Loads of Learned Lumber

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.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Junot Diaz, _The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao_

THE BOOK CLUB read this for...February? March? A Pulitzer winner, and deservedly so.

As the novel begins, we seem to be getting a recent-immigrant version of The Nerd's Tale, Oscar being an overweight, Tolkien-obsessed teenager, tormented by desire but invisible to girls -- with the twist that his parents are recently arrived in New York City from the Dominican Republic. Our narrator is an almost-friend of his, fond of Oscar and unfaithfully in love with Oscar's sister, but continually making apotropiac gestures to ward off the nerd-toxicity that clings to Oscar like a cloud.

Interesting... but then we rewind in history to get the story of Oscar's mother's young womanhood in the D. R. during the Trujillo era, and later the story of his grandfather, yet further back in time but likewise under Trujillo -- and so we have a multi-generational family saga folded into our Nerd's Tale, with a teaspoon of magical realism in the legend of a fuk├║, or curse, under which Oscar's family and the D. R. alike suffer.

The Dominican Republic's curse is, first and foremost, Trujillo, and after Trujillo's assassination a series of "leaders" who similarly traffic in corruption and brutal intimidation. The family's curse is that its members love wholly, completely, body and soul, and always are beaten within an inch of their lives, or actually to death, for their love.

So now you know why Oscar's life was brief -- and also why it was wondrous.

Diaz gets a lot done here, and his voice is convincing throughout.

Oscar's surname is not, in fact, "Wao," and therein lies a tale, but I've told you enough already.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Louis Menand, _The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University_

OH, THE IRONY that Louis Menand's previous (and excellent) book, The Metaphysical Club, took as subject the circle of polymaths that advanced the maturation of American intellectual life in the decades following the Civil War: Oliver Wendell Holmes, C.S. Pierce, William James, and John Dewey. In the century since, he here tells us, the American university has nurtured a bosom serpent: disciplinarity.

Menand wrote this book having been deeply involved in the reform of Harvard's undergraduate general education curriculum, and the subtitle suggests that process was far from easy. As far as I can tell, it's never easy. What makes it hard?

Menand argues that designing a general education curriculum means answering the question, "What should a well-educated person of the present moment know, or be acquainted with, or understand, or be able to do?" A tricky enough question, made trickier by the necessity of relying on a college's faculty to provide the answers.

One prepares for becoming a member of a college faculty, Menand reminds us, by becoming an adept in some discipline, trained by a department. Writing a dissertation requires spending years in the abstruser realms of that discipline, wrestling with questions of almost zero interest to the larger population, or even to other academics in other disciplines. One becomes a member of a faculty by being hired by a department, having demonstrated that one is an adept in its discipline. One then hones one's adeptness in one's discipline by further scholarship and research and trains young aspiring adepts in the discipline.

So, when one is asked what a well-educated person should know, the only answer likely to come to mind will be, "Among other things, a well-educated person ought to understand the fundamentals of my discipline." Thus, the battle is on, and the curriculum ends up a Rube Goldberg contraption, every bizarre detail of which was fought for tooth and nail by somebody.

Is "interdisciplinarity" the answer? Ha! Menand has short shrift for that beloved buzzword: "Interdisciplinarity is not something different from disciplinarity. It is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. In practice, it actually tends to rigidify disciplinarity paradigms." "Interdisciplinarity" usually just means you have two or three disciplines on their separate pedestals in the room, rather than just one.

Menand also looks at the question, "why do all professors think alike?" The answer, again, is our long professional incubation -- 11.3 years is now the median time to earn a doctorate in the humanities, with another five to the tenure decision. To hang in that long, Menand argues, you just have to adapt to the prevailing climate, talk the talk, walk the walk, fit in: "The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself."

None of this is going to change soon.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

D. A. Powell, _Cocktails_

I STILL HAVE yet to read Lunch, the first book in the trilogy Cocktails completes, and I may yet, since Cocktails, like its predecessor Tea, was a richly engaging read.

