our civilization's working notions of the good, the beautiful, and the true and because (b) in our consumer culture, spurious, ultimately treacherous false versions of TGTB&TT are constantly displayed before our greedy eyes in the form of flashy commodities that will end by simply disappointing and cheating us, creating cravings we can never satisfy.

But the search, though anxious, goes on, because we need the TGTB&TT.  So DFW keeps asking, can we do right?  We want to do right, don't we?  There must be a way!  I say more power to him, and as long as he keeps posing these questions, I'll keep wanting to hear what he has to say.  DFW's tribute to Joseph Frank's multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky insists that Dostoevsky (or, as DFW calls him, FMD) deserves our attention, respect, and admiration precisely because these questions mattered to him.  To my mind, DFW deserves that attention, respect, and admiration as well, for the same reason.  Whether writing of the porn industry, September 11, John McCain, or talk radio, DFW never lets the big questions get too far out of sight, even while recording the most minute journalistic details.

One big surprise: DFW is a SNOOT, that is, a member of  Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance, or possibly Syntax Nudniks Of Our Time, that is, "a really extreme usage fanatic."  In "Authority and American Usage," DFW comes out as someone who is heart-attack serious about misplaced modifiers, "less" when you should say "fewer," "dialogue" as a verb, and so on.  (Not about "hopefully," though, an intriguing departure.)

This surprised me because DFW's prose is so chewily colloquial, so much like an insanely knowledgeable guy on too much coffee inserting subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses, so full of "-ish" and "-wise" nonce modifiers and "pretty much" and loose-fit relative clauses (even in the book on the mathematician Cantor), that I never would have guessed he is an old schooler with a ruler when it comes to usage.  But he is!

And his mother is.  Which makes one recall Hal Incandenza's mother in Infinite Jest, also a SNOOT (Mrs. Incandenza is the SNOOT, not Infinite Jest -- I'm picking up here on DFW's helpful habit of using parenthetical identifications to clear up ambiguities).  I hope Mrs. Incandenza has no other link to DFW's mom, because Mrs. Incandenza is...well...awful, really, I would say.  Gertrude and all that.  

Monday, June 23, 2008

Richard Powers, _Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance_

ANOTHER CASE OF my going back to read an early novel by a writer whose work I started following mid-career -- in Powers's case, with Galatea 2.2, which intriguingly enough contained accounts of the origins and composition of his four previous novels, including the one I just finished, his first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.

Three Farmers is quite a bit like the later Powers novels I have read in being contrapuntally structured, with three distinct narrative lines that begin by seeming unrelated, then intertwine and approach each other without quite meeting throughout the book, finally to resolve and reconcile in the end.   (The other novels of his I've read have two lines, not three, but to the same effect.)  It is like the others too in being markedly cerebral, grappling large ideas and encompassing wide reading, in this instance about the history of photography and the era of World War I.

It's also unlike his later novels in some ways -- one, the narrative voice sounds like a wise-ass rather too often.  Had I read the book when it was published, in 1985, when I was 31, I probably would have enjoyed this tone more -- well, my loss.  The other difference is that none of the female characters in the novel seems even close to real.  Couple of salty gals, junior and senior divisions (Wies/Mrs. Scheck), a too-good-to-be-true sweetheart (Alison Stark), an ethereal, touched-with-divine-madness artist, but none of them seem quite plausible.  Compared to Laura in Gain and Karin in The Echo Maker, two unforgettable female Powers characters, the women in this book seem almost not even there.  

Amazing book all the same, though.  The sense of historical change and our occluded but real connection to the past were what he was really going for, I suspect, and those things are wholly there.  I have yet to read a Powers novel I wouldn't recommend highly.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Don DeLillo, _The Names_

I STARTED READING Don DeLillo with White Noise, and have kept up since, with an intermittent ambition to go back and read the pre-White Noise novels.  The first two I went back to pick up on were Great Jones Street and End Zone -- both likeable, but neither would have made a convert of me had I read them at the time they were first published, I suspect.  The Names, however, strikes me as DeLillo at his amazing best.

The prose is breathtakingly good.  This short paragraph, for instance:

"Star fields, ruined time.  Nearby a man with a flashlight and donkey hauling garbage in black bags.  The hill was empty depth against the streaming night, the medieval sky in Arabic and Greek.  We drank dark wine from Paros, too full of night and sky to use the candles."

