Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jessica Savitz, _Hunting Is Painting_

THE TITLE SETS the tone for the volume: a baffling assertion, but so calm and so clear that it creates a micro-climate in which the truth of the proposition seems incontrovertible. The book as a whole, its seven mysteriously-titled sections (e.g., "Conception is the Breaking Chain of a Burning Torch"), and its individual poems constitute a series of nested micro-climates that resemble consensual reality in some respects (containing trees, water, fire, and birthdays) but operate according to causal modalities all their own.


Brown shirt littered in dove's blood;
Hunting is painting and excavating some greater forest.
And hose-water and knife through scales
Cooks alcohol of supper --
I spread the light in salt over my food
And often use a knife to remove a bruise
From the golden peach.

There is bait in the mouths of ice-fishermen.

The cutting knife heals, the fuel becomes the meal, the anglers themselves have taken the bait -- every poem has similar ostranenie-effects, lying at some tangent to the known world yet making the known world come into clearer focus by being obscurely different.

Some lines in "Ceremonial" suggest the title may derive from cave paintings like those of Lascaux, that the poems perhaps represent some intersection of document, dream, and desire.

it's greened, it's ruined
braided minerals on the cave walls
I went into the cave
of my own consciousness
and painted animals on the rounds and ledges there
I am standing or crouching on the shelf of the cave there in
the mind

I am The Neanderthal Kings
with this sweaty ash and jeweled eye

Like Medbh McGuckian, Savitz homes in on the True Earth-Wyrd.

Let's not forget the images drawn by Allison Hawkins, either, the perfect complement to this small book of charms and spells.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates, _The Beautiful Struggle: a father, two sons, and an unlikely road to manhood_

I SO MUCH enjoyed the super-carbonated fizz of Ta-Nehisi Coates's prose in an article I read in The Nation a couple of years ago that I decided to see if he had published a book. Sure enough, he had -- this one, which came out in 2008.

A coming-of-age memoir by a male African-American writer has to make its way past some monumental precursors: Black Boy, Notes of a Native Son, Manchild in the Promised Land, to name some of the obvious ones; Daryl Pinckney's High Cotton, to name a less obvious one. The Beautiful Struggle is not quite in that class, but worth the time nonetheless.

Coates grew up in West Baltimore in an interesting situation. His father was a committed member of the Black Consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s, whose calling was maintaining a small press devoted to that cause, and who simultaneously worked on the maintenance crew at Howard University so his kids could take advantage of a tuition remission program there. Born in 1975, Coates as a child was surrounded by DuBois, drums, African mythology; the family did not observe Christmas or the Fourth of July. He grows up with constant reminders that he has to get the grades he needs to get into Howard, or, as the book always calls it, "Mecca."

Just outside the door, though, as Coates comes of age, is the crack epidemic, gangsta rap, and the flight of the black middle class to the 'burbs. It's a bit like the story of a red diaper baby born in the late 1930s, suckled on legends of the Spartacists, the Wobblies, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, coming of age in the McCarthy era.

Intriguing as these circumstances are, though, the book does not quite get its narrative arc all the way off the ground. Coates has more than his share of difficulties at school and in the neighborhood, and there is some drama at home (his father believes in corporal punishment, but not in monogamy), but the potential energy of the story tends to become diffused.

Fortunately, there's enough combustion in the prose to keep the pistons moving and the pages turning. Coates draws a bit on street vernacular, a bit on the language of comic books and sword-and-sorcery fantasy, but he has a way with a trope that is distinctly his own. To pluck an example almost at random, here is a bit on how Coates, forced to miss drum ensemble practice in order to take driver's ed, daydreamed his way through the class:

I just placed my palms on my thighs in ready position, leaned back in my wooden chair until I was five hundred years away, until I stood in the court of Mansa Musa, in a kufi and a dark robe. My djembe hung from my shoulders, and when the Lion of Mali nodded, my hands fired and called across the Sahel. The teacher would lower the lights and show films on driver safety. But I would play lead on my lap, imagining dancers who kicked and leaped through the dark like great black flamingoes.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ariana Reines, _Coeur de Lion_

HOW I GOT a hold of this is a story in itself. Intrigued by Reines's The Cow (see LLL for January 2011) and noticing that she had a second book out, I decided to find a copy. Checking my usual online outlets, I discovered not only that were there no new copies available, even though the book had been published as recently as 2007, but also that the cheapest available used copies were going for eighty or ninety dollars apiece. Surprising, no? Well, thanks to the powers that be for inter-library loan, and thanks especially to Mills College Library, whose copy found its way to me all the way here in Nebraska. I hope they put it in their rare book room when they got it back.

Fence Books, I gather, will be putting out a new edition in September, so soon Reinesians will not have to go the lengths I did to read Coeur de Lion.

