Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, December 30, 2010

David Shields, _Reality Hunger: A Manifesto_

I NOTE WITH satisfaction that I have averaged just over a post per week this year. Well done, Theobald.

It's too soon to tell whether Shields's Reality Hunger will in the long run stand alongside Woolf's "Modern Fiction" and Robbe-Grillet's "Towards a New Novel" as one of the seminal end-of-the-novel-as-we-know-it pronouncements, but those comparisons give the measure of the book's ambitions.

Ever since -- oh, shall we say Defoe, leaving aside for the moment such forerunners as Petronius Arbiter and Lady Murasaki? -- and the rise of the novel, i.e., the conscientious effort to tell one's tale while also creating the impression of the texture of lived experience, moments periodically arrive when the inherited conventions and contrivances for creating that impression begin to seem over-familiar, too obviously artificial, unpersuasive. At such moments, a Woolf or a Robbe-Grillet will say, "all that is not working any longer -- let's try...this!" And so we get To the Lighthouse or La Jalousie, which may not have as many readers as Arnold Bennett or Romain Rolland did at the time Woolf and Robbe-Grillet fired their salvoes, but which so enlarge and reorganize the possibilities of the novel that in the next generation Bennett's and Rolland's novels join the vast ranks of the unread.

Shields thinks we are at such a moment now, and declares that the future belongs to a certain kind of non-fiction, something like what John D'Agata calls the lyrical essay, personal, exploratory, hybridized, marked by a power and suppleness of style, more akin to poetry than fiction, sojourning towards a truth and wisdom the writer reaches only though the process of writing. For instance, Nicholson Baker (at his least novelistic), Anne Carson, Elizabeth Hardwick (Sleepless Nights), George W.S. Trow, Geoff Dyer, Proust, Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello), David Markson.

(Speaking of Markson, Reality Hunger could almost be the fifth in the series that began with Reader's Block and concluded with The Last Novel. It is composed in short segments, and the larger part of the segments are quotations, which appear in the text itself without attribution -- at his publisher's insistence, an appendix identifies the various sources.)

Shields has a point. As he says, a great many novels are based on the author's experiences, with some rearrangement, consolidation of personages, streamlining of events, and so on -- while the same rearrangement, consolidation, and streamlining go on in memoir. So is there really a difference, or just a kind of continuum, with memoir perhaps having the advantage in not having to go through a lot of rigmarole and belabored invention?

I admit, many is the novel I pick up these days, even much admired, prize-winning ones, and as the old weary machinery of exposition begins to grind and shudder, I just want to sigh. Do we really have to go through all this again? Or I read in the NYT Book Review of a "poignant and unforgettable fictional portrait of..." and I just want to cry out, save me from poignant and unforgettable fictional portraits!

Mine is a minority view, I suspect. A good deal of the reception of Franzen's Freedom this past fall seemed to express relief and delight to have a sort of Stendhal/Tolstoy/George Eliot novel about the contemporary USA. But could any serious art or music critic get away with saying, "This guy is great! He's just like Courbet!" or "He's just like Brahms!"?

Truth to tell, I don't think bourgeois-realist novels are going away. Too many people love them. But I'm glad to see the kind of writing Shields is boosting is getting a boost, because I enjoy it and hope it prospers.

How old is the term "creative non-fiction," by the way? Twenty-five years, thirty? I remember the day when essay and memoir were the shabby-genteel poor relations of poetry and fiction, weedy and tweedy and without much prestige in the creative writing curricula of this our republic, but take a look at what fine strapping lads they are now, not about to take a back seat to anyone. John D'Agata (multitudinously cited in Reality Hunger) landed a one-two punch to the canon with The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay, and now Shields has provided a declaration of independence, or perhaps of war. CNF is yielding no ground and taking no prisoners, by the looks of things.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

David Markson, _The Last Novel_

MARKSON DIED ABOUT six months ago, and about five months ago I began reading this, having already read Vanishing Point and This Is Not a Novel, two of the earlier texts in the series that The Last Novel completes. I finished it minutes ago.

So were I to say, as I feel like saying, "I couldn't put it down," that would not be literally true, since I put the book in a stack back in August when my semester started and rescued it from that same stack two days ago, when my grades were turned in. But I truly have found all the Markson books I have read hard to put down. They have all been sequences of brief items -- facts, quotations, observations about the life of art and the lives of artists -- and, as with M&Ms or Triscuits, one more always seems like a good idea. They are no chapters or other divisions creating an opportune moment to replace the bookmark and get on with whatever else I ought to be getting on with, so I just keep reading, gobbling down one more item, one more page, five more pages.

That said, though, The Last Novel is sobering stuff. Published three years before Markson died, it is valedictory from its title to its last page, Markson's own death hovering just beyond the final entry ("Als ick kan," a phrase Van Eyck put beside his signature on a painting, which means something like "The best I can do").

And, as in earlier volumes in the series, the news from the lives of artists from antiquity to now is mainly grim: "Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke," runs a recurring entry. Prizes, popularity, and fame infallibly gravitate to the un- or scarcely deserving (Markson notes a particular dislike for Warhol, Christo, and Damien Hirst). Most artists are forgotten (he tries to recall the last time he heard anyone mention Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, or James Jones, all immensely well known once). Critics are harsh and impercipient, one's artistic peers harsher and blinder.

So what is the source of the strange astringent joy in this book? Why is it -- dare I say it? -- delightful? Partly, it's just plain interesting. One finds out, for instance, that Ruskin could never imagine living in the United States because it lacked castles. Then there is the idiosyncratically bendy syntax Markson came up with for the series, e.g., "A century before Alcoholics Anonymous, something called the Sons of Temperance, Poe did make a stab at. To no avail."

Chiefly, I suspect, the joy lies in Markson having made a novel (four, even) without observing a single one of the form's conventions. At one point, he quotes:

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it's been.
Said Wayne Gretzky.

Markson perhaps was thinking more about where the novel was going than where it had been, and so his book is alive and green even as it contemplates death and oblivion. So The Last Novel has no characters to speak of, no plot to speak of, no setting to speak of, not even any fiction to speak of (since it is all quotations and theoretically verifiable statements of fact, and even the asides from the "Novelist" voice seem squarely based on Markson's own circumstances and dispositions)... yet mysteriously feels like a novel. Watch me create a novel with none of the attributes of a novel, Markson invites us, and then pulls it off.

There is , apparently, one bit of fiction in The Last Novel. On p. 131, Markson writes, "For no reason whatsoever, Novelist has just flung his cat out one of his four-flights-up front windows." Jeez, I thought, he's losing it now -- for I quite believed him, you see. But was the flung cat only a snare for the careless reviewer? P. 135:

Novelist does not own a cat, and thus most certainly could not have thrown one out a window.
Nonetheless he would lay odds that more than one hopscotching reviewer will be reading carelessly enough here to never notice these two sentences and announce that he did so.

Ha! Unless there's a deeper game here and he did fling that poor cat.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Robin Robertson, _Swithering_

THEY HAIL FROM four different countries, but somehow Robin Robertson (Scotland) calls to my mind Ted Hughes (England), Seamus Heaney (Northern Ireland),and Les Murray (Australia). The sound is crunchily consonantal, the texture loamy, the mood rural or at least out of doors, the memory yet green of the heavy wooden furniture of the grandparents and the smells of animals.

In "Entry," a Heaneyesque buzzard ("the slung bolt of her body / balanced in the wind / by wings and tail") lands on and devours a rabbit's corpse with Hughesian relish:

The wounds feather through him
throwing a fine mist of incarnation,
annunciation in the fletched field,
and she breaks in,
flips the latches
of the back, opens the red drawer
in his chest, ransacking the heart.

Hughesian, too, methinks, Robertson's poems on Actaeon's death ("the whole pack, thick with bloodlust, / flowed over the rocks and crags, over the trackless cliffs"), and Heaneyesque his animal poems, like "The Eel":

-- a dart of light, loosed
through the chestnut trees
ignites her glimmer, her muscle,
there in the dead pools
in the pleated grooves that stream the sides
of the Appenines down to Romagna [...]

The Murray note? Perhaps this, from "Swimming in the Woods":

Her long body in the spangled shade of the wood
was a swimmer moving through a pool:
fractal, finned by leaf and light;
the loose plates of lozenge and rhombus
wobbling coins of sunlight.