The state-of-the-nation stuff, always one of the most compelling aspects of any DeLillo novel, is also strong:

"'America is the world's living myth [says narrator James Axton, a "risk analyst" who collects data for an insurance company that underwrites terrorism insurance for various international corporations].  There's no sense of wrong when you kill an American or blame America for some local disaster.  This is our function, to be  character types, to embody recurring themes that people can use to comfort themselves, justify themselves and so on.  We're here to accommodate.  Whatever people need, we provide.  A myth is a useful thing.  People expect us to absorb the impact of their grievances.  Interesting, when I talk to a Mideastern businessman who expresses affection and respect for the U.S., I automatically assume he is either a fool or a liar.  The sense of grievance affects all of us, one way or another.'"

Check that copyright date: 1982.  Uncanny, no?  

James is trying to reconnect with the wife from whom he is separated and their son, and is side-tracked by his curiosity about a murder cult that picks its victims according to some pattern of alphabetical coincidences.  Both situations are opened up by DeLillo so as to seem bottomless, infinite in their ramifications, and neither reaches any definite closure -- are we in DeLillo territory or what?  

Got to get more.  Ratner's Star, perhaps?

Monday, June 16, 2008

David Bezhmozhgis, _Natasha_

If Gary Shteyngart is the Roth of the new Russian Jewish emigré North American fiction -- and surely he is, with the extravagance of narrative incident, the teasingly-close-to-autobiographical characters, the playfulness with form -- then is David Bezhmozghis the Malamud?  The intelligent narrators revealed by events to be disastrously naïve in some critical aspect, the sense of humor as dry as the Negev, the terrible burden of Jewishness that is so terribly loved, the mercy the author extends to the schlimazels of this earth?

Or -- since all the stories are about the same utterly idiosyncratic family and narrated by the same member of it, is he the Salinger?

Enh, I don't know.  But he's damn good.  Every story in here works, and "Tapka," "Natasha," and "Minyan" will be with me for a long time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Charles Burns, _Black Hole_

ADOLESCENCE AS DISEASE?  Well...of course.  First, your body betrays you, puberty distending and remoulding you, making you barely recognizable to yourself.  Others began to regard with you suspicion; you become an object or surveillance, possibly segregation.  You are surrounded, at school, with fellow-sufferers, but suspicion reigns here as well, and you know not whom to trust or even whether you yourself are trustworthy.  You may be able to sneak out to the woods once in a while, and find some simpatico companions... but are you sure you can trust even them?

Charles Burns's Black Hole is both an outlandish drive-in horror flick -- teenagers in the Pacific Northwest come down with an unnamed plague that affects each victim a different way, one growing a tail, another growing a mouth in his throat that mutters unwelcome truths, another periodically shedding her skin, etc. -- and a poignantly true depiction of being a teenager.  Judging from certain details (in one panel, a high school girl's record collection is seen to include Neil Young's Harvest and Joni Mitchell's Clouds), Burns's characters are my exact contemporaries, and their world is one I remember.  It's a world intelligible to none but themselves; to their parents, it's as remote as Mars or ancient Sumeria. Even amongst themselves, the codes shift so suddenly and arbitrarily that the characters have to scrutinize their own and others' behaviors for clues as to what is really going on.  Anxiety.  Dread.  Adolescence.

Does anyone here get out alive?  Keith and Eliza, perhaps, heading south in a car for warmer and drier climes, some "perfect, quiet little town," away from the madness -- but don't they carry the plague with them, wherever they go?  Chris, floating in the book's final pages out to colder, deeper waters, seems certain to drown -- or does she escape into the galaxy at which she gazes?

The artwork continually amazes.  However did Burns contrive to work with all that black?  How did he manage so meticulous a line?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Roberto Bolaño, _Amulet_ (tr. Andrews)

THIS IS the third novel of his I've read, and I plan to read more, but what is it about them that appeals to me?

This one, like the others I have read, contains characters inspired by people he knew and associated with, apparently highly recognizable if you happened to be hanging out where Bolaño was hanging out in the later 60s and early 70s.  The narrator of Amulet is Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguayan poet who emigrates to Mexico to be the queen of Mexican poetry, becomes good friends with a variety of writers and artists both older and younger than herself, and at one point spends a dozen days in the bathroom of the department of philosophy and literature when the Mexican army occupies the campus in the fall of 1968, after the infamous Tlateloco massacre. I gather from an April, 2007 article in The Nation that a Uruguayan poet named Acira had more or less the same experience.

