Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Steve Gehrke, _Michelangelo's Seizure_

A GREAT IDEA for a collection -- poems about painters and paintings -- but an idea that easily could gave gone oh so wrong. But not here. This is a good book.

The poems are at times ekphrastic, but take frequent detours into the life of the painter, into his (all the painters are male) circumstances and his memories, into the conflicts and disasters of the painting's historical moment, and into the physical act of depositing and moving paint on a canvas.

Gehrke's syntax makes this work. The long, unscrolling, sentences, as rhizomatically elaborated as Proust's, drift associatively from past to present, concrete to abstract, near to remote, suggesting by their sinuosity the multiple points of origin that can end in a single work of art.

"The Raft of the Medusa" is a case in point. It begins by evoking the horrible event the painting later depicted, bends into Géricault's visits to morgues to make studies for the painting, shifts into his recently-terminated affair with his aunt, then concludes with the painting's becoming an expression of discontent with the recently-restored French monarchy. This happens over the course of 13 5-line stanzas and just seven sentences.

In this sentence -- the sixth -- the image of Géricault at his canvas unfolds into imagery of the shipwreck of the Medusa due to its incompetent aristocratic commander, the mutiny that occurred on the raft, the affair with its aunt and its end, and the betrayals of another older-male-authority-figure, the king:

Still, there's something unfinished in the scene,
something not quite said, until, later, in his uncle's
bed, floating on the buoyancy of hips, he
and his aunt rowing towards completion, her body

splashing up through the bottom of his own, he looks
down into the smoke and oil of her eyes
and feels something like mutiny rise up inside
of him, so that he understands he really
could leave his uncle weeping on the floor, overthrown,

though, all at once, he feels marooned when he has come,
his aunt turning away from him again,
dressing quickly, sighing, "What have we done?"
so that watching her smooth the covers
with her palm, the canvas remakes itself inside of him again,

the scene shaded now with all the broken oaths of France,
lives cut off by the velocity of guillotines,
the constitution unrolled like a carpet for the King
to walk across on his way back to the throne.

The loose blank verse feel here is typical of the book as well -- all in all, there's something of Browning here, with third-person-interiority substituted for first person, the allusiveness a little less recondite, the syntax a little less baroque, the rhythm a little more supple. Is Gehrke the new Richard Howard? I have no idea whether he would like the idea, but Michelangelo's Seizure has a lot of what made Untitled Subjects a favorite of mine.

Friday, December 25, 2009

George Saunders, _The Braindead Megaphone: Essays_

SAUNDERS IS AMONG my favorite contemporary fiction writers, so I was looking forward to this. It was slightly disappointing, however.

Like David Foster Wallace, Saunders has a kind of perfect pitch for the peculiar deformations and degradations of our current public discourse -- he can revealingly mimic the tone and texture of the self-serving news release and the dishonest government announcement, the high-gloss bullshit of management seminars, advertising, bureaucracies. In his best short stories -- for instance, the title stories in the collections Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation -- he enables us to see the actual cruelty and callousness this graceless, anodyne language tries to camouflage, and to sense the frustration of characters trying to describe their real pain with flimsy self-help book clichés.

Unlike Wallace, Saunders does not have an interesting prose-voice that is distinct and separate from his parody-of-debased-discourse voice. He seems himself aware of this problem, which he tries to palliate with Ironic Capitalization, by means of which the disagreeably uninformed phrase "some village guy" becomes "Some Village Guy," Saunders signalling that yes, he does sound like a shallow American journo-tourist, but at least he knows he sounds like one. This tic might not have bothered me if I had been reading the essays singly in periodicals, but read three in a row and it decidedly grates.

There are some worthwhile things in here, though. "Ask the Optimist!" is really more of a story than an essay, Saunders writing as a relentlessly cheery advice columnist whose life falls apart over the course of the column -- lots of elbow room for Saunders's ability to mimic debased discourse here, obviously.

There are two lovely literary tributes, to Donald Barthelme's great short story "The School" and to Esther Forbes, author of Johnny Tremain, the first book Saunders loved.

And there is "The United States of Huck," one of the most interesting essays I've read on Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Saunders skillfully navigating between the Scylla of condemnation and the Charybdis of admiration in getting at what make Twain's deeply flawed novel one of the country's greatest pieces of fiction.

The high points, though are the first and last essays (or last but for some New-Yorkerish jeu d'esprit that gets tacked on at the end). "The Braindead Megaphone" is a funny but trenchant takedown of our viciously stupid, all-yammering-all-the-time media, and in "Buddha Boy," a kind of skeptic's pilgrimage to see a 12-year-old Nepalese boy who had supposedly been meditating for seven months without taking food or drink, Saunders describes a dark night of the soul in a remarkable narrative that achieves depth without ever entirely ceasing to be funny.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Boubacar Boris Diop, _Murambi, The Book of Bones_

A NOVEL OF the Rwandan genocide, first published in French; I read the English translation by Fiona McLaughlin, published by the Indiana University Press. The author is Senegalese.

The novel has four sections. The first is set in the few days just before the massacres begin, and consists of three chapters, each from the point of view of a different character. The second section makes an unexpected move, jumping ahead to four years after the genocide has ended, introducing us to Cornelius Uvimana, a Rwandan who was out of the country at the time of the massacres and is making his first visit back. Cornelius is a writer and the child of a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father, so he has a lot to sort out. At the end of this section, about midpoint in the novel, he learns that his father, a doctor, played a signally horrible role in the massacre.

The third section takes us back to 1994. The killing is now going on. Again, we have a chapter apiece from the perspectives of several characters, including a French Army officer and Cornelius's father.

The fourth and final section brings us back to 1998 and the conclusion of Cornelius's visit, a trip to Murambi, with its mass burial pits and quicklime-dusted corpses. Cornelius has to face the full horror of what happened to his mother and siblings, of what his father did. He resolves to write about what happened in Rwanda.

To adapt Carolyn Forché's famous term, Murambi seems to be a "novel of witness," an enlistment of the resources of the literary imagination in order to report, to give an account, to keep awareness of this history alive and circulating. Diop -- wisely, I'd say -- is mainly indirect in showing the horrors of the massacres; the novel's violence occurs off-stage, so to speak. He is wise as well in not attempting a comprehensive explanation; he indicates a number of contributing factors, but does not pretend he can say exactly why the genocide happened. The novel seems mainly to want the world to remember that it did happen.

Murambi is a good book written for a good reason -- but, I somewhat reluctantly must confess, to my mind not a great book. I found myself inwardly comparing it to Chiminanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of A Yellow Sun -- similarly about violence between two African peoples in conflict within the same European-drawn borders (the Nigerian civil war, in Adichie's case), similarly ingenious in its departure from simple narrative chronology, similarly about events the author had not seen (Adichie was born after the war's end) -- and the comparison was much to the disadvantage of Murambi.

Adichie's novel is well and truly a novel -- its characters distinct, rounded, and unforgettable, its attention to the sounds, tastes, smells, and sights of quotidian life exact and evocative, its comprehension of humans in the grip of history rich and full. Diop's sympathetic characters, even Cornelius, are pasteboard, his "monster" characters cartoons. After the first chapter, we get little sense of place. The conversations are such as occur only in novels.

One has to be glad we have a novel like Murambi now, certainly, and one has to hope that some future novelist, perhaps now in diapers, will do for Rwanda what Adichie has done for Biafra.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Anne Pierson Wiese, _Floating City_

WALT WHITMAN AWARD winner for 2006 -- so obviously it has taken me a while to take this off the shelf and read it. Once reshelved, it will likely sit a while before I take it down again.

Having read the 2007 winner, Sally Van Doren's Sex at Noon Taxes, some months ago, my first thought is that the Walt Whitman judges must have a soft spot for sonnets, as all of Van Doren's poems in that volume were variations on that form, and a good many of Wiese's are as well. Those that are not fourteen lines long tend to be 28 or 42 lines long, and feel like stacked sonnets.

Wiese's poems remind me very much of the sort one frequently encountered in the New Yorker in the Alice Quinn era: built on precise observations, employing a fairly subdued emotional palette, craft-conscious, well-behaved, frequently concerned either with New York City or with whichever small middle-American town the poet grew up in. Their only flaw is that they fail to be deeply interesting.

Wiese has an interesting idea in here -- that underneath the elaborate human artifice of New York City, and occasionally and surprisingly visible, is a natural substrate of soil, rock, water. This notion has an appealing kind of stoner wisdom to it, and I wish she had been a little less risk-averse in pursuing it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Richard Greenfield, _Tracer_

I READ THIS quite a while ago, Labor Day weekend I believe, but I've gotten behind, obviously. Besides, since the author is a friend, I didn't want simply to dash something off.

Part One feels anxious. Almost all the poems include the first person singular, and this "I" inhabits a house and a neighborhood whose promise of sanctuary seem compromised -- the house is supposed to shelter and protect us, but has it already been infiltrated by the enemy, in the shape of a "colony of winged ants" perhaps? Traces of its previous tenants, in fact all signs of the previous passage of a now-absent other, have to be read and decoded ("loud nailholes in the drywall / leak autobiography"). The house is both intimately ours and a mysterious, possibly hostile other, with openings into which one has to reach without knowing quite what one may find there ("Bastion"). The nearby public spaces, too, are both ours and not ours ("Foxes appear in the parking lot [...]").

All this unease may be from merely being in a new home in a new town, but it has a kind of post-9/11 malaise to it: our scrutinizing of our once-safe spaces for concealed threats, our self-defeating gestures at protection ("I want to wrap my / compositional theory in duct tape"), the violence born of having been violated, our desperately stupid choices of leaders ("Maverick"). The "I" of these poems is thus easily read as a "we" -- but even that gesture is suspect ("Rapier/Ravine").