So what is the Robertson note? Hmm, dunno. I feel like reading more even though he keeps reminding me of other poets (poets I like, though, so maybe that's it). But there's something not at all like Hughes, Heaney, or Murray in this very short poem contemplating an adolescent girl (a daughter, I think, but I may be projecting):


The child's skip
still there in the walk,
A woman's poise in her slow
of the brightly coloured globe, this
toy of the world.
Is there anything
more heartbreaking than hope?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Meg Kearney, _Home By Now_

MEG KEARNEY RECENTLY gave a reading here where I live, so I picked this up; published last year, it's her most recent book. Her language is plain, even colloquial, her themes often autobiographical (often about growing up as an adopted child, wondering about her biological parents), the lyrical idea usually lying near the surface, not too deeply buried, ready to be found. Hers is a poetry that even people who complain about poetry might enjoy.

My own taste is usually towards the baffling and outré, but even so I found a lot to like here. One poem responds to a writing teacher's advice (dated December 2001) to stop writing about herself and face the world ("George Says Stop Writing About Yourself") by listing all the things she is not to write about and thereby (ha!) writing about them nonetheless:

forget your mother
sipping a cigarette, a Dugan's Dew -- forget
your other mother, your other father, too,

and the one you last saw in a coffin not looking
at all like himself, so much not-him you couldn't
bear be near that body.

But this clever obedience-as-disobedience suddenly leaps into an engagement with history and the urgencies of the moment -- but then still based on the author's senses, her lived actuality:

It opens the window to that stench, three months

now of that smell, man-made, human, wafting
from downtown. This poem is in the street,
where war does its thing. See, there's a man
walking up Broadway: his shoes, suit, eyelashes,
lips covered with dust that used to be a building.

Also memorable are the wit of "First Blow Job":

Suddenly I knew what it was to be my uncle's Labrador retriever,
young pup paddling furiously back across the pond with the prized
duck in her mouth, doing the best she could to keep her nose in the air

so she could breathe.

And "So This Grasshopper Walks into a Bar," which does an extraordinary job of rendering the rhythms of a shift as a bartender, the early-evening bonhomie and euphoria metamorphosing into later-evening fumbling lust and red-eyed danger, to end with not a bang but a whimper -- the sour smells, the sense of abandonment and the unearthly quiet of closing.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Robert Wrigley, _Beautiful Country_

WHATEVER BECAME OF the "Mistress of my Fate" blog? A distinctly snarky observation about Robert Wrigley, drawn from the blog, serves as epigraph to one of the poems in this, Wrigley's most recent book, a poem in which Wrigley snarks right back at the blogger. But "Mistress of my Fate" seems to have disappeared. Perhaps M. of my F. decided it was time to re-brand.

This is the first volume by Wrigley I have picked up, inspired by a reading he recently gave in the vicinity. Likeable work. Love poems, poems of natural description, memories of boyhood and youth... fairly traditional subject matter, it's fair to say. It's not surprising to learn from "Introduction to Poetry" that Wrigley heard the call to become a poet after reading Herrick's "Upon Julia's Clothes," for his poems typically travel down the broad highway of the English lyric. Not without the occasional contemporary touch -- Wrigley describes discovering Herrick's poem on a campus somewhere in 1973, at the very moment a classmate named Julie whooshes by, "streaking."

Loping in cadence, expansive in syntax, generous in figuration, the poems in Beautiful Country do not have, to my ear, a sharply distinctive music -- in a jumble assortment of Wrigley's poems with others by, say, James Wright, Donald Justice, and Stephen Dunn, I don't believe I could guess which were his -- but they are worth reading. And I'm pleased to note he himself reads them well; in an era when rather too many poets have taken literally J. S. Mill's dictum that "poetry is overheard," Wrigley performs his poems with a refreshing energy.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

David Wagoner and David Lehman, eds, _The Best American Poetry 2009_

HIGH TIME I got around to finishing this, with the new one soon or perhaps already out. I must have picked it up nearly a year ago. Nice cover -- a collage by John Ashbery, also making his nth appearance inside with "They Knew What They Wanted" -- but not as interesting a volume as some in the series, for me.

The poems tended to remind me of those of its editor -- wry, witty, colloquial, plenty of fauna, no small amount of flora, certainly likeable, but taken together in large numbers tending to leave me wanting something stranger, more ambitious, more startling.

There are some good things in here, to be sure; among the poets new to me in this volume, I'd be willing to read more by Mark Bibbins ("Concerning the Land to the South of Our Neighbors to the North"), Rob Cook ("The Song of America"), Michael Johnson ("How to be Eaten by a Lion"), Tina Kelley ("To Yahweh"), Keith Ratzlaff ("Turn"), Martha Silano ("Love"), Mitch Sisskind ("Like a Monkey"), Craig Morgan Teicher ("Ultimately Justice Directs Them"), or Debbie Yee ""Cinderella's Last Will & Testament"). What is that, eight? Not such a bad haul, really.

Lehman's introduction reports on the ink wars over William Logan's Loganesque take on Hart Crane in the NYTBR, taking the occasion to get in his own punches. But perhaps there's something to be said for Logan; he does have a keen eye for flaws and weak moments. That's about all he has, and the rare book he praises is never (I've found) any better than the many he trashes. But it's a gift, of a sort, no? Even when he's trashing someone I like, which is often, I have to admit he often puts his finger on a genuine problem.

Monday, October 18, 2010

John McManus, _Bitter Milk_

NINE-YEAR-OLD Loren Garland, who lives in the shadow of Mt. Chilhowee in eastern Tennessee, has more that the usual kit of problems. He is drastically overweight. His teacher and his classmates persecute him. His relatives, variously deranged, are no friendlier. His imaginary friend, Luther, has a discernibly diabolic streak, and has killed off Loren's other imaginary friends, seven male and three female. His mother, Avery, is gender-dysphoric and without any explanation to Loren has taken advantage of a financial windfall (sale of the family's land to a sleazy brother-in-law real estate developer) to head out of town for sexual reassignment surgery, leaving Loren in the care of his alarming relatives.

An after-school special scripted by Flannery O'Connor? But there are further twists. The imaginary friend, Luther, is the narrator. Is he somehow more real than imaginary, more tempter than friend? When we read of him "walking up and down in the hallway," are we to think of the Adversary in the Book of Job, "going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it"? When Luther says of the deaths of Loren's other imaginary, "I alone had escaped to tell the story," are we again being clued to think of Job? Or when Luther makes a kind of bet with Avery over which of them Loren will ultimately turn to in his abandonment? Or when it turns out Loren suffers from... boils?

Yes, the Biblical Book of Job haunts the novel, Loren in Job's role, Avery in God's, Luther in Satan's, the relatives, who think they understand both Loren and Avery but actually understand neither, in the role of Job's "comforters."

The great thing about McManus's novel, though, is that this key opens things up without closing anything down. The Job parallel gives the book a spine, but it's the novel's limbs that enchant. An afternoon at the pond with step-cousin Eli, a visit to Papaw on the roof of the barn, an interview with the school principal, unscrolling like a dream (there are no chapters or other divisions in the 195-page book) as Loren navigates through and eventually masters his inexplicable abandonment.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Stephen Burt, _Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry_

THERE ARE PUNCHIER and more provocative reviewers of contemporary poetry out there, but I'm now 56, and I'have learned the hard way that the punchy and provocative typically has a very early sell-by date. So Stephen Burt is my favorite reviewer of contemporary poetry. He's gracious, he's smart, he's open-minded, and when he says something is worth reading, it almost invariably is. He's not above trying to launch a bandwagon (see "The Elliptical Poets"), but he doesn't puff poets for being oin the right side of some movement, nor trash them for being on the wrong side. I'm glad he's out there.

This handy volume from Graytwolf collects about thirty of the reviews and articles Burt has published since the mid-1990s, some on general topics in poetry, most reviews of particular poets. Quite a few I had read before, but they are worth re-reading, if only to confirm that they are really as good as I thought they were the first time around. Burt may not be infallible -- not quite sure what he sees August Kleinzahler, for instance (speaking of poetry reviewers, sub-category punchy and provocative) -- but he's to contemporary poetry what the late John Hammond was to contemporary music: a guy who knows the real thing when he encounters it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dezsö Kosztolányi, _Skylark_, tr. Richard Aczel

I don't quite know how, with book publishing apparently in critical condition, the people at New York Review Books are making a go of things by re-publishing obscure and neglected masterpieces. Maybe they're not making a go of it, but are instead subsidized to the hilt by some enlightened benefactor; or, to be optimistic, perhaps it is a case of virtue rewarded, since with their current track record one can buy a New York Review Books publication, even if you have never heard of the author, and be fully confident that you have something worth reading.

