Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Monday, October 17, 2011
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Monday, August 8, 2011
6. Cohen likes long, extraordinarily long sentences. Here is what Benjamin encounters as he crosses from New Jersey into New York City via the Holland Tunnel (p. 520):
Landscaped from one of the two mouths of the tunnel, for the many tunnels of this mutated city are monstrous throats that never digest or ever waste what they swallow, without intestine or stomached gargle, how they merely gorge then regurgitate and then gorge themselves again down to the bottom of Broadway – willows groved tightly, their trunks lashed together to prevcnt from being uprooted by the tunneling wind, their boughs hung with many other objects, or forsakings, the harps of the Philharmonic, disbanded since last season’s interruption, and then with their strings, all their sections: their violins firsts and seconds, violas and violoncellos, the occasional weepy, drooping bass, their strings wilting in memory, going loose and detuned in the howl coming up from the bay – trees hung not just with bisbiglissandoing harps and with fiddles gutted and bows but with memories, too, and forgettings, pleas and supplications, signs and notes slipped and tied dire: help me find my father, one says, have you seen my partner? Another, this posted alongside a photo faced grainy from its constant reproduction, a losingly lined courtroomsketch, if so contact Sassoon & Silver LLP., cash reward for information leading to his recovery, all (succor) wanted, need, & offered […]
That’s not the end of the sentence, but let’s stop and take the census so far. We begin with a participial phrase, but have to wait a bit for the noun it modifies (“willows”) because the tunnel’s having a “mouth” triggers a short excursus on its being the maw of this Moloch of a city. The willows get an interesting nonce verb – “groved” – then turn out to be lashed together, which seems peculiar, but even more peculiarly have been festooned with the abandoned instruments of the Philharmonic, disbanded since so many its musicians died (a lot of the orchestra’s members are, indeed, Jewish, but these days the Asian musician might be able to keep it going). The surreal image of the now useless string instruments in the willows shifts suddenly as we next are presented with the kind of notes that appeared all over Manhattan after 9/11, with a striking inversion (‘tied dire”) and another noun-into-verb transformation (“photo faced grainy”). Then there’s the “losingly lined courtroomsketch” – does the hand-drawn image that Sassoon provides of Silver (or Silver of Sassoon) somehow suggest that their law practice has been infrequently victorious?
Cohen often makes use of absolute phrases – “their strings wilting,” “signs and notes slipped and tied dire,” “trees hung etc” – a classic maximalist’s device for adding detail after detail to a sentence, as we see as the catalog of objects left in memory of the dead continues:
…tins of spam dangling from giftribbons, plastic liters of generic soda, empty jars of mayo weeping ornamentally wrapped from these trees, trays of decorative cupcakes and cookies, novelty balloons; these groves nymphabandoned, lining Canal Street west to the Bowery with equity neckties, daytrader suits on hangers commoditized fresh from the drycleaners, high heels, dressy pearls’ strands – this the highest rate of return, a reversion to our natural state, a great comfort unconfined: this season, menschs let out their bellies; womenfolk smear their makeup onto the faces of streets, pink and streaks of red like rainbows trailed by snails, then pray for an innerly inclement weather, asking the cloudfall to cool their lusts, to purify their souls; their kinder pitch pennies worthless into the sewer green and gold, dogs once theirs now stray dash lame from snow to snow … skyscrapers once new, abandoned to scaffolds; earthworming giants idle, dumpster hulks sanctifying as symbols of an emptiness within; ambition unfinished, thrusts unfulfilled; lorded over by an inutile silence and the holy stillness of cranes. (520-21)
We note the Yiddish – the novel invariably uses “mensch” for “man” or “person,” “kinder” for “children” – and the high modernist touches, the Joycean aversion to the hyphen, for example, as in what may be an allusion to Eliot’s Waste Land: “these groves nymphabandoned”. The plague has laid waste not only to symphony orchestra but to Wall Street, with homely details (drycleaned suits still on hangers) and grimly ironic puns (“highest rate of return”), an image of made-up women collapsing on the street heightened with a simile both beautiful and queasy-making (like rainbows trailed by snails). Next, we have an image of orphaned children, perhaps not long to live themselves, and abandoned dogs in a stunning string of monosyllabic words (‘dogs once theirs now stray dash lame from snow to snow”) that almost sounds like a William Carlos Williams poems. Then Cohen pulls out all the stops, piling up absolute phrases that read like Whitman-out-of-Ginsberg (‘earthworming giants idle, dumpster hulks sanctifying”) before flipping in a wholly surprising but perfect French adjective and a final image that sounds like Li Bai until you realize it completes the picture of arrested construction.
Friday, August 5, 2011
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Consider some of the phrases from the sentence on the fart salvoes, quoted above. “[E]normous sortie wet and thick” – note the little internal rhyme on the “or” sound, the adjectives before and after the noun, the military flavor of the noun, conveying how men enjoy bringing a martial ardor into even the most ludicrous circumstances, figured later in the sentence with “barrage,” “booms,” “bombs.” Or “bucking the uppers,” with its surprising assonance, the animated-cartoon image of bunks lifting and falling from the abrupt shock of the farts. The odd Miltonic inversion of “from cot to cot echoing.” The quirky juxtaposition of homonyms in “there their.” The outlandishly apt figuration of farts as “dark graffiti.”
