Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Elaine Pagels, _Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation_

I'VE BEEN A fan of Elaine Pagels since I read The Gnostic Gospels in...1988, I think it was; she's one of the writers whose books I buy the second they show up in the store, before I've even read a review.

This most recent one makes a dandy companion to Mark Davis's Left Behind and Loving It (LLL, July 2012); Davis offers a compelling contemporary reading of the theology of Revelation, and Pagels gives a deeply informed and persuasive account of its composition and early history.  Like her other books  for general audiences, Revelations is written so gracefully that you scarcely notice the pages zipping by, yet rests on the deep foundation of a career's worth of scholarship and reflection.

What can we reconstruct of the life and circumstances of John of Patmos? My impression from having read his text a few times was that he was a dyspeptic, unpleasant sort with a strong but somewhat repetitive knack for grotesque imagery, but needless to say Pagels draws a richer portrait.

John likely was a kind of itinerant preacher/prophet with well-developed ties to a group of congregations in Asia Minor (the "seven churches" he addresses at the beginning of Revelation), some of whom he thought were paying too great heed to the wrong sort of people (e.g., "Jezebel"). He was haunted by the destruction of the Second Temple, which likely occurred twenty-some tears before he wrote his text, and by the persecutions to which Christians were subject under Nero and later emperors. Powerful and seemingly indestructible as Rome was, though, John had a vision of a complete transvaluation of values, the cruel and powerful overthrown, the weak and godly raised up, the Temple restored and more glorious than ever, never again to be brought down.

For me, the most powerfiul image in Revelation is not the dragons, the whores, the beasts, the horsemen, and so on, but "he will wipe every tear from their eyes." You can tell from that--and Pagels brings this out eloquently--that John belonged to a community that had suffered terribly, and he found a way to give them hope.

John may not have thought of himself as a "Christian"--some in the early church did, notably the gentiles converted by Paul, but John was probably a Jew (hence his grief over the Temple) and may have been one of the Jesus-following Jews who could get prickly about non-Jews wanting to get on the bandwagon without observing the dietary laws and such. Pagels finds traces of such an attitude in various easy-to-overlook pockets of the text.

There were lots of other apocalypses circulating in those days, and Pagels gives intriguing details about of some--a large part of what makes Pagels appealing is her ability to offer glimpses of the roads not taken by Christianity--but only John's got into the canon. Why? Pagels is good on that point, too.  When  Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire in the 4th century, the gravy train pulled into the station, and suddenly a whole lot depended on which persons and which texts and which doctrines could claim authority.  Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, and judging from Pagels's account somebody you would not want to mess with, was particularly enamored of John's apocalypse, not for its anti-Roman sentiments--which were largely forgotten until the Lutherans rediscovered them--but as a vivid account of what was in store for heretics, a category into which Athanasius tended  to lump all those who got in his way. It was Athanasius's list of the New Testament canon that became the New Testament, ending with the big bang of John's apocalypse.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

David, Cook, Brady, & Houlbrook

PURSUANT TO A project tedious to explain, I've been reading up on the history of gay men in England, focusing on the 20th century...and since that is what I have been reading, that is all I have to offer LLL today.  The four names above are not a law firm, but rather the authors of the four books on the topic I've been through.

Hugh David's On Queer Street: A Social History of British Homosexuality 1895-1995 (1997) is a serviceable introduction aimed (I would say) at the general rather than the academic reader, more synthesis than original research. David announces in the beginning that he wants to focus on the lives of ordinary gay men rather than the famous literary ones, but he starts off with the Wilde Trial, then it's Carpenter, Housman, Forster, Auden, Spender, Ackerly...since literary people are a lot likelier than anyone else to leave documentation of their private lives, what is a historian to do? David includes more ordinary sorts of folk once he gets past W W II, though, and provides a fairly detailed picture of the 1950s and 1960s--less so of the 1970s and 1980s, which he seems faintly out of sympathy with, but there's always The Swimming Pool Library.

A Gay History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Men Since the Middle Ages (2007), edited by Matt Cook, didn't look promising--it's published by Greenwood, who are not always choosy--but as an introduction it is more scholarly and more concise than David's book, with chapters by such authorities in the field as Cook himself and Harry Cocks (stop that sniggering in the back, please).  A bit more academically grounded than David's book and a real find.

Books can get a little too academic, however, as is the case, I would say, with Sean Brady's Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1861-1913 (2005).  This one has the unmistakable pong of a dissertation, built around a not wholly articulated quarrel with the "medico-legal" wing of gay history, by which Brady means Foucault and epigones(Weeks and Halperin, I guess?). Foucault's paradigm just will not work in the British context, Brady wants us to know.  Well, okay. Really interesting chapters on John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter, though. I got the feeling Brady really would have preferred to write just about those two men and wound up sidetracked into the anti-Foucault polemic.