I had never heard of Dezsö Kosztolányi, nor of Skylark, before the NYRB version appeared, but the plot description had some appeal. We're in a small Hungarian town around the turn of the 20th century, observing the Vajkays (Ákos and Antónia), an aging modestly-genteel couple whose unmarried adult daughter (Skylark) still lives with them. Skylark takes a week's vacation with relatives in the country, and after half a day of wondering how they will ever manage to get along without her, the Vajkays begin doing things they had given up years ago: eating at restaurants (which Skylark dislikes, too much paprika), going to theater (ditto, too vulgar), Ákos going to his old club, Antónia playing the piano. To their horror, they find themselves living a much more enjoyable life in Skylark's absence. What will they do when she returns?

Go back to being Mother and Father, of course. After a brief dramatic outburst the evening before Skylark returns, they accept their lot, meet her at the station, and slip into their old hebetude as into an old out-at-the-elbows bathrobe. In the final chapter, we finally get an extended look at things from Skylarks' point of view, and they are hardly rosier: her marriage prospects are virtually extinct, and she has nothing to look forward to but continuing to keep house for her aging parents, who will at some not-too-distant time die and leave her alone in a gray blankness she can hardly imagine.

A lot of Skylark is a charming, sepia-toned gallery of small town life during the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The town, Sárszeg, is a kind of Lake Wobegon, with its own small-town characters, habits, gossip, and institutions, and Kosztolányi a kind of Garrison Keillor, perceptive about his characters' foibles and narrowness but ultimately forgiving.

But underneath the charm we also sense a small but genuine domestic tragedy: three people in a situation no one of them likes, that does no one of them much good, but to which no one of them can conceive of an alternative. It's a study in resignation to the inevitable, an Old World lesson if there ever was one; here in the New World, we learn before we go to kindergarten that if one is unhappy, one Does Something About It. Skylark is about another world, and not just in the geographical or historical sense.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Muriel Barbery, _L'élégance du hérisson_


The English translation of this novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, was the book club selection for August. I read the original because it was summer and I had the time to do so -- besides, since I'm an American, everything sounds witty and intelligent in French. But the enchantment didn't entirely hold with this novel, since it feels like a Catcher with two Holdens.

There are two narrators, 54-year-old Renée, concierge in a haute-bourgeois apartment building, and going-on-thirteen Paloma, the younger of two daughters of a family that lives in the building. Like Holden, Renée and Paloma are perceptive and articulate but not taken seriously by the people around them. Like Holden, they can be savagely dismissive of anyone who strikes them as pretentious, insincere, or acting in bad faith. Like Holden, they tend to categorize all people other than themselves as pretentious, insincere, or acting in bad faith.

Most of the first half of the novel is mini-essays from either Renée or Paloma on the pervasive pretentiousness, insincerity, and bad faith that surrounds them. Paloma is so oppressed by it all that she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday by setting fire to her family's apartment.

Wheels begin to turn with the arrival of Monsieur Ozu, a Japanese gentilhomme of ample means, refined aesthetic sense, and pitch-perfect non-western sensibilité. Through his agency, Renée and Paloma discover each other and forge a cross-generational friendship of the sensitive, considerate and plucky, in Forster's phrase.

There is even a budding romance between Renée and M. Ozu, despite the formidable obstacle of her engrained suspicion and dislike of all wealthy people, but then fate of the tomorrow-we-could-be-hit-by-a-truck variety intervenes when Renée is hit by a truck. She dies, but Paloma has discovered a reason to live, and does not burn down her family's apartment.

Apparently L'élégance du hérisson is phenomenally popular all over the place, and I suspect that popularity may be due to the large number of people who feel that they, too, are perceptive, articulate, yet not taken sufficiently seriously, and moreover surrounded by phonies. Ever since Mark David Chapman, it's been hard to contemplate this segment of the population without a little inward shudder.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bill Bryson, _The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid_

THE BOOK CLUB that my spouse and I belong to read this for July. Bryson is a witty, likeable writer who has handled a variety of subjects; this is a memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, during the Eisenhower-Kennedy era.

Since I am just a few years younger than Bryson, and also lived in Des Moines, and also had a father who worked on the staff of the Register and Tribune, this book was like a carton of madeleines for me. Younkers. Bishop's Buffet. Riverview Amusement Park. That enormous globe in the lobby of the Register and Tribune building. Not to mention all the odds and ends that anyone who was a child at the time will remember: Nehi soda, comic books, the communist threat.

The younger Bryson was more than capable of unmixed snarkiness about Des Moines -- cf. his first book, The Lost Continent -- but the tone here is more that of mildly bemused elegy. He seems to genuinely miss the pre-franchise when any modestly-sized American city had a full spectrum of its own shops, restaurants, and amusements: Reed's Ice Cream, in Des Moines, rather than Baskin-Robbins, the Younkers Book Department rather than Barnes and Noble.

Odd how attractive the era now seems, given how fervently, circa 1968-1970, everyone in Bryson's and my generation wanted to get away from it all, or blow it all up -- the martinis, the obligatory hats for men, the tiny white gloves for women, the tailfins, the whole split-level ranch-style nuclear bomb Ed Sullivan Show world.... Now, thanks perhaps to Mad Men, it has this strange paradise lost aura.

A few months ago I saw a billboard in town advertising Canadian Club whiskey: Cold War paterfamilias in his Cold War den (fallout shelter?) with a glass of whiskey, over the legend, "Damn Right Your Dad Drank It." None of your fancy-ass single malts for Dad, you pathetic twig on the family tree! Canadian Club and soda on the rocks, and pass the Chex mix.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Joshua Clover, _The Totality for Kids_

IN A BLURB on the back cover of Clover's second collection of poetry (2006), Charles Altieri describes the poems as "crossing the cool, allusive intricacy of Quentin Tarantino with the abstract, intense social passion of Walter Benjamin." I would put it slightly differently, as for me the poems cross the cool, allusive intricacy of Walter Benjamin with the abstract, intense social passion of Quentin Tarantino.

Now why am I being so snarky? What Clover's poems actually are for me is an occasion of sin, to wit, the sin of envy. He has obviously received an excellent education and fully profited from it; he possesses a wickedly witty po-mo ingenuity (this is the first volume of poetry I've encountered that has a subject index); he has impeccable radar for what is most interesting in popular culture (in the index, Ashbery and Adorno rub shoulders with Astaire and the Auteurs); his politics are well-honed, smart but slogan-less; on the evidence of this volume, he spends a lot of time in Paris. It's hard to read Clover without the continually nagging sense that one wants to be Clover.

One cheap and obvious cure for envy is to dislike and disparage the object of envy -- not so easy in this case, unfortunately, since Clover's poetry is excellent: witty, musical ("jotting in our daybooks, how beautiful, the armies of autumn"), self-aware. Can one even mock his relentless post-everything-ism --

The most awful thing
About the phrase "Every Germinal must have its Thermidor"
Is that one never gets to say so anymore
And really mean it.

-- when he has done a better job of mocking it than you ever will in the three re-shuffled versions of almost the same poem, "Auteur Theory," "Kantine," and "A Boy's Own Story"?

About that index, though. On what principles was it compiled? Stephen Rodefer is mentioned on p. 64, and the index dutifully records, "Rodefer, Stephen, 64." Then I notice the index entry "Phair, Liz, 28, 59." Flipping to p. 28, I find no mention of Liz Phair, but the poem is titled "Letters and Sodas" -- a phrase from "Fuck and Run," a standout song from Phair's masterpiece, Exile in Guyville. So, the index tracks allusions as well as plain references...cool! Sure enough, "Guided by Voices, 50" sends one to a poem using the phrase "glad girls," the title of a great cut on Isolation Drills.

What a gift to the source-seeking dissertation writers, if only, as in the 1940s and 1950s, dissertation writers still sought sources.

But wait. On p. 32, we read "The danger of philosophy is that the the mayor is weeping over Love Will Tear Us Apart (The last chapter where Aglaya gets it [...]," which ought to generate entries for Joy Division and Dostoyevsky and does, but then the reference to "Rue No Fun" on the same page (and on p. 16) generates no entry for the Stooges. WTF?! All right, perhaps this was just some trans-lingual pun. But then the phrase "doing the Strand" on p. 50, which has to be an allusion to Roxy Music, generates no entry for Roxy Music.

