Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Kristi Maxwell, _Re-_

"A BOOK-LENGTH POEM about a couple" describes Re- accurately while giving an entirely misleading impression.

For one thing, there is no proper noun to be encountered, so the relationship rides out its vicissitudes in no particular place at no particular time. The text unfolds at a certain level of precise, surreal abstraction: "Hiccups and the sea share / a vulnerability should redundancy denounce them."

For another, much of the diction of the text seems generated by its own phonemes, improvising upon themselves As in--

     that they cancelled noon concealed it within a cloudy beaker


     that the lords should overlap and lapse into a quarrel


     cells might be salvaged. Lard from the carcass turned salve

--where an aural similarity becomes a quick leap into the oblique.

And then one notices the structural features, that the text's four (like the seasons?) sections each have twelve (like the months of the year?) poems, and that the later poems contain spoonfuls of earlier ones, like sourdough starter. The last line of the first section's third poem is:

     to see the progress of the leisure?

The first line of the second section's third poem is

     The progress of their leisure was such

and its final line is one of those quoted above, "that the lords should overlap and lapse into a quarrel." That, in turn, bends itself into the first line of the third poem of the third section:

     Lords lap the quarantine

--and so on, as lines recur but not exactly, the familiar oddly new and the new oddly familiar, very much as in the unfolding actuality of coupledom.

Maxwell is a poet (like, I'd say, Jon Woodward) who can work within very particular and idiosyncratic constraints yet somehow convey the texture and mystery of the lived and the felt.  Many people, I have the impression, carelessly assume that highly formal poetry and and highly expressive poetry are opposite ends of some spectrum. But are they?  Not always, I think.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Third great new find of 2013

IT'S SHAPING UP as a good year for me, having already come across the work of Karen Hays and Lucy Ives, and now that I am finally getting to the May/June issue of American Reader, I have my third amazng new find of 2013: Carmen Maria Machado.

Her "Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law and Order SVU" looks like an episode guide to the long-running cop series (which I haven't seen) and indeed uses the actual names of twelve seasons' worth of episodes, but the capsule plot descriptions turn into a novella following the outer and inner turmoil, both professonal and private, of Benson and Stabler (and their prankster döppelgangers, Henson and Abler) as they navigate a treacherous urban landscape of abused girls with bells for eyes and insistent subterranean heartbeats.

Sounds goofy, I know, and I don't think I could sell it to my book club, but a deeply felt humanity lurks in the goofiness and the MFA legerdemain. No book yet, so far as I can learn, but I'll be on the lookout.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Does Philip Roth have a magnum opus?

MUCH ENJOYED THE double-barreled page one reviews of the new biographies of Roth and Mailer  in the NYTBR a month ago, especially the review of the Roth bio by Martin Amis, provocative enough to provoke the man himself to write in frosty correction.

The observation that lingered in the mind, though, was from the Graydon Carter review of the Mailer bio. "Unlike his contemporaries Salinger, Capote, Styron, Roth, Vonnegut, Kerouac, Heller, and others," Carter writes, "he [Mailer] produced no single volume that captured and continues to capture the hearts and minds of successive generations." Certainly true, methinks.

But, methought further, does Roth really have such a volume? Carter mentions Portnoy's Complaint, which, yes, every bookish person my age read. But unlike the other novels Carter mentions--Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast at Tiffany's, all of which I happen to know high school and college age people continue to read--I don't know of many people much younger than I who pick up Portnoy. It's not often assigned. It may not even be on on Spark Notes, that near infallible guide to What's Canonical Now.

It happened to be about a month ago, too, that I was finishing up a lifelong-learners community course sort of thing on The Great Gatsby. The members of the class wanted to talk about Great American Novels--a bankrupt category, to be sure, in academic literary criticism, but enjoyable enough to kick around in a desert-island-discs sort of way. We mentioned Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Gatsby itself of course.  Are there more modern candidates? they asked. Well, maybe Beloved, I said. Housekeeping.  The Things They Carried.

I've been thinking: Roth is, to my mind, the great American novelist of his generation, the greatest born between the two world wars. Yet is there a particular volume among his many excellent novels of which one would say, "oh, you have to read that one--everybody has to read that one." I can't think of one. And I've read them all.  Loved them all. I ran the same question by a literary friend.  American Pastoral, perhaps? Maybe, but even that one seems deeply idiosyncratic in a way.  The Counterlife? That's my personal favorite, but you would have to read the trilogy first. Portnoy's Complaint? I think the feminism that burst upon us about the very same moment as Alexander Portnoy made his novel more or less obsolete as anything but a 1960s period piece.

This worries me. Roth is the great novelist of his generation, but does he have an As I Lay Dying, a Huckleberry Finn?  Jesus, does he even have a Slaughterhouse-Five?