And the blue ribbon goes to Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (2005). Houlbrook has his theory game down--Foucault, Butler, Sedgwick, some sophisticated stuff about public and private space--but the heart of the book is that he spent some real time down in the mildewed precincts of the archive, just like a real historian should: trial records, newspapers, parliamentary proceedings.  It's not a long book, under 300 pages, but it gives a fine-grained sense of the lived geography of being gay man in London between W W I and the Wolfenden Report. And Houlbrook has his own highly original and surprising theses to advance at some points.  The famous police crackdown in the late 1940s and early 1950s? Not so thorough-going and widespread as it is remembered, according to Houlbrook. The breakthrough of the Wolfenden Report and, ten years on, de-criminalization? Easy to turn this into a heroic redemption narrative, but that feels "Whiggish" to Houlbrook, who asks, what (or who) had to be sacrificed to achieve it? An excellent book.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

William Styron, _The Long March_

READING REVIEWS OF the new edition of William Styron's letters reminded me that I had never read any of his books, even though he was a heavy hitter when I was young--a Rome Prize for Lie Down in Darkness, a Pulitzer for Confessions of Nat Turner, and a National Book Award for Sophie's Choice, which also found a spot on that Modern Library list of the best novels of the 20th century. While I was in graduate school, more or less ignoring contemporary literature as I got through seminars on Piers Plowman and Herman Melville, just about everyone I knew who was not in grad school read Sophie's Choice.

Yet I never picked up a Styron novel. He just wasn't a writer you were expected, in my grad-school milieu, to have read. Mailer, Updike, Roth, sure, maybe Cheever... but Styron was in that big box of writers who were well-established but somehow not obligatory, if you were my age: John Marquand, Erskine Caldwell, James Gould Cozzens, James Jones, writers well-represented in the used book stores I haunted, but whom I ignored in my quests for Ford Madox Ford, Don DeLillo, Henry Green, Paul Bowles, and the like.

So...I decided I should read some of Styron's fiction, at long last, and went with this novella, first published in 1952.

Lt. Culver (our POV character) is a WW II vet, now in the reserves, and is called up for a stint in South Carolina, as is Capt. Mannix, whom he befriends. Being a few years out of active service and having settled into satisfying lives, both are annoyed and resentful at being back under military discipline. Col.Templeton, sensing that the reserves need to be shown who is boss, orders an overnight 36-mile forced march. Mannix publicly objects, but rather than decline the gambit and risk being designated a wuss (though he is a veteran of Peleliu, one of the most terrible battles in the Pacific theater of the last war), he pushes himself and his unit through every god-damned mile of the march, nearly crippling himself in the process.

The story rang true. That men will try to meet, even surpass, expectations set by authorities they despise, just to show that they can do it--that's true enough. That we will go further to prove things to people we hate than we would ever go for people we love--sadly, also true.

Styron's prose was something of a long march itself, though, for me.  I'm guessing his generation was still in thrall to Thomas Wolfe (speaking of the no-longer-much-read) and Wolfe's creakily stilted, down-filled prose:

Freezing marsh and grass instead of wood beneath his feet, the preposterous cold in the midst of summer, Mannix's huge distorted shadow cast brutishly against the impermeable walls by a lantern so sinister that its raging noise had the sound of a typhoon at sea--all these, just for an instant, did indeed contrive to make him feel as if they were adrift at sea in a dazzling, windowless box, ignorant of direction or of any points of the globe, and with no way of telling.

Just when you are wondering how a shadow can be cast brutishly, or why the impermeability of walls needs pointing out, you meet that noisy and apparently enraged lamp. If you decide to leave those questions in abeyance, you get to wonder how a windowless box can contain so much light that it dazzles.

It's the pile-up of modifiers that's causing most of the problem, I think: preposterous, huge, distorted, brutishly, impermeable, raging, dazzling. And they haven't even begun the march yet, which is when Styron pulls out the stops, and every noun gets its adjective, or possibly two, and at full sail three:

a persistent, unwhipped, scornful look in his eyes

high, throaty, lilting mockery

Of course, for all we know, our own models of excellence in fictional prose will look just as fussily antique in fifty or sixty years time. But I think The Long March is going to do it for me so far as Styron goes.  Think I'll get to that most recent Alan Hollinghurst--now that guy can write.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Is "Poet Lady" Jorie Graham?

i AM BEHIND in my reading of the London Review Books--which leaves the misleading impression that I am caught up in everything else, when my house clearly testifies otherwise, a labyrinth of dusty stacks of subscription guilt--so I only recently read the 27 September 2012 issue, with Terry Castle's lead review of Lisa Cohen's As We Know: Three Lives.

Castle begins the review with an anecdote; it's the early 1980s, she is having lunch with several other women who, like her, are among that year's fellows at the Bunting Institute (now renamed the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study). She describes some of the party (no names), most of whom seem to be lesbians or experimenting with lesbianism; Castle seems to know in at least a vague way, as do most of the others, how everyone else's love lives are faring.

 But then another member of the party--"aggressive, competitive, exorbitantly heterosexual Poet Lady with long flowing hair"--pipes up. "Hey, guys, you'll never believe the weird gossip I just heard!" Heads turn and attend. "Yeah, somebody told me the Bunting Institute is full of lesbians!"

Clunk. Poet Lady knows she has stepped in it, but doesn't know what it is.  Poor, clueless Poet Lady!

The connection from this story to the review itself is a bit tenuous; it turns on the idea that some phenomena, like lesbianism, can be right there to be seen yet remain invisible to those who do not hold the key to what they are looking it.

Fair enough--but as a reader, I felt Castle was narrating with a relish that went well beyond having an interesting introductory anecdote. To be blunt, I felt Castle was taking a certain pleasure in Poet Lady's discomfiture, even at a remove of thirty years.