Saturday, July 30, 2011
4. As for plain-label realism itself, the book has many episodes of nuanced social observation, vividly presented. There’s an extraordinary account of Israel and Hanna’s wedding (241-46); the museum gala with which the Benjamin part of the book closes is another excellent set piece. Ditto for the accounts of the Florida apartment complex of Benjamin’s grandfather, or of the Vegas hotel in “Los Siegeles,” or of the Southwest, or the suburban development in which the Israelsteins live, of Israel’s law office, of Chinatown. The novel is very good at the kind of thing novelists like Trollope and Updike are good at – noticing what it is about the way we live now that we are too inattentive to notice, helping us to see our own world.
The novel’s many extraordinarily effective mimetic passages are all cast in the book’s idiosyncratic style, however, which is a whole other topic.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
3. Magical realism? Kinda sorta, maybe. Benjamin is born bearded, wearing glasses. The first catastrophic dying-off of the Jews occurs on the eve of the day his bris would have been celebrated, so he is uncircumcised – except that his foreskin magically circumcises itself, then grows back, removes itself again, and so on. A pack of feral dogs out of some mittel-european forest almost hunts him down as he is being returned from Florida to New Jersey. That Benjamin is set up in a simulacrum of his family home with thirteen shiksas playing the parts of his mother and sisters has a kind of fantastic quality. A certain hyperbole prevails throughout – but in this respect the book seems not at all like deadpan accounts of the incredible we get in Garcia Marquez, hence not all that magical-realist.
Is it a Jewish magical realism, then? Hmm. Jonathan Safran Foer (ptoo, ptoo, ptoo) seemed to be attempting something of the sort in the shtetl chapters of Everything Is Illuminated; Witz never sounds like that (like I. B. Singer crippled by an MFA). But here is Cohen describing a contagious outbreak of farting that occurs in the Great Hall on Ellis Island, which has temporarily become a dorm for Jewish first-born sons:
He grunts, then as if to say hello, to introduce himself he farts, a poof, a toot, is answered by that mensch neighboring, a response given upon permission, shameless, with another fart, this rip huge, Rrrrrrrip! an enormous sortie wet and thick, which tears a hole right out of his uniform pajamas, this sound echoed six beds down then maybe two over with another, is duetted with, a ffrrip, and yet another, pow, pow, -- and – pow from opposite sides of the barracks, a barrage of miniexplosions, from cot to cot echoing against the corroded collapsing wet walls, stacked booms rocking the lower bunks, bucking the uppers, bombs from the rafters to incise there their own dark graffiti, signing a scatology’s name. (155-56)
There are two more even longer sentences on this festival of flatulence. Not magical realism, exactly, but an embrace of fabulism, perhaps? A willingness to go over the top, road of excess, palace of wisdom, etc.? Its ancestor seems not so much Garcia Marquez as Philip Roth in his especially manic mid-70s phase, the Roth of Our Gang and The Great American Novel, and, later, my favorite bits of Operation Shylock.
Monday, July 18, 2011
Jill Lepore, _The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History_
2. So far, so picaresque. From even this bare summary, we glimpse many ways in which Cohen’s narrative has Judaic resonances. Hanna and Israel’s family is an inversion of Jacob’s, with twelve daughters instead of twelve sons; the disaster in which all Jews but first-born sons die is an inversion of the tenth plague visited upon the Egyptians in Exodus, with Santa Claus re-cast as the Angel of Death; Las Vegas’s new name honors the Jewish gangster, Bugsy Siegel, whose vision the city embodies; “Polandland” is an inversion of the Holocaust, in which Gentiles die for being Gentiles.
But we’re just getting started. Ben has oral sex with his ersatz mother on Tisha B’av (“The Ninth of Av”), the day on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, ever since a day of mourning, and according to some traditions the day on which the Messiah will be born. Ben performs cunnilingus on “Hanna” so energetically that he winds up in her uterus, which is described as a Jerusalem, then tumbles back out – so is he “born”? The novel keeps the idea of Ben-as-Messiah constantly in play. He emerges in “Palestein” not only horned (as, in one mistranslation, Moses was, hence Michelangelo’s statue) but in the company of a red heifer, red heifers being a crucial criterion for the future construction of the Third Temple, to be accomplished when the Messiah comes.
It would take days to list the allusions to Jewish traditions, learning, and folkways that occur in the novel. One striking example: Cohen’s description of the facility for Jewish first-borns, in which their submission to bureaucracy and authority is shot through with memories of both Ellis Island and of the Nazi concentration camps.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Saturday, July 16, 2011
1. Even though this is a very long novel (817 pages), its main story line is readily summarized. On December 17, 1999, a son, Benjamin, is born to Israel and Hanna Israelien of New Jersey, who already have twelve daughters. A week later, on Christmas Eve, all the Jews in the United States die, except those who are first-born sons. Ben is temporarily put in the care of his grandfather in Florida (also a first-born son), but the surviving first-born sons, including Ben, are gathered into a special institution by government command. At Passover, however, a second catastrophe strikes, and all of the first-born son Jews die as well, except Ben. Somehow, in the wake of this catastrophe, almost all of the United States converts to Judaism, or we might say adopts it, there being no Jews left to conduct any formal conversions.