The last words of Part One are "o, o / interrupt me --", which suddenly brings to our attention that the "I"-voice has been alone in its house all this time; the implied "you" of the imperative "interrupt me" is the first second person pronoun we've encountered. Even in its public excursions, like that to the museum in "The Session," the "I"-voice mainly met with versions of itself: "in the next room, the restored typewriters from the Disaster/ tapped atonal measures, they were repeating my initials" (at the moment, my favorite lines in the book).

This "I" needs to get out more, we may think, and sure enough on Part Two the speaker is often ambulatory, often outdoors, even often in some rural or natural setting, with sumac, milkweed, horned larks, and bleached shells. A "you" appears briefly in "Tacit Rainbow," but if the natural world is being resorted to as a way of escaping the self, it seems not to be working this time. When we encounter dialogue, the "I"-voice seems to be arguing less with someone else than with itself ("Two Reports"), and encounters with others are accidental collisions that lead to only perfunctory exchanges:

a, child, chasing, a, leaf,

collided with me on the stairs to the overlook, feigned

apology for that self-absorption

And so it also is with the "I"-voice, its explorations into the natural world infallibly returning him (unless it's her -- but I suppose otherwise) to his old introspection and that same old squalor of selfhood:

no end to it,

it keeps on coming:

my primacy

In the book's final poem, "Guideline," the walk ends, we head back to the house through a world (a park, a town, a neighborhood) now seen as always already mapped, our quest for a Wordsworthian epiphany deflated by the need to compose a grocery list, ourselves reminding ourselves what we need to purchase in order to sustain the feeling of remaining ourselves. Back in the volume's first poem, we were looking for writing, the traces of some original intention we could profitably interpret ("the truer scripts of morning light," "the ivy is the new scrawl"), and now we are trying to write ourselves, trying to leave signs on paper in an effort to remember what we thought we wanted.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

James Shapiro, _A Year in the Life of WIlliam Shakespeare: 1599_

WELL, IT'S BEEN a while since I posted anything. You know how it gets -- busy, busy, busy. Good thing I have next to no readers!

I imagine a lot of Shakespeare scholars have toyed with the idea of turning their expertise to account with a Bard-book aimed at a broad lay audience -- certainly examples abound (Bloom, Vendler, Greenblatt, Garber, Nuttall, Bate). James Shapiro has hit on a rather neat way to do that here. Focus on a single year -- a year in which Shakespeare was truly hitting his stride (Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It, and starting Hamlet) and a year moreover rich in incident both for Shakespeare (the construction of the Globe) and for England (Essex's Irish debacle).

From the first paragraphs of the "Prologue" -- a description of the weather in London in December, 1598, leading to the sentence, "As the snow fell, a dozen or so armed men gathered in Shoreditch, in London's northern suburbs," we know we are settling into popular scholarship mode -- quasi-novelistic, lots of scenery, lots of vivid characters. Honest-to-God Shakespeare scholars would probably stop right here, unless they were planning to write a scathing review.

But in those scathing reviews -- and Shapiro got some, along with the Samuel Johnson Prize from BBC 4 -- is there not always that tinge of envy, that pinch of ressentiment that a hard-working scholar may feel towards a brother scholar who has a book published by a non-university press, complete no doubt with handsome advance, ads in the New York Times Book Review, interviews on the radio? Damn it, these scathing reviews always seem to mutter under their breath, why didn't I think of that?

Because this is, you know, a great idea. And Shapiro comes armed with a scholar's knowledge of apparently everything that came into print in 1599. He does have to make things up -- Shakespeare very likely did go back to Stratford at some point in the year, but Shapiro basically has to invent the when and the why of the trip, to say nothing of dreaming up what was on wife Anne's mind. But he knows enough about the period to make it all work.

A sequel of sorts is in the works, apparently, focusing on 1608, the year of King Lear, but Shapiro's next book looks to be not that one, but another consideration of the authorship question -- a topic with no cachet at all among Shakespeare scholars but plenty among that coveted lay audience. Oh, well.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mathias Svalina, _The Viral Lease_

IMAGINE MY CHAGRIN when, after reading The Viral Lease, I went to shelve it and discovered that my copies of Creation Myths and Why I Am White were AWOL. I had lent them to someone, obviously, but to whom? My straining-to-be-polite inquiries in several quarters yielded no answers. Loath to be without my favorite chapbooks of the 21st century, I re-ordered them, re-received them, and re-shelved them... only to have one of the people I had previously badgered confess sheepishly that she had cleaned her apartment and, what do you know, discovered she did have my Svalinas after all. They are now safely on my shelf again, worthily companioned by themselves.

The Viral Lease feels like a single poem to me, in fourteen sections of a page or slightly less apiece. Most of the poem is in distichs, but about halfway through it starts opening up into longer breaths. Like its predecessors, it is frighteningly funny or funnily frightening -- certain lines, like certain sentences of Gary Lutz, prompt a chuckle that is frozen a sliver of a second later as the image that inspired the chuckle reveals a disturbing or unnerving side: "The tattoo on your arm / of your own name crossed out."

War occupies a lot of the background here -- but which war? "Give me the war // under the cornfields // & denim." Are we in Iraq or Nebraska? The answer: yes.

"Give me the war" is the first of the poem's many urgent but obscure imperatives, which persuade us that they need to be carried out even without our knowing what carrying them out would entail:

Burn new June / to blanket.

Dock the cotton / in war night.

Seal the melding /for a bitter war & tongue / a rat dazes.

Remove those roots / of the hand become a cage / for the wren.

Wear the plugged night / of plugged ears.

Wherever we are, it's cold ("Snow packs your knees / to zeros") and full of dangers ("Carry the bodies / from the classrooms, / limp arms dangling / fingers in the mulch"), but tiny kinds of help occasionally beckon ("I will warm your frozen hands / in my cold hands"), and perhaps sheer alliteration will see us through a gauntlet of terrors:

The war has broken
& bruised wider

than eyes. Your branch

is broken.
Your brother is a breath.

Knit the nine uses:
joan or cattail;
jane or leaded;
washed of virtue
or face;
under face
beyond the face

broken by the throat's
red gag,

broken by the bomb
beneath the black cloth
of a man's

The Viral Lease is about as dark as its embossed black cover (nice design job, by the way, from the folks at Small Anchor Press) but its imagination and exuberance somehow make one feel that all is not (yet) lost.

What excellent news it is that Mathias Svalina has a full-length collection due any minute now ("Fall 2009") from Cleveland State University Press. I may buy two, one to lend out, one to keep safely on the shelf.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sheila Heti, _The Middle Stories_

I WAS IN the middle of the McSweeney's Books edition of The Middle Stories -- and in fact the copy I acquired was from the somewhat collectible run with hand-embellished photographs attached to the cover -- when I learned that the author was not at all pleased with the McSweeney's edition, which not only deleted stories from the Canadian Anansi Press edition but also rearranged their sequence. Fortunately, I was able to attain an Anansi edition with a minimum of trouble and recommenced at the proper beginning.

The original order is more effective, I think. There is a faux-naïf tone Heti often draws upon --the deadpan, matter-of-fact tone in which fable and fairy tale narrate deeply disturbing events -- and indeed the stories towards the beginning of the book have frankly fairy-tale elements (frogs giving courtship advice, women living in shoes, family members who are dumplings). Those closer to the end, however, are a little more urban, a little more realistic, more likely to have such proper names as "Dubrovnik" and "the Roman church." The fairy-tale tone in which the profoundly unsettling is told calmly and patiently, without any particular effort at emphasis, persists in the latter stories as well, to telling effect.

I don't whether Heti would care for the comparison, but the mood of the book struck me as like that of Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block, which has the same faux-naif tone applied to very serious topics. Weetzie Bat is a YA book, though -- The Middle Stories might work for fans of Weetzie Bat who have passed the age of 18, let's say.

Why the title? The stories are not the work of Heti"s "middle period," since it is her first book. I wondered whether it has to do with most of the stories not only starting (in good story fashion) in media res but also ending before any marked kind of closure has been achieved. The stories are all "middle" in another words -- a circumstance that would induce much lip-gnawing among Weetzie Bat fans, it now occurs to me....

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Haruki Murakami, _The WInd-Up Bird Chronicle_

A FAVORITE OF my sister, who gave me this for Christmas in 2006. As it is a novel of somewhat daunting length, over 600 pages, I was slow to pick it up, but along about Christmas 2008, I thought it was high time to get to it. I have been reading away at it regularly but not continually for just over half a year, and now have finished. So...what do I think. Hmm.

It was fun to read, certainly. A noir-ish plot -- first person narrator's wife disappears suddenly, possibly having run off with another man out of her frustration with narrator's joblessness and general lack of initiative, but he suspects foul play. Her brother is a media star about to launch a political career, she possibly knows something that would derail his ambitions...the plot thickens. Then the plot aetherealizes when narrator consults psychics and finds himself having a series of supernatural/paranormal experiences. Several characters turn out to have links to Japanese occupation of, oppression of, and eventual expulsion from Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s -- this repression of traumatic truth is analogous to and possibly interwoven with whatever the narrator's ambitious and ruthless brother-in-law is trying to hide. All this is wrapped enough local Tokyo detail to satisfy Emile Zola.

It's more than enough to keep one reading. But Murakami has been so highly praised that the question becomes whether one thinks his work is "great" or not, Nobel-worthy or not, and so on. So, is it great? Maybe.