So--is "Poet Lady" Jorie Graham?

Poet? Check. At the Bunting Institute in the early 1980s? Check. Long flowing hair?  Check. Exorbitantly heterosexual?  Don't know...could well be. "One of the Reigning Poetry Divas of Our Time"? Ummm, check.

So...is the point that one can have an extraordinarily acute, finely calibrated sensorium, registering the most ethereal trembles on one's emotional seismograph, and yet be so clueless in certain matters that one can loudly call the attention of a table full of lesbians to the rumored presence of...lesbians?  Even if one is, shall we say, Jorie Graham?

I guess one can.

The Cohen book sounds amazing, by the way. It's on my list.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Amy Waldman, _The Submission_

A COMMITTEE CHARGED with selecting a design for a 9/11 memorial on the site of the World Trade Center reviews a number of blind submissions and picks a winner; the winning designer, it turns out, is a Muslim. His design, furthermore, seems on examination to have identifiably Islamic elements. How would this play out?

The premise has potential. Imagine it as the given for a novella by Sam Lipsyte, say, or T. C. Boyle, who would be sure to lay bare every species of hypocrisy, folly, fatuousness, and opportunism that would quickly ensue.  Going the other way, it could work as the seed for a big, baggy neo-Victorian sprawl like Bonfire of the Vanities, with a cross-section of New York City in the early Ohs.

Waldman's novel is neither quite the one nor the other. She eases up on the satire pedal, seeming to want to be fair to everyone, never going for the jugular as Lipsyte would. At 300 pages, it's not all that compact, yet it does not have the attention to milieu that Wolfe would have brought to bear--if one thinks of what Wolfe might have done with the committee meetings, or the public hearing about the design, or the apartment where the Bangladeshi 9/11 widow Asma Anwar lives, some of the novel's big scenes feel thin.

Waldman is certainly on the money, though, that the circumstance she posits would produce a swirl of controversy, that the media's magnifying-glass would turn that swirl into a tornado of hysteria, and that everyone involved would be much the worse for wear.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ben Marcus, _The Flame Alphabet_

yet WHEN THIS CAME out about a year ago, and Marcus was interviewed on NPR, I was, I admit, a little worried that he had succumbed to some sort of commercial imperative for suburban-domestic fiction.  But when I finally commenced the book last summer, and the first paragraph describes the narrator packing a bag with "sound abatement fabrics" and "anti-comprehension pills," I thought, well, this is promising, and then soon enough Thompson appeared, and I knew all was well.

The Flame Alphabet stirs into its mix a little of the Burroughsian language-is-a-virus idea, a little of Roth's The Plot Against America, perhaps a little of James's Sacred Fount, a little bit of your workaday post-apocalyptic thriller genus (species: "mysterious plague"), and yes, even a little suburban domestic realism.  But the novel is plumped down squarely in Marcus-World, which, like Nabokov's Antiterra, is recognizably like our world in many ways, bewilderingly different in others.  For instance, there are Jews in The Flame Alphabet, but they worship at holes in the woods, where they listen to radio broadcasts by Rabbi Burke. (We don't learn the cantor's name, but I'm guessing it's O'Flanagan.)

In The Age of Wire and String, Notable American Women, and The Father Costume, the hobbyhorses of parents create perilous obstacle courses for their children, but the polarity reverses in The Flame Alphabet, and parents are being made ill, sometimes fatally, by the utterances of their children. Marcus succeeds in making this both hilarious and terrifying. The novel literalizes the familiar phenomenon that parents feel judged and found wanting by things their children say, and there is an easily recognizable Archie Bunker/Bill Cosby kind of humor in this; it also literalizes the idea that words can injure, central to a lot of arguments, policies, and treatises within academic life in the 1980s and 1990s, and there is a kind of satirical humor in this. At the same time, Marcus draws sufficiently on the resources of realism to make the whole scenario vivid and plausible, so the novel is deeply unnerving.

Grisly ironies abound. Language, the medium that makes society possible, disintegrates society.  In his desperation to save his family, Sam, our narrator, abandons them. Made ill by their children, the adults eventually--here the Shoah echoes become more intense--decide to corral, control, and eventually attach themselves like vampires to the young, sacrificing the human future in order to seize whatever little they can of the evaporating present.

There is a bubble of hope, perhaps, at the end of The Flame Alphabet.  Sam has escaped the grim "research facility" directed by Murphy/LeBov (the novel's most fascinating character, malign as he is), reunited with his daughter, and awaits the return of his wife.  However, language remains toxic, his daughter does not trust him, and his wife is more than likely dead. Even McCarthy's The Road seems like Frank Capra next to such reflections as this:

     Thinking is the first poison, said someone. One often fails to ask this of a crisis, but why was it not worse? Why was the person himself not gutted of thought? Who cares about the word made public, it's the private word that does more lasting damage, person by person. The thinking should have stopped first. The thinking. Perhaps it is next in the long, creeping conquest of this toxicity, another basic human activity that will slowly be taken from us.
     Oh, I fucking hope so.

