Loads of Learned Lumber

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.