Worse is to come -- on p. 62, we read "Je me promène. Principalement, je me promène," yet neither the entry for Guy DeBord nor the entry for Michelle Bernstein lists p. 62!

Ah, well, back to square one for our non-existent source-seeking dissertation writers. Makes for a better joke, though, no? If giving a volume of poetry an index is an ingenious po-mo gesture, it's obviously even more ingeniously po-mo to make the index inconsistent, fragmentary, fissured, and misdirective.

Down, green-eyed monster, down...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rusty Morrison, _the true keeps calm biding its story_

WINNER OF BOTH the 2007 Sawtooth Poetry Prize (judged by Peter Gizzi) and the 2008 James Laughlin Award (judged by Rae Armantrout, Claudia Rankine, and Bruce Smith), the true keeps calm biding its story obviously comes highly recommended. Were a prize mine to bestow, I might have kept looking, but the book compels respect and is worth reading.

One notices the volume's fixed form right away -- nine sections, each of six poems, each poem titled "please advise stop" and nine lines long (three sets of three lines apiece), line nine always ending "please advise," lines 1-8 always ending with either "please" or "stop." The poems are right-justified, so down one side one sees always a kind of column --



-- or some other combination.

The "please" has a wide semantic swing between the "please" of authority pretending to be polite and the "please" of desperate pleading, and the "stop" an even wider one, sometimes the voice of authority, sometimes the cry of a victim, sometimes telegram-ese for a period. As "please" and "stop" both tend to ask/demand something of the reader, the recurring conclusion "please advise" always tends to leave the ball, so to speak, in you, the reader's, court. "Well?" the poems seem to keep asking, "Now what? Can you make any more sense of this than I can?"

What sense there is to be made has to be made from the ground up, for the strict rigidity of the form is matched by the near-perfect disjunction as we go from line to line, from poem to poem, from section to section. Details of interiors flash by, scraps of etymology, a glimpse of landscape, a wink of introspection, any number of arresting images ("a huge walled-off deity affixed at the edge of my outer life stop").

But a thematic pulse is established as references to the death of the speaker's father recur, as if the book were in a wide elliptical orbit around that death. But -- it occurs to me -- an ellipse has two foci. The death of the father is one, but there seems to be an unnameable other as well. Is the other the poem's self-imposed form itself?

"After great pain, a formal feeling comes...." Is that the key here? Everything comes down to Dickinson (or Wordsworth or Eliot) sooner or later.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Niall Ferguson, _The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World_

A BRISKLY READABLE account of where money, banks, bonds, stocks, insurance, the secondary market in mortgages, and hedge funds came from, obviously written for a lay audience, and a good thing it is, as I could hardly have made much headway otherwise. All we citizens need to know more about this stuff, but I for one feel at an enormous disadvantage. To me, as a humanities person, the processes of how credit flourishes and withers seems spectral and bewitched. No wonder Pound never emerged from the labyrinth.

Ferguison mentions several times in the book that he finished writing in May 2008 -- as if he knew enormously worse news was in the offing, as it certainly was.

Ferguson provides relatively little technical explanation (no equations) and a good many anecdotes, featuring among others the Medicis, the Rothschilds, the Scottish Widows, and George Soros. As an historian, he seems at his most comfortable and sounds at his most reliable when delving into origins.

When he turns to the contemporary scene, he's less persuasive. He takes a sickeningly indulgent view of the IMF and Pinochet's Chicago boys, for example.

Reading a book on the history of finance that has no equations is probably like reading a book on the history of music that has no musical notation -- which reminds me, I need to finish that Alex Ross book -- but for someone with my limitations, Ferguson's book is quite helpful. But how thick is his head if neither Naomi Klein nor John Perkins, whom he has obviously read, made no deep impression?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Gary Rivlin, _Broke, USA_

IF YOU ARE sated with accounts of the upper-tier financial scoundrels and their derivatives, hedge funds, tranches, credit default swaps, and so on, but nonetheless still looking for insight into our ongoing meltdown, you should take up Gary Rivlin's trawl through the bottom feeders of our financial system -- the pawnbrokers, the folks who bring us pay day loans, the rent-to-own people, the instant tax refund people. The poor you will have with you always, as Jesus is reported to have observed, so what more reliable source of profit could there be than bleeding the poor?

Rivlin apparently started with the assumption that the pay day loan industry, dealing as it does with people who don't qualify for credit cards and whom ordinary banks disdain, was at least serving a real need. That assumption may have been what gained him access to Allan Jones, Billy Webster, and a variety of other smaller operators, who come to life in the book with a Dickensian clarity. Turns out, however, that the pay day loan industry generates enormous profits by urging its customers to take another loan at the soonest opportunity, to borrow more than they had originally intended, and thus keep them hooked up to the milking machine at APR rates of between 300 and 400 per cent, the interest eventually doubling or tripling the amount of the principal.

And then there are the predatory lenders -- the folks who kept the market in sub-prime mortgage bundles moving by urging home-improvement loans on people who had small ability to repay and often wound up losing their houses.

Ugly, ugly, ugly. It's not an impartial book, but it's well-researched and well-written, and all the evidence anyone needs that American hucksterism continues to thrive in every corner of the republic.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Lara Glenum, _Maximum Gaga_

HER SECOND, FROM two years ago. My question as I began reading was, will this be as strange, beautiful, and scary as The Hounds of No? Answer: stranger, more beautiful, scarier.

Glenum puts me in mind of... wait for it... Seamus Heaney. Actually, they have next to nothing in common, but they both love a line full of nice chewy consonants. Heaney, from the title poem his first book, Death of a Naturalist:

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew in clotted water
In the shade of the banks.

And Glenum's "Crash Site," in its entirety:

Dribbling figgity
among cream-slammed oinkers

the Normopath's piglicker

crushes into ham canyon.

Or should we say Glenum is Finnegans Wake without those sweet seductive long vowels?

Anyway, Glenum's a naturalist, too, we might say, a student of the body. In the first section of Maximum Gaga, we witness the development of a biologically intense relationship between Minky Momo and Mino --

My ratty lingua
sound like the snapping
of flightbones
and you do a cunning runtalingus
to the sucking noises
of my blowhole victrola

--which is witnessed by the Normopath (one whose normality is a kind of disease?). Minky Momo seems almost utterly given over to the experience, but she is also intent on holding to her heritage and identity ( "I come from a long line of female seers who had visions of the Barbie-Christ").

The second section of the book seems to be a drama staged for Minky Momo's benefit & edification by Mino, with the collusion, I suspect, of the Normopath. (On p. 9, Mino tells Minky Momo to identify with "Vamp No. 7," who appears on p. 72.)

The drama is not really describable, but I'm going to go with calling it a Jarry-esque feminist version of the myth of Minos, Pasiphaë, the divine white bull from the sea, and the artificial cow created by Daedalus so that Pasiphaë could copulate with the bull.

Minos has become "Minus," Daedalus "Ded," Icarus "Icky," and Pasiphaë "Queen Naked Mole Rat," or usually just "the Queen." In Glenum's version, though, it is not Pasiphaë's uncontrollable lust that compels her into the engine designed to exaggerate all aspects of female animality -- that is, the cow -- but the men, eager for spectacle, anxious for confirmation of their own role as masters of reason and technical accomplishment.

Glenum's Queen is not the cartoon of the myth. She's aware, cagy, also to some extent compromised, but able to teach Minky Momo much more than Mino suspects.

The Visual Mercenaries, a kind of chorus, deliver a "proclamation" that includes the volume's title:

How to rectify this, o dog of language? How to rectify your losses at the hands of your own tongue? Run headlong into Maximum Gaga! Run, now that your own poor words have been crammed back into your torso like guinea pig carcasses & greasy red clouds, now that you face certain doom from all quarters! Seek sanctuary in Maximum Gaga!

So Maximum Gaga is... the white bull from Poseidon? God? The Transcendental Signified? The Panopticon? In any case, you'd obviously be better off seeking sanctuary anywhere else.

Glenum notes in her acknowledgments at book's end that it "paraphrases or appropriates the work of Mary Russo, Delueze & Guattari, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard in certain places." No kidding. Simulacra and bodies without organs abound. But what, no Lacan? (Actually, p. 92 seems more than a little Lacanian to me.)