But my abiding impression is that Ben Marcus has once again created a world that is manifestly a tissue of language, that is utterly fictional and deeply strange, while nonetheless managing to get closer to the aching bone of family emotion than any "realist" going. How does he do it? Dunno, but he's done it again.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jacques Rancière, _The Future of the Image_

I MAY BE--in fact, almost certainly am--missing something here. The back of this Verso paperback explains that "Jacques Rancière's work returns politics to its central place in understanding art," that "there is a stark political choice in art: it can either reinforce a move towards radical democracy or help create a new reactionary mysticism."

Problem is, I'm...just...not...seeing...it. Perhaps I need to read this in the context of some of Rancière's later work, get some ideas that close the circle. As it is, all I have read is Mute Speech, and my main impression of the five talks/essays collected here, originally delivered 1999-2002, is that they bring the crucial ideas of Mute Speech to bear on the visual arts: cinema, photography, painting, design. Mute Speech just did not hit the Christopher Caudwell/Edward Upward/Granville Hicks/Ben Shahn/Pete Seeger kind of keynotes the the Verso blurb announces, and I do not see how these five pieces do, either.

But I can see something like that, I guess. Mute Speech and the affiliated pieces gathered here posit a revolution in the "regime of representation" that occurred in the late 18th century, a break in the way literature and art were imagined, away from the early modern era's re-codifications of Aristotle (the artistic unities, decorum, mimesis) into something more rarified, perhaps, or less strictly organized, but maintaining while re-conceiving a relation between the visible and the sayable.

The ordinary history of this break, as Rancière frequently explains, emphasizes a divorce between the visible and the sayable--the break had a logic in it that led to blankness, silence, inanity. Not so fast, he says. Were the visible and sayable divorced, or was their relationship re-defined? Hence his discussion of the "sentence-image" in the second of these pieces, "Sentence, Image, History" (which would get my vote as pick of the litter were not "The Future of the Image" and "Are Some Things Unrepresentable?" perhaps even more interesting).

As the third term--"history"--of that second essay's title suggests, if the visible and the sayable are not--indeed, have never been--in fact divorced, then a lot of arguments about po-mo futility of art, desperate situation of art, ultimate dead end of art, and so on, simply collapse. If the visible can still get us to the sayable...well, where the sayable is, you can have history, and where you have history, you can talk about where we have been and where we should go next, and you arrive at the political.

So, in this sense, yes, I can see how Rancière restores a possibility for talking about art and the political. Furthermore, he can do this by focusing on the procedures and techniques of figures like Balzac, Flaubert, and Mallarmé, rather than on their explicit politics. Still, I do not detect much that is exhortatory in the essays here, although that is the impression the Verso blurb leaves.

However, Rancière does take on the best arguments for seeing art and politics as inhabiting incommensurable, incompatible spheres and shows the problems with those arguments, not just in their logic, but also in their failure to see what happens in canonical works of art.

Art does not face a stark choice between radical democracy and reactionary mysticism; we do. We can let ourselves be persuaded that art and literature, by their very nature, cannot help us much; Rancière gives us good reason to think they can.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Kevin Young and David Lehman, eds, _The Best American Poetry 2011_

I REALLY OUGHT to read these always worthwhile anthologies before the next one appears.

I do get to them, though, and I have a hypothesis to advance. It seems to me that the volumes in the series edited by male poets are much likelier to concentrate on poetry similar to that of the poet himself than are the volumes in the series edited by female poets.

In the 2011 volume, we have a great many poems that are largely in conversational language with occasional tweaks of rhetorical heightening or fancifulness, lots of poems that handle closed forms in ingenious, contemporary ways (owing to the serendipity of alphabetical order, we have two consecutive poems, by Rachel Wetzsteon and Richard Wilbur, that use a rhyming haiku stanza), lots of poems about family and personal history... in other words, lots of poems with a certain kinship to the work of Kevin Young.

I had a similar feeling about the Charles Wright (2008) and David Wagoner (2009) volumes, whereas the Heather McHugh (2007) and Amy Gerstler (2010) volumes were remarkable for their variety.  Even Lyn Hejinian (2004), who is closely identified with a particular tendency, came up with a volume of greater breadth than the male poets tend to (Paul Muldoon [2005] excepted).

It's not that the poetry Young selected is weak, or not worthwhile; there is a lot of great work in here. It's that one would finish the book with the feeling that the shoreline of American poetry is a much narrower strip of beach than it actually is.

Yes, I realize that the editor's task in these volumes to pick the poems s/he really feels are the best, rather than to try to come up with an array of work that could be called "representative." The series is not "The Most Representative American Poetry," after all.  Even I, fatally drawn to poetry anthologies based on suspect premises, would think twice before acquiring such a thing.  But I do wonder whether women poets--perhaps women writers generally, I don't know--are prompter in seeing the value in work quite unlike their own than men poets are.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mathias Svalina, _I Am a Very Productive Entrepreneur_

THE TITLE REFERS not to Mathias Svalina, I take it, but to the speaker of the 44 prose poems herein, but Svalina can fairly be called productive: he published his first book in 2009, this his second in 2011, and just published his third at the end of 2012.  That's not even mentioning the chapbooks. What's more, they're all very good.

According to its cover, I Am a Very Productive Entrepreneur is a novella, but, as noted above, it registered on me more as a collection of related prose poems.  Each section begins, "I started this one business that..." and goes on to give a brief history of the business, sometimes two or three pages long, sometimes only a sentence:

I started this one business that opened up everything that is closed & held it up in front of the gathered public one time & with great ceremony before closing it up again & burying it forever.