In fact, I'm not sure the whole novel doesn't take place in the bathroom, with Auxilio both recalling the past and foreseeing the future as she anxiously listens, perched in a toilet stall, to the sound of army boots in the corridor.  The novel is organized around her own own account of her experiences, always circling back to the tiles in that besieged bathroom.

The final chapter contains one of the most astonishing passages I've read in recent years: a poetic vision of the massacred students of 1968, a lyrical memorial to their ideals and their...martyrdom, if one can put it that way.

What is it about Bolaño?  I picked up By Night in Chile just out of curiosity and a bit out of duty, latest buzzworthy Latin American author and so on, ought to check it out  -- but then by the second page I was hooked, hooked, hooked.  But he's one of those writers who are more interesting than anything one can say about them.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Judith Butler, _Undoing Gender_

THIS IS the fifth Judith Butler book I've read, and at least once in the course of reading each, I asked myself why I was beating my poor head on the brick wall of Butler's prose.  It usually occurred when I realized in reaching the bottom of a page that I had no idea what she was talking about.  But I would re-read the page, flip back to earlier pages to review what the main direction was, and soldier on, and I was always glad I did.  

If a writer's terrain is the badly-named, the dis-articulated, the mis-understood, the not-yet-recognized, well then, her writing is going to be one continual departure from the way that terrain has been written about before, and she is going to be hard to understand.  So be it.  It's worth it -- the enlargements of my mental horizon that I took away from the chapters "Longing for Recognition" and "The End of Sexual Difference?" alone were worth it.

The biographical spirals in the last two chapters I especially prized.  Butler has always seemed Olympian to me -- that is, if I stopped to think about it, I understood that she had gone to a kindergarten, that she bought groceries, had a Visa bill, and such, but my normal mode is to think of her as having emerged full-grown from the brow of Foucault and to inhabit some remote sphere from which she occasionally descends to earth to offer some timely and wise intervention.

In "The Question of Social Transformation," though, we get all this interesting stuff on the genesis and reception of Gender Trouble, and in "Can the 'Other' of Philosophy Speak?" we get all this even more interesting stuff about quarrelling parents, reading her mother's old college text of Spinoza in the basement...and it turns out she's Jewish, too!  Who knew?  Well, probably a lot of people, but not me.  I've never laid eyes on Judith Butler, actually -- just read several of her books.  But this was like finding out Dylan had had a bar mitzvah.  Dylan?  Really? 

So what I want now is a memoir by Judith Butler. I recall back in the 90s there were quite a few major academics getting autobiographical, Jane Tompkins, Frank Lentricchia, Alice Kaplan, a trend that was allowed to die a merciful death, true, but this would be different -- this would be Judith Butler, for crying out loud!  I haven't been this tantalized since that little excursus on Allan Bloom in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet.  Let's have her memoir, too!

Chris Hedges, _American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America_

HEDGES'S THESIS is right in his title, conveniently enough: the contemporary U. S. religious right -- D. James Kennedy, James Dobson, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the people trying to wrestle intelligent design into public school curricula, the people keeping the Left Behind series on the bestseller list, "dominionists" --  is disturbingly similar in its rhetoric, its emphases, and its psychological structure to the fascist movements that took control of Italy and Germany in the 20s and 30s of the last century.

Each of Hedges's chapters begins with an epigraph from one or another analyst of fascism (Stern, Arendt, Thewelheit, Bonhoeffer), and the book begins with Umberto Eco's "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt."  Most of the explicit support of the thesis is in the first and last chapters, with the body chapters focusing on topics such as the religious right's quarrel with reason and science, its hyperventilating about masculinity, its sense of persecution, its desire to stifle disagreement, and so on... all of which do strikingly resemble various episodes in the history of fascism, especially in its gathering-popular-strength phases.

So -- Hedges makes a valuable and even necessary case here.  There should be no laughing off of these folks.  They mean it, and they perhaps can even make it happen if our national situation worsens.

