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.