I've heard Murakami compared unfavorably to Kobo Abe, as doing much the same sort of thing his predecessor did, but not as well. Murakami's narrator does have the dislocated, alienated relationship to his world that some of Abe's characters have, but without their angst-y, existentialista aura, as if they might suddenly lurch and find themselves in an Antonioni film. Murakami's narrator's edges have been worn smooth by global consumer culture, and he has the equanimity of people who don't entirely grasp the depth of their predicament. But is that a fault? Such characters seem as true to Murakami's moment as Abe's did to his.

What the heck, I'll read a couple more and see what I think.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, _Dictée_

I'M DRAWN TO the sheer bookness of this book -- that it wholly eludes being any kind of book (fiction, memoir, poetry, history) yet remains very definitely a book, something that even physically seems designed to inhabit book-space, book dimensions, to be book and nothing but book, to shed with a slight shake any other descriptors.

What else is there like this? Some of Susan Howe's books and some of Cole Swenson's share in Dictée's blurring of generic categories, in its use of graphic elements, in its integrity as a project that had to be a book, could only be a book, was bound (ha!) to be a book. Lisa Robertson, perhaps. Some artists, perhaps. Blake?

There need to be more books like this, and surely they will come, as digital media increasingly make distinguish what need not necessarily be a book from what can only be a book.

Mallarmé famously claimed that "tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre." Books like this make one think he must have been right.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

John Williams, _Stoner_

LIKE REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, another masterpiece of mid-century American realism that I had not gotten around to until this year -- in this case, prompted by the NYRB Classics edition, a typically elegant production.

Stoner lives up to its reputation -- obviously the work of a master from the first page, deft, objective, keen-eyed, never less than graceful in its prose, sometimes arresting.

Arrested is literally what I was by the plot, however. Twice in the course of reading the novel I simply put it away for two or three weeks because the protagonist, University of Missouri English professor William Stoner, blundered so colossally that I couldn't bear to watch and had to stop reading. First, his marriage, which from almost the earliest jerky onset of its courtship phase we know will be a costly wreck. And so it turns out, when I found the heart to pick up the book again -- a nerve-scraping, soul-eating Tom-&-Vivienne affair. There is a daughter, quiet and nearly will-less, who we know will not get out whole, and she doesn't.

My reading resumed, there I was, cruising along again, glad to see that Stoner was at least finding great satisfaction in his teaching and his scholarship, when he has a run-in with a lazy, ignorant, and insolent grad student -- a grad student who happens to be the particular protegé of Stoner's incoming department chair. I had to stop there -- it was too, too apparent that the new chair was going to make Stoner's working life hell.

Two weeks later, after some deep cleansing breaths, I resumed reading, and sure enough, the chair was as vindictive towards Stoner as anyone could have feared. But Stoner finds some consolation... in an affair with a graduate student. The affair is sweet, tender, and true...no one is taking advantage of anyone...but...well, obviously both Stoner and the student, Katherine Driscoll, will have to pay for their stolen joys. They do.

I suspect the problem is that I found it fatally easy to identify with Stoner, being male, middle-aged, in the same line of work, and temperamentally a kindred spirit. This made the spectacle of the recurring failure of his instincts of self-preservation a bit... painful for me. I am left to find what comfort I can from the Williams interview quoted in this edition's introduction: "A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing."

Well -- maybe.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mark Levine, _Debt_

THE SAME PERSON who recommended to me Joshua Clover's Madonna Anno Domini as one of the best volumes of new poetry of the 1990s also recommended this -- which must have some serious buzz, since at Amazon.com used copies of Debt start at $28 and go as high as $170. Yikes. Fortunately, at abebooks.com I found a copy for about seven dollars.

Levine is, like Clover, a 90s-era Writers' Workshop alum, though I wouldn't say either's poetry much resembles the other's. Debt was a 1992 National Poetry Series selection, chosen by Jorie Graham, who happened to be one of Levine's teachers, so there's a bit of Foetry-tinged scandal to the book, as a kind of bonus.

Well, enough gossip. What is the book like? It's excellent. Liked it even more than I liked Clover's.

Every poem seems to have a first person perspective, "I" or "we," but even though the poems conjure up direly real settings and events -- wars, financial collapses, famines, plagues -- the "I" doesn't seem to be Levine in any specifiable way, nor the events so conjured precisely those of
our own world. Now and then the reader suspects he or she is in some dystopic future, but there is nothing futuristic about the references to Brink's trucks or Borkum Riff.

I seem to use the word "oneiric" a lot lately, and I probably ought to cease and desist, but I am weary of "surreal," and "dreamlike" is too likely to evoke some gauzy Maxfield Parrish world, luminously lit, where nothing awful ever happens. So "oneiric" it is -- Levine's poems in Debt operate by a dream-logic, simultaneously precise and vague, set in a world that we recognize as ours even if it be dissimilar in every detail, where we ourselves are somehow in new identities without ceasing to be ourselves.

We cannot say anything we want to say
until we are fed the white paste
and the planks have been carefully laid,
giant cranes gliding behind us.
The flow from the gray pump continues.
We slip in the wet grass.

Or try this on for size, from "Poem": "The soldiers torched the crops while retreating. / It only seemed fair." The defeated soldiers want to deny their advancing conquerors food, I suppose -- though what are we civilians to eat in the meantime? Does "only" modify "seemed" -- that is, burning the crops only appeared to be fair, but in fact was cruel and unnecessary? Or is the sentence a colloquial equivalent of "what else could they do, what options did they have"? And what do those advancing conquerors have in mind for us, do you suppose? Meanwhile, in formal terms, what a marvelous collection of [r] sounds, and what a great touch that verb is, making you see the soldiers starting the fires.

"Notes on the Pyramids (II)" might be the Pharaoh's thoughts on Moses, as suggested by the line "I tell him not to make the firstborn decree" -- if we could account for the smokestacks and cement trucks. Perhaps it were better to say it's about one powerful but weary will confronting another, each knowing what cards the other holds, together inhabiting a sphere that the followers of neither would understand:

The pulleys pull between us, setting in place
the last flesh stones. Each of us holds
the other's starred birth papers.
My God, what we've got on each other.

I can open this book anywhere and find myself hooked. "Self-Portrait" begins:

Lying impatient for the burning copper thread

OK, you got me. What independent clause can follow that?

I wake next to me on the too narrow for two bedcage.

Ah, yes. I'm yours, Mr. Levine.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Joshua Clover, _Madonna Anno Domini_

SOMEONE WHOSE OPINIONS I heed recommended this as one of the best volumes of poetry to appear in the 1990s, so off to amazon.com I went. The cover art was impressive -- it reproduces a print by Guy Debord -- but the jacket flap photo disturbed me a bit: a handsome man in shades and tousled hair, shirt open to reveal a surfer's torso, standing in front of a magnificent mountain landscape. People that photogenic shouldn't be good poets as well. It isn't fair.

Turns out Joshua Clover is, in addition to being a writer of poems, a writer of philosophically rigorous leftist politico-cultural essays and the son of an influential feminist scholar and critic, Carol Clover, and writes a blog called "Jane Dark's Sugarhigh," which got my attention, since Jane Dark is a character in the excellent novel Notable American Women by Ben Marcus, himself the son of an influential feminist scholar and critic, Jane Marcus. Hmm and hmm. So Clover is not only good-looking, not only a denizen of magnificent landscapes, but was born well-connected to the American arts-&-letters world. All this and he is supposedly a good poet too. So not fair.

But I have to admit -- an extremely good book. Oddly enough, it reminded me of a book published four years later, Spencer Short's Tremolo, which as fortune had it I read first. Witty, often elegant, knowingly allusive (as in "Ouro Prêto," which is about Elizabeth Bishop without naming her), very serious about not taking itself too seriously (a poem about nuclear tests in Nevada begins, "Ka-boom!"), faintly giving the impression that the writer has occasionally made some very risky personal choices... all in all, the epitome of Iowa City, circa mid-90s...

...which sounds dismissive, but the Graham Era must have been an extremely interesting time to be in Iowa City, if this book and Short's and Radio Radio and Robyn Schiff's Worth are anything to go by. Virtually every poem here has the dazzle and audacity of a high-wire act. They sometimes seem born of wilfully perverse self-assignments to combine elements as heterogeneous as possible -- continental railroads and Buddhism, Haussmann's Paris and Rodney King -- so as to yield a poem that seems compelling and inevitable. Clover seems always to be telling himself, "I bet I can't do this," then doing it. And having fun doing it.

A very gifted writer. Despite his galling advantages.

And then one hears he was invited to be in the anthology Legitimate Dangers and opted out. What, he can afford to turn down chances to be in an anthology? Not fair at all.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

James Tate, _The Ghost Soldiers_

This is a hefty volume, 215 pages, considering we're only four years on from Return to the City of White Donkeys. One guesses Tate has been concentrating on writing poems -- well, what would we rather he do? Keep 'em coming, Mr. Tate.

The long, loose lines of Donkeys are longer and looser here, it seems to me, so long and so loose, in fact, that these seem to be prose poems with unjustified right-hand margins. Which diminishes my enjoyment not a whit...but I do wonder. I notice the lineation of "National Security" is exactly the same as it is in Best American Poetry 2008, so the lines are lines.

Moreover, the poems are Tate poems, with their oneiric logic in which the familiar turns into the terrifying and then back again without the voice ever quite losing its composure. The war casts a long shadow here, reminding us that our waking world has become as shape-shifting and ominous as our dreams, which is bad news indeed. Down the road, The Ghost Soldiers may be in its own way as useful a reminder of the political climate of the Bush years as, say, Juliana Spahr' s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

_My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer_

EDITORS PETER GIZZI and Kevin Killian have done an outstanding job here -- the two poets make better scholars than most scholars. The introduction is illuminating but brief, the bibliographical apparatus clear and complete, the annotations succinct and free of self-indulgence, the arrangement of poems logical, uncluttered, unfussy.