An amazing book, I think. I read it at one sitting -- it was that compelling, that inventive, surprises on every page. I wonder if any fans of the pop singer will be misled by the title and pick this up... and what might ensue? More visions of the Barbie-Christ?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wells Tower, _Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned_

MUCH-BUZZED, AND deservingly so in this instance; Tower is a talented writer and one to watch. The writing is controlled and witty, the observations of human, especially male, foibles acute.

Which led me to wonder -- would it be fair to say that male writers of literary fiction born later than, let's say, 1960 more or less internalized the second-wave feminist critique of American masculinity as a kind of psychopathology?

Here, as in much else, David Foster Wallace led the way with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Either Lambert brother in Franzen's Corrections could serve as an example. The men in the fiction of Gary Lutz and Ben Marcus often seem wholly alienated from their own emotions, and unnerving as Jane Dark in Marcus's Notable American Women is, one scarcely doubts that the father needs to remain deeply buried in the back yard. On the somewhat more popular front, there's Fight Club. It's as if they all rolled up some Gilligan/Dworkin/MacKinnon in the late 70s/early 80s and deeply, deeply inhaled.

This development seems like and unlike the recent Hollywood guy-movies à la Forty-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, The Hangover, in that those films also seem to have internalized the second-wave critique of masculinity, with the important difference that the films juggle the situations so as to do their best to make the male characters, despite their psychopathology, play out as likeable and lovable. Nothing so redemptive goes on in Wallace, Lutz, or Marcus.

Or in Tower. The point-of-view characters in "Retreat," "Down through the Valley," and "On the Show" are game enough to make an effort to get out of their self-excavated holes, but we see enough to know they too are going to stay buried in the backyard, probably a good thing for everyone.

The final story, which lends the volume its title, is unique in that all the other stories are straight realism while "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" adopts the elaborate conceit of lending a medieval Viking raider the speech of an ordinary contemporary American suburban Joe (or Jason or Jordan or Josh). An ingenious way to make the same point the other, more conventional stories make: what separates the historic forms of male pillage, rapine, and arrogance from the new? Not much.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mark Levine, _Enola Gay_

HIS SECOND, FROM ten years ago. Somewhat lower voltage than Debt, I thought, as though Levine had in the meantime encountered something of ample power to chasten and subdue. A pleasurable read, all the same.

The jacket copy suggests that Wallace Stevens hovers in the background of the book, but I was more reminded of Hart Crane. The combination of ornate but orthodox syntax with bend-y, startling, left-field semantic juxtapositions occurs in both Crane and Stevens, but Levine's forays in this direction made me think more often Hart than of Wallace. Here's Crane:

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas, campaniles with reveilles out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

Levine likely would have avoided "slain," and the exclamation points, but he too loves to blend the syntactically clear with the semantically opaque:

I called on the orange
tab to rid me of this shawl, its heaviness.
Its contamination. Its need to be bundled
into silence and tramped with shears
among the skewed roots of industrial hair.

Can one terrace an echo? Can an encyclical be oval? How could an orange tab rid one of a shawl, and why would a shawl need to be tramped with shears? If you're a Crane-ite, as I am, or a Levine-ite, as I may yet become, the music of the poem persuades that such propositions are right and inevitable.

What I was most reminded of, though, was Eliot's "Marina." There's a recurring landscape in Enola Gay, a place of rock, shore, forest, and mist, of salt water and sand, the landscape of "Marina." A crucial difference is that in Eliot's poem some unfathomable blessing has occurred, while in Levine's something unspecified has gone badly amiss, or will soon ("And the stars began to fall, and though everybody is waiting / for a terrible surprise, it hasn't come yet, not just yet"). Yet there is no elegy or lament here, but a kind of stoic, clamped-jaw acceptance, a grim satisfaction in knowing the worst and dispensing with self-delusion.

"Forgetfulness" in particular seems to evoke "Marina," but the landscape and the boat seem to encode guilt rather than redemption:

Beware the dark sea.
What does darkness look like? What does it mean?
My bark is thinking of me, my unhappy bark

is balancing on its hook in the shaken sea
shrinking and sinking and blinking and thinking of the
distant blank blue hills. Where are my tall trees?

But is the landscape meant to evoke not Eliot's New England seacoast, but Japan? Is that why the book and its longest poem are named after the airplane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima --? But why does that very poem bring in clam-bakes and Jew's harps (an allusion to Eliot's Yankee anti-Semitism?) and end by landing us in "downtown Sumer"?

Well, I'm sufficiently intrigued. On to The Wilds.

One doesn't hear Hart Crane mentioned as often as he deserves to be. What's up with that?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Charles Dickens, _The Old Curiosity Shop_

AT THE RISK of being tiresome about William Logan's review of Against the Day, I note his parenthetical observation, "no one has ever wept over the death of a Pynchon character the way thousands wept over Little Nell." Coincidentally, I was reading the Dickens novel in which Little Nell figures, The Old Curiosity Shop, over the same weeks in which I was reading the last 700 pages or so of Against the Day. While I'm glad to have finally gotten around to The Old Curiosity Shop -- I haven't read any other pre-Copperfield Dickens -- I'd have to say Against the Day was a more captivating read, really.

Logan writes that Pynchon's sentence rhythms are those of Dickens, and that Pynchon resembles Dickens in other ways as well: "These are almost the rhythms of Dickens, whose freakish surplus of characters, juddering episodic plots, and teary sentiment Pynchon half imitates, though in each case with a nearly lethal dose of irony." Then there are the amazing names, of course.

It's those "lethal doses of irony," I suppose, that prevent our weeping at the death of a Pynchon character? So is Logan suggesting Dickens's teary sentimentality has the saving grace of having made people cry once upon a time? Is he sneering at Dickens's sentimentality and at the same time sneering at Pynchon for not trafficking in it? A classic Loganism.

I found Nell difficult to appreciate it, actually -- I couldn't quite manage Esther Summerson, either, for that matter. Bleak House is in a lot of way Dickens's best work, but the Esther half of it I found barely readable. Nell and Esther are just too Victorian picture post-card for me, and just about anyone this side of 1914, I suspect. So, no, I did not weep.

Then there's the fact that I knew going in she would die -- Little Nell is famous for dying, after all. Her death most have come as a shock for the novel's first readers, of course -- quite daring, really, of Dickens to not provide the usual happy ending.

Dick Swiveller, though -- there's the Dickens I love.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

_Against the Day_ (IV)

THE TITLE CAN be taken in at least three ways. For one, the novel participates in the same neo-Zoroastrian children-of-light vs. children-of-darkness opposition that figures often in Pynchon, so one may say the novel is about those who are making war on the day. (The principal child of darkness, Scarsdale Vibe, has the best Pynchonian villain-name since Brock Vond.) Second, the resistance, the children-of-light, are in a confrontation with the hegemonic powers, with things-as-they-are, so they are "against the day" in the sense of opposing the prevailing temper of their times. ("'Sometimes,' said Virgil, 'I like to lose myself in reveries of when the land was free, before it got hijacked by capitalist Christer Republicans for their long-term evil purposes...'." Amen.)

Third, we have the idea of providing for the future, anticipating some eventuality, preparations. The novel insists that the 20th century we had was not the one we had to have, that unrealized hopes did not go unrealized because they were impossible, unattainable -- that we need to remain loyal to those hopes, to keep imagining another world is possible. This is uncharacteristically sunny stuff from Mr. Entropy, and William Logan in the VQR got a bit snarky about it -- "The final pages of the novel offer a frazzled sentimental tale of coupling and growing old" -- but I'm old enough or long-coupled enough to have found these pages convincing, even moving. I was moved by this, for instance, the birth of Yashmeen Halfcourt's & Reef Traverse's daughter:

The baby was born during the rose harvest, in the early morning with the women already back from the fields, born into a fragrance untampered with by the heat of the sun. From the very first moment her eyes were enormously given to all the world around her. What Cyprian had imagined as terrifying, at best disgusting, proved instead to be irresistible, he and Reef to either side of the ancient bed, each holding one of Yashmeen's hands as she rose to meet the waves of pain, despite the muttering women who plainly wanted the two men elsewhere. Hell, preferably.

I witnessed the births of both my daughters, and I would say that Pynchon got something absolutely right here. (My daughters were not born during rose harvests, but even that seems utterly spot on.) That bit about the eyes... perfect.