And it was well worth the trouble. Very different from The Cow, which was a kind of high-wire act with flaming batons, bristling with startling appropriations, difficult, jarring, staring the reader in the eye with "hold on tight or get out now" look. Coeur de Lion is almost... confessional. Not to mention compulsively readable, hard to put down. Is it OK to say that? I think of Tina Celona's poem "Sangria," in Octopus # 11:

Confessional poetry is not very popular right now. Transparency is also out of favor, so that if you write in a style that is invisible people will hate you. Nonetheless some people are able to get away with it, if they approach it in a way that is not naïve and that contributes something new. For instance, Lydia Davis. I think it is possible to get away with such a thing, but I would not recommend it for everyone.

Coeur de Lion, which seems to have been written during and about a fairly short timeframe, orbits around a relationship that seems to have foundered, with a certain amount of attention devoted to Reines's studies, writing, and memories. I would describe it as both confessional and transparent. For instance:

Did I tell you
That I finally
Read your novel
All the way through?
When I reread
The first few pages
I thought
I might have been
Too hasty
When I told you
That day in the
Valley that
It was terrible but
Then I read on
And it is pretty
Bad, not in a
Good way. Sometimes
There is an excellent
Sentence and
My heart swells
With hope -- now
That I sort of hate
Myself for having
Fallen for you.

So, is the book, to pick up Tina Celona's criteria, not-naïve? Is it something new? The final lines of the excerpt I've quoted could almost come from a high school girl's journal, so Reines is apparently willing at least to sound naïve. The prevailing mood is not exactly new, either, as it seems to be that of Dickinson's Master Letters, a profoundly intelligent woman in love with an attractive but not nearly as intelligent man, swinging from abjection and unworthiness to bemusement and indignation in vertiginous swoops.

Not exactly not-naïve, not exactly new, but if we ask "does it work?", I would have to say yes, it does. It has the gravitational pull of a black hole. It won't let you go.

I remember heading off to college nearly forty years ago and discovering in the dorm room of nearly every woman with whom I became acquainted a copy of Ariel or The Bell Jar or both. At that time, both books were about nine years old. I like imagining that girls currently negotiating the reefs of third and fourth grade will as high schoolers come across Coeur de Lion (and, for good measure, Maximum Gaga) and bring much-read copies to their dorm rooms and then later write the dissertations that will make the Mills College copy of the Mal-O-Mar edition worth even more than it is now.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jennifer Egan, _A Visit from the Goon Squad_

AMONG MY RESOLUTIONS for the remainder of May 2011 is to finish at least a few of the books I left one-half, one-third, or one-quarter read in 2010. I started with this one... we'll see how far I get.

The Pulitzer people and I are not often on the same wavelength, but this book is a gem. It has the same jaded fascination with the pinging adrenal buzz of the fashion/entertainment world as Look at Me, the same probing of the way friendship can be braided with abandonment and betrayal as The Keep, but it's a stronger book than either of those.

It has some of the effect of a collection of short stories, as each chapter could be read independently, but works well as a novel, since we re-encounter characters from story to story, a peripheral figure in one chapter becoming the POV character in another. Each story/chapter focuses on a fairly narrow time frame of a day or a few days, but since we see characters at several different stages in their lives (and not in chronological order, just to make things more interesting), and since Egan has an extraordinary deftness at filling in antecedent action in a swiftly-paced paragraph, we get a novel-esque depth of time.

And time is our theme here. Although the music industry types we meet seem capable of hiring thugs, and although "The Goon Squad" would be an OK name for the kind of late 70s/early 80s alt-indie bands we meet in these pages, the "goon" of the title is time itself. Time, too, can rearrange your facial design, cripple you for life, leave you for dead. Much of the novel is about how we lose things, leave them behind, how we change, how things are taken away.

Intriguingly, though, a lot of it is about how time also restores things, about unexpected second chances, how life can resume after a pause. Lincoln Blake, a mildly autistic teenager in the second-to-last story (which takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation by his sister Alison) collects pauses in popular songs. Bix, an early e-mail adopter we glimpse in a story set in the early 90s, foresees a time when the Internet will do what people used to imagine heaven would do, i.e., bring back into your life everyone you ever knew. Scotty, a brilliant guitarist who did a Syd Barrett, re-emerges to play a legendary free concert in the "Footprint," Egan imagining the Twin Towers site transformed into an open-air performance space.

And then there are Alison Blake and Lulu, who, like the Miranda/Perdita/Marina characters in Shakespeare's late plays, have the power to make the world seem new again.

Delightful to find in the acknowledgements a shout-out to Jacob Slichter's excellent rock-n-roll memoir So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star, which, among other things, describes the genesis of that pause in Semisonic's "Closing Time," which quite rightly makes Lincoln's list.