I started this one business that allowed children to remain children for their entire lives.

Is the speaker the same in each prose poem, or chapter? Maybe--the narrator twice mentions having a son who died--but it's hard to say. We do not have a plot so much as a loop, in which our narrator again and again starts a business and recounts its fortunes, which unfold more like surreal lyrical explorations of the labyrinth of capitalism than like narratives.

For instance, one business "installed rustic, old-fashioned stone wells inside people's bodies." Recounting this particular business's history, the speaker observes, "When you stand next to another person you begin to absorb them, which is why lovers have only three legs between them. Love depends on the separating skin, otherwise sex would be a mess of blood and broken windows." Furthermore, "The inside of a person is like patricide, but when you pull the bucket up it becomes just another show in an all-white gallery space with a vague smell of citrus."

I Am a Very Productive Entrepreneur often made me laugh--it would be more strictly accurate to say it made me emit a chortling bark of horrified recognition, as Ben Marcus and Gary Lutz often do--but I suspect the book has a dark heart. It concerns what we desire and what is commodifiable, and the dialogue of the deaf between the two.  There is what we need and long for, which is one thing, and there is what we can buy, which is quite another, although what we can buy has a well-developed knack for disguising itself as what we desire.

"I started this one business that rented out parts of people's lives to other people," one section begins. If you were, the speaker explains, writing a novel about caves, but had never been in a cave, you could rent the memories of someone who had. This example seems whimsical, but speaks to anyone's desire to escape solipsism, for connection to others...which is unobtainable, the text cruelly reminds us, but it can sell us something to take the edge off that pain:

You can never know the mind of another person, even in the moment someone's sweat mingles with yours. Empathy is a convenient fable of morality. But for a small fee we could change that.

As Zizek pointed out some while back, the basic logic of the commodity is to offer itself as the remedy for lacks we cannot name or even acknowledge. Svalina's entrepreneur thus hits on the most potent commodity of all when s/he "started this one business that discovered one new thing every day but never told anyone about any of these things, never ever ever." Let's see--how large would the market be for vague, inchoate hopes in a somehow transformed future?  Very large, could we say? "What a perfect commodity is mystery!" Svalina's speaker exclaims.

Having read the book in a big gulp, I wonder if I would have done better to spread it out--one business per day, say.  Hmm, could we add 321 businesses and market this as the "I Started This One Business" desk calendar?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Caryl Pagel, _Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death_

AN EXCELLENT BOOK--in fact, I think I am going to try to review it elsewhere in some more worthy corner of the internet, but I have a Poetry Week to keep rolling as well, so I'll say just a few things here.

Like a couple of my favorite individual poems of recent years, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's "The Informant" and Peter Gizzi's "On What Became of Mathew Brady's Battle Photographs," Pagel's poems in this volume (her first, I believe) evoke encounters between traditional conceptions of the supernatural and modern scientific inquiry.  Though the two tendencies are diametrically opposed in most circumstances most of the time, when 19th century investigators tried to photograph the spirit, or document appearances of ghosts, the two ordinarily distinct conceptions of the universe trundled uneasily allied down the same road for a bit. There is something of the spirit of William James or W. B. Yeats in Pagel's book--or of, what the hell, Robert Fludd, or Paracelsus, or Robert Burton.

Formally the poems are utterly contemporary, disjunctive, paratactic, with frequent appropriations and re-fashionings, yet they magically exude the air of an attic full of daguerrotypes, yellowed envelopes with spidery script,  and butterfly collections.  Consider the long-ish poem "The Sick Bed"--its poetic feels perfectly contemporary in its silences and absences, yet contains no word that would have been unavailable to Emily Dickinson.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Anna Moschovakis, _You and Three Others Are Approaching a LAke_

THIS WON THE 2011 James Laughlin Award, which must be how it came to be on my shelves. I have not read anything else by Moschovakis, but the Laughlin Award winners tend to be interesting--a slightly better batting average than the Pulitzers, perhaps.

I heard Laughlin speak once--at the Art Institute of Chicago, early 1984, perhaps? I wonder if someone is working on a biography--what a unique career.

You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake is mainly four long poems, bookended by two short ones, and the long ones--well, I'll just quote the endnote:

The four long poems in this volume were inspired by books chosen by title and appearance from the shelves of Bibliobarn, a miraculous used bookstore in South Kortright, NY. Language is borrowed, premises are adopted or argued with, tones are emulated or thwarted.  I am grateful for the existence of these books, all of which take a bold stand towards their topics and the twentieth-century world they inhabited.

Obviously some complex kind of appropriation and adaptation is going on... frankly, I'd like to know more, perhaps in the form of a website, as Srikanth Reddy did for Voyager...? Just a  suggestion.

I had never heard of any of the four books, although I had heard of two of the authors (Stuart Chase and Arnold Bennett), so I cannot even guess what kind of process Moschovakis subjected them to--the results are brilliant, though.

"The Tragedy of Waste," from the Chase book, is the source of the volume's title and seems to be a kind of thought experiment about people, tools, and terrain, about how we are made by the things we make.

"Death as a Way of Life," inspired by a book by one Roger Caras, is about death, more precisely killing, but also about love and sex--I'm guessing this is the first poem ever to yoke Emmanuel Levinas with with Bonnie and Clyde.