This will perforce be the Spicer volume to consult for the foreseeable future, and it will live up to that responsibility beautifully, I imagine. I have to admit a pang, though, at the thought that there will likely be no reprinting of Robin Blaser's edition, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer.

The book was an intriguing physical object all by itself. Enigmatically blurbless, with that not-quite-discernible image embossed on the cover, and "Jack Spicer" in big red letters spaced vertically on the spine. The long, intriguingly unfathomable essay by Blaser, esoteric and intimate at once, placed after the poems, with the clear message that you should read the poems first. All the weird lore of the appendices, the correspondence with Duncan, the workshop application, the Unvert manifesto. The book was a one-off, resembling nothing in one's experience, like the poems themselves, like Spicer.

I'm keeping mine around, in short, but even so I celebrate the Gizzi & Killian and am grateful to have it. Besides all the pre-After Lorca work, we have "Letters to Jack Alexander," "Helen: A Revision," "Three Marxist Essays," and "Golem," all mature work, all revealing. "Helen" in particular seems to pull together what had seemed to me some loose threads, and the fifth letter to Alexander seems almost a manifesto: "We must learn that our lips are not our own."

I have a suggestion to make on the note to one of the previously uncollected poems, "They Murdered You: An Elegy on the Death of Kenneth Rexroth." The editors write that the poem is "parodic of Ginsberg's Howl," which I would grant it is, but I suspect it is also a satire of Rexroth's somewhat bathetic elegy for Dylan Thomas, "Thou Shalt Not Kill." The first part of that poem, Rexroth thundering at the grey flannel suits as if their stultifying conformity and not confirmed alcoholism did Thomas in, is just the kind of bohemian pontification that Spicer twits in his poem.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jim Shepard, _Project X_

PEOPLE OFTEN LEND me books, out of generosity, or a wish to share something they enjoyed, or perhaps even out of some sense that the book is exactly the sort of thing I would like. It is churlish of me to see these books as a burden -- but I do. At any given moment, there are two or three dozen books I think I ought to be getting around to reading, heaped in stacks all around my office and my house, so I always try to dissuade anyone wishing to lend me a book. They are undissuadable. "I don't need it back soon," they say, "just read it when you have time." But I will never have that time, good friend, never. Your book will stay on my shelf as decades pass, for if I give it back to you after a year or two, you will ask what I thought of it, and how will I be able to tell you I never even opened it? Thus one of the kindest gestures a person can make for another becomes, for me, an occasion for gnashing of teeth.

But -- I did read this one. The person who lent it to me said the narrator's voice was perfectly convincing, so I looked at the first few pages, and yes, it is convincing. The novel is about two middle-school boys, both at the bottom of their school's pecking order, who eventually plan a Columbine-style massacre. The narrator is, so to speak, more the Dylan Klebold of the pair -- socially maladroit, but someone who ordinarily would most likely eventually find himself, outgrow his awkwardness, and pull through OK. His friend, edgy and sociopathic, is never going to be OK, on some level realizes this, and has nothing to lose.

I won't spoil the ending -- a friend may lend you the book one day -- but I will say my friend was absolutely right; the narrator's voice is so pitch-perfect a recreation of junior high alienation that I often put the book down, launched on a flashback of my own very worst moments at Franklin Junior High, 1966-69. All I can say is: Holden lives.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Laura Riding, _The Poems of Laura Riding_

I READ RIDING's Selected Poems in Five Sets about twenty years ago or so, and must have acquired this about the time it was published, 2001 or 2002, but was motivated to pick it up and read it only recently, mainly because I started reading Jennifer Moxley this past year, and Moxley somehow reminds me of Riding.

Somehow... but how? Well. First, Riding usually writes in free verse, but in so cadenced a way that her poems feel almost like blank verse; there's always some Elizabethan music pulsing in her poems, even though the vocabulary is modern. She does occasionally resort to antique-sounding inverted syntax, as Moxley also does, but without ever sounding wholly antique. Second, Riding and Moxley both address philosophical concerns, but do so with the fire-bright intensity most poets reserve for emotional concerns, almost as if they don't quite see them as separate categories. Third, poetic ambition -- the conviction that poetry is going to win through to the truth.

Having read the complete Riding now, I'm left wondering why she so rarely is a part of the conversation. I notice she isn't in either the British or the American Norton anthologies... she is in the Gilbert & Gubar anthology of literature by women, but with fewer poems than either Millay or Amy Lowell. I can see why Millay should get a healthy representation -- she was certainly a key figure in her lifetime, although I doubt she's much read by contemporary poets. Amy Lowell, though... what's with that?

A quick look at WorldCat shows that there are two biographies of Riding, not a bad showing, but apparently only two or three books on her work. She just doesn't seem to be on the map, somehow.

But why not? Her poetry is astounding. Often difficult, but worth the effort. Even if the meaning of the poem as a whole is obscure, there are more than enough great lines ("The stuttering slow grammaring of self") to keep one going. Or how about this?

But when the wind springs like a toothless hound
And we are not even savaged,
Only as if upbraided for we know not what
And cannot answer --
What is there to do, if not understand?
And this we cannot,
Though when the wind is loose
Our minds go gasping wind-infected
To our mother hearts,
Seeking in whys of blood
The logic of this massacre of thought.

Hope I'm not being too literal here, but I take wind to be whatever it is that visits when she is writing poetry -- via the link wind/breath/spiritus/inspiration -- and she is wisely ambivalent about it. What does it want with us? Is it friend or foe? That toothless hound puts me in mind of one of my favorite Yeats lines, "An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve."

I have the impression from somewhere that Riding, while alive (she died in 1991) tended to be severe with anyone who ventured to publish anything about her work. Might this have tended to stunt any developing critical conversation about her, right when it had its best opportunity to start developing?

I wonder too if her case isn't a bit like Ayn Rand's, in that her advocates are so convinced of her superiority, so sure that no other writer matters, that their advocacy makes its object seem the idol of a cult, hence probably not worth the trouble of reading. The introduction to this edition, by Mark Jacobs, is mostly sober, but avoids any attempt at situating Riding within any context at all, either the historical one of the 20s and 30s or the literary one of the poets who were her contemporaries. She's it, basically, an absolute who is her own context:

"The poems of Laura Riding set the implicit challenge: 'Are you up to it?' She chose poetry as the standard of truth, and everything in her life was judged by that standard: does this or that live up to the standard of poetry, or truth? And this becomes a question for each reader of her work: Do I live up to the standard of truth, or poetry?" (p. xxv)

So -- you're either on Laura's team, on the side of truth and poetry, or you're with the preterite, on the side, I guess, of falsehood and prose. We can't really start a critical conversation from there, can we? As with Rand's disciples, you're either down with our girl, and ready to admit that she's the one writer who matters, or you just don't get it and have no business talking about the work.

Well, at least she's still in print -- seventy years after she stopped writing poetry, that counts as quite an achievement.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Jennifer Moxley. _Often Capital_

HER THIRD BOOK, but comprised of a work that at least in part predates that in her first book, Imagination Verses -- so I gather from Moxley's afterword. Often Capital republishes two early chapbooks, "The First Division of Labour" (1995) and "Enlightment Evidence" (1996), and a darned good thing, too, seeing as the original chapbooks had print runs of 50 and 125 copies, and my chances of getting ahold of either would be slender.

Since I read The Line and The Sense Record before reading Moxley's earlier poetry, I think of the voice(s) in those books as "how Moxley sounds," and so Often Capital doesn't "sound like Moxley" to me. Which is pretty damned silly. I mean, of course they sound like Moxley -- this is what Moxley sounded like. Strange how much difference it makes, which book of a writer one reads first. How often is it that whichever one you read first remains your favorite? Quite often, in my own case.

Nonetheless, one readily sees how the poems of Often Capital here connects to her later work. "The First Division of Labour" has affinities with "The Ballad of Her rePossession" and with "The Removal of Enlightenment Safeguards," I would say, in its contemplation of gender and power -- but "First Division" pales (for me) besides "Enlightenment Evidence" and its conjuring of Rosa Luxembourg. The historical specificity of this...poem? series of poems? serial poem? let's go with serial poem... and its evocation of daily domestic detail within the context of class and gender ideologies at a moment of political crisis... whew. "Enlightenment Evidence" introduces much of what is so powerful about Clampdown.

Friday, July 3, 2009

David Markson, _This Is Not a Novel_

I THINK IT was Flaubert, in one of his letters to Louise Colet, who dreamed of a novel sustained by style and style alone. This Is Not a Novel may be the sort of thing he had in mind. It is not a novel insofar as it has no setting, no plot, no characters -- but if it isn't a novel, what is it? In one of the book's running gags, it's whatever the Writer decides to designate it: an autobiography (53), a "disquisition on the maladies of the life of art" (86), a "kind of verbal fugue" (170), a tragedy, a comedy....or "nothing more or less than a read," he eventually decides, on the penultimate page.

It's a novel sustained by style, would be my call. Like Vanishing Point (the only other Markson novel I have read), it is composed of roughly a thousand brief observations on when, where, an how various artists died, interspersed with notes on what they said about their art, about critics, about each other, and some (many unattributed) quotations. It's the tour of a sensibility, so it does have a character of a sort in the Writer himself, but what keeps you turning pages is the alertness, intelligence, and inventions of the style.

