Loads of Learned Lumber

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.
("Wunderkammern")

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, C├ęcile 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.