"The Human Machine (Thirty Chances)" is my favorite, I'd say.  Based on a non-fiction book by Arnold Bennett (one of whose novels I got sufficiently far into in grad school to decide that Virginia Woolf truly did have his number), this poem finds a way to talk about both Alan Turing and Artificial Intelligence and Peter Singer and animal rights.  If machines can think... do they have rights?

"In Search of Wealth," inspired by a book by Cyril Belshaw, asks what you would sacrifice for what, and yokes the Dani of New Guinea and Scientology... another first, I daresay.

You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake is witty, thought-provoking, and (for me) impossible to put down.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Robyn Schiff, _Revolver_

TWO OF THESE sixteen poems ("House of Schiaparelli" and "Dear Ralph Lauren") seem to have wandered in from Worth in their pondering of upper-class consumption, but in the main they contemplate the machinery of modernity, mainly of the mid-19th century (the inventions of Colt, McCormick, and Singer) with a nod to the 20th in a poem on the Lustron house.

I happen to have actually seen a Lustron house; there's one in my brother's neighborhood in Des Moines. Not as creepy as the house in Schiff's poem, I would say, but certainly had the aura of a tomorrow one is glad never arrived.

I happen to have heard a few of these poems, too; I attended a reading by Schiff in, I think, 2007, somewhat before this book appeared, and I am 95% sure she read "Project Paperclip," one of the two 10+-page poems that anchor the volume ("Project Huia" at midpoint, "Project Paperclip" at the end).

Schiff's poetry is complex of syntax but sparing of punctuation, so much so that I am not sure they are not better heard than read. Anyone who imitates Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" in writing a poem about the bird flu ("H5N1") is A-OK in my book, though.

Schiff's customary procedure is to start down a path, go off on a tangent, then take another tangent, then another...and just when you think she is being charmingly inconsequent, you find you are back on the same path that the poem started out on, although it looks a little different now, scarier perhaps, the light a little more ominous, and there is more at stake in this little walk than you had guessed. What seemed like whimsical departures wind up making a tight braid, a Gordian knot.

Schiff often starts on a light, charming note--a Schiaparelli gown, a tote bag, a fork, buoyant cork furniture--but beware.  She is setting you up.  The trap is being laid.

Sometimes she does not even bother to start out by being charming. In "Iron Door Knocker the Shape of a Man's Face, by Feetham," the chill has already set in with the opening lines, "Has no fly laid a sac of eggs / in the wet hole in the house finch / dead on the back porch / a week [...]".  There is worse to come. Remember the last line of Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station," "Someone loves us all"? Here Schiff considers the mayflies on her screen door:

     A swarm of mayflies clutching
the wire mesh on their only night on earth.
They defile it until they
die, though it's not exactly
true they live their whole
lives in one humid day.
They were larvae first, that takes years,
then they emerge starving with no
mouth.  Someone hates us very

Like the six-shooter on the book's cover, Schiff's poems look ornate and fanciful, but that doesn't mean they can't send a bullet through you.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Jorie Graham, _Place_

SO...THERE WAS no hardback edition of this? What is the world coming to?  Graham is among the nation's most accomplished and most honored poets, this is her eleventh collection of new poems, and... no hardback? No review in the NYTBR, none in the NYRB? What the blue trundling fuck?

At the back of this volume is the usual author bio, plus a piece of prose commencing thus: "In PLACE, Graham explores the ways in which our imagination, intuition, and experience--increasingly devalued by a culture that regards them as 'mere' subjectivity--aid us in navigating a world moving blindly towards its own annihilation and a political reality where the human person and its dignity are increasingly disposable."

This sounds an awful lot like the sort of the thing that goes on the front inner flap of a dust jacket, does it not, and not at all like an "endnote"? It makes me wonder whether Ecco was planning a hardback edition, got this jacket copy written, and then, poof, plans changed and there was nowhere to put it (the back cover is chock-full of admiring reviews of Graham's earlier work).  So why not print it as back matter? I'll tell you why--because it sounds stupid there, as if you are trying to sell me the book I just finished reading.

Splutter, splutter.  We should talk about the poems, no? Graham has been at this long enough that she is fearsomely adept at writing Jorie Graham poems. This facility has its drawbacks--in part III of Place she seems to be on autopilot. But the book has plenty of poems that are both distinctly Graham-ian and powerfully affecting.

Graham's characteristic vein, for me, is as a phenomenologist of the moment, peeling back the sensory layers of a now, sifting it for its finest grains, then letting in a cross-wind of history, or consciousness of what is happening elsewhere in the world, that pulls you up and out of the moment while (somehow) still keeping you rooted in it.  "Fission" is my own favorite example.  Sometimes, as in a good bit of Overlord, it does not entirely come off--but when it does, there's nothing else quite like it.

In Place, "Mother and Child (The Road at the Edge of the Field)" is a poem where it does not quite come off--the jump to a torture scene (Guantanamo?) seems to me to be Straining at Meaningfulness. But the poems that acknowledge the recession, "Employment," "Treadmill," take the Grahamian to a new destination; "Message from Armagh Cathedral 2011" arrives at our current wars after a tour of  a cathedral turns into an evocation of pre-Christian Irish mythology, all in a way that will turn your head inside out.