A lot depends, too, on some ability to recognize and some knowledge of the many, many names that crop up, and various arcana about them -- for instance, on p. 144, Markson mentions that "As a Marine pilot in Korea, Ted Williams several times flew as Colonel John Glenn's wing man." On p. 145, we have the following entry: "The Boudreau Shift" -- that is, radical defensive shift towards the first-base line that the Cleveland Indians, under manager Lou Boudreau, adopted to thwart the left-handed, pull-hitting Williams. Williams refused to do the obvious thing and punch one into left field because, hell, he's Ted fucking Williams. The two observations, a page apart, sketch a cunning little fable about art, artists, and history. You do need to know who Williams, Boudreau, and Glenn are -- but a little Googling and you're there.

I didn't need to look up the unattributed quotation on 189: "If you can do it, it ain't bragging." Dizzy Dean! -- who also shows up on 79 (in conjunction with Marianne Moore) and 133 (in conjunction with Ezra Pound) and no doubt another spot or two, including the final page, where we find out how he died (heart attack). Like ol' Diz, Markson ain't bragging when he claims he can write a novel that isn't a novel at all -- he did it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

David Ohle, _The Pisstown Chaos_

ANOTHER INSTALLMENT IN Ohle's rendering of the post-apocalypse novel as farce, but without the startling sentences of Motorman, which made The Pisstown Chaos distinctly the less enjoyable of the two, for me. Zombies ("stinkers") play a more prominent role here, and Moldenke seems sadly diminished, à la Falstaff in Merry Wives, but the Reverend Hooker is a mad and diseased enough rogue to keep things interesting.

I skipped the second installment (The Age of Sinatra) and now feel somewhat less inclined to pick it up. I hope the syntactical gymnastics of Motorman make at least some appearance there.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Emily Perkins, _Novel About My WIfe_

About a year ago (July 21, I find upon checking), I was reading Tom McCarthy's Remainder, on the strength of its being Believer magazine's novel of the year for 2007, and I'd say now it was the strongest novel I read in 2008. I read Novel About My Wife on the strength of its being Believer magazine's novel of the year, and...enhh.

Not that it's a bad performance by any means. It has some of the same psychological interest Remainder did, although it's by a wide margin a less audacious book. The narrator, Tom Stone, is a struggling screenwriter, early 40s, living in London, and the book is his memoir of his wife, Ann, lately deceased. So, how, we wonder, did Ann die? Of complications of her pregnancy? Of an accident, like the Tube train derailment she survives in the early pages? Does the stalker whom Tom strongly suspects is imaginary turn out to be real, and does he murder her?

Well, all those factors come into play, but it turns out to be something else -- a combination of post-partum emotional chaos, the imaginary stalker's turning out to be a kind of fabulated "screen memory" for a real figure who played a traumatic role in Ann's past, and Tom's own impercipience, which goes deep enough to amount to a betrayal.

Tom, I'd say, is so little amiable as to seem to have wandered in from a Martin Amis novel. He is witty, he loves Ann as well as he is able, but he's a bit of a pill. A lot of his character development has to do with his realization (fairly common among those rounding 40) that by hanging on to the ideals and notions of integrity he adopted as a young man he has condemned himself to life of insecurity and want. He would like to sell out -- but those who decide to sell out quickly find, as Tom does, that they are in a buyer's market. Can't make the mortgage, kid on the way, Ann's mental health precarious... what to do?

His solution to this problem makes sense, but also leads to Ann's death.

A tale for our times... and Balzac's. It all seems a bit pat, though. The prose was strong, the narrative crafty, but I didn't find this one altogether satisfying.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Jennifer Moxley, _Imagination Verses_

HER FIRST BOOK, from 1996, written over the period 1990-95, as she notes in a preface. Already quite assured, though, I would say -- not much of the fumblings and stumblings of apprenticeship here, so far as I can detect. A rich, substantial, startling book.

The preface also notes the poems are written in "a variety of different free verse forms," and so they are, but here as in later work I keep feeling the iambic undertow, especially in the latter part of the volume. There is a pentameter beat deep in her music, produced perhaps by the same intimate acquaintance with the tradition that produced the two sonnets she calls "Duets," one a distillation of Wordsworth, the other of Keats.

One always heard it Pound, too, which is (I think) why his free verse felt liberated rather than sprawling. Moxley's "After First Figure" called Pound to mind for me, specifically "The Return," in which, as Hugh Kenner noted, no two lines are metrically alike, yet the rhythm of the whole is as balanced and complete as a Calder mobile. "The Return" was also a sort of poetic manifesto, announcing a modern vision of the classical, and "After First Figure" too seems to announce basic principles:

And as with imagination
there is no choice
being thought bound
the separate mind stands out, as matter
and maintains dreamily:
"I have been over to the words and they work."

Now, as to why the imagination is paraphrasing Lincoln Steffens, I can't say, but what a Moxleyan moment it is.

Also worth noting, the exploration of gender, sexuality, and power in "The Removal of Enlightenment Safeguards" and "The Ballad of Her rePossession." Rather fashionable topics for the first half of the 1990s, true, but how many of us can say our reflections on gender, sexuality,and power from the first half of the 1990s still sound interesting today? Not many of us...but Moxley's are.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Charles Wright & David Lehman, eds, _The Best American Poetry 2008_

OBVIOUSLY ABSURD PRETENSIONS of the title aside, I enjoy this series -- this volume not so much as some others, but it was nonetheless worthwhile as usual.

As for periodicals represented, Charles Wright seems to have gone more for the less adventurous ones: Meridian, Poetry, Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, Hudson, Kenyon... and thirteen (!) poems from the New Yorker. The New Yorker is inarguably printing more interesting poetry these days than it has for a while, but thirteen out of seventy-five?

In the hoot department, there is nothing in this volume quite as funny as Mark Halliday's "Best Am Po" in the 2007 volume, but Bob Hicok's "O my pa-pa" comes close: "Our fathers have formed a poetry workshop. / They sit in a circle of disappointment over our fastballs / and wives." The poets' fathers have been reading their sons' many disenchanted poems about them, and they are not happy: "[...] they've read every word and noticed / that our nine happy poems have balloons and sex / and giraffes inside, but not one dad waving hello / from the top of a hill at dusk."

I always hope for a new discovery or two from each volume in this series, and this one did not disappoint. Dave Snyder's "Hexagon: On Truth" intriguingly combined description of an astronomy telescope with Maeterlinck's account of the lives of bees, and Lynn Xu's "Language exists because..." memorably concludes, "I am not asking you to die for me. Say you will die for me."

I don't know why I thought this was cool, but the volume ended with a nice run of four Youngs: C. Dale, David, Dean, and Kevin.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mischa Berlinski, _Fieldwork_

THE BOOK CLUB selection for June -- about which I knew nothing, and I don't think I even voted for it, but it turned out to be excellent.

The narrator -- one Mischa Berlinski -- living for a year in Thailand with his girlfriend, a first grade teacher, and making a desultory sort of living as a free-lance writer, learns of an American anthropologist, female and in her 50s, who committed suicide while serving a life sentence for murder in a Thai prison.

Who was she, who was her victim, what was the story? Like Citizen Kane or any ordinary murder mystery, the novel is the reconstruction of anterior events. Berlinski-the-author invents a rich panoply of family, friends, associates, and other witnesses for Berlinski-the-narrator to track down and interview as he assembles piece-by-piece the story of how Martiya van der Leun, an anthropologist single-mindedly devoted to understanding and recording the life-ways of the Dyalo tribe in northern Thailand, came to murder David Walker, ex-Deadhead and third-generation Christian missionary dedicated to the evangelizing of those very same Dyalo.

As the only Americans in the world with any deep interest in the Dyalo, Martiya and the Walkers have an extraordinary lot in common but also deeply conflicting agendas, the Walkers hoping to "rescue" the Dyalo from the very culture Martiya has so painstakingly analyzed. A clash will surely come -- and it does.

The plot thus has a certain foreordained quality to it, but it is nonetheless ingeniously worked out, and along the way Berlinski-the-author turns out to be no mean novelist-anthropologist himself, evoking with compelling clarity the worlds of Grateful Dead camp followers, of three generations of Christian missionaries, of anthropology grad students, and of course the (fictional) Dyalo.

Berlinski is a nimble stylist, his imagination fertile, and he's someone whose next novel I will be sure to pick up.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Jennifer Moxley, _Clampdown_

ANOTHER EXCELLENT VOLUME from Jennifer Moxley, although not a happy one. Does the title derive, I wonder, from "Workin' for the Clampdown," a song on The Clash's London Calling? Despite all the music's punch and energy, the song lyrics were mainly about the long, long odds against the success of any resistance mounted against the powers that be. Moxley's Clampdown too seems to be about struggles fought long and honorably, but not crowned by success.

Struggles to keep a marriage ("Mother Night"), the ideals of youth ("Clampdown"), the nation ("The Occasion"), and poetry itself ("Where to") alive and strong have left the poet exhausted and...well, not bitter, exactly, nor desperate, not even resigned, I'd say, but certainly tired, and wondering what she possibly could have left undone that things have come to this pass.

At the same time, Moxley seems to be pondering the strange fact that she is, in her world, famous. In an elegy for Robert Creeley, she writes:

We never think we'll outlive
the people we have chosen to believe
a necessary part of existence.
But we do.

After this thought comes the realization that she has become just the sort of poet for others that Creeley has been for her:

and then the final turn of fate: to find
that you yourself in midlife have become
another person's frail necessity.

