Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Arielle Greenberg, _My Kafka Century_

HERE IS THE book's back jacket copy:

"In My Kafka Century, Arielle Greenberg raises the gothic European ghosts sealed under the glib facade of contemporary American culture. Trying on the sometimes hilarious, sometimes discomforting guises of Jewish folk humor, pop eroticism, and kiddie epistemology, she reveals and revels in the cracks and contradictions of a bristling, brainy Babel."

I despair of improving upon that. I don't know about "glib facade" -- if you recall the original meaning of the word "facade," the figure may seem silly -- but the writer seems to have read the book and actually grasped something of its strategies and achievements, as opposed to 99% of jacket copy for volumes of poetry ("So-&-so's brilliant new collection embraces themes of change, vision, and history in astonishingly evocative language"). The jacket copy is a much better indicator of the volume's contents and quality than the blurbs: "intellectually challenging" (zzz), "dazzling explorations" (yawn), "a dark confection" (nice try, but...).

So who was writing the jacket copy for Action Books in 2005? Some U. of Alabama grad student, I suppose, but whoever it was, he or she sure nailed it. As you might gather from the copy, this volume is like some sweet, funny, clever kid you met in fourth grade who turns out to have a pet tarantula and a scab collection.

That would be plenty, I'd say, but there's more -- startling, strange, moving poems on pregnancy ("Honey," "One Hundred and Eighty," "Red Rover," "Katie Smith Says [...]," for instance, and remarkably original meditations on Jewishness. The final poem, "Synopsis," reads like a highly compressed and highly idiosyncratic montage of the history of the Jews -- or of one person's memories of learning that history -- in 46 short sentences. Lines 18-30:

Boys are plied with wine and snipped.
I pray according to daylight.
Next year will return to the city of gold.
I shield my eyes from the priests' blessing.
Girls get two candles each.
I stood at the bottom of a mountain with my soul.
A very small parcel of real estate was promised.
I was taken for a fool by my village to make a story.
He offered the angels his most finely sifted flour.
I hid in an attic with my diary.
The tents are goodly.
I was a lost tribe and came out black.


Arielle said...

Hey, thanks! What brought you to my book?

P.S. No scab collection or pet spider, but I did briefly entertain the notion of having a pet snake. Never did, though.

Theobald said...

I liked "The Hounds of No," so I took a chance on another Action Book. Two for two so far, so I imagine I'll be picking up more. I went ahead and got Home/Birth as well, which seems like a whole other thing.