Impossible for me not to love "Lapse"--a poem based on the memory of the first time Graham pushed her now-going-on-thirty daughter in a swing--since I can't pass any local playground without remembering the times I took my own now-mid-twenties daughters there.

Graham is still using the lineation trick that is all over Sea Change--a longish left-justified line, followed by a group of several shorter lines indented two inches or so. Speaking for myself, I like this--I like how the shorter lines are at the same time new lines and continuations of the first line (as in printings of traditional verse, or Whitman).  This device and Graham's expansive, dash-riddled syntax create that suspended-motion effect that I particularly associate with her, time turned to molasses in January, the moment gathering everything into itself--

--which all reminds me of Keats, especially "To Autumn." Graham too can do that motion-in-stasis, stasis-in-motion effect.  And to make it all more perfectly Keatsian, there's a great bird poem--"The Bird on my Railing."

life-lived--this gold its center--and beyond it, still on
                       the rail, this
                       bird, a
                       secret gift to
                       me by the

of which few in a life are
                        given--and how
                        when it opens its
                        yellow beak in the glint-sun to
                        let out song
                        into the cold, it

lets out the note on a plume of
                        lets out the
                        visible heat of its

carrying a note--

This connects--the pushing-out, the giving birth, the self-discovery, the mystery of animation and the inevitability of the cessation of breath--to "Lapse" in all sorts of ways I wish I had time to go into, but let's just let it stand.

Monday, January 7, 2013

G. C. Waldrep, _Archicembalo_

LAST SUMMER'S POETRY WEEK having been such a success (dozens of hits! Heady stuff for a blog that usually lingers in the single digits), it's time for LLL to have another. G. C. Waldrep being one of my favorites among American poets under fifty, Sunday (yesterday) was devoted to his Archicembalo.

An archicembalo is a keyboard instrument designed (an endnote informs us) to play intervals other and smaller than those of an ordinary piano or harpsichord--e.g., microtones. The volume Archicembalo is structured (another endnote tells us) like a gamut, a guide to musical theory conducted through a series of questions, like a catechism, often featured as front-matter in published music collections like The Southern Harmony or The Sacred Harp. The endnotes do not mention, but I happen to know, that those two collections are classics in the American shape-note singing tradition--and, sure enough, there on the book's cover, designed to look like a mid-19th century title-page for such a collection, are four shape-notes pencilled in red (presumably by the red pencil lying atop the title-page).

We have 56 prose poems, 55 titled with (mainly) musical questions such as "What is a Hexachord," plus an "Apostrophe to the Memory of Benjamin Britten." The question sometimes has a easily spotted connection to the prose poem it heads; "What is a Tritone," for instance, includes the phrases, "when I first heard it I was in a spacious hall with poor acoustics in Cambridge," and "mi contra fa diabolus est in musica," a traditional definition of the tritone. Sometimes the connection is more elusive, more a matter of being on G.C.W.'s wavelength, as in "Who is Steve Reich," which reads, in its entirety, "EVERY. GOOD. BOY. DOES. FINE".  Reich is...too well-tempered? Too good a boy? Too wedded to the treble clef?

More often, though, the prose poem is only evanescently tethered to its title and immediately finds a path of its own.  Some seem like memories:

He would see me down in the lower field on his way from the house to the paddock and I would be staring raptly at a stone the size of my fist and he would call, "Everything OK?" And I would toss the stone into the wheelbarrow that rested ten, maybe twenty feet distant and I would call back "Yes. Everything's fine."
("Who was Scheherazade")

Some seem like dreams:

Every sound is tropical;, every sound is perishable. My aunt sends one wrapped in butcher paper & string. I refuse to open it and so it remains next to Blackwell's Curious Herbal and a bag of homemade noodles, quivering.
("What is the Real Answer")

Some seem--like music--a matter of finding sounds, blending and repeating and patterning and re-patterning them, with a sometimes Steinian effect:

I have walked to the south pond and back and I have walked Long Cove on the east side and I have walked Long Cove on the west side. I have seen Tarbox Cove and Jewett Cove and Knubble Cove and Brooks Cove and I have walked on the East Shore Road and on the West Shore Road.  I walk and have walked and in walking so walking do.
("What is a Hexachord")

Somehow, though, the antecedent that struck me was Eliot's Four Quartets.  This may be just an accident, owing to the first poem ("Who is Josquin Des Prez") mentioning snowdrops, which reminded me of the opening of "Little Gidding," and "being given in marriage," which reminded me of the opening of "East Coker." Even if it is only an accident, though, Four Quartets is also an attempt to bring musical form to poetry, also has a preoccupation with the spiritual and sacred (shape-note singing was typically used for worship), and also ponders losses--which it seems to me Archicembalo does. Something happened, something is gone, and it haunts every poem.

In the ancient kingdom of Arrhythmia the person of the deity was conceived to be bipartite, shaft vs. fletch, pulse vs. caesura. A capricious god. Nightly the cakes of dull flaxseed. Elmflicker. Ashtigmatism. Cerements in the garish of the banefire: we are all (br)others now.
("Who is Friedrich Schiller")

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Michel Houellebecq, _The Elementary Particles_

BACK AROUND THE time the English translation of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 came out, I mentioned to a friend that I planned to buy a copy.  He rolled his eyes. "What, you don't like Bolaño?" I asked. It turned out that my friend had not actually read anything by Bolaño, but was just tired of hearing about him.  He had come to think that enthusiasm for Bolaño meant one had drunk the book reviewers' Kool-Aid, so to speak, was a slavish follower of literary fashion.