There are not a lot of poems about the strange feeling of becoming a modestly successful and recognized poet, for the excellent reason that it rarely happens. Yeats comes to mind, but the lines at the end of Responsibilities ("While I, from that reed-throated whisperer") and "What Then?" mainly suggest how little the success, once attained, actually mattered. Moxley takes a similar tack. "The March Notebook," dedicated to Robert Kelly, almost seems to say that failure is the only success that matters (cf. Yeats, "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing," to say nothing of Dylan's "Love Minus Zero / No Limit"). "Our Defiant Motives," the volume's next poem, begin by asking --

And what if we succeed? Then what. What if we,
who are fond of thinking that our lives have been
hindered vigorously by scheming statesmen
and entrepreneurs -- scummy down to the one --
find ourselves out on a stretch of open sea
with none but a smooth trajectory
that looks to be of our own making?

Unlikely, but if it does happen, don't kid yourself that your success was all down to your own efforts and redeems the apparent injustice of the society we live in -- or so Moxley suggest in the fine-grained irony of the next two stanzas, which take the point of view of someone complacently assuming his or her own prosperity is sufficient proof that whatever is, is right.

And then the very next poem, "The Quest," sends the last nail on this particular coffin home with its epigraph from Jack Spicer ("The Grail is the opposite of poetry") and its uncompromising conclusion:

In the end, nothing is certain
except that those who seek their own
salvation will betray their brethren.

No workin' for the clampdown here, friends.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Roberto Bolaño, _The Savage Detectives_

MY FAVORITE REMAINS By Night in Chile, but this one was worthwhile and memorable as well.

The novel is, in some respects, easily described. The opening 120 pages are the 1975 diary of Juan Garcia Madero, a university student in Mexico City who finds himself pulled out of his studies into the gravitational field of a group of young poets, the "visceral realists," captained by Arturo Belaño and Ulises Lima. More by chance than design, he winds up in a car with them and Lupe, a prostitute, when they take off to the Sonoran desert to (a) rescue Lupe from her pimp and (b) find Caesarea Tinajero, an obscure but legendary "stridentist" poet or proto-visceral-realist, whose main surviving work is a kind of Roger Price "droodle" that seems inspired by Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre."

The closing 50 pages are also from Garcia Madero's diary, from January 1976, and record the seekers' finding Caesarea and their being found by Lupe's pimp, and what ensues.

In between are 400 pages that read like an oral history of Belaño and Lima, transcripts of interviews with people who knew them intimately or perhaps only crossed paths with them in the twenty years from 1976 to 1996. Neither prospers or even, it appears, does much writing -- basically, two unspooling tales of bohemian drift: drugs, unlikely temporary jobs, exasperated girlfriends, mysterious errands in remote places, dropping off the map.

It doesn't sound like much. Why is it so readable and intriguing?


For one thing, the pseudo-oral-biography section reminded me of Manuel Puig's Betrayed by Rita Hayworth in the extraordinary range of voices it is able to animate and turn into characters. The witnesses to Belaño's and Lima's 20-year-flameouts become interesting in their own right as Bolaño conjures them out of their monologues. In another way, it reminded me of Georges Perec's La Vie: Mode d'emploi in that it becomes as it goes along a compendium of stories; each witness has a story of Belaño or Lima, but also a story of his or her own, and their own stories have an autonomous life and energy that keep the reader engaged. Some of them -- those of Belaño's girlfriends, for instance -- are almost novels in miniature themselves.

The richest theme in the book, though, is the reckless commitment the young poets will make to poetry, to the hope that the real authentic saving thing is out there, that it may have to be rescued from obscurity or found by desperate tracking through the desert, but it exists and is sacred. Visiting a surviving stridentist (the 1920s movement that anticipated visceral realism), the young men fall silent and stand at attention as he reads the names of the Directory of the Avant Garde:

"And when I had finished reading that long list, the boys kneeled or stood at attention, I swear I can't remember which and anyway it doesn't matter, they stood at attention like soldiers or kneeled like true believers, and they drank the last drops of Las Suicidas mezcal in honor of all those strange or familiar names, remembered or forgotten even by their own grandchildren. And I looked at those two boys who just minute ago had seemed so serious, standing there at attention before me, saluting the flag of their fallen companions, and I too raised my glass and drained it, toasting all our dead." (202)

Belaño and Lima will fall as well -- the middle section is about the long spiralling arc of that fall. For the world does not love poetry. Not the real kind, anyway. The world stands ready with a baseball bat to dash in the brains of the poetry whenever it has the audacity to dart its head out of its hole. "We poets in our youth begin in gladness, / But ofttimes in the end come despondency and madness," wrote Wordsworth, who knew plenty about long, slow descents. Disgrace, obscurity, betrayal, humiliation await -- unless you are the kind of opportunist poet represented in this novel (not quite fairly, I'd say) by Octavio Paz, or shall we say anyone who has enough institutional clout to win a prize or gain a sinecure.

The novel is a monument to a youthful impulse that can end only in poverty and disappointment -- and, with a little luck, immortality. Ah, there's the thing.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Richard Yates, _Revolutionary Road_

I READ THIS as our book club selection for May -- the release of the film based on the novel no doubt had something to do with our club's choosing to read it, but I had actually been hoping for an occasion to get to it for a while, based on its reputation as a "writer's writer" novel. And you know what -- it really is remarkably good. Great, even.

Which makes me wonder, how did Yates ever come to languish in the relative obscurity in which he languished? Did excelling in Flaubert/James/Ford style realism amount to backing the wrong horse by the mid-60s, when Barth, Barthelme, and Pynchon began to rule the roost? Still, Updike and Cheever managed to make a go of it.

The book uncannily nailed its moment. At several points the dialogue and pastimes (e.g., amateur theatricals) threw me back to my childhood and overheard conversations among my parents and their friends -- my parents lived in Iowa, not Connecticut, and I can't imagine them deciding to move to Paris, but the chatter of the college-educated circa 1960 must have had a certain family resemblance coast-to-coast.

More impressive still is the book's awareness that _The Feminine Mystique_ is on the horizon -- to say nothing of _Ariel_. Frank's use of gender ideology to intimidate and control April (not that she is guiltless of occasionally doing the same thing to him) is so persuasively represented that a reader might think this is a novel about the early 60s written in the 80s or 90s, well after that vicious species of psychological manipulation had been exposed and anatomized.

And so skillfully narrated, too. Yates shows a mastery of the possibilities of narrative point-of-view that is positively Jamesian -- the holding back of locating point of view in Frank for a few pages as the play unfolds, the switch to the neighbors' points of view when the Wheelers decide to go to Paris, the withholding of April's point of view until that terrifying final episode, the striking absence of Frank's point of view in the closing pages -- it's Jamesian. I have no higher praise.

Ah me, what has become of the Jamesian? Who can manage it now? Edmund White, yes, Alan Hollinghurst on a good day...that's about it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Martha Ronk, _Why/Why Not_

THE COVER OF Why/Why Not includes a photo of a room's interior wall, upon which a mirror has been obliquely placed, reflecting another wall of the same room. The effect is of a parallelogram-sized section of one image affixed atop the surface of another, different-but-related image. The photo acts as a visual clue to the technique of the poems inside. They are self-interrupting, frequently starting down one track only to jump to another -- or is it simply another section of the same track?

The man with the mistaken hair
has been remembering what I remember but he thinks
are intrusive except ones I can't stand.
("Odi et amo 2")

We get this effect most often in the earlier poems in the book, with their longer, sparingly-punctuated lines, unscrolling their way down the page without ever quite allowing us to determine whether they should be read as end-stopped or enjambed:

Unable to keep the spill from spilling over from concentration
to concentration the way a voice merges with a voice on tv
And I shouldn't have left the house never have left the house
weeks afterward the fallout the spinout she stopped dead
in your tracks without cause without a car on the road [...].
("Unable to keep the spill from spilling")

But then, in the last of the book's three sections, we have two longer poems -- "why" and "why not" -- or perhaps they are one poem? -- and "why not" is composed almost entirely in short, firmly end-stopped lines:

I don't want to know.
Anyhow I don't mind it.
What is predictable all the time and the cold.
Then backing and backing and backing.
What I said was I don't mind it
and I believed it when I said it.
(p. 76)

This leaves us with the feeling that something has happened. We don't know what it is -- whatever it is, it feels more resigned than reconciled, more a loss than a recovery, but somehow wiser and clearer. And it has something to do with Hamlet. At midpoint in the volume we have a section titled "act 3," in which the perceptions of Hamlet, Gertrude, and Ophelia orbit something unnamed and frightening, sometimes in the long, unscrolling lines of the first part of the book, sometimes in the abrupt end-stopped phrases of "why not."

A memorably unsettling book.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sally Van Doren, _Sex at Noon Taxes_

WALT WHITMAN AWARD winner for 2007, and here I am finally getting around to reading it. Whitman winners are usually worth reading, this one being no exception -- though I will grant that the palindromic title is the most intriguing thing in the book, and turns out it was borrowed from the title of a painting by Ed Ruscha.

Each poem is fourteen lines long, though not all present themselves as traditional sonnets; a poem may be seven couplets, for instance, or two stanzas of seven lines. The poems are playfully and wittily self-aware, linguistically savvy.

I particularly liked Van Doren's syntax, which is usually graceful and clever. Pound says somewhere that poetry should be at least as well-written as good prose -- a principle he obviously decided to jettison by the time he composed the Cantos, but I wish more poets followed it more often. There's a honored place for the paratactic, of course, but I wish poets who do use ordinary syntax would pay it at least as much mind as they do their lineation, over which so many obviously agonize, meanwhile letting modifiers dangle and squint.

A likable book, though not an exciting one.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mary Jo Bang, _The Eye Like a Strange Balloon_

A VOLUME OF ekphrastic poems -- though these poems do not describe works of art so much as they use them as points of departure. The journey thus inaugurated often rambles far and wide. Perhaps we should call them oneiro-ekphrastic poems, as they seem to be not about specific works of art, but about dreams inspired by those works of art.