Thom Gunn, in a blurb on the paperback cover, connects Powell to Richard Crashaw, which intrigued me and focused my attention as I read on anything that seemed 17th century-Anglo-baroque. Sure enough, there's a striking conceit in the first poem, where the speaker's mouth becomes a "tiny neon lounge," and some nifty verbal juggling in the second ("homilies and hominy and decidedly no harmony"). Sometimes the nifty verbal juggling opens up chasms, as in this phrase, the speaker's answer to the question of when he caught HIV, which sketches an arch bridging the pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall eras of gay life: "sometime between the day lady day died and the day lady di died."

The middle section, "Filmography," is a biography (possibly auto-) in thirteen poems, each in the key, so to speak, of a particular film: "Hook," "Ode to Billie Joe," "My Own Private Idaho," "Fantastic Voyage," "My Beautiful Laundrette," and so on. This is a wonderful sequence -- Powell does a pas de deux with the conventions of camp, letting Hollywood serve as lens on key episodes of a life, yet Powell is leading, not being led, and he makes every swirl and flourish count. To my own surprise, I kept thinking of the Hill's "Mercian Hymns" in this section -- it's that good.

Since Dante, every trilogy has to end up in heaven, so "Bibliography," the closing section, is all-stops-out Crashaw. Talk about camp -- there's a certain vein of English literary queerness, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous to the sublimely ridiculous (Newman, Pater, Hopkins, Wilde, "Baron Corvo," Firbank), that loves Roman Catholic ritual and iconography, or High Church Anglican dilutions of the same (Eliot, Auden), and Powell has decided to try it on. The first poem in this section is addressed to Mary -- that is, the BVM (is Powell evoking archaic gay slang here? One wouldn't put it past him). The poem seems dipped rather too long in the language of the aesthetes of the 1890s ("the fine seric of the east was brought to me / soft and unfinished. dyed in the tyrian manner // of purpura and janthina the violet snail." We'll have two more bowls of absinthe, please). Then in the next poem we seem in full pursuit of the eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli: "tanned youths track his scent."

But Powell can make even this work. The third poem in this section, "he tastes the air with his tongue, his eyes a gory kitling," blends John's baptism of Jesus with a man's tending to his ill or dying beloved and is the strongest thing in the book. The succeeding pieces are very nearly as strong, and "Bibliography" ends up as a powerful conclusion to a powerful book.

I really should read Lunch. But then there's a new one, too... Chronic. Sometimes it seems there's just too much good stuff out there to read.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Janet Malcolm, _Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice_

This, apparently, is my 100th post. I've been doing this about two years -- so that averages about once a week. Not bad, I guess.

This is the fourth book of Malcolm's I've read, I think, and while it doesn't supplant The Silent Woman as my favorite of hers, I gulped it down quickly and delightedly a couple of months ago.
It examines several aspects of the Stein-Toklas partnership, but is especially interested in (1) how two American Jewish lesbians managed to survive in Nazi-occupied France (an old friendship with an unusually slimy collaborateur helped), (2) how the genesis of the first Steinian masterpiece, The Making of Americans, intertwines with the inception of Stein's relationship with Toklas, and (3) how Stein fared after WW II, and Toklas after Stein's death.

Malcolm remains a master of the old Lillian Ross strategy of letting her interview subjects ramble on long enough to reveal themselves as nakedly as any Browning monologuist. As in The Silent Woman, In the Freud Archives, and The Purloined Clinic, she gets the leading scholars and researchers of the field to perform more entertainingly than most fictional characters. On stage in this book are the magnificently-named Ulla Dydo, who solved a key textual puzzle of Stanzas in Meditation during one of her dreams, and Leon Katz, privy to extraordinary revelations in a series of interviews with Toklas while he was but a Columbia doctoral in the 1950s, revelations which he has by and large kept to himself for the fifty-some years since.

Neither Dydo nor Katz lets it all hang out quite so completely as Jeffrey Moussaleff Masson did in Freud Archives or Olwyn Hughes in Silent Woman, but one is left wondering, why does anyone ever consent to be interviewed by Janet Malcolm, knowing one is bound to end up trussed on a silver platter with an apple in one's mouth, done to a turn?