Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, August 15, 2014

Richard Blanco, _Looking for the Gulf Motel_

I PICKED THIS up because I enjoyed Blanco's inauguration poem (okay, yes, it did take me a while to get around to reading the book) for its Whitman-like qualities: its long lines, its deep-breath sweep, its embrace of the details of many different kinds of lives. Turns out, that's not the way he usually writes--at least, there is nothing of that sort in this book, but it was worthwhile all the same.

In Looking for the Gulf Motel, at least, Blanco is not really a wide-screen, Whitman kind of poet. His subject matter comes mainly from the intimate and close-to-home, family, partners, memories of growing up. His form is loosely closed, the lines perhaps not technically iambic pentameter but recalling iambic rhythms, with a penchant for 5- and 6-line stanzas.

His poetic voice is one of those that makes you think the poet is probably a terrific person to hang out with--perceptive, honest, sometimes quite funny, capable of deep attachment. This means nothing, I realize. I've met poets whose work was light, bright, and sparkling, but seemed mired in depression themselves, and poets whose work was of a funereal grimness, yet were an absolute hoot to spend time with. But, as Will Cuppy once wrote, great writers should be read, not met.  The two hours (say) you spend reading this book will feel like time  pleasantly spent.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Christian Wiman, _Every Riven Thing_

I READ WIMAN'S My Bright Abyss about a year ago, and re-read it this summer as part of a group, so it seemed like a good time to try his poetry. He included quite a few of these in My Bright Abyss, so I knew more or less what to expect, but they still came as a bit of a surprise.

Wiman's having outed himself, so to speak, as a Christian believer led me to expect all his poems to be roughly of the sort that we hear Garrison Keillor read in the morning: close observation of an ordinary scene, a slightly more graceful version of ordinary speech, a teaspoon of affirmation lightly concealed in the close. Wiman can do that sort of thing--"From a Window" is a good example.

But his usual vein is more wrought, more knotted, more clotted. This is from "Hermitage":

                He found
shells brittling back toward their sea,
leaves and twigs more sun
than themselves, and a thousand other fragments
eternity was tugging at,
and wrought it all into a tenuous, tenacious form
as if he were founding ruins--
a man who himself seemed half-born.
half hewn, his skin mapped
with damage, sweat slicking the juts and
cliffs of flesh, eyes so like the sky
he seemed at once all-seeing and all skull.

Wiman's music is not always that percussive and emphatic, but the above is not an atypical passage. There's something of Browning's or Donne's willingness to make noise. Or Hopkins's willingness to fracture the poem's surface, creating a kaleidoscopic effect:

until my fixed self, my fluorescent self
my grief-nibbling, unbewildered, wall-to-wall self
withers in me like a salted slug

He seems to want to connect with the tradition of religious poetry that gives itself permission to be difficult, something you have to wrestle with--Donne, Hopkins, Eliot (or Herbert, who is a shade more accessible than Donne but not at all easy, if you ask me).  The title poem in Every Riven Thing, for instance, is nothing but knuckle balls, its statements looking plain enough until you take a swing at one and find yourself whiffing.

That teaspoon of affirmation is usually there...much more than lightly concealed, though.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Aravind Adiga, _The White Tiger_

HOW OFTEN DOES a first novel win the Man Booker? With a quick internet check, we learn that Adiga was preceded in that accomplishment by Keri Hulme, DBC Pierre, and Salman Rushdie (if we don't count Grimus). An odd assortment, I'd say. The White  Tiger is the goods, though.

Adiga has found a terrific voice for the narrator, for instance; the whole novel is an immense memo to (then) Chinese Premier We Jiabao, explaining how free market capitalism works in India, which turns into an account of how Balram Halwai became the successful entrepreneur he is today. Balram's voice begins in bluster, swings into satire, and finally plunges into confession. He makes every page interesting.

As in, say, The Great Gatsby, our theme is self-invention; unlike Gatsby, in The White Tiger we hear directly from the self-inventor himself.  Self-invention is never easy, but Gatsby had something of an advantage in being in the country that invented it, rather than in a country with a millennia-old caste system, where your ancestors have been in the same village doing the same work for centuries, and your very name broadcasts your lot in life. Balram has to generate genuinely terrifying amounts of escape velocity to get out of what he was born to it--and that is just what he so memorably does.

That yeasty old class ferment of prejudice and ambition that proved so heady for Balzac and Dickens is still cooking away in the sub-continent, it appears.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Wong May, _Picasso's Tears: Poems 1978-2013_

I WROTE A short review of this that I hope will appear elsewhere, so here I will simply (a) note that I do not expect to see a more intriguing volume of poems this year and (b) take David Orr to task.

 In his NYTBR review of James Franco's new book of poems (July 20), Orr imagined that "if James Franco were just another M.F.A. student struggling to catch the attention of the two part-time employees of Origami Arthropod Press, he'd probably be reading this piece and fuming about all the attention being given, yet again, to James Franco."

Is there a whiff of condescension in there towards those two part-time employees? I think there is, and it is surely misplaced. Those two part-time employees of Orr's imaginary poetry publisher are probably both poets, hence much likelier to recognize exciting poetry when they see it than are their counterparts at FSG or Knopf or maybe even Graywolf and Sarabande. I, for one, would be a lot more curious to see what is on offer at the fictional "Origami Arthropod Press" than I would be to see the next Copper Canyon volume. So three big huzzahs for the poet-publishers at Octopus, and Action Books, and Wave, and Omnidawn, and Apostrophe, and all the other enterprises where a great era in American poetry is underway in, as usual, a place where almost no one would notice it.