The title poem, for instance, somehow started out from the famous Odilon Redon lithograph of the same title, in which a giant eyeball/hot-air-balloon lifts above the horizon, but the poem has no eyes, no balloons, but instead a disjunctive almost-narrative both precise and vague, directional and desultory, enigmatically exact:

Molecular coherence, a dramatic canopy,
cafeteria din, audacious design. Or humble.
Saying, We ask only to be compared to the ant-
erior cruciate ligament. So simple. So elegant.

I didn't compare each poem to the work of art that served as its starting point (although a helpful list at the back of the book permits the curious reader to do exactly that), as it soon became clear the poems were quite able to stand alone -- indeed, just about insisted on standing alone.

What I think I'll remember from the book is not the images, be they original or derived from paintings or photographs, but Bang's voice, its skittery syntax, its audacious (or humble?) leaps, its humor of a dryness so rarified it can feel scary.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mark Lilla, _The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West_

NOT SURE WHY Lilla's name does not come up in my reading more often than it does, because he is stone brilliant no matter what he is writing about. Having marched through my share of Foucault, Zizek, and Butler out of sheer duty given the regularity with which their names ring out in the journals, I nonetheless have to say I get more out of Lilla. Not that he is one for radical re-formulations or bouleversements of ruling paradigms or such -- but he has such a grasp of intellectual history, such a deftness in unknotting others' arguments, such a lucid prose style...

...that may be the problem right there. If Lilla wrote in Continental Opaque, he might already be a revered figure. Or it may be his politics -- he's a comet with enough velocity that he has been captured neither in the Allan Bloom/Leo Strauss orbit nor the post-Marxist orbit nor the neo-con orbit nor any other. He doesn't seem to be on anyone's team.

Reading The Stillborn God kept making me think of Edmund Wilson, perhaps not least because it's a chunky but small volume that sits nicely in the hand the way paperbacks of To the Finland Station or Patriotic Gore did, but even more because of his confident intimacy with the ideas of his subjects and his ability to elaborate his book's narrative without ever losing its main thread. And there's the writing. Did I mention the writing? Why are grace and lucidity like Lilla's so obsolete? Why oh why did Adorno ever have to become the model for modern intellectually ambitious prose?

I haven't even brought up the book's subject, I look back and see. Shame on me. Well, Lilla's subject is the separation of church and state in the west, from Hobbes to (roughly) World War II. He seems to have been prompted by a certain vein of western commentary on the Islamic world, to wit, when will these people wise up and realize that modernity is secular? If Lilla is right, the western separation of church and state may be unrepeatable elsewhere. He casts it as an historical anomaly, very much due to peculiar circumstances (the terrifying religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries), not the inevitable consequence of modernization we have taken it to be.

Furthermore, once the west threw religion out the front door, religion found many ways of coming back in through one window or another, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

And after all -- if laws and governments are based on our notions of what is right and just, and if for most people the right and the just are founded on some idea of "what God wants," how do you ever keep religion from mingling in politics?

Not only are we foolish to expect the Islamic world will eventually come to its senses and follow our example, but we are deluded to think we have successfully figured how to effect this separation ourselves.

No good news here, then, but what a great book.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Jon McGregor, _If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things_

"BOOKER-NOMINATED," ANNOUNCES the jacket. What does that mean, though? Do British publishers nominate their own books for the Booker, as publishers here do for the Pulitzer? Now, if it said "Short-listed for the Booker Prize," that would be another thing altogether. But "nominated"? Hmm.

But this novel seems Booker-oriented anyway, in that it concerns the long tail of consequences of a terrible event in the past, the exact nature of which the novel is structured to withhold until quite near the end (see earlier entry on Anne Enright's _The Gathering_).

The narrative is formally interesting, though. Chapters describing the ordinary doings of the inhabitants of an ordinary residential street in an unnamed English city on the day that the terrible event occurred alternate with chapters from the point of view of one of the witnesses of the event, a young woman, three years later, when she has discovered she is pregnant and has to to figure who to tell and how, how she will manage, and so on.

The terrible event -- a car hits and kills a boy, one of a set of twins, who is playing in the street -- is so elaborately foreshadowed that it is not much of a surprise, but that death turns out to carry as a near-immediate consequence the death of a quiet, lonely young man who also lives on the street, a death that goes unnoticed for days. This young man was silently and desperately in love with the young woman who three years later is dealing with her surprise pregnancy -- a love she knows nothing of until, in the midst of her quandary over her preganancy, she meets Michael, the twin of the young man, who eventually tells her the whole story...

...well, it sounds a bit hokey when one lays it out like that. What the novel did with time, coincidence, pattern, and delayed revelations was highly likeable, really.

The near-total exclusion of names was peculiarly effective, for some reason -- Michael is named, and we learn the name of the boy who is killed wehn he dies, but everyone else is anonymous, identified only by some distinctive trait, "the man with the ruined hands," "the tall girl with the glitter round her eyes." The inverted indentation trick in the young woman's chapters (first line flush left, subsequent lines of the same sentence indented a quarter-inch, as in Walt Whitman poems) seemed gimmicky at first but somehow shed a bit of dignity on her humiliating circumstances.

The conditional clause that serves as the title is on p. 239 completed by the man with the ruined hands, speaking to his daughter: "He says, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?" He is speaking of noticing, paying attention to, heeding the astonishing things always around us, even as we live our ordinary lives in ordinary circumstances, and he clues us in that the novel participates in the rich realist tradition of finding the remarkable in the supposedly unremarkable. Fair enough, then. Better than some Booker winners I could name, in fact.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Diane Setterfield, _The Thirteenth Tale_

I READ THIS because it was April's selection in the book club my wife and I belong to; it also happened to be the 2008 choice of the "One Book One Lincoln," our local community reading program.

So, I read it, but did I enjoy it? Hmm. Not much.

The novel is narrated by a youngish woman who works in a rare books store (owned by her father) and writes slender literary biographies of recherché subjects on the side. Vida Winter, legendary and revered novelist, contacts the young woman out of the blue with an invitation to become Winter's authorized biographer. Winter's past is famously mysterious -- what was the suppressed "Thirteenth Tale" removed from her very first book about? -- and she has been famously cagy and unrevealing with would-be biographers, telling each a different story. But now she will tell all -- but only in her own way, in her own sequence, taking no questions.

Interesting enough premise, I think. Touches on what I think are interesting questions: why do we care what an author's life was like? What assumptions about art imitating life, or vice versa, do we habitually make? Why do intriguing fictions lead us to think the experiences of those who compose them must be equally intriguing?

Unfortunately for me, none of these questions is pursued. The novel quickly settled in to Winter's telling of her story, which was a gallimaufry of situations and incidents from 19th century novels -- eccentric gentry in a vast mouldering country house, dark family secrets, foundlings, twins, madwomen in attics, the burning down of the house.

By the end, we know what the thirteenth tale was about, what injury left the mysterious scars. and so on, and are left with the feeling of having eaten a very large Victorian meal and plumped down afterwards in a very cushy Victorian chair.

On a fairly regular basis, some critic or other, usually James Wood, starts tub-thumping about getting back to the virtues of the old 19th century novel, Tolstoy and George Eliot, close observation and moral seriousness, sense of place and history, and so on, none of this metafictional gamesmanship and preciosity -- but really, most 19th century novels were more like The Thirteenth Tale than they were like Middlemarch, and I think the 19th century left behind a more than adequate number of them, thank you very much.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Edward St. Aubyn, _Mother's Milk_

IT'S EASY TO understand all the comparisons to Waugh -- razor-precise prose dissecting the hypocrisies and cruelties of the English upper class, drily hilarious scrutiny of the spectrum of modern fatuousness -- but there is no pain in Waugh like the pain in St. Aubyn, nor anything like the same scrambling, desperate, self-defeating efforts to dull it, save perhaps in Waugh's late and (I think) under-valued Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Virtually impossible to imagine, furthermore, that St. Aubyn has a Brideshead Revisited in him. (I would read in a heartbeat any novel he writes about his Oxford days, however -- supposing he can recall those days clearly enough to write about them.)

Mother's Milk resumes the story of Patrick Melrose some time after the conclusion of the Some Hope trilogy. He has married, has two sons, and his elderly mother is about to leave the family's most valuable property to a New Age charlatan. The novel's four sections are set in the August summer holidays of four consecutive years, 2001 to 2004, and are mainly about the unravelling of the fabric of his life, relatively strong when the novel opens and on the point of disintegration in the novel's last section.

There is his mother's insistence on disinheriting him and his sons, for one thing; the near-total involvement of his wife in the nurturing of their second son, making her sexually unavailable, which precipitates Patrick's having a stupid and reckless affair; finally, his rapidly-declining, nearly demented mother's demand that he do whatever it takes to obtain legal euthanasia for her. Patrick starts drinking too much, and we wonder if we will glimpse again the Patrick of Bad News, three sheets to the pharmaceutical winds.

In the last few pages we have reason to hope he will recover his equilibrium -- there is his wife and children, for one thing. St. Aubyn is merciless on his fictional alter ego, Patrick (cf., again, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold), but his wife Mary is as genuinely loveable a character as one is likely to meet in a novel, and the sons are a delight every time they appear on the page. I cannot think of another contemporary novelist -- hell, any other novelist -- who has St. Aubyn's ability to enter into a child's point of view or who has represented so much of how a father's love for a child feels. Patrick has Mary, Robert, and Thomas at least -- one hopes he doesn't blow it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

D. A. Powell, _Tea_

I HEARD THIS cited as a good example of a volume of poetry about illness, only to learn from the first sentence of the preface, "This is not a book about AIDS." An author is entitled to the first word on his or her book, but not the last -- nonetheless, Powell has a point. Tea is about the gay urban landscape of the 1990s (especially its Bay Area variant), which means AIDS is a kind of ground tone for the book, but no more (or less) the subject of the book than are the streets Powell walked, the clubs he went to, the music he danced to, the lover he lost.

