Loads of Learned Lumber

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.