I did find myself disliking Hedges's own righteous tone at times, though.  Making the point that for Christian fundamentalists "evolution is terrifying," Hedges states: "The miracles they insist they see performed around them, the presence of the guiding, comforting hand in their lives, the notion that there is a divine destiny specially preordained for them, crumbles into dust under the cold glare of evolution" (114).  Evolution has a glare?  The glare, moreover, has a temperature?  This low-temperature glare can reduce intangible entities to dust?  Good grief.  The agreement error (since the subject of "crumbles" must be "miracles" + "presence" +"notion," it ought to be "crumble") tips us off that Hedges is not really paying attention to what he is saying here.  He's too carried away with the vision of the pathetic needs of these pathetic people being zapped by the death-ray-vision of  The Origin of Species.

Or this on 147,  about the foot-soldiers of the movement: "The emotion-filled religious spectacles and spiritual bromides compensate for the emptiness of their lives."  How does he know these people's lives are empty -- or any emptier than yours or mine or his?  Don't we all like a little spectacle?  Aren't we all susceptible to some bromide or other?  Why the condescension?

Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming wasn't necessarily a better book than this, but she did at least spend enough time with some members of the rank-&-file of the Christian Right to be able to see them and present them as individuals rather than as mesmerised hordes.

I wish more people read Georges Bataille's essay "The Psychological Structure of Fascism."  He's more acute on what made fascism work than a lot of people, I think, and he would be useful at this moment when, as Hedges is all too correct in pointing out, we face a similar crisis.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Peter Gay, _Modernism: The Lure of Heresy_

I DOUBT anyone but Peter Gay could have written this book -- a survey of the modernist impulse in several different arts as practiced on both sides of the Atlantic, from the 1840s to about the 1960s.

Part Two, "Classics," is the largest part of the book, 300 of its 500 pages, but not the most interesting.  Lucid, knowledgeable, gracefully written accounts of major figures in painting and sculpture, music and dance, literature, architecture, drama and film -- very nice, but if you know anything about the history of these arts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this is the stuff you already know.

Parts One ("Founders") and Three ("Endings") made the book memorable for me, precisely because these sections on the historical circumstances and cultural connections of modernism have to do with matters Gay, an historian of staggering erudition in the arts and culture, is uniquely qualified to describe.  Patronage gets a lot more attention here than in other accounts of modernism, as does the role of certain crucial critics as official exegetes/publicists for art that was doing its damnedest to be unassimilable to any known canons of taste.  This is a much more situated & contextualized account of modernism than we usually get.  Gay also says some very apt things about modernism and the rise of totalitarianism.

I was a bit let down, however, by the final chapter, "Life After Death?".  Gay argues that modernism was basically finished by 1960 or so -- fair enough -- but seems to think that means there was little art of interest after this date.  He likes Garcia Marquez and Grass and Gehry -- again, fair enough -- but finds little else to admire in the art of the last 40 or 50 years.  Consider this, from p. 499: "But it is true that nowadays there are virtually no novelists whose announcement of a new work of fiction would make lovers of high literature rush out to a bookstore and buy it."

Maybe I'm not a "lover of high literature" -- though I read and love Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka,  Woolf, Proust, Mann, and the other modernist novelists Gay gives particular attention to -- but there are actually quite a few novelists whose new novels I acquire as soon as they appear and read as promptly as I can manage.  

In no particular order:  Paul Auster, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ben Marcus, Don DeLillo, Edmund White, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Shirley Hazzard, Mary Gaitskill, John Banville, Salman Rushdie...

It does not seem to me that we are in a slack time for literature at all, either in fiction or in poetry.  Or in music (Steve Reich) or dance (Mark Morris) or painting (Anselm Kiefer) either, for that matter.  

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Katha Pollitt, _Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories_

I have loved Katha Pollitt's writing ever since her bi-weekly column in The Nation began running, however many years ago that was -- back in the Clinton Administration, I think -- and I loved this book even more than I love her columns.  Like her columns, the essays in Learning to Drive are smart, funny, original, and obviously written by someone who loves words, loves the possibilities of syntax, and knows what she is about with both.

The title essay, "Learning to Drive," and a companion piece, "Webstalking," are set during what seems a fairly awful and protracted recovery period after breaking up with a partner who was spectacularly unfaithful and then abandoned her.  I gather from some reviews that there has been some controversy over whether it is OK or not-really-OK that Pollitt is as revealing of her weaknesses as she is in these pieces.  What I gathered from no review, but wish someone had pointed out, is that both essays, especially "Learning to Drive," are masterpieces.  