The book was published in 1998, but takes a lot of its details from the 1980s, and reading it now thickens its temps perdus atmosphere. Names (Donna Summer and Sylvester, Halston and Beach Blanket Babylon, the Mineshaft) are savored, and the long-lines-composed-of-short-lines trick by some magic conveys speed, the tempo of the city, while at the same time lovingly lingering, stretching things out. The book even has its Albertine.

This may be one of those books whose fidelity to its moment turns out to be its greatest claim to the attention of posterity: a wall of Polaroids that seen from a distance becomes a tapestry.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spencer Short, _Tremolo_

SOMEONE, ON LEARNING I liked Ben Doyle's Radio, Radio, recommended this -- I'm not sure what linked the two in this person's mind, however. Perhaps that Short and Doyle were friends? They were at the Iowa Writers Workshop at approximately the same time; both published their first books (Tremolo and Radio, Radio) in 2001, both with a bit of fanfare, Short's book selected for the National Poetry Series by Billy Collins, Doyle's winning the Walt Whitman Award. Tremolo's acknowledgements thank Doyle "for raising the bar."

I liked Tremolo, but it didn't remind me much of Radio, Radio, which struck me as more cerebral and less confessional (or simulating confession) than Tremolo, more interested in form, more oblique... not that there isn't plenty to like in Short's book, though: wit, ambition (the sonnet sequence "Bedbug Variations" and longer poems like "Subjectivity"), lightly-carried erudition, invention. The voice dances in and out of a wide variety of registers and is never less than entertaining, sometimes a good bit more.

Short has more fun with punctuation than most people allow themselves to have -- ampersands, plus signs, equals signs, a dash followed by a semi-colon (very 19th century), and something I don't recall having seen before, slashes used to indicate poetry line breaks used in the middle of a line of poetry. This is from "Four Meals a Day":

As one bears oneself
From one ruinous, urinous alley
to another/ As one kicks away
the burning crutch...

Since a slash in such a context usually means "imagine a line break here," being asked to imagine a line break in a poem, in a line which in fact kept on going as a line, gave me a peculiar but delicious frisson.

I would be interested in reading another book by Short, but there seems not to be one. It's been a rather long wait for a second book by Ben Doyle (now Ben Doller) as well, but he currently has a new book out from Ahsahta Press. Meanwhile, Short doesn't seem to be even on poets.org or poetryfoundation.org; nor was he in the anthology Legitimate Dangers, though a good many Writers Workshop folks of his vintage were. Did he call it quits, is he just biding his time, has he succumbed to the unhealthy habits occasionally alluded to in this volume? I know not. This is a good book, though.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sheila Heti, _Ticknor_

THERE REALLY WAS a George Ticknor -- one of the 19th century's leading scholars of Italian literature -- and he really did write a biography of the great 19th century American historian William H. Prescott (Conquest of Mexico, among others), but Sheila Heti's Ticknor is a tight little bundle of envy, resentment, thwarted ambition, and guilt, who is trying to write a memoir of his boyfriend friend, the great historian Prescott, but is continually sidetracked into fumings over being ignored by him in favor of more accomplished men, into recollections of his fitful lust for Prescott's wife, into vacillations over whether to attend the party at the Prescotts' to which he has been invited, and into pitiless self-accusations on all the above points.

Eventually Ticknor cautiously circles around to a tale from their school days -- a food fight in the dining hall, a thrown piece of bread that injures the young Prescott's eye, leading to partial blindness and a long convalescence (during which Ticknor himself is taking the Grand Tour)...did Ticknor throw the bread? If he did...does Prescott know? What long but never-mentioned shadow has the accident cast on their relationship? What mysterious role does it play in Prescott's later fame, since it is after his convalescence that he discovers his astonishing powers as a historian and becomes one of the most admired men in his community, while Ticknor lives alone, is the author of a handful of disregarded articles, and seems to dampen conversation wherever he goes?

Heti has calibrated the novel's (novella's?) tone with great exactness. Her Ticknor sounds a bit like what Henry James's John Marcher would sound like had he been genetically modified with the literary DNA of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man and Beckett's Molloy. The closest parallel, however, may be with Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse, another tale of a biographer whose admiration of his subject has gone green-with-envy around the edges, who like Ticknor intuits that biographer and subject are locked in a struggle from which only one of them will emerge alive.

"Every great man nowadays has his disciples," Wilde wrote, "and it is always Judas who writes the biography."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Susan Sontag, _Illness as Metaphor_

I WONDER WHAT Sontag's standing will be ten, twenty, thirty years from now. A natural question to ask when a famous writer dies, I suppose. Updike, for instance -- how will he fare with posterity? I don't care that much for him, though. Sontag has always represented the life of the mind for me, or one peculiarly compelling version of the life of the mind.

_Illness as Metaphor_ was actually the first Sontag I read, back when it ran in the NYRB in 1978. I was in my first year of grad school, and a fellow grad student mentioned that it was running serially in the New York Review of Books -- which I likewise had never read at that point -- and was amazingly interesting. So I drifted over to Current Periodicals in the library and settled down with it -- what I mainly remember is what a stretch it was. Who was this woman who knew so much and wrote about it all so commandingly?

Reading it again, thirty one years on, a lot of it seems plain common sense; I guess after Foucault and the innumerable Foucauldian analyses of knowledge, authority, and figural language, nothing in Illness as Metaphor seems particularly startling. Highly readable, though, with great range (the diaries of John Adams!) and a knack for lucid and memorable phrasing one rarely meets among the Foucauldians -- my college-age daughter tells me she read Sontag for one of her courses, "The Sociology of Health and Wellness," and that Sontag's line about the two kingdoms, that of the well and that of the sick, is constantly quoted in the other reading she did for the course.

As a working intellectual with no base in academe, was Sontag the last of her breed, the end of the line of the kind of writer/thinkers who made Partisan Review, Dissent, and (God help us) Commentary must-reads in the 1950s and 1960s? It's certainly hard to think of anyone else like her, although academe now has its fair share of writer/thinkers who range all over the place -- Martha Nussbaum, Elaine Scarry, Nancy Fraser, Anthony Appiah, Paul Gilroy. Being in a tenured professor in some elite institution's Program of Incredibly Cool Interdisciplinary Stuff leaches a little urgency out of their stuff, though, I think, and Sontag was always, always urgent.

I miss her. Granted, had I personally met the Sontag of those just-published early diaries, I would have run for the hills.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Paul Foster Johnson, _Refrains/Unworkings_

I HAD heard of neither Apostrophe Books nor Paul Foster Johnson (who has, however, published in some cool places -- Octopus, Fence, canwehaveourballback) when I came into possession of this volume, but on this evidence, both deserve attention.

The shorter poems identified in their titles as "R1," R2," et cetera, up to "R22," are, I assume, the "refrains" of the book's titles, so the other five considerably longer poems must be the "unworkings," and it is these that most intrigued me.

In the first, "Rhythmicon," which opens the book, a speaker dwells on a proposed memorial, which, in the spirit of Goethe's remark on architecture as frozen music, seems to sometimes be a building metaphorically imagined in musical terms or a piece of music metaphorically imagined in architectural terms. It turns out, when we get to the endnotes, that the Rhythmicon was an early (or the first) electronic instrument, designed and built by Henry Cowell and Leon Theremin, capable of translating harmonic input into rhythmic output -- and what with the translation of one element of art into another, or one art into another, or the non-aesthetic into the aesthetic, we glimpse art and aesthetics as the book's predominant concerns.

Sometimes we seem to be eavesdropping on a hammer-and-tongs disagreement over the is/oughts of art, as in "R8: Measure for Measure." A certain class of artist -- or of aspirants to that status -- gets a good going-over in "R5: Marcelled Men of War." The longer and more ambitious "Sonatina for Piano, One Hand" contemplates an art constructed around an unnameable trauma -- like that of Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who lost an arm in the First World War, but that is simply a starting point for Johnson.

Just about all the contemporary poetry I like reminds me in some way of Ashbery, and Johnson is no exception, with lateral leaps aplenty, and the Ashberyean penchant for constructing sentences of perfectly ordinary syntactical relations and perfectly ordinary lexical items that nonetheless hover tantalizingly beyond the outstretched fingers of reference.

I also hear Eliot, though, especially in the 11-page "Clone Memoir," which in its first-person-plural pronouns and the speakers' mood of having fatally missed a vanished opportunity by sloth. cowardice, and inattention, reminds me much of "The Hollow Men." The following (from pp 38-39) almost sounds like a "Hollow Men" outtake (or parody):

From a mess of grass
there was speech
in the roof garden
a complaint of the throat
affirming the roof garden
under little stars that lumbered

There's even an apparent pendant to the poem (as "Eyes that last I saw in tears" is a pendant to "The Hollow Men") in "R10: Lyric." And I couldn't let this topic go without noting that "Clone Memoir" even veers toward Eliot's "Marina" on p. 34: pine, fog, Shakespearean allusion....

The final poem, "Art of the Cities," begins as if were a revision -- or a precursor? -- to "Rhythmicon," much the same words as the volume's first poem but differently lineated, somehow sounding a bit closer to blank verse, but then taking off in pursuit of its own vector. A palinode? A kaledioscopic rearrangement, à la Stevens's "Sea Surface with Clouds"? A forking path? Damned if I know. Paul Foster Johnson is one clever guy and I hope to see more of his work.