Loads of Learned Lumber

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.