"In the Study Group" is another masterpiece, almost a novel in miniature: a group of radicals has so completely refined their critique of the historical dialectic that they find themselves with no need to organize, proselytize, or hit the streets at all.  They need only keep reading, write occasionally, and above all, continue to talk.  Anyone could have satirized this group, and Pollitt can make visible their folly as well as Mary McCarthy or Elizabeth Hardwick could have, but she can make you ache for their idealism as well.

The essays about her father ("Good-Bye, Lenin"), her mother ("Mrs. Razzmatazz"), and her daughter ("Beautiful Screamer")... masterpieces all.  The essay on her daughter brought back the days of my own daughters' infancies more vividly than our photo albums do.

I'm not at all surprised that Pollitt is as effective in the mile-runs of her longer essays as she is in the sprints of her columns, but what a delight that she turns out to be even better.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nicholson Baker, _Human Smoke_

I've been a fan of Nicholson Baker since The Mezzanine, have read each of his books soon after publication, and have admired and enjoyed them all (in the spirit of full disclosure pioneered by Baker's U & I, however, I should confess to not finishing Double Fold).  The title of this very blog, in fact, was inspired by the final essay in Baker's The Size of Thoughts. I admired and enjoyed Human Smoke, too, departure though it is.
There is the heft of the volume, for one thing.  Balancing the tome in my hand after locating in the book store -- which took a few minutes, as I had begun by vainly searching in "fiction" before being directed to "history" -- I wondered, how does a miniaturist write a 500-page book?  The answer turned out to be, by writing about a thousand miniatures.  

Human Smoke is a gathering of about that many news items, diary excerpts, and quick anecdotes from about 1917 to the end of 1941, focusing most intently on the approach of World War II and that war's first two years.  It ends with Pearl Harbor and the Wannsee Conference, with Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, and the holocaust plainly foreshadowed -- and fittingly, because the book's main subjects are the destruction of the European Jews and the aerial bombardment of cities.  Human smoke is what is produced by the burning of human bodies.

There is no consecutive narrative in the book, no consecutive argument.  The effect, though, is of some narrative of the approach, outbreak, and early stages of the war, with all the connecting transitions between the vivid stories and striking quotations removed, or of some argument about the sheer inhumanity of the war, with all abstract discussion and generalization removed...an effect emphasized by the book's design, with an inch of white space around each brief item, creating the impression that the dull filler of conventional history has been omitted.
There is a narrative, though, and an argument, as every reviewer has noted.  The narrative is about the Allies' at first tentative, then eager embrace of the strategy of bombing cities, with the inevitable civilian casualties.  As for the argument, Baker comes clean in the last paragraph of the acknowledgements at the book's close, dedicating his work to the "British and American pacifists" who tried to "stop the war from happening": "They failed, but they were right."
Hmm.  I don't think so.  But Baker has nonetheless done something amazing.  Through selection and juxtaposition of small details from a staggering number of sources (all published, though -- no secret hitherto-unknown archives, just things available to anyone who could get to a good library), in a prose style so scrupulously neutral he seems to be making no judgements at all, he had me equating the aerial bombardment of cities with Auschwitz.  Not because he insisted I equate them -- I'm not sure even he equates them -- but that conclusion loomed up with every turned page, without his ever drawing it.
I don't think the two are equivalent any more than I think the pacifists were ultimately right.  But the idea I lazily had, probably from a boyhood of reading about the bomber and  fighter pilots of WW II, and even after an adolescent reading of Catch-22, that the Allied bombing of cities was a grim necessity forced on the reluctant Roosevelt and Churchill by the desperate exigencies of a just war -- well -- that's gone.  The strategy had been contemplated and prepared for even before the war started, and was deliberately chosen even though no one had any illusions that more than a few of the bombs dropped would hit their intended "military" targets.  Meanwhile, the whole grim-necessity-forced-on-reluctant-leaders-by-desperate-exigencies-of-a-just-war rhetoric was also being used by the Nazis as they started on the Final Solution.
Baker even quotes some Nazi propaganda to the effect that what they were doing to the Jews was necessary because of the bombing.  I had to balk here.  Surely Baker is not so naïve as to think the Nazis would have left the Jews alone had German cities not been bombed.  But did the bombing hasten the creation of the death camps?  Provide a pretext that otherwise would have been longer in coming, the delay perhaps allowing more to survive?
So -- Nicholson Baker has always been smart, funny, observant, and honest, and I would guess a really fun dad, and I'm now going to add "a serious writer of conscience," some folks' huffiness about Checkpoint notwithstanding.