Or take this subjunctive-mood vision of happily-ever-after he conjures up for Kit Traverse and Dahlia Rideout:

May we imagine for them a vector, passing through the invisible, the "imaginary," the unimaginable, carrying them safely into this postwar Paris where the taxis, battered veterans of the mythic Marne, now carry only lovers and cheerful drunks, and music which cannot be marched to goes on uninterrupted all night, in the bars and the bals musettes for the dancers who will always be there, and nights will be dark enough for whatever visions must transpire across them, no longer to be broken into by light displaced from Hell, and the difficulties they find are no more productive of evil than the opening and closing of too many doors, or of too few. A vector through the night into a morning of hosed pavements, birds heard everywhere but unseen, bakery smells, filtered green light, a courtyard still in shade...

Yes, in twenty years the Wehrmacht will be marching into this paradisal Paris -- but we need to keep contemplating that music that cannot be marched to -- it too goes on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

_Against the Day_ (III)

I DID NOT read Against the Day with the slack-jawed wonder at its thematic architecture that I felt in reading Gravity's Rainbow way back when, more than thirty years ago. How much of that is simply due to my own aging? Would I be agog at the complexity of Gravity's Rainbow if I read it now, would I have been astonished by Against the Day had I read it at 25?

No way to answer that, is there?

At the same time, I don't remember being much smitten with the prose style of Gravity's Rainbow. It seemed a convincing pastiche of several pulp-fiction styles of the 1940s and 1950s to me, but neither comely nor graceful, hardly to be savored for its own sake. The pastiche of 18th century prose in Mason & Dixon, however, I often found myself relishing, probably simply because I found the source of the pastiche congenial.

And now -- I don't know whether Pynchon learned a few tricks following the subtle volutes of Gibbon and Johnson or what, but I think the prose of Against the Day is frequently gorgeous. Pynchon is still a pasticheur -- a master, the master pasticheur of our time, greatest since Beerbohm perhaps -- and the source of the pastiche is an unpromising territory bounded by H. Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy, Robert Louis Stevenson, "Frank Richards," and a touch of Zane Grey whenever we're in Colorado. But even while indulging in the winding circumlocutions of turn-of-the-20th-century adventure prose, Pynchon can sound great.

She dreamed, the night she knew for certain, of a hunter arrived at last, a trainer of desert eagles, to unmask against her soul the predatory descent that would seize her, fetch her away, fetch her back, held fast in talons of communion, blood, destiny, to be plucked off the defective Riemann sphere she had been taking for everything that was, and borne in some nearly vertical angle of ascent into realms of eternal wind, to hover at altitude that made the Eurasian continent a map of itself, above the glimmering of the rivers, the peaks of snow, the Tian Shan and Lake Baikal and the great inextinguishable taiga. (891)

"Lake Baikal and the great inextinguishable taiga." Sigh. All right, I know, not for everybody, awfully high in cholesterol compared to, say, Beckett. But one or another Pynchon sentence walks across some such Niagara on a tightrope on almost every page of Against the Day. The prose had me slack-jawed this time.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

_Against the Day_ (II)

BACK IN THE 1970s when I was reading Gravity's Rainbow, it seemed like a lot of other people were as well, or had already read it, or were planning to. When Vineland arrived, I knew at least a few people who read it. I knew one other person beside myself who read Mason & Dixon. So far, no one else in my circle of acquaintance has mentioned taking up Against the Day.

"What's that you're reading there?"
"Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day."
"Whew! Good luck!"

Well, reviews were mixed. And the length is intimidating.

This era of the blog post, the YouTube clip, and the Tweet seems wholly unpropitious for the large-scale 800-1000-page novel -- yet they keep popping over the horizon: Against the Day, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic, Joshua Cohen's Witz, and a new one by William Vollmann every six months. Who is reading these? Are even the reviewers reading them (see Jack Green's Fire the Bastards!)?

There is an Against the Day readers website -- , part of a larger Pynchon website -- with acres of helpful annotations and indices, so obviously the book has its devotees, length notwithstanding.

I recall that my daughters were not dismayed as the later volumes in the Harry Potter series grew longer and longer -- if you're reading the book just for the sheer pleasure of reading it, more is better, perhaps, as three scoops of ice cream are better than two. Likewise, Stephen King's readers seem not at all put off by the length of The Stand, say.

But -- when a book is reputed to be complex, ambitious, intellectual, important, and so on, and it clocks in at, say, 1,087 pages, even serious lit folks (e.g., my faculty colleagues) will probably give it a pass.

Yet writers still read them, publishers still publish them... someone is reading them, in some Anti-Terra inaccessible to me.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thomas Pynchon, _Against the Day_ (I)

I BEGAN READING this in January of 2007, a few months after it came out. I got about two hundred pages in, found it interesting enough, but somehow it got to the bottom of the pile, drifted into "dormant" status on my reading list. May 2008, back at it, got another hundred pages further, then the same thing happened. May 2009, another hundred pages and... same thing.

Some time in 2009 I read William Logan's utterly Loganesque takedown of _Against the Day_ in VQR and very nearly lost heart. Did I really want to commit to completing my reading of a nearly 1100-page novel that, if Logan was right, was mainly a self-indulgent, exhausted jumble?

But second thoughts arrived. What, am I taking my cues from William Logan now? Surely things haven't come to that. So, May 2010, back to it -- basically, a hour a day. And I finished today.

And I can certainly say I enjoyed it. Then again, I enjoyed Mason & Dixon while I was reading it, but later found almost nothing of it had stuck with me. The opening section, when M. & D. are in South Africa for the Transit of Venus, seems to me one of the best things Pynchon has ever done, and the account of the changeover to the Gregorian calendar in England was echt Pynchonian, but the rest of it just evaporated, basically. So will Against the Day linger in my mind, or not?

This will have to be continued, I see.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, _Game Change_

A PAGE TURNER, certainly -- hard to put down -- a hybrid of Balzac and _People_ magazine, let's say. As in the _Comédie Humaine_, the fates of nations turn on personalities, temperaments, alliances, betrayals, feuds, and who is sleeping with whom and who knows -- which sounds like _People_ magazine already (or Suetonius), but Balzac has a sense of history and conception of the whole of French society, while _People_ does not -- and _Game Change_ certainly does not.

Heilemann and Halperin certainly knew whom to talk to, and who would be willing to talk -- the whole book is the insiders' view. The view is so far inside that there is no outside, really. The United States and all its messy differences and dilemmas enter the book only when reacting to this leak or that gaffe or some zinger in a televised debate, some lowball TV spot.

As an academic, somewhere I picked up the idea that history is about classes, conflicts, consciousness, dialectic... now and then, a new idea, an emergent possibility... all of that is wholly and utterly absent from _Game Change_. Everything comes down to who said what to whom on the campaign plane, If this book is _the_ story of the 2008 campaign, as its popularity suggests it is, then history is basically _Grey's Anatomy_, with really high stakes.

Obviously there are better analyses out there. But if _New Left Review_ were on hand at your dentist's office, would you pick it up? Or would you rather know what John Edwards's campaign staff was saying about the real Elizabeth?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Heather Christle, _The Difficult Farm_

"PEOPLE LIKE SURPRISES," the poet declares in the first line of "Television," and if you like surprises, as I do, you will delight in The Difficult Farm, as I did. Hardly a sentence, a strophe, or a poem resolves in the way one's half-formed expectations thought it was likely to:

Because my head is a magnet for bullets
I am spending the day indoors. First

I admired the topiary for several hours
and when my eyes began to ache I rang

for lunch. Lunch arrived with injunctions.
I considered my feet. I did not consider

my altitude.

That is the beginning of "One of Several Talking Men," and a few of the poem do seem to be in covert dialogue with various male writers of fiction: Hemingway (wounded and in the hospital) in that poem and in "Wilderness with Two Men," Donald Bartheleme (the fourth of the "Five Poems for America"), Ben Marcus ("Stroking my Head with my Deception Stick"). Certain Presidents also get called in for a brief talking-to: "Come in, Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Adams, / Mr. Didn't-Feel-Obligated-to-Wear-Any-Pants. / Where are your bustling wives?" (That is, Eleanor, Abigail, and, erm, Hilary?).

A few busy, accomplished women enter the picture as well: Florence Nightingale, "the infamous Sarah Morgan, who moved / to town one summer, but never arrived / at school, despite the exquisite sharpness / of the pencils we had readied in hopes / of dazzling our unfamiliar friend," Mother Nature ("Dear nasty pregnant forest. / You are so hot! / You are environmentally significant. / Men love to hang themselves / from your standard old growth trees"), and the poet's mother, despite the difficulty of writing about her ("It is difficult, a good poetry concerning my mother").