Ben is now a precious commodity; he is provided with a model of his family’ home, complete with women performing the roles of his mother and sisters, is being groomed as a kind of royalty-celebrity, and is engaged to the president’s daughter. The wedding is to be held on the 4th of July in Las Vegas – here, Los Siegeles – but Ben lights out for the territory. He roams the southwest, then makes his way eastward, finding his way to his family’s abandoned house in New Jersey, then reuniting with his ersatz mother and sisters. He has a spectacular episode of cunnilingus with his ersatz mother (in the course of which his tongue is ripped out), news of which leaks out via a hotel maid, leading to his disgrace and fall. Now an outlaw, he flees to Poland – here, “Polandland,” now owned and administered by the U.S. as a kind of Old World theme park with a sinister purpose: those who have refused to become Jews are brought here to be put to death.
Ben, however – I’m not sure how – emerges in “Palestein,” which in the alternate universe of this novel is an Arab monarchy. He has grown horns. He has an extraordinary visionary experience that ends, I suspect, in his death. In the final chapter of this main story line of the book, a museum holds a gala event to celebrate the acquisition of a sacred relic—Ben’s tongue.
The novel has a coda of some thirty pages in which the last living Holocaust survivor muses in unpunctuated, Molly-Bloom fashion over his past and present. He is 108, and the novel ends with the punchlines – only the punchlines – of 108 Jewish jokes.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Saturday, July 9, 2011
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Monday, July 4, 2011
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Friday, July 1, 2011
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Monday, June 13, 2011
Saturday, June 4, 2011
Thursday, June 2, 2011
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Friday, May 27, 2011
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Monday, May 23, 2011
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Monday, March 21, 2011
Sunday, March 6, 2011
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Most anthologies have a purpose -- the idea of American Hybrid is that there are two broad tendencies in contemporary American poetry, the relatively traditional, comprised of poets whose work maintains a discernible continuity with the poetry of the past, and the relatively innovative, comprised of poets whose work breaks away from the techniques and assumptions of the poetry of the past.
(This is a much-argued point; is there really such a division, or not? I'm willing to grant there is -- even though there is many a murky precinct between the two tendencies, and attempts to define one approach as against the approach deconstruct themselves in seconds.)
American Hybrid is devoted to work that is innovative/experimental in some respects, traditional/conventional in others. The implied argument is that a lot of vital, worthwhile poetry is emerging from the murky precinct between the two broad tendencies.
Part of me -- the Steve Evans-influenced part, I might call it -- wants to say, "make up your mind! Be one or the other! Quit trying to have it both ways!" If you try to steer between Scylla and Charybdis here, aren't you likely to end up with posing, untheorized gestures towards the avant-garde, or pandering gestures towards the traditional without the honest commitment to craft that would make them work? Aren't you avoiding the challenge of pursuing the logic of your poetic, whichever it may be?
But as we read along, it turns out the work here tends to be good. I didn't like everything -- but I found everything was worth the reading. Just about all of it is by very-well-known to moderately-well-known poets with long publishing histories, and the quality of the work tends to be high. I could not figure out what exactly is experimental in James Galvin or traditional in Alice Notley, but 5-6 pages of either tend to be pages well worth reading, so why complain?
Still... anthologies tend to be more memorable if they are synecdoches of a tendency or movement. The feeling that the poets gathered share a poetic -- even if they would never agree to any explicit statement of what that poetic is -- can make an anthology feel greater than the sum of its poems. American Hybrid is a synecdoche, let's say, of a tendency to blend tendencies. But to appreciate how a traditional poet is embracing innovation, or how an innovative poet is embracing tradition, you have to read a lot of that poet's work. A 5-6 page selection of his or her work does not suffice, even if the poems are excellent. And the poems don't speak to each other, quite. If the goal of an anthology like this is to announce, "something's going on," then American Hybrid leaves us with no idea of what that something is, other than that a lot of strong, interesting poems are getting written these days.
Maybe that's enough. This is a Cole Swensen project, after all. It's hard to imagine her being off base about anything.
I hope neither she nor St. John had anything to do with the author bios, however, which are written in the most dreadful blurb-ese. "Their intense musicality links them to the Romantics and their seventeenth century precursors, while his use of collage, rupture, and fragmentation position his work firmly within postmodernism and its critique of the consolidated subject, which dovetails with his interest in the Middle English notion of the lyric as public song." Oh, does it now? That's a fine thing, indeed, the dovetailing. And thank goodness the musicality is so intense -- were it less so, it might remind us only of the Romantics, without quite evoking their seventeenth century precursors (and who would that be for fuck's sake, Traherne? Milton?). There's a gem like this in almost every bio. If the anthology goes to a new edition, I say out with 'em.