That is more or less how I felt about Michel Houellebecq.  You hear about a new novelist from X who is provocative, or transgressive, or controversial, and you think, "hmm, interesting," then you hear about him (perhaps her) again, and again, and again, and all of a sudden you have burned out on whoever-it-is before you have even looked her (perhaps him) up on Amazon. You have gone through the whole intrigue/enthusiasm/weariness/annoyance cycle without having read so much as a page.

Fortunately, I came around to thinking that I should not dislike a novelist solely because he has been touted as le dernier cri over and over and over.  So I picked this up--and what do you know, it really is good.

The blurb on the back likens Houellebecq to Beckett (a certain preoccupation with western civilization's death spiral, check), Huxley (rooting around in contemporary science for ideas on which to base novels, check), and Camus (can't see it, frankly). He seems to me more a less exuberant, stylistically more chaste Céline, in demonstrating a deep disgust with contemporary liberal mores without in the least being a traditional church-and-state-and-family conservative.  Unlike Céline, though, he is giddily optimistic about the future, imagining an already-unfolding transvaluation of all values. Maybe he's more of a Thomas Carlyle...?

The novel presents itself as a biography of Michel Djerzinski, a molecular biologist who dies/disappears about 2000 (the novel was published in 1998), leaving behind several groundbreaking treatises that usher in the new dispensation of the future (the novel purports to have been written circa 2079), in which cloning replaces sexual reproduction and makes possible the creation of a world-mind, hence peace and contentment for all (there is a somewhat similar conception in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, interestingly enough).

Most of the novel is about Djerzinski's works and days 1958-2000, with considerable attention to his half-brother, Bruno Clément.  Sons of the same proto-hippie, boho-vagabond mother, they meet only as teens. Bruno is a teacher, a mostly unpublished writer, and a sex addict, I guess we could say. Michel, by contrast, is virtually asexual, wholly wrapped up in his research, breaking the heart of the beautiful Annabelle, who has loved him since their youth.

Bruno and Michel collectively illustrate--this is the key idea, I am guessing--the dead end of materialist ideology, born in the early modern era with the collapse of Christian faith, relentlessly pursued through the scientific, economic, and political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, issuing at last in the late 20th century as atomistic individualism, hedonistic, self-absorbed, incapable of love. Michel Djerzinski's new paradigm, over the course of the 21st century, liberates humankind from this dead end.

The real unifying theme of the novel, though, is that the supposedly liberating ideology of the 1960s was really a trap, an apparent explosion of transformative energy that rapidly degenerated into the Me Decade, drug addiction, promiscuity....  On this point, Houellebecq puts me in mind more of Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, or T. C. Boyle's Drop City, or even P. J. O'Rourke or Martin Amis.

This reminds me, I need to find copies of Edward St. Aubyn's novels with the New Age settings.  I bet they're ruthless.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Alan Bennett, _Untold Stories_

I HAVE BEEN plugging away at this since, I think, 2008.  Took a while not only because of its length (630 pages) but also because it is one of my bedside table books, and since my spouse typically retires well before I do, I rarely have need to resort to one of my bedside table books; they tend to linger there for years. Zeitoun has been there for about three years.

Bennett is better known in England than he is here; in England, I gather, he is a national treasure on the order of Garrison Keillor, both graceful writers with a distinctive vein of mainly gentle but occasionally tart humor, with some high-culture credentials (Keillor's novels, Bennett's plays, though Bennett seems to have higher standing as a playwright than Keillor has as a novelist).

They are easily distinguished, to be sure--Bennett is gay, Keillor straight, Keillor went to the University of Minnesota, Bennett to Oxford, Bennett will bring up cathedral architecture or Pre-Raphaelite painting where Keillor would bring up baseball or F. Scott Fitzgerald--but the two are still highly comparable. Both grew up in humble, pious families in the provinces in roughly the same stretch of the 20th century (Bennett born 1934 in Yorkshire, Keillor 1942 in Minnesota).  Both were raised by parents who didn't expect or ask for much, and taught their children not to expect or ask for much. Both can be hilarious about the world they grew up in without tipping over into mean-spirited satire on the one hand or gluey sentimentality on the other. Both embrace the politics of the underdog, staunch defenders of what government can make possible for ordinary people; as Keillor excels as deflating a certain kind of entitled, puffed-up, self-righteous Republican, so Bennett does in skewering the Thatcherite Tories.

Untold Stories is a collection of largely autobiographical or memoiristic essays with a generous section (close to 200 pages) from Bennett's published diaries (which appear annually or so in the London Review of Books).  Everything in here is worth reading, and a couple of pieces are the sort you immediately wish to tell all your friends to read: the book's opening piece, "Untold Stories," a long essay about Bennett's parents' lives and deaths, including his mother's slide into dementia, told with candor, extraordinary attention to detail, and love; and its closing one, "An Average Rock Bun," about Bennett's ultimately successful battle with colon cancer.

I already have a similar volume of Bennett's, Writing Home, which I imagine I'll be dipping into over the next four years.