If the Delphic oracle ever started doing stand-up, she might sound like Heather Christle.

Keep up the good work, Octopus Books.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Joshua Beckman, _Take It_

I PICKED UP a copy of Shake when the Wave Poetry Bus came through our town in (I think) autumn of 2005 and enjoyed it, and I likewise enjoyed this volume, published last year. Like the poems in its predecessor, these poems asymptotically approach traditional poetry without getting there, and it's the not-getting-there that intrigues and delights. The lines approach, even flirt with iambic pentameter without ever resolving into it; the images seems always just about to click into focus as a narrative, then escape. Antique-sounding constructions -- "But this convinced him not," "Dark mornings shown thy mask / made well thy visage and voice" -- jostle with the contemporary colloquial:

Ousted by the neighbors from what had been
a perfectly comfortable dream, I wandered into
the hallway and fuck if there wasn't this kid
sort of straddling one of my houseplants,
pulling at its leaves, and the parents, they were
just standing there, looking at me!

In several poems, Beckman creates a kind of tricky syncopation by rhythmically counter-pointing dashes and line breaks; he also likes a nicely buried rhyme. A good example of both devices at once:

Dark and sparkled boot -- beloved book from
which we learn -- your intense eyes -- I close
upon you now this hand -- and north of here
the snow will land -- as once you did gently
lift your pen from the letter --

I'm reluctant to suggest the book contains anything so obvious as a message, but it does often seem to reflect the national shame and bleakness of the closing Bush years: "So untrue my firm countrymen, so untrue." The book's second poem, the one beginning "Through God's grace the little drops," somehow seems to me what Lincoln's Second Inaugural might have sounded like, had Lincoln been stoned when he delivered it, and had he spend much less time reading the KJV and much more reading Flow Chart.

I love the way Beckman begins his poems. Consider this:

I am made of butter. I am wrapped in gold,
I am forgotten as a friolator forgets a haddock,
and then I tell my sweet love that I want to spill
coffee all over her bottomside, and she tells her friends,
so they take her to the country where they all
go for walks and play honesty games.

Man, we've all been there.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Leszek Kolakowski, _Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?_

YES, THE SAME Leszek Kolakowski who wrote the three-volume, 1200-page Main Currents of Marxism, which no, I have not read, despite its reputation, because... well, because it's three volumes and 1200 pages, for crying out loud. But I'm tempted to plunge in after reading this much smaller book -- a mere 223 pages, and tiny ones at that, about five inches by three.

"This little book is not meant as some sort of super-condensed textbook, encyclopedia, or dictionary," Kolakowski insists in his introduction, and in truth it is not, and hurrah for that, for had it been any thing of that sort I never would have picked it up. Rather, it is twenty-three brief (10-11 pages), jewel-like essays on the most influential arguments of twenty-three major western philosophers, in chronological order, each essay ending with the questions the philosopher's arguments raise.

As one reads, it does feel like one is getting a highly compressed history of western philosophy, Greek metaphysics morphing into theological hair-splitting morphing into epistemological conundra, but one is delighted, fascinated, compelled all the way -- and no textbook, encyclopedia, or dictionary could quite compete.

I don't know what Kolakowski sounds like in Polish, but through the translation by Agnieszka Kolakowska (a relative, perhaps?) he sounds unfailingly humane, helpful, and fair, carrying his enormous learning lightly, with a dry kind of charm. This is the sort of book I fall in love with.

With what crushing dismay I learned that the publishers omitted seven essays that were part of the Polish edition of the book. Why, why, why? The book would hardly have been too long at 300 pages, and I find myself aching to know what Kolakowski said about (e.g.) Heidegger, especially since the Heidgegger essay would have presumably stood as the book's last.

Monday, June 14, 2010

G. C. Waldrep, _Disclamor_

EVERYTHING REMINDS ME of Wordsworth these days -- the second part of Richard Greenfield's Tracer, the central poem of D. A. Powell's Chronic, and now much of this, G. C. Waldrep's second full-length book. Especially, in the present instance, the poems such as "Candlemas, Vermont" or "Circle Park" or "Wildwood" or the "Battery" poems, which carry traces of someone walking, observing, thinking, remembering.

But by volume's end, I was more often reminded of Eliot. For one thing, rather like the Eliot of the quatrain poems, Waldrep likes to juxtapose homely words as old as the language itself with specialized vocabulary terms, throwing in a curveball adjective:

A vesicle conscripted from the oriflamme,
rejecting, rejected,
a butchered
iridescence on the Schuylerville pike.

("Titus at Lystra")

Or, from the same poem:

To dowse for that secret spring:
the geese,
the temblor, what
livid farrowing.

For another, like the Eliot of Ash Wednesday, he creates an atmosphere of cryptic candor, of being in the same breath painfully frank and unfathomable:

I carry the bones of the pedagogue
in ivory brackets
my hand is steady
I mix consecration
with consecration

"Romeward," for instance, has a wrenchingly confessional tone -- but one can only guess what is being confessed.

By mid-volume the Wordsworthian element has mainly evaporated -- we are still walking, but now in a dreamworld rather than a landscape:

I buy and I buy; with each receipt
something shredding and translucent breaks upward
from darkness. This is unavoidable.

But the "I" seems to persist from poem to poem over the whole volume, always erudite but (like Eliot again) sometimes having a laugh at his own erudition, always scrutinizing his conscience, always noticing.

The nine "Battery" poems especially unify the book. Having read them as a series in an earlier chapbook, I was wondering if spreading them out over a book, with three or four poems coming between, would diminish the effect they have together. But no -- they now act as a spine, deepening the book's historical dimension, its implied contest between cruelty and hope.

Goldbeater's Skin made me suspect that G. C. Waldrep is one of his generation's most interesting writers, and Disclamor persuades me all the more.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mathias Svalina, _Destruction Myth_

PHILIP ROTH? WHY is there a drawing of Philip Roth's head in the lower right-hand corner of the corner of Mathias Svalina's new book, and why is the drawing reproduced full-page size on the flyleaf? And why does Roth have two sets of eyes? And who is the four-eyed gentleman in the drawing on the final page? Ralph Ellison? No, no moustache.

Roth's four-eyed presence on the cover is only the first enigma in a volume that presents a good many. Forty-four of its forty-five poems bear the same title, "Creation Myth" (twenty-four of these were in his New Michigan Press chapbook, Creation Myths). The classic function of the creation myth is to explain how things came to be as they now are, but the explanations in Svalina's myths tend to deepen rather than dispel mystery. They begin sometimes goofily ("In the beginning everyone looked like Larry Bird"), sometimes ominously ("In the beginning everyone wanted to fight to the death"), sometimes astonishingly ("In the beginning people had cornfields rather than sex parts"), then proceed down passages with many beckoning doors, plunge down the one you least expected, and leave you in perplexed enlightenment:

"Every night the President appeared on TV to wish every person goodnight individually. 'Good night Meredith,' he said. 'Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith.Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith. Good night Meredith.'"

William of Ockham held (I am told) that God is "absolutely omnipotent: He can do anything that is not self-contradictory." The creative power in Svalina's creation myths, I am delighted to report, suffers no such limitation, and the self-contradictory flourishes.

"In the beginning there was nothing. But the nothing smelled like bacon. No one could figure out how nothing could: a) have a smell & b) smell like bacon."

So, not only does this cosmos of nothing smell like something, but beings are present to smell the smell that emanates from this cosmos of nothing and speculate about why it smells as it does. An empty cosmos already populated -- which may reflect the affinity between creation myths and the world of our early childhood. In creation myths, as in the world of early childhood, there are only a few objects; the world is uninhabited save by a countable number of people, pieces of furniture, toys, yards, and so on. Svalina's myths capture that simplicity. But they also paradoxically assert -- again in a way that reminds us of early childhood -- that this new-born world has nonetheless a dense history, is more populated than we know, has already been home to more conflict and pain than we can imagine.

Creation -- at least among us of the west -- implies fall, and some sort of a turning, collapse, shift, or fall marks all of Svalina's myths: "Soon the people lost their nouns"; "On three they all pulled. / It was the first ripping sound / the world ever knew, / this world used to cutting"; "the people unwrapped the final wrappings that held the mummy. Inside the wrappings there was a hive of wasps."

Sometimes, Svalina's own childhood flickers by ("My mother & father are both chemists"), but the poems are not about childhood so much as they recreate worlds like those of childhood, a hard-won, shadowed second innocence like that of Cosmicomics, a connection Svalina seems aware of having conjured: "In the beginning / there was a book / by Italo Calvino."

The forty-fifth and final poem is "Destruction Myth." In attempting to convey a Vision of Closure that is both sublime and ridiculous, both hilarious and terrifying, Svalina has some august and hard-to-beat predecessors in Daniel and John of Patmos, but he rises to the occasion. My favorite line: "In the end the mimeograph machines will begin to produce originals."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Joseph O'Neill, _Netherland_, & Keith Gessen, _All the Sad Young Literary Men_

I WOULD RATHER not cover two books in one entry, ordinarily, but these two have such a natural affinity that I am going to make an exception. They both belong to that large and growing set of novels in which well educated and intelligent young people settle in New York City, full of ambition and spunk, and get their clocks cleaned in every conceivable manner. Classic reference points include Plath's The Bell Jar and Didion's essay "Goodbye to All That"; recent examples include Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, parts of Mary Gaitskill's Veronica, and, erm, The Devil Wears Prada and its proliferating imitators.

The grandaddy of them all, certainly, is The Great Gatsby. Gessen acknowledges F. Scott's blazing of the trail in his title, which adds the word "literary" to the title of a Fitzgerald short story, and Gatsby is name-checked in both a blurb on the back of Netherland and, for good measure, in the copy of the inner flap of the jacket.

O'Neill's narrator, Hans van den Broek, like Nick Carraway is a newcomer to the city, works in the financial district, and has a much creamier and more melodious prose style than you would expect a worker in the financial district to have. Like Nick, he becomes friends with a fellow outlander with high-wattage charisma and a crazy dream -- Chuck Ramkissoon, whose Daisy is the ambition to make cricket popular in the United States.

Hans's wife and son return to London after 9/11/2001, leaving Hans to become even better friends with Chuck and to do a stint as a boho-tourist at the Chelsea Hotel. Turns out Chuck is, like Gatsby, mixed up with some shady characters, like Gatsby breaks a few laws, and like Gatsby ends up murdered. He gets no "you're worth the whole damn bunch put together" sort of eulogy from Hans, though, who has rejoined his family in London to live, presumably, happily ever after, a good deal less affected by his friendship with a doomed dreamer than Nick was by his.

All the Sad Young Literary Men is less ambitious but a lot more likable. Keith (who gets first-person narration), Mark, and Sam (who both get third-person narration) want to be in NYC but are by force of circumstance elsewhere (a D. C. think tank, the grad school of Syracuse University, a temporary office job in Boston), and are not just literary but politico-literary, writing (respectively) an analysis of the 2000 election, a dissertation on the Mensheviks, and a novel about Zionism. More precisely, they are not writing them, preoccupied with as they are with the problems making them sad, which have mainly to do with their relationships with women.

Why did I like this one better? It was funnier, certainly; it seemed to have a tighter grip on the pulse of the culture, noticeable in a number of small details about temping, about grad school, and so on. That the characters were (in their distinct ways) titanic screw-ups lent them much greater charm than Hans van den Broek ever musters. It evokes its era (the Oh-ties, or whatever we decide to call the last decade) much more palpably. I suspect that Netherland will turn out to be one of those novels that gathers all sorts of admiration and respect on its first appearance but rings ever more hollow with the passage of time. But then there's Chuck -- Chuck I will not soon forget.

I note from the back flap of All the Sad Young Literary Men's jacket that Keith Gessen was born in Russia. Hmm. Shteyngart, Bezmogis, Dumanis... they're everywhere.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Paul Auster, _Invisible_

HIS BEST SINCE The Book of Illusion, I think. Not that it's much of a departure. Like a great many Auster protagonists, Adam Walker resembles Auster himself in several ways (born 1947, attends Columbia, aspiring poet, student of French literature). Like the protagonists of Mr. Vertigo and Book of Illusions, Walker has a mentor who becomes like an antagonist -- though where Master Yehudi and Hector Mann are merely darkly complicated, Rudolph Born is downright sinister. Like Peter Aaron from Leviathan, Sidney Orr from Oracle Night, and the narrator of The Locked Room, Walker has a friend, Jim Freeman, who is also a writer, to whom he is bound in a tricky knot of support and rivalry.

Finally, like a lot of Auster protagonists, Walker is shadowed by a traumatic loss -- a younger brother accidentally drowned as a child.

So far, so Austerian. Invisible throws us a curve, however, in its attention to justice.
Walker recalls (in a section of the novel using second-person narration) that "hours after your mother was carted off to the mental hospital, you swore an oath on your brother's memory to be a good person for the rest of your life." Events he witnessed and participated in during his twentieth year, in 1967, lead him to devote himself to "twenty-seven years of legal aid work, community activism in the black neighborhoods of Oakland and Berkeley, rent strikes, class action suits against various corporations, police brutality cases, the list goes on."

In 1967, Walker was a witness when Born, a man who seemed prepared to help Walker achieve his wildest ambitions, murdered a perfect stranger on a New York street. As the consequences of that moment unfold over the rest of the novel, as we click from first-person narration to second-person and then to third (as Freeman takes control of his friend's story) we recurringly have occasion to ask what being a good person means, what justice requires, what one can and cannot do and still be "good," what the pursuit of justice does and does not permit.

Obviously, this is a Guantanamo-era novel, but these questions are much, much older than that -- just think of Welles's Touch of Evil, to say nothing of the Oresteia.

And the title? As both the plot-starting murder and the final episode (narrated by yet another character, Cécile Juin) of a concealed but suddenly-visible prison colony suggest, justice and injustice have everything to do with what we see, or don't see, or refuse to see.

On second thought, we might say there was an earlier Auster novel preoccupied with justice -- Leviathan. My favorite, as it happens.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

D. A. Powell, _Chronic_

ON TO THE latest Powell. Chronic is divided into three sections, beginning with "Initial C," concluding with "Terminal C," and between them "Chronic," which contains only one poem, likewise titled "Chronic."

My guess: the book's organization mirrors a life, having a defining originating event (birth), a defining concluding event (death), and between them a phenomenon unfolding in time, with its recurrences, ragged patterns, and dumb persistence.

The titles of the individual poems also all begin or end with the letter "C," although an initial or terminal "c" in a poem's title does not entail its inclusion in the section with the appropriate name -- too obvious, perhaps.

I invested a little time in the hypothesis that the poems in "Initial C" were about beginnings and those in "Terminal C" about endings, but I had to give up on that idea -- likewise too obvious, I suspect. However, the poems in the first section do have an airier, lighter quality, like a water-color painting, are more frequently set outdoors, seem more hopeful, while those in the final section are denser, more tangled, angrier. I preferred the poems of the third section to those of the first, but that's just me; there are excellent poems in both.

"Chronic," though, for me, was far and away the highlight of the volume, a poem I expect to revisit frequently. To place a poem titled "chronic" in a section called "Chronic" in the center of a book titled Chronic is to impose upon it a burden of expectation that few poems can fulfill -- but "chronic" is more than equal to the challenge. I've read it six or seven times in the last few days, and I think it belongs in the company of Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode as a meditation on loss, on the marriage of our minds and our bodies to nature and that marriage's inevitable decline and end.

Sometimes the poem deliberately summons an echo of 19th century poetry, as in the syntactical inversion of "and delight I took in the sex of every season" or the Hopkins-like twist of "vibrant arc their swift, their dive against the filmy, the finite air." I even hear a little Yeats ("I carry the same baffled heart I have always carried" -- cf. opening lines of "The Tower"). Or the Wordworthian catalogue of this line, combined with the question of why one feels compelled to make catalogues:

why do I need to say the toads and moor and clouds --

Yet Powell has in some ways more on his plate than Wordworth had -- the lights were going out in Wordsworth's imagination, but he was physically healthy, which Powell is not ("daily I mistake -- there was a medication I forgot to take"), and while Wordsworth did have to worry about the destruction of the English countryside, he did not have to worry whether humans would make the planet uninhabitable:

choose your own adventure: drug failure or organ failure
cataclysmic climate change
or something akin to what's killing bees -- colony collapse

The concluding lines takes a tag-line from the Homeric Hymns and turn it into a heartbreaking plea:

light, light: do not go
I sing you this song and I will sing another as well

Chronic is a fine book -- "chronic" something extraordinary.